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ceived or representational object. In other words, the active, perceiving,
dominating subjectivity of the perceiving self would render the other,
represented, human subject as a mere object, a product of subjectivity™s
representational objectifying gaze. For men, this problem is not without
remedy, because they can strongly identify themselves as active, domi-
nating subjects through their dynamic activity and power in the world.
Although this remedy is clearly less available to men of dominated classes,
races, and ethnicities, they still can assert their subjective dominance
with respect to the women of their own (and other) dominated social
But if men are traditionally seen as bearing the marks of subjecthood
and transcendence (such as intellect, will, and action), woman, Beauvoir
argues, is usually identi¬ed in contrast as object. She is essentially seen as
her body and ¬‚esh “ a material vehicle for man™s desire and delight and
for the procreation of the species. Woman, in short, is that subject whom
patriarchy has made the quintessential object of the dominating subject™s
gaze and thus “the inessential” “Other” (SS, xxxv). Though men also have
bodies that fall under the category of representational objects, the repre-
sentational properties of their bodies, according to Beauvoir, imply tran-
scendence and active, powerful subjectivity. Man™s virile properties and
bigger muscles suggest this dynamic power, as does “the identi¬cation
of phallus and transcendence” (SS, 682) because of the active, domi-
nant, directive, penetrating, willful role that the penis is seen as having “
not only in sex but in urination (SS, 274, 385). These representational
properties of male somatic strength help reinforce men™s social power
as dominating subjects. Perceived as strong, not only by others but also
by themselves, their bodies give men the con¬dence to assert a strong
subjectivity in the world and have it granted by others.
Woman™s situation is unhappily quite different. Not only has patriar-
chal society taught “her to identify herself with her whole body,” it has also
Body Consciousness

taught her to view that body as mere “carnal passivity,” “a carnal object”
(SS, 648, 718). For Beauvoir, “to feel oneself a woman is to feel oneself
a desirable object” but also a weak, passive one “ the “¬‚eshly prey” of a
stronger desiring subject (SS, 410, 637). If “handsome appearance in the
male suggests transcendence” through virile engagement with the world,
it contrastingly suggests, “in the female, the passivity of immanence,” an
object of “the gaze” that “can hence be captured” (SS, 631). Traditional
fashions of feminine beauty “ that highlight delicacy, daintiness, softness,
and frilly attire impractical for dynamic action “ reinforce this image of
woman as a fragile, weak, and ¬‚eshly passive prey. Such fashions encour-
age women to conform not only their visual appearance but also their
bodily comportment to this image of weak feminine beauty “ to take the
passive role in sex, to sit or walk like a woman, to throw like a girl. In short,
the established aesthetic ideology of the female body serves to reinforce
female weakness, passivity, and meekness, while such submissiveness is
reciprocally used to justify the permanent and natural rightness of the
traditional feminine aesthetic and the “myth” of “the Eternal Feminine”
(SS, 253).
Couldn™t a somaesthetic critique of this ideology and the development
of new somaesthetic ideals be helpful for breaking out of this vicious
circle? Beauvoir initially seems to af¬rm this possibility. Writing in 1949,
she celebrates fashion™s “new” somaesthetic challenge to the traditional
feminine ideal of pale, soft, and opulent ¬‚esh draped in impractical attire.

A new aesthetics has already been born. If the fashion of ¬‚at chests and nar-
row hips “ the boyish form “ has had its brief season, at least the overopulent
ideal of past centuries has not returned. The feminine body is asked to be
¬‚esh, but with discretion; it is to be slender and not loaded with fat; muscu-
lar, supple, strong, it is bound to suggest transcendence; it must not be pale
like a too shaded hothouse plant, but preferably tanned like a workman™s
torso from being bared to the open sun. Woman™s dress in becoming prac-
tical need not make her appear sexless: on the contrary, short skirts made
the most of legs and thighs as never before. There is no reason why working
should take away woman™s sex appeal. (SS, 262)

Clearly, the message here is that a change of somaesthetic representations
can help change not only the bodies of women but also improve their
overall self-image and empower them toward greater transcendence.
Beauvoir suggests the same sort of argument with respect to sports and
other performative forms of somatic discipline that have clear represen-
tational aspects and aims. The external representation of bodily power,
“to climb higher than a playmate, to force an arm to yield and bend,
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 87

is to assert one™s sovereignty over the world in general. Such masterful
behaviour is not for girls, especially when it involves violence” (SS, 330).11
Moreover, for woman, “this lack of physical power leads to a more general
timidity: she has no faith in a force she has not experienced in her body;
she does not dare to be enterprising, to revolt, to invent” (SS, 331). If
woman™s “muscular weakness disposes her to passivity” (SS, 712), then
male-dominated society is only too happy to con¬rm her disposition.
Beauvoir cogently concludes: “Not to have con¬dence in one™s body is to
lose con¬dence in oneself. One needs only to see the importance young
men place in their muscles to understand that every subject regards his
body as his objective expression” (SS, 332).
The practical upshot of this argument should be a somaesthetic pro-
gram aimed at developing women™s general sense of strength by develop-
ing their somatic powers and endowing their bodies with the represen-
tational aesthetic qualities suggestive of such power. And Beauvoir seems
initially to endorse this way for woman to “assert herself through her
body and face the world” with transcendent power: “Let her swim, climb
mountain peaks, pilot an airplane, battle against the elements . . . and she
will not feel before the world that timidity” fostered by her bodily weak-
ness (SS, 333). Beauvoir™s claim that “technique may annul the muscular
inequality of man and woman” (SS, 53) likewise suggests that women
should cultivate somatic disciplines that speci¬cally develop techniques
to neutralize the advantage of brute strength, especially techniques like
judo and other martial arts that can be deployed in what she sees as the
crucial realm of violence.12

11 Beauvoir is often strikingly outspoken about the value of violence. “Violence is the authen-

tic proof of each one™s loyalty to himself, to his passions, to his own will,” she insists, while
complaining that even “the sportswoman never knows the conquering pride of a boy
who pins one™s opponent™s shoulders to the ground” (SS, 330, 331). In a passage that
understandably shocks many feminists, she writes: “For it is not in giving life but in risk-
ing life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded
in humanity not to the sex that brings forth life but to that which kills” (SS, 64). In her
interpretation of the Marquis de Sade as “a great moralist,” Beauvoir af¬rms his view that
violence, as an essential truth of nature, is a crucial means for the individual to experience
the truth, to make it his own, and to communicate it to his victim, thereby establishing
a bond between separate individuals. With such knowledge also comes greater delight:
“One must do violence to the object of one™s desire; when it surrenders, the pleasure is
greater.” Simone de Beauvoir, Must We Burn de Sade, trans. Annette Michelson (London:
Peter Nevill, 1953), 47, 58; cf. 84“85.
12 In an interview given to two biographers in May 1985, Beauvoir urges: “Young girls must

learn karate at school, we must support a Tour de France for women.” Quoted in Francis
and Gontier, Simone de Beauvoir: A Life, a Love Story, 358.
Body Consciousness

Women can even overcome, to a large extent, their physical, muscu-
lar weakness by practicing somatic disciplines that develop strength as
well as technique. In a passage that strikingly runs together performative
and representational forms of somaesthetics (by blending ideas of active,
powerful function and attractive, visible form), Beauvoir explains:

Today, more than formerly, woman knows the joy of developing her body
through sports, gymnastics, baths, massage, and health diets; she decides
what her weight, her ¬gure, and the color of her skin shall be. Modern
aesthetic concepts permit her to combine beauty and activity: she has a
right to trained muscles, she declines to get fat; in physical culture she ¬nds
self-af¬rmation as subject and in a measure frees herself from her contingent
¬‚esh. (SS 534“535)

If these words suggest that a blend of representational-performative
somaesthetics provides a promising direction toward female liberation,
Beauvoir is quick to counter (in the very same sentence) that this idea is
a risky illusion. Any somatically oriented means of female “liberation eas-
ily falls back into dependence” (SS, 535), because it deploys the female
body that is so deeply and stubbornly marked as mere object, ¬‚esh, and
passive immanence in contrast to the true transcendence of conscious-
ness and action in the world that real freedom requires. “The Hollywood
star triumphs over nature, but she becomes a passive object again in the
producer™s hands,” Beauvoir argues (SS, 535). “The subjection of Holly-
wood stars is well known. Their bodies are not their own; the producer
decides on the color of their hair, their weight, their ¬gure, their type; to
change the curve of a cheek, their teeth may be pulled. Dieting, gymnas-
tics, ¬ttings, constitute a daily burden” (SS, 570). Although women can
achieve a certain power by maximizing their beauty to wield the in¬‚u-
ence of being desired, Beauvoir insists that because such power depends
on the woman™s face and ¬gure, it is built on a foundation of “¬‚esh that
time will dis¬gure” and relies on the admiring, desiring gaze of others;
hence, it tends to reproduce woman™s “dependence” (SS, 640). Not only
is “her body . . . an object that deteriorates with time,” but “routine makes
drudgery of beauty care and the upkeep of the wardrobe” (SS, 535).
“The American woman, who would be men™s idol, makes herself the
slave of her admirers; she dresses, lives, breathes, only through men and
for them” (SS, 640). Thus despite occasional, provisional “victories” of
self-af¬rmation through body care “in which woman may rightly rejoice”
(SS, 535), representational and performative somaesthetics fail, in her
view, to provide a real or reliable tool of woman™s liberation.
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 89

Beauvoir™s argument can be challenged. Her running together the
performative and the representational projects of somaesthetics wrongly
suggests that woman™s work on strengthening the body is ultimately or
essentially aimed at making it look good for others rather than making
it feel stronger and perform better for herself. One can also counter
that male actors face similar problems of having to objectify and sub-
mit themselves to the will of directors and producers while also worrying
about keeping their ¬gure and their hair to remain an attractive repre-
sentational object for the female and male gaze. Moreover, it is wrong to
think that only the body and ¬‚esh are subject to dis¬gurement by time.
Our minds are also eventually diminished by time, indeed by the body™s
aging, even if the proud idealist tradition of philosophy has stubbornly
sought to deny this. But these objections are marginal to what I think is
the main point behind Beauvoir™s argument.
Beauvoir resists a full endorsement of performative and representa-
tional somaesthetics because she rightly wants to insist that full female
liberation cannot be achieved merely by the means of isolated individuals
engaging in somatic cultivation. It can be won only through a “collective”
political effort that “requires ¬rst of all . . . the economic evolution of
woman™s condition” and their active engagement in politics that projects
their freedom “through positive action into human society” (627, 678).
In short, woman™s liberation cannot rely on changing the individual body
but only on changing the larger situation that de¬nes what women™s bod-
ies and selves can be. Beauvoir is right about the prime importance of
the social, political, and economic conditions that constitute the situa-
tion through which the embodied self is shaped. But if the total concrete
situation is what determines the meaning of the female self, it is also true
that bodily practices form part of that wider situation (as “the body of
woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in the world”
[SS, 37]) and thus such practices can help transform that situation. This
truth holds not merely for those unique individuals whose distinctive
forms of bodily excellence (in beauty, sport, dance, and so forth) can
be directly converted into economic and social capital. All women can
become more empowered to face the world and its social and economic
problems by learning to be, to feel, and to look stronger through somaes-
thetic disciplines.
It is a widely shared psychological insight (urged by thinkers as diverse
as William James and Wilhelm Reich) that particular bodily postures
both re¬‚ect and reciprocally induce certain related mental attitudes.
By generating new habits of bodily comportment through disciplines
Body Consciousness

of exercise that not only build strength and skill but also give feelings
of power and ef¬cacy, women can attain a better body image that gives
them more con¬dence to act assertively and overcome the timidity that
Beauvoir sees as enslaving them. Such represented body power and the
con¬dent attitude it inspires will also be perceived by men who may
then be more disposed to respect these women as powerfully compe-
tent. Moreover, since increased bodily competence gives women greater
ef¬cacy in performing what they wish to perform, it will also boost
their self-assurance for more ambitious projects of engagement with
the world. In short, performative-representational somaesthetic activi-
ties oriented toward displaying power, skill, and an attractively dynamic
self-presentation should promote Beauvoir™s goal of promoting women™s
con¬dence for engaging in greater action in the world. By pragmatist
logic, if we value the goal, we should also, ceteris paribus, respect the
means necessary for achieving it. So, even if it is far from the highest
end of female liberation, somaesthetics™ cultivation of the body should
at least be endorsed for its contribution as a useful (though certainly not
the only useful) means.
Feminist theorists working in the tradition of Simone de Beauvoir and
Merleau-Ponty seem to recognize this line of argument, and they develop
it in different ways. In her brilliant essay, “Throwing Like a Girl,” Iris Mar-
ion Young elaborates how “women often approach a physical engagement
with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy” because they “lack an
entire trust in [their] bodies.” Feelings of weakness and “a fear of getting
hurt” produce in many women a sense “of incapacity, frustration, and self-
consciousness” that actually interferes in their somatic performance as a
form of self-ful¬lling belief in their impotence. This dimension of bodily
weakness “ which Young attributes largely to “lack of practice in using the
body [for] performing tasks” involving “gross movement” “ is also, she
suggests, a source of “the general lack of con¬dence that we [women]
frequently have about our cognitive or leadership abilities.”13 From a dif-
ferent but complementary direction, Judith Butler™s arguments for the
somatic performativity of gender parody (as in drag and cross-dressing)

13 Iris
Marion Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” in The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern
French Philosophy, ed. Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young (Bloomington: Indiana Uni-
versity Press, 1989), 51“70, citations from 57, 58, 67. Though appreciative of Beauvoir™s
feminist recognition of the body™s general situatedness, Young criticizes her for “largely
ignoring the situatedness of the woman™s actual bodily movement and orientation to its
surroundings and its world” (53).
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 91

show how dramatically different aesthetic representations of female bod-
ies can be used to transgress and subvert the conventional notions of
gender identity, thus helping to emancipate women from the oppressive
constraints that the ideology of a ¬xed and subordinate gender essence
has imposed on them.14
To reassert the challenge of Beauvoir™s arguments against all these
promising uses of performative-representational somaesthetics, one
might argue that any programmatic absorption in the body is danger-
ously problematic because it distracts women from the truest and most
potent form of transcendence “ namely, political action in the public
world. But this kind of argument wrongly makes the best invalidate the good.
Somatic development need not threaten robust political praxis; on the
contrary, as Beauvoir recognizes, it can create the con¬dence and power
that encourage such praxis. Moreover, her argument from distraction
would also militate against the value of any other programmatic pursuit


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