. 17
( 41 .)


than political praxis, such as the reading and writing of philosophy.
It cannot therefore be mere distraction that renders somatic cultiva-
tion a danger. Besides temporarily distracting woman from “professional
success” because “she must devote considerable time to her appear-
ance,” woman™s cultivation of the body “means that her vital interests
are divided” between transcendence in the world and care for her objec-
ti¬ed, immanent ¬‚esh (SS, 369). The crucial problem, for Beauvoir, is
that attention to the body means a distraction toward immanence, a regres-
sion toward objecthood that stands in opposition to the free subjectivity
of transcendence. This is because, despite her initial endorsement of
Merleau-Ponty™s vision of the body as subjectivity, the dominant somatic
rhetoric of The Second Sex (which sadly re¬‚ects the values of patriarchy
and often seems largely ensnared by them) tends to construe the body
as passive ¬‚esh, particularly where women™s bodies are concerned. We
can see this still more clearly in Beauvoir™s views regarding experiential

Feminists have good reason to af¬rm experiential somaesthetics because
it resists our culture™s obsession with the representational domain of the

14 Judith
Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge,
1990), 128“149.
Body Consciousness

objectifying gaze by offering an enriching alternative to specular body
pleasures. Rather than focusing on how one™s body looks to others and
trying to make it conform to external stereotypes of beauty that seem
designed to exercise power over us, experiential somaesthetics concen-
trates on examining and improving one™s own inner somatic experience.
Beauvoir™s attitude, however, is again ambiguous and ambivalent. Argu-
ing, on the one hand, that women are distinctively close to and inter-
ested in their somatic experience, she also claims they are particularly
alienated from their bodies and woefully in the dark about their inner
somatic feelings and processes. Similarly, while Beauvoir clearly suggests
that ignorance of one™s bodily experience is a major source of women™s
weakness, she does not recommend a program of greater somatic self-
awareness to remedy this weakness. Quite the contrary, she even claims
that women would do better by leaving their bodies outside the realm of
their experiential scrutiny so as to concentrate their attention on projects
of transcendence in the world.
Beauvoir astutely argues that woman™s sense of bodily weakness is not
simply a lack of physical strength exacerbated by social discrimination. It
is also a problem of what could be called woman™s “cognitive weakness”
regarding her body, the sense that her body is something mysterious and
not suf¬ciently known to her. Unlike the boy who can easily identify with
his bodily self in terms of his penis as an “alter ego,” the girl has no exter-
nal point of identi¬cation with her body and is thus turned especially
toward its hidden “insides” (SS, 48, 278). “She is extremely concerned
about everything that happens inside of her, she is from the start much
more opaque to her own eyes, more profoundly immersed in the obscure
mystery of life, than is the male” (SS, 278). And since her body™s inner
mysteries harbor such painful and uncontrollable surprises as menstrua-
tion, conception, and childbirth, the woman™s inner body of experience
constitutes a great source of anxiety.
As she reaches adolescence, a woman perceives her mysterious insides
as the source of “unclean alchemies” (SS, 307) that oppose her sense of
self or autonomy. She “feels that her body is getting away from her, . . . it
becomes foreign to her” (SS, 308). She feels not only mystery but disgust
with her insides; every month “the same disgust at this ¬‚at and stagnant
odor emanating from her “ an odor of the swamp, of wilted violets “ dis-
gust at this blood, less red, more dubious, than that which ¬‚owed from
her childish abrasions” (SS, 312). As the young girl becomes a woman, her
body™s sexual “mystery becomes agonizing,” especially since her desire is
forced to express itself in the role of passive ¬‚esh; “she suffers from the
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 93

disturbance as from a shameful illness; it is not active” (SS, 321).15 As in
illness, so in female sexuality “the body is borne like a burden; a hostile
stranger” (SS, 337), experienced as something strange, disgusting, inhu-
manly animal. Unlike the male sex organ “that is simple and neat as a
¬nger” and “is readily visible and often exhibited to comrades with proud
rivalry,” “the feminine sex organ is mysterious even to the woman herself,
concealed, mucous, and humid, as it is; it bleeds each month, it is often
sullied with body ¬‚uids, it has a secret and perilous life of its own. Woman
does not recognize herself in it, and this explains in large part why she
does not recognize its desires as hers” (SS, 386). Rather than the expres-
sion of transcendent human subjectivity, “feminine sex desire is the soft
throbbing of a mollusk,” a humiliating passive “leak” or “viscous” “bog”
(SS, 386). Moreover, because “the feminine body is peculiarly psychoso-
matic” (SS, 391), Beauvoir argues that women™s deep cognitive weakness
(with its consequent anxiety and disgust) about inner body experience
actually tends to aggravate their physical weakness and generate real phys-
ical suffering beyond what would normally arise through purely organic
The practical upshot of this argument should be to urge women to
know their own bodies better. They should not concede such knowledge
entirely to the male-dominated medical institution, which typically treats

15 Beauvoir insists that woman™s sexual desire (at least under patriarchy) must remain pas-
sive, thus causing woman further inner con¬‚ict. “To make oneself an object, to make
oneself passive is a very different thing from being a passive object.” If the woman takes
too active and dynamic a role in sexual intercourse, she will “break the spell” that gives her
pleasure: “all voluntary effort prevents the feminine ¬‚esh from being ˜taken™; this is why
woman spontaneously declines the forms of coition which demand effort and tension on
her part; too sudden or too many changes in position, any call for consciously directed
activities “ whether words or behavior “ tend to break the spell” (SS, 379). But later,
through the new female somaesthetics exempli¬ed by Brigitte Bardot, Beauvoir seems to
see the possibility of “a new type of eroticism” for woman, as assertively active as man™s.
“Her ¬‚esh does not have the abundance that, in others, symbolizes passivity . . . Her eroti-
cism is not magical, but aggressive. In the game of love, she is as much a hunter as she
is a prey. The male is an object to her, just as she is to him.” Simone de Beauvoir, Brigitte
Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Arno Press, 1972),
8, 20.
16 Beauvoir here invokes the claim that “gynecologists agree that nine tenths of their

patients are imaginary invalids; that is, either their illnesses have no physiological reality
at all or the organic disorder is itself brought on by a psychic state: it is psychosomatic.
It is in great part the anxiety of being a woman that devastates the feminine body”
(SS, 332“333). Without contesting the importance of psychosomatic ailments, one won-
ders whether Beauvoir should uncritically accept the “facts” af¬rmed by the traditionally
male-dominated, woman-dominating medical profession.
Body Consciousness

the body as an objecti¬ed machine of ¬‚esh rather than as lived subjectivity,
and which traditionally has preferred to leave women in the dark about
their bodies so as to exploit these mysteries to sustain women™s sense of
weakness and the doctor™s sense of authoritative power. By paying more
positive attention to one™s bodily experience, one can render its mysteri-
ous processes more familiar and more understandable. As such, they can
become less disgusting, threatening, and disempowering. Imagined fear-
ful mysteries are usually much more frightening than familiar realities
one has explored for oneself. Moreover, given the strong psychosomatic
nexus that Beauvoir af¬rms, a woman™s greater knowledge of her body
can be translated into increased physical power and con¬dence because
the debilitating clouds of mysterious anxieties are then dissipated.
Besides, as Beauvoir recognizes, there are strong elements of joy and
delight in woman™s bodily experience. Greater attention to these somatic
pleasures, through the focusing awareness of experiential somaesthetics,
could further boost women™s con¬dence by raising their spirits. Woman,
Beauvoir insists, is better than man in such inner somatic attention; “being
occupied with herself” in that way is “that pleasure which [woman] prefers
to all others . . . She listens to her heartbeats, she notes the thrills of her
¬‚esh, justi¬ed by the presence of God™s grace within her as is the preg-
nant woman by that of her fruit” (SS, 623). If “the well-known ˜feminine
sensitivity™ derives somewhat from myth, . . . it is also a fact that woman is
more attentive than man to herself and to the world” (SS, 625); more
able and more inclined to examine her feelings, “to study her sensations
and unravel their meaning”(SS, 626). “The call of the ¬‚esh is no louder
in her than in the male, but she catches its least murmurs and ampli¬es
them” (SS, 603). This inclination toward greater somatic attentiveness
explains why many women ¬nd “a marvelous peace” in the later stages of
pregnancy: “they feel justi¬ed. Previously they had always felt a desire to
observe themselves, to scrutinize their bodies; but they had not dared to
indulge this interest too freely, from a sense of social propriety. Now it is
their right; everything they do for their own bene¬t they are doing also
for the child” (SS, 501).
Beauvoir™s analysis of eroticism suggests further reasons why height-
ened attention to woman™s bodily feelings could be an empowering expe-
rience. In contrast to male sexual pleasure, which she sees as localized
in the genitals and terminated in orgasm, “feminine sex enjoyment,” she
writes, “radiates throughout the whole body . . . Because no de¬nite term
is set, woman™s sex feeling extends toward in¬nity” (SS, 395“396). More-
over, because of her different sexuality and the objecti¬ed role she is
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 95

trained to play in the sexual arena, woman is also more sensitive than
man to the rich ambiguity of human subjectivity and objecthood that is
displayed most strikingly in the domain of sex. “The erotic experience
is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of
their condition; in it they are aware of themselves as ¬‚esh and as spirit,
as the other and as subject” (SS, 402). Woman should be more aware of
this than man because she is continuously reminded that she is not only
desiring consciousness but desired, objecti¬ed ¬‚esh; and “she wants to
remain subject while she is made an object” (SS, 397); to “regain her
dignity as transcendent and free subject while assuming her carnal con-
dition “ an enterprise fraught with dif¬culty and danger, and one that
often fails” (SS, 402).
Yet even in failure, attention to this ambiguous somatic experience can
provide women a clearer insight into the fundamental ambiguity of the
human condition. Beauvoir thus can claim: “Woman has a more authentic
experience of herself,” of her complex, painful, but enabling ambiguity,
while man, “an easy dupe of the deceptive privileges accorded him by his
aggressive role and by the lonely satisfaction of the orgasm[,] . . . hesitates
to see himself fully as ¬‚esh” (SS, 402) and thus remains blind to an essen-
tial part of the human condition.17 As authentic living is a prime goal of
existentialist ethics, one might expect Beauvoir to urge heightened atten-
tion to somatic experience because it evokes a more authentic recogni-
tion of human ambiguity. Moreover, since blindness to our ontological
condition is an obstacle to realizing true freedom, she has another rea-
son for recognizing how better experiential somatic awareness could be
useful in advancing woman™s liberation.
Beauvoir, however, is very far from advocating such a program of
somaesthetic cultivation. Instead, she ultimately deplores an intensi¬ed
focus on body experience as both a contributing cause and a product
of woman™s oppression and con¬nement to immanence. She even sug-
gests that women are better off by paying less attention to their bodily
feelings, especially when it comes to the often unpleasant feelings associ-
ated with woman™s special condition. “I am convinced,” Beauvoir writes,
“that the greater part of the discomforts and maladies that overburden
women are due to psychic causes, as gynecologists, indeed, have told me”
(SS, 697). Rather than self-examining self-care of one™s somatic feelings

17 See the original French, Le deuxi`me sexe (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), 2:191: “La femme a
d™elle-mˆ me une exp´ rience plus authentique,” which Parshley mistranslates as “Woman
e e
lives her love in more genuine fashion” (SS, 402).
Body Consciousness

to manage them better or transform them through knowledge, it is best
for woman to “take little notice of them.” Hence, “work will improve her
physical condition by preventing her from being ceaselessly preoccupied
with it” (SS, 697).18 More generally, Beauvoir argues that woman should
avoid intense “subjective” analysis and instead cultivate a “forgetfulness
of herself,” since self-analysis diverts too much time and energy from
accomplishing the sort of valued work in the world that will secure her
independence. “Newly come into the world of men, poorly seconded by
them, woman is still too busily occupied to search for herself” (SS, 702).
Respected work in the public world is, of course, crucially impor-
tant for the full realization of woman™s freedom, as it is for man™s. But
even the superior importance of respected work and economic indepen-
dence does not gainsay the value of heightened somatic awareness, whose
lessons can enable us to function much more successfully in the public
and economic world by freeing the body from bad habits of use that hin-
der its ef¬ciency and skill while burdening it with pain. Here again, the
mere argument of temporary distraction from praxis cannot refute the
value of disciplined somatic attention. It is clearly possible to absorb one-
self in experiential somaesthetics for certain periods and then redirect
oneself to renewed action in the world, better prepared for such action
through what one has learned about oneself. What seems to make height-
ened somatic attention especially problematic, for Beauvoir, is the body™s
identi¬cation with immanence and passivity, so that scrutiny of one™s bod-
ily experience would tend to reinforce such immanence and passivity by
identifying oneself with this inferiority of one™s ¬‚esh. Examining one™s
mind in the quest for critical self-knowledge is not similarly condemned
as passive immanence because Beauvoir regards it as belonging to the
active transcendence of consciousness that is basic to her phenomeno-
logical existentialist perspective.
With Beauvoir, this asymmetry cannot merely be the product of tradi-
tional mind/body dualism, for she af¬rms the ambiguity of the body as
both subjectivity and object. Her feminist worry about intensi¬ed atten-
tion to bodily feelings is better explained by the body™s role in symbolizing
and reinforcing woman™s inferior status (under patriarchy) as passivity or

18 In arguing that woman™s psychosomatic ailments re¬‚ect her unhappy situation, Beauvoir

claims that “the situation does not depend on the body; the reverse is true” (SS, 697).
She is right that the total social situation wields a greater power, but the in¬‚uence runs
in both directions, partly because one™s body is always part of one™s situation. As Beauvoir
herself claims: “the body of woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in
the world” (SS, 37).
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 97

¬‚esh, as a mere tool of natural reproduction and a mere object of man™s
desire. If woman is more skilled at attending to her bodily existence and
at enjoying it, “it is because her situation leads her to attach extreme
importance to her animal nature[,] . . . because immanence is her lot”
(SS, 603). If “she experiences more passionately, more movingly, the
reality in which she is submerged,” this comes “from the fact that she is
passive” (SS, 626).
Beauvoir seems to be arguing that by improving their awareness of
bodily experience, women would be reinforcing their passivity and with-
drawal from the world into immanence as well as underlining the very
dimension of their being (namely, bodily experience) that most expresses
their oppression. Being identi¬ed with the body and the passive interior-
ity of its feelings, women ¬nd it more dif¬cult to assert themselves in the
public world of action and intellectual projects. Such critique of focused
attention to inner somatic experience is endorsed even by feminists who
advocate increased attention to performative disciplines of somaesthetics
for women™s empowerment.
Judith Butler™s insistence on transgressive representational perfor-
mances with the body is coupled with an argument against “the illusion
of an interior” of somatic experience that could serve as a legitimate


. 17
( 41 .)