Explorations of Visual Culture: Written on the Body [1]
Professor Laurie E. Hicks
University of Maine

All scholarship builds on the work of others. Sometimes the debts are purely personal, as when one person draws inspiration from the work of another scholar.  Sometimes the debts are broader, more institutional, as when the evolution of an entire discipline is influenced by the work of some specific scholar or scholars.  I believe that debts are owed to June King McFee and Vincent Lanier in both these senses.  Not only has my own thinking been richly influenced by the work of McFee and Lanier, but also the discipline of art education itself has evolved in ways that can be traced back to their research and teaching.

Both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, I spent many hours in courses with June King McFee and Vincent Lanier. June encouraged me to approach art from a global perspective, validating my interest in anthropology and showing me how that discipline is relevant to the study of art. Vincent supported my tendency to understand human relations to the world as a function of experience that is contextualized, rather than uniform and abstract.  These interests and tendencies have been central to my own development, and I can thank June and Vincent for helping me to articulate and validate this path.

What exactly did June McFee and Vincent Lanier contribute to art education? Let me briefly identify a couple of the central themes in their work before I proceed more directly to the substance of my own paper. It is my hope that the links between these themes and my own research will become clear as I proceed.  Perhaps the most central contribution, which they both made, has to do with a recognition that art education should not limit itself to studying paintings and prints hung on walls, or sculptures placed on pedestals, but should also investigate aesthetic experience in the mundane world around us. Art, as McFee would say, is a culturally constituted form of communication. To understand art fully, therefore, we must investigate art forms in their cultural and community-based contexts, see how they function in everyday life, and interpret their ability to form and transform human identities. Lanier too pushed outwards from the traditional canon to confront the diversity of visual and material culture. He talked not just about paintings and sculptures, but also about clocks, cars and motorcycles, advertising, television, architecture and clothing.   Art education, for both McFee and Lanier, was about learning to think critically about all aspects of our visually designed experience. I began to feel the influence of these key ideas early on in my educational career. It was in June McFee's "Art and Society" course where I first gave voice to my growing interest in body adornment and its cultural implications. And it was in Vincent's course on "The Teaching of Art Criticism" that I began to flex my contextualist muscles in order to understand more fully how we come to see and engage the world through the interpretive filters of our cultural experience.

Since that time, I have returned again and again to my experiences in their classrooms and to their published work [2] . I have used McFee's and Lanier's insights as I tried to understand how we make sense of natural and built environments and our experiences as we move through them (Hicks, 1992/1993), and, perhaps more importantly, how we come to care about and be care-givers to the environments we inhabit (Hicks, 1996). I have also looked to them as I struggled to understand and overcome what I see as the limitations of contemporary art education and to articulate the need to expand its possibilities through the metaphor of play (Hicks, 2004).  

But in many ways, it is in my efforts to explore and talk about the visual and material culture of the designed body and its implications for our understanding of self and other, that I continue to carry with me the work of June McFee and Vincent Lanier. Their influence frames what seems to be my perennial fascination with the diverse forms of visual culture that are written on the human body. Let me turn, then, to this topic of the aesthetic construction of the human body, with particular emphasis on women's bodies.   This is a project I dedicate to the work and teachings of June King McFee and Vincent Lanier.

Feminist writers have frequently drawn our attention to the importance of understanding how the body communicates symbolic meanings and plays a role in constructing power relations between individuals. Historically and cross-culturally, the body is marked, adorned and formed in accordance with prevailing human ideologies and social convictions. Through a variety of aesthetic devices, the body has become a surface upon which humans inscribe and reinforce cultural rules, hierarchies and commitments.  The purpose of this project is to explore how the design of human bodies in general, but women's bodies specifically, are imbued with social and political meaning.  My primary focus is on how women challenge existing notions of physical beauty and power through aesthetic decisions about adornment and through the physical practices of bodybuilding.

Even though I am primarily interested in the altering of women's bodies and how some women intentionally design their bodies not as a means of submission, but as a vehicle for self empowerment, I would first like to say something about the aesthetics of body manipulation more generally.  Body manipulation is nothing new. The body has always been marked, adorned, and sculpted in reference to existing human beliefs and social conventions both in western cultural traditions, and in others. Tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body customization have long been a part of the human aesthetic landscape. These alterations of the body's appearance are clearly aesthetic practices, that is, practices aimed at creating a particular visual and tactile self-presentation.   

In Phenomenology of Perception (1962) Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that the "body is to be compared, not to a physical object, but rather to a work of art... it is a focal point of living meanings..." (p. 150-151). By assimilating the body to a work of art, Merleau-Ponty argues that our understanding of the body should not be relegated merely to the realm of biology and the physical. The body is also a powerful aesthetic form embued with personal and cultural meanings. As such, the body becomes a visual artifact that reflects human aesthetic impulses, as well as the symbolic and coded system through which we present these impulses to the world.   As Freud (1931) tells us "there can be no doubt that art did not begin as art for art's sake. It worked originally in the service of impulses" (p. 97). The human body is clearly the oldest and most persistent medium through which we express these aesthetic impulses.  

Even knowing this, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that aesthetic experience is something to be relegated to the museum, concert hall, or artist's studio. But in fact, as McFee and Lanier remind us, aesthetic encounters are an essential and unavoidable part of our everyday lives. They are not limited to the formal, institutional realm of art, but are integral to our daily undertakings and interactions with the world. As such, aesthetic experiences and expressions are a powerful force in the development and maintenance of our individual and cultural identities. In Experience as Art: Aesthetics in Everyday Life (1983), Joseph Kupfer writes that it is through everyday aesthetic encounters that we develop a relationship of exchange with the world. He calls attention to the role aesthetic experience plays in the individual's capacity for social participation (p. 2). Of particular interest is the fact that personal and social expressions are not seen as something separate from who we are as physical beings, but as a kind of aesthetic "ritual of the body" (Kupfer, p. 113). This ritual is a process of making visible the "inner self on the outer skin" (Wilton, 1991, p. 86), or, in other words, marking the body as an art form.

Anthropologists and sociologists have long studied the varied and complex marks humans make upon their bodies. Elizabeth Reichel-Dolmatoff (1998) observes how the skin, as the "slender layer that separates the self from the outside world"(p. 12) is individually and socially marked and inscribed with meaning.   She goes on to note that manipulation of the body's appearance shows "the inter-relationship between the individual and society and at the same time demonstrates...personal self-awareness and creativity" (p. 12). However, it is only recently that we have taken such marks seriously as a form of art, as a process through which cultural and personal identity is etched on the body through aesthetic decisions of adornment and body customization. When we see women changing the appearance of their bodies, therefore, we ought to be curious to know whether and how they think these changes reflect changes in their interrelationships with other individuals or society at large. In my experience, women frequently do intend their body manipulations to have both a social meaning as well as an aesthetic form. Significant changes in aesthetic self-presentation, like those we see taking place now in women's use of tattoos and piercings, are due to women's changing conceptions of themselves and of their place in society.

It is no accident, in my view, that the choice of tattoos and piercings as the vehicle for the expression of changing social constructions of gender comes at a time of increasing attention to cultural diversity and a globalization of world cultures.   Young women and men are more and more aware of traditions of body adornment from cultural settings different from their own and are challenged to adopt and adapt those traditions to their own needs.   In this way, they both join and contribute to a long-standing, cross-cultural recognition of the body as a site for the inscription of meaning.   To give you a quick sense of the range of meanings human beings have attributed to markings on the body, let me identify but a few.   Human beings mark and form their bodies

•  to indicate their affiliation to a family, clan, tribe, or other membership group;

•  to indicate their age group, social ranking, or status;

•  to legitimize, hide, or challenge the social order;

•  to facilitate the maintenance of community;

•  to mark or express the passing of time, including specific events, seasons, or ceremonial occasions;

•  to protect themselves from evil spirits or illness;

•  to appease the gods;

•  to gain entry, on dying , into the other world, or to indicate a state of mourning;

•  to be attractive to others in an effort to find or maintain a mate;

•  to enhance sexual stimulation;

•  to attain magical powers;

•  to hide or conceal their identity;

•  to mark slaves or criminals;

•  to appear fierce and frightening to their enemies;

•  to express their prestige and wealth;

•  to earn respect and social power; or finally,

•  to safely guide them through significant life transitions, like puberty.

This diversity of motivations leading people to adorn and alter their appearance is symptomatic of the complexity of human impulses and cultural experience.   In this list, we can clearly see the intersection of aesthetic practices with social and cultural practices, and thus the importance of studying the link between our aesthetic choices and larger cultural realms of gender and social power.  

From a contemporary feminist point of view, the aesthetic alteration of the body is a subject that provides significant insights both into the mainstream understanding of women and into women's efforts to critique mainstream expectations and create alternatives.   According to French sociologist, Collette Guillaumin, for example, "physical interventions upon the body, most often mutilations, are generally aimed at the female body, or at least affect it most profoundly, and include modifying the body with surgery, or with the use of tools or objects that induce and maintain certain corporal transformations." (1993, p. 42)   It is well known that feminine beauty in patriarchal cultures often come at a very high cost in terms of the health and integrity of women's bodies.   One thinks particularly here of female genital mutilation in North Africa, footbinding in China, or of corsets and the surgical removal of rib bones in Victorian England and America.

As a footnote though, I want to add here that while the aesthetic alteration of the body is perhaps most striking and severe in the case of women, it is not only female bodies that are culturally constructed through the alteration of aesthetic form and appearance.   Men too are subjected to various body practices.   While these practices are rarely as invasive as those practiced on and by women, some can be. The Judeo-Christian or Xhosa traditions of circumcision are good examples of such practices.With this as background, let us look more specifically at a few ways in which women are using tattooing and piercing as forms of expression and as emblems of self-validation.   Tattooing and piercing are not of interest only to younger women, but they have become a significant form of expression through which many younger women seek to express both their sense of individuality and, by contrast, their sense of belonging to a group or community. These forms of expression are often intended to reestablish a sense of normalcy and control in a world experienced by many of them as foreign (Martin, 1997) and, quite often, they are used to give voice to defiance.   The expression of these needs is often reflected in the nature of their imagery.

In discussing the development of imagery among adolescents and young adults, Judith Burton (1999) points to a emergence of challenging, frightening and potentially for some, offensive representations of their experiences. She notes that such images reflect the confusions, fears and responses of adolescent experience, and are greatly influenced by the materials available to them for public expression.   Though Burton is primarily interested in the use of materials such as clay or fiber, her description of the images of adolescents and young adults has a place in our discussion of tattoos.   Young women often combine tattoos of skulls, teardrops, barbed wire, or spider webs, with the names of their boyfriend, gang or favorite rock bands in the designs they proudly wear on their bodies.   However, they often do so in conjunction with images of hearts, unicorns, fairies, flowers, cartoon characters, rosaries, crosses, and other familiar, and perhaps less challenging, symbols.

This "confusion" of imagery may reflect the struggles of young women who are trying to find a place for themselves in an ambiguous social world.   While drawing on conventional and familiar visual references, these women use the imagery in ways that deny their normal meanings.   By tattooing their bodies with these images, they both acknowledge conventional imagery while denying the power of the surrounding society to fix and control its meaning for them.   In Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Tattoos and Women (1997), Margot Mifflin states "tattoos serve as …visual passkeys to the psyches of women who are rewriting accepted notions of feminine beauty and self-expression." (p. 9) If Mifflin is right, tattoos become what philosopher Christine Braunberger (2000) describes as points of introjection, as "mediating site[s] between one's psychic interior and cultural exterior." (p. 4) Tattooing thereby becomes a powerful act of contextual self-definition; to use Guillaumin's (1993) phrase, tattoos become an act of "rapport with the world"(p. 47).

Whether through tattooing or through their style of hair, dress or jewelry, young women play out the human need to define an identity by altering aesthetic appearance. Theo Kogan, actress and lead singer in the New York band Lunachicks, sees her tattoos as primal, as both physical and as a link to cultural practices not of this time and place.   Kogan says "There's something very primal about it because it is such an old art" (in Mifflin , 1997, p. 136).   In saying this, Kogan situates tattoos within human tradition.   In so doing, she offers adolescents something that other forms of adornment do not, a degree of permanence.   However, Kogan wonders if the magnetic appeal of these practices is more associated with the fact that "we don't expect to live so long...because of AIDS and drugs and the fucked up world we're in" (p. 136).  Like Kogan, Mifflin (1997) speculates that "shortsighted kids living in a disposable culture simply don't consider the long-term implications of an indelible fashion statement" (p. 136).

In an effort to better understand this, I once asked several of my students who had been tattooed in their late teens, how they felt about the issue of permanence.   Each of them indicated that they had indeed thought about what it might mean later in their lives, but decided that regardless of how they thought about it later, it was important to them now, important in their efforts to "reclaim" their bodies and "to express who [they were] now."

The power of tattoos to signify self and membership among young women can be seen in research done on gang members in several US cities.   Research shows the use of ear and nose rings or specific tattoo designs to be typical ways by which members identify themselves and others.   Tattoos, visibly situated, remind gang members of their affiliation and allegiance to a particular gang.   When gang members describe themselves, they most often do so by reference to their rings, brands or tattooed markings.   The power of these marks can be understood by the lengths people will go to, to have them removed. Through the X-Tattoo Program, in Phoenix, medical volunteers use modern laser technology to help ex-gang members in their efforts to rid themselves of gang markings.

The use of tattoos to represent relationships can also be seen in the use of tattoos to illustrate relations of a more intimate nature.   This includes familial as well as romantic relations.   One of my students described for me the primitive she had tattooed around her left upper arm.   For her, the significance of the tattoo did not lie in the design but in its placement on her arm.   She told me how her grandfather would reach out and lightly take hold of her arm as he spoke with her and how he had done this for as long as she could remember.   Upon his death, she acquired the tattoo as a memorial to her love for him.

Like tattooing, piercing has emerged as one of the latest forms of body practice among young women.   Unlike the traditions of body piercing in many aboriginal societies, this new appropriation is intended to throw off, to reject, tradition and society's control over one's own body.   In The Body Project (1997), Joan Brumberg describes what I have seen in my students, that most use the perforation of their bodies as a provocative symbol of their right to do as they please with their own bodies. Several of my female students have told me that the act of piercing is a way of asserting their own identity regardless of the expectations and standards of their parents or the society at large as to what it means to be a girl, especially a "good girl."  This image comes from a long tradition of imagery that clearly articulates standards of womanhood and 'femininity' and is promoted through the power of contemporary video, print and electronic media.   They see the act of piercing as an "act of art", an act that clearly is intended to confront and liberate them from what Simone de Beauvoir calls 'biological ideology'.   In The Second Sex (1953), de Beauvoir says

"As against the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existences of actual women, mythical thought opposes the eternal Feminine, unique and changeless.   If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine." (p. 237)

Thus in the eyes of my students, the piercing of navels, tongues, eyebrows, nipples and other areas of their bodies can be understood as an attempt to throw-off the "eternal Feminine, unique and changeless."  This taking charge of one's own body, of altering it so as to make it clearly one's own, is also evident as motivation in the tattoos of many older women.

While the previous examples show body manipulation as a strategy for asserting and defining identity in younger women, many women are taking to heart Adrienne Rich's challenge to reclaim our bodies by regarding the physical as a "resource, rather than a destiny" (1976, p. 13).   Rich notes that many women are alienated from their bodies both in wishing they weren't there, and at the same time in feeling "incarcerated" in their bodies.   By "appeal[ing] to the physical," we may reassert control over an identity we may feel has been lost to wider cultural forces.

This is clearly illustrated in women who tattoo over mastectomy scars. These women embrace their physicality as a form of aesthetic resource.    They appear to take seriously Foucault's characterization of the body (1984) as an "inscribed surface of events", "totally imprinted by history" (p. 83).   For these women, both the mark left by the surgeon's knife and the tattoo itself are such imprints.   Both marks represent efforts to save a woman's life - one her physical life, the other her emotional life.   While the scar left by the surgery remains as a reminder of her threatened past, the marks of the tattoo signify a process of reclamation and recovery that open up to the future.   Both sets of marks highlight the relevance of Foucault’s particular view of the body as a surface upon which "patterns of significance" are inscribed.  

Mifflin (1997) offers two examples of women who have survived breast cancer and turned to tattoos as a medium for reclaiming their bodies.   In 1980, Marcia Rasner underwent a double mastectomy.   After years of struggling with her scarred body and "wounded self-image", Rasner submerged her mastectomy scars in "life-affirming organic imagery." (p. 8) This tattoo was not her first, but was dramatically different in intent.   While Rasner's previous tattoos were intended to express a sense of self, her most recent marks speak to a process of self transformation.

Mifflin quotes Rasner as saying, "I have a picture of me taken before and after, and I can see the change in my eyes in those pictures.   It's a feeling of having taken something essentially negative and turned it into something beautiful" (p. 8).   Toward this same end, Andree Connors had a rose tattooed over her mastectomy scar.   Connors' tattoo was an attempt to aesthetically and politically mark her body.   Mifflin cites Connors as saying "This is an invisible epidemic: everybody looks 'normal' cause they're wearing prostheses. So the message does not get across to the world that we are being killed off by breast cancer" (p. 152).  

As both Rasner and Connors point out , this process of inscription is a process of private and public ritual that commemorates the passage from one state to another. Tattooing in such cases becomes a "defining" or "redefining" aesthetic for these women, no less than for younger women dealing with the concerns of adolescence and young adulthood.

My goal in this paper so far has been to show that women's body adornment and modification is a fruitful object of study for arts professionals interested in exploring the political and aesthetic dimensions of the body within community and cultural contexts. Expanding this discussion to include the practice of bodybuilding may offer us additional lessons about the politics and aesthetics of the body.

Let me start with a very brief clarification concerning different forms of body practice within the realm of weight lifting. Bodybuilding is the act of altering the form and size of one's muscles through the process of weight training to achieve a particular body shape or aesthetic semblance.   Bodybuilding is different from power lifting. According to the students who workout in the weight room in my university gym, power lifting is a process of performing three movements: a bench press, a dead lift and a squat.   Bodybuilding, on the other hand, is the use of repeated weight lifting to change one's physical appearance.   Both body practices require considerable strength and endurance as well as a lot of time and money to spend in or on a gym.

Bodybuilding as a cultural phenomena came from the practices of professional strong men and weight lifters in the late 1800's.   These men performed on stage, in circus sideshows and at rodeos. Social views of appropriate female roles and behavior precluded women from participating.   This did not, of course, prevent women from building muscle and becoming physically strong through normal physical labor.

Despite the presence of highly muscled women, there has existed an insidious belief in the inferiority of women's bodies and a cultural insistence on controlling women's place in society.    Women's anatomy has been treated as destiny.   Focussed on women's unique reproductive role, society has often disqualified women from participating in sports and other physical activity on the grounds that this would threaten women's special moral obligation to preserve their vitality for childbirth.   Since physical activity has been seen as undermining women's social role as wife and mother, women's efforts to assert their physicality, strength, and personal empowerment in the public sphere have been codified as radical, subversive, and unfeminine.Even though these beliefs have faded slowly over time, organized women's bodybuilding did not develop until the 1960's and 70's and women bodybuilders are still seen as outside the norm today.

It is clear that we construct our bodies within a complex and, in many ways, inescapable system of power relations. This is particularly true for women whose construction of self is dominated by the male gaze. Many feminists have sought to challenge the power of such constructions, looking for subversive and liberating images of women.   The work of philosopher Honi Haber [3] is of particular interest within the context of this paper. In an unpublished presentation, "Muscles and Politics: Shaping the Feminist Revolt" (1991) presented at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Haber talks about the importance of liberating images, images that "problematize seeing and assimilation" (p. 6) and subvert the restraints of patriarchial power. In her work, Haber sees the images of muscled women as possessing such "liberating subversive" potential and as opening up the possibility for women to resist "readings of timidity, weakness, and inferiority, by creating her body as her own interpretation…and in doing so, force[ing] cultural reinterpretations."

Similarly, Leslie Heywood (1998) describes women bodybuilding as a creation of subversive monstrosity. Bodybuilders "aspire to be monsters, to become the dictionary definition: 'one unusually large for its kind; extraordinary and often overwhelming in size.' Bodybuilders want to stand out, have no one take them at face value" (p. 8). Sam Fussell, in Muscle, Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder (1991) , agrees with Heywood, "Shock value is all. It's saying, or rather screaming, 'more than anything else in the world, whatever it takes, I don't want to be like you.   I don't want to look like you. I don't want to talk like you. I don't want to be you." (p. 137).

However, women bodybuilders are faced with more than the goal of becoming something that everyone else is not.   Women's bodybuilding, having emerged from athletic and aesthetic structures that are defined within the context of masculinity, is by nature a contested terrain.   Body building, as an aesthetic and cultural form of athletic prowess strives to represent the other, the extraordinary, the monstrous.   This is made clear by the behavior of the male bodybuilders who inhabit the gym where I workout.   They grunt and strut with a clear sense of pride in the physique they have created through the practice of weight lifting.   Among bodybuilders, a desire for sleek, contoured muscles is only surpassed by the desire for colossal size.   But women bodybuilders must also be feminine.   Women bodybuilders must be both monstrous and feminine, a clear aesthetic contradiction.   As a result, women bodybuilders strive to achieve the aesthetic norms of femininity while at the same time, pushing against them as they develop the size associated with the expectations of bodybuilding.   Heyward describes this as a process of using "their bodies to depart from as well as incarnate the norm" (p.11)

This inherent conflict has played itself out at various levels in women's bodybuilding.    In George Butler's and Charles Gaines' 1985 film, Pumping Iron II: The Women , American bodybuilder, Rachel McLeash comes face to face with Australian power-lifter and bodybuilder Bev Francis. McLeash enters the competition with an aesthetic form that is athletic, highly toned, and feminine. In comparison, Francis' highly sculpted and incredibly muscled body reflects not the expectations of femininity, not even muscled femininity, but those of bodybuilding more generally.   Her aesthetic presence pushed against the societal norm for women, yet was fully in accordance with the existing aesthetic expectations of bodybuilding.   As the film showed, the judges were not yet prepared to treat women's bodybuilding on a par with men's.   The idea of highly muscled women was "a contradiction to, even an attack on, our sense of reality" (Dobbins, 1994, p. 8).   The image of Bev Francis was an unwelcome subversion of established cultural norms of a feminine aesthetic. In this case, aesthetic judgments, informed by expectations of how a real woman should look, blocked official recognition of Bev Francis' efforts to sculpt her body solely according to the established criteria of the sport itself.   She placed eighth in the competition even though she more than any other participant, embodied the aesthetic expectations of bodybuilding.

Bev Francis' fate in that competition was not entirely surprising.   Bodybuilders, both male and female, challenge culturally defined aesthetic norms for both men and women by their shear physical presence.    Bodybuilders "take up space" - more space than the 'normal' person; they insert themselves more forcefully than others into the public sphere. As a result, they may be perceived as engaging in a kind of trespass: taking up space that is not theirs.   For some bodybuilders this trespass is a conscious act of defiance, an intentional breaking of the norm in order to assert a form of physical liberation through aesthetic self-transformation.   While this is true for both men and women, the cultural context of female trespass imposes different meanings on the bodies of women bodybuilders. Taking up space, too much space, has a particular cultural meaning for women who have been expected to remain in the background, deferential, and physically ineffective.   The cultural challenge embodied in Bev Francis' self-transformation inevitably attracted resistance.

Women's bodybuilding is, thus, another intersection point where aesthetic practices and cultural norms come together.   The practice both challenges existing social norms and brings them visibly to the surface.   Women bodybuilders catalyze a kind of cultural reaction, making gender expectations visible by their transgression.   Whether this, or any other form of transgressive body practice, will be liberating for women in general can never be entirely certain.   Much depends on how the society assimilates their challenge.

My goal in this paper has been to open up an area of the everyday to aesthetic investigation.   Following the lead set by McFee and Lanier, I want to emphasize the legitimacy of studying the ways in which everyday aesthetic practices intersect with cultural meanings, political power, and opportunities for liberation.   As I have suggested, aesthetic alteration of the body is a primary means of gendering the human body.   Both men and women participate in practices of body transformation in response to their culture's expectations of how women and men should look.   While the inclination to use the body to express personal and cultural meanings is not itself restricted to one gender, the implications of particular body practices may differ, depending on who is engaging in them.   Playing with gender boundaries or with culturally imposed limitations on a particular gender inevitably manifests itself in practices of the body.   It is through the body that we come to subscribe to or rebel against, appropriate or challenge, particular social meanings in the broader communities to which we belong.   It is for this reason that an understanding of our body practices is so essential to a feminist approach to women's aesthetic experience today.

The act of altering the appearance of one's physical form transforms the body from biology into cultural artifact.   As a result, the markings and transfigurations of the body enable it to become a potential site for asserting, maintaining, and challenging social relations.   Unlike the students of Susan Bordo, however, whom she describes (1988) as seeing the body as "the enemy, to be beaten into submission," (p. 92) the women I have been discussing have embraced and celebrated their physical presence in the world through adornment and self-transformation.   Kim Hewitt (1997) refers to this as "an act of reclamation" (p. 79), a liberatory process of women laying claim to their own bodies.   I believe that it is in this spirit that feminist scholars and arts professionals should continue to study the body manipulations of women of all ages, celebrating both the creative impulse that informs body practices, and participating in the re-thinking of the social relationships that these body practices symbolize and help to make possible.

In conclusion, I hope that those familiar with the work of June King McFee and Vincent Lanier will have found it easy to see the trajectory that led from their work to my own.   Like Lanier, I locate the aesthetic in everyday life: in the body work of tattooing, piercing, and bodybuilding.   Like McFee, I see cultural meaning in this aesthetic production.   The everyday aesthetic experience requires cultural interpretation.   As I have shown, the meanings embedded in tattoos, piercings, and bodybuilding vary with age and gender, and depend upon the nature of the surrounding community and its beliefs and prejudices.   This has been rich territory for my own socially critical scholarly work, and it remains fertile ground for art education itself as it evolves to include more and more aspects of what some now refer to as visual or material culture.

 

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Reichel-Dolmatoff, E. (1998) Introduction, In Gröening, K., Body decoration: A world survey of body art , NY: Vendome Press.

Rich, A. (1976) Of woman born , NY: Norton.

Wilton, J. (1991) Toward an understanding of skin art, In D. Blandy & K. Congdon (Eds.) Pluralistic approaches to art criticism , Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. 73-87.

[1] The author would like to acknowledge the 1999 Faculty Summer Research Grant she received from the University of Maine.   The grant supported her initial research work on this project.

[2] Though both McFee and Lanier have published article after article on art and its various cultural foundations and implications, I have found their books to be the place where I return.   My copies of McFee's Preparation for Art (1961), Art Culture and Environment (co-authored with Rogena Degge) (1977) and Cultural Diversity and The Structure and Practice of Art Education (1998), and Lanier's The Arts We See (1982) are well worn and easily accessible on my office shelves. They find their way into much of what I write and teach.

[3] Honi Fern Haber died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 37. She was thirty-seven and had spent much of her adult life creating and studying muscled bodies. She was fascinated by the aesthetic and political potential of women's bodybuilding and was herself a dedicated amateur bodybuilder. I dedicate my work on the aesthetics of muscled women to her.  Her contributions were significant.

 

 


CultureWork is an electronic publication of the University of Oregon Institute for Community Arts Studies. Its mission is to provide timely workplace-oriented information on culture, the arts, education, and community. For previous issues of CultureWork, visit the Previous Issues page. Prospective authors and illustrators please see the Guidelines.

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Arts and Administration | The Institute for Community Arts Studies(I.C.A.S.)

©2004 The Institute for Community Arts Studies unless otherwise noted; all other publication rights revert to the author(s), illustrator(s), or artist(s) thereof.

Editor: Maria Finison     Advisor: Dr. Douglas Blandy.

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