Now, I apologize for the somewhat gruesome-sounding title! But it does capture best what this post is about. Hope you weren’t scared off, or were you intrigued? 😉 I’ve been thinking about posting more on non-fiction and since many of you weren’t opposed to the idea and everyone seems to love listicles, I thought I would gather some books about the cultural history of parts of the body, and to clear up the mystery: By this I mean works that focus on the cultural history of hair for example, or teeth, and do not simply present a biological account but in keeping with my specific interest (and hopefully it will interest you as well) examine how societal norms shape how we wear our hair for example or how haircuts can be political statements and/or are tied up with issues of race and gender to name but a few. Here are 3 books that look like promising investigations of the body and its cultural history (please note that I have only read the first book and the other two are still on my tbr, so I cannot vouch for them):
A few years ago, I stumbled on this very important book by Sander L. Gilman (another academic crush!) and was most interested in the chapters on noses. Now what with self-optimization being common nowadays, something that is occuring too often is the nose job. If, like me, you’ve ever been told that you have an ‘ethnic nose,’ then this becomes not just an issue of beauty but of race as well. In much of this book, Gilman examines how the nose throughout (especially recent) history has been racial. And some of the in-depth analyses focus on the Jewish nose. Probably all of you have heard of this issue and it was horrifically prominent in the third Reich. Then, we also see that Black women working and living in the public eye may attempt to change their noses to fit into Western beauty standards or women with such preferred noses are given preferance. Now, will you ever think of noses in the same way again?
Another entry point for understanding how social and cultural issues are tied up with bodies is of course hair, or in this case the wanted lack of hair. Of course gender comes to mind here as one of the most obvious issues, but I’m thinking race and religion could be important issues as well, for example: The hipster beard vs muslim men deciding not to wear a beard because of the current climate of Islamophobia. Herzig takes a look at the importance of hair removal throughout history, from being considered ‘mutilation’ to the not-so-subtly enforced beauty standard that requires the hair removal by women in Western societies. This looks to be an impressively-thorough investigation of hair removal, which also pays attention to how scientific advancement, race and the medical field are implicated in this issue.
Finally, Emma L. E. Reese provides another investigation of the importance and meaning of the vagina through literary and cultural studies. After the publication and following reception of Naomi Wolf’s book on the same topic, this seems like a timely addition. Rees is a scholar of the renaissance I think and that part of the book appears to be extremely well researched and definitely something I hardly know anything about. Rees’ work, however, reaches into the present as well and this seems a lot of ground to cover in one book, but I’m very interested in how the meaning and approach to the literary and cultural vagina has changed throughout history. It doesn’t get too many pages apparently, but it is worth mentioning that Rees does not appear to make this a cis-story of the vagina but looks at trans* issues as well. Yay for that!
Now, what are your favorite books on the cultural history of the body? Or which part of the body would you most like to see covered in non-fiction? Let me know in the comments!
Note: I wanted to make non-fiction post something regular and while googling about non-fiction in the book blogosphere, I stumbled on the wonderful Non-Fiction Friday series by DoingDewey. It seemed perfect and so here I am joining in on the non-fiction love.