Non-Fiction Friday: Cultural History and Body Parts


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):

gilman- making the bodyA 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.

the vagina.literary and cultural historyFinally, 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.

16 thoughts on “Non-Fiction Friday: Cultural History and Body Parts

  1. I’m Thrilled to make this blog my nonfiction resource. Thanks!

    I like the sound of Making the Body Beautiful. Just the other day I had a conversation about western standards of beauty and how they’re rooted in the history of white supremacy whether we like to admit it or not. Yes, there are problematic issues such as colorism in POC communities, but where did that kindly internalized racism come from??? It’s pretty clear to me.

    1. Heh yay, happy to be your non-fiction ressource like you’re my go to person for short story collections 🙂
      Gilman’s stuff is pretty awesome, hope you’ll like it! Yes absolutely, white supremacy devides us in our attempts to attain recognition for trying to be more white, while of course this can never be achieved. I tell people my nose is my political statement ;D

  2. You are getting incredibly brilliant at this. This is only your second post, and this is extensive. Thank you, Bina. I would love to read the second book. I love the third one’s cover. Creative!

    I look forward to reading more posts. These are amazing. 🙂

    1. You are making me blush!! Thanks so much for your kindness, I’m so happy you enjoyed this post 🙂 Heh yes such a creative cover of the ‘literary vagina” 😀 So glad you like to see more nonfiction posts, I will probably makes this a weekly or bi-weekly thing.

  3. Hmm an “ethnic nose”??

    Anyway I really like this topic and are you making non-fiction Friday a weekly thing? Definitely a thumbs up for that! I’ve not read any of the books you’ve mentioned – or thought much about your topic – but will definitely check them out.

    I was thinking of this book I read a while back. Breasts: a natural and unnatural history. It was pretty good and may be something you’re interested in?

    1. Fascinating isn’t it? My nose is too long for white beauty standards but since I’m Brown my nose is apparently ethnic and fits.
      Yay glad you like this post, I was thinking of making nonfiction fridays a weekly or bi-weekly thing.
      Definitely! Thanks for letting me know, that sounds like a fascinating books! 🙂

  4. Intrigued, intrigued! I am intrigued and not grossed out, for sure. But I do not have any awesome books to recommend on the body and its history. I read Natalie Angier’s book WOMAN but I would not rate it super highly. It got way too flowery for me, and insufficiently sciencey.

    1. Yay for being intrigued! 🙂 Yes I found Woman not as satisfying either, perhaps best read in combination with a more differentiated and academic text. Heh no matter I find too many books to reads as it is 🙂

  5. Wonderful books, Bina! Nice to know that you have read / are reading the first one. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. It is sad that society / the dominant culture of the time etc. makes people change themselves (like changing their noses or plucking their hair) rather than loving themselves the way they are.

    1. Thanks Vishy, I read most chapters of the first books a few years ago and can def. recommend it 🙂 Also currently reading Gilman’s obesity biography, which is a good overview as well. Yes it is so sad, just read a good quote about this recently on social media: “Society: Be yourself. Society: No like that.” Think that captures it well 😦

  6. I love this post, and would like to read all 3 of these books! Such an interesting topic.
    This isn’t exactly cultural history of the body, but it *is* of the body – I just finished a book called ‘boobs: Women Explore What it Means To Have Breasts’. A collection of essays and poems – very good. Hopefully I’ll have a review up soon!

    1. Yay so glad you enjoyed this post, Naomi! Now that is one intriguing book I’ll have to add it to my tbr, I enjoy essay collections too, but sadly read too few of them. Looking forward to your review 🙂

  7. Thanks for joining in on my link-up as you start posting more about nonfiction! I’ve not read any of the books on your list, but I think I’ve read some good reviews of Plucked and as someone who is interested in women’s issues, cis, trans or otherwise, The Vagina sounds fascinating to me. Great list!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by! Love nonfiction and your link-up, so hopefully I’ll be able to join often. Hope you’ll enjoy The Vagina! Good to hear that about Plucked, I had to ILL it, hope my cop arrives soon.

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