Male against Female. Mind against Body. Encouraged by historical philosophical debates, these two seemingly isolated concepts have remained opposed to each other in the arena of feminist theory. At the heart of this battle lies the concept of ‘somatophobia’, a term that encapsulates the fear, devaluation, disgust and hate of the body. Within feminist theory, somatophobia operates to recreate forms of misogyny by promoting the removal of the feminine body in discussions of the value, empowerment and potential of the feminine. In essence, where the masculine has traditionally been hailed as the embodiment of intelligent thought and mind, the feminine has been restricted to the realm of the body, where ideas of emotions and body fluids are regarded with both dismissal and disgust, and her only value found in the utility it has for the masculine. This essay will attempt to peel back the layers of somatophobia within feminist discourse through applying Elizabeth Grosz’s Möbius circle theory.
I. Exploring Somatophobia
The origin of Somaophobia within philosophy can be traced back to the teachings of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes, who regarded the body as an obstruction to reason and inferior to the mind. Descartes, in particular, linked the mind and body in direct opposition with each other, placing the mind as the foundation of knowledge and intelligent thought, with the body as a vehicle subject to the whims and control of the mind. In this theory, Descartes gives us dualism: res cogitans (mind), which is uniquely separate from its extension res extensa (body).
This dualism has led to the privileging of particular sciences above the other, where natural sciences have been separated from the social sciences. According to Grosz, this prioritisation of the mind over the body reinforces a patriarchal hierarchy of the male (mind) and female (body) dichotomy, resulting in a patriarchal hierarchy that places the science of the body as being inferior to mathematics and physics. However, this claim is not entirely accurate and appears to ignore a common practice within the sciences where particular practices have traditionally been associated with specific genders; for example, physics and mathematics have often been considered the domain of the male and sciences like psychology and sociology have often been associated with the concerns of the feminine. Further, history is fretted with examples of substantial financial investment and inquiry into understanding the needs of the masculine body, but less so on the feminine body — for example, endometriosis has only been taken seriously by the medical profession in the past decade, with prior complaints of substantial menstrual pain often being dismissed by treating practitioners.
Nonetheless, while the sciences have their own gendered biases, Grosz’ argues that philosophy maintains a stranglehold over the production of knowledge associated with consciousness, mind and thought; in contrast, the philosophy of bodies is overtly feminine and has therefore been discarded to the sidelines of philosophical discussions, resulting in their experiences of the world regarded as something to be gazed at from the sanctified distance of traditionally masculine intellectual spheres and treated as something mysterious and somewhat confounding to the, allegedly, superior intelligent male mind.
II. Grosz’s Propositions for Overcoming Somatophobia
In contrast to Descartes’ dualism, Spinoza’s monism exists to assert a singular, self-contained identity of the body — a theory that (while it does move away from) the essentialism of dualists, unfortunately, falls short in providing a progressive theory of the body by oversimplifying the diverse and multifaceted experiences of the body and anti-humanises the experiences of female bodies in navigating a patriarchal society. Regardless of which theory one takes to understand the experiences of female bodies, both are inadequate and result in objectification and alienation of bodily experiences. Grosz attempts to remedy both shortcomings by arguing for a theory that reconsiders and re-theorises the body outside binary patriarchal frameworks. Elizabeth Grosz’s theory attempts to reshape the male (mind)-female (body) discourse by erecting an equitable framework that considers the cultural, societal, political and geographical influences that inform the experiences of the body. Her argument is founded on two fundamental principles: (1) A change in philosophical terminology and (2) a shift in gendered boundaries.
The first calls for non-binary terminology and a departure from patriarchal language. In expelling the use of certain terms that are used as reference points in philosophical discussions of the mind-body relation, where certain terms are often used to distinguish one as being superior to the other. For example, rationalism v idealism are used to preference reason to ideas; and empiricism v materialism is used to prioritise learned observations over matter. As long as terms are defined as being mutually exclusive, there is no way of explaining any mutual influences or apparent parallelism that two seemingly opposed terms may share. In applying this principle, she argues that there ought to be language that exists to bridge the gap between the problem that somtaphobia presents.
Second, is a call to embrace physical and corporal dimensions that transcend the boundaries imposed by Cartesian dualism and Spinoza’s monism. Grosz argues that a model that embraces both principles would sufficiently acknowledge the interplay between the mind and the body and be a first step towards dismantling somatophobic structures that have historically marginalised women by regulating them to the realm of the physical and undermining their intellectual contributions. In principle, her proposed model dismembers exclusive somatophobic structures by fusing the two opposing principles of male (mind) and female (body) together.
However, while Grosz argues that dualism and monism provide an uncompromising binary worldview that continues to reinforce the objectification of women’s bodies through utilising restrictive language, she does not propose suggestions or examples for alternative terminologies that could replace binary language within philosophical thinking. Her second proposal, however, does hold merit. To break away from the inflexibility of Cartesian principles, it is essential to transcend conceptual ideas of gender and body and embrace a metaphysics of fluidity. Grosz gives us a new theory of understanding the relationship between the masculine (mind) and feminine (body) by moving towards a more corporeal theory of gendered identities within the sexed body: the Möbius circle.
III. Grosz’ Möbius Circle
The Möbius circle model as a corporeal theory of gender identity provides a visual representation of how male (mind)-female (body) dichotomies are intertwined — avoiding the pitfalls of both theories of dualism and monism, which places both in direct opposition to the other. While both masculine (mind) and feminine (body) elements are distinct; they nonetheless twist into each other, revealing a dynamic and complex relationship with the other. This model moves beyond the overly simplistic categorisations of the masculine and the feminine as prescribed by dualism and monism and moves towards a theory that is embodied in one continuous and fluid loop that transcends normative understandings that have been steeped in traditional gendered philosophical thinking.
Through ontological inquiry, Grosz probes the fundamental nature of the sexed body by questioning whether sexual differences and subsequently, gender identities are primarily a product of cultural forces or whether it is inherently founded in biology. And although Grosz leans towards gender as being intrinsically intertwined with cultural and societal influences and rejects essentialism as a primary theory, she nonetheless rejects the idea of categorising sex and gender in either category. Instead, she argues that both biology and culture play a relevant part in informing a person’s sex and subsequent gender. At the heart of it, sexual difference is the product of social constructions and discourses that shape how individuals perceive and experience their own bodies and gender identities — in this, there is an amalgamation of society and biology, resulting in unique sexual identities and relationships with the body.
Grosz’s theory of sex and gender existing on a Möbius spectrum heals this divide by congealing both notions together. The Möbius circle illustrates that the sexed masculine or feminine body is not a static or isolated entity founded in essentialist ideas of biology but one that is influenced and fluid, capable of responding, adapting and evolving to cultural practices, political and societal influences and is in constant negotiation between the realms of masculine (mind) and feminine (body).
Elizabeth Grosz’s perspective challenges conventional notions of gender and sex identity and distinctions between masculine and feminine principles by radically re-evaluating how the body, mind, and gender identities are theorised. Central to her theory is the need to overcome somatophobia in feminist and philosophical discourses and move away from binary representations, resulting in a disconnect that cannot account for overlapping influences or similarities. Grosz’s Möbius theory embraces the fluidity of sexual differences by acknowledging the intertwined nature of bodies, and attempts to reconcile the harmful stereotypes that have resulted from somatophobia by paving the way for a more gender-fluid understanding of the sexed body.
Note: While Elizabeth Grosz’s theory was considered progressive in the 1990s, new theories have developed since to adequately reflect contemporary understandings of gender. This essay is in response to an essay prompt for an undergraduate course in Gender Studies that does not visit modern theories of gender. It is this author’s opinion that while gender can be considered to exist on a circumference; it is better visualised as a spectrum, rather than a Möbius circle that features only two binaries.
Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Refiguring Bodies’ in Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. St. Leonards (NSW, Indiana University Press, 1994)
Sarah Grogan, ‘So many women suffer in silence’: a thematic analysis of women’s written accounts of coping with endometriosis’ (2018) 33(11) Psychology and Health 1364–1378