Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The Physical Body and the Lived Body

March 28th, 2013 by Heather Dillaway

I’ve been writing about disabled women who engage in reproductive experiences, and have been inspired by some of the ideas in the disability literature and literature on the sociology of the body in the past few weeks. Some scholars of the body argue that we should pay attention not only to the physical body and its functions, but also we should pay attention to the “lived body”. That is, we are in the world through our bodies, and therefore our bodies are what allow us to engage in the world and make sense of the world. Thus, the more subjective body, the one that forms our personal experience, is as important as any physical body or bodily function we may have. (For example, what does our first or last menstrual period mean to us?) We can also look at the “governmentality” of bodies – that is, all the rules that surround bodies, all the norms that suggest exactly how our bodies should be and behave. We can think about how those rules affect our experience of our own bodies. (For instance, what if we have a hot flash in public and people see us sweat, or we leak during our menstrual cycle and people see the leak? What happens to us in those instances, and how do we respond to these bodily happenings in the face of societal rules?)

Photo by Matt Wootton // Creative Commons 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattwootton

Disability scholars suggest similar things, arguing that to truly understand disability we must separate out physical impairment from the “subjectivity of disability” or the actual experience of living with an impaired body and society’s rules about which bodies are “normal” and “abnormal”. To truly understand something like menstruation then, we would need to separate out the natural, normal bodily function from the actual lived experience of menstruation and the societal rules that affect menstrual experience. We cannot comprehend menstruation until we separate the physical body from the lived body and also pay attention to the social constraints that shape physical and lived bodies.

All of this makes me think that we have a long way to go before understanding menstruation, or any other reproductive process for that matter. Not only do we need to understand the physical body but, even more importantly, we need to understand the lived bodily experience. What’s it like to live with menstruation? What are the issues that arise day to day? What are the rules that really conflict with women’s day to day experiences? What are the parts of the physical experience that take on meaning? What are the meanings that are created? And then how do women live in the world through menstruating bodies? How do women make sense of menstruating bodies as both physical and lived entities?

This blog entry is more conceptual, and it really is just me thinking out loud. I’d love comments though on how readers think about their physical versus lived bodies. When we really think about it our physical body is only one dimension of our much more comprehensive and complicated bodily experience.

  

3 Responses to “The Physical Body and the Lived Body”

  1. Ashley Ross says:

    What a rich and wonderful discussion. Thank you Heather.
    I have just been riffing off your blog, to write my blog which should appear here next week.

  2. [...] Heather Dillaway’s re:Cycling post of March 28, “The Physical Body and the Lived Body”, she invited a conversation about the importance of understanding the “lived bodily [...]

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Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.