Pitts, V. (1998) '"Reclaiming" the Female Body: Embodied Identity Work, Resistance and the Grotesque', in Body and Society, Vol 4, no 3: 67 - 84.
Some women in the USA are using scarification techniques on their bodies in connection with 'an agency discourse of reclaiming the female body' (67). These activities can be explored by considering Bakhtin's notion of the grotesque, which invokes 'a state of liminality or bodily ambiguousness' (67). There is therefore a potential for subversion of and resistance to conventional identities.
Body modifications such as piercings and tattoos have become absorbed into mainstream youth culture, not always with the approval of vanguardist subcultures who revived them. Scarification and other 'extreme' techniques have not been absorbed, however and have often been seen as forms of self harm. Nor are there high street shops to offer scarification: the practice seems to be confined to sexual minorities, including women-only groups, who provide a safe space and support. Some scarifiers employ a 'reclaimative discourse' (68) to account for their practices. The theme of body reclamation also appears in the women interviewed for this study. Scarification seems to offer a way to reappropriate the female body and overcome past forms of oppression especially sexual oppression.
Bakhtin pointed to the socially subversive nature of the grotesque, which called into question conventional notions of identity. Scarifiers also play with this notion. By deliberately making the body grotesque, bodily boundaries are transcended in acts of 'symbolic inversion... that twist cultural symbols' (69). Traditionally, the medieval grotesque body played a major part in folk culture. It was a vulgar body 'the body of open orifices, the coarse body' (69). Celebrating it inverted the usual dominance of the head and the spiritual, and played a large part in it 'the unofficial, mocking world of [carnivalesque] rite and ritual' (69). Vulgar bodies were open to the world, degraded, and quite often feminine. The modern body tries to deny its vulgar aspects, so modifying and mutilating it reintroduces the grotesque and thus '"the improper, the dark side, the underworld, the demonic"' (Pitts page 70 quoting Young on tattooing).
Scarification involves cutting skin and allowing it to form raised scars. In this way 'Symbols and designs are grown on to the body' (70). Friends and supporters actually do this scarification. The resulting scars are not only prominent but tactile, and this effectively breaks the usual boundaries placed on bodies, permitting 'grotesque, vulgar representation' (71).
Six women scarifiers are examined in more detail [from a sample of 15 who have been studied intensively over an 18 month period]. Several of them insist that their alienation from their bodies, the result of sexual or domestic abuse, can be reversed by scarification rituals. Central themes are 'the notion of authority over the body, which can be reclaimed; the holistic image of self-body wholeness, which can be reconciled; and the selective nature of identity which can be rewritten' (71).
[I will not attempt to summarise the more detailed accounts that follow. The nature of the designs and marks on the body are clearly seen as symbolic ways to overcome earlier repression: a dragon is carved on to a woman's back after she comes to see the dragon is symbolic of earlier sexual abuse; some women mutilate their breasts as a way of stopping them becoming uncomfortable sex objects. Other themes seem to connect up with more familiar ways of people enjoying being reminded that they have a body, including those who undergo extreme sports and their associated rituals -- see le Breton. The bodies are deliberately placed in the classic liminal state, via a social ritual, before the usual boundaries are transgressed through marking and cutting.'[P]hysical control over ...[the]... body... [is)... part of claiming authority over her body' (73). There is a recognition that modifying your body can modify your social relationships, and this can be experienced as making a significant choice. One interviewee actually compares scarification with the processes of punishing the body in order to become an athlete, which she felt she was pushed into. One particular and published body modifier began with clitoris piercing, popular with a lot of women, apparently, who are incest survivors or rape victims --'"They want to reclaim something that been stolen from them in a really nasty way. They want to re empower themselves and their sexuality and take that back"' (Pitts page 75, quoting 'Becky'). Becky then progressed to 'branding of the lower abdomen and scarification of the breasts, as further attempts to place a mark on areas associated with sexuality'. Pitts insists that this is not just masochism, since Becky had to stop when faced with overwhelming pain. What Becky has done, Pitts argues, is to remake her body, breaking taboos and 'former alienating representations... Its new representations are preferable; its new grotesqueness is seen as an improvement over the old, pristine self' (76).]
[Another interviewee has undergone substantial scarification and has done so in order to overcome early rejection for being ugly: 'The prominent modification of her appearance removes a normative ideal of beauty from possibility... Jane presents her scar as a resistance against the normative "lifetime of messages" about needing to reach a beauty ideal' (77). Yet another speaks of the ways in which a scarification ritual overcame her fear of domestic violence involving knives:'The cutting is perceived to remove an outer covering of fear imposed on the body' (78) -- this is more familiar from studies of rites of passage which lead to manhood through overcoming fear and pain. It could almost be junior rugby players talking here -- see Light and Kirk A lesbian community which was deeply involved in the ritual also seems to have experienced deep social bonding.]
'Reclamation and defilement paradoxically co-exist in these narratives of female scarification' (79). Strangely, defiling the body leads to a new spiritual awareness, via a new recognition of embodiment. One parallel is with the pain of childbirth . Thus 'these self-carvings have a negative, reactionary character but they also have a positive, creative one' (79). It is clear that the 'uncertainty and ambivalence... heterogeneity and contradiction' of the activity is important [just like the unknown factors in extreme sports?]. The creativity of the liminal zone is stressed, as a place where alternative social arrangements can be thought out, and people become acutely aware of themselves as agents. Marginal positions can afford a place from which to offer critique of mainstream discourse, as in carnival.
These activities can be seen in terms of a great deal of post-structuralist feminist writing on identity politics. Haraway has stressed the potentials of the liminal subject, including the freedom to alter appearances and locations. Butler has also pointed to the notion of identity as performance -- and Davis is cited to support the view that 'Women's transgressive body practices constitute women as objects "who use their feminine body as a site fraction and protest rather than as an object of discipline and normalization"' (80).
At the same time, scarification offers a symbolic and limited form of resistance. Women must return from a liminal state ready to reclaim themselves. This also applies to advocates of flexible identity in subjectivity: 'In subversion, the normative categories cannot be permanently dispersed' (81). Rituals risk abolishing past oppressions only at the symbolic level: 'past body oppression is not reversed, rape culture is not erased' (81). Scarification in particular is limited because it is often hidden from public view, so 'its communicative and symbolic powers are muted' (81). Scarification can lead to depoliticisation, hiding. Even when visible, the female grotesque body risks being taken as a commodity, for example as a specialism in the pornography industry.
Overall, political paradox remains [is there a hint here that the political discourses expressed by the women are rationalisations in some sense?]. Yet the attraction remains. Perhaps the real appeal is in realising that identities can be altered, and in particular that 'the individual body can be made larger through its participation in a collective discourse and through dialogue with social forces' (82).
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