Thursday, February 24, 2011

Difference & Variation: A Disability Studies Perspective

Difference – though, arguably, always a social construction – can be identified and responded to in myriad ways. In reading the Rose, Talbot and Elliot pieces, my mind continuously wandered to frustration as the result of the oversimplification of various desires, moods, behaviors, etc. I was also consistently framing my frustrations in terms of disability studies and the predominant theoretical models of disability.

According to Simi Linton, disability studies serves as “a location and a means to think critically about disability, a juncture that can serve both academic discourse and social change” (1). She also emphasizes the necessity of a sociopolitical analysis of disability, claiming the disability rights movement has “resulted in new paradigms used to understand disability as a social, political, and cultural phenomenon” (2).

While the medical/individual model of disability locates the problem within the individual and focuses on “treating the problem” or finding a cure, the social models locates the problem within society and focuses on eliminating structural or attitudinal barriers (Barnes and Mercer, 11). The social model differentiates between impairment – the individual’s mental, physical, cognitive difference – and disability – the social, attitudinal and physical barriers that prevent an individual from successfully integrating into society (Barnes and Mercer, 12).

This distinction complicates the disorders and conditions presented in the Rose, Talbot and Elliot articles. The social model of disability not only claims disability/disorder/dysfunction to be a social construction, but also criticizes the medicalization of disability and the very act of locating the issue within the individual. What could this mean for the various instances of over-medicalization presented in the articles?

The manifesto of Nikolas Rose’s “Neurochemical Selves” reads: “While our desires, moods, and discontents might previously have been mapped onto a psychological space, they are now mapped upon the body itself, or one particular organ of the body—the brain. And this brain is itself understood in a particular register. In significant ways, I suggest, we have become “neurochemical selves” (188). Thus, human “problems” or “disorders” will increasingly be physically located in the brain, reinforcing the medical model and further discounting the social aspects of difference. Additionally, this movement from abstract DSM categories to physical brain phenomena will facilitate drug marketing and sales. Prescribing rates rose eight-fold in the decade from 1990 to 2000 alone (210). Rose argues “such drugs do not so much seek to normalize a deviant but to correct anomalies, to adjust the individual and restore his or her capacity to enter the circuits of everyday life” (210). I, however, argue that this very ideology only serves to reinforce medicalization and does not succeed to locating the problem outside of the individual. “Correcting anomalies” indicates there is something to correct – to fix – which is the epitome of medical model thinking.

The “Brain Gain” phenomenon (as presented in Margaret Talbot’s piece) is in a sense the consequence of the over-medicalization of “disorders” and the over-distribution of drugs to treat them. I argue this over-medicalization is pushing the standard distribution of the bell curve to the right, raising standards of performance for everyone, and ultimately forcing people to perform even better than typical in order to be “normal.” Enter neuro-enhancing drugs and a competitive society, and it logically follows that everyone feels they need to be popping pills in order to compete. Talbot’s article also addresses the cyclical nature of the identification of disorders, writing “New Psychiatric drugs have a way of creating markets for themselves. Disorders often become widely diagnosed after drugs come along that can alter a set of suboptimal behaviors” (5). Thus, the very creation of ADHD as a disorder legitimizes the alleged “symptoms” and promotes the prescription of drugs to treat it. The ease of acquiring these drugs then fuels the “Brain Gain” issue, which then raises the standard of human performance, and the cycle begins again.

Similarly, the medicalization of shyness as a “social phobia” (as articulated in Carl Elliots’s work) also functions to reinforce the medicalization of conditions and to legitimate stereotypes and stigma. Thanks to its 1987 debut in the DSM III, “social phobia” is now a bona fide disorder that can be diagnosed and treated. Diagnosis implicitly blames the individual, locating the problem within his deficits. Without acknowledging cultural problems and societal attitudes we will not truly treat “problems” such as social phobia as much as legitimize them and fuel the pharmaceutical industry.

In the article “Amputees by Choice,” Carl Elliot discusses what John Money terms “apotemnophilia,” or the attraction to the idea of becoming an amputee (209). From a disability studies perspective, common attitudes towards “apotemnophiliacs” also relate to the medical v. social model debate. If someone without legs would not experience discrimination and difficulty integrating into society, would it be so absurd that someone would autonomously join them? Since society tends to employ the medical model to evaluate the experience disability, we tend to focus on people’s deficits or inabilities as opposed to viewing them as a person like anyone else. If disability were not viewed as a problem to be fixed, society would be les judgmental and critical of those with differences, impairments, and disabilities.

When will a drug be invented to cure societal problems such as physical and attitudinal barriers or stigmatization of difference? Until this occurs, we, as a society, must continue to think critically about human variation and strive to be inclusive as opposed to exclusive and to search for sustainable cures to societal issues. Medicalizing and treating disorders/problems/disabilities with drugs only serves to reinforce the medical/individual model of difference, discounting the real, problematic effects of social attitudes and barriers that probably create these “problems” in the first place.


Barnes, Colin and Geof, Mercer. 2003. “Disability: A Choice of Models” and “Disabling Societies: Domination and Oppression.” In Disability. Cambridge: Polity Press. Pp. 1-41.

Elliot, Carl. 2003. “The Face Behind the Mask” and “Amputees by Choice.” In Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. Pp. 54-76, 208-236.

Linton, Simi. 1998. “Reclamation.” In Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press. Pp. 1-7.

Rose, Nikolas. 2007. “Neurochemical Selves.” In The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pp. 187-223.

Talbot, Margaret, “Brain Gain: The Underground World of ‘Neuroenhancing’ Drugs.” The New Yorker, April 27, 2009.

Friday, February 18, 2011

We Are... What?! Food, Health, Body

“Nutritionism involves not only a nutritionally reductive approach to food but also a reductive approach to understanding the body and bodily health” (Scrinis, 42).

“American culture’s treasured doctrine of the perfectible body is deeply indebted to Christian currents that have perceived the body as central for pushing the soul along the path to progress” (Griffith, 38).

“We aren’t growing quality. We’re growing crap.” (King Corn)

How have we become so disconnected from the food we eat? We spend a large portion of our incomes on it. We put it in our mouths. It travels through our intestines, giving us the fuel we need for our high-energy lives. And, perhaps most importantly, most would, at least to some extent, agree with the age-old cliché “You are what you eat.”

So, if we are indeed what we eat, what are we eating? How do we think about food? How do we conceptualize the relationship between food, health, our sense of self, and our bodies?

First of all, according to, this is what we’re eating.

This depiction of the average, 36.6-year-old American is undoubtedly disturbing. How could it be possible to consume 29 pounds of french fries, 53 gallons of soda, and 24 pounds of artificial sweeteners? Perhaps even more disturbing is the incredible corn consumption. The average American eats 56 pounds of corn and 42 pounds of corn syrup each year. How is this possible?

King Corn, a food documentary, follows two young men on their journey from Boston to rural Iowa to plant an acre of corn. Consequentially, the film explains how corn sneaks its way into our diets:

 Food documentaries such as King Corn are working to expose the atrocities of our food system by providing consumers with information that is not as readily available as one would think. As such an intimate part of our lives, food needs to be reevaluated and thought about more holistically, taking into consideration not only the consequences of food at the individual level, but also the agricultural system, the environment, and sustainability. 

 Food, Inc., another documentary, exposes problems with the food system and encourages people to rethink food: 

Though rather thorough in scope, these documentaries only begin to get at the American food complex. In a society obsessed with the notion of health, how can it make sense to unknowingly consume so much high fructose corn syrup? Shouldn’t we know what we’re eating?

Gyorgy Scrinis’ article addresses the ideology or paradigm of nutritionism as a reductive approach to food. “This focus on nutrients has come to dominate, to undermine, and to replace other ways of engaging with food and of contextualizing the relationship between food and the body” (39). She critiques the modern conceptualization of nutrients and diets, claiming that “nutritionism promotes the idea that the perceived problems with contemporary diets can be tackled by the more or less precise quantitative tinkering of the nutrient profile of foods and diets – by nutritional tinkering – rather than by means of more far-reaching qualitative changes in diets and the types of foods eaten” (43). Indeed, this superficial approach to food makes more holistic approaches (such as the ideology of Food, Inc.) seem shocking. Scrinis also argues that “nutri-qualification” manipulates the categorization of foods, blurring distinctions between various kinds of foods, such as processed and unprocessed, plant-based or animal-based.

Furthermore, Scrinis discusses issues around focusing on nutrients as opposed to food as a whole. “The more extensively a food is processed, the more opportunities there are for its nutrient profile to be engineered according to the latest nutritional fetish” (43). Therefore, over-processing of foods fuels the nutritional fetish, creating a toxic cycle. This cycle leaves less room for the autonomy of the consumer in making decisions about food. Additionally, Scrinis presents the idea of “wonder foods” as necessary to attain health and how this phenomenon “overrides the preference for local and seasonal foods, as well as the need to reduce meat consumption to minimize the environmental impacts of animal production” (44). This occurrence is also addressed in Food, Inc., which emphasizes the importance of eating locally grown foods.

In the article “Don’t Eat That: The Erotics of Abstinence in American Christianity,” Marie Griffith explores the role of Christianity in forming opinions about food. In linking food and religion, she claims that few authors “question the belief that following God means taking a deeply suspicious stance toward food” (42). She continues by stating that
“like the lifeless body that no longer hungers, so should living Christians adopt indifference toward food” (43). According to this logic, the stomach turns into a God if food is given too much importance (43). Thus, good Christians must distance themselves from the appeal of food.

Griffith also discusses Shamblin’s image of “food as a seductive lover who entices the overeater away from the true husband, God” (45). This claim portrays the Christian idea of food as something to distrust and loathe (45). Though Christian authors may adhere more closely to the body standards of American pop culture than they would like to admit, their writings “provide biblical justification for their reader’s desire to be lean and appealing” (46). This phenomenon suggests a moral component of food, and an integral connection between body image, health, and food.

Though the relationship between food, health, and self is extremely complicated, I feel this relationship is too often oversimplified and pushed to the sideline in a society that is simultaneously obsessed with (yet overwhelmingly ignorant about) food. We must continue to question not only how our food is produced, but also how our perceptions of food are informed by the very people who try to poison us with corn by-products.


Griffith, Marie R. 2001. “’Don’t Eat That’: The Erotics of Abstinence in American Christianity.” Gastronomica 1(4): 36-47.

Scrinis, Gyorgy. 2008. “The Ideology of Nutritionism.” Gastronomica 8(1): 39-48. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Norms, Medicalization, & Deviance

Despite the inevitability of human variation, people seem to have a tendency to categorize and discriminate, label and ostracize. Though there are many ways to create and explain difference, historically people have looked to a variety of sources (religion, morality, authoritative figures, law, etc.) for guidelines on how to interpret human variation. The articles for this week focus on the medicalization of sex, gender, sexuality, and sexual desire. In an attempt to define deviations from a (probably nonexistent) norm, medicalization seems to serve as a means to further enforce already existent cultural intolerance for groups that do not fit perfectly into the mainstream. 

In “Discovery of the Sexes,” Laqueur articulates how “in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, science fleshed out, in terms acceptable to the new epistemology, the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ as opposite and incommensurable biological sexes” (154). He goes on to point out the terminology with which science defined these new sexes. “It claimed that the body provided a solid foundation, a causal locus, of the meaning of male or female” (163). These inherent (and biological) differences between the sexes set the stage for the construction of gender roles, which are illustrated in the following cartoons:

The first cartoon, which depicts an angry caveman grunting about how his son prefers female work and how his daughter is aggressive, demonstrates how engrained gender roles are in society, past and present. The caveman clearly is struggling to accept the abnormal characteristics of his children, further enforcing the gender binary. The cartoon also expresses how gender roles are completely contingent on time and place, suggesting their arbitrary (and socially constructed) nature.

The second cartoon, which depicts two figures (male and female) disassembling the (literally) constructed framework of gender, demonstrates how ultimately (behind the guise of gender, and beyond the limits of sex) we are all individuals. The structural representation of the sex symbols shows how pervasive the gender binary is in our culture, and how difficult it is to break through it (according to the cartoon, it requires a hammer!). Additionally, the physical separation of the two symbols reinforces Laqueur’s idea of two “opposite and incommensurable biological sexes” (154). This biological distinction serves to legitimize and reinforce this cultural gender binary. Men and women are not the same, nor are they equal.

Since considering homosexuality as an “other” category stems from the normative view that people ought to be attracted to members of the opposite sex and fit neatly into their respective gender roles, the medicalization of homosexuality further exemplifies the desire to precisely map any deviations from a sexual or sex-related norm. Terry outlines the perspectives of many groups and individuals on homosexuality, explaining how the psychoanalysts’ “theories reflected preconceived notions that the individual’s healthy adjustment to normative gender roles and monogamous reproductive heterosexuality were favorable” (57). Though the psychoanalysts did not view homosexuality as some sort of hereditary defect that could be cured, they were worried about its prevalence and its threat to cultural progress (62). Thus, the Freud camp, while resisting the medicalization of homosexuality, still upheld the heteronormative values of gender roles, related sexual preference, and monogamy.

The Irvine article entitled “Regulated Passions: The Invention of Inhibited Sexual Desire and Sexual Addiction” addresses the phenomenon of medicalizing and normalizing sexual desire. Irvine discusses the invention of the diagnostic constructs, their arbitrariness, and how they reflect “cultural traditions and anxieties” (315). She also draws a connection between the field of addictionology and professional expansion (318). She identifies the issues with how “the assertion of exact definitional and diagnostic criteria poses an enormous challenge when ‘disease’ is a generalized set of signifiers of cultural chaos and social control” (319). This concern reflects the inter-dependency of science and culture and exposes the abuse of expertise and medicine in dictating cultural interpretations of natural variation, whether it be “levels of desire,” homosexuality, gender, or sex.

It seems that the medicalization of various conditions and ways of life serves to reinforce dichotomies and cultural norms. Therefore, medical expertise and medicalizing conditions strengthen the walls of normalcy and expectation, as represented in cartoon 2. Though the constructed binary depicted in the cartoon is gender and/or sex, the symbolic value extends to normalizing heterosexuality or sexual desire. Medicalizing these conditions makes it more difficult to break out of these structural restraints and to be accepted in society as an individual -- not a precisely mapped deviation from a correct, valued norm. 


Irvine, Janice M. 1995. “Regulated Passions: The Invention of Inhibited Sexual Desire and Sexual Addiction.” In Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Edited by Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Pp. 314-337. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.   

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. “Discovery of the Sexes.” In Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pp. 149-192.

Terry, Jennifer. 1999. “Medicalizing Homosexuality.” In American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 40-73.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

(fe)Male Anatomical Representations (Past and Present)


“The history of the representation of the anatomical differences between man and woman is thus extraordinarily independent of the actual structures of these organs or of what was known about them. Ideology, not accuracy of observation, determined how they were seen and which differences would matter” (88).

“…But all anatomical illustrations, historical and contemporary, are abstractions; they are maps to a bewildering and infinitely varied reality. Representations of features that pertain especially to male or female, because of the enormous social consequences of these distinctions, are most obviously dictated by art and culture” (164).

In his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Thomas Laqueur reveals the history and evolution of (fe)male anatomical representations. Specifically, he focuses on how the interpretations of the sexes have been more informed by culture than by scientific discoveries. Furthermore, he acknowledges how anatomical illustrations are merely abstractions, influenced by art and culture to create social distinctions between the sexes. To serve as a complement to the multitude of representations of the human genitalia presented in Laqueur’s chapters, I will compare and contrast historical anatomical illustrations with an AIDS advertisement video entitled “Penis after Vagina” that portrays modern representations of male and female sex organs.

Laqueur’s Chapter Three, New Science, One Flesh, presents Renaissance reproductive anatomy. Laqueur argues that these historical beliefs “suggest that the anatomical representation of male and female is dependent on the cultural politics of representation and illusion, not on evidence about organs, ducts, or blood vessels” (66). Notions of sexuality were dictated by the one-sex model, which claimed that there was only one “canonical body and that body was male” (63). Women, therefore, were viewed merely as the inverted, inferior versions of men. The medical profession explained this with “an assertion of male power to know the female body and hence to know and control a feminine Nature” (73). Thus, anatomy explicated nature, creating a sense of understanding in the medical and social worlds.

Laqueur’s Chapter Five, Discovery of the Sexes, outlines the rise of the distinction between sex and gender. He argues that “there are two explanations for how the two modern sexes as we imagine them were, and continue to be, invented: one is epistemological and the other is, broadly speaking, political” (151). Thus, anatomical distinctions are largely the result of forces outside those of anatomy, namely culture and politics. Therefore, “no discovery or group of discoveries dictated the rise of a two-sex model, for precisely the same reasons that the anatomical discoveries of the Renaissance did not unseat the one-sex model: the nature of sexual difference is not susceptible to empirical testing” (153). Gender distinctions defy the simple, quantitative assessments of the scientific method and expand into the murky realm of assumptions and beliefs.

Laqueur also address the idealism of scientific representations of the body. “Anatomical illustrations that claim canonical status, that announce themselves to represent the human eye or the female skeleton, are more directly implicated in the culture producing them. Idealist anatomy, like idealism generally, must postulate a transcendent norm’ (166). Thus it logically follows that Laqueur also asserts that the ideal body is male, and thus that “it is simply assumed that the human body is male. The female body is presented only to show how it differs from the male” (167). This male-centric approach to the body demonstrates how ideal structures reflect culturally constructed beliefs about gender.

The AIDS advertisement video presents modern day (gendered) representations of the male and female genitalia. Though they are neither textbook illustrations nor scientific in any regard, I feel they reflect the rise of the sex/gender distinction and two-sex model that Laqueur discusses in his book. Clearly, the penis and vagina are separate, unrelated entities, not just the inversion, one-sex model of the Renaissance. The cartooned penis and vaginas also present gender stereotypes. For example, in the opening scene, the penis (or man) is portrayed as being confident, aggressive and domineering, and the vagina (or woman) reacts by acting weak and frightened. While the penis just has prickly hair on its testicles, the vaginas sport eyelashes, heels, sexy outfits and breasts, further perpetuating the gender binary. However, the various shapes and sizes of vaginas help break the idealist model of anatomical representations, demonstrating the diversity of human bodies.

The final scene (after the woman draws the condom on the penis) could be interpreted in a number of ways. Of course, the purpose of the video is to encourage people to use protection to prevent STDs such as AIDS. However, I feel that the video may also reinforce the stereotype of the lustful woman in a male-dominated world that Laqueur describes in Chapter 3 (113). The key to wanting sex cannot be as simple as using a condom.

Ultimately, this video demonstrates the ever-evolving representations of anatomical differences between men and women, and resulting interpretations of sexual difference. Completely contingent on culture, politics, time and place, the cartooned penis and vagina of the 21st century vary greatly from the illustrations of the Renaissance or those of the 18th century. Art, science, and culture continue to work together to construct ideas about gender in an ever-changing world.


Laqueur, Thomas, New Science, One Flesh, IN Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990. Pp. 63-113.