Dismembering appearances: the cultural meaning of the body and its parts in eighteenth-century understanding
Woods, Kathryn Anna
This thesis explores the cultural meanings attached to the visible appearance of the body and its parts in eighteenth-century understanding. It is situated within historical scholarship concerned with the embodied display of ‘politeness’ and the relationship between the body and categories of social difference. The research draws upon a range of popular literature, including conduct books, popular medical advice books, midwifery manuals and advice guides. Chapter one reveals the way that contemporaries conceptualised the relationship between the individual body and society through investigation of various aspects of abdominal experience. Chapter two illustrates how the appearance of the skin was thought to convey identity information about an individual’s health, temperament, character, gender, class and race. Chapter three then continues by exploring similar themes with respect to the face. The next two chapters focus on the corporeal display of gender; while chapter four argues that changing male and female hairstyles reflected shifting gender mores, chapter five evidences how female breasts were seen as visible markers of sexual difference. Chapter six examines how class informed how the hands were employed and displayed by different social actors. Finally, chapter seven looks at how ‘politeness’ informed how the legs were trained to enact various cultural performances. In this thesis it is argued that in the eighteenth century popular authors sought to uncover how bodies worked by appropriating anatomical models of examining the body through scrutiny of its parts. Yet, it will be demonstrated that discussion of the body’s parts within popular literature was distinctive because it reflected readers’ growing preoccupation with how the body, as a social actor, conveyed information about individual identity. The thesis contributes to present scholarship by detailing a range of meanings which were attached to different parts of the body that have previously been elided by historians. Additionally, it demonstrates that discursive dismemberment, though located in eighteenth-century discourses on the body, represents a historically reflective and methodologically useful mode of examining the lived body in the eighteenth century.
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