The Othering Body


Extraordinary Bodies

Guadalupe Koen-Alonso

What is it that makes the body[1] such ripe material for the act of othering? Why do we so fervently uphold the concept of an ‘ideal’ or ‘norm’? Are we ever really able to grasp the violence - and absurdity - of it all?

Normality as a social construct is a concept as cruel as it is absurd; its existence requisite for the act of othering, as all bodies are only ‘other’ relative to a ‘normal’ body. In their proposal of the radical model of disability, Withers writes that “up until this point, all of the models of disability have failed to challenge the supremacy of the norm” ( And yet, the concept of normality stems originally from its mathematical meaning. When French statisticians in 1835 proposed that human traits and characteristics fell along a normal distribution (a Gaussian curve), the normal thus represented the center of this curve; the average (Chaney). While there is nothing inherently advantageous to the mathematical position of the normal, society began to define the norm as desirable rather than as a mere mathematical reality (Chaney). It is important to note here also that even our statistical understandings of the human ‘normal’ were inherently flawed, as they relied on non-exhaustive data sets influenced by existing structures of power. Furthermore, the act of norming the human population offered an opportunity for those who were in or sought power to claim the existence of a ‘lesser-than’ or ‘deviant’ class - which could then be further weaponized to uphold structures of power and oppression (Davis 68). In 1865, Sir Francis Galton first published his theory of eugenics, positing that human evolution could be improved by encouraging the breeding of the ‘fit’ and discouraging that of the ‘unfit’ (Withers 13). The birth of eugenics cemented the norm as a violent ideal, and with it created the first cohesive definition of the disabled or ‘unfit’ in modern Western society (Withers 13). Our concept of beauty has also then become firmly rooted in the existence of a desirable ‘norm’ - or, ‘ideal’; ‘normal’ bodies deemed ‘beautiful’ and ‘other’ bodies deemed ‘ugly’, with these determinations being utilized to oppress, subjugate, and control (Ellis and King 35). While the publishing of Galton’s ideas now sits over 150 years in our past, the concept of a desirable ‘norm’or ‘ideal’ pervades to this day and is a critical pillar in upholding the structures of power and oppression within society.

‘The Othering Body’ is thus a work that seeks to face, firmly and unflinchingly, this question of the norm and the reasons why we continue to sustain it - even as othered bodies ourselves. Why is it so difficult to relinquish the pursuit of the ‘ideal’, even when we know it to be an arbitrary goal placed upon us? Or worse still, when we know its existence to be an act of subjugation and oppression?

I thus take on the entity of The Othering Body; this choice allows me to interrogate the process of othering, highlight the absurdity and arbitrariness within it, and confront my own complicity. This issue of complicity is integral to the work; I seek not only to highlight an external social process and its consequences, but to contend with the ways in which I enact othering onto others, as well as myself. As Robin Visel outlines, the positions we occupy in the social hierarchy (which are intrinsically tied to our distance to the ‘norm’), can at times tempt us to collude in our own exploitation (Visel 35).[2]

 I then select a fruit at random; a Bartlett pear. This particular pear now becomes the ‘norm’, if only because I - The Othering Body - have deemed it as such. To highlight it as desirable and ‘ideal’, I thus place it on a fanciful silver plate and centered atop a glass waterfall table; a position of certain power. The choice of a pear also alludes to the referencing of body shapes as fruits; further highlighting the relationship between beauty and the norm.

I then choose five other distinct fruits: an Ataulfo mango, a pomegranate, a pineapple, a Bosc pear, and a Red Pitaya dragon fruit. The selection of five fruits varies in size, shape, color, and texture; representing the natural variation among bodies. I now place these five fruits side by side, in front and below of the glass table (and thus also in front and below of the ‘ideal’ pear). The entire scene - glass table and fruits - sits on a clean white sheet and against a white backdrop. This act represents the situating of bodies relative to the ‘norm’; the five fruits become ‘lesser-than’, ‘deviant’, ‘other’.

Using nothing but two sharp knives, I work my way through the lineup of five fruits. I hack at them, skin them, create ‘stems’ from other parts; turn each fruit into an imitation of the ‘normal’ pear. This process is representative of the inherent violence of the ‘norm’, the social pressure to pursue and adhere to it, and the ways in which we tangibly change ourselves in this pursuit. As I do this, I let each fruit’s flesh fall around it, let its juice soak the white underneath and the skin of my hands. This results in a gory and violent image; the harm done is evident. Still, each fruit is affected differently. The Bosc pear is different to the ‘norm’ in color but not much in shape. As such, it undergoes a skinning and not much else, and leaves minimal stain on the white sheet. Meanwhile, the dragon fruit is different to the ‘norm’ in size, color, texture, shape. The entirety of its outer layer is peeled off along with much of its flesh, a piece of this ‘skin’ is used atop it as a stem, its soft flesh interior is exposed, and it leaks seeds and stains of pink across the white sheet. While the harm done to each fruit is violent and undoable, the degree of harm varies based on the fruit’s distance from the ‘norm’. This is the inherent reality and truth of intersectionality in relation to discussions of disability politics and othering; “The fulcrums of oppression shift depending upon the characteristics of any given institutional or interpersonal interaction; the very understanding of disability experience itself being shaped by race, gender, class, gender expression, historical moment, relationship to colonization and more.” (Berne).[3]

I then gather the flesh, skin, and all ‘discarded’ parts of the fruits, leaving them in their positions on the now stained white sheet. Even with the most tangible evidence of the hacking removed, the staining and bleeding onto the white persists. The five fruits, even in their new forms, remain below; the ‘ideal’ pear’s position visible but still ultimately unachievable. There is an undeniable violence and brutality to what has occurred, but also a sense of ridiculousness. Why make a dragon fruit, in all its uniqueness, into an imitation of a Bartlett pear? Such an act feels futile, absurd, gruesome, perhaps even heinous. Why then, demand a body imitate another body? How is the enforcement of a ‘norm’ on a human body any different?

Existing as an othered body in society can be difficult and painful. It remains almost unavoidable that we might actively pursue the norms and ideals set upon us, at least to some extent and at some point in our lives. As Eli Clare writes, “shame is a chasm of loathing lodged in our body-minds, a seemingly impenetrable fog, an unspeakable and unspoken fist” (163). I have spent years hating each feature on my face, have imitated straightness, have starved myself in the pursuit of a body I could never have survived in. But these histories we hold in our bodies are both evidence and intrinsic to who we are; “I claim brokenness to make this irrevocable shattering visible” (Clare 160). While the changed fruits have irrefutably been harmed, and while they continue to differ from the ‘norm’ they are imitating, there is also beauty in them. This serves as a nod to the beauty we might see in our own scars, emotional or physical. We are beautiful and worthy despite the cruelties society has done to us, despite the cruelties we have done to ourselves. To abandon the ‘norm’, we must first face its reality; and relinquish it within ourselves. I will end by quoting Clare once more, “I want to live in a world where these moments [of body-mind difference and acceptance] are common and unremarkable” (167).

[1] I want to make note that, while I utilize the word ‘body’ and ‘bodies’ throughout this statement, I am referencing a more expansive consideration of the term. One that is closer to Eli Clare’s use of ‘body-mind’ and which “recognize[s] both the inextricable relationships between our bodies and our minds and the ways in which the ideology of cure operates as if the two are distinct” (Clare xvi), while still acknowledging that our bodies are our only tangible representations in society and the means through which we perceive, experience, and navigate the world.

[2] I want to consider the following points. Firstly, my own proximity to the ‘norm’ and the ways in which these (shifting) proximities have affected my experiences. Secondly, the reality that othered bodies have often sought a (false) safety or power by way of enacting othering onto other groups. As Withers writes, “Many different groups that fall or have fallen under the disability umbrella have worked to separate themselves from the category of disability to their advantage and to the disadvantage of those they leave behind” (101).

[3] I do want to make note here that this work should not be understood as a literal representation of such realities, but a conceptual one; the impact of the color of a fruit’s skin not to be directly equated with the degree of harm and oppression a person experiences due to the color of their skin.

Guadalupe Koen-Alonso

Guadalupe Koen-Alonso (they/she) is a Queer Latinx Femme whose multidisciplinary work grapples with identity, sensuality, emotion, connection, and the inherent complexity of the human experience. Influenced by a diverse range of artists and writers such as Marina Abramović, Ana Mendieta, and Carmen Maria Machado, they seek to produce works that are as visceral as they are honest. Always experimental, exploratory, and reflective, their practice is rooted in process and spans a variety of media including text, photography, projection, and performance. They believe in art as a means through which to analyze and challenge the world around us, as well as in its power to express, ignite, and imagine.

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