Embodying gender and space

By Natasha Petruzziello

Jumping Girl

{ Image source – unknown }

‘A garment that squeezes the testicles makes a man think differently.’ Umberto Eco.

Our first notion of another person is often derived visually, and our first assessment of someone else is influenced by their garments and movement. Through these assumptions, we classify people into (amongst other things) genders. Here, I examine a fundamental way in which bodies are gendered: the relationship between the body and the space that surrounds it.

Merleau-Ponty (1996) determines that our body and mind are not two separate entities: what we think and believe is reflected in our demeanour. Mauss (1973) stated that an adult does not have any ‘natural’ movements anymore; instead, all of his skills are acquired through imitation and mainly through education. Standing, walking, and sitting are practices that are not conducted in a constant intentional and self-aware manner. We have embodied these techniques. Mauss (1973) names this process habitus: these movements are so deeply rooted in us that we perceive them as ‘normal’, hence we never scrutinise what appears to be a given fact.

In his essay ‘Lumbar Thought’, Umberto Eco (1998) describes the experience of wearing tight jeans and how he experienced this as a handicap to his mental agility. The jeans restricted his movements, and he was thus not able to forget that he was wearing them; he became self-conscious. He draws attention to the fact that women have been especially restricted by clothing, with clothing ‘forcing them to neglect the exercise of thought’. Feminine fashion has often been designed to influence the manners of movement. Eco summarises that female existence has not only been restricted in a physical and mental way and thus made self-conscious; rather, through fashion, women have also become (sexual) objects, since they are under constraints to be poised and attractive.

The manner of women’s movement in relation to the space around them is especially interesting as women have always been defined in terms of their body and physical appearance. ‘Female existences move differently than male ones’ (Young, 2005). Despite omitting physiological reasons, there is a different way of coordinating movement. Women don’t use their whole physical strength and have a smaller radius. There is an internal inhibition: female existence experiences self-imposed spatial boundaries, and therefore acts self-consciously. Little girls don’t seem to be more self-aware than little boys, which puts emphasis on the fact that the manners of movement are acquired and, moreover, that girls and women ‘are not given the opportunity to use their full […] capacities […], nor are they encouraged […] to develop specific bodily skills’ (Young, 2005).

When a person wants to move, she forms mental ‘vectors’ setting the direction and radius in which she wants to progress; this is a projection of a possible movement, depicting a mental prolongation of oneself. On this basis, Young argues that not only is the radius of female existence small, but it is also more focused on the body itself. As well as being under self-surveillance, the woman is the ‘object of the gaze of another’ (Young, 2005). Women have, throughout their childhood and adolescence, embodied innumerable subtle ways of moving and using their body in a social setting.


Eco, U. (1998) ‘Lumbar Thought’, in Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality. London: Vintage

Mauss, M. (1973) ‘Techniques of the Body,’ Economy and Society 2(1)

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1996 [1962]) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Young, I. (2005) On Female Body Experience: “Throwing like a Girl” and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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