Disability Studies

The Rejected Body

It’s been a long time since I read a book (really read a book) for no reason other than I was interested in it and had time to savor it. In some ways, this is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability, and in some ways it’s just a smattering of ideas that really interest me, so this isn’t a comprehensive review—although since I’m 18 years late to the game, maybe that’s not necessary!

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I use the terms “rejected body” and “negative body” to refer to those aspects of bodily life (such as illness, disability, weakness, and dying), bodily appearance (usually deviations from the cultural ideals of the body), and bodily experience (including most forms of bodily suffering) that are feared, ignored, despised, and/or rejected in a society and its culture. (85)

Wendell comes to disability studies as a feminist theorist with a chronic illness who, upon her diagnosis, realized that feminist theory was largely geared toward nondisabled experiences and that the wealth of knowledges about disabled experiences could usefully inform feminist understandings and theories of the body.

She begins (in Chapter 1) by calling attention to the advantages and disadvantages of naming, categorizing, and identifying disability. Clearly defining disability can positively influence social policies, allow people access to educational and economic resources, build political solidarity, draw attention to cultural conceptions and misconceptions of disability, and help the disabled “receiv[e] the acknowledgement and confirmation of her/his reality, so essential for keeping a person socially and psychologically anchored in a community” (12). When nondisabled folks have a clearly defined, recognizable term, they more readily acknowledge and support disability and disabled experiences. As someone with a chronic and often invisible illness, this fear of not being seen or recognized as disabled is particularly pertinent (and overlaps with discourses of mental illness).

Disability is dynamic and highly contextual, and Wendell argues, “Failure to recognize that standards of structure, function, and ability are socially relative could be dangerous to people with disabilities” (14). That is, a diagnosis for a middle-class, middle-aged academic White woman is different than the same diagnosis for a child of color living in poverty. She writes, “Eyeglasses, hearing aids, good prostheses, and other products of medical technology optimize the abilities of some people, while others, who have identical physical conditions but do not have access to the technology, lack the same abilities” (16). How we define disability is contextual to the physical, social, and cultural environments in which we live.

Something I appreciate about Wendell—and feminist disability studies more broadly—is that she doesn’t draw arbitrary lines between medical (biological) and social (constructed) models of disability, operating instead under the assumption that “disability has biological, social, and experiential components” (23). Even in her discussion of the social construction of disability (Chapter 2), she draws attention to the interaction between social and biological/material realities of disability:

I maintain that the distinction between the biological reality of a disability and the social construction of a disability cannot be made sharply, because the biological and the social are interactive in creating disability. They are interactive not only in that complex interactions of social factors and our bodies affect health and functioning, but also in that social arrangements can make a biological condition more or less relevant to almost any situation. I call the interaction of the biological and the social to create (or prevent) disability “the social construction of disability.” (35)

Following this interactivity between the material and social, Wendell considers the different ways we’ve discussed disability (in Chapter 3): as stigma, Other, and difference—settling on difference as a more value-neutral concept with more possibility for understanding disability (stigma and Otherness, she notes, deny pride in difference and subjectivity, respectively).

But, I’m not sure I’m on board with that discussion. In talking about difference, Wendell advocates for emphasizing similarity. I initially thought she was advocating for drawing similarities across disabled experiences, but she’s actually talking about drawing similarities across disabled and nondisabled experiences:

Emphasizing similarities between people with and people without disabilities seems to hold the promise of reducing the ‘Otherness’ of those who are disabled by enabling the non-disabled to identify with them, recognize their humanity and their rights, paving the way to increasing their assimilation into all aspects of social life. (74)

Here I read resonances of Universal Design: arguments that we all have particular needs and that we can all benefit from accessibility. And I read resonances of critiques of Universal Design and (as Aimi Hamraie argues) refocusing attention back on the nondisabled body. Granted, this is absolutely a rhetorical strategy—I’m thinking here of Burke and identification and consubstantiality—but I would have liked to see some more time spent dwelling in this area because, as she notes later, placing this responsibility on disabled folks can result in tokenization and, on a different note, assimilation may not be a goal for many disabled folks.

Wendell moves from this discussion of difference and similarities to the idealization of a normal body (in Chapter 4) and the myth of control. Our society idealizes a particular ideal of the normal body, and (drawing on Foucault here) we discipline bodies that do not (cannot) meet those ideals and that cannot be controlled:

When people are blamed or made to feel responsible for having nonideal bodies despite their reasonable care, when unprovable theories are generated to explain how someone could have avoided becoming ill, when people with disabilities are seen as having their psychological, moral, or spiritual failures written upon their bodies, and when every death is regarded as a defeat of human efforts, the myth of control is at work. (94)

I just read Karen Kopelson’s “Risky Appeals: Recruiting to the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement in the Age of ‘Pink Fatigue’” yesterday, and she spends a lot of time thinking carefully about the way we (society, doctors, Western medicine, family members, media, individuals) position cancer as something that can be controlled through individual choices and environmental changes.

In analyzing the rhetoric of the Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), Kopleson argues that “the message that there are easy things we can do to reduce our risks and begin the process of prevention aligns BCF’s rhetoric with the larger culture’s most familiar, cherished, best-selling rhetoric of all time: the rhetoric of individual agency” (119). That is, if women only take the time (read: energy and money) to rid their homes (read: domestic spheres) of every single available toxin, they will have total control of their environments and, thus, their bodies.

Kopelson’s argument that controlling cancer is a myth (an echo of many other, such as Sandra Steingraber’s “The Myth of Living Safely in a Toxic World”) resonates with Wendell’s critique of the myth of control, which medical discourse perpetuates.

This critique of medicine—and the inability in medical discourse to acknowledge uncertainty—feeds into the next chapter (Chapter 5), which addresses how medical discourse delegitimizes individual’s lived experiences and bodily knowledges, particularly when those experiences don’t match up with a prescribed set of symptoms for a particular condition. Wendell argues that the authority of scientific medicine to describe individual’s bodies causes alienation, epistemic invalidation, and social abandonment.

I frequently think about the usefulness of diagnoses and the somewhat feverish demand for them. In discussing the social abandonment of someone with an unrecognized (undiagnosed) disabling experience, Wendell notes, “The diagnosis, however grim, restores [the individual] to society” (130). Before my brother had a diagnosis, he didn’t have access to any services. It was only with an official diagnosis that he was able to receive institutional support: an IEP, music and physical therapy.

And I think of this demand for institutional (medical) authority all the time with accommodation letters in higher ed. Without them—and the cognitive and social authority that they carry—students’ needs are dismissed, the students themselves abandoned (particularly if we’re talking FYC and retention). It is only with the institutional letter and the authoritative weight it carries that students’ needs are legitimized.

Wendell ends by considering a more reciprocal ethics of care (in Chapter 6) and calling for a feminist theory of bodily suffering (in Chapter 7). It’s clear here how this text gets positioned as an early feminist disability studies text. Feminist disability studies pushes against the material rejection of the body, and Wendell argues that, in its rejection of the biological, feminist theory idealizes the nondisabled body and erases material experiences of disabled bodies (and bodies that suffer and are in pain). She concludes quite beautifully by arguing for a more careful balance and acknowledgment of experiences:

We cannot speak only of reducing our alienation from our bodies, becoming more aware of them, and celebrating their strengths and pleasures; we must also talk about how to live with the suffering body, with that which cannot be noticed without pain, and that which cannot be celebrated with ambivalence. (179)

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Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1997.

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