Disability Studies

The Bodymind Problem

After I read Wendell’s The Rejected Body and blogged about it yesterday, I knew that the next up in my summer reading list queue had to be Margaret Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” In The Rejected Body, Wendell discusses both an ethic of care and theorizing disability more inclusively to account for folks with pain—two key takeaways from Price’s piece.

In her conclusion to the book, Wendell spends time thinking about what it might mean to transcend the body—an unpopular concept in feminist theory, she notes, because transcendence seems to devalue women’s bodies and women’s bodily experiences and create an unproductive dichotomy between mind and body (165). But as she argues, we need a feminist theory of bodily suffering (of pain):

We need to recognize that much of the appeal of philosophies of life that recommend some form of transcendence of the body lies, not in elevation of the mind and derogation of the body, but in the rational (as opposed to pathological) desire to make one’s happiness, or at least one’s sense of self, independent of illness, pain, weakness, exhaustion, and accident. (166)

And this, I think, is a nice prelude to Price’s article about pain—although they talk about different kinds of pain (one the physical pain of chronic illness, one the bodymind pain of mental illness). Price is following a call (made by folks like Andrea Nicki, Anna Mollow, and Elizabeth Donaldson) for more attention to mental disability in feminist disability studies (FDS) by theorizing bodyminds and what a crip politics of bodyminds might be.

So first, some definitions for clarity:

Price’s use of bodyminds is from Babette’s Rothschild’s work on trauma:

According to this approach, because mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each otherthat is, because they tend to act as one, even though they are conventionally understood as twoit makes more sense to refer to them together, in a single term. (269)

And then there’s crip politics (which I wrote about here with McRuer’s Crip Theory):

By crip politics, I mean a way of getting things donemoving minds, mountains, or maybe just moving in place (dancing)by infusing the disruptive potential of disability into normative spaces and interactions. (269)

More specifically, Price aligns with both Alison Kafer’s imagining of crip politics as “an attempt to signal a belief in potentiality and flexibility, an effort to occupy a more ‘contestatory’ space that merges activist and academic work, as well as hope for coalition across disability categories” (15-16, qtd. in 270) and Nirmala Erevelles’s notion of the body as “a sociopolitically constituted and material entity that emerges through both structural (power- and violence-laden) contexts and also individual (specific) experience” (271). That is, a crip politics of bodyminds necessarily merges academic/intellectual/activist/political/personal while recognizing both how they emerge and are experienced structurally and individually.

Price turns to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and her articulation of the misfit and misfitting as a way to think through a theory of the bodymind. Misfit “directions attention to ‘the co-constituting relationship between flesh and environment’” (594 qtd. in 271) and has both material (physically not fitting in a space) and metaphorical potential. The concept of misfit is useful in discussions of mental disability to “emphasize the way that such disabilities are not exactly ‘visible’ or ‘invisible,’ but intermittently apparent” (272).

Okay, so what does that mean? Price offers two examples. The first is stimming, which can be read differently to different people (i.e., as pathological, rude, soothing, or an expression of identity) but whether viewed positively or negatively (or ambiguously) does not fit into normative expectations. These different interpretations highlight “the shape-shifting nature of the misfit” because stimming is contingent upon “the affective response of those who observe and interpret it” (272).

So then a more complex, abstract example is two people in a room: one who wants to inflict pain on herself and one who wants to stop that person from pain. Price writes, “Both subjects are fully immersed in their own realities. And each one is occupying a reality that is real, important, and complete. Who is the misfit here?” (273). It’s easy to determine the misfit when the affective value is bad, but what happens when it is less clear? What is “good” or “bad” in the situation of the person who wants to self-harm and the person who stops her?

What is the desirable action or outcome?

This is a difficult question because then we have to assess the behavior, which means asking: “Are some disabilities worse than others?” and then that leads to “Is disability sometimes bad?” (273). And as Price (and Wendell, and FDS and DS scholars argue), those aren’t productive questions because disability is not inherently bad (but oppression based on it is) nor is it a competition. But then, how do we come to terms (as a field, as individuals) with impairment as something that involves pain—that’s sometimes just really and truly bad (274)?

And this circles back to Wendell and how we develop theories of disability that more inclusively account for pain and chronic illness. Or, as Price asks, “What shall we do with pain?” (274). The issue here is similar to the issue that Wendell outlined with feminist theory’s rejection of the derogation of women’s bodies and bodily experiences. That is, disability studies has historically rejected the idea that disability is undesirable, which raises the question(s): “To what degree does the turn toward desire in DS move too quickly past the question of undesirability? Of pain? Of, well, badness?” (275). Because even though we (as a field, as individuals) want to celebrate difference, positioning difference in terms of desirability necessarily creates understandings of undesirability.

And as I struggled to think through these questions and what it means not just to describe but to evaluate difference, Price returned to the example of the two people in the room. And everything clicked. Instead of thinking about who is the misfit or what action is desirable, Price asks us to think about pain through the lens of an FDS ethics of care:

[C]are means moving together and being limited together. It means giving more when one has the ability to do so, and accepting help when that is needed. It does not mean knowing exactly what another’s pain feels like, but it does mean respecting each person’s pain as real and important. Finally, care must emerge between subjects considered to be equally valuable (which does not necessarily mean that both are operating from similar places of rationality), and it must be participatory in nature, that is, developed through the desires and needs of all participants. (279)

I quote this at length for a few reasons: I’m not particularly theoretically minded, and, as I became frustrated trying to think through a crip politics of bodymind and what it means to evaluate the desirability of difference, this passage suddenly concretized all the theoretical ideas floating around in my head. They clicked at the theoretical level.

But as Price argues, bodymind is both structural and individual, and this passage nearly brought me to tears as it hit me at the affective level. It hit me after a particular painful interaction I had earlier today. It hit me a week after thinking deeply and carefully and not very carefully and manically about why for the first time in my life people were marking my non-normative behaviors as mean. It hit me months after sharing that I’m suicidal and being told that was either 1) not true or 2) not appropriate to share if true. It hit me years after burning a cigarette into my forearm the first time someone in college called me crazy. (The list goes on and on.)

It hit me hard as I’ve been trying to think through the possibilities (desirability?) of depression and what it does for me as a person. I like to think it makes me more careful, more thoughtful, more aware. But then I butt heads with the pain of it when I’m crying during Q&A at a conference or screaming at 3am in my bathroom with the sink and shower running at the same time. Those actions don’t make sense to me together, but this—this concept of care and an understanding that these experiences are harmful but that they have and communicate meaning—made sense to me. When my knuckles are swollen and purple and my face is red and splotchy, those actions are harmful but they matter because they communicate something that I can’t.

Price concludes by writing, “Being witnessed and cared for, even in the midst of unbearable pain, makes me think there may be some hope for all of my bodymind” (280).

This article was exactly what I needed today (as an individual) and—more broadly—what we need (as academics) for more inclusive theories of disability and (as humans) more reciprocal understandings of how we experience and share pain.


Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30.1 (2015): 268-84.


6 thoughts on “The Bodymind Problem

  1. As so often, I don’t feel like I have anything useful to contribute here exactly, but I did really find this moving and important to. I’ve been through(/am going through/will continue to go through) a lot of the same types of experiences you’ve described, and also currently trying to navigate the weird waters of expressing care for a friend who’s actively suicidal, and the difference between something being harmful and something being BAD is important.

    Sometimes I need to be more outwardly “crazy”, or express my emotions (or take care of myself) in a way that’s annoying or stressful to others, and sometimes what I want is outright harmful to myself. But it doesn’t do anyone any good to tell them something is BAD (or GOOD).

    I’m not articulating, but this is important to me. It has made me think about the stigmatization of self injury. I think it’s stigmatized and reacted to with concern for a reason – by the time I stopped hurting myself (at least, the first time), I was definitely not happy with the results – but it’s interesting to think about the way people react to someone who honestly just wants to hurt themselves. I don’t know, I’m not coming up with full sentences but embodiment and agency to self vs society is a really weird thing. At the same time I never want any of my friends to hurt in any way, I do in some way think that’s a personal choice? And then we’re back around to what constitutes choice while mentally ill and the whole “Right mind” framework, etc etc.

    Your blog makes me think about a lot of things and I love it ❤

    1. Yes!!! All those feelings and ideas and questions and none of the answers, but maybe there aren’t clear answers and that’s fine, too.

      At the end of her article, Margaret mentions writing a list of phrases that calm her and phrases that escalate the panic/violent breaks, and I both love that and can’t imagine it working for me. Sometimes, I want to hear particular phrases, and then sometimes those same phrases make me rage. Sometimes, the same trigger will do completely different things to and for me. It’s so hard to find a workable balance.

      And yes absolutely to what you said about needing to express yourself in ways that are overtly “crazy” or annoying to others. I got yelled at in one of my doctoral seminars because i was fidgeting so much, and when I went to a disability panel at a conference this fall, we all got stimming stones (little palm stones), and it amazes me how much that allows me to express and dispel the same amount of energy and anxiety in a way that *looks* more normal.

      This is all rambling, too, but thank you for sharing. ❤

  2. First, thank you for your words. ❤

    I had a (short, not very severe, as they go) panic attack yesterday when someone accidentally waved their hands in my face. I was in a meeting at the time, and my experience was very visible. Later, I was telling Stephanie K. (who was one of the people in the room, and who led the others in reacting very helpfully, viz., by ensuring I was ok and then by going on with what we were doing without freaking out about the fact that I'd freaked out)

    … sorry for long asides! anyway, I was telling Stephanie K. that recently I have "allowed" my moments of panic or decompensation to be more apparent in various contexts, including sometimes in academic contexts (like at conferences). It is sometimes possible for me to "mute" the appearance of a panic attack or decompensation, i.e., to hide it enough that the people around me either don't notice it, or interpret it as only a mild upset. However, after muffling / masking that explosive wave of energy, I am likely to get sick; have debilitating fatigue; self-harm; or all of the above.

    No conclusions or profound thoughts about the above ^, just wanted to share that. Also missing you.

    1. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been thinking (& worrying) about this a lot recently. When I went to the ER in April for vertigo, the doc said that–since I wasn’t in a high-impact accident–the vertigo could be attributable to a viral infection or anxiety. Since that happened, I’m noticing that it emerges in the moments where I try to conceal panic. When I was trying to remain calm instead of allowing myself to freak, I passed out on the subway in NYC. And when I got upset at C&W, I started both having a panic attack and getting really, really dizzy.

      I guess that’s all to say that I’ve just been thinking a lot about the pros/cons of trying to pass and how my body has started to physically break in moments where I was formerly successful in not (emotionally) breaking.

      I’m so sad to not be at SDS, but I’ll be tuning into the twitter stream (& am anxiously awaiting your presentation!). ❤

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s