Essay: Anis Anais Looalian
Gendered Embodiment through Designed Objects
In the process of socialization where cultural beliefs and norms are internalized, our material surroundings among other factors play a significant role in shaping our identity (cf. Korte & Schäfers, 2016, p.54). Socialization is considered a decisive factor in the development of differences of gender-specific behaviors and the emergence of gender roles. The production and enactment of gender identity are summarized under the term "doing-gender" (cf. ibid. p.102f.; cf. Kessler & McKenna, 1978). In the following it is to be shown how in reverse “doing-gender” shapes our gender identity, through the concept of embodiment and through empathy with esthetics.
While, for instance, German laws have been put in place introducing a third official sex, social life in most of the world is still organised by dividing into two opposite genders. The binary gender system has a restrictive effect on all genders, limiting human existence to only socially accepted ways of thinking and behaving according to one’s assigned gender at birth. While it affects all genders, it mainly leads to discrimination of everyone not considered a man. Gender affects the way we use our bodies, also in relation to others (Mason, 2018). The characteristics we assign to men and women can be traced back to metaphysical dualism in philosophy and theology that dates back to antiquity (cf. Klinger, 2018). This binary thinking associates femininity with passivity while masculinity is associated with activity.
In “Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects”, Katherine Mason (2018) looks at theories about the construction of the two opposing types of gendered embodiment: the masculine subject and the feminine object. More specifically the construction through gendered actions, like gendered sports activities.
Mason writes that gendered activities have an effect on the athletes’ emotional responses, leading to a lower pain sensation from male gendered activities like military training (Masons, 2018). Whereas “women’s sports are regulated to be safer and less strenuous, reflecting the belief that women’s bodies are fragile and must be protected”(Mason, 2018, p. 101). This is reflected in the restrained, conscious way women then use their bodies, as described by Young (1990) in “Throwing like a girl and other essays in feminist philosophy and social theory”. She describes how norms for masculine or feminine embodiment shape individuals’ relationship to their own bodies. In feminine embodiment this means making individuals self conscious of their bodies because one is both subject but also object of a male gaze. In masculine embodiment individuals get to disregard their body because of only being subject. Depending on the gender, one therefore gets “to attend to the body or to transcend it”(Mason, 2018, p. 97). This shows how the interaction between societal gender norms and gendered activities lead to gendered embodiment. But how do, in a more subtle way, our designed surroundings manipulate the body that influences gender identity?
Body manipulation through designed objects
The way our gendered body perception is affected by designed objects can go multiple ways. The most drastic one is if certain objects are designed for and marketed to a specific gender according to societal norms, that set parameters of use and action based on these norms. Another can be body modifications through designed objects either as physical extensions or physical reductions. Gender is not only ascribed to human bodies though, but also to shapes, colors and functions and therefore to designed objects. How do these gendered objects influence our gendered embodiment?
Freedberg & Gallese (2007) have shown that viewers sense a bodily involvement with dynamics of architecture similar to responses in figurative works of art. This empathy in esthetic experience lets us assume that gendered objects have an emotional effect on our body as well and consequently influence our gender embodiment.
Gendered design by function
The designed objects that surround us set the parameters for moving through space. A brief look at the history of products designed for women is enough to illustrate how design perpetuates discriminatory gender relations.
The women's bicycle was designed in 1898 with a low step-through frame specifically to allow use with long skirts, which were common at the time. It is still considered one of the most emancipatory products today, as it offered the possibility of independent mobility out of the domestic, private sphere and into the public sphere. Underlying these empowering characteristics, however, there is no physical difference between the bodies of different sexes that would require a frame design specifically for women. This means, the design itself reinforced the conditions in which women had to continue to wear the movement-restricting and thus subjugating long skirts (Frommeyer, 2020). Hanna Ross (2020) in her book “Revolutions” states: “Though most cycled for pleasure, it was a political act to be seen using their bodies in this way.“ (Ross, 2020, n.p.) The use of the body plays a central role in maintaining discriminatory gender relations.
Leading to the next example that influences bodies directly, which is clothing. In Marianne Wex‘s foto series on female and male body language (1979), one can see how the pictured women wearing mostly dresses sit in submissive positions taking up little space, with their legs together, while the depicted men, wearing pants, are in powerful sitting positions, taking up a lot of space around them. The clothing puts limits on the positioning of the legs while sitting, allowing more freedom of movement in male gendered clothing.
John Riskind and Carolyn Gotay (1982) show that a person’s body language has a direct effect on one‘s self-perception. Their theory says the emotional state is influenced not only through the state of the body but the interpretation of the body language in a social context (Storch, 2006). In their study, people that had been made to sit in an upright position for eight minutes had more mental capacity to try solving an unsolvable puzzle than the comparison group that had to sit slouched for the same amount of time.
Applying this to the example of the bike and clothing means that a person that often wears dresses, which ask for rather careful movements to not expose oneself and requires sitting with the legs pulled together, occupying only a small space, will embody these female gendered characteristics of the body movements and positions and enact them.
Tools for body modifications
Another way to affect the interaction between gender and body is through tools for body modification. Body modifications through extension or reduction of the body also affect our interactions with other bodies and lead to an alteration of behavior. They are used by different genders to either be clearly identified as male or female, or to diffuse the gender appearance. Body modifications of this sort can be active choices of perception manipulation and have a gender affirming effect. Examples are shaping underwear for an enhanced hips and waist area, packers, to give the appearance of having a penis, bras to shape breasts or binders to compress breasts for a flatter chest.
These tools don‘t only have an effect on other people‘s perception of an individual’s body, but also on the individual’s self perception. To this matter, A.Maravita and A. Iriki (2004) find that using tools to extend our motor capability change specific neural networks that will update the map of body shape and posture, also the „Body Schema“, to include a tool‘s dimensions. They state how these findings shed light „on cognitive aspects of body representation and multisensory space coding for action“ (Maravita and Iriki, 2004, p.79). D. Kirsh (2013) writes, the „body boundary becomes an element to be negotiated in design“ (Kirsh, 2013, 3:8).
Embodiment of gender attributions through designed objects
The preceding examples have a direct effect on the options for action and our self perception, but we can assume that objects also affect us through their gendered shapes and colors or functions. A small formal aesthetic study I conducted in 2020 on gendered shapes and colors, shows a pattern in attributing female or male traits to the combination of certain shapes and shades of colors. Round, fluid shapes in combination with light shades of colors are therefore attributed female traits whereas geometric, edged shapes in combination with saturated shades of colors are attributed male traits. While there seems to be a consensus on gendered appearances, the question remains what effect the interaction with gendered objects has.
Freedberg and Gallese (2007) found that people have emotional responses as well as a sense of bodily involvement when viewing art works as well as observing architectural forms. That means, this empathy for esthetics must have an effect when interacting with gendered objects, like power tools and kitchen aids, which already through their names reproduce the notions we have about these artefacts (K. Ehrnberger, M. Räsänen, and S. Ilstedt, 2012). Attributing female or male traits also has an effect of gender related expectations to the products’ performance. Through embodiment theory we can assume that interacting with these gendered products will also lead to embodying female gender traits when interacting with female gendered objects and embodying male traits when interacting with male gendered objects. The same can be assumed for moving through gendered spaces, i.e.a shopping mall vs. a gym.
Design affects identity
We find that tools for body modification and designed objects with gendered functions influence our gendered embodiment but can also give us agency over said embodiment. Design can manipulate gender expressions by reinforcing or setting off the gender binary. If done actively and consciously, this can have an empowering effect.
We also find that not only objects that restrict or allow options of action have an effect on our body but also the formal aesthetics of the objects we engage with. Also the gendered product language, i.e. the non practical function of an object, has an effect on our perception of the products through functional and formal aesthetic hierarchy, but that our gender embodiment is subject to these designs.
What has been examined for the gender dimension of identity can be applied to other forms of identity as well, may it be our religious, racial or class identity. Especially when looking at identity shaping through designed objects, psychological research can be a great asset and is still undervalued in design theory.
Anis Anais Looalian is a 2D and 3D designer with a Diploma in Industrial Design. Their main interest lie in feminist, critical design concepts and 3D visual art. Anis also has experience in developing concepts and designs for exhibitions and interior spaces.
Annie Kopchovsky, before setting off to cycle around the world. Boston, 1894.
© Revolutions : how women changed the world on two wheels
Chest Binder der Marke gc2b
Maia and Her Pink Things from The Pink Project, 2006 (left) and Kihun and His Blue Things from the The Blue Project, 2007 (right) by JeongMee Yoon
© JeongMee Yoon
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