‘The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism, and the Socially Shaped Body’ reviewed by Dr Emily Cock

‘The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism, and the Socially Shaped Body’ by Luna Dolezal (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

The body and ShameIn The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism, and the Socially Shaped Body, Luna Dolezal provides a clearly-written discussion of the key philosophical approaches to shame arising from the body. Dolezal considers body shame from the sometimes conflicting perspectives of phenomenologists and social constructionists, with the aim of providing a ‘richer and more complete account of the comprehensive conditions of situated embodied experience’ (p. 155). The phenomenological view is provided through a deft account of the work of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre. For the social constructionist shaping of the body, Dolezal synthesises the contributions of Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias. In her final chapters, Dolezal delivers a feminist analysis of shame and gender to consider the position of women as occupiers of shamed bodies, before turning to cosmetic surgery as ‘a practice where the body is literally shaped by shame’ (p. 123). This chapter forms the capstone for her contrast of the phenomenological and social constructionist theories of body shame and the individual’s ability to determine and manage their own embodied experience and relationship to chronic body shame. Where other chapters did sometimes feel a little like a sustained literature review, these final chapters also seemed to contribute the most in terms of Dolezal’s original thinking.

‘Shame’ is taken to encompass all forms of related emotion—such as embarrassment, humiliation or anxiety—which some will find problematic. ‘Body shame’ is similarly employed broadly to encompass any shame arising from the body, including appearance, comportment or functions. Dolezal distinguishes between ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’ body shame, where acute shame arises more briefly from specific situations and problems with body function or comportment, which she acknowledges is ‘commonly termed embarrassment’ (p. 8). Adopting this terminology and the framework of embarrassment as ‘merely a milder, or less intense, form of shame’ (p. 9), Dolezal aims to sidestep problems of emotional and linguistic ambiguity; for the most part, this framework does not detract from her overall project. In making this distinction, Dolezal argues that while momentary (acute) shame is required for skill acquisition, bodily management and formation of the body schema, chronic body shame is tied to oppression, exclusion and stigma. Here it would have been interesting to consider the qualifications provided by queer theorists such as Douglas Crimp, where chronic shame is instead a key part of community formation among oppressed groups. This was a somewhat surprising omission, from what is otherwise an excellent bibliography of recent contributions to the study of shame.

Approaching this huge topic, Dolezal is wisely upfront about things she is not intending to cover in detail, such as psychoanalytical theories of shame, theories of emotion, or areas of bioethics. Her focus and methodology is distinctly philosophical, but her clear writing style and structuring of the book renders it accessible to scholars from other disciplines, including some undergraduates. Students and scholars in the humanities and social sciences who are beginning to study philosophical views of the body and shame will find this a useful introduction to the topic and overview of key arguments. Luna Dolezal’s The Body and Shame provides scholars across the medical humanities with a well-written introduction to key philosophical interventions into body shame, and the book will also be of interest to those studying social issues around plastic surgery.

Reviewed by Dr Emily Cock, who is a research assistant at the University of Winchester. Her research focuses on the medical practice, patient experience and popular representation of head and face medicaments and surgical procedures in early modern Britain. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Adelaide.

Correspondence to Dr Emily Cock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *