The Construction of the Body through Medical Discourse

There is no such thing as a perfect body. Remembering this is always relevant when confronted with images of female or male bodies – often retouched with Photoshop software – that are considered the canons of Western beauty. In magazines, films and cartoons, on advertising posters and on social networks, these images reveal a paradox: fictional bodies often appear more legitimate than real bodies. Criticisms of the physical body (‘body shaming’) also reveal this paradox: as disparaging, a real body refers to norms constructed from fictitious bodies.

Some studies, such as Simon Massei’s, study the construction of these bodily and gendered norms in cinema. In his article “L’Esquisse du genre [Sketching Gender]”, the author shows how feature films produced by Disney Studios reflect and structure gender norms, through the bodies of characters, by developing images of good and bad femininity or masculinity. For example, the ‘good’ masculinity of the heroes Aladdin and Tarzan is opposed to the ‘bad’ masculinity of the “bad guys” they face, Jafar and Clayton. Opponents have bodies characterized by an excess or deficit of masculinity.

We also find this idea of excess and deficit, which refers to a “good” masculinity, in the subject dealt with here: medical discourses on the bodies of the criminal and the homosexual. These two cases are interesting because they show how medical discourses reproduce and construct a fiction of the legitimate body – masculinity – by defining the upper and lower limits through the construction of ‘repulsive’ bodies.

The Fictions of an Excess or Deficit of Masculinity

Let us first deal with the case of the criminal’s body, and more precisely with the biologization of engaging in a criminal act. In the 19th century, in the context of the secularization of society and the rise of scientism, biological reasons were sought for why people became criminals, in order to detach their actions from the Christian theory of free will. Phrenology, which was highly controversial even at the time, focused on studying the hollows and bumps of the skull, which were supposed to indicate the location of more or less developed brain areas. The ‘crime bump’ was supposed to indicate the overdevelopment of the cerebral area linked to the carnivorous instinct and therefore, a predisposition to criminal behaviour.

The search for a biological explanation of crime continued in the 20th century with the search for the crime chromosome, illustrated in the Richard Speck case. Convicted in 1966 of raping and murdering eight nursing students, Speck and his lawyer based his defence strategy on the argument that he had the ‘crime chromosome’. This was based on a report that was later found to be false. During the 1960s, American research had identified the presence of a supernumerary (extra) Y chromosome in the prison population: many prisoners had an XYY karyotype. Some concluded therefore that there was a ‘crime’ chromosome.

The Y chromosome, which genetically determines the male sex, would thus explain the hyper-violence of the individuals who have extra ones. Like the crime bump that supposedly signals the carnivorous instinct, this chromosome was thought to predispose a hyper-violent temperament. Carnivorous instincts and violence were thus two narratives of the male body. The criminal’s body was thus recounted as a body marked by an excess of masculinity, whether due to the overdevelopment of a brain area or a supernumerary chromosome.

At the same time, medical discourse shaped the homosexual’s body images and postures. According to Michel Foucault, “the homosexual of the 19th century has become a character: a past, a history and a childhood, a character, a form of life; a morphology too, with an indiscreet anatomy and perhaps a mysterious physiology. In sum, nothing of what he is escapes his sexuality. Everywhere within him, it is present…the psychological, psychiatric, and medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment that it was characterized not by a type of sexual relations but rather by…a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself.” Male homosexuality was thus scientifically explained by a deficiency of male hormones.  Homosexuality becomes an illness, hermaphroditism a disease, and a deficit of masculinity a pathology.

  • Foucault M., 1976, Histoire de la sexualité, Tome 1, La volonté de savoir, Paris : Gallimard, Coll. Bibliothèque des Histoires.

Masculinity: Fictions and Norms

Over-masculinity, under-masculinity…the fictions of the bodies of the criminal and the homosexual are push-pull bodies that define good masculinity and are in turn defined in relation to it. When describing pathological male bodies, medical discourses define implicitly what a male body should be, thus reinforcing the idea of sexual difference.

The 19th century saw the transition from a world divided into two orders and statuses by birth, to a world populated by profoundly equal individuals. Biological reasonings thus had to be found to justify sexual binarity and gender inequality. The idea of a strict natural division between the sexes was based on the body and sexual anatomy, whereas in the 16th century, the difference between the sexes was not based on biology: female and male genitals were considered as two versions, internal and external, of the same apparatus.

Medical discourses therefore create categories of bodies that refer to a socially and politically constructed imaginary, setting in stone the view of the body and giving rise, even today, to various practices and interactions. The medical management of intersex bodies is based on the fiction of those bodies as pathologically affected, in comparison to a healthy and natural gender difference. Medical care of intersex bodies deals with bodies as searching for true masculinity or good femininity.

When our Image of Bodies becomes their Reality

Physiognomy is the art of detecting clues to an individual’s morality in the appearance of the body: the harmonious features of a face are thus supposed to reflect the correct composition of a temperament, while the strange curve of a nose indicates a hidden defect. The examples in this article show that fictions (medical or not) can determine the way we look at, talk about, and learn about bodies: what we imagine about bodies then becomes their reality.

Determining legitimate bodies and repellent bodies actually reflects relationships of domination. The bodies of the dominant and the dominated are recounted in certain ways, as part of narratives, which form the basis of the body’s norms, practices and interactions of social actors. I call these body fictions “body scripts”. Informed by power relations, they tell the story of bodies according to the dominant imagination. They therefore correspond to the hegemonic ways of talking about bodies.`

 ‘Body scripts’ are spread throughout the social world through institutions, called here technologies of the body, which reproduce and construct these body fictions. This is the case with medical discourse, which was part of the naturalization movement of body scripts: medical knowledge was constructed from the hegemonic narratives of bodies. The social view of bodies is fixed, making other possible bodies illegitimate or invisible.

The ways in which bodies are talked about in the social world exist within relationships and issues of power. Hegemonic fictions – body scripts – that influence the way we look at and perceive bodies are emerging. Our view of bodies is then set, excluding other possible ways of telling bodies and seeing them. What we imagine becomes reality about bodies and some discourses, especially medical ones, are constructed based on this imaginary. A detour through historical examples – discourses about criminal and homosexual bodies – breaks down this ‘self-evident’ way of seeing.

This also highlights the interdependence in the elaboration of fictions around the bodies of the dominant and the dominated. In the masculine reference and norm, the fictions of repulsive bodies are also constructed, at the same time that the body scripts of the masculine itself are elaborated. In the end, from the perspective of body scripts, when society views a body, it always misses its target, and says more about itself that the bodies it is viewing. The mirror then turns to those viewing, so that they see themselves as they are looking at others.

  • Connell R., Messerschmidt J., 2015, « Faut-il repenser le concept de masculinité hégémonique ? », Terrains & Travaux,n°27(2), 151-192.
  • Corbin A., dir., 2005, Histoire du corps.Tome 2 : De la Révolution à la Grande Guerre, Paris : Le Seuil.
  • Gaudillière J.-P., 2004, « On ne naît pas homme… À propos de la construction biologique du masculin », Mouvements, n°31, 15-23.

Crédits images en CC : Pxhere, Pixabay OpenClipart-Vectors, Pixabay creozavr, Pixabay Juralmin, Pixabay Fotoblend

Noémie Aulombard

ENS de Lyon, Centre Max Weber (

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