Friday, September 04, 2009

Body-Swapping and Gender

In my intro to philosophy classes, we've been discussing Descartes' dualism and are about to look at an article by Eve Browning (Cole) that considers feminist critiques of the Cartesian project and conception of the self. I had the idea to survey students about a “body-swapping” scenario; and gave them the following to consider:
Suppose that it was possible for you to trade out your present body for a different one. And suppose that you get to pick from some selection of bodies. Your mind would be transferred to the new body, with no loss of memory, thought, mental ability, etc. (Your mind and its contents would be preserved wholly intact.) The only thing that would change is the body you inhabit. The trade will be permanent, in that your present body will be discarded once the mind-transfer process is complete. Would you want to trade in your present body for a different one?
They were asked to check yes or no, and I also asked, “If you checked yes, would you choose a male or female body?” I also asked them to report their gender.

The results are intriguing (to me and a female colleague of mine, at least). 35% of males (11 out of 31) checked “Yes”. By contrast, only 10% of females (3 out of 30) , checked “Yes”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, NO ONE who checked yes said they would choose a body of the opposite sex. Obviously, the disparity between males and females who checked yes needs explaining. Do they show that young men are more prone to body-dissatisfaction than young women? That men are less likely to identify as closely with their own bodies? (That would explain willingness to swap bodies, but wouldn't seem by itself to explain why any particular one would swap.) That men are less “risk-averse” (or more adventuresome)?


  1. Hard to generalize from the small sample size, but if this applies to your class, perhaps there's something about exercise that contributes to more easily regarding one's body as an instrument-like-thing distinct from one's self?

    I may simply be over-generalizing from the sports with which I'm most familiar, in which one can't help but be acutely aware of the comparative advantages of the immutable bodily conformational cards that are dealt out by heredity, and in which "skill" and "talent" seem more obviously functions of those cards rather than of anything within our control, like "hard work" (the capacity for the latter also being a function of those cards). Such a context may lend itself to some kind of dualism at work in the disparity of the results. But again, I'm probably way off base here, also projecting my fatalistic outlook.

  2. On sample size: I'm way too rusty on statistics to know how to do a proper test for significance. The aggregated results do, however, amplify the trend in each class (2 sections): 1 female in one class, and 2 in the other (contrasted with 5 or 6 males) checked Yes.

    A different worry is that the previous two days' discussion of Descartes "polluted" the results (but still, why the gender difference?). I also wonder whether the results would be different if a female instructor administered the survey.

    Eve Browning had some interesting comments on the survey (and I'm grateful that she responded so quickly to my query!); she too found the results surprising.

    Her article emphasizes the idea that the Cartesian ego is "male" (rational, individualized, separate from others), and she wonders whether this sort of ideology does inspire less identification (in males) with one's own body; whereas, "woman" is typically identified with "nature", the earth, and the body (the sensual and non-rational or irrational; emotional). But as I suggest in the post, one might think that would only explain extra willingness in males to swap bodies. For any particular person to swap, presumably, there must be some positive reason for that. And that's where it becomes tempting to think--to the extent that the comparatively small sample is suggestive--that, as Browning put it, "the tables have turned" with respect to who feels more pressure to meet a certain physical standard. Maybe sports have something to do with this; surely, the popularity of "working out" does (and buff sexpots smelling of Axe body products)...perhaps young women are becoming more immune to this sort of thing than young men (because they have become used to being targeted by this kind of advertising etc.)?

  3. This is all very interesting. My speculation is quasi-Foucault-ian, that our fitness culture is a kind of disciplinary "matrix" mediating corporeal self-regard, such that our bodies are regarded as instruments serving (or mis-serving) the purposes of a self that, influenced by that mediation, experiences itself as a commanding authority distinct from the instrument discharging the commands -- an instrument standing in constant need of perfecting and surveilling for deviations from approximation to optimal functioning. (Being incapacitated by injury seems to encourage this!) And thus as something one can more easily imagine as being replaced by a better instrument. In contrast to the body "ideology" to which Browning suggests women are more prone to be subject.