Fit Bodies or Damaged Bodies? Reflections on the Petrie Exhibition

By Gemma Angel, on 24 September 2012

by Sarah Chaney





The current exhibition in the Petrie Museum, Fit Bodies, often gives me a chance to reflect, with visitors, on what a “fit body” actually is. When we describe a body as being fit, we are often saying as much about what it is not, as describing what it is: the fit body always implies the existence of its opposite, the unfit body. Such concerns have often served social and political ends – the recent Petrie exhibition, Typecast, on late nineteenth-century eugenics, being a case in point – making it vitally important for us to acknowledge the ways in which the judgment of “fitness” acts as a process of normalisation.

Historically, we often view past cultures through their art or religious iconography, extrapolating from this what life was “really” like in the past: I’ll return to this idea in more detail in a future post. An example related to Fit Bodies would be the associations we make between Ancient Greece and athleticism. However, as one of the Petrie staff recently pointed out to me, the prevalence of war and the large number of youths who did military service in Ancient Greece meant that physical disability or scarring was not uncommon. Indeed, he notes, depictions of disability are relatively common in Greek imagery. Perhaps we often miss this because we assume that Greek culture idealised the “perfect” body and, in that sense, the depiction of Ancient Greece as a society obsessed with athleticism may say as much about our own culture as theirs.

In my own research, I am particularly interested in “damaged” bodies. Like the fit body, the damaged body is not a fixed and obvious entity, but a concept that changes depending on cultural mores and political concerns. I run a seminar series, which encourages debate around various incarnations of the damaged body in various eras: http://damagingthebody.org. Some of the ideas raised may be very familiar to us today’ others are completely alien to our own concepts of damage and fitness, which I hope serves to remind us of how fragile these concepts often are. My thesis focuses on the idea of self-inflicted injury in the late 1800s, an even more complicated concept than damage in general. When and how do we decide that damage has been self-inflicted? Is a feat of endurance to be understood as self-inflicted injury? Or taking part in a reckless endeavour? Neglect of health? Or even attempts at self-treatment?

The last of these is particularly interesting from a nineteenth-century perspective. Ideas of “self-harm” (particularly associated with self-inflicted cut wounds) are widespread today: so much so, that one teenage museum visitor referred to the mechanical leech as “self-harm in a box”. However, for the most of the population in the 1800s, bloodletting was an important means of restoring physical health. This makes it very difficult to judge the words of nineteenth-century actors by our own standards. Today, self-harm tends to be described as a means of externalising emotional pain, or replacing it with physical pain that is considered easier to manage; the relation of self-injury to emotional or mental suffering is thus invariably emphasised. If we choose to, we can read the words of nineteenth-century individuals in this way. When asylum patients are reported as having bled themselves to relieve distress, or pressure in their heads, we assume that they are describing self-harm as we know it, proving this to have universal meaning. In my view, this would be erroneous. The ideas behind bloodletting as a practice – and nineteenth-century concepts of mental illness itself – make it much more likely that this bleeding was intended as a physical remedy, intended to cure a physical illness (believed to be located in lesions of the brain or nerves). Self-inflicted wounds were not understood to “damage” these people’s bodies, but were instead a legitimate therapeutic practice, intended to restore fitness. Recognising a “fit” or “damaged” body, then, depends greatly on our own cultural and political perspectives, which are invariably shaped by our historical and geographical contexts.