Post by Rimple Mehta, Assistant Professor, School of Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University, India.

Review of Bodies without Borders edited by Erynn Masi de Casanova and Afshan Jafar (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Bodies without Borders makes an important connection between globalisation and the border versus body modification and boundaries of the body. It examines the ‘body’ in the process of migration, economic globalisation, and cultural globalisation. Although globalisation has opened borders for the exchange of goods and services, the ‘human body’ still faces restrictions in terms of movement across the borders. But does mobility really need to be a precursor to a change in perceptions of body? Hegemonic body images like goods and services permeate the globalised world and affect the ‘local’ body images making everyday struggles extremely difficult to reckon with.

In this context, the edited volume puts forth a compelling narrative of what it means to have and be a body in the globalised world and how these bodies navigate through the globalising societies. Though globalisation has ushered a movement of bodies, ideas, and practises, the book shows that this doesn’t always lead to an acceptance of diverse ideas, bodies, and practises. Globalisation hasn’t weakened borders but rather has strengthened them, and the editors argue that ‘bodies are often the terrain on which the fight for these borders take place’ (p. xviii). Therefore, the act of bodies crossing borders is a political act and depends on our understanding of what constitutes a socially accepted body and our notions of the ‘Other.’ The book deals with research based in countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Germany, Mexico, and the United States but discussions in the book aren’t limited to these jurisdictions as the narratives are truly transnational, covering a wide range of countries, nationalities, and ethnic groups.

The first chapter by Lionel Loh Han Loong explores the transnational body projects of men who travel from around the world to train at a martial arts gym in rural Thailand. Thailand, a place that’s often looked upon as a holiday destination, emerges as a highly masculinised space for followers of the Muay Thai tradition of kickboxing. Loong discusses the everyday realities of men who are passionate about martial arts and are willing to isolate themselves and devote the time to training. Conceptually, he shows how individuals oscillate between embodying and disembodying other individuals. Loong puts forth the idea of the body as a ‘work in progress’ where the bruises are a testimony of the trials and tribulations of kick boxers, and where pain is temporary and a reminder of the progress. This leads us to understand pain as situated and contextually specific. Loong looks at the body beyond the rational framework of a split between mind and body, where primacy is given to mind over body. Here, the body transcends the temporal and geographical, leading to what Loong calls a ‘global martialscape.’

The second chapter by Kamille Gentles-Peart discusses the intersection of race, ethnicity, body image, and diaspora in the experiences of West Indian women in the United States. The chapter has excerpts from interviews with these women that reflect their dilemmas and struggles as they try to negotiate normative beauty standards of their homeland and the US. This chapter depicts the anxieties these women have to deal with as they move from their home country to another country with a body politics cultivated in the former. Once in the US, they have to rethink and reformulate their body politics to be able to survive in public spaces and workplaces, which are governed by hegemonic mainstream beauty discourses associated with whiteness and slim bodies. Gentles-Peart discusses how curvaceous bodies of the West Indian women act as negative physical capital because the voluptuous ideal seems to undermine their social and cultural status. Their race, their accent, and their bodies make them vulnerable to social inequalities and also reduced economic opportunities. Women are seen to be constantly struggling between personal preferences and hegemonic beauty ideals in both their homeland and the US, but they have managed to negotiate a space for themselves by resisting dominant beauty ideals.

Monica G. Moreno’s personal reflection is a poignant one but there is some scope for critical engagement. There is a politics in autobiographical writings and Moreno adopts that as a methodological tool. Through a process of self-reflection, she tries to understand the ways in which her identification with a certain racial group was challenged and she was classified a black woman based on her skin tone and racialised features. Moreno was born and raised in Mexico and identified herself as a Mexican, but her identity was challenged and questioned on an everyday basis. She points out how the acts of seeing and being are never neutral; they are embedded in a cultural context and therefore the interpretations and moral evaluations are also culturally embedded.

Joel Gwynee’s chapter discusses the centrality of fashion blogging in the subjectivities of young women in Singapore and Malaysia, and also in terms of their female friendship and kinship networks. The chapter looks at neoliberalism and the cyberspace from a gender perspective. It focuses on issues of online embodiment and agency amongst young women. Based on research on two fashion blogs―one authored by Singaporean Zoe Raymond and another by Malaysian Audrey Ooi―Gwynee brings out similarities between the two blogs and demonstrates how they are reflective of the global impact of neoliberal sensibility on the construction of femininities. The author refrains from positioning young women’s fashion blogs as empowering or disempowering, instead insisting that it's the ability choose rather than the available choices which should determine an act as empowering or disempowering.

In her personal reflection entitled ‘My Struggle with the Headscarf,’ Nahed Eltantawy’s chapter considers her dilemma with regard to the adoption of a headscarf. She positions her mental tribulations in the backdrop of 9/11 attacks in the US and the politics of using the headscarf in Egypt in the 1970s as a protest against the Western Iiberal lifestyle. People’s responses to piece of cloth (headscarf) over a particular part of the body (to cover the hair) prods Eltantawy to explore why she should or should not wear the headscarf. While she doesn’t despise women who wear the headscarf, she doesn’t want to adopt it unless she is convinced that she believes in it. She takes a pragmatic stand and clarifies that it’s not fear which dissuades her from wearing the headscarf, but rather she doesn’t want to be pitied as a helpless woman, stared at and identified as a Muslim, in the paranoia that surrounded the world after 9/11.

In yet another personal reflection, Anisha Gautum divulges her experience of living in her body and dealing with the racialised and gendered remarks about her skin colour and body size. She points out that the privileges individuals enjoy as a result of globalisation are at the expense of others’ misery. Gautum connects the idea of globalisation with power and the way this power is inscribed on the body of a woman. She also highlights the fact that an individuals’ response to varied remarks about his or her body treads the thin line between self-care and self-obsession.

This edited volume of ten chapters brings together border studies and body studies. The book covers a wide range of issues over a vast geographical expanse: from Zumba fitness classes in Mexico, to martial arts in Thailand, to fashion blogs, to tattooing, to fashionable armoured clothing. The contributors each adopt some degree of self-reflexivity in their writings, which gives every chapter a unique aesthetic. While most of the chapters are well researched, a little more thought could be given to the use of personal reflections and how these can be more political in their conceptualisation of personal experiences. Overall, the book traces not only the powers of globalisation and neoliberalism but also the porosity of both political borders and physical bodies. It raises crucial questions around the debates on embodiment and subjectivity and will be of much interest to scholars working on gender issues, borders, globalisation, and neoliberalism.

Note: Palgrave Macmillan is currently offering a free preview of Bodies without Borders.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Mehta, R. (2016) Book Review: Bodies without Borders. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/05/book-review-4 (Accessed [date]).