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Endangered Species Alert: Florida Manatees, Siberian Tigers, and . . . Women?

A few weeks ago, I took a trip down to the New School in Manhattan to attend a conference called The Body and the State. I didn’t know who Susie Orbach was at the time, but when she earnestly stated that women are an endangered species, I felt the former science major within me stewing.

Orbach invoked this metaphor while delivering a provocative presentation called “Losing Bodies.” In her talk, she made a convincing argument that because of the narrow and unrealistic ideal of the female body promulgated by Western media, women around the world are attempting to change their bodies to meet this unattainable standard through fashion, make-up, unhealthy dieting, and cosmetic surgery. She highlighted the physical, psychological, and social harms that these pressures inflict on women around the globe.

What came as a huge surprise to me is that her metaphor did not just undergird her lecture at an academic conference. Rather, it is the rallying cry for an international body activist movement for which Orbach is a leader, calledEndangered Species Women.

My oldest sister teaches a course called “conceptual biology” to ninth graders in Vermont. I can just imagine her horror at hearing this metaphor after spending hours teaching these impressionable – though perhaps not always attentive – 14 year olds that, by definition, members of a species must be able to reproduce. And that means that for the mammalian types, a species must include both males and females. The idea that women form a species, not to mention an endangered one, is quite simply false.

But the problem is deeper than simply a matter of using the word “species” accurately.

I was in part so struck by Orbach’s metaphor because her lecture at the New School conference followed closely on the heels of an eloquent talk given by philosopher Charles W. Mills entitled “Body Politics, Body Impolitic,” which examined the problematic and subtle racial dynamics of using the body as a metaphor for the state. Mills argued that the body in this idealized form is implicitly the white male body. If some members of society represent the brain, some the heart, some the lungs, then who represents those organs that deal with waste and excrement, he asked. Although I am vastly over-simplifying his argument, his talk was in part a call for a critical examination of the metaphors we use for understanding identities, difference, society, and relationships.

Mills certainly isn’t the first person to call for such an analysis of metaphors, but his careful analysis of the implications of one problematic metaphor alongside Orbach’s flashy invocation of another was striking. While the media’s efforts to construct, manipulate, and capitalize on our insecurities is undeniably harmful, using an inaccurate and highly problematic metaphor should not be one of the many tools used to unpack and address this problem. Though the Endangered Species Women project does important work in many ways, it also exposes many errors it is easy to make in advancing a social cause.

Interestingly, when the metaphor of endangered species was inappropriately invoked in an entirely different context in February 2010, many feminist activists responded in outrage. The offense was an anti-abortion billboard in Atlanta that featured a young black boy with the words, “Black Children Are an Endangered Species.” Of course, the metaphor itself was only one of many concerns raised by this sign. As one black feminist, Loretta Ross, explained the campaign, “Our opponents began a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children.”

Part of what makes the endangered species metaphor problematic in both the Endangered Species Women project and in this anti-abortion billboard – one a decidedly feminist project, the other decidedly not – is that metaphorically breaking the human race into different species implicates an understanding of human difference that so many activists and intellectuals interested in gender and racial equality have worked against. Perhaps as we’re wading through the seemingly endless complexity of incorporating human difference into models of political and social equality we need to occasionally remind ourselves that we humans are, if nothing else, part of the same species.

In addition to implicating an unproductive perspective on human difference, the women-as-endangered-species metaphor also obscures actual endangered species, ones like the crested honeycreeper, the flat pebblesnail, and the pig-footed bandicoot. While I won’t blame the feminist movement for not being too concerned with the fate of these rare critters, there are many activists, including some feminists, who are. Part of “third wave” feminism’s focus on intersectionality – the examination of how experiences and social constructions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and other categories of identities interact – is recognizing how the aims and tactics of one activist agenda can incorporate or obscure another. I’m struck that these feminist body activists incorporate the dramatic and emotionally charged language of actual species extinction without even a nod in its direction.

Despite my concerns with using the metaphor of an endangered species to describe the plight of women and their bodies, I am excited to witness the work of body activists like Susie Orbach. Body activism isn’t just for some select group of women. The work that Orbach and her colleagues are promoting encourages women and men to think of their own and other people’s bodies differently and to challenge the ways in which those in media, health care, and other social spheres approach the diversity of human form. On the Endangered Species Women Web site, social worker and therapist Caren Shapiro offers a video explaining the project with the slogan, “Take back your body.” Perhaps this would have been a better name for the Endangered Species Women project.

Colleen Farrell is a research assistant at The Hastings Center.

Published on: March 29, 2011
Published in: Health and Health Care

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