The Social Construction of the Female Body in Low-Income Cairo, Monographs in Reproductive Health No. 3, the Population Council, 1997.

In the last two decades, the human body has become the center of a wide range of studies that examine its role in the formation of subjects and the reproduction of social life. Drawing on recent developments in social theories, this paper illustrates that a better understanding of the body, how it is viewed and how it is related to health, self, dignity and social value is central to a holistic understanding of women’s reproductive health. The paper first presents a review of the main social theories utilized to study the body, with a focus on how they conceptualize the female body. It examines these approaches historically to show how the analysis of the body has changed over the years and to point to the importance of questioning current constructions of the body, including the biomedical. The paper illustrates the significance of the body and how it is perceived in understanding women’s health with some examples from al-Zawiya al-Hamra, a low-income neighborhood in northern Cairo. The discussion focuses on two examples: fertility and the plump body. First, the paper shows how the great social value of fertility shapes women’s perceptions of their roles, social worth and well-being as well as the time and effort they invest in caring for their bodies. Then, focusing on the plump body, which is primarily associated with positive meanings that convey happiness, beauty and sexual appeal, the paper argues that the value attached to particular forms of the body is socially shaped and closely associated with various daily practices such as shopping for food, cooking and eating. The paper concludes with some important issues that are related to the body and need examination in future research.
Author(s): Farha Ghannam  
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