Axis 10 —The body, health, and society

The themes of the body and health are especially apt in showing the relevance of the concept of gender as a principle of gender division and a process of social gendering. Moreover, they help us make the connections between sex and gender more complex, while studies in the history of science and medicine show that the sexes are constructed through gender, even in their very materiality. This axis is concerned with this "embodied" drawing of the gender boundary, especially with regards to the medical and reproductive sciences. It also includes research on the gendered division of care and care work, especially for the elderly, where gendered approaches to ageing constitute another aspect of "gender control".

The study of the relationships between the sciences, bodies, reproduction and health played an essential role in the emergence of the concept of gender and it remains a key research area today. The aim is in fact to integrate, in the same method, an inquiry regarding the different ways in which the forms of knowledge at work in the field of health, as well as the conditions of their production and use, help define gender relationships and identities, but also simultaneously how gender relationships determine the goals and modalities of medical and public health actions.

It this perspective, there are two crucial themes.

The first concerns health and reproductive medicine. Because of the role that the research on the medical treatment of the boundaries between masculinity and femininity played in distinguishing sex from gender, the exploration of norms, practices and forms of regulation of reproductive health (by expertise, the law or the economy) represents a key dimension of gender studies. It deserves this emphasis for two reasons: on the one hand, because the reproductive order has seen some profound changes over the last thirty years, changes which have spread beyond the industrialised societies of Europe and North America; on the other hand, because despite these technological changes and new practices, the social framing of reproductive health remains a key aspect of the construction of gender relations.

Another key theme is the gender differences in disease. This concerns first of all the fact that some illnesses concern more specifically males or females. The recent epidemiological, historical and anthropological studies, for example the research on the so-called “female" cancers or the changing incidence and treatment in the sphere of mental health, show how important it is to understand the situation not as simply a consequence of biology but rather as a complex social fact. Another dimension which remains significantly under-researched is that of work-related illnesses. Professional health risks should be assessed in light of the sexual division of labour and the gendered assignment of activities (see Axis 5).

It is also useful to expand research on ageing, which looks at age as a gendered category. Apart from the biological and social mechanisms that lead to stunning sex ratios at the most advanced ages, the health care measures in place represent a major area of interest for gender studies (see Axis 2 and 3). More generally, this axis concerns all professional and lay activities dealing with health, both public and private, emphasising their gendered aspects.

Lastly, due to the increasing visibility of the body in our society, social scientists are once again turning their attention to sports, which gender allows us to examine under a new light. Sport represents a space of activity that is particularly marked by the gendering of bodies and gestures. These aspects are no longer peripheral; the importance of recreational bodily and sports activities in the social world cannot be denied. Research focusing on the sphere of sports has recently opened up to gender issues and it is important to continue this process further.