In the seventeenth century, John Locke suggested that a child’s mind was ‘tabula rasa’- a blank slate, and that children needed to be socialised and educated into their social role. This replaced the early modern model where social position was determined by God, the self was marked by original sin, and that child-rearing was a process of disciplining body and soul to restrain that sin and make a person useful to society. The ‘blank slate’ model of the mind transformed how we thought about self, leading to an emphasis on education as the basis for social order and in the creation of identity. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented ‘if the timidity, chasteness and modesty which are proper to [women] are social inventions, it is in society’s interest that women acquire these qualities; they must be cultivated in women.’
So, what determined social position if the mind was an open potential, able to be shaped to be anything at all? Increasingly in the eighteenth century, the body became the determining factor in social position. Sexual difference, race, and physical features became the outward markers that determined the appropriate education that should be given to the mind that the body housed. If it was important that women played a particular social role and so received a particular education, then we could decide who ‘women’ were based on their genitals. In this sense, the mind was shaped to the body- and the mind who didn’t realise it was female just needed more discipline or education.
This theory developed in two, not necessarily compatible ways, in the nineteenth century. First, there was the rise of psychology where people’s whose minds did not behave appropriately to their allocated social role could be studied, and ideally re-educated to match their biological characteristics and social expectation. Therefore, for example, someone who felt that their allocated gender did not match their sense of identity, or who was attracted to someone of the same sex, could be labelled ‘mentally ill’, and retrained. And, if the mind was a blank slate- an open potential, then why not? (This model continues into the present, although increasingly we put limits on when the mind stops being adaptable (age, 2, 3 ,7, 26 never).)
Second, the emphasis on the body as determining factor in shaping identity meant that physical characteristics became increasingly seen to determine a person’s potential. This led to the rise in pseudo-sciences like phrenology, where the shape of a person’s head could be used to determine their personality- or physical profiling, where criminality and deviance could be determined by measuring the body or the distance between the eyes. Far from opening up potential then, the move to the biological began to root social characteristics in the body, limiting the potential of the mind to be educated in particular ways. Women's bodies then could be endangered by too much education, with university education leading to an inability to conceive children.
And, in many ways, the legacy between these two competing ways of thinking about self remain with us today. As feminists, we (mostly) reject biological determinism and argue that gender is about education and the social construction of identity. Yet, this leads to the niggling problem of sexuality- how did you end up gay if you weren’t socialised into it? Was it just bad parenting?! Similarly, those who suffer body dysmorphic disorder- which is currently mainly associated with transgendered people, but includes a variety of people, from those who suffer from anorexia to people who feel a need to correct their body with cosmetic surgery- rightly resist the implication that this is simply a case of poor mental health.
In a 21st century context, the static nature of the mind starts to loom larger in the nurture/ nature debate, and increasingly, instead of ‘fixing’ the mind when we experience problems with our bodily appearance or identity, we shape the body. If we sense that our genitals look wrong, our breasts are too small, our stomach too lumpy, many of us no longer sit through hours of therapy trying to come to accept our bodies, but instead go the gym, on a diet or under the knife. We encourage this approach in our increasing obsession with obesity, body sculpting, and fitness, and also how we think about food. Whereas dieting used to be about training your mind, we now think about hormones, sugar levels, foods that release energy all day and keep you feeling full. We think about ways to satiate the body while remaining healthy. It is no longer the recalcitrant mind, but the recalcitrant body that must be re-educated and kept well. We make significantly more links between mind and body, so that poor mental health, like depression, is about hormones, not (just) emotions.
In a sense then, rather than the mind being a tabula rasa, it is the body (at least as much as the mind) which is the empty canvass in the modern world, waiting to be educated or trained into shape. Yet at the same time, we retain a sense of 'biological determinism', but one that focuses on the centrality of the mind, rather than body, to self. And, what are the implications of these new ways of thinking for modern feminism? What happens to the traditional critique of cosmetic surgery- where ‘big boobs’ were viewed as conformity to patriarchal standards- when cosmetic surgery is also what gives people a sense of unity between mind and body? When we become less sure about adapting the mind (where we would have traditionally suggested retraining women to love their small breasts), and give more emphasis to ‘fixing’ the body to meet mental expectations of self. Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable bodily adaptations, between poor mental health and the recalcitrant body? Where is the place of disability and race politics in this discussion- where bodily perfection has a dangerous tendency to lean towards conformity to particular forms of beauty and body shape, towards sameness and not diversity? And, what does it mean that technology can allow some people to adapt their bodies, but not others?