by Anna Brachey, Kristie Le, & Hannah Martin

Social systems and traditions have directly impacted the female body structure and health in Victorian England through the practice of corsetry. Corsetry and similar body modifications were encouraged by cultural ideals of femininity and made lifelong impacts on female bodies and health. These modifications can be seen as a hindrance of female mobility and an extension and perpetualization of male structural violence against women, which has disproportionately affected female health throughout history through cultural trends and oppressive social structures. Women wore corsets to align with a social ideal of femininity and beauty which they actively participated in reinforcing. The daily wearing of corsets created a specific and unusual biology with unique effects on bone structure and intestinal anatomy and some negative impacts on female health. Social forces shaped human biology directly in this example.

In a biological and anatomically based view of corsetry, it is clear that both males and females endure effects of using a tight-lacing device, both for aesthetic and medical reasons. Though it may not be a deliberate case of modification, it has caused its own form of long term deformity on to the body. Corsetry leaves behind contortions of the spine and ribcage from extreme amounts of pressure on the plastic skeleton, which adapts and reshapes. While it is hard to understand why a human would want to subject themselves to this sort of deformation, the motivation lies in the gendered expectations of women in Victorian society. Although corsetry can be viewed as a form of patriarchal assault to women, many Victorian women actually autonomously and proudly wore their corsets. The harm that corsetry causes to the body is a clear and extreme case of a cultural expectation shaping a physical body.

The social environment can influence the health of the biological body in a violent and damaging way through structural violence.

The use of three bioarchaeological perspectives ensures that this complex situation is addressed from various scholarly lenses. The skeletal remains leave behind evidence of structure and pathology, which help us understand natural science. These discoveries and methodologies can be interpreted in terms of large-scale social trends. Finally, the context of human remains can be used to compose a narrative of how an individual experienced their own life. Together, these three bioarchaeologies have helped us understand how cultures shaped female biology and had major impact on life-histories. This topic is especially significant as it sheds light on how the social environment can influence the health of the biological body in a violent and damaging way through structural violence.

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