by Anna Brachey, Kristie Le, & Hannah Martin

Humans construct the most complex social systems of relation and interaction of any animal, and develop communities, institutions, and cultures. The social lives and cultural systems that we create reach into every corner of our existence; daily social interactions, the formation and perpetuation of defined social structures, and cultural practices and traditions combine to shape human life. Cultures and social structures continuously shape the biological bodies of humans. One such example of this phenomenon is the use of corsetry to alter the female bodies, especially of those belonging to Western cultures, in the 18th and 19th centuries. As is illustrated in the example of corsetry, social factors are not separate from human health and sickness, reproductive patterns, or evolutionary trends; rather, the cultural and social aspects of a human’s history interact fluidly with the biological factors, constantly shaping and being shaped by human biology.

In the following papers, we will focus on social constructions that fostered the popularity of body-modifications, specifically on the phenomenon of corsetry in the Victorian era (1837-1901). Corsetry and other forms of body modification exemplify the ways that fashion trends and hierarchical social structures can have a direct and lasting influence on the human body. We argue here that trends in fashion and gendered expectations created a culture of body modification for women that caused significant changes in female bodies. These limiting social aspects of Victorian culture made lifelong changes to women’s biology, potentially altering the long-term health of Victorian women.

The social lives and cultural systems that we create reach into every corner of our existence.

To view the issue of social factors becoming biological facts as holistically as possible, we use the three perspectives of bioarchaeology, defined by Stojanowski and Duncan: social science, natural science, and the humanities. Natural science bioarchaeology focuses on actual anatomical and physiological features of an individual’s remains. This includes the size and structure of the skeleton, evidence of physical injury, the pathology of the individual, and signs of various physiological stressors. Bioarchaeology with a focus on social sciences considers bioarchaeological evidence in the context of greater social patterns. Evidence is considered in terms of large-scale migrations, gender roles and relations, class hierarchies, and race relations. The final perspective, humanistic bioarchaeology, aims for a deeper understanding of the personal, lived experience of an individual based on their physical remains and the context of their burial. Skeletal remains should be considered alongside cultural remains at the burial site and historical evidence to better understand an individual’s experience. Together, these three views of bioarchaeology can reveal the nature of life in the past to clarify our understanding of life in the present.

Our papers discuss corset-wearing and body modification from these different perspectives of bioarchaeology. The first interprets corsetry as structural violence, providing a clear example of social factors influencing human biology in a harmful and negative way. The second analyzes corsets and tightlacing through a natural science lens. It delves into the process by which cultural phenomena become biologically embedded in our bones, and the specific biological consequences of corsetry. The third paper explores a humanistic perspective of Victorian tightlacing, focusing on the culture of corsetry and the experiences of women. Together, these three perspectives provide a holistic understanding of the interaction between the social structures and ideals and biological health. Corsetry exemplifies the changes in the body, through daily habit, that stem from social structures and cultural perspectives.

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Molding the body: A Science Approach, by Kristie Le

Structural Violence and Human Biology, by Anna Brachey

How the Cultural Becomes Biological: Evidence for Corseting in the Skeletal Record, by Hannah Martin

Conclusion, by Le, Brachey, & Martin

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