Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment
June 15-16, 2012

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Sensuality as Disability - Victorians and Precocious Puberty

Since this week (22 November to be precise) marked the start of Disability History Month here in the UK, we thought that it was a  good time to draw your attention to a special issue of Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies from 2008, which explores the subject of "Critical Transformations: Disability and the Body in Nineteenth-Century Britain". Best of all, the issue, guest edited by Mark Mossman and Martha Stoddard-Holmes, is available free online in full.

Pieter Paaw, "Skeleton and Skull of a
Child." (1633), © University of Toronto
Library, 2003 
The journal offers a number of interesting articles exploring the intersection of gender and disability, such as Joyce L. Huff's "The Domesticated Monster: Freakishness and Disability in Fitz-James O'Brien's 'What Was It?'". Yet what is perhaps most interesting within the context of this conference (and this blog) is the inclusion of M. Jeanne Peterson's "Precocious Puberty and the Victorian Medical Gaze".

Peterson's article considers the responses on the part of Victorian medical reports to cases of precocious puberty and the way that they were tied to anxieties surrounding conceptions of gender, bodily normalcy, even the state of childhood itself. In so doing, she demonstrates, to quote Mossman and Stoddard-Holmes's introduction to the issue, "the fecundity of visual and structural disruptions of “normal” masculinity and femininity for narratives of pathology and normalcy." The introduction goes on to note that the article
"work[s] on the continuum on which the normal and the extraordinary both reside, noting the various points (and convergences) of discomfort, apprehension, attraction, and wonder these “extraordinary cases” produce"
In consciously choosing to place early-onset puberty within the discourse of disability, Peterson acknowledges that her decision may raise some questions, given that,
"precocious puberty would seem more a case of early ability rather than disability. But early puberty can also be understood as deviance, as straying from norms of bodily development. In the phenomena of early puberty doctors found amazement, desire, and dread."
In Peterson's study, then, the precocious development of physical markers of puberty, those undeniable indicators of the body's eroticism, its sensuality, become in and of themselves an illustration of disability. This definition of the preciously pubescent body would seem to bind Victorian constructions of disability, of exceptional bodies, to the sensual body in a way which is often overlooked. Sensuality here stands at the very core of disability, in stark contrast to a traditional conception in which the senses,  if not deliberately removed, are at the very least forgotten.

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