The Body Beautiful? Getting Under History’s Skin - Dr. Jennifer Marotta

What is a "normal" body? What makes a body beautiful or desirable? Media and corporations saturate us with images of perfect bodies, sexy bodies, bodies that sell products—but how have these ideals changed over time?  By using the body as text, this six-part series attempts to get under history’s skin. Using an interdisciplinary approach we analyze how science, fashion, and commerce help to invent and cement our perceptions of the body. How are our basic assumptions about sex, gender, race, health, and disability challenged if the "naturalness" of the body itself is questioned? How have technology and consumerism shaped and reshaped traditional notions of bodies? Together we will unpack how what we take for granted as “natural” or “common sense” is often not as instinctual, logical, or unbiased as we often credit it.  

Session One: October 3, 2023

Introduction: The Gaze and Spectatorship.

Week One acts as a springboard to quickly review important theories we will use across the course including the Feminist Theory of The Gaze, Foucault’s Panopticon, Gender Performance, and the Body as a Consuming Project. While we are interested in the differences between the sexes, by using the body as a text, we will see how the creation of gender distinctions (what is thought of as traditionally feminine or traditionally masculine) have been constructed to influence how we perceive and interpret bodies. To examine how we came to some of our conclusions about bodies, we will review a few Medical Models that, in the past, were the prevailing dominant paradigms.

Session Two: October 10, 2023

The Imperial Gaze

By the turn of the last century, “race science,” based on a perversion of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, argued that “races” actually existed, and that they could be placed within a hierarchy from the more “backward” to the “more advanced.” This week we will look at the influence of colonialism on perceptions of the body and beauty and use the poignant example of Sara Baartman, a Black Khoisan woman who in 1810 was put on exhibit in Europe, as our case study to explore Racialization, Sexual Stereotyping, and Controlling Images.


Session Three: October 17, 2023

Cultures of Consumption- I Want That!

In Week 3, we ask how the rise of the Department Store and shifting trends in advertising shaped consumer appetites. By looking briefly at the rise of Timothy Eaton in Canada, we discuss how shoppers are part of an Imagined Community, how the heady atmosphere of Department Stores was blamed for a rise in kleptomania, how the cosmetics industry attempted to regulate beauty, and consider whether consumerism makes pawns out of all of us, or if we can be active agents in this process.  

Session Four: October 24, 2023

Under the Knife: Passing and the Racialized Body

For many who undergo cosmetic surgery, the driving motivation behind their choice is not only a desire for beauty but also an aspiration for normalcy. In Week 4, using nasal surgery as our case study, and if time allows, a quick discussion of fashionable breasts, we will explore Sander Gilman’s Theory of Passing as the basic motivation for all cosmetic surgeries. We will also discuss how plastic surgeons embraced Alfred Adler’s Inferiority Complex to popularize surgical solutions as an answer to a lack of confidence—thereby making it the ultimate justification for cutting into otherwise healthy bodies.  

Session Five: October 31, 2023

Foot Binding

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that “what is considered beautiful is often more reflective of behavior rather than looks alone.” It is important to remember that sometimes the two can be hopelessly intertwined. How was clothing infused with cultural meaning? Suffering for beauty is a concept familiar to most of us whether we have squeezed our feet into uncomfortable but fashionable shoes, restricted our form with shapewear, or undergone the pain of surgery to enhance our anatomy. Millions of Chinese women went even further — binding their feet to turn them into prized "three-inch golden lotuses." In Week 5, we look at a brief history of the ancient and now discarded tradition of foot binding and will discuss taboos, the concept of Conspicuous Leisure, and the secret language of foot binding that was literally written on the body of young girls.


Session Six: November 7, 2023

Bodies with Disabilities- From Freak Shows to Activism

Photographer Diane Arbus argues that “freak” is a metaphor for estrangement, alienation, marginality,and the dark side of human experience; however,from 1840 to 1940 they were also an accepted, if not always respected, form of entertainment. Alice Dreger asks the important question, “What, exactly, was wrong with freak shows? Why is it socially acceptable for some people—models,basketball stars—and not others to make money from their unusual body differences?” In our final week, we will consider “Freak” as a frame of mind, as spectacle, and as a way of presenting people. We will also consider the shift from this Gaze of Disidentification to more modern theories of disability studies with a special focus on Anatomical Normalization Procedures, Disabled Moments, a quick history of prosthetics, and how pity can be oppressive.



Dr. Jennifer Susan Marotta is a Professor of Humanities at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto. Her teaching is interdisciplinary in nature and encompasses the History of the Body, Gender Studies, Women’s History in North America, and Canadian Cultural History with a focus on print media. As part of the faculty team that teaches GNED 101: Introduction to the Arts and Sciences, she developed a unit of online materials for Ecampus Ontario. She has just completed a two-year project and partnership with Algonquin College to create a timeline of Settler Colonialism to accompany the Michelle St. John documentary “Colonization Road” which officially launched in September 2023. After obtaining a Specialized Honours BA in History at the University of Guelph, she completed both her MA, “Constructing the Norm: Medical Advice to Adolescents in Canada, 1873-1922” and her Ph.D., “A Moral Messenger to the Canadian Middlemost: A Reading of the Family Herald and Weekly Star, 1874-1914” at Queen’s University. In 2020, she was named an Associate of the Wilson Institute of Canadian History and enjoys being on the jury for their prestigious book prize. She recently completed a 5-year term as a member of the Equity Taskforce at Humber, with a special focus on Employment Equity. Alongside a handful of colleagues in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, she helped push forward the first cohort/cluster hire of equity-deserving faculty at a Canadian College in 2022-2023. Alongside Dave Miller, she is co-chair of the Annual Interdisciplinary Academic Conference HUMBER@TIFA Which takes place during the Toronto International Festival of Authors every Autumn at the Harbourfront Centre. ( The two-day conference facilitates cross-disciplinary discussions among emerging and established scholars, researchers, educators, activists, and the public. Recent keynotes have included: Metis writer and academic Billy-Ray Belcourt, Indigenous Environmental Activist Nikki Sanchez, Civil Rights Activist Angela Davis, Consent Advocate Farrah Khan, Journalist Chris Hedges, and ACLU President Susan N. Herman.