(Dis)ability by design: Narratives of bodily perfectionism

Brighton, J. and Sparkes, A. (2014) (Dis)ability by design: Narratives of bodily perfectionism. In: Disability Sport Conference 2014: Changing Lives, Changing Perceptions?, 15th-18th September 2014, Coventry University.

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Much academic research into disability sport has been accused of reinforcing ableist attitudes, treating disability as a homogenous construct, suffers from theoretical impoverishment, and has failed to listen to the voices of disabled people themselves in providing critical insight (e.g. Brittain, 2004; Moola and Norman, 2012). Excluding a few notable exceptions (Huang and Brittain, 2006; Berger, 2009; Lindemann, 2010; LeClair, 2011; Peers, 2012) there is still a dearth of empirically based research in understanding how disabled athletes construct and negotiate senses of embodied identity. Taking this into consideration, we draw on data generated from a four year ethnographic study into wheelchair sport in England to examine the ways in which disabled athletes engage in self-reflexive “body projects” (Shilling, 1993) in making strong personal statements about their identity amongst contemporary somatic cultures that idealise and “relentlessly promote the body beautiful” (Thomas, 2007: 132).
A structural narrative analysis of the ‘big’ and ‘small’ stories (Bamberg, 2006) told by the disabled athletes in the field revealed three dominant ‘body projects’ in action: 1) in developing malleable bodies participants either altered the comportment of their bodies conservatively by building muscle and losing body fat in attempting to become ‘perfectly disabled’ in relation to able-bodied ideologies of body perfectionism, or more radically through desiring amputation of impaired body parts in ways that contest these dominant beliefs 2) in engaging in tattooing and piercing practices that transform the appearance of the skin, participants artfully constructed modified bodies, affording them a sense of control and expression over their identities in a number of ways and 3) cyborg bodies were imagined where participants played with the possibilities of evolving technologies on their senses of corporeality.
Taking an inter-disciplinary approach to interpretation, findings suggest that additional significance is held amongst participants living these bodies than exclusively as forming part of a ‘body project’ alone. Indeed, the identities that disabled athletes embodied and performed should not be thought of as singular, homogeneous, passive, and static but should be better seen as plural, heterogeneous, active, and evolving. We provide reflections that question if identity construction in disability sport is policed by medicalising and ableist discourses with the expectation that disabled athletes should reject their own ‘flawed’ bodies and align themselves to the carnal norms of non-disabled people (Hughes and Paterson, 1999), or if wheelchair athletes are able to demonstrate agency in relation to these norms and express empowering and proud senses of disabled identity that subvert the “non-disabled gaze” (Hughes, 1999) offering a challenge to contemporary tyrannies of bodily perfectionism.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure > GV0558 Sports science
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure > GV0706 Sports psychology
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure > GV0706.5 Sports sociology
Divisions: pre Nov-2014 > Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences > Sport Science, Tourism and Leisure
Depositing User: James Brighton
Date Deposited: 21 Nov 2014 16:42
Last Modified: 20 Aug 2015 11:35
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/12888

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00