“Our” bodies

Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) labs are part of my instruction schedule every term, which means I’m constantly teaching and thinking about the human skeleton. I’m incredibly inspired by and excited about bodies; both living and dead. I consider myself to be “death positive”, a proud and vocal supporter of groups such as the Order of the Good Death, as such I finish each of my Anthropology 110 (Gender, Age, and Culture) courses with a lecture on death and dying. So what? Well, today I read this article about a woman who fought for her right to keep her foot after it had been amputated.

This is exciting. I mean who doesn’t want to keep their foot!? And that’s what I want to discuss here, kind of. While the article focuses largely on the legality of owning body parts, what I find incredibly interesting is the connection between the person and their body part.

It is significant that the woman saw her amputated foot as still being a part of herself even when no longer physically connected to her body. This really should not be surprising – we define so much of ourselves as individuals by our bodies (sex, age, stature, ability, etc.) and using our bodies (dress, tattoo, piercings, etc.).

We are an embodied species.

I find it pleasantly ironic that it was a foot she kept. Anthropologists, in part, define our species using our distinct form of bipedal locomotion. Is she now no longer human because she no longer has two feet by which to move about? Of course not, but it’s important to ask this question because who we are as a species is defined on the basis of our physical form.

This story is also significant because some but not all medically removed tissues are discarded as bio-hazardous, medical waste. Others are buried or disposed of using proscribed funerary rites and customs. What is “waste”? When does something stop being a part of our body? Do we own our bodies? When do we “lose” ownership? How a culture answers these questions is reflected in how those tissues, how our bodies are treated in life and in death.

Finally this is interesting from a teaching and collections perspective. Many biological anthropologists readily admit to keeping their children’s teeth and dental records to add to their teaching  collections. I know I would take great pleasure and delight in bringing out my very own foot, removed from my body then processed in our very own lab, to teach my students about the bones in our feet. It would be my foot, after all, and no one knows my body and my body parts better than me.