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Seeing through Clothing, Seeing through Skin: Physical Culture’s Self-Disciplining Modern Gaze

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Abstract:

In the early twentieth century, the Mensendieck exercise program bridged the modern body cultures of German Nacktkultur (nudism) and American labor efficiency. At its core was a rationalized approach to body mechanics and the visual strategy of assessing and correcting posture, gesture, and movement through a self-disciplining gaze. In this paper, I analyze Mensendieck’s strategies for visualizing subtle and invisible muscle movement, and argue for her significance in the making of international body cultures of modernity. Mensendieck practice constitutes an international crossroads between Germany and the United States, and simultaneously offers an interdisciplinary crossroads between the histories of the body and visual culture. This study builds on the historiography of modernism and the body (Karl Toepfer, Tim Armstrong, Hillel Schwartz, Elspeth Brown, Jonathan Auerbach), medical imaging (Barbara Stafford, Lisa Cartwright, David Serlin), and theoretical approaches to vision, power, and the body (Michel Foucault, Laura Mulvey).

Originally from New York, Dr. Bess M. Mensendieck (1864-1958) developed a network of schools in northern Europe in the early 1900s, making significant contributions to German Nacktkultur (nudism) and the international modern dance movement. When Mensendieck returned to the United States at the outbreak of WWI, her program was adopted in American physical educational collegiate curriculum. Nacktkultur combined back-to-nature nude frolicking in outdoor settings with notions of self-discipline and increased labor productivity. Although highly influential on Nacktkultur, Mensendieck’s work was noticeably more rationalized and embedded in the language of industrial efficiency and military inspection. One of her students, Fritz Giese, compared her work to that of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the American time-movement study efficiency expert.

While her influence on expressive German modern dance is now recognized, how her training system coincided with and contributed to strategies of modern self-inspection, rationalized movement, and kinesthetic efficiency has not. Mensendieck was concerned that the habits of modern everyday life eroded the body’s efficiency, creating poor body mass alignments that had long-term damaging effects. With proper posture, breathing, and movements, the muscles could be re-educated so that the relationship between nervous system, musculature, and skeletal alignment worked together to achieve the smoothest, most concise, and most energy-efficient and energy-enhancing ways to sit, rise, stand, walk, and breathe. Believing that muscular realignment could not occur without seeing how the body worked, Mensendieck instituted effective methods for visual inspection of muscular function. Techniques of self-inspection, aided by mirrors and nudity, trained practitioners to internalize and enforce their own body’s efficiency. Mensendieck’s illustrated instructional volumes and a rare physical culture film, the primary sources for this paper, also visualized the body’s posture and movement. In schematic and metaphoric images that demonstrated kinesthetics with and without skin, Mensendieck exercisers learned to visualize muscles and bones in movement.
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MLA Citation:

Veder, Robin. "Seeing through Clothing, Seeing through Skin: Physical Culture’s Self-Disciplining Modern Gaze" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244840_index.html>

APA Citation:

Veder, R. "Seeing through Clothing, Seeing through Skin: Physical Culture’s Self-Disciplining Modern Gaze" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244840_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: In the early twentieth century, the Mensendieck exercise program bridged the modern body cultures of German Nacktkultur (nudism) and American labor efficiency. At its core was a rationalized approach to body mechanics and the visual strategy of assessing and correcting posture, gesture, and movement through a self-disciplining gaze. In this paper, I analyze Mensendieck’s strategies for visualizing subtle and invisible muscle movement, and argue for her significance in the making of international body cultures of modernity. Mensendieck practice constitutes an international crossroads between Germany and the United States, and simultaneously offers an interdisciplinary crossroads between the histories of the body and visual culture. This study builds on the historiography of modernism and the body (Karl Toepfer, Tim Armstrong, Hillel Schwartz, Elspeth Brown, Jonathan Auerbach), medical imaging (Barbara Stafford, Lisa Cartwright, David Serlin), and theoretical approaches to vision, power, and the body (Michel Foucault, Laura Mulvey).

Originally from New York, Dr. Bess M. Mensendieck (1864-1958) developed a network of schools in northern Europe in the early 1900s, making significant contributions to German Nacktkultur (nudism) and the international modern dance movement. When Mensendieck returned to the United States at the outbreak of WWI, her program was adopted in American physical educational collegiate curriculum. Nacktkultur combined back-to-nature nude frolicking in outdoor settings with notions of self-discipline and increased labor productivity. Although highly influential on Nacktkultur, Mensendieck’s work was noticeably more rationalized and embedded in the language of industrial efficiency and military inspection. One of her students, Fritz Giese, compared her work to that of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the American time-movement study efficiency expert.

While her influence on expressive German modern dance is now recognized, how her training system coincided with and contributed to strategies of modern self-inspection, rationalized movement, and kinesthetic efficiency has not. Mensendieck was concerned that the habits of modern everyday life eroded the body’s efficiency, creating poor body mass alignments that had long-term damaging effects. With proper posture, breathing, and movements, the muscles could be re-educated so that the relationship between nervous system, musculature, and skeletal alignment worked together to achieve the smoothest, most concise, and most energy-efficient and energy-enhancing ways to sit, rise, stand, walk, and breathe. Believing that muscular realignment could not occur without seeing how the body worked, Mensendieck instituted effective methods for visual inspection of muscular function. Techniques of self-inspection, aided by mirrors and nudity, trained practitioners to internalize and enforce their own body’s efficiency. Mensendieck’s illustrated instructional volumes and a rare physical culture film, the primary sources for this paper, also visualized the body’s posture and movement. In schematic and metaphoric images that demonstrated kinesthetics with and without skin, Mensendieck exercisers learned to visualize muscles and bones in movement.


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