Performativity illustrated: Why are women shorter than men? (Steffen)

In Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘sex’ feminist philosopher Judith Butler (1993) suggests that what is formed through the iteration and citation of powerful discourses is not only gender identities. In her account, sex is also connected to discourse, i.e. our bodies, our biology, our anatomy – all this is not ‘natural’ in the sense of being something extra-discursive. Put differently, the ways in which gender and biological sex materialise are not independent from performative practices. In this contribution, I’m going to illustrate Butler’s conception of performativity by reffering to a recent documentary that asks why women, on average, are shorter than men.

Butler’s theory of performativity has received widespread attention among academics. Her account might have been regarded as provocative because it implies that materiality and discourse are inextricably entwined. Although materiality was already crucial to Foucault’s notion of discourse, both concepts still seem to be (mis)understood frequently as a strictly opposed binary (cf. Barad 2007).

So how does discourse, according to Butler, matter to the materialisation of bodies? Indeed, it might appear relatively intuitive to regard gender identities as being (re)produced by repetitive acts of saying and doing. From our childhood we are interpellated as either girls or boys and therefore we tend to comply with the expected behaviours and norms according to our gender. Imagining, however, that even sex – in the sense of the biological characteristics of bodies – is constituted in the same way might be more astonishing. It may easily appear as if Butler would overly inflate the socio-cultural capacity to construct reality (and the material bodies within). For example, I can dress up as a drag queen but that doesn’t make me, anatomically speaking, a woman. But this, as far as I understand her, is not Butler’s point. Neither does she deny biological limits, constraints, and differences, nor would she regard them as arbitrary. Rather, she suggest that the limits of ‘sex’ cannot be regarded as independent from discourses about ‘sex’. What does that mean?

To be honest, Butler’s style of writing is demanding. But while she received an anti-prize for “bad writing”, her theoretical accounts are far from nonsense. Fortunately, there is a recent documentary by French director Véronique Kleiner (2013) which, in my view, illustrates the importance of Butler’s contribution with an easily accessible example. Pourquoi les femmes sont-elles plus petites que les hommes? (see English trailer here) challenges the quickest and simplest answer to the question why women are shorter than men: nature. It’s the anatomy of the human species. Men are taller than women. That’s just the way things are. Period.

But why is it that when we speak about biological characteristics they’re often assumed to be ‘natural’ and unchangeable? Isn’t Darwin’s theory of evolution an account of how the biological characteristics of species are quite changeable? Doesn’t epigenetics show us how bodies can adapt to environmental changes quite quickly?

Blue whales have the largest vaginas of any living organism (source of info: logical deduction from sexist silence; source of inspiration and image:

The next best answer to the ‘sexual dimorphism’, i.e. sexually differing body sizes, might be that men have to be taller because they – at least the heterosexual ones – fight each other to win a woman’s favour. Indeed, there are some parallels to the dimorphism as it occurs in other species such as deer or gorillas among which we find significantly bigger males. The largest living being on earth and allegedly in history, however, is the female Blue Whale. Although males are smaller than females, on Wikipedia it is currently only mentioned that Blue whales have “the largest penis of any living organism”. Why am I not surprised that the largest vagina, which, considering the size of females, should also be the largest sexual organ on the planet, does not receive any attention (let alone admiration)?

The documentary highlights that most people who tried to explain sexual dimorphism asked why men are taller than women. This question implies that women are the passive baseline against which male growth is measured. Both the accuracy of evolutionary theory and a non-sexist approach, however, require to put the question the other way round as well. We get different answers when we are not only interested in the size of males (and their penises), but also in the size of women acknowledging that they too can grow taller.

Food is crucial to body size. The amount eaten and in particular the intake of protein correlates with size. When females give birth, Kleiner argues, they are particularly in need of protein and iron, which is highly concentrated in meat. Iron is also essential to prevent the risk of anemia during periods. Although, from this perspective, it can reasonably be argued that meat is more benificial to women’s bodies than to men’s bodies, even in face of the abundance in contemporary ‘consumer societies’ men eat significantly more meat.

As there doesn’t seem to be a biological logic behind this, the documentary turns towards a self-recursive field that all too often manages to work without obvious logic: culture.

“Siberia: After a reindeer has been slaughtered, the woman presents the meat to her husband while she gnaws at the bones. If you’re a woman you may deal with the leftovers. Uganda: When families sit down to eat, the men are always served first. By the time the young girls get a chance, there’s no meat left. Morocco: The men eat before children and women who learn to refuse meat. India: At mealtimes the woman feeds her husband and children, boys before girls. It’s common to find households in which women are vegetarian but not the men. The Auvergne [France], not so long ago: Women didn’t sit at the table but spent their time going from oven to table serving the master of the family. Then they’d eat whatever is left over. If there was a bird, they’d get the carcass and neck, if a rabbit, the head.” (Kleiner 2013: 45 minutes, 30 seconds)

A further example by anthropologist Françoise Héritier is that women in Burkina Faso were observed to let baby girls wait when they desired to eat or drink whereas baby boys were served immediately. When asked the women all said: “If a boy cries you have to feed him right away because his body goes red, and he’ll explode with fury. So you have to feed him”. The reason they gave for letting girls wait was not physiological but sociological: “A woman will never be satisfied throughout her life, so it’s better to teach her this right from the start”. Getting girls used to frustration, Héritier argues, they are grown up in a way that waiting for another’s benevolence feels natural to them, while boys learn to expect immediate satisfaction of all their needs and desires.

The intake of meat is highly gendered, and this is likely to affect the materiality of bodies. While Kleiner (2013) seems to naturalise meat consumption, it is rather questionable to consider meat as a nutritional necessity for humans because a high protein intake can be met with plants as well (beans, pulses, potatoes, and wholemeal grains, for example, contain protein; cf. Leitzmann & Keller: 263-267). However, dietary variety is without a doubt more difficult in lack of the abundance of ‘consumer society’, and Kleiner shows convincingly how crucial meat consumption is for explaining the space-time-history of our bodies. When Butler proposes a return to the notion of matter she refers to “a process of material­ization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (Butler 1993: 9; cf. Barad 2007: 64). The fact, that women are shorter than men may have materialised, it is very real; but, reading Kleiner and Butler together, the current sizes of our bodies did not occur independently from gendered and very sexist discourses, and they are bound to the performative practices how we feed our babies and how our food production and consumption is gendered. Considering that culture rather than an essential entity is a dynamic doing, the future sizes of our naturalcultural bodies must be considered as radically open. There is a possible future in which women are taller than men, but I suggest that we just aim at meeting halfway.



Barad K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
Butler J (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex.” New York: Routledge.
Kleiner V (2013) Pourquoi les femmes sont-elles plus petites que les hommes? [documentary]. France: Point du Jour.
Leitzmann C and Keller M (2010) Vegetarische Ernährung. Stuttgart: Ulmer UTB.