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Abstract

Did the Body Have a Cold War? examines the central place of the gendered body in the construction of Czechoslovak socialism since the mid-1960s. Over the course of the 1960s, Czechoslovak society changed from a communist revolutionary project to a welfare, consumer society, whose primary unit was the nuclear family. My dissertation explores how this transformation affected discourses and practices related to the body. I argue that the so-called Czechoslovak normalization regime – called normalization to indicate the return to the socialist “normal” after the upheaval of the Prague Spring – rested in cultivating aesthetically pleasing, appropriately gendered, and thoroughly heterosexual bodies as tools of advancing a particularly Czechoslovak version of socialism and managing contradictions of the late socialist society. Essentialized ideas of gender difference, including different bodily capacities and demeanor, in fact, shaped the late socialist “good life” and were used to enhance the systemic uniqueness of socialism. Across five chapters, exploring different areas of body culture – dieting and obesity, beauty and cosmetics, military service, reproduction, and transsexuality – I follow different ways of mobilizing and embodying gender difference. In tracing the negotiations of authority and influence over the body among various actors, such as Party representatives, experts, media, and individuals, I show that the meaning of good life in late socialism was subject to constant (re)definition. The dissertation makes three major contributions. First, by focusing on expert discourse, it shows th prominent place of medical expertise in shaping Czechoslovak bodies, marginalizing the Communist Party. Second, it traces continuities and shifts across political watersheds, linking pre-socialist, socialist, and post-socialist periods. Finally, by showing that similar phenomena related to the body emerged on both sides of the Iron Curtain, it demonstrates that the Cold War produced both similarities and differences in body cultures, challenging the association of consumer body practices with western liberalism.

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