Visual representation of bodies



By Avan Omar

In our contemporary period of multiculturalism and globalisation, race, and ethnicity still play an important role in the process of defining cultures and identities. Stereotyping is not a thing of the past, but rather a vivid force that impacts contemporary behaviour. I am interested in exploring the situation of people marginalised by their outward appearance and the associations that such marginalisation acquires with regard to religion, culture, and worldview. Specifically, the fixed portrayal of certain groups as “outsiders” or “strangers” in the Western European categorization.

Historically, the body of the stranger has been used to symbolise a looming, unknown threat. The realm of visual art is introduced as a means to unpack how the idea of the stranger is upheld through stereotypes that are rooted in the visual representation of bodies. Especially, the notions of the stranger that grounded in post-colonial thought.

According to cultural theorist Chris Weedon,[1] hegemonic power within many Western European societies has unresolved colonial roots. It is a tension that becomes visible in the attempts made by such societies to deal with non-Western European bodies. These bodies are marked by visual appearance, language, and attitudes that identify them as “different,” and are typically categorised as not belonging to Western European society. The roots of these encounters stretch back hundreds of years; the Western European colonial period began roughly around the 16th century and continued well into the mid-20th century. A common thread in these cases is the white male body settling in other places by means of military power and proceeding to oppress other people and cultures. There are countless examples of Western European “settlers”. To take a few instances from the past centuries, the Dutch colonised Indonesia, the Belgians colonised the Congo, the English colonised India – the list goes on and on. In the majority of these cases, Western European colonisers imposed their power, positioning themselves as superior and the colonised as inferior, barbaric, and uncivilised. The echoes of this power dynamic are clearly visible in many Western European societies.

However, the relations between domination and subordination are not expressed as openly as in colonial times, rather they have assumed more subtle strategies and are disseminated by means of media, language, and the rituals of daily life. In the increasingly connected contemporary of a Western Europe confronting new notions of multiculturalism and migration, how do different bodies recognise and define each other on the social stage? In short, how is the stranger/outsider recognised at all?

Recognising the Outsider/ Stranger

The stranger is someone who is not familiar to the inhabitants of a specific place. The stranger is recognisable by their appearance, behaviour, and language. “Foreigner,” “outsider,” “uncanny,” “refugee,” and “alien” are a few names for the unknown. Human relations are constructed around the concept of knowing. If somebody is close to us, we know them. If we do not know somebody, he or she is foreign, but we know also that they are not one of us, even though we do not know them in person. This creates a seeming paradox: how can we know the unknown?

According to Sara Ahmed the figure of the stranger can be recognised in the very moment of the encounter. She further claims that:

In the gesture of recognising the one that we do not know, the one that is different from ‘us’, we flesh out the beyond, and give it a face and form. It is this ‘fleshing out’ of strangers in encounters with embodied others that I examine.[2]

These contrary ideas regarding knowing and not knowing, about confronting difference, take place in the contemporary process of globalisation, which has introduced many changes to the political, economic, cultural, and social behaviours. Globalisation occurs through means such as advances in transportation, which have made mobility easier and travel more frequent. Nevertheless, as Chris Rumford claims, the question of who is a stranger in the era of global connectivity is no longer obvious. Although, it is still necessary. Rumford argues that the stranger does not always resemble an outsider who “comes today and stays tomorrow.”[3]

The contemporary stranger is different, because we are not capable of recognising who is a newcomer, both due to the size of the contemporary city and the increased movement of its inhabitants. The global connectivity that Rumford speaks of underlines the paradox involved in the attempt to define the stranger. On the one hand, the increased mobility, information systems, and monetary systems give the illusion that we are more connected. On the other hand, this increased connectivity means that people have fewer ties to specific geographic communities, especially major cities. Rumford observes that as a result, the feeling of belonging to a group becomes unstable:

Strangeness is a type of social disorientation (resulting from an experience of globalisation) as a result of which we are no longer sure who we are, and we find it difficult to say who belongs to our group and who comes from outside.[4]

Rumford claims that we can no longer clearly make the distinction between those who do and do not belong to a group, and so must rely on other signifiers. Contemporary manifestations of the stranger are diverse and can include “the tourist,” “the illegal immigrant,” “the trusted traveller,” and many other labels. However, Rumford underlines that even if it is impossible to determine who belongs to a specific city, this does not mean that the fixed image of the stranger vanishes. The designation of the stranger merely transfers to other signifiers of difference, such as different skin colour or dress code. These signifiers instantly conjure associations that echo stereotypes and cultural hierarchies rooted in information from the media, educational systems and personal experience.

For instance, in the case of the Netherlands, over one hundred different cultures reside together. Many immigrants settled as citizens after originally migrating in search of work. In an article that was based on research concerning over five hundred lawsuits in 2010 and published under the title “Verdachte met buitenlands uiterlijk krijgt eerder celstraf,”[5] which roughly translates to “Suspects with a non-white physical appearance are imprisoned sooner than those without”, the creation of negative stereotypes is addressed directly. The researchers conclude that suspects with a “non-Dutch” appearance, or who bore the marks of the “foreign/stranger”, were punished in remarkably higher proportions than those who appeared “Dutch”. They concluded that those who appear “non-Dutch” are five times more likely to be placed in a cell; when those incarcerated didn’t speak Dutch, the likelihood rose to twenty times as often.

In this context, “otherness” is defined by difference, typically difference marked by outward signs such as race. As such, otherness within Western European society, or in the case above, Dutch society, has been associated predominantly with marginalized groups within it. Otherness is associated with those who have been disempowered in the social, religious, and political spheres. As signs of belonging based on place dissolve amidst globalisation, the markers of difference in relation to visual identity have assumed an increased importance. There are countless stereotypes based on the visual manifestations of the body and what it signifies to the respective host society. In these contexts, the body is often a static visual signifier of both difference and control. In his essay “The Other Question: Stereotype, discrimination and the discourse of colonialism”,[6] Homi K. Bhabha touches on this in his claim that signs of the visible body, such as skin, are fetishised as a means to disavow difference, reinforce stereotypes, and maintain control. In this context specifically, I will investigate the stereotype as perpetuating a fixed image of a group of people.

Rigid image

The etymology of the word “stereotype” derives from the Greek words στερεός (stereos), “firm, solid” and τύπος (typos), impression, meaning solid impression. In 1798, the English word “stereotype” was coined to describe a technical printing process. It was originally used to refer to the rigid metal plate that was used to repeatedly produce a rigid and fixed image.[7] The word “stereotype” was later used metaphorically to refer to persons; today, its original meaning has fallen from use. The contemporary definition of “stereotype” is a “preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group.” This definition can be traced back to 1922, when it was first used by American journalist Walter Lippmann in his 1922 book Public Opinion. In Public Opinion, the stereotype functions as a metaphor for any set of ideas repeated identically or with only minor changes. Lippmann defines “stereotype” as a warped internal image deriving from cultural experience rather than personal experience. The stereotype is passed on as a form that is fixed and unchangeable from the moment of its creation; it is transferred from generation to generation and not challenged by experience or evidence.

Furthermore, Lippmann defines the stereotype as a generalisation that serves to create categories and help people manage their environment in an important, useful, and even efficient manner. Lippmann states that “the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question.”[8]

Stereotyping is used for a variety of reasons. In Lippmann’s discussion of the usefulness or efficiency of stereotyping, he talks about generalizing rather than stereotyping. In the present, stereotyping always carries negative connotations. I refer to Lippmann because it was he who first introduced the term “stereotype” as a concept for the description of social phenomena. I focus on the issue of the stereotype as a false representation due to its reinforcement of generalisations about groups. In this context, stereotypes do not incompletely depict the “other,” but are a significant factor in upholding power relations. One way to investigate the connection of stereotyping to power relations: its connections to the colonial legacy.

For Bhabha, the function of the stereotype is to produce the “other.” The concept of fixity is an ideological construction that supports the idea of otherness, which for Bhabha underlies colonial discourse, especially concerning race and gender relations. The stereotyped person is reduced to the “other” in that they are denied individuality and always perceived as a member of a larger group. By these means, they are shut out of the dominant group.

To depict the other in a certain way – predominantly as a pure and fixed type – relies on the process that Bhabha refers to as the “regime of truth.” Initially, this term is taken from Michel Foucault, who posits that truth as an “objective” quality is problematic. Instead of “truth,” Foucault proposes the phrase “regimes of truth,” which helps us to see how “truth” is always embedded within a particular power structure. For Foucault, power cannot be established without determining the boundaries of what is “true.” Bhabha asserts that this is why the coloniser wants to know everything about the colonised. The coloniser uses this knowledge or information to identify the colonised and to impose on them the forms of “correct” behaviour. Through the information or knowledge that the colonizer possesses, he or she establishes the “truth” about the colonized. In this sense, knowledge is an instrument of power. Despite the fact that this knowledge adds detail to the image of the colonized, their representation remains essentially pure and fixed. This fixity is accomplished by “othering” the colonised subject – a linguistic process that emphasises the fundamental difference of the colonized in relation to those in power.

Bhabha argues that though there is a base level of knowledge created from the desire to know the “other,” this does not crystallise into recognition of the “other,” because the coloniser disavows their own knowledge. This type of unlearning, undertaken to maintain existing hierarchies, shows the ambivalence of the process of stereotyping and identity construction. This ambivalence of learning and knowledge versus unlearning, reinforced by repetition, is especially revealed in the fixed image. In terms of this image, it is important to look at Bhabha’s claim that:

An important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of “fixity” in the ideological construction of otherness. Fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition. Likewise the stereotype, which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always “in place”, already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated.[9]

Bhabha describes the stereotype as an ideological operation that marks a group as “other”. For him, it is a paradoxical strategy because it creates fixity out of chaos. On the one hand, the individuals or groups who are stereotyped have no opportunity to change their fixed image: they are always perceived as the “other.” On the other hand, this construction is something that must be repeated constantly in order to function, and is often rooted in the indefinable and emotional, such as feelings of fear. Ultimately, stereotypical images become normalised through repetition. The key to this process is Bhabha’s claim that the stereotype is a “sign.” In this definition, the semiotic term refers to Ferdinand de Saussure’s formulation, according to which the sign is composed of two parts: “the signifier” and “the signified.” For Saussure, the signifier is the physical form of a sign, a shape of a word, the element that we can see, touch, smell, hear, or taste.

The form might be a facial expression, a sound, word, photograph, and so on, while the signified is the concept or object that appears in our minds when we hear or read the signifier. I explored this concept by typing “prominent stereotypes” into a common internet browser. Below are a few of the results in which “the signifier” and “the signified” make up “the sign.”

                                      Signifier: Jewish, white people, Muslim
                                     Signified: greedy, intellectual, fundamentalist


In this example and countless others, the repetition of the sign constitutes the stereotype. This repetition constitutes a reality based on unprovable “facts” that do not apply to everyone in these categories. There is no definite proof that every Muslim is a fundamentalist or that white people are intellectuals, but through repetition the image becomes fixed. This repetition is connected to the processes of ambivalence and disavowal that Bhabha has described. It is important that we explore these concepts further. In particular, we need to see how Bhabha defines difference by means of the psychoanalytical terms of “phobia” and “fetish,” which introduces the stereotype as a type of fetish.

Stereotype as Fetish

According to Bhabha, the power of stereotype is maintained by the relation of the coloniser and the colonised. Bhabha suggests that their interactions are ambivalent and incorporate both the recognition and disavowal of differences. He further relates this to Sigmund Freud’s theory of fetishism. Freud theorises that fetishism developed out of the boy’s discovery that his mother does not have the same genitalia as him. This discovery makes the boy realise the difference between him and his mother. He starts to fetishise a new object to replace his mother’s imaginary penis. Freud posits that the boy simultaneously retains the belief that his mother has a penis while knowing that she does not have one; and he argues that the boy subjects himself to this contradiction because of his fear of castration. In order to compromise, he creates a fetish object, which Bhabha sees as directly related to the colonial process of stereotyping via knowledge and disavowal. Bhabha states:

Fetishism, as the disavowal of difference, is that repetitious scene around the problem of castration. The recognition of sexual difference as the precondition for the circulation of the chain of absence and presence in the realm of the Symbolic, is disavowed by fixation on an object that masks that difference and restores an original presence. The functional link between the fixation of the fetish and the stereotype (or stereotype as fetish) is even more relevant.[10]

Bhabha further argues that the dominant power which recognises the difference between itself and the other has a desire for wholeness. as the fear of castration is linked to the moment in which the boy recognises the difference between him and his mother, as soon as the coloniser recognises the difference of the colonised via language, there is an identity crisis, and the coloniser fetishises a new object, like skin, to maintain ambivalence:

To understand this demand and how the native or Negro is made “palatable” we must acknowledge some significant differences between the general theory of fetishism and its specific uses for an understanding of racist discourse. First, the fetish of colonial discourse – what Fanon calls the epidermal schema – is not, like the sexual fetish, a secret. Skin, as the key signifier of cultural and racial difference in the stereotype, is the most visible of fetishes, recognized as “common knowledge” in a range of cultural, political and historical discourse, and plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies…[11]

Thus, the fetishized object contributes to colonial stereotypes and can be ideologically manipulated to represent whatever the colonizer needs it to be. It uses the differences of race, culture and history as instruments by means of which the colonial subjects can be situated within fixed domains. This control extends to terminology as well. Categories such as “race” and “culture” are non-neutral terms with specific historical baggage used to control and fix stereotypes. For Bhabha, this ambivalence is related to simultaneous colonial desire and hatred and parallels the imaginary wholeness in Jacques Lacan’s idea of “the Imaginary Stage.”

In his essay “The Mirror Stage,” Lacan claims that the concept of “the imaginary” is made up of two parts: “to imagine” and “imaginary order.” He gives the example of the process of the infant seeing and recognizing itself in the mirror for the first time. Before this event, the infant thinks that the world is one large whole and that he or she actually is this world. The moment of recognition of his or her image in the mirror causes feelings of joy, because for the first time the infant sees his or her own body shape and begins to feel in control of it. Lacan argues for this moment as the one in which the individual enters language and representation and thus becomes part of society. Thus, the individual moves from the “imaginary order” to the “symbolic order.”

For Bhabha “the Mirror Stage” is a crucial means for understanding colonial processes of ambivalence. He describes how fetishism is necessary in order for the colonizer to maintain feelings of control and mastery. When Bhabha references Lacan, he underlines that control depends on visible fetishisation. He asserts that fetishism gives the dominant person or group a feeling of coherence and mastery within their imaginary order, undergirding the identification of self and “other.”

In many cases, as Chris Weedon asserts that[12] identity becomes an issue when it is in crisis, the increased perception of threat in Western Europe and the United States in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many see this date as a turning point for the dangerous combination of mounting media representation of a perceived terrorist threat and increasing numbers of migrants from developing countries escaping repressive regimes. In Western European society, this fear often manifests itself in the increased prominence of xenophobia, especially when it comes to questions about identity. The body is central to understanding identity: it is a present, visible sign of social and political processes. In the realm of the visual, the body manifests its presence in relation to social standards such as race, class, and gender. It expresses these social forms through its way of dressing, acting, and speaking. To what extent do such discourses still have powerful effects on us? How do forms of racism continue to structure both the ways in which people are classified and how they see themselves? In Bhabha’s attempt to redefine the stereotype as an ideological strategy for power and domination, the binary relation between the marginalized and dominant groups represents a unique and still relevant redefinition of the cultural encounter.

Bhabha suggests that fixed racial and national identity is illusionary and imaginary. He introduces the stereotype in connection with the fetish – as an ambivalent, unstable process that depends on repetition. He states that “the colonial presence is always ambivalence, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference.”[13] Ultimately, these stratified rules of society have an impact on the individual’s subjectivity and the ways in which individuals define the world around them. It is clear that the stereotype is an enduring tool for those in power, and that it is not easy to blur the lines between groups. Simultaneously, I see the struggle to counter stereotyping as a trap for marginalized groups.





Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included Racism And Diversity In Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: embodied others in post-coloniality. London: Routledge 2001, 2000

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London. London: Routledge, 1994.

Kurylo, Anastacia. The communicated stereotype: from celebrity vilification to everyday talk. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013

Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1922.

Rumford, Chris. The Globalization of Strangeness. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated by Kurt Wolff. New York: Free Press.

Weedon, Chris. Identity and culture: narratives of difference and belonging. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2009




[1] Chris Weedon, Identity and culture: narratives of difference and belonging (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2009)

[2] Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge 2001, 2000), 3.

[3] A statement originally made by George Simmel in 1908 in his essay The Stranger. Published in Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, trans. Kurt Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950).

[4] Chris Rumford, The Globalization of Strangeness (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 10.


[6] Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 66–84

[7] Anastacia Kurylo, The communicated stereotype: from celebrity vilification to everyday talk (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), 2.

[8] Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1922), 59.

[9] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 66.

[10] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 74.

[11] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 78.

[12] Chris Weedon, Identity and culture: narratives of difference and belonging,1-22.

[13] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 107.

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