Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is well known for its negative descriptions of the female body. Several interpreters claim that Beauvoir presents the female body as a mere obstacle: being dominated by the cycles of menstruation, pregnancies, and nursing, the female body severely limits the free choice and self-fulfillment of the woman. Critics argue further that such a view of the female body is partial, and worse, biased by a male - Sartrean or Cartesian - point of view. According to the critics, Beauvoir ends up describing the female body as a burden (DS 11 511; SS 630) because she accepts Sartre's voluntarist notion of subjectivity.
This common reading of The Second Sex is mistaken. Beauvoir’s negative comments regarding the female body do not disclose her fundamental concept of feminine embodiment. They constitute only a provisional step in a more far-reaching argument. Beauvoir’s discussion of femaleness can be understood only if its philosophical starting points are understood and appreciated. The aim of this chapter is to clarify and make explicit these starting points.