How is The ‘Body’ Culturally Constructed?

‘The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system’ (Douglas 1966: 115).

In her work Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas describes the body as a symbol of society, where society is able to regulate the variety of bodies we have in relation to notions such as body size, fitness, health and beauty. The physical body, and the way in which it is both perceived and embodied, indicates the nature of the culture that the body exists in; the body is therefore a cultural construction. In this essay I will analyse the ways in which the body is culturally constructed, looking in particular at: body images; the gendered body; embodied selfhood; the body as a microcosm of society; the body as a site of control; and the medical body.

In the popular media, we are presented with certain body images that influence the way we perceive our physical bodies. These images are linked bodily ideals that are predetermined and set by each culture and society. For instance, from the 19th century onwards the values of western industrial capitalism have played a large role in the way we perceive ourselves in relation to our physical body, our identity and in intersection with other social constructs such as race, class and gender. The emphasis on individual responsibility and self-management propelled by capitalism have in particular become key values in relation to ideas of health, healthy lifestyle and in understanding how we become ill (Benson 1997: 123). As a result, we are continuously bombarded with biomedical statistics from both the government and commercial bodies about the ‘risks’ of getting sick through ‘risk inducing’ behaviour and habits such as overeating and not exercising (Benson 1997: 123). These social institutions advertise that we have the power to reduce our own risks of getting sick by achieving good health through maintenance and control over our own bodies (Benson 1997: 123). As Benson reiterates, these body images and ideals perpetuated by western culture aim to slow bodily failure through mastery over ‘nature’, the body and the ‘self’ (Benson, 1997: 124).

In terms of the gendered body, female corporeal representations are strictly regulated in terms of what is considered ‘feminine’, ‘sexual’ and ‘beautiful’. In particular, the shape and slimness of the female body is constantly under surveillance, where a recent shift towards maintaining a controlled, healthy body has facilitated an extremely negative view towards fat. A dichotomy between what is perceived as a ‘bad’ body and a ‘good’ body has been created, using body size and fatness as a moral and physical indicator of inner and outer health. As a consequence of these cultural constructions that centre fatness as a moral and physical index of well-being, the body has become a materialisation of the will where we are expected to master our bodies through will power.

As a result of this, issues of self-control and autonomy are often central to the relationship between the body and the self in the West (Benson 1997: 122). Within this relationship, the destructivity and disobedience of the body is of primary concern (Benson 1997: 122). The body is seen as something to be tamed – a thing, a contending will, or a territory (Benson 1997: 122). To tame and control the body is to display, both to others and to ourselves, our ‘true’ inner self: who we ‘really’ are. As Benson argues, the body acts as a channel through which our identities are revealed and transferred (1997: 123). In other words, people are embodied subjects; we experience the world and other people through our bodies. This can be discussed in a contemporary setting through the issue of disordered eating, and in particular, anorexia. As Benson mentions, many feminist writers have argued that disordered eating is a reaction to the requirements and restrictions of modern femininity by conforming to and revolting against cultural conventions around the gendered body (1997: 124).

In accordance with this argument, there appears to be a very clear link between contemporary representations of the female body, and disordered eating. Eating disorders such as anorexia are therefore heavily linked to notions of bodily control, where mastery of diet and appetite become key ways for anorectics to demonstrate the will of the ‘self’ (Benson 1997: 124). For this reason, anorexia can be best described as an exaggeration of self-control and femininity, as self-starvation and meticulous monitoring of food intake offers anorectics a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The construction of a new body through excessive regulation of self-control acts to re-establish the relationship between an ‘inner’ self, the social self that is created through communication with others, and the broader cultural framework (Benson 1997: 125). Moreover, the production of our preferred embodied self through our physical bodies can be seen as a type of performance. Judith Butler argues, for instance, that gender is a performance that provokes, disrupts or confirms societal perceptions (Benson 1997: 130). In this way, the body is a manifestation of society and social ideas, including gender.

The body can also be seen as a microcosm of society. In Martin’s study of immunology for example, the body is compared to a nation-state: ‘the immune system is an elaborate icon for principal systems of symbolic and material “difference” in late capitalism’ (Haraway 1989: 4). Scientific discourse on immunology often relies on societal narratives that liken the body to a nation-state and a police state, where the immune system defends the body (the nation and its citizens) against foreign invaders (Martin 1990: 412). This establishes a clear boundary between the ‘self’, the body, and the ‘nonself’: the outside world, which is maintained through the systematic killing of the nonself by the immune system (Martin 1990: 414). While the biological mechanisms of the immune system are completely natural, the use of societal metaphors to describe these processes indicates the much larger preoccupations of the society and culture in which our bodies are situated. Most importantly however, Martin has argued that the metaphors of war, nation-states and the violently dichotomised ‘self’ and ‘nonself’ used to describe the immune system domesticates and naturalises violence (Martin 1990: 417). These depictions also naturalise societal inequalities and hierarchies through the use of gendered and racialised analogies such as the subordinate ‘female’ phagocyte cells and the invading ‘illegal aliens’ (Martin 1990: 412, 417).

The body can also be viewed as a direct point of control by the state, who employ ‘an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques to achieve the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’ (Foucault 1976: 140). Foucault argues that through biopolitics, society and the state regulate and train bodies to produce culturally sufficient ways in which people function, with the aim of producing ‘docile’ and ‘useful’ bodies (Benson 1997: 129). The inscription of power relations upon the body also function to justify control and subjugation, similarly to Foucault’s theory of biopolitics. For instance, the system of structural and institutional racism that seeks to maintain white supremacy and subjugate non-white peoples, prescribes certain racial identities onto non-white bodies. While white people remain ‘unracialised’, and therefore the norm, the racialised bodies of non-white peoples are seeped with negative, biological and social stereotypes. An example of this is the construction of ‘blackness’ as a signifier of criminality and thuggery, while ‘whiteness’ has been established to symbolise normative and positive physical, cultural and socio-economic qualities. The caste system in India also functions in a similar way to racism, where boundaries of the physical and social body are policed based on caste hierarchy. The policing of such physical-moral boundaries renders lower-caste ‘untouchable’ bodies ‘polluted’ and dangerous to the ‘pure’ upper-caste Brahmans (Deliege 2011: 49).

One other way in which our body is constructed is through western biomedicine, what O’Neil has termed the ‘medical body’ (1985). The biomedical industry perpetuates a view of the body that has been culturally and historically formulated in the west over centuries. It maintains that the body and the mind are mutually exclusive, the reputed Cartesian dualism (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987: 9). Through this, pain and to a larger extent illness, are seen as being either mental or physical and biological or psychological, never both (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987: 10). Social information is seen as peripheral to the ‘real’ biomedical diagnosis, which allows biomedicine to pursue a materialist and reductionist approach to the body and mind, which constructs the two as being naturally and universally opposing categories (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987: 8). An alternative non-Western epistemology is the ancient Chinese holistic yin/yang cosmology that represents balanced complementarity rather than opposing dualisms (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987: 12). Scheper-Hughes and Lock argue that understandings of the healthy body emphasised under this cosmology include value on ‘order, harmony, balance and hierarchy within the context of mutual interdependencies’ (1987: 12).

Our bodies are therefore culturally constructed through and by society, where they are the outcome of invested interests from our wider society, and simultaneously the creations of our own embodied selfhoods. Culture creates, sustains and controls ideas about the body, which in turn reflect the wider interests of that cultural and social universe in which those bodies are located (Benson 2000: 234). Each culture maintains different ideal constructions of the body, the functioning of the body, and the relationship between the body and the self. Societies present us with images of the ‘ideal’ body that we are supposed to aspire to, and in doing so, revere those who do confirm, while marginalising those who do not.

— Short academic paper written in May 2014 for Anthropology of Health class