February 28 , 2012
Sociology of the Body
• Different Conceptions of the Body
• Subject and Object
• The Body and Society
• The Social Construction of Disability
• Video: Shameless – The ART of Disability
• The Sociology of Aging & Results from Optional Homework
The Body: Not Just Biology
• An on-going focus of this course is the difference that living in society makes to what we
do, how we see ourselves, objects and others, and what happens as a result.
• From another perspective, Psychology focuses a lot on the body but not so much
• Yet our bodies are something we have ‘inherited', fully made up by genes and thus not a
'product' of society.
• A belief in such immutability, however, is an error. The belief that the body is made up of
only genes, or that our bodies are the same as they were 500 years ago, is wrong.
Bodies are changing all the time.
• Like anything else about us, the circumstance of living in society makes an enormous
amount of difference to our bodies.
• Even a lot about the size and form of our bodies and is determined by genes – by
nature, not culture – societal pressures pushes to turn our bodies in a condition that is
recognized as being right and proper. These societal pressures push us to make us
believe that we have to have right, good and proper bodies. • Societal elements determine what the “ideal body” is.
Embodied Selves: Perfection and Satisfaction
• The kind of society in which we live affects whether we are at peace with our body.
• We may view our bodies as a task – something to work on which requires daily care and
• We see our body as a canvas, changing and molding it to become the “perfect” body.
o Ex. How much fat is acceptable, and in what parts of the body?
• Once working on our body has been formed into a duty, society sets the standards for a
desirable and approved shape.
• It can be seen as a duty both to others and to yourself because you want to be
accepted. You do not want people to walk away from you or ignore you because of the
way you look.
• It is society that sets all of these standards.
o Ex. When wearing make-up, how much is too much, or too little?
o Life is often a constant weighing on a scale: does that body fit the criteria? Why
or why not?
Discrimination Based on the Body
• Failure to comply with standards can induce feelings of shame.
• Those not meeting such requirements may find themselves subjected to routine
o Ex. Prejudicial attitudes towards disabled people as manifest in the very design
• However bizarre it may seem at first glance, our bodies are the objects of social
• Some parts of the body are a result of society/pressures. We treat our bodies as
machines that we can manipulate and maximize.
• For more detailed discussion, see Michel Foucault and his views on technologies of the
Body as a Site of Anxiety
• We watch closely what we eat, drink and breathe. • Any food or air that may do harm to the body is looked at with caution. It is not
surprising, therefore, that we find a whole industry and set of marketing techniques that
are part of the discourses of the body: for example, foods that are 'good' for us and
others that are `bad' for us.
• In general, women care more about what goes into their bodies than men.
• Tons of money and companies go into getting consumers to feel badly about themselves
so that they will invest more money into diets/exercise programs/supplements.
o Confidence in the body is bad for sales and marketing.
Body as Site of Pleasure
• The body is a site not only of anxiety, but also of pleasure.
• We find an industry that prompts us to seek sensation: films, soaps, glossy magazines,
commercials, books and shop windows tempt us.
o Advertising for things such as good chocolate, spa days and adrenalin-pumping
activities all give us the sense of pleasure.
• For example, eating and drinking are social occasions that may induce pleasurable
sensations and exciting experiences.
Pursuit of Fitness and health
• Part of the concern with our bodies, to train them, exercise them is to be more healthy
• Both aims are commendable. Sometimes, however, they are different and sometimes at
cross-purposes with each other.
• Health is about balance. Everything in balance and moderation is a good thing.
• Fitness can be about pushing oneself ever further.
The Body and Desire
• The body is not only the site and tool of desire, but also an object of desire. It is our body
that other people see first.
o Like a business card, it is the first thing people see and the first impression
people are able to get.
o The body is the impression that we make on each other until another impression
takes over. • The body is the site of ourselves that is always on display and people tend to judge by
what they can see.
• Even if the body is but a wrapping of what we take to be our `inner lives', it is the
attractiveness, beauty, elegance and charm of the wrapping that will entice others at
first. It forms first impressions.
• This means that although “it’s what inside that counts”, what is on the outside still has an
effect on other people’s opinions whether we like to think so or not.
• How we manage our bodies is learnt while, at the same time, how others see us is also
the product of common expectations.
• Deviations from these may cause reflection, as well as reaction in others, leaving those
who are identified as being different at a disadvantage, despite the evident skills, abilities
and contributions that they might otherwise make to a society.
• Thus, the shape of the body, the way it is dressed and made up and the way it moves,
are messages to others.
o Ex. If professor Caron carried an extra 200 pounds on his body, his life would be
different and people would treat him differently/think different things about him.
o Like play-dough however, there is only so much you can do with the body, and
only so many ways you can mold it.
The Body and Society
• Bodies are not just biologically but also socially defined.
• Enhancing one's body image to conform to prevailing norms has became especially
important in urban, industrial societies because:
o Socially, urbanized societies present people with many more opportunities to
meet and interact with strangers and have created desire in people to transform
o Technologically, we have created technologies to transform the body.
o Economically, industrialized societies enable people to afford technologies that
transform their bodies.
The Social Const