Reischer, Erica and Kathryn S. Soo. 2004. “The Body Beautiful: Symbolism and Agency in the Social World.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 297-317.
Prominence of body in popular culture. The body, redefined, away from biologies and into sociocultural, sociohistorical analyses (see Bourdieu 1977, Elias 1978, Foucault 1979, Goffman 1968, Mauss 1973). Two primary anthropological theoretical orientations of the body: as “agent” or as “symbol”.
Body as symbol – “conduit of social meaning” (298), body as agent – active participant in social world
Beautification as a human process – “Indeed, our capacity for self-modification and adornment is a central and essential feature to our humanity, though the particular ways in which we alter our bodies are clearly a cultural phenomenon” (297). Bodies modified for several reasons: defining participation or rejection/opposition to social groups, signaling change in social status, but most often for the pursuit/attainment of beauty.
Beauty, though highly subjective, is more than simply a matter of aesthetics or taste. Cultural ideals of beauty are also an index and expression of social values and beliefs – so much so that “the history of [society] is in large measure the history of women’s beauty” (Jury & Jury 1986).
However, not always a feminine, women’s ideal. Male body ideals, coding of masculinity through beauty is a growing literature (See Connell 1995, Bordo 1999, Faludi 1999)
Focuses mostly on western norms – however, varying beauty norms across the globe demonstrate the social construction of beauty. Bodies as a means to index and express social worlds. Body beautiful becomes way to display social values, demonstrate social power, control (body as symbol), also, bodies as acting selves to utilize symbolic nature of bodies to achieve own ends – a way to negotiate dominant cultural values. Bodies as a site for social construction and performance of gender.
Body as a Symbol
References Mary Douglas (1970) to note that body acts as a text that can metaphorically be read as a symbol OR signifier of social world. Social worlds aid to inform us of how to “read” these symbols – often done instantaneously or without process thought. Bodies as a way to potential site to express cultural values (Becker 1994, Bordo 1993, Brownell 1991, Crawford 1984, Glassner 1988, Ritenbaugh 1982).
As Balsamo notes, “The body becomes.. .the site at which women, consciously or not, accept the meanings that circulate in popular culture about ideal beauty…. The female body comes to serve as a site of inscription, a billboard for the dominant cultural meanings that the female body is to have in postmodernity” (1996, p. 78).
Bordo (1993) notes that size and shape of body is often read as a way to signal the moral state of the person in question. Fatness, then, is not about aesthetics of size, but about social symbolism of size. Maintaining body ideal, ideal type notes cooperation with cultural values – discipline associated with maintaining a small body size, eating disorders/exercise to regiment bodies. Notes Naomi Wolf’s beauty myth – non-universal, a form of “cultural currency” used to limit/control women’s access to power/ permissions within the workplace. Fatness as a form of rejection of this control, deliberate feminist rebellion against sexualized womanhood (Orbach 1978) – a way to neutralize sexual identity to gain power/respect amongst male peers. Fat as a transgression – the containment and erasure of fat bodies (Braziel and LeBesco 2001). “Fat talk” (“I’m so fat”) – means to socializing body norms, also to designate membership within a group, demonstrate deference. Varies from races – white beauty as often static, cultivating envy, alienation; black beauty as egalitarian, appreciative, cooperative (Nichter 2000), cosmetic surgery as a way to communicate assimilation to a race/nation, obtain work, defy stereotype, agently negotiate membership/femininity/body ideals. Historically, femininity and beauty was intertwined with characteristics, rather than bodily improvement.
Body as Agent
Merleau-Ponty (1962) – body as medium for world, having a world; Bourdieu – body structures action and perception (1977) – bodies mediate world, constitute subjectivity, permits membership, promotes social action, interacts with social institutions, prepares you for new social roles
“The body is not only a symbolic field for the reproduction of dominant values and conceptions; it is also a site for resistance to and transformation of those systems of meaning” (Crawford 1984, p. 95).
Bodily “fact” of sex is socially constructed, subjective – has been used to defend inequalities and problematic normalization of social institutions. Beauty pageants as a means to create unified identity of ethnicity and femininity through an ideal type. Beauty pursuits and feminization of dress in high power positions to re-establish membership despite “unfeminine ambition”. Muscular female body as an interesting development – women who come of age nowadays are more comfortable and acceptable of muscular women (due to feminist impacts on embodiment?) – demonstration of social values commonly associated with masculinity, but acts as a “prime site for the contestation of social and individual power; it is the locus of both oppression and empowerment, simultaneously” (314).
“Bodily (re)form both reflects and motivates processes of social reform” (315).
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