Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Body as Choice or Body as Compulsion: An Experiential Perspective on Body-Self Relations and the Boundary between Normal and Pathological

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Body as Choice or Body as Compulsion: An Experiential Perspective on Body-Self Relations and the Boundary between Normal and Pathological

Article excerpt

Since the 1980s seminal works have emerged which describe how the body formerly seen as a fixed part of nature, has been reinvented dur- ing the contemporary times of 'consumerism' (Featherstone, 1982) or 'late modernity' (Giddens, 1991). They have pointed to a new relationship between body and self, with a movement away from the inner-directed type of character towards a performing self, in which appearance, display, and impression management become essen- tial resources for individuals in day-to-day life (Featherstone, 1982). Appearance has become taken as an expression of the self (Featherstone, 1982) and the body has become 'the prime symbol of the self' (Synnott, 1993, p. 2) in contemporary times. Indeed, the mass media constantly reminds us that self-identity is defined by the condition of our bodies (Sault, 1994).

As the body is understood as the visible indi- cator of the self, attention is given to the look of the body (Featherstone, 2007). In contem- porary times people focus on the cultivation (or even creation) of the body through body work (Giddens, 1991). Body work is 'no longer simply a question of mechanical maintenance but one of lifestyle choice and identity' (Hancock et al., 2000, p. 4). The body is 'an entity which is in the process of becoming; a project which should be worked at and accomplished as part of an individual's self-identity' (Shilling, 2012, p. 6). This project is undertaken 'against the backdrop of plurality of choice' (Giddens, 1991, p. 102). That is, individuals make and remake themselves in relation to available versions of what it means to be a person (Frost, 2001). Thus the body is the result of purposeful activity (Shilling, 2012).

The seminal works by Featherstone (2007), Giddens (1991) and Shilling (2012), and sub- sequent theorists who have followed their lead, have added much to theory of the body, but have tended to focus on the general cul- ture of the body rather than the experience of the body from an empirical perspective. Indeed the social scientific study of the body can still be seen to suffer from 'theoreticism,' 'a condition which implies that attention is limited to theory, which in turn is not grounded in the empirical domain' (Nettleton & Watson, 1998, p. 2). We have seen some attempts to explore the relation- ship between body and self in empirical terms. However, these studies have usually been con- ducted among specific populations with specific bodily issues such as bodybuilding (Monaghan, 1999), being overweight (Murray, 2008), pain (Jackson, 1994), impairment (Charmaz, 1995) and chronic illness (Charmaz, 1994). There has been little research that considers body-self relations in the general population.

The majority of the empirical evidence we have regarding the lived experience of the body was collected through psychological studies of body image. However, the ability of body image studies to explore the changing body-self rela- tions of contemporary times is limited. Body image research tends to presume, rather than explore, the relationship between body and self. Schilder (1964, p. 11), often considered the founder of the body image concept, defined body image as 'the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to ourselves' (empha- sis added). Thus the concept of body image, from its inception, separated body from the mind or self. Since this time body image studies have generally employed quantitative methods focussed on levels of satisfaction with the body, and on size perceptions and body image distor- tion. Body image researchers have neglected the links between body and self, at least partly because body image studies generally lack a the- oretical framework (Tiggemann, 2004).

Dichotomies, such as that of body and self, can be useful theoretical tools. However, they have latent traps in that we can fail to consider the links between the dichotomous concepts. Sociology, in its ability to question the taken for granted, allows for the investigation of the inter- connections between the concepts of body and self. …

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