Physical Capital and the Embodied Nature of Income Inequality: Gender Differences in the Effect of Body Size on Workers' Incomes in Canada

By Perks, Thomas | Canadian Review of Sociology, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Physical Capital and the Embodied Nature of Income Inequality: Gender Differences in the Effect of Body Size on Workers' Incomes in Canada


Perks, Thomas, Canadian Review of Sociology


THE SIGNIFICANT GAP in the incomes of women and men in Canada and most other industrialized countries has long been an important area of study among social scientists. Over the years, a number of factors have been identified as having an important influence on the income discrepancies between women and men. For example, marital status has been found to be an important predictor of the gender income gap, as single women, on average, earn salaries closer to that of single men (Statistics Canada 2010). Gender differences in education level and training among women and men, too, have been found to contribute to the earnings discrepancy, with women historically investing less in their human capital than men which, in turn, is correlated with income (Bianchi and Spain 1996). Other factors, such as part-time versus full-time working status (Statistics Canada 2010), the higher proportion of unionized males than females (Doiron and Riddell 1994), the disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities women face (McQuillan and Belle 2004), the discontinuity associated with women's careers relative to men's (Eagly and Carli 2007), and the segregation of women in low-wage occupations (Brooks, Jarman, and Blackburn 2003; Davies, Mosher, and O'Grady 1996; Nakhaie 1994), have also been identified.

What research on the gender income gap has largely ignored, however, is what some scholars have referred to as the embodied nature of gender inequality. Indeed, it has been argued by Shilling (1991) "that sociologists must take more seriously the multiple ways in which bodies enter into the construction of social inequalities" (p. 653). The social analysis of the development, treatment, and perception of women's and men's bodies, then, is arguably an important consideration to our understanding of the production and maintenance of gender income inequality. The purpose of this paper is to explore, systematically, this general hypothesis by focusing on body size. Specifically, the analysis examines the relationship between body size--measured using the body mass index (BMI)--and personal annual income across representative samples of female and male workers in Canada. As a theoretical starting point for the analysis, I draw primarily from Bourdieu's formulation of physical capital, as well as Shilling's extension of it, and argue that body size operates, although in different ways for women and men, as a symbolically valued bodily attribute that has the potential to "converted" into economic capital. In anticipation of the results, the present analysis is both instructive and intriguing, because it suggests that body size is a contributing factor to the (re)production of the income differences that exist between female and male workers in Canada today.

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE BODY AND PHYSICAL CAPITAL

Scholarly interest in the body as a social entity has grown considerably in recent years, such that today there is an extensive quantity of literature that specifically addresses the body from a sociological perspective. This growth has occurred at a time when the body, in Western capitalist society at least, has increasingly become a focus of management and maintenance (Shilling 2003). While it could be argued that human beings have always adapted their bodies in ways to fit social and cultural norms, what is arguably different today is what some scholars see as an intensification in the treatment of the body as a commodified object. Baudrillard (1998:129), for example, argues that what had for centuries been efforts to convince people to deny bodily pleasures and persuade people that they had no bodies, in consumer culture today "there is a relentless effort to convince them of their bodies." The body has become, in Baudrillard's words, an "object of salvation" (1998:129), where "one manages one's body; one handles it as one might handle an inheritance; one manipulates it as one of the many signifiers of social status" (1998:131). …

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