Body Work in Contemporary Society Research Paper Starter

Body Work in Contemporary Society

The appearance and functioning of the human body is central to the establishment and maintenance of social life. In order to present ourselves as competent social actors, people engage in body work — activities and practices associated with grooming and hygiene, as well as exercise and dietary management (Giddens, 1991). These activities help to maintain our bodies according to prevailing scientific standards of nutrition, growth, development and hygiene, and because of their aesthetic component, help us to present ourselves to others as particular kinds of people. Therefore, our participation in certain kinds of body work helps us to create social identities for ourselves. Labor markets favor particular kinds of bodies, which are, in turn, surveyed and managed in the workplace in order to ensure that organizational values are on display to the customer. In the workplace, bodily performance is also typically gendered. Therefore, the embodied capabilities of workers are harnessed by contemporary work practices, especially in the service industry, in ways that researchers call "aesthetic labor" (Warhurst et al., 2000) because of the emphasis within these work practices on bodily performance and presentation (Witz, et al., 2003).

Keywords: Aesthetic Labor; Body Work; Dramaturgical Model; Emotional Labor; Feeling Rules; Profane; Sacred; Techniques of Interpersonal Exchange

Overview

The appearance and functioning of the human body is central to the establishment and maintenance of social life. In order to present ourselves as competent social actors, people engage in body work — activities and practices associated with grooming and hygiene, as well as exercise and dietary management (Giddens, 1991). These activities help to maintain our bodies according to prevailing scientific standards of nutrition, growth, development and hygiene, and because of their aesthetic component, help us to present ourselves to others as particular kinds of people. Therefore, our participation in certain kinds of body work helps us to create social identities for ourselves. Schilling (1993) describes body work as activities and practices associated with grooming and hygiene, as well as exercise and dietary management which include a range of practices such as dietary control and exercise that enable people to work on the body as a vehicle of self-expression and encourage the view that the body is an unfinished product.

However, body work is also what sociologists call morally charged. For instance, research demonstrates that physical appearance, body shape, and size influence the likelihood of people entering particular occupations or being promoted (Nickson et al., 2005). Or, put another way, labor markets favor particular kinds of bodies, which are in turn surveyed and managed in the workplace in order to ensure that organizational values are on display to the customer. Moreover, in the workplace, bodily performance is typically gendered, in that there are expectations about employees' appearance and conduct in ways that conform to idealized notions of masculinity and femininity (Tyler & Abbot, 1998). Therefore, the embodied capabilities of workers are harnessed by contemporary work practices, especially in the service industry, in ways that researchers call "aesthetic labor" (Warhurst et al., 2000) because of the emphasis within these work practices on bodily performance and presentation (Witz et al., 2003).

Social Aspects of the Human Body

Although the social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, are generally interested in ration actors (Weber), collective conscience (Durkheim), and social structure (Marx), since the 1980s, sociologists have become much more interested in the role the human body plays in contemporary (modern, Western) social life. This interest has, in particular (though not exclusively) drawn from interpretive traditions and focused on the cultural meanings bestowed on the body, how the body is 'lived' or experienced in everyday life (or, as phenomenologists such as Marcel Merleau-Ponty put it, how people experience "being-in-the-world"), and how the body is used to represent meaning and identity.

Historically and cross-culturally the human body has been and is, used symbolically. For instance, drawing on Durkheim's work on religious ceremony, anthropologist Mary Douglas (1970) observed that because the human body is common to all human beings, it is used as a natural symbol to classify and express ideas about the social order. In particular, the kinds of beliefs that societies hold about the body reveal something about what is deemed important for that society, or that it classifies as sacred or profane. For instance, we attribute social and cultural meaning to bodily states and products (tears can be interpreted as signs of sadness or joy) and the body can be used as a physical symbol of social values. As Warner (2000) observes, the Statue of Liberty, gifted to the people of the United States by the people of France in 1886, embodies social values of freedom and liberty.

Many cultures make marks on or modify the body in ways that signify meaning, such as changes in social status or social identity. In contemporary society, which some researchers have argued is characterized by anxiety and self-consciousness (e.g. Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991), there is a tendency for people to become ever more concerned with bodily appearance and to view the body as a vehicle of self-expression (Lasch, 1979). This self-expression is nurtured through consumption activities associated with the cultivation of the body as an outward manifestation of self-identity (Shilling, 1993). This shift toward the body as a vehicle of self-expression has been tied to the birth of cinema, photography, and women's cosmetics (Wolf, 1990) that emphasize the importance of looking and being looked at (Featherstone, 1991). These technologies contribute to idealized images of the human body (often in ways that emphasize current notions of what it means to be fit and healthy) that create points of comparison for people between who they are and who they might become, and in so doing, stimulates the importance of body work or maintenance, through which the human body can be transformed.

Body maintenance includes a range of practices such as dietary control and exercise, pursuing healthy regimes in response to health messages about risky behaviors (such as stopping smoking, eating a "heart-healthy" diet, and engaging in "safer sex"). These strategies enable people to work on the body as a vehicle of self-expression and encourage the view that the body is an unfinished product (Shilling, 1993) that can be endlessly modified through the application of technologies (ranging from exercise to cosmetic surgery).

The Social Significance of the Body

The BodyScholarly interest in the human body has emerged in part as a consequence of social changes that force us to think about it (Howson, 2004). First, demographic changes, such as an aging population and increased life expectancy, mean that a greater proportion of the population is living longer, albeit with expectations of poorer health and perhaps disability. Researchers have argued that this shift toward an older population forces society to acknowledge and care for the aging body in new ways that maintain productivity and aesthetic appeal.

Second, contemporary society is characterized by its emphasis on physical and outward appearance about which people are consumed with anxiety (what to wear, what not to wear, am I too fat, too thin, too tall, too hairy?). Indeed, the human body is one of the key resources that people use to classify and categorize each other and therefore people spend a great deal of time and effort — and money — on maintaining their bodies. Moreover, in a world characterized by chaos and flux (i.e., unanticipated economic recession, natural disasters, 9/11), for many people, their own body is one area of life over which they may feel they have some control, especially in terms of food consumption. As Shilling (1993) puts it, we may not be able to influence global politics but we can show our significant others how disciplined we are by restricting our calorie and food intake. Similarly, we can influence or even manipulate others' responses to us by 'working' on our bodies — through diet, exercise and even surgical modification — often in ways that conform to idealized notions of beauty or work against them.

Finally, social scientists have become increasingly interested in the significance of the human body in social life because of the emergence of new technologies that stretch the limits of what the body is capable and of what the body can become. Genes can be manipulated, body parts replaced with parts from other humans or even animals (xenotransplantation), our faces reshaped, skin tightened, and limbs built. These developments influence the meanings that people attach to their own bodies and the bodies of others. If I have plastic surgery am I pandering to the beauty myth (Wolf, 1990) or taking control of my own life? While these technologies offer the potential to transform and redefine the physical body, they also raise questions about the boundary between nature and culture (Haraway, 1991).

Further Insights

The Self

Within a social interactionist tradition, self and society are constituted or constructed through the practical work that that people do in interaction with others and with their physical environments. This interaction involves body work at many levels and includes the visual information we make available to others and how they interpret it. In Erving Goffman's (1971) dramaturgical model, the body is a central resource to how people manage the information they provide to others through facial cues or expressions, physical gestures and mannerisms. For Goffman, the setting in which focused interaction takes place is deemed a front region. In such a setting (a classroom, a party) people use the body's potential for expressiveness, such as appearance, dress, and demeanor in ways that help define the situation as being of a particular sort.

People manage this micro-level body work through a shared inventory or vocabulary of gestures and expressions to which a common set of meanings is attributed. This common understanding helps people make sense of everyday interactions and classify the visual information...

(The entire section is 4578 words.)