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Creating and Selling the Malleable Body

The body - both as a concept and a physical reality - is central to this book; experiences, beliefs, and representations of the body inform the body enhancement products and practices discussed here. As the body is a crucial concept for this project, this chapter highlights previous research related to the body. Sections 1.1 and 1.2 provide a brief overview of (historical) perspectives on the body; the connection between body and mind; and the relation between neoliberalism, consumerism, and the idea of the body as project. Following this, Section 1.3 discusses issues of femininity and masculinity with regard to the idea - and marketing - of a malleable body, particularly in lifestyle magazines. Moreover, as I have analysed data from both magazines aimed at heterosexual men (particularly FHM) and those targeted at gay men (especially the Gay Times), this section also explores differences in hetero- and gay men’s involvement in the beauty market as discussed in previous literature.

The Body as Focus - Naturalism and Social Constructionism

It is not within the scope of this book to provide a full account of previous research on conceptualisations of the body; however, I will focus on some of the most influential ideas and provide a brief outline of how the body gained importance at both the individual and societal level. Overall, two major views of the body can be discerned, namely the naturalistic and social constructionist perspectives (cf. Shilling 2003). However, it must be noted here that the distinction between naturalist and social constructionist views of the body are not absolute; rather, as Coupland and Gwyn (2003: 7) have stated, “most writers ... take up a position that argues for synthesis [between the naturalistic and social constructionist views]: framing the body as having a material biological base, but subject to alteration and modification within different social contexts”.

The naturalistic perspective emerged in the 18th century and encompasses a variety of views which “conceptualise the body as the biological base on which arises the superstructure of society” (Shilling 2003: 14). Despite this variety of views, the naturalistic perspective of the body is predominantly associated with 20th-century socio-biology, which was pioneered in E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) and aimed to “establish a biological basis for human behaviour” (ibid: 43). Although various contemporary debates - for instance in the field of evolutionary psychology - may still employ socio-biological arguments, the field has been widely criticised, particularly in the social sciences, for its simplification of complex social phenomena and its deterministic character (cf. Driscoll 2013; Shilling 2003).

An alternative view of the body favoured in contemporary social sciences can be found in social constructionism, which regards the body “as a receptor, rather than a generator, of social meanings” (Shilling 2003: 62). Some famous theorists adopting a social constructionist approach include Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Erving Goffman. Foucault was especially concerned with power relations and social control and argued that the body is constituted by discourse, which omits the physical, material nature of the body as a biological entity. Whereas Foucault sees the body as produced - and controlled1 - by social forces, Goffman views the body as a resource, a form of material possession, which is (partly) regulated by the individual. However, Goffman, like Foucault, recognises how meanings attributed to the body cannot always be governed but rather are socially determined (Goffman 1963). What is more, the social meanings ascribed to the body “tend to become internalized and exert a powerful influence on an individual’s sense of self and feelings of inner worth” (Shilling 2003: 73).

In a sense, like Goffman, Bourdieu also regards the body as property as he sees the body as ‘bearer of symbolic value’, as physical capital. However, the body does not inherently possess a set of fixed qualities, although congenital anomalies form an exception to this. Predominantly, then, the body is an “unfinished entity”, which “[is] formed through ... participation in social life and [becomes] imprinted with social class” (Shilling 2003: 113). Through his focus on social class in relation to the body, Bourdieu identified various relations that people in different social classes may have to their bodies. For example, Bourdieu argues that the working classes hold a mainly instrumental relation to their bodies; they regard the body as a means to an end as it constitutes a factor of production. Moreover, as the emphasis is on hard physical labour, working- class men tend to valorise exterior manifestations of strength, including, for example, muscularity (Crossley 2006: 23). In contrast, the dominant classes usually have more free time and more disposable income to treat the body as a project. It needs to be noted here, however, that within the dominant classes there is a multiplicity of body projects available and these vary greatly within social groups (Shilling 2003: 151).

One of the main issues with Bourdieu’s theory is that the traditional class system, based on occupation and employment status, is no longer as clearly delineated as before; as Savage et al. (2013: 220) have argued, it does not sufficiently capture “the role of social and cultural processes in generating class divisions”. Moreover, the traditional class structure has undergone major changes in light of industrial restructuring, which resulted in a shift from manual labour to an economy which relies heavily on the service industries (Annandale 2003: 87). In addition, class is no longer a firm indicator of spending habits; for example, luxury products and services such as cosmetic procedures, previously reserved for the middle and upper classes, are now (presented as) accessible to all through loans and instalment payment plans.

Relatively little sociological research into the body was conducted before the (late) 20th century. In an attempt to explain this absence, Turner (1991) and Shilling (2003) have both pointed to the pervasive influence of the mind/body duality as advanced by Descartes. This duality perceived the mind to be rational and separate from the body, which rendered studies into the social construction of the body redundant (Erdrich 2007: 44; Hollander 1920). At present, the idea of a mind/body duality can still be found in Western societies’ conception of the body as a material object distinct from one’s mind which can be controlled through discipline and morality (Thompson & Hirschman 1995: 142) and, as I would like to argue, consumption (cf. Featherstone 1991). Interestingly, in her exploration of cosmetic surgery narratives, Huss-Ashmore (2000: 32) argued that the disjuncture between the outer ‘self’ and some form of inner ‘self’ was paramount in these discourses.

Although the body and the mind may be presented or experienced as separate, traditionally they have also been regarded as intertwined. Platonic philosophy already presented the physiognomic assumption that connects outer appearance to a person’s character; a beautiful physique was believed to reflect a good character and vice versa (Featherstone 2010: 195; Moeran 2010: 495). If the body and some form of inner self are indeed associated in people’s perception, then the beautification of the body may work in two ways - on the one hand, it may work to align the experienced and changing inner self with the perceived outer self, whereas, on the other hand, enhancing one’s appearance may be done in the hope of changing the inner self. As Sullivan (2010: 408) has pointed out, the physiognomic assumption “morphed into the modern, secular idea that every woman could be beautiful if she bought the new products and services offered by the burgeoning beauty industry”.

Although the mind-body dichotomy may still be found in contemporary discourses, there has been a substantial shift in emphasis away from the mind/inner self to the material body. As Giddens (1991) has argued, the body came into focus as religious, political, and other ‘grand narratives’ that traditionally placed great emphasis on the mind, the soul, and “existential and ontological certainties outside the individual” have declined (Shilling 2003: 2, emphasis in original). Associated with this decline in various traditions and ideologies, the view that the modern age and ‘the self’ are ontologically unstable and ‘out of control’ has encouraged the increased emphasis on bodies. As Featherstone

(1991: 188) has noted, the body is a last site of influence for individuals. Moreover, the Enlightenment ideology that people can redesign themselves to achieve happiness is still popular today (cf. Jackson & Hogg 2010); the idea of a transformable body has persisted and has become firmly entwined with and promoted by consumerism, as will be discussed in the next section.

 
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