The Social Construction of Bodies.
We don’t only experience our bodies personally, they exist in a social sense. We use comparisons, exemplars and idealised images to construct ideas of optimal body shapes and sizes. These ‘optimal’ bodies vary over time and are negotiated socially and culturally. The prevalence of ‘skinny’ images for women or ‘muscly’ images for men are not constant across cultures but linked to Westernised societies with excessive consumption. Images are used to sell items and thus bodies can become commodities, consumable and ultimately objectified in a number of ways.
I spent last week teaching about these concepts to first year psychology undergraduates in an active workshop type lab class. Students were asked to make judgements about images from google accessed using only the search terms ‘skinny’ or ‘muscly’. Shockingly, all the ‘skinny’ images were women and all but one of the ‘muscly’ images were men. The age range was heavily restricted too, the eldest being judged to be about 44 in the muscly range but early 30’s for the skinny women. In terms of the exercise held over those first year lab classes, it became evident that ‘skinny’ was judged as less healthy than ‘muscly’ yet both body types are linked to restricted diets, minimal body fat and, often, the use of drugs either to suppress appetite or to build muscle tissue. The lack of negative media associated with ‘muscly’ frames is perhaps shaping perceptions of health and wellbeing in comparison to the prevalence of negative judgements made socially about thinness and ‘skinny’ frames. Skinny itself is perhaps a pejorative term which has influenced the perceptions of the images. We use words to negotiate meanings and the term itself may have exercised a pernicious effect.
I spend quite some time exploring how bodies are constructed across a number of social media platforms and I am frequently struck by how insubstantial the present constructions of women can be. Thigh gaps, bikini bridges and the insidious photoshop ‘nip and tuck’ all emphasise invisibility around a woman’s frame. It’s a very strange phenomenon currently to embrace areas of fresh air where flesh should be. Contrast that with the social perceptions around muscle. Ideas of power, dominance and strength are linked socially to large, muscular frames.
We should perhaps be very aware of the influence of these idealised images upon how we construct our own body image and it is my hope that we start to question these images and perhaps ignite some critical thinking around the prevalence of images which are, for the most part, unrealistic and often unobtainable.
NB.. it was ridiculously hard to find images of either concept which weren’t heavily sexualised… I went for classic art and naturalistic beach pose to try to illustrate my point!
My name is Carol, I’m 45 and I have a recurring parotid gland tumour.
The first tumour was removed but cells were left and a subsequent tumour regrew over the last few years. The density of the tumour precludes biopsy so the status of the tumour has always been unknown. The only indicators of malignancy (cancer) have been the change in shape and consistency of the growth, measured by MRI scans. It’s an anxious wait between scans hoping that the growth will be halted, hoping that the shape stays distinct (fuzziness indicates cancerous growth). The uncertainty weighs heavily on me from time to time and following the diagnosis I felt almost hopeless for a while that I couldn’t escape this unsightly mass in my neck which I hated.
But then I remembered a book I read by Michael Marmot called Status Syndrome. I’d recommend everyone to read this book. A medical doctor, Marmot spent decades collecting data from the civil services and researching the ideas of status and hierarchies. To condense a very interesting research history into a soundbite, does it a disservice but essentially he found that control is a key indicator of health. The more control you have (or take) of your life, the better your health outcomes are likely to be. It seemed worth a try!
So I took control. I cut out all animal products, processed sugars, caffeine and alcohol for one month as an experiment and found that physically, mentally and even spiritually, I felt an entirely different person. Calmer, more capable, empowered and healthy. Properly, fabulously healthy.
My recent MRI results are in. The tumour growth has halted and the shape hasn’t changed. The environment in my body is no longer conducive to tumour growth it seems. This may not last over time but, for now, it’s stabilised.
I’m not suggesting that my lifestyle changed has caused the tumour growth to stop. I can’t imply causation from the two factors. I can say that I grew a tumour under my old regime and currently, it has stopped growing under my new regime. And that’s pretty powerful for me. Is it taking control of my health that’s created a positive outcome for my health? Is it increased immune system support? Is it the power of positive thinking? Is it chance and the tumour had reached it’s potential anyway. I don’t know. I can’t answer any of these things.
I can say I took control of my life, my health and my relationship with the ugly swelling in my neck and I can tell you I feel bloody marvellous as a result and I want to share how good it feels.
International Women’s Day. I’ve thought about this all day. I hate that we need a day to celebrate women. I hate that we have to claim accolades and chase recognition not because our achievements are insignificant but because we are women and, for some people, and in some environments, that means we are worth less than our male counterparts in innumerable ways.
Think just about the physical space we take up. Think about the photoshopping of women to be physically smaller, slimmer or more sexualised, taking up less space in the World when men are augmented and added to and made bigger. To have more presence literally.
Recently I was in a meeting where myself and another similarly petite lady were in confrontation with a male ‘superior’. The chairs in his office for visitors are markedly lower than his. My colleague and I are markedly smaller anyway. Instinctively (and because I was wearing jeans which permitted it) I drew my ankles onto the wide seat. I then allowed my knees to spread to their full extent clasping the soles of my feet together. I made a large diamond shape with my legs. Unwittingly I made myself substantially bigger, wider and adopted a typically male spread of my legs. My colleague observed this and noted the subsequent withdrawal of the man in question and the retreat of his argument. How much space we are allowed to inhabit matters. It matters a whole lot. Look at how legs are arranged on trains and buses. Whose legs are crossed and held together and whose are spread widely. Notice a gender split anyone?
Think then about the obesity issue and whilst it is far from being a female issue, it is often women who struggle significantly with their weight following childbirth and breastfeeding. It is women who routinely (but not exclusively) undergo huge body changes and trauma. The whole ‘snapping back’ idea where the excess skin and tissue following childbirth is meant to just vanish in a click of the finger. Why? A breastfeeding mum needs her little fat pads to sustain her baby. ‘Closer’ or ‘Heat’ or whichever nonsense celebrity magazine can wait – surely?
In a related point, breasts are for fun and not for feeding? If you encounter anyone with this opinion, feel free to bin them!
What about all the memes about the male gaze. Real men like curves etc? Why are women defined by what men like? Most men I know like women of all shapes and sizes but then, perhaps I have the good sense to have liberated and forward thinking friends.
I haven’t got the time to do justice to the sexualisation of images. People (and I include men in this) are NEVER objects. They are never commodities. They should never need to reveal their flesh, be stripped of their clothes or pose provocatively to sell anything. I often hear arguments that include the fact that some women ‘want’ to be portrayed in this way. If the structures did not exist where sexual objectification was a norm – no one would be likely to think to offer themselves in this way. The structure exists and people inhabit it to make money. Before you say it is harmless, another whiny feminist rant, consider the increase of acid attacks upon women who refuse advances or marriage offers from men. This is on the increase and linked to the idea that women are objects of consumption as insidious Western marketing pervades new cultures. Read more on these horrific outcomes here.
None of this is the fault of ‘men’ it’s a patriarchial societal and male dominated media issue mostly and both men and women have to take responsibility for calling out these issues where they can.