Have social constructions of the perfect body become normalised in the North? Has the pursuit of an ideal body (while changing overtime) become a prism through which ‘other’ bodies, in particular disabled bodies and ageing bodies are measured? If so, how?
The ideal body has become normalised through a fundamental dualist approach in Western culture. Throughout this essay I will argue that we identify our bodies through a binary categorical system of able/disabled. First I will explore how we generally classify things in society. I will then move to a more specific discussion of what we mean by ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ in our society, and will show that the able/disabled binary leads to both the idealisation of the able body and the subordination of the disabled body. Then I will investigate a post-modern classification of the ideal body, and show that the ‘complexity’ of the disabled body undermines all these classification systems.
Let’s look at how we classify things in society.
Society generally classifies subjects using a binary categorical system. Specifically, classification in society is a normative concern, that is, we determine whether or not people/things fit into the ‘normal’ group of society. This is an identification process known as the ‘self/other’ binary. The self/other process involves highlighting the disparity between original concept (individual self or collective group) and the ‘other’ object. So, this process involves creating distinction or difference between the ‘normal’ group and the ‘abnormal’ group. This dualist process, however, is not strictly limited to categorising people, but permeates the very way we approach our lives. For instance, when we determine what the colour red is, we also have in the back of our mind what red is not. It is only by determining that red is not pink, orange, amber etc. that we gain a firm grasp of what red is. This categorical system is quite simple, and indeed appropriate for straightforward questions like this one. However, I will later show that this binary identification system relegates ‘complex’ categories, such as disability, into simple categories, and that this has unfortunate consequences.
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Now let’s look at how we classify the body.
Our identity, the way we view ourselves, is determined by an amalgamation of many different and dynamic forces. Among these forces is the way we view our body. Our bodies are a predominant factor in everything we do yet “this centrality seems to have resulted in attitudes that very much take the body for granted” (Barry and Yuill 2002).
However, these ambivalent attitudes, especially in a post-modern context (I will return to this), are now being challenged and the body is becoming viewed as increasingly important in the role of identification. The body, Shilling argues (1997: 65), “marks the boundary between others, and ourselves; it is a means of presenting ‘both the uniqueness of each individual and a site of marking difference”.
The increasing importance of the body in our culture is expressed through a binary lense, a veritable mosaic of binary classifications, which are mostly linked to how we engage with the world. Bodily engagement, or the capacity to engage, with the external world thus becomes one of the principle markers of our identity. In Western culture, a body that is capable of engaging with the world in known as a healthy body. Zygmunt Bauman defines a healthy body as “capable of mustering the inner strength needed to respond to stimuli promptly” (own italics) (115).
To be unhealthy, by contrast, would simply mean to be unable to adequately engage with the exterior world, that is, it would refer to incapacity. The able/disable vernacular is the modern way of depicting this dichotomy.
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Thus, the able body is defined as capable of responding to the external world. Now, let’s look more closely at the able/disable binary system – and specifically at this system’s treatment of the disabled body.
Minae Inahara argues that the able/disabled binary system should be redefined as the “able-body symbolic system”. This is because it is a system that inherently favours the able-bodied (52).
Being a binary system, disability is defined in opposition to ability and thus reduces the disabled body to “a position of weakness, lack” (Ibid.).
Therefore, to some extent there is only one kind of body – the able body – and you either have one or you don’t. Inahara argues that, whilst a person can inhabit a disabled body, the person will tend to think more about the able body they don’t have, rather than the disabled body they do have. Accordingly, the structure of the discourse surrounding the able-body symbolic system actively removes the person from the experience of the body and frames disability in “terms of mechanical parts gone wrong” (Barry and Yuill 105).
This system of identification generally assumes that the ‘disabled’ body is a uniform experience throughout every disabled body, when of course everyone’s experience is totally unique.
Yet the able/disabled binary classification paradigm appears to be shifting from its emphasis on health. In a post-modern context, where there is an increasing emphasis on consumption and pleasure seeking, health has lost its importance, giving way to fitness (Bauman 121).
I will now focus on this shifting paradigm and what it means for the able/disabled individual.
Contemporary society has seen the body move from its typical “soldier/worker” role to what has been labeled as a presentation of the ‘performing self’ (Shilling 34).
This means the body has moved from being an instrument and is now more correctly viewed as an object representing many of the ‘important’ facets of who we are. The social and cultural significance that is associated with muscle is a good example to highlight the disparity between the modern and the post-modern body. In a modernist context, muscle was associated with manual labour. By contrast, in the post-modern/consumer context, muscle has come to represent “willpower, energy and control” (Ibid.).
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Thus, the post-modern body less is less concerned with attaining capacity to perform specific functions (compared with the modernist “worker/soldier”) and more focused on “being an object for display both inside and outside…”(Ibid.).
Viewing the body as an object rather than an instrument has quite strong implications. Responsibility for the body, Bauman argues, is placed on the individual who is “the private owner of the body”. He proposes that in a post-modern context, at least to some extent, the normalisation of the perfect body has redefined what we mean by ‘ideal’. It is the imperative of the individual that they allow the body to be as fit as possible – to “open up as widely as possible to the potential of rich and even richer experiences contained” (Bauman 121) in the stimuli of the outside world. The post-modern ideal body thus becomes a body that can have the ‘ultimate experience’. Shilling furthers this argument by stating that maintaining a fit body means treating the body as a “machine to be finely tuned, cared for, reconstructed and carefully presented through such measures as regular physical exercise, personal health programmes, high-fibre diets and colour-coded dressing” (35).
Viewing the body in this light may seem to suggest that it is “radically ‘other’ to the self” (37).
Consequently, the consuming body is a place of alienation and anxiety. The body has become a manifestation of our personality, and accordingly, control over the body becomes an absolute requirement.
Ultimately this expectation of control is flawed. The body is out of control. All bodies are vulnerable to ageing, illness and death. In an effort to maintain control over the body, the individual is encouraged to ‘pretend’ that the body is not vulnerable. For instance, it has become common practice in our society to remove the signs of ageing through cosmetic surgery and in other ways to try and ‘look young’ (Emerson 2008).
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These practices represent the desire to attain the “young, slim and sexual body [that] is highly prized in consumer culture” (Shilling 35).
Yet, the desire for control and this prized body is in direct contradiction with the reality of our lives. It is inevitable that all bodies will grow frail, get sick and eventually die. Thus, it appears in a post-modern context, that our cultural attitudes toward the body are deeply deluded. Shilling furthers this argument by exploring the different “manifestations of uncertainty” that surround the body. Through the use of horror films, Shilling explores the “instabilities in the meaning and boundaries of our body”. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the villains of horror films were ‘exterior’ to our bodies. For instance, “aliens from outer-space” were the predominant foes in these films. More recently, the body is now predominantly under threat from ‘interior foes’. For instance, the film “The Exorcist” portrays the interior threat of demonic possession, and the “Alien” franchise portrayed the human characters ‘giving birth’ to the aliens through violent means (Shilling 38).
Shilling argues that the change from external to internal foes symbolises the cultural shift in our attitude toward the body. The body is now the enemy. This is because there is an inevitable fate of all bodies, that is, the object that is our body will ‘fail’ us and accordingly will result in our death. The body, rather than being an instrument for achievement, nowadays is to blame for our physical problems.
The post-modern/fitness orientation of the body also gives rise to a pleasure anxiety (Bauman 116).
This is because of the inherent subjective standard we judge a successfully fit body. Experience, for example, cannot be objectively measured nor inter-subjectively communicated between people. This leads the individual to always question whether “one’s own sensations ‘match the standard’” of other individuals’ relative experience. Furthermore, an individual will always be comparing their experience or satisfaction against the potential satisfaction they think they could be having (Bauman 117).
So, as in the modern context, I would argue there is only one kind of body – one could say only the ‘disabled’ body exists, a body that is incapacitated relative to the ‘ideal’ body/experience that could be attained. Bauman articulates this well by saying that the “sliding scale of pleasure turns into a sliding scale of dysfunction”. Yet a dominant anxiety in the individual still exists even if the ultimate fit body is acquired. Once one has the fit body, there is nowhere else to go – all sensations “lead down the slope” (Bauman 120).
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Thus, we can conclude that both modern and post-modern conceptions of the body are problematic. So how can we classify the body better?
A broader view, one that transcends binary identification, of the body would accommodate the diversity of the disabled body. Inahara argues that the “complexity and multiplicity” of the disabled body upsets the able-body symbolic order. Her point is that “able-bodied notions” of ability cannot accommodate the “diversity of ability and disability” that is inherent in the human body (56).
The disabled body, in different contexts, is more than capable of performing specific functions. For instance, it would be unreasonable to expect that a blind person be considered ‘disabled’ when, say, listening to music. The disabled body, thus, in many senses is as capable as the able body. Therefore, it may be inappropriate to define the disabled body as the ‘other’ of the able body. In this example, the blind individual’s body is inappropriately defined as not an able body when in fact it is capable of engaging with the external world in certain contexts. The disabled body is not a uniform experience for all that inhabit it. Rather, the disabled body is a complex, dynamic and diverse experience, unique to each individual. In this light, the disabled body “destabilises” the able/disable binary.
The inherent vulnerability of the human body further undermines the ideal/able-body norm. As shown above, bodily anxiety or “body-panic” (Bauman 121), arises from viewing the body through the prism of the ‘ultimate fit body’, and specifically from comparing our inadequate body with the ideal body. The inevitable failing of our body shows that we are all disabled to some extent, as it is impossible for any body to be ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’.
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If we give up the concept of an ideal body due to the fact that it is impossible to attain and hence produces anxiety, then what could take its place? Bauman argues that without binary classifications, such as ideal/not ideal or able/disable, the human body then is open to intrinsically subjective experiences (117), which leads to an ambiguous, uncertain and consequently “anxious” human condition. I don’t think we need go that far. It is exactly the destabilising effect of the post-modern that also provides the greatest hope. Without binary classifications, the resulting lack of precision in the human body creates a possibility for the individual to redefine their own body. If the starting point is that everyone’s experience of their bodies is subjective and unique, then we all have the power to “invent new modes of organisation, new forms of struggle [and] new challenges…” (Irigary 166).
We have tended to normalise the body through different binary classification systems, such as the modernist classification able/disable or the current post-modernist classification of ideal/not ideal. These models produce bad outcomes, principally the subordination of the disabled body in the modernist context and the subordination of everyone’s body in the post-modern context – in both cases producing a sense of alienation and/or anxiety. A more inspiring model is to abandon binary classification systems altogether and instead to focus on the unique subjective experience each individual has of their own body. Our body is then what it really is, not what it could be.
Barry, A. M and Yuill, C (2002) “Understanding Health: a sociological introduction”, Los Angeles, London: Sage Publications.
Shilling, C (1993) “The Body and Social Theory”. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage, 19-40.
Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) (1976) Fundamental Principles of
Disability. London: UPIAS.
Irigaray, L. (1985b) “This Sex Which is Not One”, trans. G.C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Inahara, Minae “Body & Society: This Body Which is Not One: The Body, Feminity and Disability”. Sage Publications, The TCS Centre, Nottingham Trent University, 2009. See online version at: http://bod.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/15/1/47.
Bauman, Zygmunt (1995) “Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality”. Oxford, Cambridge: Blackwell. 114-122.
Emerson, Daniel, “Cosmetic Surgery Goes Mainstream”, 2008, The Age, Fairfax Media –
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