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2.2 Body as ‘identity project’

In Western culture, television ‘makeover’ shows in which individuals opt for plastic surgery or are given advice on clothes, makeup, diet and exercise have gained considerable popular appeal. It seems that large numbers of people are buying into the idea that lives can be radically changed through such makeovers. Supposedly unattractive people who are unhappy with their lives are transformed into supposedly more beautiful and happy people leading satisfying lives. In reality, however, does reshaping or redefining the body radically change people's identity and experience of the world?

Michael Jackson's body project

The pop singer Michael Jackson was an interesting example of someone who has focused on changing his body. In his autobiography Moonwalk (Jackson, 1988), he tells how he was deeply unhappy with his appearance, in particular his wide nose and dark skin. Although he denies he has deliberately lightened his skin and had all the surgery attributed to him, his body has radically altered. Jackson has turned his body into an active project, seemingly designed to blur his identity in terms of sex, race/ethnicity and age. Increasingly, medical and technological advances offer the means for more extreme reconstructions of the body. Jackson's apparently personal body project is both socially rooted and produces social effects. His choice, to become white skinned and narrow nosed, is not, therefore, only due to personal eccentricity, but is linked with the racialised power relations current in Western societies.

The fact that we can ‘do’ things with our body and present or display ourselves in different ways suggests that our identity is not entirely fixed or determined by our bodies. In the West, at least, people can make a conscious decision to change their bodies through surgery, dieting, drugs, exercise and the clothes they wear. As people change their bodies in these ways, you could say that they also change how they feel about themselves and their roles in society, and how they're perceived by others (all of which are aspects of identity). In Western societies, people appear to have some measure of freedom or opportunity to choose an identity:

Questions of identity, individual and collective, confront us at every turn … We are interpellated and interrogated by a multiplicity of voices to consider and reconsider our identities. How we think of ourselves … is up for grabs, open to negotiation, subject to choice to an unprecedented extent.

(Roseneil and Seymour, 1999, p. 1)

The sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991) has noted how people ‘use’ their bodies – for example, through fashion and exercise – to help them pursue particular ways of life or lifestyles. Here, the body becomes part of an ongoing ‘identity project’. Our body is both something we are and something we have. It becomes the means of expressing our individuality and aspiration as well as our group affiliations. By focusing on our bodies and working on them for public displays, we turn ourselves into our own ‘project’ (Nettleton and Watson, 1998, p. 1).

An example of this process is the current Western preoccupation with constructing ‘healthy bodies’. Westerners spend billions every year on gym or health club memberships, on over-the-counter medications, health supplements and on dieting manuals. Chris Shilling (1997) points out the contradictions here:

At a time when our health is threatened increasingly by global dangers, we are exhorted to take individual responsibility for our bodies by engaging in self-care regimes. These regimes promote an image of the body as an island of security in a global system characterized by multiple risks. Furthermore, they are not simply about preventing disease, but are concerned with making us feel good about how our bodies appear to ourselves and to others.

(Shilling, 1997, p. 70)

Body projects can be seen as a way for individuals to express themselves, to feel good and to gain some control over their lives. For instance, people may focus on their bodies in a more sustained way when they suddenly become ill or infirm. Body projects can also be a way to challenge accepted societal ideas about what ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ bodies should look like. In this respect, individuals celebrate their difference and create alternative identities through a range of body modification activities such as tattooing, piercing and bodybuilding (Holland, 2004). As one woman body-builder puts it: ‘When I look in the mirror I see somebody who's finding herself, who has said once and for all it doesn't really matter what role society said I should play’ (Rosen, 1983, quoted in Shilling, 1997, p. 71).

The speaker in the quotation above seems to believe she is making a ‘free choice’ and can resist societal pressures to conform to certain norms. However, is this really the case? To what extent are body projects expressions of individual preference? What of the powerful cultural influences all around us: for example, the fashion presented to us on the high street or the messages we get from the media and advertising industries?

Although most social psychologists would probably agree that bodies, identity and the social world mutually shape each other, they disagree over the respective weight of these factors. Phenomenological psychologists place the emphasis on our lived experience of embodiment, arguing that because we have the capacity to reflect on our choices, we have some agency to make decisions about who we want to be. Discursive psychologists, however, argue that body projects reflect the pervasive influence of society. They are social practices constrained by the ideals, meanings and identities available in culture. Our bodies are discursive in the sense that they both reflect and express cultural ideals and ideologies. ‘Free’ choices are not as free as they may seem. For instance, in the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe's curvaceous figure was considered the embodiment of femininity in Western culture. Nowadays, women's bodies are subject to the ‘tyranny of slenderness’ (Chernin, 1983) in which a youthful, athletic and slender body is equated with beauty and happiness (Bordo, 1993).

Feminist philosophers have been particularly concerned with these issues and have made some of the most important contributions to these debates. This is because, at least in part, where bodies have appeared in psychological and socio-political analyses, these bodies have generally been male – invariably presented through the cover of some notion of universal humanity in which the feminine disappears. The aim for many feminist theorists is to focus on the female body, working with it centrally, in such a way that women's experiences, rather than those of men, are explored and realised.

Mind-body dualism, outlined above, crucially has also been associated with other binaries, such as reason and passion, self and other, psychology and physiology. And with all these binaries one element is always subordinate to the other (Grosz, 1994). One association critical to feminist thinking is the correlation of mind with man and body with woman, where man is associated with the rational and knowable intellect and woman the irrational and unknowable body. Feminist philosophers such as Elizabeth Grosz have, as a response, sought to articulate a corporeal feminism, where the female body is placed centre stage and recognised in all its difference as something both material and social. Grosz draws on a number of different philosophical influences to theorise a notion of sexed embodiment using as a model the Möbius strip – an inverted three-dimensional figure of eight (see Figure 1). With the Möbius strip, like the body, according to Grosz, there is no clear distinction between inside and outside and, instead, a unity in which there is an inflection of mind into body and body into mind.

Figure 1
Figure 1 The Möbius strip

The body is a most peculiar ‘thing’, for it is never quite reducible to being merely a thing; nor does it ever quite manage to rise above the status of thing. Thus it is both a thing and a nonthing, an object, but an object which somehow contains or coexists with an interiority, an object able to take itself and others as subjects, a unique kind of object not reducible to other objects. Human bodies, indeed all animate bodies, stretch and extend the notion of physicality that dominates the physical sciences, for animate bodies are objects necessarily different from other objects; they are materialities that are uncontainable in physicalist terms alone. If bodies are objects or things, they are like no others, for they are centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, agency.

(Grosz, 1994, p. xi)

Most social psychological theorists would probably agree with the need to resist the mind–body, individual–social and agency–structure dualisms discussed in this section. However, there are differences in the ways that various social psychological perspectives conceptualise the interpenetration of the body, psychology and the social world. Specifically, the views of discursive and phenomenological psychologists on the manner and mechanisms of this merging can be contrasted. This is the focus for the rest of this unit.

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