The body – and its parts, is a significant topic for sociological analysis. This increased sociological interest in the body is the result of factors such as the rise in consumerism, the aging of western population and the growth of medical technology. “Commodification is a Marxist concept that describes all things in society (even people) as commodities. All material and social phenomena are products of a society and contribute to the production of other components of society”. Many sociologists believe the human body has long been a target for commodification within numerous cultural settings.
Structuration theory refers to the body as a project and is one of the main theoretical approaches to the body as it highlights the association between self identity and the body under the conditions of late modernity.(Gray, 2006). Structuration theorists consider the self as a personal project that is under our power and control (Gray, 2006). This development has been the result of the decline of formal religious structure in the West which created and sustained ontological faith existing outside the individual. This decline led to the rise of consumer culture as an owner of symbolic value. This created a tendency for people in high modernity to place ever more importance on the body as a reflection of self.
Structuration theory has been influenced by the work of Anthony Giddens. Giddens considers the self to be set apart by a high concentration of reflexivity (or constant self monitoring and scrutiny) that takes the form of an endless life story. (Gray 2006). Structuration theory is the conceptualization of the body as a project and the extent to which it provides a sense of control and meaning for participants. People use their body shape and appearance as a means of expressing their individual identity. Structuration theorists believe that self identity is constantly evolving, moreover we see ourselves with a past, present and projected future.(Gray, 2006).
The emergence of the body as a project has been influenced by several social trends including advances in body altering technologies and consumerism. Tattoos, in fact have enjoyed an explosion in popularity and mainstream acceptance in the last decade. A tattoo cannot be viewed separately from the living being, it’s a form of social communication, providing symbolic information about the individual. (Kottack, 2000).
For some tattoo enthusiasts, the body is a project. Each tattoo means something, according to Judy Bauer “I agree tattoos are more personal these days, an art form of self expression that not only covers our skin with art but the desire to express certain aspects of our lives. I have many tattoos, most of which are custom. Each tattoo represents a certain person, thought, or time in my life. My tattoos will continue to tell my life story and also will outlive me”.
Tattooing stands out on in its permanence and can be viewed as a long term project. Just as Fussell’s bodybuilding performing body was making a statement for his self identity the same can be said to those who choose to display their artwork of tattoos.
“Seen as a commodity, tattoos can be a form of resistance to capitalist commodity culture. They cannot be simply removed or changed at the whim of the marketplace. The practice remains as an art form, as tattoos are not easily mass produced and each body and experience of tattoo differs”. (Chapkis, 1986:83). The tattoo remains an individual choice, not subject to the laws of the market and is thus removed from the realm of fashion and commodification of appearance. (Chapkis,1986).
In a world of mass produced images, the body is the last realm of first hand experiences. Tattoos are beyond fashion, which is about impermanence, although there may be elements of fashion in terms of what images people choose (Vale & Juno, 1989). With the increased visibility of tattoos comes the booming business of tattoos, which in turns tattoos into fashion commodfication (Chapkis, 1986).
The structuration approach to the body has conceptual problems as well. Budgeon (2003) argues that the inability to identify gender differences represents a serious weakness. It is difficult for any individual to conceptualize the body as a purely objective project, because they simultaneously inhabit it as well as attempt to modify it. The structuration theory also fails to recognize the extent to which the body is a contested site for various social forces (Gray, 2006).
2) Social constructionists argue the body is a contested site and is best understood in reference to political and socio-economic forces that are placed upon it.(Gary, 2004). That is, the body is socially created. However, not everyone conforms to these influences and some actively refuse them. From the constructionist perspective the body can be thought of as a contested site in which social control is applied by the state and its agencies, including individuals as well (Gray, 2006).
An example of social constructionism is how the media projects the ideal body image, altering our behavior, making us starve ourselves to look like the model in the commercials or go and get a haircut. The media focus on body image promotes the preservation of youth, beauty and sexual desire (Tuller,2003). Medicalisation and commodification of the body through technology in the form of drugs to improve the body’s performance has lead to the popularity of drugs such as Viagra.
According to Tuller of the New York Times about six million American men have taken Viagra for erectile dysfunction since it was introduced by Pfizer in 1998. But the companies have a grander vision: 30 million potential customers, mostly among the roughly 60 million men over age 40. (Tuller, 2003).
Advertising and media buzz are reinforcing the cultural expectations that aging men are required to age well to sustain youthful masculinity. Aging well is explored as it relates the construction of masculinity, sexuality and aging men’s bodies.
”Just because someone can’t always have an erection on demand doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a problem,” said Dr. Leonore Tiefer, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, who has been a vocal critic of the way the drugs are marketed. ”The advertising and promotion have become disengaged from any notion of a medical condition or a disease. Now you take these drugs because you’re less perfect than you want to be. It’s like teeth whitener.” (Tuller, 2003).
Even as companies battle over the existing market they endorse he idea that the consumer base can extend well beyond men who have the classic symptom of the disorder. The drive to redefine erectile dysfunction, also known as E.D., as a quality-of-life issue for significantly younger men facing normal age-related changes is as plain as the shift to the younger celebrities and models now being used to advertise the drugs (Tuller, 2003).
Although the social constructionist approach has provided important insights into conditions as anorexia, the approach seems to ignore the biological basis of the body in the form of ‘discursive essentialism’ (Gray, 2006). The social constructionist approach fails to acknowledge the importance of the ‘lived experience’ of embodiment, instead placing emphasis on the influence of social forces on the body. A few attempts have been made to dispute the idea that everything is socially constructed.
3) The phenomenological approach emphasises the union of the self and body. Phenomenologists argue that our bodies are characterized by lived experience. In this regard, our bodies develop routinised or habitual ways of dealing with the outside world. Most of this takes place without us being fully aware of we are doing. However, situations such as sickness and disability make us aware of our bodies.(Gray, 2006).
The aim of phenomenology is to determine what an experience means for the person who has had the experience and to provide a comprehensive description of it (Gray, 2006). For example, what it means to an individual living with rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic illness that has a global impact on physical, psychological and social well-being. ‘The frustration of not being able to do the things you want to do is unbelievable…even a simple job such as making tea can leave you too tired to eat it’ (Ryan, 1996). This frustration can led to a negative self-concept and feelings of powerlessness which affect how these individuals conduct their lives.
“RA impacts a person’s entire lifestyle–work, family and recreation,” says Gail Wright, Ph.D., a rehabilitation psychologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia. To improve quality of life, doctors and health educators increasingly advise combining drug treatment with education, social support, and moderate forms of exercise.( Ryan, 1996).
“There’s a fine line between doing too much and too little,” says rheumatologist William Ginsburg, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Fla. “Sometimes people have to be reminded to slow down and listen to their disease”. RA affects an individuals life experience of his or her body but support groups and arthritis education can help people learn how to listen to their body and disease, and cope with it.
Rheumatoid arthritis has many debilitating effects on the lived experience of the body. In this regard, the phenomenological approach has provided important insights into our understanding of embodiment. Some critics of the phenomenological approach believe issues of power and gender have been left out (Gray, 2006).
In conclusion, the sociology of the body is concerned mainly with the question of what bodies mean and how the body becomes meaningful within the realms of social relations. Drawing on the information gathered all three social theories have made significant advances in understanding how we interpret the body although I feel that the structuration theory fails to acknowledge the importance of social forces on the body and the phenomenological theory is not very structured. The social constructionist approach seems to be most persuasive theory in relation to the body. Finally in view of on the information collected it is clear that the body is, and will continue to undergo the process of commodification.