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Societal Pressure to Maintain the ‘Perfect’ Body

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Throughout time there has been a fascination with constructing the ‘perfect’ human form. In Ancient Greece, the perfect muscular body was associated with an individual being a hero, a warrior and an athlete and was symbolic of one’s sense of arete or ‘full potential’ (Chaline, 2015). Within the Renaissance period, as demonstrated by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, emphasis centred on physical beauty and symmetry as signifiers as the embodiment of purity, virtue and morality. The rise of imperialism in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries increased the importance of the fit and healthy body has as a reflection of a nation’s power and military preparedness. As Synnott (1993) elucidates therefore, the body has long been seen as the “prime symbol of the self” and how ‘it’ is thought of is historically, socially, sensually, politically and ideologically constructed:

[The body may be seen as]…a tomb of the soul, a temple, a machine, and the self and much more; it has also been treated accordingly. Bodies may be caressed or indeed killed, they may be loved or hated, and thought beautiful or ugly, scared or profane (p.7-8).

In late or post modern society, there are multiple pressures for creating and maintaining a sense of physical perfectionism with contemporary cultures relentlessly promoting the body beautiful (Thomas, 2007). We are constantly presented with images of perfectly formed models, celebrities, athletes and film and television stars (e.g. Grogan, 2008; Orbach, 2010) and social media forums such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are saturated with visions of individuals finely tuned bodies and versions of themselves they wish to present. For men, current ideals of physical perfectionism are best understood as ‘muscularity in moderation’ where muscle size and visibility as signs of health, independence and athleticism are paramount but within given parameters of normalcy. For example, the hyper-muscled body that competitive male bodybuilders develop is deemed ‘freakish’ (Fussell, 1991; Klein, 1993; Monaghan, 2001). For women, the ‘perfect’ body is more complex to distinguish and is further oppressed by patriarchal ideologies. Feminist scholars have addressed how women’s perceptions of their bodies and what is deemed attractive or imperfect are often informed by the male gaze for the purposes of gaining pleasure (e.g. Shildrick, 2002; Garland- Thomson, 2009). Certain forms of embodiment such as being slender, toned, petite and sexy are idealised in contemporary Western culture, but how a woman manages her sense of being in a body is problematic. As Markula (2001: 237) highlights, women are presented with the task of managing a host of contradictory continuums which dictates the female body should be “firm but shapely, fit but sexy, strong but thin”. This negotiation is made more problematic as women have historically been more defined by their bodies, and as a result, objectified in a number of ways. For example, female athletes are often infantilised or sexualised based on their physical appearance regardless of their sporting accomplishments (Hargreaves, 1994).

For both men and women therefore, the body is not only viewed as a sign of physical capability allowing us to perform our everyday roles and routines, but is increasingly associated with, and symbolic of, our attractiveness, successfulness and virility (Bauman, 1990). According to Bourdieu (1991), developing a body that relates well amongst contemporary ideologies of physical perfectionism imbues the owner with ‘physical capital’ which in turn can be transferred into ‘cultural’ and ‘economic’ capital enhancing one’s status and distinction in a given ‘social field’ (i.e. sets of localised social relations):

The production of physical capital refers to the development of bodies in ways which are recognised as possessing value in social fields, while the conversion of physical capital refers to the translation of bodily participation in work, leisure and other fields into different forms of capital. Physical capital is most usually converted into economic capital (money, goods and services), cultural capital (for example, education) and social capital (social networks which enable reciprocal calls to be made on the goods and services of its members) (p.127).

As a result, inhabiting a typically gendered, young, muscular, athletic, virile and able body is valued and brings rewards in a society that values perfectionism. For example, Monaghan (2002) explores how his muscled body assisted in him in gaining a position as a nightclub doorman which in turn opened up avenues of (hetero)sexual experience. These norms of perfectionism are now so engrained in Western society that the term “body fascism” has arisen in popular culture to express “the oppressiveness inherent in the narrowing of norms about the ideal body” (Hughes, 1999: 155). These strict bodily boundaries limit how the body may be imagined and experienced at the expense of alternative expressions of embodiment. According to Pronger (2002) the ubiquity of the fit, slender, muscular body creates a ‘panoptic effect’ as individuals watch over themselves for any deviations from these norms. Non-normative or less valued bodies such as ‘old’, ‘fat’, ‘disabled’, ‘short’, ‘tall’ bodies or bodies that transgress accepted norms (e.g. female bodybuilders who transgress traditional ideals of femininity) are therefore oppressed or excluded altogether. As Sparkes (1997: 88) iterates “some constructions (of embodiment) come to be more equal than others, some come to be more legitimate than others, and some get to be promoted over others”. Indeed, as Hughes (1999) points out some bodies, for example the disabled body, is placed as a binary opposite to fascist ideologies of body perfectionism and is used for the very construction of the ‘perfect’ body.

As pressure exists to live up to certain levels of perfectionism there is increasing awareness that the body itself is perfectible through various bodily regimens and modifications. This has resulted in the body being increasingly seen as an object of consumption creating further pressures for individuals to work on their bodies as part of a “self-reflexive project” (Giddens, 1991; Shilling, 1993; 2003). According to Shilling (2003), engaging in body projects allows people to make strong, public and personal statements about who and what they are within a multitude of social contexts:

In the affluent West, there is a tendency for the body to be seen as an entity which is in the process of becoming; a project which should be worked at and accomplished as part of an individual’s self-identity. Body projects still vary along social lines, especially in the case of gender, but there has in recent years been a proliferation of the ways in which both women and men have developed their bodies. Recognising that the body has become a project for many modern persons entails accepting that its appearance, size, shape and even its contents, are potentially open to reconstruction in line with the designs of its owner (p.4; emphasis added).

Modifying one’s body in line with socially and culturally constructed norms therefore promises control and security and creates space for an individual to situate oneself in the world. As Shilling (2003) suggests, not only can individuals create their own identity through altering the appearance of the body amongst an array of choices but it is their responsibility to do so through engaging in modifications and everyday bodily maintenance as a demonstration of diligence and labour. People may therefore choose, and indeed feel pressured, to undertake bodily modifications such as committing to regimes of physical training, disciplining nutritional intake, undertaking plastic surgery and botox, having teeth whitened or piercing, tattooing and scarifying the skin at the body’s surface (e.g. Featherstone, 2000). These modifications are supplemented by daily routines of bodily maintenance such as washing and cleaning, adorning the body with clothing, brushing our teeth, applying makeup and moisturisers, having our haircut in particular ways and undertaking techniques that remove hair from certain body parts.

Such pressures perhaps contribute to the continual obsession with gym culture in contemporary society. The gym offers a space where physical labour (which is constantly declining in an increasingly technological world) is reproduced promising the construction of a strong, powerful, functional, independent, desirable body and offering potential for the transformation of the self. As Fussell (1994) observes, the built body in contemporary, capitalist, visual, aesthetic society has more symbolic and cultural importance than it is has usefulness in the production of labour:

The bodybuilder is a perversion of puritanism, and utilitarianism. He doesn’t use his muscles to build bridges, but to raise eyebrows. They are at once functionless, yet highly functional (p.45).

Gyms are thus important social spaces where individuals are encouraged to work their bodies like a project through which they can transform or maintain their body-self identities. As Fussell (1994: 57) continues of bodybuilders “the muscular body, the picture of eternal adolescence, is their dominant dream, and the gym their nightly launching pad”.

In affluent Western society of course individuals are presented with an ever increasing choice of health and fitness regimes, diets, and bodily practices which they may engage in. However, it is important to critique the ‘freedom’ to which individuals are really afforded in these practices. For Foucault (1981), there is less choice of what we do with our bodies than we are conscious of as we are placed under multiple cultural confines and constructs of perfectionism and normalcy. Engaging in a ‘body project’ is therefore not exclusively an expression of individual agency, but is policed through the adherence, or docility as Foucault called it, to dominant cultural discourses. As Bourdieu (1990: 63) asserts, there is a causal relationship between the social and the corporeal, and so accordingly we must see “society written into the body, into the biological individual” and vice versa.

The increasing pressures to conform to and commit to achieving the ‘perfect’ body have been highlighted as contributory factors to compulsory and obsessive behavioural disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and most recently the phenomena of ‘bigorexia’ amongst men (Ahmad, Rotherham & Talwar, 2015). Increased consciousness of the body and perceived inability to embody ideals of perfectionism has also been linked with self-dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression and negative wellbeing (Grogan, 2008). There is also increasing suggestion that people are taking more risks to achieve ‘perfect’ bodies including taking supplements, steroids and dietary pharmaceuticals (Monaghan, 2001). Embarking on a body project as an attempt to transform the self into socially and culturally constructed visions of perfectionism therefore problematic. Furthermore, as Shilling (2003: 5) reminds us, bodies are doomed to fail as they inevitably age and decay, become sick and injured, and are not always malleable in the ways that we desire – “bodies are limited not only in the sense that they ultimately die, but in their frequent refusal to be moulded in accordance with our intentions”.

Offering some reflections, it is evident that within late or post modern society that is “aggressively aestheticised” (Featherstone, 1991) the vision of the ‘perfect’ body takes centre stage. As a result, pressures exist for people to embody perfected physical forms. Although there are plenty of examples of people who reject these norms and take measures to differentiate or individualise themselves in alternative ways (e.g. through non-normative tattoos) in general there are demands for us to present and perform our bodies in particular ways. The ‘perfect’ body is of course mythical. Participants in numerous studies in a variety of contexts have reported how they are never happy with their bodies no matter how much work they undertake on them (e.g. Monaghan, 1999). Bodily perfectionism should therefore be better conceptualised as a socially constructed ideology dependent on time, culture, space and an individual’s biography and subjectivities and is ultimately impossible to ‘achieve’. Perhaps promoting this understanding and how the ‘perfect’ body does not exist in a fixed, essentialist, homogeneous way but rather is better seen as fluid, constructed and heterogeneous could offer a number of benefits and ways to ease the pressures that people experience with regards to anxiety with their bodies. For example, recognising the impossibilities and constructions of physical perfectionism may allow people real freedom to create unique self-reflexive body projects where multiple versions of perfectionism may be imagined. Promoting these ‘variable body projects’ (Monaghan, 2001) promises more fulfilling body-self relationships, less risky bodily practices, opportunity for empowerment and increases in overall embodied wellbeing.


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