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Stratification: Body Modifications in Modern Society

The body has long been an integral concept in sociology, whether as a metaphorical tool or a literal construct wherein the individual identity is situated. Classical theorists, particularly Karl Marx, have understood the body as a fundamental element of social structure where the embodied actor must interface directly with society through labour. Maximilian Karl Emil Weber’s themes of domination and power, though intellectually framed as the machinations of a political system, in practice must be exerted upon the physical actor. Theorists such as Paul-Michel Foucault or Pierre Felix Bourdieu have conceptualized the body as a site for examining power dynamics and action, while feminist theorists have posited the body as a location of oppression or liberation.

In light of this foundation, it is beneficial to understand how and why individuals navigate the cultural norms and ideals pertaining to physical (aesthetic) appearance in relation to their own sense of personal identity. Chris Shilling (2003) conceptualizes the relationship, particularly in the more affluent capitalist, post-industrial, Western society, between the individual and his/her body as what he terms a “body project.” The notion of the body project suggests that the body is “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”.

Indeed, Chris Shilling suggests that practices such as plastic surgery strain the boundaries of what we understand to be natural bodies and ties the body ever more closely to the active achievement of one’s self-identity.1 Beyond this, engaging in body projects allows individuals living in an uncertain and unpredictable world a site where they can articulate expectations and outcomes as well as exert some level of control. Through these processes, the body becomes rife with meaning, informed by the prevailing cultural values, in conjunction with those values reified, and inscribed by the individual.

Similarly, Mike Featherstone (1987) addresses the idea that contemporary capitalist society has begun to move beyond fixed cultural signifiers of social class and status. Within the parameters of a consumer culture, he suggests the individual indicates social location through consumable signifiers (i.e., clothing, automobiles, education, aesthetic taste, etc). Furthermore, Mike Featherstone finds that consumer culture “publicly suggests that we all have room for self-improvement and self-expression whatever our age or class origins”. This argument extends to the body as well as long as one can change the body to meet the aesthetic and representational demands of another, one can traverse social strata and transform his/her individual identity by modifying the corporeal form.

Speaking to these societal demands Mike Featherstone (1991) observes that “within consumer culture the body is proclaimed as a vehicle of pleasure: its desirable and desiring and the closer the actual body approximates to the idealized images of youth, health, fitness, and beauty the higher its exchange value”. The body, and the way we relate to our bodies, is both subjects to the demands of the consumer culture and transformed by them as well. The body projects in which people are engaged cannot easily be disentangled from the machinations of a larger consumer culture.

The commodification of the body results in the necessity of employing an array of maintenance processes and technologies so that individuals, and their bodies, can “hold onto their market value in a world where appearances rule”. Mike Maguire (2002) echoes these ideas by noting that the body project is an endeavour particularly suited to consumer-capitalist society, as it is “managed and developed through self-work and market choices”. In commenting on the fitness industry, Mike Maguire (2002) characterizes the field as a “network of corporate synergies” and suggests that ultimately we come to understand our bodies as being an integral part of a larger system of consumption. Bob Gimlin (2000) proposes that the body is not simply a signifier of self, but is shaped by “the individual’s capacity for material consumption”. In the consumer society, the body project is still bounded by the individual’s ability to finance the endeavour; while possibilities many seem limitless, access is not.

Hurst (2005) argues that the commodification of the body, particularly one’s own body, can have socially negative outcomes. Specifically, Hurst (2005) asserts that if bodies, or individual parts of bodies, are consistently viewed as changeable, modifiable, or open to revision and enhancement, they become commodity fetishes, and subsequently products foreign to the owner and potential sources of alienation. Christian Blum (2003) understands the body in consumer culture with a bit more subtlety and balance. In her work on cosmetic surgery, Christian Blum (2003) notes the inherent paradox of a “beauty culture” that is simultaneously liberating and coercive. In the market economy, we have given the option to consume, as well as options among consumables, while at the same time subject to the aesthetic and representational demands of the larger society.

There is a tension between the liberating, expressive nature of body projects and the potential for being constrained by dominant expectations of “appropriate” style and appearance. Pierre Felix Bourdieu (1990) conceptualizes the body as an “analogical operator” that manifests the divisions of society, whether between the sexes or social classes, whereby the individual body adopts the “meanings and values” associated with his structural position. Bodies can then be used to represent an originating class position or “mirror” the trappings of another position to move about through the social hierarchy. Paul-Michel Foucault (1984) more explicitly equates the body with social structure and hierarchy, particularly as a site upon which power is to be exerted in the segregations of capitalist society.

The body reflects its position within society, embodying and exemplifying either the privileges or deprivations experienced by the individual. As such, individuals develop an understanding of their bodies, they are embodied and lived experiences, informed by their positions in the social structure. Jagger (2000) suggests that “each class or class fraction, then, has a clearly identifiable relationship with its body, which results in the production of distinct bodily forms”. This encoding of class on the body creates a simultaneously symbolic and physical standard of valuation enabling members of higher social classes to characterize their own bodies as better. The practices through which individuals seek to modify their bodies are encoded with these class valuations as well; however, they also offer the chance to move the body within this system as well as allowing individuals to recreate their bodies and inscribe new meanings.

Insofar as a class can be encoded on the body, displayed as a symbolic marker of one’s place in the social hierarchy, one still must have the cultural and financial resources to gain access to the new technologies of the body. As Nettleton (2001) notes “there is now a vast array of medical technologies and procedures to choose from if we want to shape alter and recreate our bodies — from various forms of assisted conception, to gene therapy, to forms of cosmetic surgery and so on.” However, these innovations are often prohibitively priced and many health insurance companies will not pay for elective, cosmetic procedures resulting in patients bearing the entire cost. Furthermore, research has shown that quality of health and access to medical care is stratified along class lines throughout the world. If access to basic, necessary healthcare is beyond the reach of some segments of the population, then one might begin to understand elective cosmetic surgery as a stratifying practice, an example of conspicuous consumption, through the purchasing of gratuitous commercial healthcare.3

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