Body, a social construction

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 Body and beauty are social, political and cultural construct. Body is used as semiotic in the consumer market. The idea of beauty is male perspective. Therefore, body is a social cultural and political rather than biological. Foucault holds that bodies are constituted within the specific nexus of culture or discourse-power regimes.  Foucault therefore, claims that there is no ontological independence of the body outside of any of these specific regimes. Foucault holds that the process of cultural construction may be understood on the model of inscription. Body starts with biology. Gender, beauty, psychology, romance are associated with body. Body is constructed for sexuality, entertainment and as a part of consumer markets. Foucault argues that sex has two meanings –the first one is physical or biological union and the other is-social construction. For e.g. romance, dowry conflict, nature, culture, nationalism psychology and guilt.

The body is both material, as a physical organism and immaterial e.g. a body of beliefs, legends or myths. Cultures express themselves through body images which pervade all aspects of everyday life. Understanding a culture means understanding its body images. No system or discipline can give a unified account of the body. There is no one scientific ‘map’ of the body universally applicable to all societies. The body is, at one and the same time, part of nature, culture and society. It is a part of nature because it is associated with physical, sex and eroticism. And it is a part of culture and society because it is associated with economic welfare, consumer culture, dietary practices, health and fitness.  We still use clothes to show how we perceive our bodies and how we wish to be perceived by others. Clothes make us. The verb ‘to fashion’ after all means ‘to shape’, ‘to mould’. Similarly bodies are actually ‘separated’ by sex. And indeed, conventional ways of organizing sexuality have relied on oppositions. Society makes both sexual bodies and distinctions amongst them. All bodies are biologically male or female. But nobody- is sexually predetermined by biology.

In addition to it, body images are always cultural fabrications, yet we are encouraged to take them for granted as if they were natural. This process of naturalization gives rise to religion. Similarly, the sexual body is a valuable object of sexual exchange. The sexual bodies constructed by a society never exist as separate objects. They only gain meaning in relation to one another. Although Foucault makes a few references to women or to the issues of gender in his writing, his treatment of the relation between powers, the body and sexuality has stimulated extensive feminist interest. Foucault’s identification of the body as principle target of power has been used by feminists to analyze contemporary forms, social control over women’s bodies and minds. He further says, “I do not envisage a history of mentalities that would take account of bodies only…they have been perceived and given meaning and value. Foucault writes in The History of Sexuality “But a history of bodies and the manner in which what is most material and most vital in them has been invested” (151). His anti-essentialist account of the body is nevertheless attentive to the materiality of the bodies it has been attractive to feminists concerned to expose the process through which the female body is transformed into feminine body. In S. Bartky,s account, the disciplinary practices subjugate women, not by taking power away from them but by generating skills and competencies that depend on the maintenance of a stereotypical from of feminine identity. Moreover, Osho has connected body, sex and mind for recreation and salvation.

Judith Butler’s understanding of body seems similar to Foucauldian theory, however she remarks that body is not only construction but it has performance too. Butler writes in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity, “A Foucauldian approach to identity production demonstrates the role played by cultural norms in regulating how we embody or perform our gender identities. But gender identity is simply set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regularity frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of belief” (33). Thus, for Butler, one of the most important feminists’ aims should be to challenge dominant gender norms by exposing the contingent acts that produce the appearance of an underlying natural gender identity. Similarly, Elizabeth Grosz argues that Foucault’s insistence on the corporeal reality of the body which is directly modeled by social and historical forces avoids the traditional gendered opposition between the body and culture. She states, “Foucault fails to consider the issue of sexual difference, his thought may contribute to the feminist project of exploring the relation between social power and the production of sexually differentiated body” (Grosz 30). According to Niestche, abstract concepts such as thought and reasons are actually functions of biology. We think the way we do because of the kinds of the bodies we have. Dani Cavallaro writes in his book The Body, on page 65, “Moral, religious and scientific laws have endeavoured to make the body weak and impotent by teaching us to be humble, obedient and servile. In repressing the body, civilization has made us ashamed of our instincts and denied our creativity.”

Body is defined according to the culture and power. It is not only biological but more importantly social political and cultural. Similarly, Cavallaro writes in The Body For Beginners                    on page 95, “philosophy argued for centuries that ‘the body is the prison of the soul’.  The body was seen as a flimsy and transient shell from which the immortal soul longed to escape. Foucault maintains that, in fact, the soul is the prison of the body. The body is enslaved to abstract principles of propriety and usefulness. These principles are the ‘soul’ which culture imposes on us.”

I n the same way, Foucault argues that gender is also studied as a social construct. Likewise sex is related to fashion, fantasy and salvation. But it is not only the sex but is sexuality which is a social construction and power.  Thus, the word body will always mean something different, depending on the context in which it is used. This shows that the body can no longer be seen as a purity natural entity. In fact, it is a construct produced through various media, especially language. All societies create images of the ideal body to define themselves. Framing the body is a vital means of establishing structure of power, knowledge, meaning and desire. Some feminist critics like Judith Butler and S. Bartky are in the opinion that body can not only be defined as the socio-political constructs but it also has performance. They argue that Foucault’s work provides feminist with the resource to think beyond the structure of identity politics. Therefore, their arguments provide that even the pervasiveness of the goddess and the image of beauty are the constructions of the human society.

 By Chandra Kanta Pandit

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