Modern bodies and their discontents

[Update: I had some problems when editing the blog and this post accidentally got deleted. I’ve reconstructed it, but if anyone notices any minor changes, apologies]

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a fellow medievalist about medieval and modern concepts of the relationship of the body and the mind. She argued for a Cartesian dualism that separated the modern body and mind. I countered by quoting from the eighth-century Liber exhortationis of Paulinus of Aquileia (c 35) saying that the flesh should obey the soul (anima), just like the slave woman (ancilla) does her mistress. But I’ve been thinking on and off about this issue ever since and trying to work out, tentatively, what modern (popular) views on the body are.

The idea of humans as body plus something else goes back in the west at least to the dualism of classical Greece and Rome. You can argue that it makes a difference whether the other bit is soul, or mind and soul, or just mind (as with Descartes), but the same principle of the bit that’s really us, plus its wrapper is still present. However, I don’t have the sense that such a view is still as strong in the modern world. Scientific thought increasingly stresses our animal nature, with thought as a biochemical process and consciousness as somehow emergent from that. In popular culture too, I think the notion of the body as merely a wrapper is increasingly rare. What is the slogan ‘You’re worth it’, but an identification of self with the body that ‘deserves’ pampering? And I suspect both Paulinus and Descartes would be horrified by the bookshop shelves dealing with ‘mind/body/spirit’, as if the concepts are interchangeable.

That isn’t to deny that there is still an element of the feeling that the body is a separate thing to the self. But the relationship between them is no longer of the body as a slave to the self, but more as a canvas for the self. Modern bodies are quite literally a canvas in an increasing number of cases, given that 20% of Britons now have tattoos. Even for those of us who don’t want to get coloured in, cultivation of the body (caring for it, tending it, disciplining it) is a normal part of most people’s life. And the contempt for those who ‘let themselves go’, opting out of bodily cultivation, is sometimes palpable. Cultivating the mind, in contrast, is a minority sport: there are far more people who worry about eating junk food than about reading junk literature or watching junk TV.

Our relationship with our bodies is now more aesthetic than moral. The question is now no longer whether you can successfully control your body, but whether you can successfully make it look good. If you’re a binge drinker, but beautiful, your status is higher than if you’re teetotal but ugly. Although this is obviously true of women, it’s increasingly true of men as well. Men can still get away with being two out of three of bald, fat and scruffy, but rarely all three together (like Churchill).

Of course, cultivating the body isn’t a new phenomenon: Roman senators already had an elaborate bodily culture of gesture, voice, movement, costume, and there are many earlier and later examples as well. But I think the big difference is in changes in the social characteristics of those carrying out this aesthetic culture, particularly in terms of age and class. In most previous centuries in the West, bodily cultivation has been mainly the obsession of a privileged class: the ones who can afford to taking dancing lessons or ride a horse, and not get sun-burnt or have to do hard manual labour etc. But the bodily ideals have tended to be ones that could be attained by a relatively wide age range. As long as the Roman senator’s voice was resonant and his pace deliberate, it didn’t matter if his hair was gray.

In contrast, bodily ideals have now been ‘democratised’ in one sense: ‘anyone’ can aspire to be beautiful. But in practice the bodily ideal held up is overwhelmingly a youthful one. This is obviously a difficulty for all of us as we get old. But it’s not always realised that it’s also a class-based matter. A good-looking 20 year can be from any class. A good-looking 60 year old is far more likely to be from a higher social class. Lower social classes don’t just have lower life expectancy, they have lower expectancy of healthy life : in the poorest areas they’re likely to be chronically ill by 50. Even if you’re not ill, it’s a lot easier to stay beautiful at 60 if you have the money for flattering clothes, a good diet, trips to the gym and possibly even a face lift than if you’re poor. Nineteenth and early twentieth century thought tended to take it for granted that the ‘early bloom’ of beautiful working class women would soon fade: the same is still on average likely to be true today (and also for working class men).

In such a world of bodily aesthetics rather than bodily morality, what place can those who are (or become) visibly disabled hold? Medieval thought sometimes saw disability as punishment for sin: I shuddered when reading sources saying that those who had sex at prohibited times would give birth to deformed children. But disability could also be seen as unrelated to a person’s moral status, allowed by God’s providence to exist in order to prove saints’ healing power. In contrast, the disabled body now has little moral significance. Instead, it bears the full weight of aesthetic significance: if your disability makes you ‘ugly’ (as many disabilities do), you’re aligned with the losers in life. I have no wish to go back to past obsession with bodily morality. But I’m not sure that a culture based around the aesthetics of the body is really much kinder.


6 thoughts on “Modern bodies and their discontents

  1. This is a really interesting post – you touch on a lot of quite meaty issues. I live in a society where there are a lot of Pacific Island people, and in general they tend to be quite fat (and also very muscular – awesome rugby players!). The difference in cultural values is quite interesting, whereby in PI culture, fat is generally valued and seen as a marker of status, whereas in white Western culture, there has been a strong shift (post-WWII?) towards thinness being seen as a marker of wealth/status. As you point out, these days, it takes a lot of money and free leisure time to pursue the Western ideal of the ‘body beautiful. This conflicted cultural view of what is ‘beautiful’ tends to be reflected in NZ fashion/pop culture, where a lot of the models in the cutting edge magazines etc. would probably be considered ‘too fat’ to have careers in NY or Paris. I wonder how much this influences/is influenced by New Zealand’s enduring national myth/ideal that we live in a multicultural and egalitarian society, given the strong connections between bodily adornment/dress/standards of beauty and class/status in many societies.

    I’ve been doing some research recently on the development of the doctrine of Original Sin in the later medieval period, partly as a result of the rediscovery of Aristotle’s Ethics and its cross-fertilization (I guess you could call it) with Catholic theology. An additional level of distinction comes across there between *body* and *flesh*, with flesh being definitely much more pejorative and associated with ‘animal’ nature, rather than the more elevated body/mind/spirit conjunction.

    Oh, and as for bodily adornment, count me among the inked.


  2. Over on the obscure blog “Taking it Outside” there appeared not long ago “Your aging thread” to which I contributed the following observations, which may (or may not) be germane here, insofar as it deals with the timing of part of the change, which I take to be quite recent:

    “Everyone seems to take it for granted that physical fitness, whether pursued through martial arts or jogging or whatever, is an appropriate, even mandatory, aspect of dealing with aging.

    “This was not always true. In my parents’ generation – when I was growing up – nobody in middle age lifted weights except a few bizarre “bodybuilders” (cf. the documentary “Pumping Iron,” featuring a young Arnold S!), nobody ran except very odd marathoners, and nobody did martial arts except Asian immigrants.

    “Ordinary people, of all classes, indulged in physical exercise only to the extent that they enjoyed it, either intrinsically or for social reasons. Golf. Tennis. Bowling. Swimming. Walking (not running!) in the countryside. I suspect that most people would have regarded as self-indulgent, if not actually narcissistic, any focus on personal “fitness” for its own sake.

    “This has all changed, and I am caught in the middle – not committed enough to actually keep fit, but just enough to feel guilty about not doing so. I am now grateful for “Wii,” just discovered since Christmas (thank you, Anarch!).

    “Obviously there’s a lot more to aging than this, and various people have made interesting comments about the psychology and sociology of no longer being among the Young.

    “But to a historian like myself, the curious development over recent generations is this rise of emphasis on *physical* aging, and how to slow or stop it. Is this a “Boomer” phenomenon, along with “Rock & Roll, Drugs, and F**cking in the Streets” (to quote the original manifesto of Michigan’s White Panther Party)? Is it yet another manifestation of the faith that we can will our own destiny, rather than being swept along by larger forces such as time? Who knows?”


  3. Thanks for your comments. Bavardess, I’m getting way out of my period here, but I think that at least in Britain thinness really started becoming fashionable in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Byron was a notorious dieter, for example, and think of George IV’s corsets. There were a number of popular diets from the nineteenth century. I suspect that it was a reaction to the agricultural developments of the period, with declining food prices long term and the increasing availability of sugar. Once being able to overeat is increasingly an option for those of lower social status, thanks to cheap calories, then fatness loses its use as a marker of wealth. In the modern US and UK, indeed, it’s now the poorest classes who are most likely to be overweight.

    I’m interested to hear about the effect on New Zealanders’ body image of Pacific Island people in the population. I know there have always been all sorts of complicated colonial attitudes towards ‘natives’ bodies, but they play out very differently between a colonising power where the ‘natives’ are mostly kept overseas (UK), a ‘traditional’ colony (NZ) and a colonising power which has a long history of voluntary and involuntary immigration (US). I’d be interested to hear from dr ngo whether a purely ‘European’ body image is dominant in the US or if black/Native American/Hispanic traditions have altered it in some ways.

    I also wonder whether there’s a difference between more rural and more urban societies: NZ is still a lot less urban than the UK isn’t it? The current UK ideal of thinness, epitomised in the adolescent or even pre-pubescent body, is incompatible with most forms of heavy manual labour (such as agricultural work), which tend to build muscle.

    As for tattooing, do you think in NZ attitudes to that are also affected by PI culture? I still find it surprising how quickly attitudes have changed in the UK. Thirty years ago, when I was a child, tattoos were very much associated with marginal people: sailors, bikers, the less reputable working classes. I still almost automatically use them as a class marker, when I see someone with them, but that’s increasingly out of date. And companies that have dress codes restricting tattoos are probably going to have change their policies with new generations.

    dr ngo – I think there are a couple of different angles to the move towards exercise for the agency beyond ‘boomer’ mentality: changing understandings of the purpose of exercise and a changed environment. There’s an interesting article here (better for the later periods) that shows how much concern about exercise has traditionally been connected to military fitness, as well as to dieting. If you were past the age of conscription and not grossly overweight, there wasn’t an obvious need for exercise.

    It was only really in the 1940s that the “new epidemiology” started looking at the causes of chronic diseases, and thus was able to pick up the more subtle statistical effects of diet and exercise that made lifelong exercise seem useful.

    Another big change, of course, is the rise in ‘obesogenic’ environments: lifestyles and landscapes that tend to make us fat. There has been a big change in the UK even within my lifetime in access to cars, the price of food, the prevalence of central heating and air conditioning, etc. I suspect older people may now need to take exercise who thirty years ago would have automatically got a substantial amount of that exercise through routine walking, housework etc. If, several times a week, you shovel coal into a coal scuttle and haul it up the stairs from the cellar, as my parents did, isn’t that worth an aerobics class?


  4. I was disappointed that your metaphysical beginning was merely the introduction to a sociological theme which acknowledges two dominant cultures: “scientific” and “popular”. This approach squeezes out the instinctive knowledge that body is part of soul, its visible part.

    “Your body is, in essence, a crowd of different members who work in harmony to make your belonging in the world possible. We should avoid this false dualism which separates the soul from the body. The soul is not simply within the body, hidden somewhere within its recesses. The truth is rather the converse. Your body is in the soul and the soul suffuses you completely.” –From John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, p.74.

    The sociological observations resemble studying the behaviour of caged animals. I feel that we are far from our natural habitat.


    • I am intuitively wary of the idea of the body as the visible part of the soul because to me that carries so much difficult historical baggage about physical beauty. For thousands of years, the belief was that physical appearance was the reflection of the state of the soul (like the Greek adjective ‘kalos’ as meaning beautiful and good), and so those of us who are plain/ugly are obviously lesser beings. From Plato via early medieval saints (all of above average looks) to Victorian novels, it’s been a pernicious theme, especially for women, for whom looks are already over-emphasised.


  5. Indeed there is a social consensus as to what constitutes beauty or ugliness, based on the sex instinct and fashions of the time and place.

    I imagine everyone understands what it means to see through the body to the soul, even if the skill to do so varies between individuals. Such an ability is surely the reverse of pernicious, because, by definition, it sees beyond “looks”.

    You have only to consider the casting in the more thoughtful movies (less polarised between outright good and evil) to see that audiences delight in reading the soul of a character, not through the looks, which may be ugly in various ways, but through the soul revealed in that character. Certain actors won’t ever get one of those leading roles in which romantic desirability must be unequivocally displayed by conventional good looks. They get “character parts”, and are appreciated because something of the actor’s soul shines through.

    I don’t see how the natural understanding of the ordinary person, as I have tried to illustrate above, has anything to do with historical baggage.


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