The Body, Identity and Social Power

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By: Loubna FLAH

MA in Literary and Linguistic Studies

            The body is the actual extension of the self towards the external world.  It is no coincidence that we are identified by our physical appearance first. By Plato’s logic, all sensory experiences including the perception of bodily appearances are misleading. For that matter, it would be simplistic to decline the validity of any correspondence between the immediate image of the body available to the observer and reality as it is perceived by the self. But how much truth is released through the body remains highly disputed. As a matter of fact, the exposure of body to the “Other” by the mere fact of physical presence cannot but   unravel a part of the self’s inclinations, attitudes and dispositions.

            Yet, we need to make a distinction between the physical body and the social body (the body as it is sanctioned by social norms). The distinction remains pressing for the mere fact that those two facets of the Human body operate at different levels. The physical body is the accurate expression of the Human genome, whereas the social body is constantly constructed and deconstructed under the weight of social conformity. The physical body is the center of numerous biochemical reactions whose dynamics   is obliterated every time the aesthetic dimension of the body is foregrounded. On the other hand, the social body differs greatly from the physical body by virtue of its “floating” significance. Within this perspective, the social body stands as an open category prone to appraisal and criticism that often form the substratum on which the individual construes her/ his self image. 

            The growing numbers of people suffering from eating disorders shows that the media discourse has gained legitimacy among wide audiences. Thus, it becomes very an intricate task for the self to match a norm that was initially set in absentia and discursively consolidated outside the self itself.  Nevertheless, we need to pinpoint that the need for conformity remains a strong survival instinct for the individual. For that reason, the body obeys inevitably to the social benchmarks no matter how iconoclastic individuals might be. The body complies in the ways of dressing, in its idiosyncratic motion, and no less importantly the body complies in the ways of expressing itself.  .

            Nevertheless, there are many instances where people contest the power of the predominant culture either deliberately or by mere coincidence through the different styles of clothing ranging from fashion tendencies to religious attires. The adherence to Islamic modesty manifested in the veil notably in Western countries is an instance of self assertion against a totally different cultural background whereas the resistance to the veil can also become a manifest resistance to the theocracies. The body then becomes a powerful instrument of protest and defiance.

            Women in particular tend to have a dialectical relation towards their bodies. Caught between the hammer of patriarchy and the anvil of consumerism, the construction of their body image remains highly problematic. According to Dr. Aric Sigman, a British biologist, exposure to deviant body representations as appealing and desirable is likely to engender a chemical change at the level of brain activities which often results in a feeling of self- resentment[1].

 The expectations cast on women as regards their appearance continue to outweigh all the aesthetic values assigned to their male counterparts even in the most liberal societies. As a matter of fact, women tend to display signs of dissatisfaction over their body image more than men. During the adolescence, young girls are more vulnerable to media influence and may carry the tokens of their discontent in their unconscious mind throughout their adult life (Meghan 2012). Women’s control over their bodies is constantly usurped “in so far as their self-esteem remains tethered with social acceptance and as long as they do not feel the desire or the necessity to break free from the grips of social scrutiny. The inherent dependence over the other’s appreciation poses an existential threat to the development of women’s personality. The only way to recuperate their physical and ontological integrity is to forge gradually their own free will that may or may not coincide with the normative patterns of the group.

            The interposition of the collective consciousness between the inner self and the body has tremendous impact on the formation of personality and the types of interactions established with others. It is equally important for the individual to regain control over her/ his body primarily through the mental act of consciousness. It is the departure from the status of the social subject to the stature of the free social being that allows the individual to recover a sense of authenticity. The free social being has the capacity to understand her/ his condition. The free will resides in the capacity to   choose or to reject social conformity, for there is not much difference between rebellion and the deliberate choice of complacency. This recuperative act would be incomplete without the restoration of the wholeness of the body. The “reappropriation” of the body from the “collective mind” clamors for an earnest bid for   self-recognition that may not be achieved without the liberation of the self from social panopticism and the establishment of personal ethics that may cross or “recross” the prevailing social values.


 Gillen, Meghan M.; Eva S. Lefkowitz (2012). “Gender and racial/ethnic differences in body image development among college students”. Body Image (PDF).


[1] Sydney Morning Herald. 20 October 2010

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