I have recently visited Helen Fisher Turk’s (http://efturk.com/) phototherapy exposition in São Paulo, Brazil. It was a small exhibition – not more than 20 or 30 pictures. The images, however, were extremely strong. Turk’s phototherapy project consists of taking black and white studio pictures of women with serious body image and personal history issues. They are anorexic, bulimic or obese women who have been rape and incest victims, for example. There are also pictures of mutilated women and one picture of an old woman.
The pictures were accompanied by a small text – an exerpt from a longer personal account that had been recorded by the photographer/researcher. The text served the purpose of illustrating how the process of exposing the body, being photographed, observing the pictures and interacting with them lead these women to, at least provisorily, transform their self-representations into a more positive one. Most of them had been suffering from shame and self-reproach as a consequence of their deviant images and their failure to meet accepted beauty standards.
Except for the eating disorder, there was no psychiatric diagnose in the exhibit. It seemed apparent to me, however, that the issues dealt with there were mostly related to mental illness.
It occurred to me that those women’s body image at the same time revealed and concealed a great deal about their identity. In a sense, they had produced a discourse about themselves and about their social world through a very painful, and greatly unconscious, process of body image construction.
The body is a priviledged locus for representing identity – both self and social. The body itself is a result of biological processes highly independent of one’s will or conceptions (whether one will store up energy as fat or not does not depend on her/his approval of a fuller figure, but on how many calories she/he has ingested and burned). But the body image is a simbolic construction – both subjective and collective. Therefore, although the storing of energy as fat depends solely on the contents of the diet, if fat will be stored or consumed depends on a decision on caloric deficit or superavit. On whether or not things will be ingested, on whether or not movement will be made. These decisions are based on the conception one has of one’s place in the world. What emotions and impulses drive such conceptions are many among an infinite variety. What makes a bulimic woman throw up repetitively, besides her genetic makeup? It is anyone’s guess, and the subject of a number of Ph.D. theses. But by throwing up she is constructing a body image – and her own identity in a deviant form.
The body is also a priviledged locus for representing “health”. “Health” is by no means a consensual concept – either in science and medicine or in society at large. Health is frequently equated to normality. Normality, however, is a statistical claim: it means where the “norm” is concentrated. In this sense, overweight is normal (because it is highly prevalent in the adult population) and, thus, would be healthy. Health is also defined by negation, frequently equated to the lack of illness (the “pathological” condition). Which brings us back to the start: Canguillem has written a famous book about the construction of the category “pathological”, as opposed to… “normal”! The health sciences struggle bravely with health standards. Indicators, diagnostic criteria, pathology classification – these are all subject to controversy and confusion today. For the social and human sciences, in general, “health” is a more normative idea, related to social inclusion and equality. There is a whole corpus of publications concerned with discrimination against overweight girls and women, for example. These authors are more concerned with the “unhealthy” discrimination than with the (according to them, “supposedly”) “unhealthy” weight.
Fat children once meant healthy children, and they reflected upon the family’s social status. Affluent families wanted to display plump progeny.
Just as the symbolic elite can’t make up its mind on what is the image of the healthy body, the market also reflects this fragmented relation of society with health. Is the healthy body the moving body? The strong body? The erotic body?
The body and its image are in permanent construction by the individual, whether or not consciously, voluntarily (optionally) or deliberately. There is hardly anything “natural” in the construction of body images. Nature does not “intend for” or “oppose” any specific image – whether fat, slim, strong or weak. Being fat is as artificial as being slim. Likewise, being fit is as artificial as being sedentary, with resulting image consequences.
Therefore, the individual is always “doing” or “not doing” something for the construction of her/his body image. Many of the most profitable businesses in the world are associated with body image construction. The food industry, with its huge line of health, light and diet alternative products; the nutraceutical industry; the pharmaceutical industry, with diet medications; the sports supplement industry; the cosmetic industry; the fashion world; plastic surgery; to name a few.
Mental (individual) and social (collective) disorders (disfunctionalities) will eventually find their way into body image and, therefore, body construction. At the individual level, intricate emotional mechnisms command behavioral patterns in which many physically disruptive processes take place. Excessive caloric intake, for example, which result in weight gain that can ammount to quite an important body transformation. Specific forms of urban sub-culture reactions against discrimination and inequality may also result in important body image construction “deviations”.
Deviations from what, exactly? From the accepted body stereotypes.
If, in our society, disorders and conflicts are exposed in the bodies of those who are involved, contradictorily, social body image stereotypes are produced and re-inforced, among other things, to conceal disorders and/or to suppress individuality in the construction of body images. The negative stereotypes have a pretty obvious function: they substitute a critical explanation for a certain image. The fat individual, thus, becomes the undisciplined, weak, greedy, perhaps uneducated, lazy character. The extremely thin (anorexic stereotype) individual becomes the shallow, self-centered, alienated and fragile character. These negative stereotypes conceal serious disorders and deep personal suffering, thus jeopardizing the chances of receiving sympathy and solidarity for the victims. Other negative stereotypes reflect social stratification and class marks: the dumb, silicone-breasted blond secretary, the stupid and violent muscular dumb jock.
Deconstructing these stereotypes and revealing the hidden personal, emotional and political agendas underlying body image construction might have liberating effects on individuals victimized by the causing disorders and conflicts. If this will ever be possible in an economy where so much is a stake in body image construction is hard to bet on.