Body Culture

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In twentieth-century Europe, the culture of the body encompassed a whole range of disparate practices. Vegetarian diets and water cures; nudism and body building; sports and gymnastics; aesthetic surgery, cosmetics, and tattooing were just some of the means by which people changed their bodies and refashioned their selves. These cultural practices centered on the human body in order to transform human subjectivity. This is not surprising, because the body was a locus of social meanings on which people projected their cultural anxieties as well as their social aspirations. European body culture reflected, therefore, the social tensions, culture, and politics of the period. Five areas in particular have caught the attention of scholars in the humanities and social sciences: (1) European body culture reinforced mechanisms of social distinction and reflected assumptions about social class. (2) Female bodies and women's physical activities in particular became invested with anxieties about sexuality and gender roles. (3) The state, the medical profession, employers, and physical educators promoted hygiene and physical exercise in order to create a performance-oriented, productive, and disciplined labor force. (4) The representation of idealized or adorned bodies symbolically delineated social or ethnic communities. (5) The cultivation of the human body allowed people to create a sense of self-fulfillment and personal agency.


Practices related to the cultivation of the human body have served as means to symbolically reinforce social distinctions. Body culture was part of a discursive arena in which assumptions about social class were negotiated. In early-twentieth-century Germany, for example, the social standing of males was based on their education (Bildung) or their property or both. In the 1920s, pursuing specific sports reinforced such distinctions. A contemporary sports guide, for example, claimed that a successful rowing team was a piece of art that could only be formed by people with the same educational and cultural background who shared a spiritual sense of community. Rowers, therefore, were mostly from the educated middle class and rowing did not contribute to the leveling of social distinctions, as other sports did.

The cultivated body also served as a way to claim social distinction. In the 1920s, the German physical culture propagator Hans Surén claimed that the nude display of physical prowess would easily silence achievers in other areas of life by making them painfully aware of their physical deficiencies. After 1900, cleanliness and beauty care became status symbols for French bourgeois women who could afford bathtubs, cosmetics, and other expensive beauty products. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out the ways in which cultivation of the body (or the lack thereof) in late twentieth-century France contributed to the formation of a class-specific habitus for different social classes.


Sexual anxieties and concerns about changing gender roles influenced European debates about body culture in important ways. For social conservatives, the image of the sexually promiscuous, economically independent, and androgynous "new woman" of the 1920s was the negative counterpart to a morally superior feminine ideal type who rejected urban amusements in favor of healthy living and ultimately motherhood. While the depraved new woman misrepresented herself by falsifying her appearance through fashion, aesthetic surgery, or cosmetics, the wholesome feminine type cultivated her true self by taking care of her body through healthy living and physical exercise. Such attitudes were a reaction against modernist discourses that defended women's sexual liberation, adoption of masculine habits such as smoking, and participation in late-night pleasures.

Women's reproductive health was a major concern in European societies in the early twentieth century and the promotion of physical activity for women was often justified in terms of the reproductive health of the nation. However, no agreement existed about how women were supposed to exercise their bodies. Should they merely cultivate their feminine graces through rhythmic gymnastics—one of the few forms of physical exercise which conservatives considered suitable for women—or should they, like men, condition their bodies for competitive sports? The answer depended on a person's attitudes toward women's role in society. Advocates of women's social, sexual, and economic emancipation were more likely to advocate competitive sports as part of women's body culture. In their view, women who had to balance careers with domestic duties should not be deprived of the performance-enhancing benefits of strenuous physical exercise.

Discussions about the appropriate forms of exercise for women were widespread in interwar Europe. In fascist Italy, for example, women's participation in sporting events was a subject of disagreement. The fascist state had to balance the cultural sensibilities of Italian Catholicism with its own pronatalist goals in order to promote physical activities that did not compromise maternity as women's central mission in life.

In the second half of the twentieth century, resistance to women's participation in competitive sports slowly dwindled. This could be seen as a reflection of the growing equality of the sexes in European societies. However, the greater media presence of male competitive sports, along with the different earning potentials of male and female athletes in the same disciplines, suggests a slightly more complicated story that deserves greater scholarly attention.


Scholars have also explored the power of medical discourses to regulate social behavior. Since the late nineteenth century, physicians, employers, and the state promoted hygiene and healthy habits as a way to exert some disciplinary power over women and workers. It would be a mistake to reduce early-twentieth-century concerns with healthy living and exercise to the desire of states or employers to have disciplined citizens and a reliable workforce; nevertheless, European authorities expended a great deal of effort to shape the character of citizens and workers by promoting healthy living and exercise.

Although early-twentieth-century debates about women's body culture reflected concerns about women's changing sexual mores and social roles, contemporaries were equally worried about the postwar reintegration of men as productive members of their communities. In most European nations, the human losses caused by World War I prompted concerns about restoring the health and productivity of the nation-state. The rehabilitation of wounded and shell-shocked soldiers was one of the priorities of physicians and psychiatrists, who worried about the burden that a large number of disabled pensioners would pose for social and health insurance systems. Dependent, unproductive men threatened traditional assumptions about the nexus between economic independence, productivity, and masculinity. These concerns focused on the physical performance levels of males as well as their psychological preparedness to lead productive lives.

After World War I, the male body was discovered as an important economic resource. Work physiologists developed systems of sustainable human resource management that tried to enhance the performance potential of human bodies without overtaxing them. By promoting physical exercise and healthy living, physical educators and physicians hoped to promote self-confidence and a performance-oriented habitus characterized by a will to work. Sports and other forms of physical exercise were seen as crucial for the regeneration of European societies. Promoters of exercise argued that physical activities strengthened the general constitution of individuals, rendering them less susceptible to disease. They claimed that exercise had a powerful impact on the character of individuals, who would become more determined and self-conscious. The high-ranking German sports official and acting director of the German University of Physical Exercise (Deutsche Hochschule für Leibesübungen) Carl Diem called for a physical education offensive for the general population in order to promote physical health as well as a general mental and physical performance orientation among Germans.

Employers who introduced sports and leisure activities for their workers often had similar motivations. They hoped that company sports would help create a productive and disciplined workforce. Physical fitness in mass organizations and in schools was an important concern for the fascist regimes of the interwar periods. The promotion of physical exercise for the broad mass of the population was an attempt to make the racial people's body (Volkskörper) fit for war. In Nazi Germany the SA (Sturmabteilung) sports medal gave millions of German males an incentive to work on their individual fitness as a way of increasing the performance potential of the "racial community" as a whole.


The cultivation, adornment, or mutilation of the body functioned as a mechanism of inclusion or exclusion from racial, social, and subcultural communities. Debates about the meanings of physical fitness and beauty frequently revolved around the construction of ideal physical norms for a community of people. Already in pre–World War I Germany, some physicians and racial anthropologists claimed that human beauty was the expression of a perfect harmony of body, mind, and soul. People of "good heredity" could achieve this harmony through physical exercise as well as cultivation of the mind. In some cases, such aesthetic assumptions formed the basis of racial theories that considered the white Nordic race the epitome of human perfection. In the interwar years, this line of thought gained credence. The philologist Hans F. K. Günther, for example, racialized the aesthetic preferences of middle class people with humanistic education (Bildung) by claiming that members of the Nordic race embodied the beauty ideals of Greek antiquity. Günther's racial physiognomy fed on a long Western tradition that saw in physical characteristics signifiers of psychological traits.

As Sander Gilman has shown, assumptions about the psychological significance of physical stigma (e.g., a certain type of nose signifying particular character traits) were often essential for the construction of racial and sexual "others." Aesthetic surgery found acceptance in the Western world in part because it allowed people to correct stigmatizing physical features, such as large noses, that had become popularly associated with ethnic or racial otherness. They hoped to find social acceptance and happiness by "normalizing" their bodies.

A popular topos in early-twentieth-century Europe was the notion that physical culture eased class conflicts or leveled social distinctions. Before the Nazis took power in Germany, life reformers (propagators of alternative forms of living) promoted nudism as part of several utopian visions of a classless people's community (Volksgemeinschaft). According to this line of thinking, nudity guaranteed authenticity. Stripped of expensive clothes and makeup, people presented their true, unadorned selves and external markers of social distinction became unimportant. The selection of a marriage partner would then be based on mutual attraction instead of social considerations. Some nudists hoped that nudism or physical culture would help erase barriers of race, religion, and nationality, as well as social class. Some of them were socialists and hostile to the rising Nazi movement. Others promoted a people's community based on racial principles from which foreigners and Jews were excluded. Such visions anticipated the racial people's community of the Nazi period, in which Jews and other outsiders were systematically ostracized.

In Britain, the notion of sportsmanship became a starting point for the self-definition of British fascists, which they contrasted with an image of the sporting Jew who rejected British notions of fairness and propriety. In Nazi Germany, the members of the racial people's community were expected to strive for physical beauty and perfect health. The representation of ideal beauty and health in medicine, art, and popular culture exacerbated the social stigmatization of people with disabilities that in turn helped justify the mass murder of the disabled from 1939 onward.

In her movie Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl idolized the bodies and performances of male elite athletes. Her heroic representations of athleticism have been interpreted as symbolic reinforcement of the racist policies of the Nazi regime, which aimed at the exclusion of racial outsiders. But the heroic celebration of athletic performances was a widespread twentieth-century phenomenon and should not be reduced to the stigmatizing practices of fascist regimes. Body-centered cultural practices served as discursive mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion in many social and political contexts.

Like other ways of adorning the human body, tattooing or branding could fulfill multiple social functions. In nineteenth-century Russia, for example, authorities employed branding as way to control transient and criminal populations. In the twentieth century, Russian and Soviet prisoners appropriated such stigmatizing practices and signaled their elevated status in the prison hierarchy through tattoos. Such practices also allowed people to voice opposition and place themselves symbolically outside the larger respectable community. One scholar has argued that tattooing and piercing might in themselves transgress or negate something central about the kind of person demanded by late capitalist society. By associating themselves with "savage" practices, people reconfigure their identities as authentic, uncommodified, and pure, in opposition to mainstream society and the discipline demanded by the culture.


Twentieth-century body culture comprised a wide range of practices that promised to reform people's lives. One need only think of the numerous variants of alternative medicine that emerged. In the first half of the century, natural therapists promoted water cures along with dietetic prescriptions for natural living, promising to restore the health of individuals where orthodox medicine had failed. During the late twentieth century, many Europeans appropriated non-European medical practices, such as traditional Chinese medicine or ayurveda, in a search for health and happiness. Others turned to transforming their bodies and selves through bodybuilding and surgery. These variations of body culture can be described, in Nikolas Rose's term, as "technologies of the self" and understood as instruments for the fashioning of identities, self-knowledge, and self-mastery in a modern world that lacks binding value orientations based on traditions.

By transforming their bodies through diet, exercise, bodybuilding, and plastic surgery, people try to transform their selves as if it were "through the body and in the body that personal identity is to be forged and selfhood sustained" (Susan Benson, quoted in Caplan, p. 236). Although some people have transfigured their bodies through plastic surgery in order to pass as "normal" members of their respective communities, for others body work is a way to find self-fulfillment by standing out from the crowd. By working on their bodies, men and women reconfigure their personal experiences as well as their identities. If people see their career trajectories and life chances as the outcome of their own performances and merit, the body becomes the locus for creating a sense of personal agency. Bodybuilding, dieting, and exercising serve as disciplinary regimes through which people try to condition themselves for success in their careers and personal relationships. In the 1920s, the advertisement of a Weimar fitness institute praised bodybuilding as a way to overcome all personal and professional obstacles in life. Physical culture would help people perform better in life in a double sense: If they were healthier, they could improve their job performance by overcoming nervousness and physical weakness. But a beautiful body also improved the performance of men and women who had to further their careers and personal relationships by impressing others with their personal appearance. Both higher physical and mental performance levels and the ability to perform in the symbolic social exchanges of a modern society with a significant division of labor were considered necessary for professional success.

Those who did not find such success could find solace in the writings of another physical culture propagator of the period: Hans Surén urged his male followers to reflect on what it meant to be really successful. Success in competitive sports or in one's profession should not be idolized, because such superficial success was often not fulfilling. Real success had to be found in the personal self-fulfillment that everyone could achieve by cultivating his or her body. Through body culture, people could escape the alienating tendencies of modern urban society and find their true selves in activities that were divorced from the alienating realities of their work environment.

Twentieth-century European societies exhibited a bewildering array of practices aimed at embellishing, manipulating, and improving human bodies, and their meanings are dependent on particular historical, social, and cultural contexts. Contradictory claims, for example, were made for bodybuilding. Cultivating the body could be a path to social distinction or a way to transcend the barriers of social class. It promised self-fulfillment and was a way to condition the body for better physical and mental performance. In short, European body culture expressed the contradictions as well as the utopian promises of Western modernity.

See alsoDiet and Nutrition; Fashion; Popular Culture; Public Health; Sexuality.


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Michael Hau