views updated Jun 08 2018


BODY. The intricate relationship between food and the human body finds expression in virtually all dimensions of human existence: from physiology to psychology, from the domestic sphere to that of political economy, from the societal to the symbolic. In exploring the ways in which food and its consumption are articulated in the forms and images of corporeality, it bears note that the human body, per se, is an abstraction. As gender studies scholars have maintained, there is no such thing as a neutral "human body": every human body is individually unique in a multiplicity of ways (most basically, at the genetic level). In addition, all human bodies are sexedbe they female, male, or born hermaphrodite. For heuristic purposes only, then, it is convenient to generalize about "the human body."

Human Growth and Development

The size and shape of an individual human body (what biologists call "phenotype") is the product of the interactions over time of the genetic makeup ("genotype") and environmental influences, including behavior. Morphology, or physical form, derives from hereditary, endocrinological, metabolic, maturational, environmental, and lifestyle factors, yet the relative weight of these effects may vary depending on the somatic trait in question. For example, adult height is under rather high genetic control, whereas adult weight has a relatively low degree of heritability. There is strong evidence, however, that both energy expenditure and the basal metabolic rate enjoy a significant genetic component; likewise, gene regulation is pronounced in the distribution, or patterning, of body fat at all stages of the life span.

Growth, in terms of the progressive development of adult proportions, is measured linearly (by height or length of limb bone); in the expansion of girth, or surface area (by quadratic measures); and in terms of volume, or mass (by cubic measures). Aberrations in any of these dimensions can arise from genetic abnormalities or environmental stress, in the form of malnutrition, disease, toxins, accidents, psychosocial stress, and/or other insults to the developing organism. Human growth is so highly sensitive to environmental forces that it provides a reliable indicator of the quality of the environment, although even under stress the body maintains proportionality, in what has been called the "harmony of growth." Moreover, short-term or seasonal sources of stress need not permanently compromise the developing body, since humans possess the capacity for "catch-up" growtha rapid increase in growth velocity that restores a child to predicted sizein weight and to a lesser degree in height. Despite its sensitivity, human growth thus appears to be a "target-seeking process" that seeks to move back to its individual trajectory when driven off course ( Johnston, p. 318). The ability to recover is a function of the timing, duration, and intensity of insult, plus the quality of the post-insult environment. Data suggest that weight recovery from severe caloric and/or protein shortages can be achieved (in both children and adults), with lean muscle tissue synthesized first, followed by the laying down of adipose tissue. However, weight gain in itself does not necessarily guarantee a return to normal health, as the body's chemical composition and anatomy may be in danger of disequilibrium without attention to key micronutrients during the recovery process. With respect to stature, chronic stress in childhood can lead to permanent stunting in adult height. It is estimated that approximately one-third of the world's children are stunted in height in comparison with averages compiled for children in North America alone.

Under normal circumstances, human growth and development from conception to maturity follow a patterned trajectory. This trajectory is characterized by a rapid velocity of post-natal growth (with growth rate at its fastest in the first year of life); a steady growth rate with a lower, decelerating velocity during childhood; a juvenile growth spurt around the age of seven or eight (in about two-thirds of healthy children); and the onset of adolescence, with a markedly accelerated growth spurt, beginning for girls at age ten, on average, and for boys at age twelve years (in Western societies, yet later in stressed ecosystems). With the onset of adolescence, the relatively similar childhood body shapes and compositions of the two sexes undergo maturational processes that lead to marked differentiation. Maturation involves skeletal changes, such as the female's wider pelvic girth relative to shoulder width; muscular changes, with males exhibiting a more dramatic increase in accretion of muscle than do females; changes in adipose tissue and fat patterning, with females adding both central body and limb fat, and males losing fat from the subcutaneous layers (superficial under-the-skin fat, as opposed to deep body fat); and changes in secondary sexual characteristics, such as pubic hair and breast development. Growth ceases on completion of puberty after the period of peak growth velocity, whereupon the human body attains adult stature and achieves full reproductive maturity.

The most striking features of the adult stage of life are its stability (homeostasis) and its resistance to pathological influences. With advances in nutrition, medicine, and hygiene and a resulting increased life expectancy at all ages, more humans today live sufficiently past the reproductive years to experience chronic disease and failing physiology. Senescencedefined as cumulative, universal, progressive, irreversible, and degenerative agingdoes not appear to be under tight genetic control. Rather, aging is a multi-causal process, and most pathologies relating to age (for example, cancers, heart disease, and late-onset diabetes) are probably culturally and environmentally specific. However, there is a general tendency for both sexes to experience age-related losses in stature and in muscular (lean body) mass, coincident with a decline in total energy requirements. Biological aging in non-Western populations tends to be associated with declining fatness as a percentage of total body composition; in contrast, industrialized populations tend to experience age-related increases in fat.

Human Morphological Variation

As a result of the dynamic gene-environment interactions taking place from birth to maturity, body size and morphology exhibit a wide range of variation within and between populations. Variation in body shape at a population level may, in part, mark a phenotypic manifestation of the evolutionary forces of natural selection, wherein statistically normal adult morphology is regulated by genetic adaptations to specific ecosystemic and other environmental constraints. For example, there exists a clear geographical pattern that, in colder habitats, mean body weight is greater, which might assist in the maintenance of core body temperature. Likewise, low weight may confer a thermoregulatory advantage in tropical climates, where, too, greater skin surface area (with pores) as a proportion of weight can assist with the dissipation of heat through perspiration.

In addition to genetic differences, there are many environmental and behavioral factors that influence body shape. Nutrition and overall dietary intake play central roles, as do energy-expenditure activities, disease, lifestyle, and socioeconomic status. Variance in basic caloric intake (measured as an excess or deficit in energy balance) is a major determinant of visible differences in body morphology, mainly in the ways that caloric excess shapes subcutaneous fat deposition. Simply put, eating plays an increasingly prominent role in determining what we look like, and the kinds of cross-population and intra-individual variations we see. Fat is one of the most labile tissues of the body and alters according to both genetic and environmental factors. Ethnic differences in subcutaneous fat thickness suggest genetic variation in fat patterning among populations, with peoples of European ancestry exhibiting a more peripheral than central pattern of fat distribution (limb fat over visceral fat) than those of African and Asian ancestry. Across all ethnic groups, there is marked sexual dimorphism with regard to total body fat and fat patterning, with post-adolescent females averaging approximately 20 percent in body fat composition, whereas males average 12 percent. Fat patterning is related to health status in direct and indirect ways; for example, there is strong evidence that body fat at greater than normative values (relative to gender), especially in the form of central body depositions of adipose tissue, correlates with increased risk for cardiovascular diseases and for the metabolic malady of late-onset diabetes (non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus).

Processes of societal "modernization," including increased population mobility, provision of social services, and industrialization (the transition from a predominantly agricultural mode of subsistence to a cash-based economy) have all influenced body shape and size, in both positive and negative ways. Positive effects have come through improved health care and education; negative effects through the growing preponderance of Western lifestyles and consumption of highly processed, energy-dense foods (such as candy and "fast food"). Widespread increases in levels of obesity (often coupled with malnutrition) have been common in low-income as well as middle-and upper-income communities, and throughout urban, peri-urban, and rural areas. Medical obesity (generally defined as an individual who weighs 25 percent more than the expected weight for a given height and body frame) has become particularly acute among recently modernizing populations of the so-called New World regions, that is, the Amerindians of the Americas, the Aborigines of Australia, and the Polynesians of the Pacific islands. It is unclear whether these populations may be genetically susceptible to late-onset diabetes triggered by rapid social and economic change, or whether undernutrition during fetal and infancy years may be an underlying factor. While in the developed (some might say overdeveloped) countries excess energy (caloric) intake relative to expenditure presents the greatest food-related health problem, in much of the world undernutrition is still a major cause of morbidity and mortality.

Culture and Excess Food Consumption

Ideologies about the body and beliefs concerning ideal body size and shape are highly culture specific and, as such, transform over time, as cultures themselves undergo changes in subsistence, politics, religion, aesthetic tastes, and cross-cultural contact.

Contrary to the medical diagnosis of obesity, social definitions of obesity vary cross-culturally and across different historical eras. In traditional societies, excess body weight has generally been regarded in positive terms. Its value may even be culturally elaborated to such an extent that certain members of the group are deliberately fattened, especially in communities living in environments experiencing extreme seasons or marginal subsistence. For example, in past times when food supplies were irregular among the Nauru peoples of the Pacific, young women were fattened to improve their reproductive performance. Herein, the reproductively viable woman "was supported in her role as the creator of new life, in a community which perceived itself to be under demographic threat" (Ulijaszek et al. 1998, p. 410). Even when Nauru puberty ceremonies involving fattening practices diminished in importance as a result of the introduction of a cash economy, food as a marker of prestige persisted. Likewise, ritual fattening of Annang women in Nigeria is believed to enhance fertility, whereas, among the Azande of Central Africa, fatness is still associated with higher social status as well as greater fertility.

In some cultures, fatness has not only been desirable, it has been evocative of desire, particularly sexual desire. During the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618907) and for long thereafter, plumpness was the standard of beauty for women; wealthy women were over-fed to levels of excessive obesity. Today, Chinese phrases still equate plumpness with health and good fortune; conversely, phrases associated with thinness indicate poor physical and social position.

Turning to prehistory in this context, it is worth noting the numerous Paleolithic statuettes of obese, voluptuous female figures that have been found over a broad geographical region of present-day Europe. The remarkable uniformity of female figurines, which are almost invariably obese and far outnumber male figurines (none of which are corpulent), suggests that a shared perception of a particular female form existed during Paleolithic times. The most famous of such figurinesthe Venus of Willendorfdates from 26,000 to 22,000 years ago. While we may never know whether the Venus of Willendorf was an actual woman, a fertility-cult idol, or a "mother" goddess, she likely represented a widespread ideal of femaleness, one that emphasized obesity. Based on the life-like depiction of the fat patterns and other features of the statue, it has been suggested that she must have been modeled on a real human subject. If so, she would most likely have been exempt from food-gathering and other high-energy exertion activities, implying that collective food resources were devoted to her care.

The positive value accorded to fatness in some cultures has generally been interpreted as a response to the vagaries of uncertain food supply, wherein individuals with larger body size represented better reproductive potential, higher social status, economic success, and/or better survivability during times of shortage. Body fatness does in fact confer considerable advantages in buffering adversity and promoting female reproductive success: the energy store of body fat in adequately nourished women is usually equivalent to the energy cost of a pregnancy. There is thus a direct, biological equation between body size and individual health, and by extension between the body size of group members and group welfare. Since physical strength derives from food (that is, adequate nutrition and caloric intake), controlling a secure food supply is a source of power, and a marker of such, resulting in a symbolic connection: food not only converts into, but comes to symbolize, fat, flesh, mass. Excess body size might reflect food security, signaling the endurance of the collective and its demographic (hence, politico-military) strength. The obese, voluptuous female may literally embody the practical and ideological values of food. Likewise, the pregnant or lactating female figure is a corporeal sign of the body as life-giving food, itself a source of survival for future generations.

With the rise of industrialization, the majority of the population has become emancipated from direct engagement in the food quest and food production, while at the same time food has become more readily available to all.

The positive value and the aesthetic desirability of obesity common in traditional societies tend eventually to subside with modernization. In late-twentieth-century Western societies, fatness became associated with sloth and laziness, and the cultural ideal emphasized a slender body form and even implied a moral virtue related to thinness. In spite of these new ideals and well-documented negative health effects of being overweight, obesity has nonetheless emerged as an epidemic health problem worldwide (reaching levels as high as 60 percent of adults in the contemporary United States). Tragically, moreover, the excessive ideals of thinness allowed to perpetuate in the fashion and cosmetics industries have contributed to the rise of another major public health crisis in Western societies, in the form of eating disorders, such as self-starvation, or anorexia nervosa.

Ideologies of the Anorexic Body

Food's central role in mediating the cultural construction of the body is as true in the case of such wasting diseases as anorexia nervosa as it is for obesity. An extremely complex psychological and somatic illness, anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening eating disorder defined as a refusal to eat that results in a body weight of less than 85 percent of the individual's expected weight for height and age. Features of anorexia that shed light on the relationship between the body, the self, and culture include an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image of being fat (even when the anorexic may be emaciated in actuality), absence of regular menstrual periods, and in some cases, binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse. Anorexia predominantly strikes females, especially in their teenage years; only 10 percent of sufferers are males. Conservative estimates suggest that 1 percent of females in the contemporary United States develop anorexia, and approximately 4 percent of college-age women in the United States suffer from the binge-eating disorder of bulimia.

Anorexia in its contemporary form is generally regarded as a negative symptom of the current popular culture ideal of female slenderness that valorizes an emaciated and androgynous supermodel-type of figure, characterized by an unrealistically thin waist, willowy limbs, and small breasts. The disease is thus shaped by the cultural concept of the female body in the West, a concept in which food and food symbolism play a central role alongside gender roles and expectations. According to feminist theories, patriarchal ideologies juxtapose the masculine body as an active working thing (energized by caloric intake and a very carnal, consuming relationship to the external world at large) against the feminine body as a passive vehicle intended to provide gratification, which exists in order to be used, to be itself consumed. In short, the masculine subject depends for its existence on the construction of the feminine object as an arena for action and penetration.

In this context, anorexia has been interpreted as both a symptom of a woman's imprisonment to patriarchal society and as an attempt to resist its pressures. On the one hand, an anorexic woman enslaves herself to the impossible ideals of thinness, and by practicing self-starvation literally internalizes and embodies dominant culture's tacit attempts to minimize and control her. On the other hand, by not eating, the anorexic attempts to assert autonomy over her body and body boundaries, and thereby free herself of external incursions. In both events, food acts as a metaphor for all foreign (contaminating) substances, and food abstinence becomes a measure of self-discipline, self-reliance, and purity: the anorexic shuts out the world, with an autonomy on display and visibly performed in the figure of her thin, model-like body. Yet food consumption is also an expression of desire. If women threaten to become active subjects through the expression of desire in the form of a voracious appetite, then the patriarchal definition of womanhood is under-mined. In the logic of this equation, "flesh is appetite made concrete" (MacSween) and appetite is a form of voice (Brumberg, p. 19). Female fat thus becomes an external sign of female desire that intrudes into masculine space. While power might commonly be equated with size, it has been noted that, as women become more powerful and visible in society, they also paradoxically become less massive. In other words, the successful woman is a thin woman. On the surface, the dominant theme reads that a successful woman has the willpower to not eat; at the same time, however, there exists a hidden and contradictory subtext: that women should really not be visible or powerful. With a rise in female power, then, there is a corresponding loss of female flesh, and, paradoxically, a symbolic cancellation of female presence.

Hence, by not desiring food, a modern anorexic makes her body desirable according to the norms of dominant society. By making her body a mirror of starvation, she simultaneously makes herself less threatening to patriarchy. These parallels between desire and food, modesty, and morality also underpin a type of "holy anorexia" that pious medieval women were known to practice. In Europe in the early Christian Middle Ages, asceticismincluding abstinence from food consumptionwas considered a form of religious piety, and anorexia in particular was a chosen path for women wishing to express their religious fervor. Like its modern counterpart, medieval anorexia may have served to order women's behavior according to dominant values, but also to exercise a kind of resistance. In a historical epoch with few or no birth control options, medieval women anorexics (whose symptoms generally included irregular menstruation) could free themselves of the burden of fertility, while manipulating the powerful imagery of female fertility. For both the medieval and the modern anorexic, then, self-starvation has been part of a larger struggle for liberation from a patriarchal family and society, in the former case, to achieve greater spiritual purity and in the latter, to succeed in the secular public sphere.

Food and Body Connections

For a variety of reasons, males are less associated with food and food symbolism than are females, a situation that largely holds across cultures. Ideologies about the ideal male body in contemporary Western societies tend to focus on muscular body build achieved through energy expenditure and exercise regimes, rather than through food intake or abstinence. Men who suffer from anorexia athletica (compulsive exercise) may abuse food in the form of undereating or binge eating, along with steroids or laxatives, in attempts to achieve a model physique.

Perhaps because of the ideological links between musculature and virility, red meat (primarily beef) has popularly been regarded as "man's food" in contemporary society. The common cliche "real men don't eat quiche" captures such gender assignment of food in a Western "you are what you eat" cultural paradigm. Salads are seen, by contrast, as the preserve of women, though not simply based on caloric levels, since while meat has higher calories than lettuce, salad dressings are likely to be calorie-rich. Chinese culture provides another pronounced example of food categorization schemes, wherein most foods possess either a yin or yang nature, categories that also align with female or male connotations, respectively.

In sum, culture-specific body image plays a prominent role in consumption patterns and types of food consumed, based on gender and dominant ideologies. As food consumption is "worn" by the body through processes of human growth and development, it might be said that beliefs about food are "worn" by the body as a reflection of cultural norms. In various cultural and historical contexts, the body, as an index for food, has come to symbolize individual and collective welfare, fertility, morality, sexuality, power, and/or resistance.

See also Anorexia, Bulimia ; Aversion to Food ; Body Composition ; Consumption of Food ; Eating ; Evolution ; Gender and Food ; Obesity ; Women and Food .


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Bell, Rudolph. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Bogin, Barry. Patterns of Human Growth and Development. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

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Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Johnston, Francis E. "The Ecology of Post-Natal Growth." In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Growth and Development, edited by Stanley J. Ulijaszek, Francis E. Johnston, and Michael A. Preece, pp. 315319. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

MacSween, Morag. Anorexic Bodies: A Feminist and Sociological Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa. London: Routledge, 1993.

Sobal, Jeffery, and Donna Maurer, eds. Weighty Issues: Fatness and Thinness as Social Problems. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999.

Ucko, Peter J. Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete, with Comparative Material from the Prehistoric Near East and Mainland Greece. London: A. Szmidla, 1968.

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Kyra Landzelius


views updated Jun 11 2018


Ever since the early twentieth century, when the Annales school of historical scholarship issued the call for a total human history, the body has figured prominently in the writing of the social history of Europe. The vision for a total history comprised two objectives. It aimed at extending the study of past lives beyond the traditional focus on monarchs, religious leaders, and social elites. And it sought to shift the examination of human activity away from events and toward the everyday experiences of ordinary people.

Attention to the body promised to realize this agenda in a number of ways. Historians recognized the body as a universal aspect of human experience, and so its examination would offer the possibility of a more inclusive consideration of human actors in the past. The body intersects with social organization in numerous and various ways, including birth, sex, reproduction, work, disease, and death, and so historians saw in it an ideal vantage point for expanding the scope of social life worth studying.

Historians also appreciated the special relationship between science and the body in the modern age. They recognized the limited relevance of traditional historical sources—political pamphlets, treatises, memoirs, works of art and literature—for the task of studying everyday life. By contrast, demography held the potential to transform individual births and deaths into meaningful series illuminating the influence of anonymous social and economic structures while medicine might cut through the arcane morbid classifications of the past, reveal the true nature of the diseases people suffered, and identify the conditions that produced them. But historians' interest in the relationship between scientific endeavor and the body was as much substantive as it was instrumental. The modern scientific disciplines of anatomy, physiology, and medicine defined the traits of the body, distinguished the body from its environment, and pursued an understanding of the relationship between them. In doing so they fostered a seamless identity between body and person, making it possible to appreciate the characteristics that human beings held in common as well as the conditions that accounted for their diversity. These accomplishments, at once material and ideological, fit well with the humanistic tenor of the social history enterprise.

The marriage of social history, science, and the body yielded impressive results. Demographic evidence of high birth and death rates (organized in series) revealed the prevalence of famine and nutrition-related diseases that characterized premodern subsistence economies. The efforts of women to combine childbirth with other forms of (agricultural) labor illuminated the multiple and difficult tasks associated with family life in premodern Europe. In the modern era, the study of epidemic diseases like cholera and typhoid fever contributed to a more nuanced portrait of the squalid living conditions and harsh work environment endured by an industrializing and urbanizing workforce. The bourgeois male's patronage of prostitution as an outlet for the expression of sexual desire, and the abusive syphilis examinations imposed on the prostitute in police-sponsored dispensaries, exposed the fragile and hypocritical foundations of the much-vaunted family in modern social life. The slow but inexorable introduction of water supplies and toilets in urban areas, and the growing popularity of practices such as bodily washing and the wearing of undergarments bore witness to the beginnings of an influential role for social reform in urban and industrial areas. Surprised by their discovery of the alarming incidence of "old-world" afflictions like malaria, typhus, and birth deformities in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European countryside, historians concluded that modern economic and social transformation was uneven at best.

These few examples only hint at the vast amount of information resulting from social history's focus on the body. They also suggest the problems that have been involved in using the body as a source of historical evidence. In a project that claimed to value the diverse and complex contours of a universal human experience and that approached the myriad manifestations of the body as a crucial aspect of that experience, the focus on the body instead resulted in normative judgments of past forms of social life. Evidence of the body—its diseases, deformities, and shape; the specific kinds of practices lavished upon it and the forms of knowledge employed to understand and give it meaning—ended up revealing and measuring the distance separating past societies from modernity. This normative tendency of social historical

interpretation betrayed a clear, if sometimes unarticulated, assumption about the body. Even if the past reveals bodies characterized by various shapes and functions, there exists a specific and identifiable body. Its realization, and the ability to perceive it, is the product of the interrelated modern accomplishments of industrial capitalism, urbanization, civil society, scientific understanding, and the affective family unit, and it has in turn fostered the possibility of individuality. This confidence in the stability of the body has served to legitimize the social historian's evaluation of the present in terms of the past and has made historical writing central to the recognition of modernity's unique stature among societies.

culture and the body

Since the 1980s a new generation of historians, loosely organized around an enterprise referred to as cultural history, has developed new historical approaches for understanding of the body. These approaches differ in important ways. But for the most part they address the tension, evident in social history, between the assumption of an individual/body identity that informs the historian's interest in the past and the normative conclusions about social life that often characterize subsequent interpretations. One approach, especially popular among historians of distant epochs, has been to search out and affirm radically different conceptions and practices of the body as examples of the manifold variety of individual experience. For example, classical and medieval historians have considered the early Christian practices of sexual renunciation and somatic piety (such as fasting among women) outside of a modern framework. While a reliance on such a framework in the past had led more often than not to the fashioning of interpretations emphasizing religious repression or psychosomatic illness, these historians instead found practices expressive of deeply felt human impulses, even if they do not conform to modern notions of personhood. In the modern period historians have taken seriously the study of spinsters, single mothers, the varieties of sexual practices, and bizarre conceptions of the body (lascivious queens, women reproducing rabbits, and men giving birth to children) deployed in the heat of political argument and contention. While historians do not claim that such bodily concepts and practices are representative of modern social life, they accept them as expressions of the affective, psychological, social, and political life of individuals and thus as deserving of historical recognition. What all of these historical endeavors leave unanswered is the question of whether or how a body "really" exists apart from the individual's conception and experience of it, and how the historian should approach the relationship between individual experiences of the body and its normative formulations.

A very different approach has guided other historical investigations of the body in the modern age. In this second approach, cultural historians focus on the body's normative status as the basis for a critical revaluation of the modern notion of the individual. According to the lines of this interpretation, the body prescribes the social roles and social relations necessary for the exercise of individual liberty. Such a perspective affirms the body's normative status as a product of science. In contrast to social historians who insist on the independence of science from politics and affirm that independence as the source of a definitive understanding of the body, these cultural historians regard scientific knowledge of the body as discursive. It is the product of a specific historical context characterized by the interrelation of quasi-autonomous disciplines of inquiry and political events.

That context concerns the problematic relationship of the individual to society in the modern era. The problem manifested itself in numerous ways in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe: the violent expressions of the general will during the French Revolution, the debate over the correct interpretation of rights that animated labor conflict in early nineteenth-century industrial and urban centers, national rivalries pursued through war and imperial conquest. All of these crises brought into focus, in one way or another, tensions between liberty and sociability (or morality) and introduced the question of how (or whether) free individuals could realize meaningful and productive relations with others and with society (and societies) at large.

Even as these challenges to the foundations of European liberal social order unfolded, new ways of thinking about the possibilities of social organization involving the body appeared. A new appreciation of women's reproductive capacities emphasized their moral nature, fostering a role for the family as an antidote to the competitive and contentious relations of free individuals in the political and economic realms. Scientists and social reformers joined forces to rethink labor not as a question of rights but as a physical capacity requiring the analysis and management of the physiological processes that produced the energy for work. Public health officials visited working-class dwellings in urban neighborhoods where cholera spread and emphasized the importance of properly constituted family relations for the prevention of epidemic disease. Hygienic practices—the washing of the body and privatization of toilets, to name just two—became an important component of bourgeois identity and facilitated the sublimation of class conflict through new criteria for social distinctions based upon cleanliness.

Many of these examples figure prominently in social historical writing. Some social historians have viewed them as signs of progress while others have situated them in relation to class conflict and the ideological operations of hegemony. Whatever position they take, the principle guiding their interpretations is the (potential) identity between body and individual. For cultural historians employing a discursive analysis, however, these examples serve as evidence of the significant transformation in the possibilities of individualism wrought by modernity's focus on the social capacities of the body. If such a transformation is easily overlooked, it is due to the

ambiguous relationship of the body to the individual in scientific discourse. Even as scientists searched for human social capacities in the body and accepted them as characteristic of individuals, they carefully avoided any connection between them and subjective states such as will or reason. They presented these capacities as immanent in the body, a precondition of individuality rather than its expression. These bodily capacities were neither dependent upon nor signs of agency and autonomy but often necessitated government and experts for their realization. The prominent roles accorded to public health, psychiatry, and family assistance in the understanding and regulation of bodily capacities is telling in this regard.

Taken together, these examples testify to the elaboration of a moral and social framework outside the contentious play of individual subjectivity. That framework was both strategic and effective; it is also paradoxical. The crux of the paradox can be understood by (again) considering the body's ambiguous relationship to the individual. In their attempts to identify individual social capacities in bodily characteristics without any recourse to reason, will, or desire, scientists rejected the unity of subjectivity, sociability, and morality that informed the Enlightenment's vision of the individual. In doing so, the modern scientific conception of the body at once confirmed and undermined the value of the individual and the expression of individuality. In this sense the body did not provide a horizon for the individual but a barrier to it. The manifestations of this paradox of the body in the social life of modern Europe are (again) important and varied. The reproductive organs that rendered women the source of morality in a free social world also prevented them from the exercise of reason and participation in the spheres of politics and economics. In other contexts the body figured negatively, as a destructive social force to be reckoned with. Such was the case in the preoccupation with degeneration after 1850. Discussions about degeneration that focused on the interconnected phenomena of criminality, vice, and racial predisposition merely illuminated the limitations of individualism in the task of producing a progressive, productive, and harmonious social framework. Whether considered as the source of social prescription or as the symptom of a crisis in the terms of liberal social representation, the body often failed to provide an adequate or coherent understanding of the relationship of the individual to social order. In the analysis of social phenomena, the influence of physical (bodily) predispositions became confused with environmental influences, and pathological states (like specific diseases) become mixed up with social ones (such as criminality). In the final analysis, the social characteristics and implications of individuality defied analysis. What remained was the shocking, provocative, but ultimately inexplicable evidence of the incestuous relations of the urban poor, the hungry and hollowed-out faces of Irish peasants, and the sexual perversions of the prostitute.

For those Europeans whose bodies have excluded them from the privilege of individuality, the paradox of the body has not simply been experienced as an inescapable limitation. They have embraced it as a productive source of change. Women dressing "en homme" have sought to expose and overturn the biological determinants of their supposedly social destiny. In his poignant yet humorous and upbeat memoirs, the French writer Hervé Guibert approached the social ostracism encountered by him and other gay men "living with AIDS" as an opportunity to fashion an alternative subjectivity to the heterosexist norms informing modern conceptions of individuality. None of these attempts produced a definitive solution to the normative functioning of the body in modern European society, nor were they intended as such. Rather, they posed the indeterminacy of bodies and individuality and insisted on the importance of specific social contexts in fashioning the meaning of their relationship. In doing so they have restored the utopian potential to the modern vision of personhood.

See alsoDegeneration; Demography; Disease; Gender; Phrenology; Public Health; Sexuality.


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Cartwright, Lisa. Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine's Visual Culture. Minneapolis, Minn., 1995.

Cody, Lisa Forman. Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science, and the Conception of Eighteenth-Century Britons. Oxford, U.K., 2005.

Corbin, Alain. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Translated by Miriam L. Kochan, with Dr. Roy Porter and Christopher Prendergast. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

——. Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Duden, Barbara. The Woman beneath the Skin: A Doctor's Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Engelstein, Laura. The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Russia. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York, 1979.

——. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, 1980.

Hunt, Lynn. The Family Romance of the French Revolution. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

——. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York, 2003.

Mandrou, Robert. Introduction to Modern France, 1550–1640: An Essay in Historical Psychology. Translated by R. E. Hallmark. London, 1975.

Nye, Robert A. Crime, Madness, & Politics in Modern France: The Medical Concept of National Decline. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848–c. 1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Porter, Roy. "History of the Body." In New Perspectives on Historical Writing, edited by Peter Burke. University Park, Pa., 1991.

Rabinbach, Anson. The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity. New York, 1990.

Revel, Jacques, and Jean-Pierre Peter. "Le corps: l'homme malade et son histoire." In Faire de l'histoire, vol. 3: Nouveaux objets, edited by Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora. Paris, 1983.

Shorter, Edward. The Making of the Modern Family. New York, 1977.

Vigarello, Georges. Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Vila, Anne C. Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France. Baltimore, Md., 1998.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford, Calif., 1976.

Andrew Aisenberg


views updated Jun 11 2018


The role of the body in relation to science and technology is complex. The first book on the philosophy of technology, Ernst Kapp's Grundlinien Einer Philosophie der Technik (1877), analyzes technologies in terms of body parts and organs. Stoves are technological "stomachs," machines are extensions of "arms and legs," and so forth. In contemporary times bodies and embodiment have become increasingly important. There is a great deal of discussion about "posthuman" and disembodied development with respect to "cyberspace" and electronic systems of communication such as the Internet and other virtual processes. Ironically, this discussion has brought the role of human bodies back into consideration.

From Ancients to Moderns

Twenty-first century discussions echo much older traditions with respect to the human body. Ancient Greek philosophers often distinguished between body, soul, and spirit (Plato), with the strongest distinction being made between the materiality of the body and the immateriality of soul and spirit. In early modernity those distinctions were simplified into variations on a body-mind dualism (René Descartes) that continue to motivate much philosophical debate.

In antiquity religio-ethical ideas also were associated with the distinction between bodily materiality and soul-spirit immateriality. Generally speaking, materiality was conceived of as being of lesser worth, clearly finite and mortal and perhaps evil. Whether merely restrictive of the higher tendencies of the immaterial soul-spirit or deceptive and actively negative, the materiality of body carried negative associations. The Platonist trajectory emphasized a learning process that involved movement from a kind of captivity in the body, its deceptive senses, and the "body as prison" to an ascent toward the ideal realms of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The early modern simplification of that trajectory weakened the ancient religio-ethical associations and replaced tainted materiality with the "mechanical" as the interpretation of the body. Body becomes the mechanical means by which motion is possible, but mind is enclosed "inside" a body object as a subject aware only of its impressions, sensations, or ideas caused by things that are external to itself. The model for this notion of body, used by the philosophers Descartes (1596–1650) and John Locke (1632–1704), was the camera obscura, in which the body was a dark room inside of which was the subject or mind that could view the images or representations cast on the tabula rasa inside. In this formulation the mind was situated inside a mechanical contrivance and could know or experience only its own sensations or representations.

Later modernity began to develop two less dualistic concepts of the body. One direction was physicalist and attempted to reduce all mental phenomena to physical ones (Ryle 1949) and the other was existentialist, using phenomenology to analyze a "lived body" or experiential body (Husserl 1970, Merleau-Ponty 1962). Both schools of thought lessen or deny a body-mind distinction and drive the analysis toward oneself as body. However, physicalism retains a basically mechanistic view of body, whereas phenomenology elevates bodily experience to include materiality. In the phenomenological sense all intelligent behavior presupposes bodily activity.

Body in Science

With the rise of early modern science the role of body began to take on a different significance. After the seventeenth century science was both technological and observational; those dimensions usually were termed experimental: Science practice included devices both for measurements and for making new discoveries achieved through (perceptual) observations displayable.

Galileo Galilei's (1564–1652) optics—telescopes but also microscopes—were the means by which new celestial phenomena were sighted, inclined planes were used to measure acceleration, and experiments were developed as proofs of specific scientific insights. Through the use of the telescope sun spots, Jupiter's satellites, the phases of Venus, and the mountains of the moon became new phenomena for emergent science. However, the instrumental means were also those which mediated perceptions, in this case vision. Although as a scientist Galileo paid little attention to the body itself, he did proclaim the new vision made possible by the telescope to be superior to that of the body by itself. Scientific vision was enhanced vision, but it also was mediated by means of instruments.

The body in this sense remained a background phenomenon but one that nevertheless had to be taken account of. In contemporary science this is even more important. For example, in contemporary technologized observations, only since the twentieth century have imaging technologies been able to present phenomena that lay far beyond the limits of unmediated human perception. In astronomy wave frequencies ranging from gamma waves to radio waves can be imaged, whereas until the twentieth century only optical light imaging was available.

In the early twenty-first century, however, all such imaging must implicitly take account of human perception insofar as "false color" imaging, the transformation of data into images, and simulations and modeling with computerized tomography all produce visualizations that translate data into visual gestalts that are available for human perception. The body is thus the background referential focus for science imaging. Increasingly, philosophers of science have begun to take visualizations into account (Galison 1997, Ihde 1998).

Bodies in Technology

The role of body with respect to technologies is even more ancient. When Kapp analogized technologies by using organ and body-part metaphors, he was drawing on a much older convergence of body roles. The Medieval thinker Roger Bacon (1220–1292) began to imagine machines that could fly, go under water, and be protected with armor from arrows and missiles; those fantasy machines were visualized much later in Leonardo da Vinci's technical drawings. Many of those imaginary machines utilized amplified human bodily powers (and thus could not actually work) because engines and motors had not yet been invented. However, those fantasy machines also reflected a new attitude toward bodily work. Those which could work on the basis of ancient physics—the simple machines of screw, wedge, levers, and pulleys—did magnify bodily powers, and with that magnification one could do more than unaided bodies could.

As the historian Lynn White, Jr., pointed out, by medieval times technologies such as cranes, lifting devices, gears, and above all mechanical clocks had begun to transform what was possible through machine-aided work. Windmills pumped out the lowlands of Holland and cathedrals of astonishing heights were built with weight-lifting machinery that magnified human bodily power, but more powerful animal bodies also were enlisted. One can still see the large drum-powered lifting device in Mount Saint Michel, which used donkeys to make it rotate. Later still came the artificial engine that launched yet another revolution: the steam engine.

Here, as in science, the measure of the human body, extended technologically, lay in the background. Machines now produced work, leaving the felt sense of effort and power on the sidelines. The previous multiplication of powers through the use of slaves could take a different direction through the use of technologies. In this case the ethics related to bodies is a social-political ethics. From slavery to the working class, bodies are embedded in work practices that are mediated by technologies. Clocks were used to regulate social time, and the panopticon was used to regulate prison behavior (Foucault 1977).

Body in Medicine

In yet another dimension bodies play other roles, particularly in medical practices. Here the interplay between bodies as objects and subject bodies often becomes focal. Historically, as with early modern science, medical practice underwent significant changes precisely by displaying the body as object, particularly as visualizable object. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), later followed by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), depicted bodies as visualized objects. Dissections and autopsies became favorite matters for those depictions. Corpses showed bodily biological structures. That knowledge could be used indirectly to treat living bodies. However, the delicate problem that led to technological trajectories involved finding a way to observe what was going on physiologically without destroying or making into a dead object a living body that was under investigation.

One can trace the history of changes in diagnostic techniques, beginning with direct hands-on examinations, which were late to arrive in modernity (eighteenth century), proceeding to perceptual mediating instruments such as the stethoscope, which produced ausculatory imaging through sound (nineteenth century), and ending with contemporary largely visual imaging (from X-rays to magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography scans).

This trajectory culminates in techniques that are used to display the internality of the body without using a physically invasive process. The preservation of health within this trajectory is one that recognizes that only a subject, or lived body, is the ethical object of therapeutic medical practice. The ethical considerations in this case involve the need to evaluate and preserve levels of healthfulness through the application of knowledge. However, respect and care for living bodies remains the implicit central focus.

In addition to the changing notions of the human body noted above, contemporary studies related to feminism are of importance. In early modern science visualism was prominent. Feminists have joined phenomenologists in taking account of perspectivalism and situatedness. Some authors, however, also have pointed out that observation not only is objectivistic but may include aspects from the human biological heritage; even scientific curiosity may harbor a predatory dimension (Haraway 1991). Moreover, vision may entail gendered differentiations, with the "male gaze" being a form of perception that is constructed differently from those found in other human gendered practices (Bordo 2004, Butler 1999). Here the questions of gender relations with associated questions of mutual respect and interpersonal relations move to the forefront of ethical concerns.


Returning to the topic of technologies and human bodies, with the massive impact of transportation, information, and imaging technologies it becomes obvious that what is often a background role for bodies takes on more explicit form in the uses of those technologies.

The bodily-perceptual experiences of space-time transformations are perhaps the most dramatic. In science imaging the near distance of observation, made ordinary with the close-up imaging of Mars and Saturn, has changed the sense of "apparent distance," providing a near distance to those planetary bodies. In medicine the development of distance surgery that calls for eye-hand coordination using robotics and visualizations has changed the way in which bodily skills are utilized and thus has implicated body-technology relations. Even in debates about artificial intelligence and related neurological studies the role of bodily motility has become a prominent issue, one that also is related to contemporary robotics studies (Dreyfus 1992). With electronic and virtual communications the role of the human body has taken on yet different experiential qualities. Experiments with virtual reality equipment and later with augmented reality equipment have made the role of whole body movement, balance, and kinesthesia newly important so that cognitive science has become aware of how action is experienced at a distance through prostheses and other material extensions of technologies.

The overall result has been a renewed emphasis on studies of the body. Many disciplines show this, including philosophy, women's studies, cognitive sciences, and robotics, as well as new forms of sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies.


SEE ALSO Bioethics;Cosmetics;Phenomenology;Virtual Reality.


Bordo, Susan. (2004). Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press. Bordo's work draws from phenomenology and is sensitive to both sensory and social aspects of bodily experience.

Butler, Judith. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. Butler is a radical thinker who has been able to introduce gender construction into many philosophical debates.

Dreyfus, Hubert. (1992). What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dreyfus's work has been particularly important for a current generation of computer designers interested in bodily motion and robotics.

Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipine and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon. Foucault has been a primary author influencing those who would understand the institutional and social dimensions of discourses.

Galison, Peter. (1997). Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Galison's work in the history and philosophy of science is sensitive to the instrumentation and technologies of science, as well as its contemporary interdisciplinary social structures.

Haraway, Donna. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. Haraway, whose background was originally in biology, has become a foremost "technoscience" thinker. Her figure of the "cyborg" has inspired a very large number of thinkers.

Husserl, Edmund. (1970). The Crisis in European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenonological Philosophy, trans. David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. Husserl's last major work became the inspiration for a number of contemporary styles of thought, including what became known as the "social constructionist" movements.

Ihde, Don. (1998). Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. This book begins a reframing of philosophy of science in hermeneutic terms by analyzing the "visual hermeneutics" employed in science imaging.

Kapp, Friedrich. (1877). Grundlinien Einer Philosophie der Technik: Zur Ensehungsgeschichte der Cultur au neuen Gesichtspunkten. [Foundations of a philosophy of technology]. Braunschweig, Germany: G. Westermann. The first major philosophy book to use the term, philosophy of technology.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith. New York: Humanities Press. Merleau-Ponty's best known book which emphasizes the role of perception within bodily activity, taken as the basis for all intelligent behavior.

Mumford, Lewis. (1962). Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace. Mumford was an early twentieth-century intellectual historian, one of the few who focused upon the role and development of technologies in relation to human history.

Ryle, Gilbert. (1949). The Concept of Mind. London and New York: Hutchinson's University Library. This is one of the first books to attack the doctrine of dualism as proposed by Descartes; it was influential on later analytic philosophy and the physicalist directions taken.

White, Lynn, Jr. (1962). Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press. This book contended that there was a massive "technological revolution" in Europe that preceded the Renaissance and early modernity.


views updated Jun 27 2018


The consumption of tobacco is related to the human understanding and view of the body, in terms of health and illness, as well as aesthetics and social and political connotations.

Tobacco as a Healing Commodity

When tobacco was introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century, it was hailed as an addition to the pharmacopoeia and incorporated into the medical practice of the time, based on the Galenic four-humors system. According to this methodology, tobacco was believed to be hot and dry, and as such good for removing phlegm and mucous from the body. Health practitioners of the era believed that smoking tobacco was a prophylactic against epidemic diseases such as the plague, while tobacco was used to treat a variety of bodily problems including headache when taken as snuff, asthma when smoked, and topical pain and ulceration when supplied as a poultice of tobacco leaves. Tobacco was also believed to allay hunger and thirst, to steady the nerves, and to improve judgment. However, tobacco use was also known to have an intoxicating effect on the body and by the seventeenth century the populace was using it for recreational and social purposes.

Changing Ways of Consuming Tobacco

Tobacco was initially smoked in pipes, but by the eighteenth century taking snuff had replaced pipe smoking among the aristocracy. There was an art to taking snuff, as laid out in instruction manuals: The snuff, a fine tobacco powder, was to be neatly laid out, pinched between the fingers of the right hand, brought up to the nose, and then taken in evenly through both nostrils. This would cause sneezing, coughing, and expectoration, all of which were believed to be healthy as the mucous was being removed. By the mid-nineteenth century, smoking again became the fashionable way of consuming tobacco, this time in the form of cigars, and by the late nineteenth century the cigarette began growing in popularity. With the advent of the cigarette, women also began to smoke more frequently. This phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that cigarettes were milder to smoke, as well as to social changes that saw women enter educational establishments and the workplace in greater numbers, gaining economic and social independence. The growing popularity of cigarettes among men and women coincided with more aggressive advertising and images of young, fit, attractive bodies of both sexes have been a staple image of marketing material ever since.

Of all the ways of consuming tobacco, the cigarette has proved the most enduring. It is the most efficient way of getting nicotine into the body, as the smoke from cigarettes is inhaled deeply into the lungs, rather than into the mouth as with smoking pipes and cigars. Small blood vessels lining the lungs absorb the nicotine present in the smoke and from there it is pumped around the body. In cigar and pipe smokers, nicotine is primarily absorbed through the lining of the mouth. Nicotine affects neurotransmitter systems in the brain, affecting the emotional state of the smoker in different ways, as a stimulant or depressant depending on other factors. Smokers also gain pleasure from the act of smoking; the sight, smell, and taste of a lighted cigarette, pipe, or cigar; and the psychological aspects of smoking, including the simple act of handling a cigarette.

Critics of Tobacco Use

The spread of tobacco use was also criticized. Critics focused on the effect of tobacco on the body, arguing that tobacco use physically corrupted the individual and the social body. One of the most famous critics was James I of England [VI of Scotland] who, in A Counterblaste to Tobacco in 1604, described the way in which smokers' bodies were "soil[ed] and infect[ed] with an unctuous and oily kind of soote" (Rait 1900). This description referred to the blackened internal organs of smokers found at autopsy. Physical contamination of smokers' bodies was paralleled by the contamination they caused to those around them: "the filthy smoke and stinke thereof" (Rait 1900) that was breathed over food and through the air.

Other texts warned of the violent purgative effects of tobacco and the fact that it was poisonous in large quantities. The fact that it was "hot" and "dry" was thought to lead to sterility. Satirical writers referred to the fumes that surrounded smokers and compared them to chimneys and furnaces. Smokers were criticized on moral grounds, as tobacco use was thought to increase the sins of drunkenness and lust. James I responded to the increasing popularity of tobacco by taxing its use; in other countries, actions against smokers were more serious. In seventeenth-century Turkey, for example, those who defied a prohibition on smoking could be faced with summary execution.

Criticism on medical and moral grounds continued in the nineteenth century when smoking regained popularity. Opponents of smoking argued that it caused diseases and health conditions ranging from lunacy to cancer to diarrhea, that it impaired the mind and the senses, and that it induced dependency, wasted money, and led to excessive alcohol consumption. Among women, smoking was believed to harm reproductive function. Where medical evidence was provided for such arguments, it tended to be based on single case studies and clinical impressions until the large-scale epidemiological studies of the mid-twentieth century.

The Effects of Smoking on the Body

In the 2000s, the most well-known risks of smoking are lung cancer and heart disease, but prolonged smoking increases the risk of getting cancer in practically every other part of the body. As well as lung cancer, smoking can lead to respiratory conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Moreover, there are other, less publicized, effects of smoking on almost every other body part. Smoking weakens the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to disease. It prematurely ages the skin, causing wrinkles, and can increase the risk of getting psoriasis. It interferes with the mouth's chemistry, contributing to tooth decay, and reduces the levels of oxygen in smokers' blood, leading to problems such as osteoporosis. Smoking raises blood pressure, leading to heart conditions, and can damage the blood vessel walls, making it harder for the heart to pump blood around the body. It can impair fertility in both men and women and lead to problems in pregnancy and birth among women.

Among women in particular, fear of weight gain is one of the reasons smokers give for continuing smoking. There is conflicting evidence as to whether this is the case and the consensus among researchers seems to be that the weight gained will be a small amount (approximately 5 pounds or 2.3 kg). However, research has shown that smoking affects the distribution of weight on the body. Smokers are more likely to store fat on the waist and torso, rather than the hips, which puts them more at risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and other problems. Smoking also has an aesthetic impact on the body, particularly among heavy smokers, as nicotine can cause discolored fingers and teeth, and many people object to the smell.

The risks of passive smoking are well documented as environmental tobacco smoke has a negative effect on the health of those around smokers, making tobacco smoking a social as well as an individual problem. It is this fact more than any other that has arguably proved most effective in regulating tobacco use in Western societies.

See Also Appetite; Fitness.



Arents, George. Tobacco: Its History Illustrated by the Books, Manuscripts, and Engravings in the Library of George Arents, Jr., Together with an Introductory Essay, a Glossary, and Bibliographic Notes by Jerome E. Brooks. New York: The Rosenbach Company, 1937.

Ashton, Heather, and Rob Stepney. Smoking: Psychology and Pharmacology. London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1982.

Harley, David. "The Beginnings of the Tobacco Controversy: Puritanism, James I, and the Royal Physicians." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 67 (1993): 28–50.

Rait, Robert S., ed. A Royal Rhetorician: A Treatise on Scottis Poesie; A Counterblaste to Tobacco, by King James VI, and I. London: A. Constable, 1900.

Royal College of Physicians. Nicotine Addiction: A Report of the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians. London: Author, 2000.

snuff a form of powdered tobacco, usually flavored, either sniffed into the nose or "dipped," packed between cheek and gum. Snuff was popular in the eighteenth century but had faded to obscurity by the twentieth century.

depressant a substance that depresses the central nervous system. The most common depressant is alcohol.

epidemiological pertaining to epidemiology, that is, to seeking the causes of disease.


views updated May 29 2018


In recent years, numerous scholars of religion have focused their studies on the human body, asking questions such as: How do different religions understand the human body? In what ways does one's individual body reflect social and cultural religious understandings? How is the body used in religious practices, such as during rituals? In what ways do religious feelings and experiences become embodied? Along with these more practical research questions come theoretical and philosophical debates about the relationship between mind and body, the subjectivity or objectivity of the body, the embodiment of knowledge, and the use of the body to reflect and resist social power relations. In her 1989 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Meredith B. McGuire asked her audience to consider how their work might change if they were to include their research subjects' physical bodies within their analytical scope. McGuire was referring to the historical tendency of religious study to concern itself more with religious institutions and ideas than with how people physically express and experience their religiosity. Thus scholars in many disciplines—sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, and theology—are now focusing on how human bodies act within and are shaped by their religiocultural social contexts.

One of the central problems in studying the human body is defining exactly what it is. Regardless of their seemingly obvious biological concreteness, bodies have no meaningful existence outside the social spheres within which they function; bodies are, in a sense, reflections or symbols of their cultures. The religious actor's body is a changeable site that is continuously being molded by one's religious community to reveal the group's beliefs and values about human existence. For example, according to anthropologist Mary Douglas, who was the first social scientist to pay close attention to ways in which the natural human body symbolizes the social body (Natural Symbols, 1973; Purity and Danger, 1966), religious communities that promote clearly defined social boundaries between themselves and the larger world tend to have strict regulations about individual members' bodily activities. Thus, among contemporary American Orthodox Jews, who live in close-knit communities to maintain social and religious purity, specific bodily practices—hair and clothing styles, food and sexual practices, and family and community religious rituals—define the group as separate from and different from the larger culture.

Human bodies are not only the objects of shaping or control by their religious cultures; they are also subjects embodying human agents who are empowered to reproduce and express the values of their religious social groups and to experience those values physically and emotionally in deeply meaningful ways. This distinction between the body as object or social construction and the body as subject or agent of religious expression, personal experience, and social change—a distinction often expressed in terms of power relations of domination and resistance—is a central issue in discussions about the human body. The debate has been clearly defined by feminist scholars, who, beginning in the 1970s, were some of the earliest and most influential theorists to articulate the importance of attending to corporeal experience, especially that of women. Many scholars are working to find ways to view the embodied human being as simultaneously a social construction and an individual agent. For ritual studies theorist Catherine Bell (Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 1992), a religious ritual inscribes its particular schema on the body of a participant by regulating appropriate gestures, speech, or bodily adornment, and, in so doing, empowers the participants to act with mastery to experience and manipulate the ritual for their own purposes. What makes religious practices particularly powerful for these enactments of domination and resistance is that they affect the individual below the level of explicit social discourse; social schema are absorbed and reproduced in new ways by the body without necessarily reaching personal consciousness. During a Christian Pentecostal or charismatic worship service, for example, while participants understand their active physical expressions and intense emotional experiences as divinely inspired, their bodies have, in fact, through identification with the expectations of the particular religiocultural group, absorbed a corporeal knowledge about how to behave and feel in ways appropriate to that group. Some charismatic Christian women, having assumed personal mastery of these ritual activities, have empowered themselves to subvert traditional gender roles and act with authority both publicly within the social group and privately within their families.

The trend in academia is toward further analyses of the human body that locate specific bodies in particular, concrete social settings, to detail more clearly how religious cultures and human bodies interact and engender change in each other. Theoretically, scholars continue to struggle with how to define the human body and understand how human beings create religious meanings that are not merely conceptual but also grounded in immediate, embodied experiences and practices.

See alsoFeminist Spirituality; Feminist Theology; Gender Roles; Practice; Psychology of Religion; Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Ritual; Sociology of Religion.


Coakley, Sarah, ed. Religion and the Body. 1997.

Hollywood, Amy. "Transcending Bodies." ReligiousStudies Review 25 (1999): 13–18.

LaFleur, William R. "Body." In Critical Terms forReligious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor. 1998.

McGuire, Meredith B. "Religion and the Body: Re-materializing the Human Body in the Social Sciences of Religion." Journal for the ScientificStudyofReligion 29 (1990): 283–296.

Martha L. Finch-Jewell


views updated Jun 11 2018

bod·y / ˈbädē/ • n. (pl. bod·ies) 1. the physical structure of a person or an animal, including the bones, flesh, and organs: it's important to keep your body in good condition. ∎  a corpse: they found his body washed up on the beach. ∎  the physical and mortal aspect of a person as opposed to the soul or spirit: a duality of body and soul. ∎ inf. a person's body regarded as an object of sexual desire: he was just after her body.2. the trunk: the blow almost severed his head from his body. ∎  [in sing.] (the body of) the main or central part of something, esp. a building or text: information that changes regularly is kept apart from the main body of the text. ∎  the main section of a car or aircraft: the body of the aircraft was filled with smoke. ∎  a large or substantial amount of something; a mass or collection of something: a rich body of Canadian folklore. ∎  (in pottery) a clay used for making the main part of ceramic ware, as distinct from a glaze.3. a group of people with a common purpose or function acting as an organized unit: a regulatory body.4. technical a distinct material object: the path taken by the falling body.5. a full or substantial quality of flavor in wine. ∎  fullness or thickness of a person's hair: designed to add body to limp and straight hair.PHRASES: body and soul involving every aspect of a person; completely: the company owned them body and a body all together; as a group: they departed in a body.over my dead body inf. used to emphasize that one opposes something and would do anything to prevent it from happening: she moves into our home over my dead body.DERIVATIVES: bod·ied adj. [in comb.] a wide-bodied jet.


views updated May 17 2018

body body and soul the corporeal and spiritual entities that make up a person; the term is traditionally often used in the context of the difficulty of sustaining existence, as in ‘keep body and soul together’.
body politic the people of a nation, state, or society considered collectively as an organized group of citizens; the term is recorded from the early 16th century.

See also know where the bodies are buried.


views updated May 18 2018


a number of individuals spoken of collectively; a general collection of things or ideas; a mass of matter; the main portion of a collection or company.

Examples: body of inferior clergy, 1732; of cold air; of dialects, 1875; of disciples of Christ, 1886; of discourse, 1599; of divinity, 1659; of facts; of horse, 1769; of laws, 1699; of light; of natural history, 1711; of opinion; of philosophers, 1647; of precepts, 1860; of principles, 1860; of scriptures, 1593; of troops.


views updated May 23 2018

body (bod-i) n.
1. an entire animal organism.

2. the trunk of an individual, excluding the limbs.

3. the main or largest part of an organ.

4. a solid discrete mass of tissue; e.g. the carotid body. See also corpus.


views updated May 23 2018

body (payload) The part of a cell or packet in a network that holds the information supplied by the end-user for transmission from the sender to the receiver.