body shape

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body shape derives from the ceaseless interaction between biological imperatives and historical forces, both cultural and personal. To a large degree the body's size, in terms of height and weight, reach of the arms and length of stride, derives from information in the DNA of the chromosomes, inherited from our parents at conception. The development of muscles, bones, fat, and all that forms the volume and outline of the human body begins in the womb and continues along pathways that take their definition from our genes. This much might be considered demonstrable scientific fact. However, genetic disposition provides only the basis, the foundation, from which the shape of the body proceeds and develops.

Several factors coincide to determine the body's shape at any given time. Of these the most prominent are likely to be: nutrient and dietary circumstances; the intervention of surgery and disease; and the impact of accident and exercise may also play a role. Fashion and custom can also cause a refashioning of the body, whether in line with the latest trend or in honour of the most ancient beliefs. Given the conjunction of these influences (some, if not all, will impact on every human body) it makes sense to acknowledge that body shape emerges from a combination of history and biology. What begins with genetic predisposition (combined with the diet and circumstances of the mother) will ultimately be revised and altered by battles waged against disease, by submissions to fashion, and by the incremental effects of food, habit, and exercise. As a result the shape of the body undergoes constant change. It is perhaps for this reason that the body has given rise to so many cultural anxieties and to many personal crises. Indeed, body shape is something that virtually everyone has winced at or fretted over at some point in their lives.

Nonetheless it is true to say that, in the developed world, the body is now in ‘better shape’ than ever before. Improved medical knowledge (both diagnostic and surgical) and the increased supply of food enjoyed by most people in Europe and North America have made it possible for many people to imagine a life in which their body shape is not violently altered, or at least not against their will. It is, of course, equally the case that such wealth has brought with it other problems, notably obesity and heart disease. For those who live beyond the luxury of the West, this fact can offer little comfort. Throughout the developing world, common diseases, such as rickets, polio, and post-traumatic infections (gangrene, for example), together with the widespread incidence of malnutrition, continue to ensure that bodies are likely to suffer, if not deformation, then at least stunted or twisted growth. However, despite the unmet promises of Western medicine, some considerable advances have been made.

Previously, if a body suffered major trauma it was inevitable that the marks of that damage would be long-lasting and plainly visible; Melville's frightful Captain Ahab, and Admiral Nelson, are well-known examples of this painful change in body shape. However, surgical advances in the twentieth century ensured that a surprising number of previously disfiguring accidents can now be treated and their worst physical effects ameliorated. Severed limbs have been successfully reconnected and the faces of crash victims restored. It has been one of the aims and greatest achievements of modern Western medicine to succeed in preserving the shape and surface of the body from more and more of the ailments which would otherwise cause it to change or deform.

Despite these advances, Western societies retain an obsessive and sometimes morbid attitude to the body. If greater food provision and vaccination has eradicated the emaciated figure of the nineteenth century, we now worry that we are too fat, too flabby, or too short. The body, now generally fit and well, has risen to even greater prominence in our psychic lives, and a concern with the image and shape of the body seems widely prevalent. Indeed the relationship between body shape and anxiety is an acute one. Often this is the consequence of the ways in which art and advertising, cinema, and television have constructed a dominant ideal of body shape which is young, slim, muscular only as far as it is elegant, smooth, and supple. Given the predominance of these ideals it is not surprising that some people have been led to extreme measures to alter the basic shape of their bodies. Cosmetic surgery, to enlarge or reduce breasts, to alter noses, or to reduce waists and thighs, is now relatively commonplace. Pop stars Cher and Michael Jackson are obvious examples of this trend. Cher's well-documented and near-notorious desire to reform and refashion her body has included the removal of ribs (to make her appear slimmer) and the alteration of her nose. More damagingly, the painful experiences of those who have suffered from anorexia or bulimia, or who have sacrificed money, time, and health to pursue a bodily ideal that they could never reasonably hope to achieve, stands as further testimony to both the power of this image and the social consequences of its imposition.

However, the ideal shape of the body has changed though history and remains different between cultures. During the 1920s, the favoured shape for women's bodies was a rather boyish one, with an emphasis placed on straight lines, narrow hips, and flattened breasts. Earlier fashions had encouraged the display of another body shape. A more sensuous (‘fleshy’ to its critics) body shape appears to have dominated conceptions of female form in the Restoration period. Certainly the art produced in that period, notably portraits of court ladies by Sir Peter Lely, depicts women whose bodies might be described as voluptuous or ‘full’ rather than slim. The male body has also been subjected to regulation and restriction: the eighteenth century saw an emphasis on poise and elegance centred round an image of a slim, restrained body. For upper-class men, the presence of muscle was to be downplayed, as Thomas Gainsborough's work seems to indicate. In earlier times, by contrast, when citizens were more often called to perform military duties, such a slight figure would have been regarded more suspiciously, even derided as ‘effeminate’.

It would take a very broad history to take in the whole range of shapes into which the human body has been encouraged to grow. However, it is important to register the variety and changing nature of these requirements. Added to this physical impact made on the body by taste and custom, is the fact that fashion has consistently, through corsets, bustles, wigs, and hoops, sought to transform the basic shape of the body. The purpose behind many such designs is to display or to disguise the shape of the body as a signifier of sexual difference and sexual responsiveness.

While the shape of the body can delight, it can also shock. The case of amputees has already been mentioned, but is worth noting again how a real or imagined deficiency in the shape or function of the body arouses some of our deepest fears. During the nineteenth century the reporting of war became more immediate, and photography lent reports immediate impact. The images from Balaclava and Gettysburg of bodies maimed and broken by the increasingly mechanized nature of conflict shocked Victorian newspaper readers and defined, in part, a new anxiety about the body as vulnerable to the might of the industrial age.

It is, however, not only the body of the maimed victim that has the power to shock or disturb. Since antiquity, individuals whose bodies do not obviously conform to dominant images or ideals of the body have been exhibited for curiosity or idle amusement. The sad histories of such ‘freaks’ ( John Merrick, the ‘elephant man’, is a particularly cruel instance) underline the fascination associated with changed or transformed body shape. More recently, the bodies of athletes or near-athletes (such as ‘body-builders’) have delighted and appalled in roughly equal measure. Such sensitivities indicate that, in most societies, body shape indicates not only personal circumstances and fortune, but also advancing age, sexual difference, and racial and class division. If in our post-modern times these oppositions seems more vulnerable to change or mutation, then this attests more to the power of the body over our imaginations than to any sense that we are free from its limits.

Robert Jones


Felien, M.,, Nadduff, R.,, and and Tazi, N. (1989). Fragments for a history of the human body. Zone Books, London.

See also body image; eating disorders; fashion; female form.