Body, Depictions and Metaphors

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Body, Depictions and Metaphors

Frequently asked questions and issues concerning the social, cultural, and physical aspects of the human body and its metaphorical projections include the following: What is a human body? Historically, what have been the most prominent representations of the body? What are the predominant body metaphors (basic images and schemata of the body)?

Throughout history the human body has been a source of inspiration for artists and scholars in different disciplines. It has received considerable attention in fields such as anthropology, feminist theory, history, law, philosophy, and sociology, among others. Since the mid-1980s there has been an intensified interest in notions of embodiment; that interest has coincided with enormous changes in modern society.


It is difficult to define the human body and the ways in which people conceptualize it because that definition constantly is modified and reconstructed. From Egyptian and Sumerian depictions of the ideal human form, through the Greek and Roman idea of the balanced and symmetrical human body, to the medieval image of the body functioning to confine the soul, the body has been a primary source of information about society and culture.

In premodern societies the body, both male and female, was an important site on which cultural and social values were inscribed through painting, scarification, piercing, and tattooing. Those bodily markings carried a wide range of different meanings referring to social status, gender, and identity.

As soon as people are born, they are designated as male or female. This dualism has been reflected in differences in the treatment of men and women, cultural practices, and metaphorical projections. Women's identity traditionally was associated with the sinful, mortal, irrational body, and men's identity with mind, immortality, and reason. Many images of the female body were influenced by religious beliefs.


The human body is perceived universally as a composite of the physical body and the mind and/or soul. Since the ancient Greek philosophers Western tradition has supported the view that the mind and the body are opposites (mind-body dualism). The body was conceived as a "prison of the soul" and mind. This concept can be traced back to Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian tradition, all of which supported a mind-body dualism in which the soul was associated with immortality and the body and/or flesh was associated with sinfulness and mortality. Shakespeare and many other authors held similar views.

The consequences of this negative perception of the physical body are far-reaching and often are expressed in social, cultural, and linguistic practices. In contrast, the Eastern perception of the body as it is expressed in Taoism and Zen Buddhism advocates the nondualistic nature of the human body. This concept sees the human being as a union of body and mind working together.

By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries more naturalistic images of the body resulted from growing interest in the human form, especially among artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Vitruvian man is a symbol of the ideal and symmetrical human body, demonstrating perfection through harmonious proportion.

Until the end of the eighteenth century the human body was perceived mainly as an ungendered, universal, and generic body. The male body and/or man was considered the norm, and female characteristics were conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters. The residues of that conceptualization are still visible in modern language, for example, "All men are equal in the eyes of law" and the "evolution of man." In these metaphors man refers to all people, male and female.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a revolutionary reconceptualization of sexual difference emerged. The discourse on the body shifted from man-made language to neutral naming. In that period the linguistic landscape of the female body changed; for example, in referring to a woman, postal worker became post officer and then postwoman. An emerging vocabulary has been used to signify new identities: gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and so forth.

In modern society the form of the human body has changed through practices such as bodybuilding, cross-dressing, and cosmetic surgery. Virtual reality and its vocabulary disseminate the image of a new body in terms such as robots, android, cyborgs, cyberterrorists, and computer nerds. Donna Haraway (1991) claims that the cyborg functions as a metaphorical projection of the disintegration of traditional boundaries.


There is a growing body of evidence that conceptual metaphor is a pervasive imaginative structure in human understanding of the world (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Metaphors are used particularly frequently when new experiences are introduced. They allow the unfamiliar (technical terms) to be grasped in terms of the familiar (body terms). Examples of these terms include grabber hand, palmtop, and nipple. Body metaphors reveal that apart from male-female differences, all human beings have a common set of concepts based on their common body structure and sensual experiences.

Symmetry and Balance

The human body is symmetrical and balanced. It can be folded over in the middle into left and right halves (vertical axis). The experience of balanced posture gives rise to metaphors such as balanced personalities, balanced views, the balance of power, justice, and inner balance.


The view of the body as a physical object presupposes its three-dimensional form in space and time. In the majority of metaphorical projections the body functions as a container. It consists of many entities: mind, soul, words, emotions, thoughts, and so forth. In proverbial and figurative speech people reach their inner part through their eyes: "Eyes are the window of the soul."


The posture that is regarded as typical of the human body is upright. This concept is universally accepted. Accordingly, activities that are viewed positively are expressed as up (a higher value, an improvement). Metaphorically, if someone is down, that person is in a weak, desperate position: "Tim has been feeling down."


The posture of the human body is such that the senses are directed predominantly forward (the eyes, nose, and mouth). This experience generates the view that the front part is equivalent to progress, dignity, and knowledge: "Seeing is believing."

These embodied linguistic patterns do not remain the private property of the person who experiences them. They become shared cultural and linguistic models of experience.

When the body is mentioned in literature, philosophy, and similar disciplines, it often is conceptualized as a plant, an animal, a cage or confinement of the soul, a machine, a container of emotions, a computer, a communication network, and so on. Some metaphorical projections of the human body are widely used. For example, Plato describes humankind as a "heavenly plant," and women often are perceived as fragile flowers or small animals. The human body often is used as a metaphor for society (the head of the state, the face of the law, etc.). The explosion of human-machine images in science fiction has changed human thought and perception.

Besides the concept of the body functioning as an integrated system of experiences, the body parts have individual functions. They can become symbolic models of stable meanings in different parts of a person's experience. For example, the head is thought of as the seat of the intellect: a director, a leader, and a container of thoughts, ideas, and memories. The heart is considered the seat of emotion (sadness, fear, and love) and the center of bravery. The hand is thought of as an agent of power and control as in the expression "to have someone in one's hands."

Linguistic and visual categorization of the body reveals that all human beings have a common set of conceptual metaphors that are based on their common body structure and sensual experiences. At the same time the body and its individual parts are used in metaphorical projections as symbols of specific cultural and social values.

People unconsciously project their own bodies into the external world, describing it in terms of their own measures: the leg of a table, the arm of a chair, the foot of the mountain, and so on.

The ideology of gender studies has been constantly focused on efforts to understand and study bodies and body dichotomies: male-female, mind-soul. This division between male and female will inevitably be based on cultural and social explanations. Concepts that were considered masculine—such as light, straight, good, reason, mind, spirit, power, and the public sphere—are opposed to concepts associated with femininity: darkness, left, bad, irrationality, body, emotion, passivity, inferiority, and the private sphere. These associations have been perpetuated within Western languages and cultures. A reconception of sexual difference is visible with changes in society, and sexual awareness.

see also Body Modifications.


Harraway, Donna Jeanne. 1991. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kövecses, Zoltán. 2005. Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

O'Neill, John. 1985. Five Bodies: The Human Shape of Modern Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Spender, Dale. 1998. Man Made Language. London and New York: Pandora.

                                             Danica Skara