How much would you change your body to ‘look better’?

Have you ever wanted to change how you look? Perhaps you’ve admired the way someone else looks – or the way certain types of people in general can look – and it’s something you want to try, or experiment with? Not just in terms of how you dress, but how you might alter your body? For example, a lot of people exercise and work out to make their bodies look and feel healthier, and some argue that tattoos and piercings help people express difficult individual feelings in a uniquely public way. Some people undertake cosmetic surgery in order look different – younger, slimmer, tighter, bigger, or just to adjust certain features of face or body – so they can feel ‘more like the person they were always meant to be’. For them, body modification is an expression of individuality and authenticity.

However, an important question is just how unique are these looks and feelings to us as individuals? Do we work out, tattoo, pierce, or undergo surgery to look more like our real, genuine selves? Or to look more like how we think others want us to look – and will admire us for looking – which often makes us look like everyone else?

Admiration is not the only emotional motive for changing our bodies. Many of us worry about the way our bodies look. Sometimes we feel pressure and anxiety to fit in and look ‘good enough’, and sometimes we might even be driven to copy or look better than someone else through a sense of low status or envy. Gordon Clanton argues that if you find yourself “thinking the other does not deserve the good fortune or wishing that the other would lose his or her advantage or otherwise suffer, that is a measure of your envy”. Have you ever thought that someone you know has it too easy because they are just lucky enough to be good-looking? If you told someone else about your feeling of envy, what would be the most likely response – would they agree, would they tell you off for being ‘too envious,’ or would they encourage to ‘embrace your envy,’ and work harder to look better? Cas Wouters argues that as a society we are becoming increasingly competitive over status, and the management of emotions is a key part of this. Do we modify our bodies to manage our envy?

These ideas raise important sociological questions. Is envy a useful driver towards seeking the higher status that comes with ‘looking better’? Do modified bodies bring us the joy of authenticity, or the thrill of elevated social status (and the relief of reduced envy?) Is there a body-industry out there helping us to conflate authenticity and status? How much is society, the media, and the body-industry telling us – and selling us on – how to look? And how to treat others based on how they look?

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Posted in SOC327 - Emotions Bodies and Society, Tutorial 8, UOW.

4 Comments

  1. I’ve always had the notion that, if I ever was lucky enough to hit the lottery for a substantial amount (anything over 10 million), I would get some stuff done to myself, the most pertinent of which being plastic surgery to change my face. I have NEVER liked what I see in the mirror looking back at me. Then, with better physical features (face change, liposuction and other things), then maybe–MAYBE–I can get a woman to look at me and not have her give me that eyeball-up-and-down ‘instant judgement’ look that they do, mentally assessing your worthiness in their heads. MAYBE.

  2. Askegaard et al., (2002) make an interesting point about how much of the self would have to be transformed before the self appears to be altered? Pointing to the discourses around consumption as a model for determining identity and status. This article discusses a difference between the marketed and the managed self which the body industry have appeared to have inextricably linked so that authenticity takes the form of ‘sophism’ in that the self is not independent of its social context, but the self is simply what it ‘appears’ to be. The body industry drives human interaction in this way, and are successful to those who are numb to their propaganda and/or consume their products and services.

  3. Body modification is an interesting concept especially when taking into consideration the body positive movement that has been gaining increasing momentum. Envy, like we talked about in class is a powerful motivator but as people become more aware of media tactics it becomes clear, as I mentioned , that envy has been socialised in a negative way to provoke feelings of worthlessness and inferiority in attempt to sell an ideal body type. If we backtrack to the body positive movement, which encourages people to celebrate the bodies they have and the bodies of other women, it is interesting to note the sometimes what we think is beautiful about others isn’t what we think is beautiful about ourselves. For example I very much think that all women are beautiful but am constantly trying to change my own appearance as a lot of the time I am unhappy with how I look. This raises the question ‘if I consider all bodies beautiful why, then, am I striving towards looking a certain way and why do I believe that this certain appearance will make me content?’ which feeds into the Heyes article Cosmetic Surgery and the Extreme Makeover which focuses on the notions of authentic self and identity resolution as achieved by extreme body modification.

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