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The Body

The Social Skin

Mary Douglas's work, as well as feminist deconstructions of the meanings contained in representations of the female body, inspired a generation of anthropologists and cultural theorists to explore the human body as a text that can be read to reveal a great deal of cultural information. This symbolic function of the body applies not only to the taboos and rituals described by Douglas, but to parts of the body, to representations of the human body—in artworks, medical texts, racial ideology, and advertisements—and to decorations and modifications of the flesh, from ornaments, hair fashion, cosmetics, masking, costuming, tattooing, piercing, and scarification, to body fattening or thinning, muscular development, and cosmetic surgery. However extreme or seemingly whimsical the practice, it always has meaning, always is shaped by the sociocultural context in and through which people act. Anthropologist Terence Turner called this dimension of the body the "social skin," a concept that applies just as aptly to the nineteenth-century corset and twentieth-century implants as to the traditional neck rings of the Karen peoples of Burma or lip plugs of the Amazonian Kayapo.

A key difference between the body modifications of traditional societies and those of postmodern culture is that the former are dictated by group membership and are nonnegotiable by individuals. The status-significance of the size of Ethiopian lip-plates among brides-to-be is set by custom, as is who may engage in such modification. In contrast, many contemporary body modifications based on traditional practices—piercing, scarification, and tattooing—are freely adopted for their potential to express an individual's choice of alternative values or group identifications. Other contemporary modifications—for example, exercising to change the shape or fat composition of the body, or having one's face lifted to achieve the appearance of youth—are freely engaged in and (in principle) open to members of all social groups, but reflect norms of beauty to which there is considerable pressure to conform. Those who resist or cannot afford to conform pay a stiff price, in lesser access to jobs, mates, and social power.

Whether traditional or contemporary, all body modifications carry meaning, expressing cultural ideals (and anxieties), racial biases, social status, and membership in particular groups. Those meanings may be complex—both female slenderness and male muscularity, for example, are arguably overdetermined to be attractive in the late twentieth and early twenty-first-century context for reasons having to do with anxiety over changing gender roles, the increasing association of bodily discipline with self-control and power, and the moral valuation of leanness in a "super-sized" culture of indulgence (Bordo, 1993, 1999). Bodily meanings are also unstable and highly context-dependent, raising questions about the changing politics of the body: Does hair straightening by blacks, for example, have the same significance in 2004 as it did when "natural" styles were an expression of racial pride? There is no one answer to a question such as this; different analysts will interpret such practices differently. But however controversial or layered, no bodily style can be considered to be "just fashion," the expression of meaningless or arbitrary taste.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Bilateral symmetry to Boolean algebraThe Body - A Brief Tour Of Western Dualism From Plato To Plastic Surgery, The Mind Embodied, Culturally Variable Bodies