Controlling & Modifying the Body: Theories & Techniques

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The human body is a powerful cultural tool. In this lesson, we are going to look at the role of the human body in transmitting and communicating culture and see what anthropologists say about this topic.

Anthropology and the Body

How do you walk? Do you walk in long and relaxed paces, short but rapid steps, heel-toe, or toe-heel? Walking is something that most of us do every day, but it's not something we think about. Why not? Walking is a big part of our lives and, as it turns out, a big part of our cultures. Anthropologists have long noted that a lot of human culture is reflected in the human body. The body defines our physical lives, and as a result, cultures spend of a lot of time detailing the best ways to control the body. From how we walk to how we sit, embrace, communicate, congregate, and relax, our cultures help us understand what to do with our bodies.

Controlling the Body

The anthropological study of the body largely stems from the work of French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). In exploring the interaction between culture and body, it was Mauss who first academically described the fact that French and German peoples walked differently. He noticed that Germans preferred long, gaping strides, while the French were more prone to being knock-kneed. Why? Was the German anatomy so different from the French? No. Mauss realized that even simple things like walking are not natural at all but are products of culture. From infancy, culture teaches a person how to control and manipulate their body, developing uniform social standards.

Mauss defined his observations as body techniques. Body techniques are learned bodily actions that reflect or embed certain aspects of a culture. Cultural practices are literally embodied in physical motion and skills. While walking is a ubiquitous example, body techniques also extend to activities like swimming, climbing, jumping, wrestling, running, and sitting. In all of these, cultural behaviors are enforced through individual bodies.

Mauss' ideas about body techniques would have tremendous impact on anthropology and inspire later scholars. Among the most notable was another French anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu built upon Mauss' ideas and proposed the concept of habitus. Habitus may be described as the collective experiences a person has in their lives that create a sort of lens through which they understand their reality. Cultures consist of people sharing similar elements of habitus, embodied through unspoken but physical behaviors.

Pierre Bourdieu
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Again, the body emerges as a canvas for a person to display their culture, whether consciously or unconsciously. Think about these questions: when you pass someone on the street, do you make eye contact? For how long? What is the appropriate duration of a handshake? When is it acceptable to hug someone? Do you sit with legs crossed at the knees, ankles, or not at all? Each of these behaviors carries cultural expectations. Therefore, as Mauss and Bourdieu explain, a purpose of culture is to teach individuals socially correct control over their bodies.

Body Modification

Controlling the body to reflect and enforce cultural behaviors can seem simple, as in the case of walking. At other times, however, it can get more complex. Body modification refers to cultural measures taken to produce dramatic changes to the human body. Every culture in the world does this - even yours. Have you ever shaved or cut your hair? Do you have piercings or tattoos? Body modification expresses cultural values through visible alterations to the body.

Beauty and Sexuality

If the concept of body modification is ubiquitous, why do we do it? There are three main motivators. The first is to conform the body to a cultural standard of beauty, often emphasizing sexuality. Hairstyles, tanning, and shaving all modify the body in ways deemed appropriate by American culture. Human standards on each of these aspects have changed greatly over time.

Body modification creates visible alterations
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While these modifications are applied to males and females, it should be noted that historically, some of the most extreme forms of body modification for beauty's sake have been applied to women. In Imperial China, foot binding involved breaking the bones of a young girl's feet and wrapping them together so that her feet would remain small forever. It was an extreme form of body modification that embodied cultural beliefs that women were weaker and frailer than men. In our own cultures, plastic surgery may be seen as an extreme form of body modification that places cultural pressure on women to exaggerate sexual traits and prevent natural aging.

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