Varieties of bodily experience
Mary Douglas (Natural Symbols, 1970) described the human body as a microcosm of society. This is not a new idea, the word "microcosm" being derived from the Ancient Greek mikro-kosmos meaning "little world", a term first used by Plato (Schweitzer, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992). Plato wrote of the body as a mikro-kosmos, its substance representing the form of the makro-kosmos, or "big world", or the universe. Douglas, however, writes that "the physical body can have universal meaning only as a system which responds to the social system" (1970:112). In this she challenges such a universal view of the body, asserting that every different culture can be understood by looking at the bodily characteristics of its members and particularly its women.
Douglas distinguishes between two types of society with regard to the body. She sees the "bound" body as existing in "ritualistically" rigidly-controlled, hierarchical, pietistic, taboo-driven societies and the "unbound body" as existing in "effervescent" informal, less structured, more individualistic, experience-driven societies.
On the surface, Britain today appears to have the latter form of society. Yet I believe that the bodily experiences of contemporary Britain reveal the subtle forces of control persisting within out society.
1. Body ideal According to Gimlin (Bodywork, 2002), the average Miss America contestant is currently 5'8" and weighs 8 stone 5lb and the average US woman 5'4" and weighing 10 stone. Whereas I recognise that beauty pageants play little part in British culture, this discrepancy between "ideal" and "reality" is probably similar in the UK. If the shop-window mannequins that advertise our clothes were real woman, they would be too thin to menstruate. Are we trapped in a choice between beauty and fertility?
2. "Bodywork" This term was constructed by Gimlin to describe the processes to which individuals (and...