Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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Sarah Nettleton and Jonathan Watson, eds.
The Body in Everyday Life.
London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 308 pp. $Cdn 34.65 paper (0415162017) $Cdn 113.35 cloth (0415162009)

The Body in Everyday Life is a collection of fifteen “empirical studies which have examined how people experience their bodies from the perspectives of the people themselves” (editors, p. 3). The mostly British authors link biographical accounts of bodily life to discourses of social control, and bring together areas usually isolated in the literature: disease and disability, children, men and masculinity, aging and old age. Counterbalancing their contributions, however, are the book’s inconsistent treatment of empirical studies of embodiment and lack of clear theoretical and political vision about the sociology of the body.

Part I contains four papers on “physical and emotional bodies”. In “The Body as a Chemistry Experiment,” Michael Bloor et al. examine body-builders’ reports on steroid use in exercise and training programs. The authors regard their subjects as creative, experimental “ethnopharmacologists,” but fail to comment on steroid-use as a risky component of an exploitative economy of the body. Emily Martin’s chapter, “Immunology on the Street: How Nonscientists See the Immune System,” stands out as one of the best in the volume. Exploring a series of “defensive” military metaphors and other images, Martin shows how people perceive their immune systems as physically complex, dispersed and varying in strength over time. This reviewer’s only quibble is that since AIDS is the immunological disease that brings all else into focus, Martin could make this more explicit. In “`Feeling letdown’,” Cathryn Britton traces the emotional and biological factors behind the “letdown reflex” and “leaking” associated with breastfeeding. Her interviews reveal that breastfeeding women rarely meet together, hence medical expertise rather than shared experience informs understanding of their own bodies. To strengthen her study Britton might have asked why other discourses on the breast, such as maternalistic or New Age ones, have also become predominant. Deborah Lupton’s essay, “Going with the flow: some central discourses in conceptualising and articulating the embodiment of emotional states” concludes Part I with a disjointed and truncated commentary on how the emotions are physically experienced. Indeed, why the discourses she discusses are “central” is not evident. Readers would do better to read Lupton’s fuller writing on the subject in The Emotional Self (1998).

Part II contains three papers on “health and illness.” The first looks at children’s perceptions of “malignant bodies” diseased with cancer. Authors Simon J. Williams and Gillian A. Bendelow review current theoretical debates to advocate a synthetic model that integrates empirical research with the sociology of emotions. Drawing on interviews with schoolchildren 9-10 years old, they discover that children artfully combine scientific, environmental and social explanations of poor health. The conclusion that children’s ideas about their bodies derive mostly from home or the media -- not their schools -- raises a vital question about the role of health education amongst increasingly savvy younger generations. The second paper, “Lay perceptions of the body in the context of arthritis” by Bethan Williams and Julie H. Barlow, examines the effects of arthritis on body-image, especially ideals of attractiveness for women and fitness for men. While the research rarely strays beyond themes of positive and negative emotional reactions, it points out that arthritis is a disease of “uncertainty;” sufferers must not only manage the pains of the present but also brave further physical disfigurement in the future. The final paper in Part II is “The body, health and self in the middle years” by Sarah Cunningham-Burley and Kathryn Backett- Milburn. They highlight the middle years as an increasingly anxious time because the body betrays itself as less “youthful” in unpredictable ways. The interviews with middle-age subjects, whose common complaint is that they cannot do what they used to do, are interesting. Greater focus is needed, however, on the larger cultural processes that have brought ideologies of decline into the middle years, processes well-theorized by Mike Featherstone, Margaret Gullette, Kathleen Woodward and other critical gerontologists.

Part III includes four papers on gender. Jonathan Watson begins by debunking the stereotype that men’s health problems are due to their inherently irresponsible, risk-taking lifestyles. Paul Higate’s second paper, “The body resists: Everyday clerking and unmilitary practice,” is a curious study of male RAF clerks who break the routines of military-ranked, sedentary jobs with symbolic, bodily acts of resistance. Both papers support a perspective of the male body as a resource whose physical capital is socially ordered and culturally inscribed. Yet neither paper provides the political and historical background to elaborate this perspective and its connection to the subjects’ experiences of embodiment. In the third paper, “Natural for women, abnormal for men,” Gillian A. Bendelow and Simon J. Williams criticize the popular notion that women’s biology and reproductive systems equip them to tolerate higher pain thresholds than men, (although the medical tendency is to minimize or psychologize women’s pain). Rather, we learn that cultural categories and gendered experiences together shape the perception and expression of pain, aside from the scientific evidence. The last paper in Part III by Alexandra Howson considers how cervical exams (“smears”) have become a form of “embodied obligation”. This is one of the better papers in the text because it uses its qualitative documents to theorize, rather than merely describe, the structure-agency problem of embodiment. Specifically Howson argues that “in the context of cervical screening participation, women represent themselves as embodied agents in ways which express obligation” (p. 220). The paper engages with the current political literature on health, risk and body-management with a view to illustrating the intricate practices by which prevention and surveillance, and choice and responsibility are negotiated and entwined around normative idealizations of femininity.

Part IV is about aging and old age, topics which most body books ignore since `the body’ they portray is invariably young, or age-less. Bill Bytheway and Julia Johnson’s paper, “The sight of age,” uses images from cartoons, photographs, magazines and advertisements to reflect on the symbolic distortion of the realities of aging. Their valuable inquiry into how people recognize themselves as they age could be better served, however, if interview material with people who are subjected to such images were included. Readers would also appreciate seeing some of the images reproduced in the text. Eileen Fairhurst continues in a second paper with an exploration of two images -- `growing old gracefully’ and `mutton dressed as lamb’ -- which encapsulate the socially imposed limits on women’s aging appearance. Either one can grow old gracefully and “act” one’s age (in a morally prescribed way), or one can “go too far” and act and dress inappropriately for one’s age. Fairhurst also makes an important point that aging amongst gay men is particularly conditioned by images of sexuality, physical youth and fitness. However, as a revised version of a 1982 conference paper by the author, this paper’s sources and argumentation remain dated in light of current feminist research on images of women and aging.

The final paper by Mike Hepworth and Mike Featherstone tackles the male menopause and the cultural construction of midlife. Since the authors are the inventive sociologists who first wrote on these issues in the mid-1980s, an updated version of their work here is welcome. The male menopause and the midlife crisis are lifecourse fictions; nevertheless, they aggregate together very real bodily, sexual, emotional, social and economic problems. The history of this development is fascinating, as is the question of “convergence” between male “viropause” and female menopause. Do men and women become more similar in later life, especially as rejuvenating hormonal treatments are finding greater usage? In the end, midlife crises and popular vocabularies about menopause entrap people in scenarios of decline despite the positive imagery manufactured around them. Hepworth and Featherstone really explain and advance the sociology of the body without needing to diminish either their empirical investigations or theoretical engagement to do so. The Body in Everyday Life needs more of this kind of work, along with cross-cultural or international examples, to achieve its goals of enhancing empirical research on embodiment while making a dynamic contribution to the field.

Stephen Katz
Department of Sociology
Trent University
September 2000
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