The Body in American Popular Culture

Marjorie Jolles, from Roosevelt University’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, led the Newberry Teachers Consortium seminar, “The Body in American Popular Culture” on Monday, October 15, 2012

Last week, the New York Times ran a story entitled, “(Psst: We Feel Bad About Our Arms”).  This article, filed in the Fashion & Style section’s “The Mirror” series, complained of the pressure women feel to have and flaunt a pair of “bare, toned, elegant arms,” thanks to the way Michelle Obama has popularized sleeveless women’s fashions.  And I was struck, in this piece, by the heavy symbolism the body bears in popular culture, the way the body carries such moral and didactic weight.  Representations of bodies in our culture have a way of scolding us, much like the author of the Times piece suggests.  The First Lady’s “bare, toned, elegant arms” tell a story of discipline, power, good genes, athleticism, and privilege.  In so doing, they may subtly mock our lack of discipline, our disappointment in not winning the genetic lottery, or perhaps our resentment in lacking a staff of personal trainers to help us achieve such a body.

This is a central tension explored by scholars working in body studies: the way a person both has, and is, a body.  The body is not merely the material home of an inner self, despite what many philosophers, dating back to Plato, have claimed. Rather, in our contemporary culture, the body is expected to mirror the features of that inner self, such that outer matches inner in a legible way.  This relation between inner and outer selves is inherently fraught, of course, because bodies cannot simply be made to bend to our will, try though we might.  They are not quite that docile.  The body, while we struggle to bring it under the mastery of the inner self, still has something of a life of its own, as anyone who has ever witnessed profound changes brought about by age, or been diagnosed with illness, can attest.  In a culture that expects rigorous self-reliance, the body can be a source of embarrassment—proof of our fallibility and limited power. We “feel bad about our arms” perhaps because we feel bad about something deeper: the body’s simultaneous comforting familiarity and hostile otherness, demonstrated in its maddening refusal to precisely mirror the person we believe lives inside.

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