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The body is the material representation of each individual, of their identity, tastes and personal choice. Nowadays, in our consumer culture, we have plenty of opportunities for modifying our bodies in order to 'improve' them and to keep up with the social norms for 'decent' appearance. This essay aims to examine the ways in which bodies represent the contemporary social values, as well as how these are both influenced and expressed by the 'fashioned body' model through media and advertising. By concentrating on the female image, I am first going to discuss the body as a social object, in order then to analyse the ways in which media and fashion industry influence the social role of bodies. Finally, I am going to examine to what extent the social values and ideals find expression through the way individuals maintain and transform their bodies.
The outer layer of a person's individuality is their appearance, which demonstrates their taste, the way they want to present themselves in front of the world, the way they perceive themselves and the others. The body is a complex subject to be analysed. Firstly, there are the genetic factors that predetermine its shape, features and potential, when it comes to the social role of a naked body. Nowadays in western societies it is not as unacceptable as in the past centuries, but the body still has to be dressed in public places; nakedness is still perceived as part of the personal sphere of an individual (Enthwistle, 2000). However, as Hole (2001) puts it, even for the naked body, one has to take care in order to conform to some social standards. Women need to have their body hair removed, they should not let themselves put on weight and have to struggle to be thin. Otherwise, they would not be perceived as feminine and this social perception would inevitably influence their personal and professional life. (Kunzle, 1982). Furthermore, women need to wear make-up; they have to choose carefully what to wear and where to wear it. They need to be dressed appropriately, but still feminine. According to Hole women have always been regarded as sexual objects, which is crucial to their success for getting male attention and lack of femininity would deprive them from having a relationship or being promoted at work. However, as Kunzle states, women exploit their sexuality in order to get what they want into the social, personal and professional sphere.
Then comes the aspect of how we position our body into a certain social sphere, how we perform with it through signs and gestures, how we express our existence and presence in society. A significant part of the so called 'performance' is played by the appearance: clothes, cosmetics, maintaining procedures such plastic surgery, exercising etc.
The way we dress is as much a personal choice as influenced by cultural, ethnic, religious and social factors. A large number of cultures have their traditional pattern of clothing, which is more or less the same nowadays as in the past. As Polhemus (1988) states, "all cultures 'dress' due body in some way, be it through clothing, tattooing, cosmetics or other forms of body painting".
The way we dress also depends on the sphere we are present at. For example, one dresses casually when they go out shopping, walking or meeting friends, but they would dress smartly if they go to a job interview or to a formal dinner. We dress because we want to make our bodies 'acceptable' to a certain social situation; to make ourselves feel comfortable with it, to be perceived in a positive light (Entwistle,2000). Thus, the body is a symbol both of its cultural and social location.
As the body represents our personality, we strive for looking "our best" and "up to the norms". We want to, and need to, be perceived well, this is why we try to demonstrate our qualities through our image, through conforming with the standards. This, obviously, has a significant impact on our communication and social presence as a whole.
Moreover, through the way we dress, position and perform with the body, we get into certain social circles, make contacts and make impression, good or bad; the body is an object to be perceived by the world.
However, as Entwistle (2002) argues, dress and accessories can never be seen as complete as without being worn on the body, and rather than being "an object in the world", the body itself forms our "point of view on the world".
Being identified by our bodies means that we ourselves perceive and assess others the same way. The way we look depends on the social norms, but it also reflects them. Dressing "appropriately" means that we conform with the social and cultural standards and values of the place we are located in, so our body both reflects our identity and individual features, but it also represents the standards for "a good look", thus, for personal qualities of a certain social group. These norms are largely imposed by the fashion industry, advertisements and the media.
The significant number of body maintenance products and procedures, which are part of nowadays life, point out the importance of appearance and bodily presentation in our consumer culture. Within it, advertising, media and fashion industry provide a stylised image of the body and emphasis on the notion that it is the best source of pleasure and self-expression. We become almost obsessed with the idea of youth, health and physical beauty influenced by all the visual dominant media, which imposes the idea that attractive appearance is the key to happiness or lie in its essence. The human body is not reduced to a basic biological organism, but the new consumer culture draws our attention to the appearance of the body, the clothing, demeanour and gesture (Kern, 1975).
As Pachter (1975) points out today's consumers choose and form new and different heroes who stay as an example of lifestyle, appearance, thinking and behaviour. These majorly are celebrities whose main characteristic is 'beauty' and who profess 'a philosophy of enjoyment rather than discipline and toil.' (Pachter,1975:330) Hollywood cinema also helps to create new standards of appearance and bodily presentation, putting a lot of emphasis on the importance of "good look" by projecting glamorous images of celebrity lifestyle.
As in the past, nowadays the new media put a lot of emphasis on the leisure lifestyle and publicise new norms and standards of behaviour. Different images from tabloid press, magazines and television, which represent youth, beauty and luxury, provoke new desires for the individuals, remind them that there is always room for self-improvement in all aspects of their life and dominate the perception of the body; advertising, feature articles and advice columns in magazines and newspapers ask them to assume responsibility for the way they look.
Traditional values gradually go away and give more and more space for new ones influenced by the expanding market with relation to free time and leisure activities.
Furthermore, advertising helps in this possesses by creating the notion that individuals have to pursuit and adopt a critical attitude towards body, self and lifestyle; make them emotionally vulnerable constantly reminding them about body imperfections which have no longer could be seen as normal. (Ewen, 1976) Body maintenance cannot be seen as something new and typical for our age as it exists in traditional societies in the past but was often associated with subordination of 'higher' spiritual level. Moreover, our age creates the connection between dietary control, exercise and the achievement of better desired effect about sex (Hepworth& Featherstone, 1982). As Angela McRobbie (1991) puts it, magazines and advertisements largely define girls and women through their sexual attractiveness and femininity; they encourage young females to strive to achieve "the ultimate outlook" through images, beauty tips; advice on how to attract boys, how to keep their partners or how to surprise them; whilst male magazines` topics are concentrated on leisure activities. Advertising campaigns` concepts of beauty products and procedures, plastic surgery, diet products, revolve around the idea that women are expected to desire getting rid of their bodily imperfections, in order to be attractive and consequently, happy. This, even nowadays, McRobbie argues, puts women into a subordinate position to men and encourages patriarchal values and social behaviour.
Today's world looks like a constant competition between individuals. They compete for attention, promotions and possibilities be it professional, academic or personal. People feel the urge to give their best in all aspects of their lives and to do so; they need to improve the way they look, as appearance is what makes first impression. However, the desire to impress others has turned into a desire to please ourselves: we are critical about the way we look and our self-esteem depends on whether we succeed to look as good as the models from the covers of the magazines.
As our self perception is influenced by the demanding social standards, our own perception of the world depends on them. Individuals become critical about others' appearance, so we constantly strive for more and require more in each social and personal sphere: as relationship partners, friends, parents, employers. This, I argue, has largely turned traditional social values into consumers' matrix, as goods and ultimate body image are the factors for the assessment, perception and understanding of personal skills and qualities. Perhaps the world has become more superficial now than before, as we pay more attention at objects and appearance and "judge a book by its cover". These social values might have turned the bodies into material objects, into goods to be assessed, bought and consumed. However, we still have the freedom to decide whether we want to live up to such norms and values, and whether conform to consumers' social behaviour.
No matter in what age we live and how deeply we think about this, we cannot characterise the body just as an object, and although sociology does not fully explain or understand all the cultural or social processes related to body. We should consider the fact that it is also a social product, an outer layer which reflects but is also reflected by our lifestyle, behavior, thinking, interaction and decisions. The body constructs the sphere we are located in but the social fields determine our body appearance and presentation as well.
People` s self-esteem and thus, relationships and attitude are largely dependent on social norms and values. This finds expression through the ways in which individuals maintain, dress and their body, in order to represent their individuality. We recognize and assess each other through out appearance. It is fundamental to desire making good impression and be perceived positively, so it is natural to human behavior to try to keep up to the norms, up to the values of the society and time.
The social values of contemporary western culture are expressed by the stereotypical image of a "good looking" and sexually attractive body. The beauty products` advertising concept is that the better you look, the happier you will be, both with yourself and the world. The more goods you have that you can apply on your body and the more expensive and trendy they are, the higher social status you will have, the better you will be perceived by others, the more opportunities for partners, professional development and leisure you will have. These social values are clearly reflected by the stereotypical image of an attractive, popular, desired "fashioned body".