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Bodies In Distress

By: , Posted on: November 10, 2017

Scholars and practitioners, as well as women and girls of diverse social locations, identify the meeting place of body and culture as a problematic intersection. Studies repeatedly indicate that a majority of girls, age 14 years and above, live with normative discontent regarding their appearance—a number far greater than boys and men (Tiggemann, 2004). Further, this negative body esteem among girls and women is linked to instances of dieting, eating disorders, depression, and social and sexual difficulties (Piran et al., 2014 ;  Stice et al., 2011).

In turn, disordered eating patterns are associated with the consumption of licit and illicit substances (Piran & Gadalla, 2007). In terms of prevalence, it is estimated that the spectrum of disordered eating behaviors affects approximately 9%–13% of adolescent girls, suggesting around 1.9–2.7 million affected individuals in the United States within any given year (Piran et al., 2014), although the percentage of girls and women who struggle with negative body esteem is actually as high as 70% (Cain, Epler, Steinley, & Sher, 2010). Rates of disordered eating patterns in multiple countries around the globe currently undergoing westernization and modernization are similar to those found in North America. Researchers also highlight other indicators of distress in the body domain, including girls’ involvement in sexual activities without desire or protection (Tolman, 2002) and young women’s higher rates of engagement in self-injurious behaviors (Whitlock, Eckenrode, & Silverman, 2006) and plastic surgeries (Swami et al., 2008). Therefore, practitioners are often called to address a range of disruptions in the body domain, either through therapy or prevention interventions.

Studying “feminine embodiment” holds a mirror to culture: “the disciplinary power that inscribes femininity in the female body is everywhere and it is nowhere; the disciplinarian is everyone and yet it is no one in particular” (Bartky, 1988, p. 74). In this, Bartky and other feminist scholars highlight the inextricable relationship between social structures of power and privilege and how diverse girls and women live in their bodies; yet, the study of this “disciplinary power” that shapes women’s embodied lives has to also consider the varied inscriptions made on women inhabiting diverse bodies at the intersections of social class, race, ethnicity and immigration, sexual orientation, weight, health and physical ability, and age, as well as recognizing women’s agency in response to cultural pressures.

A study of the social forces that discipline the bodies of diverse girls and women is particularly current, as a poignant gap exists between prevalent ideologies of equity and the embodied lives of diverse girls and women. For example, while greater opportunities now exist for women’s participation in the public sphere, consistent messages transmitted through various outlets (e.g., film, television, etc.) and social media technologies continue to emphasize the shrinking of women’s bodies. Similarly, rates of violence against women in North America have not decreased during the past decade, greater barriers are being erected in the United States restricting access to reproductive health services, and in Canada, for example, the gender gap in salaries has actually widened over the past few years. Stressing the gap between strived-for ideals and the quality of embodied lives, Susan Bordo (1989) emphasizes that, “[I]n such an era we desperately need an effective political discourse about the female body, a discourse adequate to an analysis of the insidious, and often paradoxical, pathways of modern social control” (pp. 14–15). A research agenda aimed at studying “insidious” social processes that produce “docile” bodies can therefore contribute to feminist theory, activism, and the well-being of girls and women.

This book, in particular, addresses a series of questions faced by both scholars and practitioners that have not yet been answered by research: What construct can capture the multidimensional quality of embodied life, beyond the singular focus on appearance satisfaction? Can such a construct cover the broad spectrum of experiences, from positive to negative embodiment, and be applied to both girls and women? Can the broad range of social experiences be organized along a few key dimensions illuminating the disciplining of diverse bodies into docile bodies and, through that, socialize girls and women into inequity? Can these key dimensions capture both stories of disruption and healing?

Holding a Mirror to Culture

Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture aims to share with practitioners and scholars an innovative, research-based developmental and feminist theory, referred to as the Developmental Theory of Embodiment (DTE). The DTE provides a new perspective on the interactions between the social environments of preadolescent and adolescent girls, younger and older women of different social locations, and their embodied experiences of engagement with the world around them. The DTE builds on the emergent constructs of Experience of Embodiment and the Body Journey, and the key social experiences that shape embodiment throughout an individual’s development—from agency, functionality, and passion during early childhood, to restriction, shame, and varied expressions of self-harm in puberty, and to the challenge of recapturing agency throughout adulthood. By addressing not only adverse experiences at the aforementioned intersections but also resilience and facilitative social factors, the DTE outlines constructive pathways toward transformation.

The DTE is anchored in the live experiences of girls and women, including 171 interviews: 87 with girls, ages 9–17 years, and 84 with women, ages 20–70 years. In addition, the DTE is also informed by 116 focus groups with schoolgirls and quantitative surveys with women. The narratives of these girls and women, with respect to their embodied lives and the myriad social factors that shape them, enrich Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture, providing us with an opportunity to hold a magnifying glass to the shaping of girls and women’s body journeys from early childhood through their tweens, and early and late adolescence—a time of intense transitions during which docile, corseted bodies are produced. In similar fashion, following the body journeys of adult women reveals the processes in which some women engage to recapture positive body connection and comfort, embodied agency and passion, and attuned self-care.

This book is organized with the aim of acquainting readers with the theoretical constructs of the DTE and their expressions during the different life stages of girls and women—simultaneously anchoring these expressions in the narratives of research participants. This affords readers the opportunity to examine the intersection of body and culture as a lifelong journey while also focusing on particular stages along the way.

Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture

This article is an excerpt from the Introduction of the book Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture, by Niva Piran, with Robyn B. Legge, Sachiko Nagasawa, Tanya L. Teall and Sarah D. Thompson provided editorial guidance. The book is available online via ScienceDirect, or can be purchased in print of e-book from the Elsevier Store. Apply discount code STC317 and receive up to 30% off the list price and free shipping,

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