Body, Body Language and self expression

©Werner Hammerstingl, 1998.1999

This topic attempts to cover some very large and topical issues and is divided into two lectures.
Week one looks at the topic up to the present.
Week two looks at the issues surrounding the future of the body.

"Why is it that today the human body is at the centre of so much attention?  Why are magazines, newspapers, television and advertising saturated with images of naked, or virtually naked, bodies?  Why are so many writers, artists and photographers so profoundly concerned with the subject?  And why, in all this, do we discern a rising tide of unease, even panic?  Is it, as many believe, the scourage of AIDS which fuels the concern, or perhaps the disembodiment implicit in the computer age?  Is it, as some academics maintain, that the body, as we have come to understand it, no longer exists?  Or could it even be that the body is merely 'in fashion'?"

What puts the body squarely in the centre of debate is not fashion, but urgency. 

The body is being re-thought and re-considered by artists and writers because it is being restructured and reconstituted by scientists and engineers. 
In an era when parts can be routinely detached from one body and plugged into another and 
when the US National Institiute of Health offer to replace corpses in medical schools with 'industry standard digital cadavers' (the Perth medical school is up to similar pace offereing such a service for surgeons practicing new techniques etc.);
when certain machines can appropriate the function of human organs, while others are invested with intelligence; when the life of a body can be prelonged after the mind has ceased to function;
when genetic change can be engineered and human beings cloned;
when a foetus can be nutured in an artificial womb, or jobbed-out to a surrogate mother; when we entrust automatons to land our jets or perform operations on our bodies;
when the New York Times informs us that, contrary to what most of us had believed, there are three, four or possibly five genders;
when we capriciously rebuild faces, breats or thighs to conform to the moment's ideal of beauty; and when we dream of 'Robocops', 'Terminators'and 'Replicants', and long to live in a virtual reality - then concepts and definitions, values and beliefs, rights and laws, must be radically overhauled. 'The binaries in modern thought are breaking down', notes Alice Jardine, 'and the bottom-line binary of traditional ethics - life and death - is falling out from under us'.  Jardine might as well have listed the other threatened binaries: male/female, masculine/feminine, young/old, nature/culture, black/white . . .
'YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND', a work by artist BARBER KRUGER emphatically reminds us.

The first part of this lecture on this topic is looking at the a historical overview of the body and it's representation
The body represented over history
Jeffery Deitch thinks that the next generation will be the last generation of real humans. In books and exhibitions he has edited and curated he has used teasing titles such as 'post-human' and 'artificial nature'
Current trends towards 'cosmetic' plastic surgery and body-building (steroids) can mean two things:

Before we launch into specific examples and arguments on the topic, lets have a brief look at the history of the body and it's relationships to cultural shifts :
The mind/body split from which is a trademark of western and first world thought, is causing havock with "the body"
because it tends to push us away from a balanced combination of cerebal and physical activity towards extremism in one or the other direction.


The following article is quoted in full as it addresses a topic very relevant to our present discussion.


"You can never be too rich or too thin."

You don't have to go very far to notice that the ideal for women's bodies at present is a thin, fit, radiantly healthy, young, white woman. Just open a magazine, an advertising supplement to the Times, wait for a bus or subway, or merely walk down the street. The message of what we should look like is everywhere. The inescapable presence of these images shape our images of our own bodies, especially as women.

The media images we see of women offers us the "ideal." These women seem middle or upper-class by virtue of their expensive clothes, and are almost always white. Women seen outside the home are typically "attractive" and occupy jobs where they never seem to have to work. There are hardly any pictures of African American, Asian American or Native American women in advertisements aimed at the "general" population although they may be found if advertisers wish to "target" a group in a specific "ethnic area."

The range of actual body types in the past was no different than today. What has changed is what has been set up as the ideal. Studies have shown that while 25 years ago the average model weighed 8% less than the average American woman, today's model weighs 23% below the national average. The exclusion of so many women from representation is a denial of the wide range of bodies and appearances. Instead of marveling at the assortment of body shapes, we continually compare ourselves with each other. We begin to objectify our own and other women's bodies.

Notions of the ideal body are linked with the economy. There are a wealth of businesses that depend upon the American desire for thinness to survive. In order to create a market for their product, they attempt to make women feel inadequate about our own bodies. Their product or exercise equipment will get us on the way to the "real" us, the thinner, better, more popular us. We are given the message that our value depends on our physical appearance. We are told that we must be sexually attractive to be successful and happy. An ideal weight is presented as a requirement for being sexually attractive.

Unfortunately, limits on "desirable" thinness have not been set. The popular notion is that, as long as a woman isn't "badly" anorexic, being thin is not hazardous. Our standard of normal body size has become so thin that average weight people are considered abnormal. What has actually been proven, however, is that people on both extremes of the continuum (excessively thin or over 100 pounds above the norm) have increased health risks. The majority of those who consider themselves "overweight" are not. The height-weight charts we are familiar with were developed by the Metropolitan Insurance company, by a popular notion of ideal weight instead of a basis on an appraisal of specific health risks. In the conservative "Medical world," height-weight charts are being re-evaluated, some increasing "normal" weights by 20 percent.


Our ideal of thinness is influenced by many basic American values. This country prizes things like individuality, self-help, hard work, success, and self-control. We are given the message that if we just work hard enough at dieting and exercise, anything can be accomplished. Women especially are told that their efforts in perfecting their bodies will be rewarded by success in both their professional and personal lives. If we fail at achieving the ideal, we are told we must "try harder." A fat person is seen as lazy or greedy or without self-control."Obviously," we think, she wouldn't be fat if she could just control what she ate or "if she bothered to exercise."

As women enter the "male" world of higher education and employment, we are even more pressured toward perfectionism. We must not only achieve but excel. Some 1970's feminist advice tells us to be self-sufficient; that fulfillment comes from what we provide for ourselves. While women make a few gains toward economic independence in entering the business world without a fundamental change in its structure, we are forced to become "Superwomen." We are expected to achieve in the competitive business world while also excelling in traditional domestic roles of "wife" and "mother." Because of this dual expectation we are faced with many contradictory messages.  Different characteristics are needed for each role and not living up to the ideal in either can cause feelings of failure and self-hate. We have attempted a sort of "masculinized" female form as a tool of upward mobility, and the need to perfect our bodies has intensified the social tendency to equate women's worth with our bodies. The perfect body is our new status symbol. Weight consciousness has become part of our campaign for upward mobility.

Attempting to enter the basic American search for self control, individuality and thinness has not, however, brought most women more health and happiness. Instead, we often feel as if we have failed and the blame is laid squarely on our shoulders. But the social requirement that we achieve the "ideal weight" is based on the presumption that we can completely control our body size. In fact, the size and shape of our bodies are as genetically determined as skin and eye color.