Critical Bodies. Representations, Identities and Practices of Weight and Body Management’ - by Riley, S., Burns, M., Frith, H., Wiggins, S. and Marcula, P.
Article first published online: 22 JAN 2009
© 2009 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2009 Foundation for the Sociology of Health & Illness/Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Sociology of Health & Illness
Volume 31, Issue 1, pages 153–154, January 2009
How to Cite
Frost, L. (2009), Critical Bodies. Representations, Identities and Practices of Weight and Body Management’ - by Riley, S., Burns, M., Frith, H., Wiggins, S. and Marcula, P. Sociology of Health & Illness, 31: 153–154. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2008.01145_6.x
- Issue published online: 22 JAN 2009
- Article first published online: 22 JAN 2009
Critical Bodies. Representations, Identities and Practices of Weight and Body Management’ . 2007 Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan . xii+206 pp . £45 ISBN 9780230517738 (hbk), , , and
This volume does a range of interesting things, but perhaps one of the most intellectually exciting is that it demonstrates that critical psychology has gone as far as it is possible with social constructionist perspectives on the body, without either writing the history of ideas, or simply engaging in repetition. And not only does the book, perhaps inadvertently, offer a comprehensive picture of post-structuralism and the body on the cusp, but, particularly in the central section on identities, also some inklings of where, profitably, to seek a more satisfactory theoretical approach to the embodiment.
The editorial group have successfully pulled together a coherent and diverse collection of nine chapters that offer a considerable breadth of material in relation to the, mainly but not exclusively, female body. Size, weight and the practices which produce and reproduce normative and rigid standards of desirable bodies are the central concerns.
As anyone who has attempted to construct a single volume from a range of interests and voices will be aware, the balance between inclusivity and coherence can be something of a struggle. However, the organising of the chapters into three main sections, each with integrative introductions, does produce a strong sense of unity. Section 1 mainly concerns itself with ‘the construction, constitution and reification of bodies in everyday practices’, Section 2, primarily with ‘critical and constructionist conceptualising of subjectivity in relation to weight and body management, and the third section particularly elucidates ‘how representations of “healthy weight” may be engaged within the production of subjectivity’. This works well, and the inevitable overlaps and blurred boundaries serve to loosen and expand, not rigidify, the reader's engagement with the material.
Despite the book's claim to offer work from a range of disciplines what is presented here is primarily a feminist critical psychology text, mainly focused on offering social constructionist discussions and analyses of quantitative pieces of primary research. And in many ways this is a great formula for the reader. The latter facet offers a chance to engage with the subjective narratives of the lived experiences of the research subject. In this one volume we hear from school children (e.g. Emma Rich and John Evan's Chapter 3) and elderly women (Debra Gimlin in Chapter 9); from those diagnosed with eating disorders (e.g. Paula Saauko in Chapter 2) and those who see themselves as ‘normal’ (again Gimlin); from men (in Rosalind Gill's Chapter 5) and from women (in most other chapters). This feels like a privilege: to be able to ‘listen’ to these multi-toned voices of a wide range of embodied subjects, usually presented carefully and appositely. Having access to the transformation this occasionally works on the researcher is also fascinating. Gimlin's partially reflexive chapter, in which we see the position of the writer being impacted upon by the warm and pragmatic older women she is interviewing, is very engaging.
But also the book moves away from this formula and offers some pleasing surprises. The disparate chapters on ‘Starving in Cyberspace: The Construction of Identity on pro-eating-disorder Websites’ by Katy Day and Tammy Keys, and ‘Sustainable Imbalance – Evidence of Neglect in the Pursuit of Nutritional Health’, by dietitians Lucy Aphramor and Jacqui Gingras, for example, illustrate a range from esoteric to applied, equally rigorously researched and argued, and both add innovative dimensions to the book's standard themes and approaches.
The volume also, and perhaps most theoretically interestingly, serves the purpose of summarising and perhaps drawing a line under the whole ‘social constructionism and the gendered body’ field. The collection highlights almost everything that there is left to say, or say again, in relation to the social construction of the body. It does an excellent job of reminding the reader of a range of extremely useful perspectives and understandings of the body, where social constructionist analysis has been undertaken. Both in relation to primarily theoretical discussion and in relation to more comprehensively research-led work, being reminded of the complexities of intersecting body discourses and the traps of ‘traditional’ psychology/medicine they free us from are helpful.
However what the volume also does, especially in the central section ‘Constructing Embodied Identities’, is highlight the frustrations and limitations of linguistic determinism and demonstrates the need to re-insert the person and their unconscious and conscious emotions, desires, affect etc. into any analysis of subjectivity.
As Hannah Frith alludes to in the introduction to this crucial section on ‘identities’, where research – and I would add analysis too – is concerned with the use of discourse and social construction of identity, emotional aspects tend not to be explored. This seems to me to be precisely why social constructionism, despite its analytical strengths, has begun to be questioned as the theoretical stance par excellence, in theorising the human. Noticeably within the sociological community and also for some critical psychologists for at least a decade, the limited capacity of post- structuralism to engage with the affective, agentic and socially and psychically constrained individual has been understood as problematic. The contemporarily evolving discipline of psychosocial studies is seeking to address this, and the influence of such a revision is indeed present in this volume. Rosalind Gill's chapter, for example: ‘Body Talk: Negotiating Body Image and Masculinity’, finds a space to resituate the person in the discourse, and whilst demonstrating the necessarily complex interrelationship between peer pressure, school culture and media images in constructing problematic body relations in young boys, she also – and this feels like the next stage with the whole social constructionist project-resituates the feeling, emotionally driven embodied individual in the discussion.
Similarly, the addition of Colleen Heenan's Chapter 6, ‘Feminist Object Relations Theory and Eating Disorders’ also demonstrates some possibility of usefully linking psychoanalytical theory and social constructionism. Her section on ‘consumerism and transformation’ cleverly demonstrates the much improved usefulness of a critical analysis when it not only engages with the surface or the linguistic, but with the unconscious. This captures the power of desires and damage that only a psychoanalytical understanding can offer, and without which it is extremely difficult to understand subjectivity as both agentic and deterministic, as contradictory and emotionally driven, as capable of delusion, despair and transformation. She concludes her chapter by suggesting that feminism's espousal of post modernism leads to a reification of abstraction and an absence of emotional/personal analysis. (p. 130) This seems to me to encapsulate the new direction for theorising all forms of subjectivity, including embodiment.
Perhaps, then, this is a Janus volume: a book which demonstrates social constructionism on the cusp. We mainly see a collection of research and analytical pieces that demonstrate what a range of interesting, thorough, critical and exciting research and analysis the post-structural paradigm has generated. However the book also underlines some frustration with the limitations and staleness of social constructionism. Not just the linguistic obsession that obscures any real sense of lived experience, but even its tropes – do we still need all those plurals and brackets and ‘discourses’? – and its icons – Karen Carpenter and Princess Di, the former of whom most students will not even have heard – which feel so passé. However with the addition of writers sympathetic to psychosocial paradigms, such as Rosalind Gill, and at least one chapter that engages with human subjectivity as an unconscious and conscious, massively conflictual and ambivalent, process, the volume also shows the reader a glimpse of where theory for embodiment might now proceed to.