What Is ‘Body Work’? A Review of the Literature



Lyon and Barbalet (1994), Kang (2003), Wolkowitz (2002, 2006), and others have proposed the concept of ‘body work’ as a means for further developing the sociology of the body. This article gives an overview of the different (although frequently overlapping) forms of body work that have been identified in the sociological literature. These include a notion of body work as (i) the work performed on one's own body, (ii) paid labor carried out on the bodies of others, (iii) the management of embodied emotional experience and display, and (iv) the production or modification of bodies through work. The article concludes with suggestions for the future of research on body work and the sociology of the body.


Although sociologists long ignored the body, recent decades have witnessed a widespread and growing interest in the subject (e.g., Crossley 2001; Shilling 2003/1993; Turner 1984/1996). Various authors (Gimlin 2002; Kang 2003; Wolkowitz 2002, 2006) have proposed ‘body work’ or ‘body labor’ as one way to further develop the sociology of the body. This article will provide an overview of the concept, including the different (although often overlapping) forms of body work that have been identified in the literature to date, i.e., body work as: (i) body/appearance work, (ii) body work/labor, (iii) body/emotion management, and (iv) body-making through work. It will then conclude with suggestions for the future of research on body work and the sociology of the body.

The study of work and work relations has a long history within the discipline of sociology, dating back to ‘classical’ writers like Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. However, with few exceptions, that literature has paid little explicit attention to matters of the body (Shilling 2003/1993). One important source of this omission lies in the modernist tradition within sociology, which derives largely from Max Weber's rather disembodied analysis of bureaucratic organizations. According to Weber, the historical shift from traditional to bureaucratic organization is characterized by a move away from social relationships built on emotional connections and individual privilege toward an increasing emphasis on efficiency and consistency in the application of rules. Impersonality and the separation of personal and private spheres, then, distinguish bureaucracy from traditionalism. As theorized by Weber, bureaucracy has a rational character: ‘rules, means, ends and matter-of-factness dominate its bearing’ (Gerth and Mills 1958, 244); it is also one in which human bodies and feelings are largely pushed to the background.

Despite the tendency within the sociology of work and organizations to overlook embodiment, several schools of thought have drawn some attention to the importance of embodied social relations in the work environment. One example is the ‘human relations’ approach of the 1920s and 1930s, which showed that high morale and optimum performance among workers depend as much on the cohesive bonds between them as on adequate pay and good working conditions (Rose 1975). Such accounts characterize the existence of the ‘personal’ in the workplace as consistent with, and even supportive of, bureaucratic organization, particularly in the context of the increasingly service- and communication-oriented economy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries (Wray et al. 1996). At the same time, while the human relations school added an informal dimension to the analysis of employment, it fell short of fully ‘bringing the body in’ to the work environment (Cregan 2006). That is, it reinforced the sociological focus on disembodied rationality, at least at the managerial level; for human relations theorists, managers should be controlled, logical, and able to suppress their feeling, despite the fact that workers are guided by sentiment and emotion. In effect, these authors reaffirmed the division between reason and bodily emotion in a way that marked off managers from others (Pringle 1989).

In a similar way, the sociology of the body has largely ignored questions pertaining to work and employment. Wolkowitz (2006, 18) attributes this neglect to the ‘cultural turn’ within the social sciences and feminism, ‘the emphasis on “words not things”, the association of identity with consumption rather than production, and a view of the body as the product of consumer choice’ (see also Featherstone et al. 1991; Giddens 1991). This omission of work-related matters also derives from the sociology of the body's indebtedness to Foucault's writings, with their emphasis on the rationalized management of social life (and human bodies) through technologies of surveillance, expert knowledges, and corrective interventions (Foucault 1979). Bryan Turner, along with Mike Featherstone, was one of the first sociologists to take up Foucault's preoccupation with the body. Turner's (1983/1991, 1984/1996, 1987/1995) work builds on Foucault's three main concerns: religion, the law, and medicine, examining contemporary social interactions and the social and political significance of institutional power operating on and through the human body in each of these spheres. Foucault's extension by Turner has been very influential, opening up new ground on which the sociology of the body has been built (Cregan 2006). Yet, much of the work informed by Foucault (and Turner) is weakened by its overemphasis on a limited range of human bodily experience, namely, its sexual or erotic potential. As Cregan (2006, 61) notes, ‘the body for Foucault and for those who follow him closely – whether in religion, the law or medicine – is a sexualised body.’ Even more importantly, it is a sexualized body as constructed and shaped solely through languages and meanings, rather than as experienced in its sweaty and living being. Whether Foucault is talking about prisons, asylums, or the confessional, he ends up focusing on the body primarily as an erotic site. And in following Foucault's approach, ‘Turner tends to come across as agreeing that that is when the body becomes important’ (Cregan 2006, 61).

In light of such omissions within the sociology of the body and the sociology of work and organizations, authors such as Shilling (2003/1993), Kang (2003), and Wolkowitz (2002, 2006) have argued that the ‘body/work nexus’ provides a particularly useful, and so far underexplored, opportunity for examining contemporary social relations, corporeality, and subjectivity (Wolkowitz 2006, 1). However, the literature to date has failed to offer a comprehensive account of the notion of ‘body work’. This article is intended to redress that gap by identifying four ways that the concept of ‘body work’ has been employed.

Body/appearance work: Management and modification of one's own looks and physical wellness

All societies require that their members do work on their bodies to transform them from the ‘natural’ state to one that is more explicitly ‘cultural’. However, social expectations concerning the type and extent of such efforts are not uniform across all groups; those linked within Western dualist thought to the ‘nature’ side of the nature/culture dichotomy (e.g., women versus men, blacks versus whites) have long been required to invest greater time and energy in managing the body (Black 2004). In the contemporary West, for example, women are expected to engage in a larger number of body management practices, spend more effort and money on them, and be more concerned about them than men.

In light of the prevalence of body work across Western and non-Western cultures alike, and the relevance of social inequalities to its performance, its neglect within sociology is arguably ‘one of the most remarkable features’ of the discipline (Shilling 2003/1993, 103). Still, given the growing number of publications dealing with practices such as restrictive dieting (Gimlin 2007; Martin 2002; Monaghan 2001; Nichter 2001; Stinson 2001), cooking and eating (Charles and Kerr 1988; Inness 2001), working out (Crossley 2006; Gimlin 2002; Grimshaw 1999; Monaghan 2002b; Sassatelli 1999), and clothing selection (Finkelstein 1991; Storr 2002, 2003), Shilling's claim may be something of an overstatement. Nonetheless, he is certainly correct in suggesting that sociology has largely ignored both the more mundane forms of body work (such as daily bathing, deodorizing, hairstyling and removal, the application of cosmetics, teeth cleaning, and dressing) and the relevance of body work to individuals’ experiences of employment (Twigg 2000a, 2006; Wolkowitz 2006). Falk (1994, 4) explains the latter oversight as a product of the West's reified conception of the relationship between the subject and object, ‘be it in the form of “worker – raw material” or “artist and the work of art”’, as if who one is (and how one looks) must be differentiated from what one does.

Yet appearance, sexuality, and the representation of both through particular forms of body management are far from marginal to employment. Marcuse (1968) was one of the first writers to recognize the pervasiveness of sexuality in the workplace and to try to theorize it. Considering workplace sexuality in light of Weber's modernization thesis, Marcuse claimed that sexuality in the workplace is not simply an illustration of ‘incomplete’ bureaucratization. He argued instead that sexuality and its embodied display – via grooming, dress and demeanor, jokes, gossip, and flirtation – are actually encouraged by employers as a means of gratification in otherwise boring jobs. Furthermore, Marcuse pointed to the ways in which ‘without ceasing to be an instrument of labour, the body is allowed to exhibit its sexual features in the everyday work world and in work relations ... Sex is thus made susceptible to (controlled) satisfaction ... But no matter how controlled ... it is also gratifying to the managed individuals ... Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission’ (1968, 70–1).

Other authors have focused less on the ways that corporations use workers’ bodily displays to encourage their compliance and productivity, and more on historical shifts in employers’ expectations about the nature of and extent of control over those displays. For example, Wolkowitz (2006, 55) notes that the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial, service economy has significant implications for how companies construct their employees’ embodiment and, consequently, for how individuals understand and manage their bodies both within and outside of the workplace. That is, while industrial economies targeted a finite range of workers’ productive capacities, the postindustrial economies of wealthy Western countries instead target the ‘whole person’ (Thompson 2003, 363; see also Boltanski and Chiapello 1999). Thus, it is not simply one's physical or mental abilities that are sold to employers today; bodies, body work, and sexuality too are sold, both to the employer and by the employer, explicitly in the case of prostitution, less so in the case of the ‘attractive’ secretary or 200-pound doorman (Cockburn 1991). Similarly, Hancock and Tyler (2000) argue that employee recruitment and management are increasingly commodifying embodied capacities that were once seen as private. Like Wolkowitz (2006), they imply that while bodies at work were once configured as ‘productive’ and valued for what they could do, new employer expectations distort valued aspects of the embodied self by rendering them merely empty signs of corporate branding (Hancock and Tyler 2000).

Gender is clearly an important element of such processes. Based on her study of stockbrokers in the City of London, McDowell (1997, 139) says that gendered bodies and personal appearance, and the backstage work required to maintain them to acceptable standards, have increasingly come to be understood as ‘an integral element of workplace success’. Moreover, rising expectations focusing on the ‘cultural capital of workers, on attributes such as style and bodily form, on how they look as well as how they perform’ apply to both men and women, especially younger men and women (McDowell 1997, 140). For example, while the more established, older male workers in McDowell's study performed a traditional, disembodied, patriarchal masculinity, younger men were much more likely to engage in various forms of body work. These younger men were conscious that their clients’ and superiors’ positive perceptions of them depended in large part on presentations of bodily discipline and so paid considerable attention to their clothing, hairstyle, and weight. When in positions of authority, younger male workers ensured that their subordinates were aware of the social norms pertaining to appearance, reminding them that ‘[y]ou have got to look good’ (McDowell 1997, 187).

Yet while such men are increasingly engaging in (and being remunerated for) body management, McDowell (1997) found that performances of masculinity among women, be it through dress or behavior, are counterproductive. For instance, the efforts of some female respondents to adopt a ‘feminised version of the male uniform’ (McDowell 1997, 146), their adoption of masculinist military and sporting terminology (e.g., references to ‘jungles, races and battles’) (McDowell 1997, 149), and more general attempts to act as ‘honourary men’ were both unrewarded and ‘doomed to failure’ (McDowell 1997, 197). She concludes that many of the difficulties associated with masculinized female performances derive from the ways in which a particular mode of identifiably feminine corporeality – such as presenting a desirable and responsive (hetero)sexed body – tends to be normalized in workplace practices (McDowell 1997, 140; McDowell and Court 1994). Although some (usually more senior) women set out to subvert this naturalization, they often reported feeling unhappy in their adoption and exploitation of a ‘parodic femininity which they found demeaning’ (McDowell 1997, 201). In effect, even though a range of self-monitored forms of body work were performed by the women in these studies, they were not conducted in conditions that allowed most of the women to engage in a reflexive relation to their own corporeality. Thus, the women spoke about their workplace persona as unreal, referring, for example, to ‘building up a shell’, ‘adopting a different sense of myself’, and ‘not using my real personality’ (McDowell 1997, 201). Ultimately, the social construction of the female body as ‘nature, not culture, for pleasure, not work’ continues to ‘mark women as different from, and inferior to, an embodied but still ideally masculinised worker’ (McDowell 1997, 140; see also Brewis 2000).

Body work/labor: Labor performed on behalf of or directly on other peoples’ bodies

In comparison to body/appearance work, body work/labor has received somewhat greater attention from sociologists. While some of that attention (particularly in recent years) has been paid to beauty- and fitness-related labor (Black 2004; Gimlin 2002; Rooks 1996) and the ‘dirty work’ (Chang 1993; Hughes 1971) carried out by garbage collectors, cleaners, hospital orderlies, and the like, a larger proportion has been directed at the unpaid caring labor performed by women in the domestic sphere (Finch 1989; Finch and Groves 1980; Finch and Mason 1994; Morris 1980; Twigg 2006; Ungerson 1987; Widding Isaksen 2005), particularly by feminists motivated by a sense of ‘injustice arising from the unequal burden of caring borne by women’ (Twigg and Atkin 1994, 3). Such authors have argued that the responsibility for caring limits women's access to educational opportunities and economic resources and so perpetuates their subordinate position within the gender hierarchy. The feminist critique focuses not only on the labor of caring, but also on the nature of love itself and its implications for women. For example, Graham (1983) and others have pointed out that women construct a sense of self based in large part on self-sacrifice for loved ones and, thus, learn to subjugate their own needs to those of others. Even more than these three forms of body work/labor, sociologists have historically paid particular attention to the labor of health care (Conrad and Schneider 1992; Delvecchio-Good and Good 2000; Parsons 1951; Zola 1972). Among other topics, work in this field has focused on the interactions and power relations between patients and medical professionals (Lawler 1991; Lee-Trewick 1998; Savage 1995) and among healthcare providers themselves (Becker et al. 1961; Coombs 2004; Reverby 1987).

As Twigg (2000b) points out, all labor that brings workers into contact with other peoples’ bodies is potentially demeaning and, when undertaken by high-status individuals (e.g., physicians and dentists), is typically accompanied by distancing techniques, whether via demeanor, the wearing of uniforms or plastic gloves, or the allocation of less tasteful tasks to those further down the status hierarchy (for example, see Lawler 1991 on doctors and nurses). Generally speaking though, ‘there is a recurrent dematerialising tendency’ within body labor ‘whereby status in a profession is marked by distance from the bodily’ (Twigg 2000b, 391). At the same time, however, body labor is also characterized by its frequent association with sensual pleasure and intimacy; its therapies and techniques create a zone that provides for physical enjoyment and well-being (Black 2004; Twigg 2000b).

Drawing on her observations in Korean immigrant-owned nail salons in New York City, Kang (2003) coined the term ‘body labor’, which encompasses the physical and emotional aspects of work performed on others’ bodies (see Gimlin 2001 and Black 2004 for similar points). Kang shows that expectations regarding the style of body labor (be it primarily nurturing, respectful, unobtrusive, or otherwise) varies alongside the ethnic and class characteristics of service providers and clients. Other authors have examined the range of factors that shape both the status and the practices of body workers. One of the most important of these is the ‘dirtiness’ of the activities involved. Twigg (2000b, 391) points out that occupations that ‘deal directly with the body and its wastes are recurringly regarded as low in status, on the border of the polluted.’ In modern Western societies, such jobs are done by the least-regarded, lowest-paid workers. For example, being a lavatory cleaner epitomizes low social status, independent of how much people might recognize that the work needs to be done (Twigg 2000b). Dealing with dead bodies involves similar ambivalences. ‘Undertakers in Western society often find they are avoided socially, and they traditionally form a self-recruiting, family-based group. Strong taboos adhere to their work. Their role is to process death and decay in such a way that it its bodily character is hidden’ (Twigg 2000b, 391).

Like undertakers, other body laborers engage in practices meant to hide the dirtier aspects of their work from outsiders. For example, Lawler's (1991) analysis of nursing shows that the screens used to shield patients from potential onlookers function to protect not only patients’ privacy, but also the status and public esteem of nurses, who frequently perform the dirtier tasks of health care. Lee-Trewick's (1994) study of residential care homes for the elderly indicates that moving dirty work out of public view and into patients’ bedrooms serves a similar purpose. So too, body laborers may employ various techniques for distancing themselves from the physical intimacy associated with their jobs (Bates 1993): care workers make jokes when their elderly or disabled patients accidentally defecate while being bathed (Twigg 2000b); prostitutes may insist that their customers wear condoms or refuse to kiss them on the mouth (Linstead and Brewis 2000; Oerton and Phoenix 2001).

Workers also deal with dirty tasks by emphasizing other, less distasteful, elements of the jobs they do. For instance, Abbott (1994) reports that female care providers stress the affective and interpersonal aspects of their jobs, which not only are the most enjoyable and personally rewarding for workers, but also coincide with constructions of women as natural carers. Despite such techniques, however, body laborers do not necessarily lose their sense of disgust or revulsion at the dirty jobs required of them. Furthermore, workers’ awareness of their own social disadvantage (pertaining to gender, ‘race’, and class) frequently shape such experiences. For example, Linstead's and Brewis (2000) research with prostitutes indicates that much of the degradation many female sex workers feel is linked to their sense of disempowerment associated with gender hierarchies. And in Twigg's (2000b, 402) interviews with home care providers, her working-class black respondents employed by upper-middle-class white people expressed particular resentment about the disgusting aspects of their clients’ bodies, a sentiment that was ‘shot through with tensions in relation to race and class’.

Overall, aspects of subordination and domination are central to body labor and can create ambiguities that are played out in the meanings attached to the bodies of the cared for, which serve to ‘empower or constrain workers in relation’ to them (Wolkowitz 2002, 151). Lawler (1991), for example, claims that the body in nursing should be conceptualized as a ‘lived body’ because it is invested with positive meanings based in the warm and caring relationship between nurse and patient. However, Wolkowitz (2006) argues that many such definitions are derived primarily from prescriptive texts and so provide limited insight into the workers’ own understandings of bodies. Accordingly, she points out that ethnographic studies often provide very different images of such understandings. For instance, Lee-Trewick's (1998) research with caregivers reveals that workers emphasize not the ‘lived body’ of patients, but instead the production of adequately presentable ‘lounge standard’ bodies (Wolkowitz 2006, 152). Similarly, Foner (1994) notes that many care workers implicitly define their interactions with patients as ‘bed and body work’ rather than as relations with living, breathing human beings. Research among beauty therapists and hairstylists too indicates that workers conceptualize their clients’ bodies in ways that extend their own roles. Among the beauticians interviewed by Black and Sharma (2001), such conceptualizations centered around the notion of a deficient body, defined not as being deficient of beauty or youthfulness, but instead as lacking self-love and confidence (which workers claimed to be helping to restore). Gimlin's (2002) research with hairstylists provided similar findings. Drawing on these various studies and arguments shows that a closer examination of the performance of body labor provides a range of insights into processes of domination and empowerment among body workers and those whose bodies are labored on, as well as the tools both groups use to negotiate for power during their interactions, and the implications of all of these for individuals’ experiences of work and embodiment (Wolkowitz 2006).

Body/emotion management: Efforts to display and/or experience emotions deemed socially appropriate

Like the body, human emotions have only recently moved to the center stage of sociological analyses. This is not to say, however, that the emotions were entirely omitted from early sociological literature: Marx identified one of the negative features of capitalist production processes as the sense of alienation experienced by workers who are distanced from the product of their labor. Weber too warned against the loss of interpersonal affective connection that accompanies the historical shift toward rationalization. Nonetheless, the emotions became an explicit focus of sociological attention only during the late 20th century, due in large part to the publication of Hochschild's (1983) The Managed Heart, which examines the ‘emotional labor’ performed by flight attendants at Delta Airlines. Hochschild (1983, 7) defined emotional labor as the management of feeling to create facial and bodily displays expected from employees. Emotional labor has three components: face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with customers, the requirement that employees produce a certain emotional state in others (such as calmness in airline passengers), and methods of training and supervision that give the employer control over workers’ feelings. Emotional labor requires employees to manipulate their affect and is an important element of the inequalities inherent in work relations.

In light of an historical trend toward greater employer demands over the ‘extra-functional’ skills of employees (Mounier 2001; Thompson 2003), Hochschild (1983) was interested in examining the links between ‘feeling rules’ (or socially prescribed affect) and the inner emotional life of the individual. She identified two key strategies for dealing with the disparities between one's emotions and social expectations: surface acting, in which people display the outer signs of emotions that they do not genuinely feel (e.g., smiling when we do not feel happy), and deep acting, which involves consciously altering our emotions (e.g., thinking up excuses for rude or aggressive behavior in order to generate sympathy). According to Shilling (1993/2003) emotional labor is central to how we experience the body as ‘lived’ and can be seen as one dimension of what Freund (1982, 40) termed ‘emotional modes of being’. Freund (1982) was primarily concerned with people's experiences of health and illness and, particularly, with how individuals create and sustain ‘bodily well-being’. Freund argued that the achievement of wellness is intimately linked to social existence through ‘emotional modes of being’, i.e., the mind/body experience of being obstructed or enabled in achieving our goals. Following the Dutch phenomenological psychologist Buytendijk (1950, 1974), Freund claimed that being emotional is fundamental to, and arises out of, interactions with others. For example, modes of feeling unpleasant can stem from the experience of encountering resistance or being subdued during one's social interactions (Freund 1990, 461). Both of these involve disempowerment, an experience that can impinge on the physical body (by, for instance, affecting one's neuro-hormonal system) and undermine bodily well-being (Shilling 1993/2003, 101).

In her study, Hochschild (1983) showed that the demand for flight attendants to present a smiling, helpful demeanor to passengers led to anxiety and discomfort. While some of her respondents reacted to this demand by surface acting, doing so was considered ‘fake’ by supervisors and other staff members and so proved problematic for both self-image and workplace standing. It was even more common for flight attendants to resort to deep acting because it allowed them to avoid the feeling of insincerity associated with ‘faking it’. Deep acting was not, however, without consequences, including the sense of estrangement from bodily demeanor and emotions that comes from constantly interrupting one's usual reactions to events. When considered in light of Freund's (1990) analysis, regularly interrupting the connection between emotions and responses may be deleterious for the maintenance of bodily well-being, in that it could make it difficult for flight attendants to interpret and take appropriate action in response to bodily signals (Shilling 2003, 104).

A key aspect of Hochschild's approach is that it links emotional performances and experiences to the labor process, describing the ways that feelings have become commodities to be bought and sold (Wainright and Calnan 2002, 97). As she says, ‘When the manager gives the company his enthusiastic faith, when the airline stewardess gives her passengers her psyched-up but quasi-genuine reassuring warmth,’ what is sold as an aspect of labor power is deep acting (Hochschild 1979, 569). Hochschild's statement implies that both men and women do emotional labor; yet she also notes that there is a gendered division of employment that differentiates the type of emotional labor in which males versus females engage. Indeed, Hochschild's small study of debt collectors, included in The Managed Heart, provides an example of men engaging in emotional labor aimed at producing feelings of anxiety in clients. In debt collecting, Hochschild's respondents were required to work up an emotionally aggressive style, which affected the men's relationship to their bodies and may have spilled over into their private lives. For example, the readiness with which aggression needs to be achieved in debt collecting may make it an emotion frequently displayed in personal relationships (Shilling 1993/2003).

While Hochschild's focus is the negative personal and social aspects of emotional labor, other authors have pointed out that workers may well benefit from their affective experiences on the job. For example, Gimlin's (1996) research with hairstylists showed that respondents’ claims to the status of an emotional ‘counselor’ to clients reinforced their sense of themselves as a ‘professional’ rather than ‘just a beautician’. Like Hochschild's (1983) flight attendants, Gimlin's (1996) hairstylists also managed their interactions with dissatisfied or rude customers through deep acting, by thinking themselves into the position of their clients in an effort to empathize with their needs and behaviors. While useful for emotional laborers, such efforts may have less positive implications for those being cared for. For instance, Twigg (2000b) notes that among home care providers, consciously reordering elderly people as sweet, innocent, and vulnerable may help carers to overcome their feelings of disgust, but it simultaneously draws on and helps to reinforce constructions of aging that infantilize the old. Similar points might well apply to a range of disadvantaged groups, such as the physically disabled, mentally impaired, those seeking social services, and even individuals who are overweight.

Body-making at work: The production of bodies through the work they do

This final form of body work overlaps with the three types previously examined, in that they all speak to ways in which the work environment is literally ‘written on’ the body, including those of workers who attend to other peoples’ bodies. Even more that the previous ones, however, this last category draws attention to the fact that human biology is ‘itself partially formed by social factors. It is enmeshed within, is receptive to, and is affected by social relationships and events’ (Shilling 2003, 103), both within and outside of the workplace. As one example, the frequent smiling required of Hochschild's flight attendants (and many other emotional laborers) can leave permanent marks in the form of lines and wrinkles (which may well have negative implications for women's employment and social prospects). Lessor's (1984) research too has shown that flight attendants experience a range of health problems connected to the demands of the job. For example, they have to stand for long hours and engage in heavy physical labor when pushing large food and duty-free trolleys. In performing such tasks, flight attendants must also deal with the difficulties caused by airplanes flying at a constant angle and company requirements to wear shoes with medium to high leather heels. In fact, the health problems reported by Lessor (1984, 194) included ‘varicose veins, low backache, bunions, hearing loss, diminished pulmonary function and early menopause’. Other studies have noted that it is not unusual for flight attendants to develop hearing loss (Tobias 1972) and eating disorders, with the latter due in part to company weight requirements and the lack of nutritious and low-calorie food available on flights (Pennington 1991, cited in Shilling 2003, 105).

In their study of ‘work stress,’Wainright and Calnan (2002) too point out that experiences of employment have a corporeal reality that is inevitably embedded in the flesh. In some cases, such as loss of a limb or organ failure, work necessarily becomes embodied and (notwithstanding ‘the benefits of modern health technology in “repairing” the damage’ and reducing the functional consequences of impairment) is likely to shape the individual's bodily abilities and performances throughout his or her life course (Wainright and Calnan 2002, 87). Moreover, like physical injuries, psychosocial experiences too become embodied. There is evidence to suggest that being in stressful social situations may adversely affect blood pressure (Lynch 1985) and the immune system (Solomon 1985; Suter 1986). Overwhelming emotional episodes such as grief and bereavement (Bartrop et al. 1977), anxiety and depression (Johnson and Sarason 1978; Kelly 1980), loneliness and isolation (Lynch 1985), and anger and hostility (Friedman and Rosenman 1974; MacDougall et al. 1985) have also been linked to damaging physiological changes involving the nervous and endocrine systems. Such experiences teach us that exposure to certain external stimuli may have adverse physical or emotional consequences. Over time, these become embedded in the physical being, ‘producing the biological and expressive correlates of fear or anxiety’ whenever the stimuli are encountered (Wainright and Calnan 2002, 121).

Nonetheless, it is not simply that a given set of work characteristics will automatically produce mental or physical health problems. How workers interpret their situation, negotiate workplace relations, and define their experiences, as well as their assessments of their own mental resilience (or lack thereof) all vary individually, historically, and culturally and may have an impact on how the work environment becomes embodied (Wainright and Calnan 2002). Such variations are also reflected in the different experiences of specific economic and social groups. For example, McCarty et al. (1988) and Miller (1979) have shown that although neurohormonal reactivity to one's environment varies between individuals, such reactions are largely learned rather than inborn; they are also related to particular occupational positions. Thus, insofar as the appearance and experiences of bodies of work serve as concrete manifestations of cultural notions about socially appropriate bodies, the body-making of employment may also help to sustain social divisions and inequalities. One example is the development of stereotypical ideas about the emotionality of females versus males, which reinforce sexist notions about appropriate work for men versus women (Collinson et al. 1990).

To return to the previous discussion of the aesthetization of bodies in the service sector, it was noted that the adoption of ‘masculinized’ bodily styles among women rarely benefits them to the extent that enacting a feminized self-presentation benefits men (McDowell and Court 1994). Addressing this seeming contradiction, Adkins and Lury (2000, 159) claim that men's feminized corporeal performances ‘work’ largely because they are recognized to be a product of reflexivity. Women's masculinized performances, on the other hand, are naturalized and tend not to be recognized as reflexive at all. In effect, men's embodiment of contemporary corporate culture is mobilized as a workplace resource (McDowell 1997), making men better able to ‘take on’ and ‘take off’ various modes of bodily being (McDowell and Court 1994). West and Austrin (2002) conclude therefore that some men may be coming close to reaching the ideal of ‘flexible’ corporeality, a mode of corporeality that is adaptable, innovative, continuously adjusting, and adjustable in changing workplace environments (West and Austrin 2002). And, as Martin (2001) has shown, such flexibility increasingly secures workplace rewards. Thus, while the Weberian-inspired ideal of the worker as ‘disembodied brain-power’ and ‘rational decision-maker who thinks and then acts’ (McDowell 1997, 139) may well be displaced in service economies through men's body-making at work, West and Austrin (2002) argue that a new ideal of flexible corporeality is also emerging. Given that this ideal is one that can be reached only through a reflexive relation to corporeality, it is also one from which many women are likely to be excluded.


The term body work has commonly been used to refer to the work that individuals undertake on their own bodies and to the paid work performed on the bodies of others. Somewhat less frequently, the term – or related ones – has been employed to describe the emotional labor that body work frequently requires (e.g., Kang 2003) and to characterize the processes through which bodies are produced in the workplace, in terms of both appearance and physical being (Monaghan 2002a, 2002b; Wolkowitz 2006). This article has attempted to outline some of the literature addressing body work and the various ways that it has been conceptualized by sociologists, whether explicitly (in the case of the former two) or more implicitly (in the case of the latter two). As Wolkowitz (2006, 1) and others have claimed, examining the ‘body/work nexus’ provides considerable insight into the nature of corporeality and subjectivity, as well as of experiences of employment. However, a number of themes currently remain underexplored in the existing literature. These include, first, research that adequately captures the ways that bodies are produced by the changing work environment and simultaneously enacted/negotiated by individuals themselves. Various writers have attempted to overcome this problematic ‘micro–macro’ divide (which arguably haunts not only studies of body work, but much of the history of sociology itself), frequently by drawing on the writings of Pierre Bourdieu (1978, 1984, 2001; for examples, see Lovell 2000; McNay 1999; Skeggs 1997; Storr 2002, 2003). While space limitations prohibit a detailed discussion of Bourdieu's social theory here, suffice it to say that his writings go some way in explaining how social inequalities are embodied by way of individuals’ own actions. Yet, one element missing from Bourdieu's analysis (and those who have adopted it) is a sense of historical transformation, including attention to the ways that individuals may learn to accommodate the shifting bodily requirements imposed by either historical economic changes or their own transition (whether desired or not) from one employment sector to another (Cregan 2006). A second matter that remains largely unaddressed is the ways that the bodily requirements of any given workplace are themselves the product of the social actors within it. It is not sufficient to understand such mandates as simply being ‘handed down’ by culture or social structure; they are continually made and remade (consciously or unconsciously) through the interactions of individuals and groups. Finally, much of the literature currently ignores the multiple levels from which individuals may reflect on their own practices in relation to the body in employment, including the points at which people opt to set limits on their compliance with workplace demands. As Wolkowitz (2006, 174) notes, such practices may well point to a degree of human reflexivity beyond that which Bourdieu recognized. Indeed, greater attention to opportunities for ‘resisting’ body work – as well as the processes through which different classes, genders, ethnicities and, especially, ages are enabled and constrained in that (potential) resistance – would greatly benefit sociological understanding of both embodiment and labor relations.

Short Biography

Debra Gimlin teaches sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her first book, Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) examined the linguistic identity work performed by women in various sites of body management. Debra's current research, which is funded by the British Academy, focuses on cross-national differences in women's narratives of embodiment and body modification.


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     Correspondence address: Edward Wright Building, Dept. of Sociology, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, AB24 3QY, UK. Email: d.gimlin@abdn.ac.uk.