Constructing the body







We all speak and act from our bodies, but what we actually consider as “our” (or other people’s) body is very much open to debate. The images shift and change, and so does the perception of the “ideal” (or “proper”) body. (In some of the most interesting recent examples, Benettons campaign of mixing “pure” imagery of the advertised bodies with war and AIDS was widely criticized and the company was forced to close some of its stores in Germany, for example. On the other hand, Benetton has also included people with disabilities in their advertisements, interestingly expounding and developing the concept of the “appropriate body” [Zavirsek 1998].)


In the world we live in, the body has become a commodity, a fetish. The appropriate (“politically correct”) image of the body results in its veneration (as an ideal) and promotes a whole set of values behind the image. Therefore, it is interesting to look at the way(s) in which the body is promoted and advertised: the body as an integral part of  consumer culture, and body as a construction.

One of the popular images of the body today is the image of the naked female body in reviews such as Playboy.[1] Of course, this imagery has wider meanings both within the culture where it is produced and reproduced and within the context of something like the “American way of life.” (Having said that, I have to note that the Playboy has increasingly become globalized, with the regional editions sporting regional beauties. Several issues in Brazil had to be reprinted due to a high demand, and my friends assure me that it will happen as well with the August 1999 issue, which features a very popular young actress.) The imagery from this magazine is interesting because it seems to display the female body (usually girls in their late teens or early 20s) in a culturally acceptable way. Somewhat surprisingly, I have found that many of my American female friends do not object to Playboy  (the fact that this magazine also has some excellent stories and interviews helps), although they would not exactly put the centerfolds on the walls of their rooms. They normally do object to more “serious” magazines of the same type, like the Penthouse  or Hustler. Since I find that the basic imagery is the same, the question that seems to be worth asking here is: how is this different imagery mediated? What is it within the specific culture that makes some representations of the human (in this case, female) body more or less “acceptable”?


The answer to this question depends to a large extent on the prevailing cultural and social norms within each culture or society.[2] While there is no universal criterion regarding greater or lesser “acceptability” of particular types of imagery, the fact is that many industries (from clothing to cosmetics) rely heavily on certain types of images that enable them to sell their products (Rodgerson and Wilson 1991). Note that the porn and soft-porn industry of the Playboy type is not even mentioned here — as a matter of fact, it is quite unimportant and relatively benign in terms of actual profit-making or market-influencing strategies.[3] The body, especially if it conforms to current cultural and social aesthetic ideals (norms) becomes something that can be bartered, exchanged, or sold. (Not only rented, which is one of the main points made by the French feminist critics like Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.)


Anthropology has been interested in the body imagery from the early studies on the “racial types” of humankind. Most of these studies included a variety of pictures of naked native women, but this was all regarded as purely “scientific.” Raymond Corbey (1988) has studied the incredibly sexist and racist set of values behind the images displayed on the early 20th century French colonial postcards from Africa. I found the degree to which the women and girls depicted in these pictures were dehumanized (and at the same time both animalized and eroticized in an “exotic” fashion) almost incomprehensible (and so did Corbey). But it shows very well and very clearly one way of dealing with images of bodies. While the representation of the naked body is strongly discouraged in Western contemporary culture, the “natives,” being symbolically desexualized and deeroticized (by the very fact that they were and are the objects of study) can be depicted nude. Their sexuality is abstracted, hidden, or disguised — depending on the researcher’s interests. A friend of mine has in 1994 suggested to me that National Geographic actually serves as substitute for Playboy in her country (USA), since “little boys can look at the tits of native women.” 


The question of the relationship between pornography and ethnographic imagery is also mentioned by the performance artist Coco Fusco (referring to a performance/installation piece for the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art): “We wanted to connect pornographically inflected voyeurism with ethnography — the voyeurism involved in turning us into ethnographic objects on display.  Looking at naked women of color in National Geographic constitutes the first pornographic experience for a lot of American boys” (Lavin 1994: 82). I think that the main point is that “the women of color” in National Geographic or early anthropological textbooks are not really considered as sexual objects because they are not entirely considered as human – unlike the prevailing images of (mostly white) women in the reviews like the Playboy.


The question of power as well as of the right to representation and self-representation should also be mentioned, since in “borderline” areas (such as child sexuality) it is always very specific groups (on the level of the society) that assume the right to prescribe the manners of representation in all contexts. (For example, a photograph of their own infant without clothes could take parents in the US to prison.) Since sexuality is one of the areas notoriously difficult to control (due to the fact that mostly occurs in private environments, far from the public eyes), it is one area where authorities show particular nervousness and a wish to prescribe everything (when should people have sex, how, with whom, etc.).


But, back to bodies.





Advertised and idealized bodies are, of course, only ideals. Ordinary heterosexual males (to take just one possible example) do not really expect to meet someone who looks like Courteney Cox, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cameron Diaz or other glamorous actresses/models. The image itself is somewhat reminiscent of a fairy-tale plot: most (if not all) of us like to dream (or daydream) of the prince or princess (on the white horse, on the white sailing ship, or in the white Lamborghini, for example). Although not omnipotent in “reality,” we dream of the day (or hour) of our omnipotence, when everything wished for can materialize. The fact that we are well aware that these are only dreams does not prevent us from dreaming about this. The image that is projected in and through advertising is able to offer for a fleeting second (“girls, buy this, and you can look just like me/ guys, get this after-shave and you can be with someone just as beautiful as me” and the like) the sensation that is more than real (in the words from a U2 song: “even better than the real thing”), the feeling that crosses right into hyperreality.


The answer to the question of what constitutes the “ideal” body is part of the coding of what is "admissible" and what is "inadmissible" in contemporary culture.  The cult of the body, at least as far as the late-Victorian era promotes and markets a specific kind and shape of body: the firm, slender body (especially with regard to a female one) becomes an ideal. “Working out” has become an important aspect of contemporary life in Western industrialized societies, but this “required” (in a cultural, not necessarily in a physical or biomedical sense) exercise is part of the coding. The messages coded are that the people who "work out" (almost necessarily middle or upper class, or the ones aspiring to these classes) are somehow “in charge”: “I work out” (jog, do weights, etc.) means “I am in control of my body” and, by extension, “I can control my sexuality.” Everything is organized, systematized, put under control. As Susan Bordo puts it:


Muscularity has had a variety of cultural meanings (until recently largely reserved for male bodies) which have prevented the well-developed body from playing too great a role in middle-class conceptions of attractiveness. Of course, muscles have symbolized masculine power. But at the same time, they have been associated with manual labor and chain gangs (and thus with lower-class and even criminal status), and suffused with racial meaning (via numerous film representations of sweating, glistening bodies belonging to black slaves and prizefighters).Given the racial and class biases of our culture, they were associated with the body as material, unconscious, or animalistic. Today, however, the well-muscled body has become a cultural icon; “working out” is a glamorized and sexualized yuppie activity. No longer signifying lower-class status (except when developed to extremes, at which point the old associations of muscles with brute, unconscious materiality surfaces once more), the firm, developed body has become a symbol of correct attitude; it means that one “cares” about oneself and how one appears to others, suggesting willpower, energy, control over infantile impulse, the ability to “make something” of oneself.

                                                            (1990: 94-95)


Although it is usually assumed (within the “general public” – that is to say, the consumers) that the imagery of the body primarily has to do with images of the female body, this is actually not the case. As Naomi Wolf wrote: “Advertisers have recently figured out that undermining sexual self-confidence works, whatever the targeted gender. Using images from male homosexual subculture, advertising has begun to portray the male body in a beauty myth of its own.” But the whole culture of body imagery can also be seen  as a result of the relative affluence of certain segments of society – poor or homeless people generally do not go to gyms, and it is highly unlikely that one will encounter any of them happily jogging through some park with their walkman on full volume.


For men who have never done manual labour – and in these

post-industrial times, that must mean most of them – the gym is like a gleaming parody of proletarian work: arms, legs and torsos subjected to the punishing demands of heavy machinery. And in a weird reversal of the factory floor, the labouring serfs often deliberately increase their level of toil – programming their treadmills to even higher speeds.

                                                (Kane 1996)


Of course, in all fairness to Pat Kane, she does not seem to mind very much these processes of body marketing and construction. When men are portrayed as sexual objects, she seems to see it as, basically, men tasting their own medicine, and even a possibility for enjoyment, as she wrote commenting on a fashion show: “It was like an army of perfection: the geometric pecs like headlights on a Seventies Cadillac; the hairless bodies and gloopy grins, loping behind the fashion guru like some job-lot of white slaves. They looked like objects, and I felt objectified by them. But what beautiful objects.”


The newspaper columnist Suzy Menkes (1996a) observed that: “It is symbolic of all the changes in women's role in the 20th century that the feminine, maternal ideal of rounded breast and stomach should be replaced by broad shoulders, slim waist and hips, flat stomach and well-muscled legs – all the features that have traditionally represented virile masculinity.”


It is not entirely clear whether in this sort of body construction one gender is trying just to emulate the other as means of its own redefinition. Do women actually want to look like men? Do men want to look like women? In a sense (and contrary to expectations of some right-wing extremists or nationalists), the image of woman as mother is simply not “in.” It is not fashionable enough, it cannot be properly marketed and sold. Since the current trend and the fashion in the Western world is going more towards the muscular (“manly”) body, critics like the Luce Irigaray would point out that that actually means very little for women's emancipation (“equal to what?”). Authors like Wolf consider the male beauty myth even more dangerous than the female version, since (according to her), males are very ill equipped to deal with insecurities and self-depreciation that the outside constructed imagery can inflict on them.


Of course, everything gets more consumer-oriented and market-conscious. Leading fashion designers make their products now only for the ones who are “fit,” who are in perfect shape. If you want to wear the latest fashion, you have to look appropriate (or you have to look like the latest fashion trend) – “even in high fashion, the body comes first” (Menkes 1996b). By portraying these trends through some high-profile personalities (and many models, like Elle McPherson, Linda Evangelista or Claudia Schiffer, have become pop culture icons for themselves), contemporary designers can design and envision a new reality. (Not that they actually believe that more people will conform to the “ideal” standards – that is perfectly irrelevant. What is relevant is the image.) As an acquaintance of mine, a fashion designer, explained to me several years ago in London: “Almost all of these models were made for the women that wear size 12. And almost no grown up woman can wear size 12.” This also produces an interesting ambivalence in regard to the genderedness of the body imagery – women who look more like boys, an androgynous imagery of sexless sex objects.


The marketing of the body, a reconstruction of the body in accordance with the current standards and stereotypes, forms a significant part of the construction of reality in the media. Of course, marketing the body in various forms has a long history; but the main characteristic of it in the contemporary world is its fetishization – the body becomes an object in consumer culture. Contemporary consumer culture, as portrayed by Mike Featherstone:

uses images, signs, and symbolic goods which summon up dreams, desires and fantasies which suggest romantic authenticity and emotional fulfilment in narcissistically pleasing oneself, instead of others. Contemporary consumer culture seems to be widening the range of contexts and situations in which such behaviour is deemed appropriate and acceptable.

                                                (Featherstone 1991: 27)


But how does all this reflect to the situation in former communist countries? I will use two examples to demonstrate some models of body construction and consumption in Southeastern European countries. Both of these examples demonstrate how imagery related to gendered and sexed body has a lot to do with more general processes taking place in these societies after the fall of communism.




One of the immediate consequences of the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent dissintegration of communism has been the immediate visibility of bodies in public spaces. (Similar thing happened in Spain after the death of their long-term dictator, Franco.) This visibility was first apparent in the proliferation of magazines with erotic or pornographic content, culminating in screening (on television) of hard-core pornographic films once a week (in Slovenia and FR Yugoslavia[4]). Of course, after several years of bliss, the market has become saturated and many of the publications ceased to exist. It is interesting to note that the porn or soft-porn magazines were the first ones to cross the borders of the newly established countries, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. It seems that the pornographic images were the first ones to be deemed “politically correct” by the newly established authorities. It is also interesting to note that this imagery of the body exclusively has to do with female bodies – it seems that representations of male bodies are still not very welcome in the primarily male-dominated and male-oriented environment. Of course, this could also mean that the majority of men in these countries (especially the ones who dominate or regulate the market of visual images and representations) have considerable problems with their own sexuality and quite a bit of anxieties and uncertainties regarding their own “manliness” (are they “manly” enough? what if they actually like some images of some male bodies?, etc.) – otherwise, they would have no problems with representations of male bodies.


The spring and summer of 1995 in Slovenia were marked by, among other things, a debate about an advertisement for a sun tan lotion: a poster featuring the backsides of five different girls in bikinis. The accompanying text was: “Each one has her own factor” (“VSAKA IMA SVOJ FAKTOR”), with the obvious emphasis that the word "factor" could be interpreted as a different level of sun block protection, as well as (on the other side) stressing a difference between five backsides belonging to different young women. On the other hand, the Slovenian word faktor (“factor”) also implies something that puts something else into motion. Therefore, the image of five almost naked backsides to a native Slovenian implies that each one of them has something (i. e., a penis) that would put it “in motion.” Therefore, the poster could also read: “Each one has her own penis.”

It is easy to see why the campaign caused an outrage among some feminist groups, articulated mostly through the Office for Women's Policy. Somewhat surprisingly, the debate about the creation of the “denigrating imagery” of women did not polarize public opinion: both men and women felt largely indifferent towards the ad or just liked it. As a matter of fact, many of the supporters of this ad were women!  Some women felt that there was something wrong with it only when specifically asked to elaborate on the image of five female backsides on billboards all over the country.

(This line of interpretation was criticized by Irena Weber when I presented it in September 1998 in Piran, but I have to note that I believe that the “male” version of the advertisement which appeared last year – displaying five males in swimwear from the front – further strengthens it.)


Two things seem to be combined here:

1/  The image of five almost naked parts of female anatomy represents something “other” (just an advertisement), different, belonging to a different reality from the one that everyday people live in. In a way, the image belongs to a different culture, and as such does not threaten the (actual or perceived) position of women. This is a culture of high paid chief executives, models, actors and actresses, “high culture” which sharply stands apart from what the ordinary people perceive to be “theirs.”

2/  The obvious fact that there is a gender hierarchy in wider Slovenian society  creates a situation (well known from numerous anthropological examples) in which the sub-dominant group identifies itself through the concepts and discourse of the dominant group (or segment of the society). In this case, women (as a sub-dominant group) perceive themselves through men's eyes (the sexual symbolism inscribed all over the poster) and see nothing wrong with that. That is the only way in which they are able to see themselves – and that is why criticism coming from women's groups fell on deaf ears. 


On the one hand, there is a whole new reality (or hyperreality) being constructed (and actually lived!) here: the reality of men's gaze as something “normal,” “natural,” or even “neutral.” Although this reality is there (in "real life"), its existence is not readily acknowledged – and the majority of women would not agree with this statement. But feminist scholars certainly would. How men see women becomes “the norm” – both for men and for women.





Another example of an advertising strategy using imagery of sexed bodies is the poster/billboard campaign in Croatia for the concert of the popular rock group Zabranjeno pusenje (translates as: No Smoking). There were two matching billboards for the concert that took place on October 17, 1997. Both featured the question Do you like smoking? and an emphatic answer I love smoking! The pun of the ad is in the fact that the word smoking (pusenje) is in Serbian and Croatian used colloquially for oral sex (felacio). Hence, the faces of four women (probably porn actresses) in various stages of intercourse (as deduced from their facial expressions, as well as from the whole set up) on the one billboard, and the faces of four men in various expressions of (orgasmic – again, deduced from the facial expressions and from the whole set up) bliss accompany the text that colloquially reads: Do you like blow job?, and the answer is quite clear: Yes, I love blow job!


It is again easy to see how this imagery provoked outrage among women's groups in Croatia, but the situation is more complicated because the ad also refers to an earlier, government-sponsored campaign to promote patriotism, which also featured two lines of text: Do you love Croatia?, followed by the answer: I love Croatia! This put the creators of this advertising campaign in a position from which they could say that they were simply irreverently playing with different references (sexual as well as political), and that they (just like the popular Sarajevo-based rock group in question) should not be taken too seriously. Their critics (usually liberal, left-wing intellectuals, as well as many feminist groups) risk being accused of misunderstanding not only the art of marketing in general, but also the puns involved (one could even say “a general cultural context”) and the playfulness supposed to go along wth the whole concept.


However, the question of why it is so easy to use sexually explicit imagery in advertising reaching large segments of population in this part of Europe remains. It is obvious that any attempt to criticize this strategy fails. Is the body in the East still very well hidden behind the veils of pornographic imagery? Is voyeurism the only way in which the majority of population of the former communist countries can look at the body? Finally, is the sexed body the only thing (body) that matters? All these questions demand answers that would go far beyond the scope of this article, but it seems that after living for a very long time (45 years) in the system which reduced them to mere objects, many people in former communist countries are still incapable of acting or even perceiving themselves as subjects. Objectivization and passivization of the body is a clear sign of the state of mind of people who are unable to act for themselves, and who still (consciously or unconsciously) yearn for the time when someone else (i.e., the state) was there to worry and make decisions for them. To put it in simple terms: a great majority of citizens of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and FR Yugoslavia can be reduced to images of four faces who just “love blow job,” or five backsides with something that should put them “in motion.”


In any case, the immediate future for any marketing strategy using sexist (and probably degrading) imagery in these countries looks very promising. Since there are still relatively few bodies on offer, the market is very far from saturated in this sense, demand is high, and any new campaign will provoke a sufficient amount of curiosity at worst, and a total success at best.

[1]  Or even on the Internet, more recently.

[2]   The first question after I presented a paper on feminist discourses in Slovenia (Boskovik 1996) was whether pornography is a big problem in Slovenia — as it seems to be in other former communist countries. 

[3]  Just like the hard-core pornographic industry, which is highly publicized and frequently taken as an example of the ultimate degradation of women (“women as sexual objects”).  However, in terms of images and values that this industry projects, as well as in terms of its actual influence and reach, compared to other, perfectly acceptable and “decent” industries, it is completely marginal.

[4]  In the meantime, FR Yugoslav and Serbian viewers returned to the porn films on a daily (or nightly) basis.