How Culture Shapes Our Bodies?

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Cultural body shapes

You must be seeing this through your eyes, hearing this through your ears, and processing what we are saying through a great organ called the brain. Your body, tough or soft as it is, makes feeling alive possible. Every society and culture has its own definition of the body and the nature of reality in which it moves. The body is a symbolic construction, it is made into the world and it makes the world back. It is thus a good idea to come back to it and ask ourselves how our body is. How does it feel, how do we use it, what do we think of it, and why? There are multiple viewpoints from which we as humans, see ourselves embodied.

Body As An Object

One of the most relevant to Western thought is the body as an “object”. How, you might ask? Well, you do say “my body”, as if it’s something you own, right? But we “have” bodies and “do” things to them, take care of them so that they stay healthy and functional. We rarely see ourselves as being, entirely, just bodies.

Bodies are a form of resource that allows us to interact with the world. They are not “us”. This kind of thought is derived from a Cartesian approach. Rene Descartes wrote: “I think, therefore I am” not “I am a body, therefore I am” or “I move, therefore I am”. The body became an inert object, a puppet for the mind. The sight was what connected the two, a distancing sense that can be turned on and off at will. This is one of the reasons we seem to be, mainly, a visual culture, with images saturating our daily lives.

Can you see where we’re going?

Here is another story on how culture inhabits our bodies. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was struck by how the peasants’ ability to dance at the local balls influenced their life as a whole. A small thing, one might say, to dance with the girls at the ball, isn’t it? But these balls were for the youth, with urban styles that the bachelor peasants did not know. The “bearing” of these peasants, the “slowness and heaviness of gait”, were immediate signs of their social standing.

While women were prepared culturally to look at dress, gestures, and style, the masculine peasant had to be tough and not talk about the color of clothes. We quote: “The daughters of peasants know the life of the peasant too well’, they immediately spot a peasant and, as these men don’t even dance, they don’t get close to them anymore. Therefore, it is through a body that is “them-peasant”, heavy and coarse, unable to shape itself according to new styles, that the men end up, very often, unmarried. Our bodies become a reflection of the life we live.

Body and environment co-create each other through mutual influence and interactional shaping. There are habits one picks from walking a certain terrain, be it mountainous or urban. Bodies can be a battlefield between society and us, who we feel we are and what we want to do. But bodies can be, as well, part of the great whole. For the Kanak people, the body is an extension of the vegetal environment. The word for skin is the same as the tree bark, human flesh is like the fruit’s pulp and each man knows from which sapling his ancestors come from.

A Kanak man was once asked: “How did the interaction with Western values change your culture?” and he said: “You’ve brought us the body”, before there was little individualism in the Kanak community, partly because the body itself was not separate, but part of the big, interrelated universe. So, do you see your body as something you own? Can you trace what cultural marks are left within it? Does your body connect you to the rest, or does it act more like a barrier? The bodies we live in, the bodies we are, the bodies we think and sense through, they are our way of being here, on planet Earth, whether we like it or not. Perhaps in the future, we will overcome bodies and exchange neural systems for electrical ones. Is it possible that only then we will realize how much of ourselves our bodies really are?

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