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The Body as an Object—a Sociocultural Perspective: The Study of Young Adults' Narratives

by Ewa Młożniak and Katarzyna Schier
University of Warsaw; University of Warsaw

Sociological Research Online, 21 (1), 7
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3865

Received: 10 Mar 2015 | Accepted: 20 Jan 2016 | Published: 28 Feb 2016


The authors analyse the problem of the objectification of the body, searching for the cultural sources of this phenomenon, and try to outline the consequences of body objectification. When objectified, the body is treated in an instrumental, task-oriented manner, which implies that its value stems from its usefulness in achieving goals. The paper focuses on the ways in which young adults describe their bodies. In the study, responses to the question What does the body mean to you? were collected from 136 young adults. The obtained narratives were examined with the qualitative method of narrative analysis. The results indicate that the objectifying approach to body perception is clearly dominant in the participants' responses in the following categories: a tool, a connector, a showcase, a machine and an object. The authors discuss some possible ways to change the dominant social metaphors concerning the body.

Keywords: Body, Metaphor, Body Objectification, Somatic Society, Narrative Analysis, Young Adults

Introduction: What is Body Objectification?

1.1 Over the last few years, the body has become an important subject of theoretical concern in sociological and psychological body studies and gender studies (Benoit et al. 2009). It has gained a strong presence in analyses concerning cultural transmission and media and has become the focus of attention of numerous social studies, such as the social aspects of aging (Gilleard & Higgs 1998). The theme of the body is also the driving force behind an expanding industries, including the cosmetics industry, the fashion industry, sports and dietary services (Schier 2010) and plastic surgery (Featherstone 2010). Every corporeal need, including even those as primal as sleeping, is met and addressed in a consumer culture (Williams & Boden 2004).

1.2 This means that the body and its needs are treated in a specific manner—as products. We believe that the mercantilization of the body would not be possible without the pre-existing assumptions and cultural beliefs about the body, such as the significant modern issue of the objectification of the body. Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) maintain that whenever the body is 'valued predominantly for its use to (or consumption to) others', we can speak of the objectification of the body (Fredrickson & Roberts 1997: 174). We understand the term 'objectification' more precisely as perceiving the body as an object independent from the notion of person and subordinate to the individual. When objectified, the body is treated in an instrumental, task-oriented manner, which implies that its value stems from its usefulness in performing common activities and achieving goals.

Roots of objectification: The mind/body dichotomy

1.3 We believe that the roots of body objectification reside in social discourse; if this is the case, these roots can also be found in the changing philosophical approaches towards corporeality. The origins of modern body objectification can be traced back to Cartesian dualism between mind and body (Synnott 1992; Levin & Solomon 1990). It was Descartes who asserted that although the Self resides within the body, it is an absolutely independent entity. The Cartesian subject is a thinking being which discards emotionalism in favour of instrumental rationalism, one which uses the material body as if it were a tool. The subject is granted the status of the Self, while the body is treated as a Self-less, subservient object. Perhaps the influence of Cartesian thought has become so widespread because of the fact that Descartes himself successfully applied body metaphors in his arguments, comparing the body to a machine or a clock mechanism. All manifestations of life functions originating in the body were described in his works in a mechanistic fashion (Jakubowska 2009).

1.4 The post-Cartesian tradition is also present in approaches to the body which accentuate its instrumental character. At present, such an understanding of the body is also found in some feminist theories, e.g. McKinnon and Dvorkin conceptualise patriarchy as a system based on the masculine right of property over the female body (Shilling 2012; Jakubowska 2009). Within such an understanding, the body is treated as an object of ideological dispute as well as an object which is subjected to discipline and various training regimes.

1.5 The assumption of the dual nature of body and mind has also become the foundation of the biomedical sciences, in which disease is conceptualised as a 'mechanical defect' which prevents the normal functioning of the body. The patient as a subject becomes a mere afterthought to the ailing body itself (Giddens 2004). The hard sciences focus on the aspect of the instrumental functioning of the organism and attempt to conceptualise the body as a phenomenon which exists in objective reality. In this sense, the embodiedness of the subject is detached from its social, cultural and sexual context; it becomes fragmented and reduced to the mere aspect of meat and bones (Ziółkowska et al. 2004; Jakubowska 2009).

1.6 While the legacy of Cartesian thought are still prevalent in the hard and biomedical sciences, the approach to the body has changed considerably in the liberal and social sciences thanks to the emergence of phenomenological concepts (Synnott 1992).

1.7 Miran de Biran was one of the first to formulate the hypothesis that the body is simultaneously objective and subjective. As an objective phenomenon, it can become the subject of the hard sciences, whereas as a subjective phenomenon, it is inseparably connected with the 'I'. However, this still invokes a relation of possession—the body remains something I own, not something I am. His understanding still does not equate the body with the Self (Jakubowska 2009). However, de Biran nonetheless suggests that the materialistic and instrumental understanding of the body is insufficient in describing all of the body's complexities because it does not allow for the inclusion of the psychological dimension of the way the individual experiences their own body.

1.8 Husserl went a step further than de Biran by referring to the body and soul as 'the abstracted parts, moments of one and the same human being, which we experience in the world of life' (Husserl 1954). Husserl wished to defend the facticity of everyday life and so he rejected the Cartesian idea of the subordination of sensuality to the superiority of abstract cognition and rationalism (Turner 1996). However, similar to de Biran, Husserl introduced a new division in his understanding of corporeality. For him, the body was both a block of matter (Körper) and a form given life by the soul or the psyche, which is able to process sensual stimuli (Leib). Humans are simultaneously experiencing themselves in a physical and mental dimension and hence have access to both dimensions of their own corporeality. A similar dualism is seen in Plessner's thought, who maintained that the human is a 'corporeal' being (is the body) and an 'embodied' being (owns a body). In turn, Sartre introduced a distinction between the following three different dimensions: the body as a thing-for-itself (le corps comme être-pour-soi), the body-for-others (le corps-pour-autrui) and the body-in-itself (en-soi) (Synnott 1992; Shilling 2012;Jakubowska 2009).

1.9 The abovementioned examples demonstrate that despite the new approach to conceptualising the body, phenomenologists nonetheless retained the division between the body understood as a purely material object and the body enriched with the experience of the subject. The boundary of thinking about the body has moved and the role of the body has been strengthened, but the fundamental dilemma nonetheless remains: Am I and the body one and the same thing or am I the cognition which inhabits the body, animates it and uses it as a personal tool?

1.10 The rejection of the body/mind dichotomy has been developed in post-war French philosophy thanks to thinkers such as Gabriel Marcel and Maurice Merlau-Ponty. For Marcel, the body became the central ontological issue as it is an inseparable dimension of experiencing existence itself. He points out that the body is not an object or an instrument; rather, I am my body, which is my primordial sense of possession and control. The body is the only object in which one exercises immediate rulership (Turner 1996).

1.11 Merleau-Ponty assigns an even larger significance to the body, conceptualising it as an inseparable part of the process of developing self-awareness. In his view, the body is the place in which meanings and senses arise, which in turn give rise to self-awareness and subjectivity. In this understanding, the 'I' is not separate from the body because it stems from the body and perceives the world through the body. It is a corporeal, incarnate subjectivity (Turner 1996).

1.12 Merleau-Ponty's understanding of the body is far removed from conceptualising the body in an objectified fashion, as the philosopher does not separate the subjective experience from the body:

What prevents its ever being an object, ever being 'completely constituted', is that it is that by which there are objects. The body therefore is not one more among external objects, with the peculiarity of always being there. If it is permanent, the permanence is absolute […] (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 53).

1.13 Merlau-Ponty also asserts that each of us gathers certain corporeal experiences and knowledge regarding the possibilities of our bodies which are stored in a corporeal manner. In other words, according to the philosopher, the body possesses its own knowledge or memory. This view situates the concept close to theories from the fields of psychology and psychotherapy which develop the concept of the so-called 'somatic memory', or residual traces of crucial life situations and formative experiences, which are literally embedded in the organism's tissues (e.g. as specific muscular tension) (Lowen 2011).

1.14 One could assume that after the phenomenological stage in philosophy, corporeality would have freed itself from the devaluing post-Cartesian dualism. In the modern understanding, the body becomes a much more important part of the human condition than has been assumed before. Such an outlook is visible in both modern developments of phenomenological thought and in feminist thought. Feminist writers have stated that women are associated with the body and men with the mind in Western societies, with the mind and men being more valued then the body and women (Kaschak 1992; McKinley 2011). This is the reason why body objectification is more often associated with women (Fredrickson & Roberts 1997). It is worth mentioning that there are some new, post-phenomenological approaches in current scholarship, such as the Deleuzian concept of 'body without organs', which rejects all dual distinctions in favour of perceiving the body as immediate potential and dynamic transition (Rogowska-Stangret 2010). However, it is worth asking whether this change, which is observable on a theoretical level, has some bearing on the ways in which average young adults think about and experience their own bodies. Academic discussion is likely not a familiar context for everyone in the way that body-focused conversations at a physician's office probably are. Important factors which decide an individual's subjective understanding of their body include social norms and beliefs which constitute social awareness.

Social Discourse

2.1 It is worth stressing that social and cultural phenomena contribute to the objectification of the body. We understand such terms as the 'body', 'self', 'health' and 'sickness' not as objective and independent entities, but rather as social constructs (Bauman 1995). In consequence, meanings ascribed to such terms might differ depending on the social norms of a given society (Levin & Solomon 1990; Edgar 2011). Social and cultural norms are not merely opinions or stances on particular phenomena. They can be compared to deeply rooted beliefs regarding everything which is present in day-to-day communication and which constitute a society. They comprise a system of beliefs, norms, ideas and practices which enable individuals to understand diverse aspects of the material and social world and facilitate operating in such a world (Laurie 2009). The status of the human body as a crucial subject of modern social discourse has already been noticed in scholarship. Researchers created the term 'somatic society' to describe a society within which major political and personal problems are problematised in the body and expressed through it (Turner 1996; Shilling 2012). This term foregrounds the significance of the body in areas such as politics and culture (Shilling 2012).

2.2 The phenomenon of the objectification of the body in Western European culture seems to turn up in almost all instances when the body is mentioned in and of itself. We might even go as far as to claim that it has become the norm (Thompson & Hirschman 1995; McKinley 2011). Manifestations of the objectification of the body can be observed in numerous other areas of modern culture and science. One of the more important fields in which one can observe the systematic objectification of the body in terms of the way the body is treated is the context of medicine and healthcare.

2.3 In the social discourse of Western medicine, the body-as-a-machine metaphor is unquestionably dominant (Levin & Solomon 1990). It postulates that the human body is a mechanism of sorts (a machine), one which is the sum of its parts (Marcum 2004). This model of body perception has a large influence on the way that both the patient and society in general interpret disease, treatment and the character of relations between the sick patient and the physician. From this perspective, diseases are seen as the dysfunction of particular systems or organs, which might be cured in the course of therapy or, if all else fails, replaced. In the biomechanical model, curing a disease is synonymous with fixing those body parts which are causing problems. Loftus (2011) observed as follows:

With a machine, it is always possible, in theory, to repair the damage, even if this means replacing parts. Indeed, modern medicine does this. Knee and hip replacements are now commonplace and successful and can be easily envisaged as replacements of worn out parts of a biological machine. However, the metaphor, the body is a machine, encourages us to forget that there are real people embodied within those machines (Loftus 2011: 219).

2.4 The process of the systematic objectification of the body began the moment when the body/machine metaphor was adopted as the essential metaphor of Western medicine. Comparisons with machines indicate that the body is treated merely as a functional thing, something which someone uses in order to achieve something else. The machine's owner should look into fixing it only when it breaks down and thus stops being useful. In effect, imagining the body as a mechanism will not encourage modelling health-seeking behaviours, such as leading a healthy lifestyle or attending routine prophylactic exams, and will not encourage us to change our behaviours (Blackman 2013; Hardy 2013).

2.5 The different approaches to the body are not detached from the broader sociocultural context. On the contrary, the model of the body in medicine arguably reflects one of the general approaches to the body in society (Benoit et al. 2009; Thompson & Hirschman 1995). The body-as-a-machine, which is dominant in Western culture, will be apparent in numerous areas outside of the medicinal context, including sports, diets, overcoming fatigue etc. It is worth reflecting on how such messages reach the public.

The Meaning of Language and Metaphors

3.1 As mentioned before, discourse is constructed by norms and social beliefs, which construct its subject matter. Social discourse also influences individuals in a more subtle manner as it constitutes the context for not only what is said about the body, but also how it is said. The form of the statement depends on the specific character of the language that is used to describe the body.

3.2 As the works of Foucault and Lacan have demonstrated, language is a given system of communication in which we surrender our individuality (Turner 1996). Language represents the authority of society over the unconscious. It is a medium specific to a particular society and culture, which means that specific words describing corporeality and body states may differ from language to language (Wierzbicka 1997).

3.3 We often underestimate the significance of the manners in which we think about the body and, more importantly, the ways in which we speak about it. The common outlook on language is that it is a mere tool which allows us to communicate efficiently and that is the most precise method among all available methods of communication. This belief has been challenged and criticised numerous times by philosophers, cognitive scientists and cognitive psychologists (Lakoff & Johnson 2010). However, not only does language help us in describing reality, it also creates reality itself by determining our subjective perception of the world. Experience itself is a complicated phenomenon, whereas language consists of a limited number of concepts which selectively describe certain aspects of experience while dismissing others. Because words are not neutral and have specific connotations, the selection of specific words to describe experience will determine the perception of such experience (Mintz 1992).

3.4 The tendency to objectify the body stems in part from language itself. Both in Polish and in English, the relationship between the individual and their body is one of possession: we speak of owning a body, having a body and my body. Both verb phrases and possessive pronouns (my, your body) are used in the context of the body according to the same schema which is used in regard to material objects, e.g. I have a bicycle and my bicycle. The linguistic relation assumes that there exists a subject which is superior to the body, the owner, who can claim possession over the body (Segal 1997). This means that the way in which we perceive our bodies has already been inscribed in language and, in effect, our perception of reality. Even in modern times, the statement 'I am my body' can be viewed as reductionist or might seem to foreground the sexual aspect of the human being (Fredrickson & Roberts 1997). Thus, a question arises of whether the body can ever gain the status of a subject or whether it is possible to equate the body with an object without invoking negative connotations. For people raised in Western cultures, it is often obvious that each individual has a mind (or, in an immaterial sense, a soul) which inhabits a material body. The mind observes the body, scrutinises its appearance and efficiency, controls its needs and impulses and engages it in activities, such as fitness, surgeries or diets, in order to shape the body into a more desirable form (Ziółkowska et al. 2004). The assumption behind such a tradition—the power of the mind over the body—is seldom questioned. In effect, the body is perceived as a secondary or a necessary element of being, but not necessarily one which has value in and of itself.

3.5 Language itself already contains certain information regarding the ways in which we perceive corporeality. It can be said that language 'teaches' its recipients about the significance they should assign to their bodies. This is also why the shift in perceiving the body proposed by Merleau-Ponty (2002) has turned out to be so convincing. The philosopher departed from the current mind/body differential in favour of a new linguistic dimension—that of embodied consciousness. The subject thus becomes an embodied subject, one which experiences their own life through the body and is concurrently shaped by their own body; however, the term 'embodied consciousness' has never been widely adopted in the Polish cultural sphere described herein. One thing remains certain: in order to change the patterns of thought associated with a given phenomenon, it is also necessary to change the manner (form) in which the phenomenon is described in speech. This pertains both to the linguistic level (grammar, vocabulary) and to that which can be read 'between the lines', i.e. metaphors.

3.6 There is a growing belief among cognitive scientists, psychologists (also psychotherapists) and philosophers that metaphors are not all that uncommon. Instead, they are so prevalent in language that we no longer notice them (Neisser 2003). What is more, researchers assert that the metaphor is the main ingredient of everyday communication and human thought and that our ability to conceptualise is grounded in metaphors (Lakoff & Johnson 2010; Loftus 2011; Neisser 2003).

3.7 Metaphors tied to the body are not limited to mere linguistic labels, but instead shape the entire framework of speaking about a given subject. The meaning and strength of metaphors have been highlighted in the context of health and healthcare and studies have shown that depending on the use of a particular metaphor describing health and disease, patients displayed different attitudes towards their health. Sontag (1999) provides a perfect illustration of this phenomenon by describing the influence of metaphors on one's approach to reality using the example of cancer patients. Cancer is described (in both Polish and English) as a 'predator' against which a 'battle' is fought. Cancer becomes a 'murderer' to which the patient can fall 'victim'. In other words, a metaphorical representation is at work on the level of language and discourse. The patients adopt the metaphor in the course of their conversation with medical practitioners and elsewhere. Sontag is of the opinion that as long as cancer is conceptualised in the public perception as a vicious and cunning predator instead of a normal disease, most cancer patients will indeed have their spirits shaken when confronted with the diagnosis. The cancer metaphor and its accompanying system of meanings—i.e. as a predator, that is, a threatening being which is intentionally harming the individual, attacking from the shadows—is counterproductive for the patients themselves. Sontag is adamant in her opinion: 'The solution is not to stop telling cancer patients the truth, but to change their approach to their disease itself; to achieve its demystification' (Sontag 1999: 10).

3.8 The above description suggests that the manner in which an individual perceives their body is dependent on the multidimensional sociocultural context. An individual is embedded in social discourse on a daily basis. For the purposes of this article, we understand 'discourse' as the collection of statements and views on a given subject which exist in a specific culture. When a given society adopts specific manners of perceiving the body, those perceptions will be perpetuated in the social discourse on the body. We believe that discourse does not only consist of the content of a given message, but also its form. In this sense, discourse is co-created by the language of a given community, which (as has been demonstrated) shapes the perception of reality.

3.9 Apart from the linguistic dimension, discourse also contains those metaphors which are the most characteristic of a given community and its understanding of corporeality. In the process of assigning one's own meanings, an individual borrows from the cultural reservoir, of which the individual is a part, and selects those elements of discourse which correspond with their own beliefs. In this way, the individual creates their personal, subjective set of meanings and metaphors, which are used to understand their own body. Such subjective metaphors will in turn shape the specific actions and behaviours that an individual will undertake in relation with their own Self—their own body (Sontag 1999). An individual with an internal body-tool metaphor will approach their body differently from an individual with an internal body-showcase metaphor. The former will focus on the functionality of their body and perceive the body in mechanistic dimensions, while the latter will pay the most attention to the visual aspects of the body. What is more, such individual actions and approaches will be inseparably tied with specific consequences experienced by the individual (often noticeable in the social dimension). An individual who treats their body like a tool might experience difficulties with entering into relations with another person based on closeness, intimacy and physical contact. However, an individual focused on the aesthetic aspect of their body might work on their tan all year long, all the while dismissing the health risks involved, including skin cancer. Such dependencies could be described as follows:

Social discourse (language: dominant metaphors, social norms concerning body) → subjective metaphors → attitudes and actions towards the body → consequences for the way of experiencing one's body.

This is in some way a simplified model, but it helped us to create the hypotheses for our research project.

3.10 In order to examine the phenomenon of objectification, we have conducted a study which focused on the ways in which young adults describe their bodies. The aim of our study was to arrive at the level of subjective metaphors. It is on this level that the subjective understanding of phenomena pertaining to a specific individual is found, though such an understanding is nonetheless strongly influenced by socially constructed meanings. The self-descriptions provided by young adults reveal a broader sociocultural context which showcases the various roles ascribed to the body.

The Study


4.1 The aim of our research was to determine which particular manners of body perception and which metaphors describing the body are the most prevalent among young adults in Poland, i.e. individuals between the ages of 18 and 30. The research attempted to encourage the participants to reflect upon their bodies, a subject which might normally seem too obvious to warrant attention. A crucial part of the research was to discover the metaphors that young adults use when they speak about their experience of being embodied (Młożniak & Schier 2012). Metaphors and cultural models are social constructs. In effect, one of the methods of learning about them is analysing everyday colloquial expressions. Such spontaneous narratives reveal theories and beliefs that individuals use to form opinions on various subjects (Laurie 2009). In order to investigate body metaphors, it was important to choose a research method which would allow the participants to speak freely and to select narrative stimuli which would encourage the participants to think about their bodies, but without suggesting the use of particular expressions or comparisons.

Group characteristics

4.2 The study participants were selected from among individuals from the 18–30 age group. The majority of the participants were university students. We have made efforts to select a similar number of participants from both sexes and from diverse educational fields. For that reason, students were selected from different institutions of higher education from the fields of the hard and technical sciences, liberal arts, art and medicine. The fundamental demographic data is included in Table 1.

Table 1. Group characteristics
Table 1

4.3 In conclusion, the group of study participants turned out to be diverse enough in terms of their sex and their fields of education, both of which might influence which social messages about the body the participants are usually faced with. Data on the health of the participants suggests that most of them consider themselves to be healthy individuals, which means that their health condition should not influence their way of describing corporeality (which would be the case if the participants experienced pain or physical weakness while filling out the surveys). At the same time, most of the participants experienced sickness (either severe or chronic) or trauma in the past, which might have influenced their understanding of corporeality.


4.4 This research made use of a qualitative method of analysing narratives[1] collected from the participants. Such a research method provides us with two varieties of data. First, it enables us to look at individual statements and search for personal choices of particular expressions and metaphors which the participants used to describe their bodies. The narrative stimuli were constructed in such a manner so as not to provide the participants with pre-prepared answer choices borrowed in full from exterior sources (such as the media) or consisting of formulaic expressions. Instead, the participants are expected to construct their own answers at the time of filling in the questionnaire. In effect, each answer reflects the thinking process of a particular individual and reveals their specific manner of conceptualising the body. Second, collecting such narrative material enabled us to discover which cultural models are dominant among the young adu"lts from the research sample. All of the participants had come into contact with cultural and linguistic messages which introduced certain schemes and cultural patterns into their individual beliefs. As mentioned above, the descriptions are comprised of the participants' personal narrations. However, the method of semantic analysis of narratives enabled us to extract certain reoccurring beliefs (metaphors) held about the body which appeared in numerous responses. Similarities between the responses suggest that the responses were formulated on the basis of cultural models that the participants all share. Therefore, the analysis of the participants' responses is a process of decoding beliefs and perceptions pertaining to the body which might be characteristic of European society.


4.5 The studies performed in the course of this research were divided into two parts. The first part (the pilot studies) examined which question about body perception would simultaneously be the least suggestive and encourage the participants to provide long responses. On the basis of the length and the number of responses, we decided to ask the following question: Czym dla ciebie jest ciało? (What does the body mean to you?).

4.6 The second part of the studies collected responses to the above question. We collected the responses over the course of 4 months. We managed to collect 150 surveys, of which 136 qualified for further analysis. Information on the study was provided to students during obligatory lectures. After heading to selected rooms on the university grounds, interested individuals were provided with surveys. The participants were asked to inform their friends about the study if they found it interesting. Filled-in surveys were handed in at a specified room in the university. No awards or other incentives were offered in exchange for participating in the survey. Nevertheless, the participants were observed to be eager to respond and to inform their friends about the study.

4.7 The survey consisted of filling in open questions and providing personal data. The participants took part in the survey on their own volition. Before the survey the participants were informed that the survey is voluntary and that they may choose to end the survey at any point in time. They were also informed that the survey is anonymous and will be used only for the purposes of this study.

Qualitative analyses procedure

4.8 After collecting the responses, we studied the material using the method of semantic analysis of narratives—an inductive method which stems from psychological research on auto-narratives (Dryll & Cierpka 2004). This method combines the features of quantitative and qualitative approaches as it emerges from the textual level and is subsequently thickened until the emergence of a number of categories allowing for statistical description. The method takes an inductive approach as general categories organising the collected information are formulated on the basis of thorough textual analysis. This method of analysis is a close realisation of the principles of the hermeneutic circle (Ricoeur 1985), or the interpretation of a text without referring to external, extra-textual information.

4.9 The course of processing the results was as follows: all of the written responses were collected and then all unique responses were selected. When a number of responses were identical in their wording (e.g. used the same phrases, such as 'the body is a tool'), they were all included in an existing category. Using this method, about 50 'singular' categories were created. Afterwards, we analysed the categories from a semantic perspective in order to combine categories with a similar semantic field (e.g. [the body is] a receptacle for the soul; [the body is] a place for the soul). The criterion for deriving the categories was based on the semantic feature (the meaning of the responses) and not the prosodic feature (the division of text) of the responses.

4.10 In order to combine the categories further and to avoid making arbitrary decisions as researchers, we have consulted three competent judges about the categories. The judges were asked to familiarise themselves with the categories derived from the responses, read the responses themselves and then decide which categories could be combined. The number of consultations was purposefully odd and the decision to combine particular categories was based on the majority vote of the judges (in a 2:1 proportion).

4.11 It should be stressed that thanks to this procedure, the researchers could avoid imposing their own categories a priori and the categories were derived from the text itself. In order to illustrate this process, we will provide one example from the study.

4.12 The answer 'an appearance' in response to the question What does your body mean to you? was featured in just one response in survey no. 95, which subsequently led to the creation of a unique category with that name. However, following consultations with competent judges, this category has been combined with the following categories: something people pay attention to, the exterior part of myself and a showcase. The judges decided that all of the aforementioned categories refer to a similar idea—the idea of the body as something visible to others and important because of its visual aspect—and are thus similar in terms of their semantics and the way in which the respondents view their body. All of the categories were combined under one category named a showcase, as this term, according to the researchers and the competent judges, was the most representative of the meaning behind this category. At this stage, the authors of the study created descriptions for each of the categories in order to underline the aspect of corporeality which the particular survey respondents deemed the most important. As a result, all of the responses were classified as belonging to specific thematic categories (a category along with its definition) and were assigned numbers (each category had a specific reference number). This allowed us to compare the categories in the later course of the research project.

4.13 It should be stressed that a single narration by a specific participant could include more than one category if the text in question was long enough and touched upon different aspects of corporeality. Below are two examples of responses. The underlined excerpts allowed us to assign each response to a given category.

Response 1. [The body is]: A connector between my interior and the environment. A tool which enables me to function. (survey no. 1)

4.14 The categories derived from this response are as follows: a connector and a tool.

Response 2: The body is a very important part of myself. It is a way in which I communicate with the world. It is an expression of my personality, my character traits and my history. It is a source of sexual pleasure. Thanks to my body I can feel that I exist. (survey no. 4)
The categories derived from this response are as follows: [the body is] me, a connector, an expression of oneself and a source of sensations.

4.15 As a result of this process, 13 final categories were created, which encompassed all of the responses in bulk. It should be stressed that thanks to this procedure, the researchers were able to avoid imposing their own categories a priori and thus the categories were derived from the text itself (Dryll & Cierpka 2004).


4.16 The names of the final 13 categories were chosen on the basis of expressions used by the respondents themselves. The wording of the definitions included the conceptualisations of the body which appeared in the responses assigned to a particular group. These constructed definitions, along with sample responses from the respondents (the questionnaire reference number for each particular response is presented in parenthesis), are presented below in Table 2.

Table 2. The final 13 categories of body perception
Table 2
Table 2
Table 2
Table 2
Table 2
Table 2

4.17 Thanks to the 13 final categories created and the data coded for each response, we were able to examine how often references to each particular manner of describing the body appeared in the participants' responses. It should be stressed that responses could include numerous categories if they were long enough and discussed different aspects of the body. For this reason, the total number of times all categories appear in the responses is higher than the number of the respondents themselves. Table 3 includes the final categories and their frequency.

Table 3. Final categories and their frequency
Table 3

Discussion and Conclusions

Consequences of Treating the Body in an Objectified Manner

5.1 Comparison of the frequencies of the above categories allowed us to establish that the body-as-a-tool metaphor is the most frequent metaphor of all. Body-is-me is the second most frequent category. In other words, two ways of thinking about the body are prevalent among the young adults who took part in the study: the first one assumes a certain detachment from the body and using the body as if it were a tool, while the second approach identifies the body with the mental Self. The first approach assumes that the body is subservient to and independent from the mental Self, while the second approach foregrounds the connection between body and mind. For these two categories, we checked the conjunctions and determined that six people mentioned both of these categories in their answers. It would seem that these two types of body perception are antithetical and mutually exclusive, but for some individuals they apparently can coexist. It is possible that such distinct metaphors of the body can depend on different situational contexts. Nevertheless, it seems that these two categories do not overlap for the majority of respondents.

5.2 The above categories seem to be mutually exclusive as each carries distinct meanings and refers to a different dimension of experiencing corporeality. However, in some aspects the categories derived in the course of this research are closely reminiscent of Turner's (following Berger) (1992) division of the three types of relations that the individual has in regard to their body: having a body, doing a body and being a body. To some degree, this division references the aforementioned division between Leib and Körper introduced by German philosophers.

5.3 The categories having a body and doing a body would therefore refer to an instrumental attitude towards the body, or in other words, its material aspect—Körper. In turn, the being a body category would contain the experience of the animate body, which is unified with the experiencing subject, echoing the German term Leib.

5.4 In the case of having a body, we are dealing with a detachment between our body and our sense of Self. The body is external and subservient to the Self—and sometimes it even rebels against the Self. Such an attitude towards the body is present in the following metaphors: a tool, a showcase, a machine, an object, a limitation, a connector, a receptacle for the soul and a source of sensations. It should be stressed that this understanding of the body is reminiscent of the tradition of the body/mind dichotomy and may lead to the objectification of corporeality.

5.5 The doing a body relation also presumes that the body is subservient to the subject, and the subject may shape and create their body as they see fit. Many researchers have claimed that the body has become a part of a Self-project, within which individuals express their own personal emotional needs through the construction of their bodies (Shilling 2012). Turner pointed out the following:

In contemporary society the self is a representational self, whose value and meaning is ascribed to the individual by shape and image of their external body, or more precisely, through their body-image. The regulatory control of the body is now exercised through consumerism and the fashion industry rather than through religion (Turner 1996: 23).

5.6 Perhaps such an approach foregrounds the power of the Self over the body to an even larger degree, underlining its power of controlling and forming the body according to current fashions and trends. Such an approach would be the most reminiscent of the creation of the body by the beauty industry: the way in which an individual treats their body and attempts to give it shape reflects the way in which society itself attempts to exercise control over the individual. The phenomenon of doing a body will prove to be very important in the context of diets, weight loss, tattooing and plastic surgeries, or in other words, all actions which enable the Self to consciously externalise and materialise itself with the use of its body. This element of the Self/body relation is clearly visible in the following metaphors used by the study participants: [the body] is something which needs to be looked after and is an expression of oneself.

5.7 The last type of relation described in detail by Turner, being a body, refers to a relation in which there is no division between the Self and the body. Without doubt, such an approach is the closest to the phenomenological approach to the body. Metaphors in which the body becomes the main aspect of one's identity include the following: [the body is] me (a part of me) and is a source of information about oneself. Both categories appreciate corporeality and put it on a par with the Self, assuming that the body can provide the individual with information about their own Self.

5.8 When taking this aspect into account and totalling the number times all of the abovementioned categories appear, it turns out that the objectifying approach to body perception is clearly prevalent in the participants' metaphors (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Self/body relation in the study participants' metaphors

5.9 The phenomenon that we refer to as the objectification of the body in our research could be explained in this context as the unquestionable domination of Körper over Leib, or a situation in which an individual perceives their body as a mere material object and the embodied Self is not a part of their experience. It would seem, therefore, that by losing this aspect of corporeality—vital, subjectified and sensual—the individual loses an important part of their Self. The Self becomes detached from the body and is presented as a pure intellectual phenomenon instead of an embodied cognition. From a phenomenological perspective, such an omission is simply a mistake as the Self cannot negate its embodied nature.

5.10 The metaphors of the body derived from the material collected in open-ended questions from our research provided us with interesting data on the general tendencies regarding how young adults perceive their bodies. Though the metaphors describe different manners of body perception, it is noticeable that most categories deal with body objectification. The body is treated in a task-oriented manner as an independent entity which should respond to the commands of its owner. In effect, the participants' responses strongly suggest that young adults in Poland treat their bodies as a means of achieving different goals. The body is not significant in and of itself, but instead gains significance in the context of performing actions. In simple terms, it can be assumed that as long as the body remains healthy and efficient and does not interfere in the actions taken by individuals, it remains invisible to its users. It is only when some limitation in its functioning appears that the individual's attention is drawn to their corporeal aspect. The unreliable and imperfect character of the body is seen as an obstacle which should be overcome through one's own effort (e.g. through exercise or overcoming drowsiness and fatigue) or through 'external' help (stimulants, including coffee and pain relievers). One is inclined to think that such an attitude is tied to a feeling of entitlement—not unlike a machine, the body is presented with expectations which it must fulfil. It would therefore seem that people with such an approach to the body might have a diminished concern for their health. When they notice physical symptoms of fatigue or disease, they will attempt to eliminate them or simply disregard them without inquiring as to their cause (Carel 2012).

5.11 It is also possible that the metaphors present in the responses do not do full justice to their corporeal experiences, but for some reason it was easier for the respondents to describe their relations with their bodies as owning a body and shaping a body. Perhaps this is the case because the social discourse, of which the respondents are a part, features more examples like these than others. The respondents could have witnessed the body being treated as a showcase or as material in various media messages in general and in advertisements in particular. In turn, they might have encountered treating the body as a tool or a machine in the context of health care. Therefore, perhaps the metaphors presented by the respondents do not exhaust their experiences, but are simply dominant. These questions need to be addressed in future studies. It could also be interesting to identify the context in which young people most often talk about their bodies. Doing so could provide an idea regarding which discourses can influence subjective metaphors. One of the limitations[2] of our study is connected with the fact that the respondents were students and inhabitants of a large city and thus they represent a specific group (educated, having access to cultural events etc.). We therefore think that the research should be replicated with another group of subjects.

What Can Be Done With the Objectifying Metaphors?

6.1 In the social context, using metaphors which objectify the body will make such an approach to the body more prevalent and cause people to treat their bodies as their property and/or tool, which might lead them to exploit their bodies, lead debilitating lifestyles, have little awareness of their bodies and ignore the signals coming from their bodies. Objectifying metaphors hinder the modelling of health-seeking behaviours and long-term care for the body because they assume that the body-tool should only be fixed once it stops functioning and hinders performance.

6.2 Research to date has given much consideration to the question of which metaphors are closer to the 'truth'. In our understanding, this dilemma is irrelevant as metaphors cannot be more or less true—they can only be more or less useful. As Loftus (2011: 217) observed, 'No metaphor is inherently good or bad and all have strengths and weaknesses dependent on context. A powerful and enabling metaphor for one patient might be meaningless or even threatening to another'. In effect, switching between metaphors and selecting a particular metaphor in a given context would be the most beneficial strategy. However, in order to make such an approach to body perception possible, individuals would need to show a certain level of independence and flexibility in thought, which would enable them to distance themselves from generally accepted cultural scripts of body perception. Figuring out which metaphor we use in regard to our own bodies is the first step towards developing such a skill. Only after having decoded and investigated the reference framework established in a given metaphor will we become free from the indirect influence of the metaphor and able to create metaphors of our own.

6.3 One method of changing the manner in which individuals perceive their bodies is to provide them with a different metaphor, one which does not compare the body to an object. Such a change of metaphor will lead to a cognitive change in regard to the perception of the body and may subsequently lead to a change in behaviour in relation to the body. However, what are even more important are the insight, reflection and mental comfort gained by an individual who treats the body as a part or an aspect of him/herself.

6.4 First and foremost, therefore, awareness should be raised about the metaphors that are in use and their influence on behaviours in relation to the body. Another stage would consist of making social and medical discourse more open towards other metaphors (Ziółkowski 2004). The body-as-a-machine metaphor need not be expressly disadvantageous; for some individuals, this metaphor will convey values which they deem important, such as reliability, precision and strong will.

6.5 In conclusion, it is worth noting that the discussion on the meaning of the body will probably always be controversial because, as Synnott (1992) asserts, arguments which pertain to the body also pertain to a broader array of subjects, such as the significance of humanism and the meaning of life—issues with a wide range of viewpoints. The results of our research also contribute to our perspective on particular educational programmes and psychological interventions for individuals who perceive their bodies as objects, i.e. those who might not 'be' bodies, but who 'own' bodies.


1 In this context, narration is understood in a broad sense as a narrative scheme—a method of constructing texts describing the individual and the social dimension, which provides the framework for perceiving and understanding the world (Dryll & Cierpka 2004). In our study, narrations were texts composed in response to open questions on the personal thoughts and experience of the study participants, which were provided without any restrictions in terms of response time or length.

2 Other limitations of the study include the following: we did not check for the gender, religion and sexuality of the subjects.


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