Gendered Bodies: Between Conformity and Autonomy

Sharyn Anleu. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

A major challenge for feminist scholars is to articulate the continual tension between individual women’s choices to present, maintain, alter, or use their bodies in certain ways and the social requirement to conform to gender norms, which often reinforce women’s inequality and powerlessness and limit the capacity for individual autonomy. Feminist research indicates that social norms and cultural values governing women’s bodies, behaviour, and appearance generally are far more restrictive and repressive than those regulating men’s bodies. The chapter illustrates these theoretical issues first, with a discussion of the medicalization of women’s bodies. It then discusses the relationship between the ways women manage and alter their bodies and the dominant ideals limit feminine beauty and the normal woman and whether and when these limit women’s autonomy. The chapter investigates the ways or circumstances in which conformity to gender norms can compromise, reduce, or even enhance women’s autonomy and power. It does not posit powerlessness or empowerment as a zero-sum equation: conformity to one set of gender norms may reduce women’s autonomy in some respects but expand opportunities for mobility and empowerment in other respects.


In all societies—past and present—bodies are subject to considerable normative evaluation and regulation (Shilling, 1993; Turner, 1992). Many of these norms are deeply gendered and construct inequalities between men and women (Weitz, 2003). Evaluation and regulation of bodies can entail medical attention, when bodies are diagnosed as diseased or sick and subject to medical treatment and intervention. Mostly, a myriad of everyday norms and their associated sanctions—both formal and informal—regulate bodies and their functions (Nettleton and Watson, 1998). Such norms specify appropriate body shapes, sizes, appearance, gestures, movements, types of adornment, and clothing. Feminist scholarship identifies the social construction of women’s and men’s bodies and the cultural and historical underpinnings of femininity and masculinity. In contemporary Western societies, femininity tends to be defined as the absence of masculinity, and gender norms specify separate roles and expectations for men and women. The socially constructed differences between men and women and ideas about men’s and women’s bodies are usually constituted as bases for inequality with women less powerful than men and femininity inferior to masculinity.

This chapter examines the gendered assumptions about the nature and place of the female body in contemporary Western societies. It first discusses critical feminist analyses of bodies and gender that address some of the ways gendered norms regulate the (re)presentation of bodies. There is a major tension between the impact, on the one hand, of dominant social norms regarding body management and the imperative of feminine ideals that constrain women’s options for success and well-being and, on the other, individual women’s experience and exercise of choice regarding their bodies. Conformity to dominant gender norms can provide individual women with resources and power. Indeed, women are often aware that they are complying with social norms that emphasize women’s difference and inferiority to men, but nonetheless rationally decide to conform.

The chapter focuses on two topics that illustrate the tension between women’s agency and conformity to gendered norms that result in social control: reproduction and body maintenance and alteration. A major feminist issue is whether women who conform are passive dupes of patriarchal power or are rationally considering their options and exercising choice and control over their bodies. I suggest that this is not an either/or proposition, but that compliance with gendered norms (which can be conscious or not) might limit autonomy in some respects but empower in other respects. For example, conformity with feminine appearance norms in the workplace might provide individual women with more legitimacy and credibility and expand opportunities within the organization at the same time that these norms reinforce conventional feminine ideals and differences from men. The chapter concludes by returning to the theoretical issues in feminist analyses of gendered bodies.

Theorizing the Body

Critical feminist analyses examine the myriad ways in which female bodies are constructed and constrained and the ways in which gender is constituted and performed (Butler, 1993). There is considerable focus on issues involving women’s bodies, including abortion, contraception, maternity, reproduction, childbirth, sexuality, pornography, prostitution, and rape (Grosz, 1995: 31). A challenge is not to adopt essentialist modes of thought or biological determinism to explain gendered bodies. Essentialism attributes characteristics assumed to be related to women’s biology, such as nurturance, empathy, and emotional support, which are supposedly exhibited by all women at all times (Grosz, 1995: 47). The contrasting view is that the body not a natural entity, but is culturally coded and socially constructed (see Price and Shildrick, 1999). Viewing the body as constructed and infinitely malleable can ignore the materiality and limits of human bodies (Negrin, 2002). Nonetheless, ‘patriarchal oppression justifies itself, at least in part, by connecting women much more closely than men to the body and, through this identification, restricting women’s social and economic roles to (pseudo) biological terms’ (Grosz, 1994: 20).

The social norms and cultural values governing women’s bodies, behaviour, and appearance are far more restrictive and repressive than those regulating men’s bodies. They tend to reinforce women’s lower social status and emphasize women’s association with the body and appearance rather than the mind and rational thought. Feminine gender norms valorize passivity, weakness, pathology, and irrationality in contrast to strength, normality, and rationality, which are more associated with masculine gender norms. Racial identity, ethnicity, and class also affect these social norms so that expectations for ‘normal’ women’s and men’s bodies differ in different social groups (De Casanova, 2004; Leeds Craig, 2002; Lovejoy, 2001).

Feminist analyses recognize the power of gender norms that regulate self-presentation and bodily practices and yet acknowledge that women have some agency in making choices about their bodies. Sandra Lee Bartky (1988), following Michel Foucault (1979), offers a fairly deterministic account of the disciplinary practices that produce a body in which size, gesture, and appearance are recognizably feminine. In this view, the body is docile and self-imposes patriarchal disciplinary practices. The woman concerned about her feminine appearance has become ‘just as surely as the inmate of the Panopticon, a self-policing subject, a self committed to a relentless self-surveillance’ (Bartky, 1988: 81). However, individual women might experience their self-surveillance and concern with bodily presentation as a source of empowerment and choice (Bordo, 1993a; 1993b). A cultural determinist position claims that the sense of control is false consciousness, women’s ‘duping’ by dominant cultural ideals.

A major challenge for feminist scholars is to articulate the continual tension between individual women’s choices, or at least their experience of choice, to present, maintain, alter, or use their bodies in certain ways and the social requirement to conform to gender norms that often reinforce women’s inequality and powerlessness and limit the capacity for individual choice (Davis, 1991; 1995). In her nuanced enquiry into cosmetic surgery, Kathy Davis confronts the tension head on: My analysis is situated on the razor’s edge between a feminist critique of the cosmetic surgery craze (along with the ideologies of feminine inferiority which sustain it) and an equally feminist desire to treat women as agents who negotiate their bodies [as do men] and their lives within the cultural and structural constraints of a gendered social order. (1995: 5)

Many feminists do identify the range of discourses, human diversity, flexibility, and ability to change among women (Hubbard, 1990: 134). They also note that ‘women are no more subject to this system of corporeal production than men’ (Grosz, 1994: 144). Men and masculinity are not more or less cultural constructs than are women and femininity, but for women, the construction of femininity is the construction of powerlessness, whereas for men, masculinity confers power. Many discussions of women’s interaction with the (predominantly male) medical system emphasize their powerlessness and vulnerability.

Medicalization of Women’s Bodies

The medicalization of women’s bodies, especially in regard to their reproductive capacities, is a well-documented source of social control and disempowerment for women. women’s bodies are subject to medical intervention and designation as sick or diseased in the contexts of fertility and reproductive issues, including abortion, pre-menstrual tension, and menopause (Roach Anleu, 2006). They are sites in which women, both individually and collectively, struggle for autonomy and power vis-à-vis medical dominance.

Fertility and Childbirth

The medical intervention and diagnostic testing during pregnancy, the movement from home to hospital births, and men physicians’ progressive exclusion of women midwives from the birthing process are all aspects of women’s loss of control over pregnancy and childbirth (Rothman, 1982; 1986). However, many women make a conscious choice to participate in a medicalized childbirth because they expect little support from a male partner after the birth and want to be sure they will have the strength to care for a newborn (Fox and Worts, 1999; Zadoroznyj, 2001).

Infertility is also designated a condition requiring medical treatment and intervention, rather than a social problem stemming from the stigma of childlessness (Strickler, 1992: 113-15). Women who are unable to conceive (because either they or their partner are physically infertile) experience considerable shame that can have profound effects on their social identity and behaviour (Miall, 1986). A study of forty-three couples undergoing a medical evaluation for infertility found that the treatment heightened their sense of deviance from cultural norms and abnormality in terms of body function and image (Becker and Nachtigall, 1992: 463-5). While many women experience infertility as a devastating role failure spoiling their ability to live normal lives, men perceive infertility as disappointing but not devastating, so long as it is assumed that the cause of the problem is the female partner (Greil, Leitko, and Porter, 1988: 181). Fertile women partnered with men with documented infertility tend to adopt a ‘courtesy stigma’ allowing others to believe that the origin of the problem was their own biological defect, not that of their male partner (Miall, 1986: 271-8). Now that in vitro fertilization can be used in many instances of male infertility, fertile women who could become pregnant via heterosexual intercourse undergo debilitating assisted reproduction techniques so that their partner can have a biological child (Lorber, 1989; Lorber and Bandlamudi, 1993).

Another aspect of how reproductive technology undermines women’s autonomy is the way ultrasound and electronic fetal monitoring facilitate a conception of the fetus as distinct from the pregnant woman’s body (Petchesky, 1987: 271). According to fetal rights advocates, the interests of the woman and the fetus are not necessarily compatible; an adversarial relationship may exist in which the woman becomes liable for any birth defects or neonatal problems (Johnsen, 1986: 613). Fetal rights discourse has justified court-ordered medical intervention such as caesarean sections and blood transfusions to benefit the fetus. It is the woman’s body that is the site of the medical intervention, and this signals her loss of control and decision-making capacity.

The meaning of reproductive autonomy is a point of debate among liberal and radical feminists. Liberal feminists see the new reproductive technologies as extending individual control over conception and pregnancy. Radical feminists suggest that, rather than extending women’s choices and autonomy, medically assisted reproductive techniques narrow them, subjecting women to social control and pathologizing their bodies. For many radical feminists, a woman who participates in assisted reproduction succumbs to the power of medical science and the medical profession, and accepts a passive, compliant role in the process. They claim that the availability of such programmes reinforces pro-natalist ideals and places additional pressures on women unable to conceive; the technology also reinforces motherhood as a necessary status for ‘normal’ women. Participants in IVF programmes may have little scope for making choices to refuse or vary treatments. Thus, the only sphere where women have some distinctive power and control—motherhood—is being eroded steadily by increasing medical intervention (Rothman, 1989: 152-8).

On the other side, liberal feminists reject the victim image of women who participate in assisted reproduction programmes. They argue that women who use this technology are not succumbing to male domination or passively complying with the desires of a husband to ‘father’ children and the demands of the mostly male medical doctors (Wikler, 1986: 1053). They maintain that such imagery trivializes women who have decided to participate in an IVF programme and denies that the desires of women who are unable to conceive are real and concrete, not merely ephemeral or socially constructed (Sandelowski, 1990: 41).

Pre-Menstrual Syndrome and Menopause

Further examples of the medicalization and social control of women’s bodies are the supposed pathological syndromes of pre-menstrual tension (PMT) or pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause. Medical and popular literatures describe the negative and debilitating effects of PMS. Popular discourses that identify the causes as physiological focus on women’s hormones as the source of such problems as dizziness, backache, concentration lapses, mood swings, and irritability (Markens, 1996: 46-8; Parlee, 1994; Rittenhouse, 1991). However, such symptoms may stem from other pressures in women’s lives, and the possibility of a legitimate sick role, i.e. suffering from PMS, may be a coping mechanism that helps individual women manage diverse obligations and responsibilities (Parlee, 1982).

Similar assumptions about the nature of women and hormones inform the medical definition of menopause as a ‘deficiency’ disease. Biomedical explanations of menopause and the associated descriptions of the effects on women’s bodies dominate socio-cultural accounts. Nonetheless, medical definitions legitimate and explain the symptoms that many women experience so they are not dismissed as figments of women’s imagination or attributed to hypochondria (Bell, 1987: 540). Menopause differs from PMS as the condition itself, not just its effects, is constituted as a medical problem (Lorber and Moore, 2002: 82).

Until recently, medical discourse persuasively maintained that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was the best single way to manage the ‘debilitating’ effects of menopause. Extensive clinical trials sponsored by the US women’s Health Initiative showed that HRT use beyond the immediate post-menopausal period could cause heart attacks and strokes. Nonetheless, a small research study in Australia suggests medical practitioners reconstruct menopause as a series of health risks: the risks of menopause and the risks of using HRT. Practitioners present information on the comparative health risks of menopause and HRT as a series of choices that only the woman as patient can make. In this model, as rational consumers of medical science, women must weigh the risks and then decide whether or not to commence a programme of HRT (Murtagh and Hepworth, 2003).

The medicalization of menopause and PMS does confer some advantages on women, as various symptoms—physiological and psychological—are given credibility by a medical label. However, medicalization too easily generalizes the observed symptoms as expected for all women at particular stages of life and automatically attributes various conditions to hormones rather than to other causes or social events in women’s lives. Moreover, presenting various options to women and then asking them to decide on their treatment does not necessarily expand autonomy, given the power of medical discourse and the social risks in not following medical advice.


Abortion is one issue where legal, medical, and moral evaluation and regulation of women’s bodies and reproductive capacities intersect. Questions of autonomy and choice are pre-eminent in feminist arguments about abortion and women’s capacity to control their bodies. In most Western industrial societies, abortion became a crime in the early nineteenth century, although certain terminations (if deemed therapeutic) were legal if carried out by a medical practitioner (Petersen, 1993). By the 1960s access to abortion had become a central platform of the women’s movement. Feminist proponents of legalization maintain that abortion is neither a medical nor a legal issue but a woman’s right to control her own body and realize reproductive autonomy.

Different political and legal structures and ideologies shape the abortion debates and the strategies for change adopted by activists in various countries (Farr, 1993: 169; Gibson, 1990: 181-5; Ferree, 2003: 314-18). Legalization does not provide women with an absolute right to abortion but allows medical practitioners to perform abortions under certain circumstances. Thus, the ‘right to choose’ is usually ringed with restrictions. After legalization in the United States, battles have centred on such restrictions as time limits, parental consent, and type of procedure. In the United Kingdom and some Australian jurisdictions, an abortion is legal only if performed by a registered medical practitioner after two practitioners find that the duration of the pregnancy is within a specified time period, and that the termination is necessary to avoid injury to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health (which often includes social factors). Other countries have shifted between more and less restrictive policies on abortion.

Medicalization and Social Control

In sum, the medicalization of women’s bodies around reproduction shifts control and intervention from women as a group to the medical profession and other experts. Traditionally, in Western societies (and currently in many non-Western societies) fertility, childbirth, and life-cycle issues generally were managed by women family members and neighbours. The medicalization of reproduction and women’s life-cycles means that women are subject to medical diagnoses and intervention, including medication, diagnostic testing, and surgery, with variable scope for non-medical interpretation or intervention. Nonetheless, medicalization offers women a raft of options and choices. Women do make rational choices to seek medical attention and intervention and are able to evaluate, to some extent, the medical service and choose whether to continue to comply.

However, the concept of free choice in the context of medicalization is constrained by the power and persuasiveness of medical advice, and the perceived risks of non-compliance. The risks of not following medical advice may implicate individual women as accountable for any outcome perceived to be socially undesirable. The choice to comply does give individual women some sense of agency while not disrupting dominant cultural expectations.

Body Maintenance/Body-Altering Work

Women’s maintenance and alteration of their bodies to conform to gender norms is another area where they seem to have lost control over their bodies but in a different view may be exerting agency. Much has been written about the beauty/fashion industries whose mostly women customers spend large amounts of money in their quest to attain the dominant ideals of heterosexual feminine attractiveness and sexuality (Faludi, 1992; Wolf, 1990). The imagery of beauty and elegance conveyed by these industries is very narrow and unattainable by most women, but it can have a powerful influence on their sense of self.

Women’s body maintenance activities vary in their level of routine, normality, or naturalness. There are daily grooming activities, including use of cosmetics, less frequent routines such has hair removal and hair styling, which might include visits to the beauty parlour, and finally medical intervention in the form of cosmetic surgery. The vast majority of women in Western societies, regardless of their feminist orientation, remove hair from their legs or underarms in the quest for greater femininity and attractiveness. While such hair removal is habitual, that is routine and normal for most women, it endorses the assumption that the female body is abnormal or unacceptable as is (Tiggemann and Kenyon, 1998: 879-84). To be hairy and a woman contravene conventional notions of appropriate femininity and risk the negative labels of being lazy, dirty, unattractive (to heterosexual men), and masculine (Toerien and Wilkinson, 2003: 341). Hairlessness also conveys youthfulness, a pre-pubescent stage in contrast with the hairy, virile man. Merran Toerien and Sue Wilkinson suggest that ‘constructed as masculine, hair has no rightful place on the feminine body’ (2003: 341).

Feminist scholars have pointed out the contradictions between individual women’s choices to present, maintain, alter, or use their own bodies and gender norms that often reinforce women’s inequality and powerlessness (Davis, 1991; 1995; Dellinger and Williams, 1997; Weitz, 2001). An overly individualistic model emphasizes choice and self-determination with little attention to powerful social institutions, including the fashion/beauty industry, the sex industry, and the medical profession. A deterministic model sees women as having little autonomy and simply being duped by cultural images and heterosexual social expectations. Neither model captures women’s experiences of body maintenance. For example, an investigation of beauty therapy shows that the procedures can be relaxing and pleasurable, and they are paid for by women with their own disposable income. Yet overarching feminine or beauty ideals are continually reinforced by the advertisements of cosmetic companies gracing the walls and shelves of beauty salons (Black and Sharma, 2001: 109; Gimlin, 1996).

Conventional attractiveness can be a realistic route to power for women in both intimate relationships and careers; doing femininity well can be empowering (Jackson, 1992). From this vantage point, women are rational actors making choices in the light of their personal resources and their knowledge of cultural and social expectations. Rose Weitz studies hair to explore the ordinary ways in which women struggle daily with cultural ideas about the female body. She argues that ‘women are neither “docile bodies,” nor free agents; rather, they combine accommodation and resistance as they actively grapple with cultural expectations and social structures’ (2001: 669). But ‘because these strategies do not challenge the cultural ideologies supporting subordination, at best they can improve the position of an individual woman, but not of women as a group’ (Weitz, 2001: 675). The gains such strategies provide are usually tenuous and short-term but may reap the particular benefits women seek at the time.

Cosmetic surgery is an area of the regulation of the body where the body is viewed as incomplete, as a potentiality and as physically changeable (with the assistance of medical intervention), usually to attain greater conformity with culturally specific appearance norms.

Cosmetic Surgery

Cosmetic surgery in particular presents a confronting paradox between self-determination and disempowerment and the lack of real options for diversity and difference. Some women (and men) might perceive benefits from cosmetic surgery in the context of socially conferred rewards for conformity to certain appearance norms. Critics contend that the use of cosmetic surgery attests to the over-bearing influence of gendered social norms and narrow conceptions of beauty: ‘More often than not, what appear at first glance to be instances of choice turn out to be instances of conformity to norms of beauty and heterosexuality’ (Morgan, 1991: 36). Many feminists feel discomfort in viewing the recipients of medical intervention as misguided, deluded by the power of medicine and advertising, rendering them victims of larger social forces to which they passively comply (Davis, 1995; 1997). Empirical research reveals that those who have cosmetic surgery are not ‘simply the duped victims of the beauty system. Cosmetic surgery is, first and foremost, about identity; about wanting to be ordinary rather than beautiful’ (Davis, 1995: 12). Though, as one commentator observes: ‘the limitation of cosmetic surgery is that it offers a technological solution to a social problem,’ namely, dominant definitions of acceptable female appearance (Negrin, 2002: 25).

One way of resolving this dilemma is to conclude that ‘conformity to social and cultural norms may on the one hand represent collusion by women in dominant constructions of femininity; nevertheless at the individual level it may also be rational and empowering’ (Gillespie, 1996: 82). Women may accurately assess that their employment prospects will improve if they undergo plastic surgery, especially as body presentation is an increasingly important part of the contemporary workplace. Interviews with surgeons who perform cosmetic surgery and with individuals who had such surgery find that many described it as ‘normal’ and ‘natural,’ comparable to buying makeup and going to the hair salon (Dull and West, 1991; Gimlin, 2000). Some clients exhibit a desire to return to their own more youthful state and perceive an opportunity to conform to particular norms of beauty or youthful appearance. Others identify problems with racial and ethnic features. Those who are not White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, for example some Jewish and Italian women, have rhinoplasties; Asian women have their eyes reshaped (Kaw, 2003). Surgeons and former clients tend to describe the surgery as a reconstructive project that focuses on various body parts that need correction or repair. While presented as an ‘objective’ assessment, the repair was always in accord with gendered, ethnically specific ideals of beauty (Dull and West, 1991: 66-7). Many of the women who undergo plastic surgery express enormous satisfaction with the procedures that fix a particular ‘flaw’ and enable them to acquire a set of racial features considered more prestigious (Gimlin, 2000: 80; Kaw, 2003: 190-1). Far more ambivalence exists about men’s choice to undergo cosmetic surgery; men who do are often viewed as less masculine (Davis, 2002: 58-60).

Bodies, Food, and Diet

The relationship between the body and food for women can be a complex mix that varies along class and racial ethnic dimensions (Lupton, 1996). On the one side, the purchase or production, preparation, and serving of food are typically women’s work both in the paid workforce and in their own domestic realm. It is low-paid work, but a way of conveying emotional care for family members (DeVault, 1991). On the other side, strong cultural imperatives induce many women to attempt to control their eating habits and the quantity of food they consume. Weight is a much greater concern for women than for men in Western societies; they tend to feel overweight, diet more, express more body consciousness, and indicate that weight interferes with their social activities (Tiggemann, 1994: 327-8; Tiggemann and Pennington, 1990: 306). Anglo-Saxon young women seem to be overwhelmingly dissatisfied with their current body shape, and they rate their current figures as larger than their ideal and actual figures. Psychological research shows that ‘fat talk among female undergraduates in the United States involves daily self-disparaging body talk, for example ‘I feel fat.’ Such talk reinforces the shared dislike of fat and affirms the value of thinness. It also invites continuous surveillance of body size (Gapinski, Brownell, and LaFrance 2003). Non-White racial ethnic groups, however, may have entirely different conceptions of sexy, attractive female bodies, favouring large breasts and buttocks and overall plumpness, despite a problematic history of racial stereotyping (Hobson, 2003; Magubane 2001; Wallace-Sanders, 2002).

A qualitative study of pre-menopausal, healthy women in the Sydney area who had a history of dieting to lose weight shows that they distinguish between good and bad food, with the latter being associated with pleasure and temptation. They placed themselves under a form of self-surveillance by aspiring to the ‘ideal’ female body and reinforcing the thin ideal on other women via comments and gestures. Many of the participants were aware that by dieting regularly, they were making a trade-off with their health; dieting and health were seen to some extent as mutually exclusive (Germov and Williams, 1996).

Weight watching, dieting, and body maintenance or body work in general can be implicit (or even explicit) requirements of many occupations. The work of the flight attendant, for example, involves such body work, and management strategies of recruitment, training, and supervision as well as uniform and grooming regulations enforce the importance of body maintenance and self-surveillance (Tyler and Abbott, 1998: 439-45). Men and women flight attendants must engage in body work, though for men routine grooming might be sufficient.

In upper and middle-class Western societies, where the ideal female body is defined as small, slender, and taking up little space, women who are defined as large or fat are subject to negative sanctions and stigmatization. In these social groups, women designated ‘fat’ are considered to have ‘let themselves go,’ indicating deviance from the norms of restraint and control (Hartley, 2001: 63). Even after childbirth, women are advised by popular magazines on ‘getting one’s body back by engaging in a regime of exercise (Dworkin and Wachs, 2004: 616). Fat people are often discriminated against as unhealthy, taking up too much space, physically lazy, sexually unattractive, and abnormal. They are subject to stares, comments, and difficulties in public spaces, including seats on buses, planes, and trains and in many auditoriums. As a result, there have been attempts in the United States to use discrimination laws to protect overweight people’s right to access public places and job opportunities (Roehling, 2002). The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that obesity is a disability where the condition was a result of a genetic metabolic disorder (Gallagher, 2002). This case suggests that moral distinctions will be made between fat people who can demonstrate that their weight is a result of a medical condition and those perceived as overweight because of overeating.

The development of fitness classes and body building provides new normative opportunities for control of fat levels to produce a new body shape. While men as well as women are criticized for fatness and strive for a more desirable body, women are under greater social pressure in societies with thinness norms to resist food temptations and closely monitor themselves. These pressures can tip self-control into eating disorders.

Eating Disorders

In contemporary societies, self-starving women who aspire to bodily health, slimness, and self-control share similarities with medieval women who denied themselves food to achieve spiritual salvation. In both instances, their over-conformity can be a source of social approval, but then the negative consequences lead to disapproval (Garrett, 1998).

According to the current biomedical/psychiatric definition, a person suffering from anorexia nervosa refuses to maintain a minimally normal body weight, is intensely afraid of gaining weight, and demonstrates a significant disturbance in the perception of their body shape or size. The fear of becoming fat is not reduced by weight losses. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa (typically binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or other purging activities) are most common in industrialized Western societies and appear to be increasing, especially among White, middle-class teenage girls (American Psychiatric Association, 1994: 539-50). Lovejoy (2001) argues that Afro-American women adopt a positive evaluation of their appearance and an alternative beauty aesthetic to Whites. Their different concept of beauty means that they are less prone to anorexia than their Euro-American counterparts.

Susan Bordo suggests that the anorexic embodies the intersection between the pursuit of slenderness through the denial of appetite and the attractiveness of ‘masculine’ values of self-control, determination, emotional discipline, and mastery (1993b: 139-64; also Brumberg, 1998). By discovering what it is like to transcend and resist her craving for food, the young woman achieves a sense of power over others via superior will and control. At the same time, food denial can be a protest (perhaps non-articulated or unconscious) against cultural ideals about women and slenderness and the emphasis on dieting and suppression of appetite (Bordo, 1989: 18-23). The medicalization and stigmatization of anorexia nervosa create two moral/medical categories—a healthy thinness and an unhealthy thinness—thereby not undermining the dominant ideals surrounding the ‘normally’ slender female body (McKinley, 1999: 98-9).

This discussion shows that the range of ‘normal’ body types for women in Western societies is fairly narrow and deviation from these norms can result in medical intervention and social control. Being ‘too fat’ or ‘too thin’ can be met with opprobrium and attempts to alter women’s eating behaviour. This is especially true in interactive service work where women’s bodies and their emotions become part of the service or product purchased by clients or customers. Tensions between women’s autonomy and identities and the power of gender norms also emerge in the context of women’s bodies, exercise, and sports.

Exercise and ‘Fitness’

‘Dieting is one discipline imposed upon a body subject to the “tyranny of slenderness,”; exercise is another’ (Bartky, 1988: 65). Bartky asserts that even though men and women exercise, their motivations to do so are different: men exercise for health and fitness, while women exercise for appearance and body shaping as well as health and fitness. Many women experience exercise and fitness as sites of power and agency where they reject narrow or conventional constructions of femininity and where they can embrace physical power and independence.

Some forms of exercise and fitness, for example aerobics, are seen as appropriate for women. Moya Lloyd argues that the discourses around aerobics and dieting are components of the general requirements of femininity that gauge the ‘the female body as inferior, unruly and in need of discipline, and which converges with other practices to produce a decorated and resculpted body as the symbol of female selfhood’ (1996: 87). The proliferation of various exercise programmes has not resulted in ‘a diversification of images of femininity, but rather to the reification of dominant cultural standards of beauty’ (Lloyd, 1996: 90). Nonetheless, men and women do have some choice and autonomy in the exercise programmes they pursue, though these choices are constrained by resources and gender norms.

A study of the clients of fitness centres identified a range of factors affecting women’s choice of activities. To a great extent, they reflected ‘negotiating commonsense ideas about muscle and women’s biology, bodily knowledge and experiences, and ideologies about what women’s bodies should do’ (Dworkin, 2003: 244). Many of the women participants articulated an upper limit in the quest for muscular strength and bulk and expressed both fear and repulsion for female bodybuilders’ bodies. Women often structured fitness practices that emphasized health and femininity, thus complying with normative expectations of women’s bodies. Even successful women bodybuilders with large musculature (which may be the result of steroids) are rewarded in competitions for maintaining such traditional markers of the feminine as makeup and hairstyling (Mansfield and McGinn, 1993).

For women, body maintenance and body-altering work can be experienced as personally empowering and central to their identities while simultaneously reinforcing powerful gender norms which devalue women’s diversity and social status. While many women engage in pursuits often considered quintessentially masculine, for example weightlifting and other sports, a socially constrained desire to remain feminine limits women’s engagement in these activities. Yet a desire to fit in and have access to a range of other resources, including employment and promotion, shapes some women’s decisions to engage in this body-altering activity.


Historically, and to a lesser extent in contemporary societies, there is a tension between athletic excellence and heterosexual femininity (Messner, 2002). Strong women athletes may be viewed as masculine, assumed to be lesbian, and unattractive to heterosexual men (Cahn, 2003). They are therefore mixed role models for young girls and women spectators. In contrast, sporting prowess and physical competence are usually seen as confirming men’s gender identity and heterosexuality, making it harder for men athletes to declare their homosexuality (Anderson, 2005). Men athletes’ sexuality, masculinity, and physical power can thus be experienced vicariously by hegemonic men sport spectators and emulated as role models by boys (Connell, 1995; Messner, 1992; Miller, 1990).

Sports are a path to upward mobility for poor and working-class boys, even though few become successful professional athletes. Those who break into professional teams have only a few years to make it, and they play with injuries and use pain-dulling and muscle-building drugs (Messner, 1992; Messner and Sabo, 1994; Sokolove, 2004). The payoff for successful athletes in men’s sports is very high income and fame. Successful women athletes do not receive the same amount of income, media coverage, or prestige (Messner, 2002). Media images of men athletes glorify their strength and power, even their violence. Media images of women athletes tend to focus on their feminine beauty and grace, downplaying their muscular strength. The model female athlete often seems to be a young gymnast with a thin, small, wiry, androgynous body.


Notions like the healthy body, the beautiful body, and the fit body conveyed via popular culture—magazines, television, billboard advertising, and the Internet—tend to be highly normative, gender-specific, and biased by White Anglo-Saxon middle-class standards of beauty and body shape. The images portray the types of bodies (a small range) that will link to occupational and emotional success. Normalization occurs as the images function as models against which the self continually measures, judges, disciplines, and corrects (Bordo, 1993b). Some feminists, following Foucault, underscore the role of self-regulation as the woman concerned about her appearance engages in continual self-surveillance, thereby affirming gendered cultural norms that reinforce inequalities between men and women (Bartky, 1988: 81). This fairly deterministic view does not allow sufficient scope for the experiences and circumstances of individual women and the choices that conscious, rational women can make in their self-interest. Dominant social norms can simultaneously constrain women’s actions and provide space for individual women to make choices that may empower them in their everyday lives. This paradox, as well as women’s resistance to dominant gender norms, needs to be explained, and that is not possible within a determinist theoretical framework.

A study of beauty therapists highlights some of the ambivalence regarding the trappings of femininity. The therapists refused to agree that their work is about the reproduction of disempowering feminine ideals; in their eyes, it is about enabling clients to make the best of their attributes and providing treatments to enable ordinary women to look and feel better (Black and Sharma, 2001). Others argue that disciplines of diet, exercise, and beauty that reproduce dominant normative feminine practices train women in docility and obedience to cultural requirements. The effect is sustained because the controls are personally experienced as empowering (Bartky, 1988: 64-8; Bordo, 1993b).

It is important not to posit powerlessness or empowerment as a zero-sum equation: conformity to one set of gender norms may reduce women’s autonomy in some respects but expand opportunities for mobility and empowerment in other respects.