Review of "Body Images"

By Gail Weiss
Routledge, 1999
Review by Talia Welsh, Ph.D. on Dec 23rd 2002
Body Images

Despite the short title, Body Images is a book that likely falls under a number of different headings: philosophy, feminist theory, gender studies, embodiment theory, and psychology.  In addition, Gail Weiss combines critical commentary on various authors, her own developing theses, and asides on contemporary cultural phenomena.  Thus, it is hard to classify the book on many different levels.  Nonetheless, despite one terminological flaw noted below, Weiss’ book is an interesting and challenging text on the diversity of how to approach the body and the body image.

The title of the book might seem to be self-explanatory—Weiss is exploring the nature of body images.  As she writes in the introduction, body images, and the body, are not circumscribable things.  One has to always approach a particular body, or body image, in a particular time with particular characteristics.  There is no “form” of the body.  In general, Weiss agrees with traditional embodiment theorists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty who note the fluid nature of the body and body images, but disagrees with the manner in which traditional authors narrow their depictions.  She argues for more plurality in our conceptions of body images.

Typically, philosophers and psychologists have spoken about the formation of one’s own body image as having different characteristics (since bodies are not all alike).  They also note the influence of culture and class, and often cite anthropological works demonstrating the plasticity of differing body images.  However, in general, their approach views the body image as natural outgrowth of our physical nature and cognitive development and its outline would be similar for all particular instances.  Bushmen of Southern Africa certainly view their bodies differently that academics of North America, but the structure of how the body image develops and how this influences the particular individuals is the same.  For instance, the oft-cited, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on body image give much room for difference, but his analysis supposes, like most philosophy, that a philosophical analysis is only providing the form, not the content, of the discussion.

Feminist critics have argued strongly against analyses such as Merleau-Ponty’s.  Weiss also believes that much more substantive diversity is needed when discussing body images for reasons of gender, class, and culture.  However, if one returns to Merleau-Ponty and the more traditional psychological views, one finds a difference in terminology which Weiss does not employ and which would make her entire discussion more problematic. (She does mention corporeal schema in the introduction, but then does not use it in the text.) 

In the psychology which Merleau-Ponty incorporates, somewhat haphazardly, a difference between a body schema and a body image exists.  Body schema is not dependent upon any kind of self-conception or “image” one has of oneself.  Thus, one would witness a body schema in infants, but not a body image.  A body schema is the manner in which one organizes the world sufficiently for motor action that can engage with that world.  Early attempts to position one’s head toward a sound, grasping at the mother’s breast, etc., are examples of the body schema at play.   

A body image, on the other hand, has everything to do with one’s culture, language, and class.  A body image is the, often manifold, manner in which one “views” oneself and one’s relations to others.  Thus, a young girl growing up in the fifties in suburban American would comport herself, think of herself, and view her body in culturally modified terms.  Colin Smith, the translator of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception consistently obscures this important difference by translated schéma corporel (body schema) and image corporel (body image) both as “body image.”  Weiss does not note this critical distinction in Merleau-Ponty or in her dismissal of psychology’s traditionalism.

One could agree with Weiss et al that the body image is indeed subject to many different contingencies and cannot be subsumed under one analysis, and argue that insofar as philosophers and psychologists have spoken of a body schema, they can speak in culturally neutral terms.  Thus, one can on one level be a cultural relativist and on another be a kind of materialist.  If Weiss had of adopted this important distinction, her book would be much clearer.  Naturally, she might argue that a body schema is also affected by the body image (and thus by culture) in a serious way, but since she only uses the term body image, one doesn’t know.   However, one is lead to believe that Weiss also agrees with a kind of base foundational relation with the world that is not culturally determined since she is sympathetic with embodiment theory which does argue for the material nature of the body as being relevant.  Thus, on one reading there would be nothing substantially different from her claims and Merleau-Ponty’s claims. 

Other than this important problem in her discussion, Weiss tries to maintain a reasonable interpretation of just what a new, pluralist reading of body images would be.  She is uncomfortable with Luce Irigaray’s dualism of male and female as being the only two poles of opposition in gender and sides with Elizabeth Grosz’ conception of sexual differences.  Weiss in general wants to expand the discussion of body images into previously uncharted territory—women, minorities, and different cultures.  In this goal, Weiss’ book is well worth reading, she is not merely a proponent of one or another school of thought and provides very concise critical examinations of a variety of contemporary writers.  Arguing for this inclusive approach, Weiss wants not just to point out that, for instance, traditionally black women have not been the focus of intellectual discourse, but that the body is far more important than previously assumed. 

In her most intriguing chapter—“Bodily Imperatives—Toward an Embodied Ethics,” Weiss summarizes and dismisses a range of feminist ideas about what ethics should be.  It isn’t that these writers are not making important contributions, rather, they have yet to successfully incorporate the body as an integral aspect of our ethical decisions.  Bringing in Simone de Beauvoir’s writings on her mother’s death, Weiss demonstrates that in human relations, the body is very often not just the object around which ethical discussions are made, but that the body is involved in those very discussions.  In other words, as a living element, the body is not a static object about which differing claims can be argued—“should I pull the plug on Grandma?”—but it is actively involved in changing and shifting the very discussion at hand.  This very chapter would be the fertile ground for an entire book since Weiss only points at just what such an ethics would be and how could it be incorporated into our current modes of ethical reasoning.  Here Weiss treads new and important ground in articulating an ethics of the body that would include care ethics, but also provide a more substantial foundation for it.

In general, this book’s very expansive nature is reflective of the omnipresence of how the body and images of the body invade all aspects of our lives and thinking.  If this book were to be reconsidered with a body image—body schema discussion, it would be able to address the complexities of the culture—nature divide more clearly.  However, Weiss does an admirable job of tackling this problem and her chapter on ethics is particularly worth reading. 


© 2002 Talia Welsh


Talia Welsh, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy and Religion, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


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