July 7, 2022

when the body becomes a resource to be valued

The current Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed the appetite of French women and men for sports. During confinements in particular, the sport practiced near home, but especially at home, was widely acclaimed. In the latter case, people most often practiced strength training, cardio or yoga, thanks to the reconfiguration of their housing (brands such as Décathlon have thus largely equipped households, offering training kits that are easy to use. use at home; similarly, online courses offered on platforms have exploded). Whatever configuration you choose, the urge and the need to “do something with your body” have been at the heart of this increased demand for sport.

This preoccupation with exercising the body in sports is not a new phenomenon in itself. The French have long been fans of sports halls, and more particularly of fitness. If we consider recent studies, in 2019 approximately six million people were affiliated to one of the 4,370 fitness rooms in France. In trend, we consider that the growth in membership of this type of rooms is around 4% to 5% per year.

But more broadly, this concern for the current body is also the result of a long historical process of “civilization”, which began in the 18th century.e century in particular, gradually promoting the idea that the individual is at the center of society. With the erasure of the great “imposed” ideological benchmarks such as political communism or membership of major religions, the individual is sent back to himself, and it is up to him to build an identity. This process involves a focus on the body, this “physical resource” directly accessible to each individual.

Everyone is urged to forge an identity through their body.
Justin Sullivan/AFP

When capitalism structures our vision of the body

In the contemporary period, this tendency has been accentuated with the evolutions of capitalism. While it is certain that there is not one, but capitalisms, here we are referring to the economic system as a model of macroeconomic production. Among other characteristics, this system is based on structuring principles such as the valuation of private property, the sacralization of the organization of production, the accumulation of capital, and the search for an individual profit valued socially on a market.

However, since the 1980s in particular, this capitalism has been marked by four major trends which have had an impact on our vision of the body: (1) the sanctification of the entrepreneurial model, (2) the sportivization of existence , (3) the appearance and then the diffusion of “new” information technologies, and (4) the progression of vulnerabilities.

1. The sanctification of the entrepreneur model refers to the idea of ​​the self-made man / woman, who takes risks and who, if he / she succeeds, deserves a fair reward. In addition to the risks, he / she must organize himself by rationalizing his production plan, that is to say leaving nothing to chance, and prioritizing work. In short, the reference to the entrepreneur model contributes to the cult of individualized performance, where the “body-project”, the product of “no pain no gain”, constitutes a possibility of concretizing this entrepreneurial spirit.

2. The sportivization of existence, which designates the reality where sport is more and more present in our daily life, is linked to the first principle. Indeed, social injunctions to promote individual health through sport, which have only grown for more than 30 years (“eat moving”, “eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day”, etc.), have contributed to the emergence of entrepreneurship and a business of the body. Hence the fact that the popular entrepreneur model is the “athlete”, who has succeeded thanks to the sacrifices made in sport. The individual responsibility to be part of such a logic is then to “undertake” by his body, which takes on a moral dimension: there is the “good” body and the “bad” body, and the individual is responsible for enrolling in one or the other.

If he succeeds in producing the “right” body, the individual derives a fair benefit, for himself but also for society. To paraphrase former US President JF Kennedy, through his investment in the body, the individual should not expect from society, but on the contrary contribute to its proper functioning through his own efforts. Conversely, the “bad” body is stigmatized for its individual and social costs, and the individual who carries it then slips from responsibility to guilt: why, in a society where the production of the desired body is presented as always possible, the individual has not taken up this challenge? The economic and social condemnation of obesity illustrates this question.

3. Information technologies appearing and disseminated, mainly since the 1990s, have participated in the constitution of a globalized world operating in networks and making immediacy sacred. In this context, in particular via social media, it is always a question of “showing” to “being seen” by the greatest number. This logic of virtual social mirror is based on the permanent comparison of oneself with others, which encourages “always more” in the act of consumption, to apparently satisfy hedonistic needs. Once again, the body is at the heart of this process, since it is this “physical resource” that we can easily expose socially: postures, clothes, and sports performances of course. In fact, he builds an imagination of the body summoned to embody that “anything is possible on the condition of wanting it”, creating a multiplication of desires.

4. We have entered a capitalism of vulnerabilities since the 1980s. Vulnerabilities here refer to life situations in which the individual lacks resources (economic, social, health, etc.) to face these life situations and lead an inclusive existence in society. While employment-related vulnerabilities were often highlighted during this period, vulnerabilities relating to feelings of physical insecurity, gender identity, health and the environment take on an additional role. in addition decisive. These vulnerabilities are accompanied by various fears: the fear of being attacked, the fear of not being “enough” man or woman, the fear of being sick, the fear of dying, and now the collective fear of seeing. human hope will disappear.

The conjunction of these four major trends has made us evolve so far towards a neoliberal capitalism, in which the body is placed at the center. Indeed, the production of the body is at the same time the reflection of the economic system (through the body as place of the rationalization and the increase of “lean” (muscle without fat) for example) as its vector: apply the principles from capitalism to one’s body corresponds to legitimizing the rules of the system, just as investing in the body leads to the emergence of new economic activities which constitute a new sphere of accumulation of capital. By way of illustration, note that the global food supplements market is booming: it is estimated that by 2024, this market will be valued at 220 billion euros.

The body-institution as ultimate value

It is in this context that we speak of “body-institution”: it is perceived as the ultimate value, the way of salvation, the refuge value par excellence, in a context of deconstruction of the welfare state, of a less impact of total ideologies and the emergence of frequent globalized crises.

The concept of institution is used here to show how much the body constitutes an essential reference for the social actions of individuals, because the body crystallizes individual adherence to a whole set of socially validated rules.

As if this physical resource were detached from the individual, the body certainly imposes sports training rules on individuals, but more broadly rules of life: attitudes to be favored, diet, social life, etc. These rules are perceived as legitimate because they offer a visible and sensory anchoring in a world of anguish.

Work on your body to produce and enhance it

Hence the evolution of sports practices to produce the body: for example, bodybuilding is less fashionable than 20 years ago, unlike fitness, CrossFit and combat sports. This shift shows that it is less a question of accumulating bodily capital quantitatively than of being able to use it as best as possible to be flexible, reactive, in motion, and therefore to adapt in order to survive. The body is seen as the ultimate institution that will enable us to “cope” in a world of uncertainty.

People work out in a gym, Clermont-Ferrand, France 2021
More and more companies are providing gyms for their employees. Here the Michelin company, the Cataroux site in Clermont Ferrand.
Thierry Zoccolan / AFP

This is why, in neoliberal capitalism as described, the “body-institution” incites each individual to transform the nature of this body, by making it evolve from a physical resource to a capital directly valorizable on a market. This market can be economic (labor market) as symbolic (the acquisition of a social status through social interactions, real or virtual).

Of course, bodily capital is particular in that it is labile, not perfectly transmissible to heirs and not directly economically valuable a priori in a so-called “knowledge” economy.

But on closer inspection, this capital nevertheless offers opportunities for substitution and complementarity of forms of capital: for example, a manager satisfied with his physical capital may feel more efficient at work, thus increasing his career prospects. Moreover, it is less the essence than the appearance of the body that ultimately counts – the appearance of health more than health, in particular: we send social signals through the body in the hope of deriving an individual benefit. Likewise, we are seeing more and more “chic” sports halls flourish where the development of bodily capital is a means of developing social capital.

This status of the “body-institution” in neoliberal capitalism is not without revealing contradictions. We see, for example, that the production of the body participates in blurring the work / leisure boundary, since producing the desired body is akin to real work.

Like all work, it can create benchmarks, but also the “evil of infinity” to quote the sociologist Émile Durkheim: in the latter case, the individual no longer manages to limit his desires and then becomes dissatisfied and unhappy. This contradiction is notably the result of the gap between the production of the body – based on long time – and the consumption of the body – subject to the cult of immediacy and unlimited desires. This contradiction weakens the “body-institution”, thus questioning our philosophy of the human being: does “being” mean “having” always more and always better? Because in this quest for the “body-institution”, sometimes at all costs, the status of the human is ultimately played out: to deny the weaknesses of the body, is not that to deny the human?