Identity is increasingly tied to the body. Advertisements for natural herbal supplements to improve body shape, scientific concoctions to increase libido, and surgical procedures guaranteed, if not required, to impress sexual partners fill email inboxes on a daily basis. The message is only slightly less overt in more public spaces. For instance, images of celebrities, models, and athletes displaying their chiseled airbrushed six-pack abs and cellulite free thighs guide customers down the checkout lane at the local big box grocery store. Large-font proclamations cover these bodies, suggesting your body and life could be the same, if you’d only buy the magazine and try the trendy new workout or diet explained inside.

While increased understanding of and ability to alter the body is cause for celebration for many, critical scholars including Bryan Turner and Susan Orbach have been quick to remind us that these advances have not always led to happiness and health. The ability to “conquer” flesh and bone continues to place more responsibility on individuals to maintain the proper aesthetic appearance. And, with the exponential growth in the number of “experts”—now including but not limited to medical scientists, nutritional experts, the beauty industry, yoga gurus, and spiritual counselors—the difficulty of making sense of the overwhelming and often contradictory amount of information about health and bodies only grows. While it would be rather crude to suggest that in a different time, or in a different place, there is or has been a natural body, Orbach’s claim that we have entered an era of increased body confusion seems particularly apt (2009).

On the one hand, sociologists have insisted that our relationship to our bodies and the pressure upon bodies to fit particular aesthetic ideals cannot be isolated from larger social and economic contexts. For instance, scholars Susan Bordo (1999) and Nick Crossley (2001) have examined how bodies have moved further and further away from being tools sculpted by manual labor to expressions of personal preference, cultural pressure, and the leisure time to devote to creating a “pleasing” body (whether that’s for yourself or onlookers). The body has become another object to be prepared for consumption.

Perhaps more important for more culturally oriented sociologists are the subjective and ideological dimensions of shifts in bodies that bring blame and shame or pride and plaudits. Often thought of as the most biological and personal aspect of social life, the body is always already shaped and defined—literally—through culture. In this chapter, we consider two recent talks with experts about framing and defining the proper body.

In the first conversation, Abigail Saguy discusses the dominant cultural frames that stigmatize and attach blame to fatness. Saguy helps us see how the experts we turn to and the language we use normalize and hide judgment damages others who may not possess the “appropriate” or “ideal” body type.

In the second conversation, Natalie Boero and C.J. Pascoe look more closely at the relationship between people’s experience of their bodies and medical ideas of “health.” The authors take us inside the online world of pro-anorexia communities, showing how the chat rooms create safe spaces in which individuals share knowledge, find support, and engage with and resist institutions condemning their bodies and communities.

The studies approach the cultural construction of the body on two very different scales and from two different methodological approaches. However, both turn to bodies to trouble our notions of propriety, health, and bodies—as well as how we see others bodies and self-presentation as illustrative of deeper aspects of the self, including moral fortitude and mental ability.

Saguy began by discussing the importance and difficulties of language about bodies:

There’s a lot of stigma and discrimination against people who are heavy and so, unsurprisingly, there’s confusion and disagreement about how to best talk about it. I avoid using the words “obese, obesity, overweight” unless I’m talking about how other people use those terms. The reason I do is because one of the main goals of this book is to problematize the common ways of talking about fatness as a medical problem and a public health crisis… all of these terms take for granted what I call a “medical frame” or a “public health crisis frame”. If you think about it, try to imagine someone who is obese and healthy. It’s inconceivable, it doesn’t make sense because the word ‘obesity’ already implies medical pathology. And so it makes certain things unthinkable, and these are precisely the things that I’m trying to get people to think about. Why do we medicalize and pathologize fatness? Is there another way of talking about it? Overweight? Over what weight? “Overweight” assumes that there’s a normative weight, a good weight and one can be over that weight and being over that weight is, again, a medical problem.