David J. Hutson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Penn State University, Abington
When I wake up in the morning and start getting ready for the day, I shower and shave, press a pair of pants and a shirt, cleanse and tone my face, and trim my beard (some would say meticulously). I tuck and re-tuck my shirt until it is just right, and always glance down at my shoes to make sure they aren’t overly scuffed before heading to campus. I do these things, partially, to comply with appearance norms in professional culture. But, I also do these things because I want my students and colleagues to see me in a particular way—as a professional who can present himself accordingly.
In many ways, this is classic “impression management” (Goffman 1959), given that I am explicitly attempting to manage the impressions others have of me. Yet, at the same time, it is something more—something that goes beyond just managing impressions in the interactional moment. My appearance helps me to establish a certain level of professional authority that may (I hope) eventually lead to a promotion and tenure at my university. In this sense, I am considering how an investment in appearance might directly relate to my status and income. I am, in effect, thinking about my own “bodily capital.”
The concept of bodily capital—coined by Bourdieu  (1978), but developed by scholars over the past 35 years—explains why people invest time, money, and energy into their bodies, and what they expect to receive in return. It is a useful and flexible concept that illuminates a wide variety of behaviors in social life such as cosmetic surgery, makeovers, exercise, dieting, clothing choices, hairstyle, tattoos, and piercings, to name a few. These efforts are understood as capital when used in spaces where such appearances are valued, what Bourdieu terms a “field.” While fields often vary in breadth and location, the dominant cultural image of the well-dressed, thin, toned, and groomed professional has made the field for valuing this particular type of capital quite broad.
However, my experiences of investing in appearance are largely left out of the literature on bodily capital. Instead, what has been studied often involves what might be called, “embodied elites”—those exemplars of embodiment who exchange their highly valued physiques for other types of capital. For example, scholars have investigated boxers (Paradis 2012; Wacquant 2004); martial artists (Sánchez García and Spencer 2013); body builders (Bridges 2009; Monaghan 2001), fashion models (Mears 2011), and personal trainers (Hutson 2016; Smith Maguire 2008). These studies provide vital information about how individuals with exceptional bodily capital trade on their appearance or abilities in various fields. At the same time, studying embodied elites perpetuates the idea that bodily capital is only possessed by those who have achieved a type of idealized embodiment. This reduces the scope of the concept considerably, and has led me to begin asking the question: What else can be learned if we focused on bodily capital in more everyday life contexts?
I started thinking about the less visible forms of bodily capital when doing research on personal trainers (Hutson 2013)—a group who most certainly qualify as embodied elites. But, it was the responses I heard from clients, more so than trainers, which captured my interest. For example, consider the story of Darlene (41, Black, female, client) who started working out with a trainer for fitness reasons, as well as wanting to be a health advocate in her church:
I started a ministry at my church around health in general, and I do an after school program at my kids' school, a health and fitness program…So I'm doing all of this, right, but for me, I felt like I needed to look like I was healthy. I needed to look healthy to be doing all this healthy stuff.
I had to train police officers, and there were one or two trainings that had gone all right, but I was unsatisfied with them for one reason or another. I felt like they weren’t really paying attention. So, I started working out, and then when I had to present and I would go in and be like, “This is the deal. I’m not taking shit from you.” I just had more authority and strength and power. And, I felt they responded to that really well...Like, I would personally feel just more powerful when I was working out with weights. And I would feel more emotionally strong, as well.
With these insights in mind, there are two primary benefits I envision from studying bodily capital in everyday life. The first involves our ability to expand the field of embodiment, and the second allows the body to be conceptualized as an axis of inequality.
Expanding the Field
A few years ago, the chair of the (then) newly formed body and embodiment section of the ASA, Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, put out a general call to action. He asked section members to find ways that their research on the body might connect with existing sociological areas in the ASA. This was explicitly intended to help increase awareness of the section and promote it more widely. However, the suggestion was less about convincing other scholars of the body’s relevance, and more about showing that the body was always already important sociologically.
Expanding the study of bodily capital to everyday life allows for many of these connections to be made. And, some of this work has already begun among body scholars. For instance, Gerber and Quinn (2008) explicitly engage with Bourdieu to analyze dimensions of social class and embodiment in contemporary media—particularly media people consume on a daily basis (i.e., The Oprah Winfrey Show and The 700 Club). Scarborough’s (2016) research on the daily routines of firefighters (both bodily and emotional) gives voice to often silenced working class and blue-collar bodies. The embodied strategies of middle-class people, too, have been investigated. Barber’s (2008) study of middle-class men who frequent salons, rather than barber shops, highlights how achieving a specific look benefits them in the professional world. And, Black’s (2004) research of middle-class women’s preference for “appropriateness” in their appearance underscores how work, gender, age, and class intersect through the body.
This list of research is by no means exhaustive, and while body scholars are branching out into new sociological terrain, concentrating some attention on embodiment in everyday life allows for additional questions to be asked. For example, how does the purposeful revealing or hiding of one’s tattoos operate as bodily capital in certain situations? Similarly, do clothing choices that accentuate valued body parts or cover up de-valued bodies also constitute an investment in bodily capital? In my current research on pregnant and recently pregnant women, this hiding of the first trimester body and eventual revealing of it through tight-fitting maternity clothing changes many women from an ambiguous “can’t tell if she’s just fat” bodily state (as one interviewee said) to the valorized state of “pregnant.” Such nuance, however, is missed if everyday life worlds are not investigated as vigorously as those of embodied elites.
I am hopeful that these typically hidden engagements with bodily capital will continue receiving scholarly attention, particularly given Wacquant’s recent assertion that “We are all martial artists” (2014: 10). This is, in many ways, his own call to action and strong suggestion that the insights learned from engaging in “carnal sociology” (Wacquant 2005) can—and should be—exported to other areas of social life. Doing so not only fulfills the mission set out by Vidal-Ortiz, but also illustrates how the body constitutes an axis of inequality.
The Body as an Axis of Inequality
Part of what obscures the body’s importance in everyday life, and perhaps what obscures its importance in sociology more generally, involves its relationship to other forms of inequality, namely race, gender, social class, and sexuality. Certainly, the body is integral to these other facets of inequality—indeed, all of these are embodied to one extent or another. However, it is often difficult to see some of these connections when focusing on embodied elites who possess bodies that are highly idealized, such as with bodybuilders, models, and personal trainers. To understand how the body is itself an axis of advantage and disadvantage, as well as its connection to other forms of inequality, it is useful to study individuals who are forced to navigate bodily discrimination in everyday contexts.
Fortunately, as with expanding the field above, some of this work has already begun. For example, Toothman’s (2016) research on the embodied strategies used by women to avoid fatness-related prejudice highlights how—in addition to gender, race, and age—people are held accountable for their bodies in the workplace, often influencing decisions around hiring and promotion. Gruys (2012) study of a plus-size clothing store illustrates the emotional and bodily techniques used by both customers and employees who experience discrimination around body size. Conducting research that acknowledges body shape, size, and weight as aspects of inequality also facilitates intersectional analyses, such as with Hennen’s (2005) study of gay men involved in “bear” culture where big—either muscular or fat—bodies are celebrated, rather than de-valued within the wider gay community. Similarly, Monk’s (2014) research on skin tone stratification brings together perspectives on race, social class, and the body to recognize each as important, albeit inter-locking, mechanisms of disadvantage in social life.
Such research positions the body, not as subordinate to other forms of inequality, but as an axis of inequality itself. Investigating how individuals who are not embodied elites navigate these structures provides a deeper understanding of the body’s role in systems of disadvantage.
These are, of course, not the only benefits, and I hope that this post starts a dialogue about what is gained from prioritizing the body in everyday life. The field of “sociology of the body” is robust enough to support multiple lines of inquiry into the function of bodily capital—both the highly visible embodied elites and the less visible everyday actors. Paying attention to the often-unrecognized forms of bodily capital that are invested in and deployed on a daily basis can broaden the field, while illustrating how the body functions as an axis of inequality. Escaping embodied elitism doesn’t mean abandoning embodied elites, but rather expanding what our research can explain about the body in social life.
1 Bourdieu writes about “physical capital” (1978), but he uses this term interchangeably with “bodily capital” (Bourdieu 1984) and “embodied cultural capital” (Bourdieu 1986).
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—. 2005. "Carnal Connections: On Embodiment, Apprenticeship, and Membership." Qualitative Sociology 28(4): 445-474.
—. 2014. "Homines in Extremis: What Fighting Scholars Teach Us about Habitus." Body & Society 20(2): 3-17.