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Bare Skins

Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power - Lao Tzu 

Why is the Human Body as important subject of anthropological study?

Knowing the self is a powerful asset because it allows us to be in control of our body in the community that we live in. Everyone has a body and it consequently becomes an important object of anthropological study because the ownership of a human body is universal across cultures. Having said this, the majority of themes regarding the body are not universal. Due to the many contrasting views of the body, I would like to discuss the importance of it in anthropology by first drawing on the idea that there is no ‘standard’ bodily perspective. The body is viewed differently by cultures and must be studied to provide a whole understanding of the complete human phenomenon. The body is also a social representation of the nature and methods of a specific culture, which highlights particular aspects in a society dependent on the way the body is presented. Finally, the body goes through different transformations in life, with specific regard to becoming a recognised person in society, which always comes back to aspects of the body. This being of cells, blood, genes and chemical reactions is something so important in anthropological study as it is the vessel through which life is built. 


Anthropological study of the body is important because there is no ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ view and ideas about sex and gender differ across cultures. Mauss refers to this claim saying that there is “perhaps no ‘natural’ way for the adult” (1974:74), as there are many contrasting perspectives. Such include the sex of a body often being recognised by the genitals of that human being. However, in spite of sex and the genitals they were born with, the Hua people of the Papua New Guinea Highlands still believe that men can be fertile and become pregnant. They are believed to have the potential to suffer from “kupa” (Meigs, 1976:397) known as the ‘pregnancy disease’, suffering in the same way as women do. In Western culture, it is not regarded as possible for men to become pregnant, however the Hua people do not see the male body in the same way. Hua men and women also imitate different behavioural aspects of each other; for example men imitate female menstruation, which they refer to as ‘blood letting’. Hua women also openly welcome menopause as it makes them more “like a man” (400), and allows them to initiate into ‘Kakora’, a category associated with males in all of their different stages throughout life. Through these cultural procedures, the lines between ‘male’ and ‘female’ have blurred as a result of the body not being limited to a strict perspective based on which genitals a human possesses. Meigs describes how a “person’s gender does not lie locked in his or her genitals” (406), demonstrating a differing opinion to the beliefs held by the West to those of the Hua. Western culture has much stricter binaries including male or female, straight or gay, however the body can be so much more than what is confined within these brackets. The body is something that can surpass its given sex and can therefore also move past the idea of ‘gender’. Similarly, the Vezo people of Madagascar go beyond strict binaries and have a culture where “what one ‘is’ depends on what one does, rather than being predicated on inherent qualities” (Astuti, 1998:32) such as the sex they were born with. In Vezo culture it is believed that sex is given but gender is made, another example in which the view of the body takes on a different shape to its given ‘identity’. This is also seen through an aspect in Vezo society: “Sarin ‘Ampela”, defined as men who are the images of women and take on female roles in society as they associate more with that category within the community. The body is so important to the study of anthropology because there are many cultures that see it as something others may not. The cultures described above both believe that the body does not classify ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as converging lines, but rather as parallel that sometimes never actually meet. Depending on culture, the body can take on a variety of meanings and abilities that are not universal. As a result of the incongruity of views, it is significant to study the body, as a more complete understanding of this particular phenomenon in humanity can be attained.


The human body is a social presentation of cultural trends and social expectations, which is significant as it demonstrates a mass amount of information regarding a specific culture. The body “can be trained and naturalised… it is the basis block from which society is built” (Lock and Farquhar cited in Ecks, 2009:155), and this is a powerful way to phrase the ability the body has to tell the tales of a society. People prepare their bodies for public view and there is a way we are supposed to look in our given community, which has a lot of cultural weighting. There are two ways of viewing the body as a social presentation; the first in terms of how the body changes though experience and the second in terms of intentional bodily alternations for cultural purposes. Looking back at the Vezo people in Madagascar the “Vezo body is just like the Vezo identity” (33) in the sense that it is a gradual process of creation to make the body and consequently the identity, into something fit for this particular society. We see in Vezo life, an example of how the body can be symbolised through the experiences of that body. There are many “signs that one is Vezo” (33), which is represented physically - the male physical body is very muscularly built and has many scars from fishing whereas females are slim from eating a lot of fish. These physical attributes are examples of the bright markers that represent the way this society exists based on how the body is physically presented. This idea that you are not born Vezo but you become Vezo through practice and bodily experience, places emphasis on how the body is being presented in a social context dependent on cultural beliefs held within. The body is a social tool and it helps define certain points regarding that culture. As with the Vezo, it highlights the fishing community they live in, and these cultural differences are emphasised through different ‘techniques of the body’ (Mauss, 1979), regarding mannerisms, gestures and physiological characteristics. In Western society we have our own bodily symbols that show some of our own cultural trends such as tattoos, plastic surgery, shaving, makeup and all of these examples represent different values. What the standards of beauty are, which class you belong to, what morals you hold, the body is a social tool that explains a lot about who we are. It cannot be denied that the body plays a huge role in being able to hold many societal norms in specific communities as it is physical and has been constructed to be a device for social life. Monnig and Errington explain how “bodies and activities provide rich material for classification and interpretation” (37), which furthers how the body can work to present social life. 


In East African Beng culture, babies are considered extremely spiritual human beings that must undergo many physical bodily alterations in order to make sure they remain in the current world and are not tempted to go back to “Wrugbe”, the spirit world they came from (Gottlieb, 1998). An ‘enema’ is performed twice a day, which involves the splitting of the anus to help toilet train the baby. This process is followed by other series of rituals that help with the “civilising” (124) of the baby. Beng babies wear a savanna grass necklace made by their grandmother, which promotes health and growth and female babies also get their ears pierced to “enter a world of feminine beautification” (124). All these rituals represent the ways in which physical bodily decorations depict specific cultural norms and trends in Beng society. The body is showcasing how beliefs in the Beng world about the spirituality of babies and their connection to the spirit world are being physically demonstrated through the body itself, which explains a lot about the social expectations held in the society. 


Finally, I would like to talk about the body in regard to the creation of a ‘person’. All societies view the creation of an established person in society differently, however all link to the ways in which the body represents this. How at a specific stage in life, ‘personhood’ is established based on the significance of the body at that point in time. In Beng society, babies are already considered ‘people’ before they are even born. However, the creation of babies into people of the society in ‘this life’ takes a different path and the making of this person can be seen through the way the body changes. Individuals start becoming ‘people’ of this life around the age of seven because this is when they start having a better understanding of language and can let go of ‘Wrugbe’. Changes to the abilities of the body are very significant at this point in the body’s life course because the body starts maturing and has more capabilities. The growing body invites a status change at this specific and important point in the bodily life cycle. Bodily decorations and alternations also demonstrate a visual and symbolically cultural change to an individual, and is valuable because it demonstrates how the body is a mechanism that shows someone becoming a recognised ‘person’ in society. Although, going back to Vezo society of Madagascar the making of a person is much more of a process and there is no single point in the cycle of the body where an individual officially becomes a person. It is a journey to personhood that is achieved through an experienced body which ‘becomes’. Contrasting this to Beng culture, babies are already established people before they are born because this culture believes in the spiritual significance of the body of a baby. A baby’s body is symbolic of having come from the spiritual world, highlighting how different bodily stages in life have different cultural levels of importance depending on society. The body tells a lot of about the different phases in life and how perspective regarding the point in time where the body is considered ready to be more greatly involved in society does change with culture. The body needs to be studied in Anthropology because of the significance in these differences and how we as humans recognise what it means to be a person in society. 


The human body is powerful and interesting. There is not one defining perspective on what the body is because all societies have their own definition. First, the body is not universal, which makes it extremely significant in Anthropological study because there is no ‘normal’ view. Through a variety of Ethnography's it was discussed how differently cultures view the body and also how a broader understanding provides a more complete awareness of this complex human phenomenon. Second, I explained how the body is a tool for social presentation through the way that it signifies cultural trends and social expectations. The way this is represented through the physical experience of that body and also how intentional bodily alternations are performed for specific cultural reasons. Finally, the body is significant because of how it can become a ‘person’ in society at different points in the life course dependent on which the society views as the right point for the body to make this progression. 


Works Cited 


Mauss, M. 1979 ‘Body techniques’. In Sociology and Psychology: essays by Marcel Mauss. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 


Atkinson, Jane Monnig, and Shelly Errington. 1990. Power and difference : gender in island Southeast Asia. Stanford: Stanford : Stanford University Press.


Ecks, Stefan. 2009. "Welcome Home, Descartes! Rethinking the Anthropology of the Body." Ecks , S 2009 , ' Welcome Home, Descartes! Rethinking the Anthropology of the Body ' vol. 52 , no. 1 , pp. 153-158 . DOI: 10.1353/pbm.0.0075. doi:


Feher, Michel, Ramona Naddaff, and Nadia Tazi. 1989. Fragments for a history of the human body. New York, N.Y. : Cambridge, Mass.: New York, N.Y. : Zone ; Cambridge, Mass. : Distributed by the MIT Press.


Gottlieb, Alma. 1998. "Do Infants Have Religion? The Spiritual Lives of Beng Babies." American Anthropologist 100 (1):122-35. doi: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.1.122.


Lambek, Michael, and Andrew Strathern. 1998. Bodies and persons : comparative perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, Bodies & Persons. Cambridge: Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.


Meigs, Anna S. 1998. Male pregnancy and the reduction of sexual opposition in a New Guinea Highlands society.


Laozi. 2011. Tao te ching = Dao de jing. Edited by Gia-fu Feng, Jane English and Toinette Lippe. Third Vintage Books edition.. ed, Dao de jing. New York: New York : Vintage Books.

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