The Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed the appetite of French men and women for sports. During confinement in particular, sport exercised close to home, but especially at home, was widely acclaimed. In the last case, people most often practiced weight training, cardio or yoga exercises, thanks to the reconfiguration of their homes (brands such as Decathlon have thus largely equipped households, offering training kits that are easy to use at home; similarly, courses offered online on platforms have exploded).
Whatever configuration is chosen, the desire and the need to do “something with one's body” have been at the heart of this increased demand for sport.
This preoccupation with sports exercise of the body is not a new phenomenon in itself. French women and men have long been fans of gyms, and more particularly of fitness. If we consider the recent studies, in 2019 around six million people were affiliated with one of the 4 fitness rooms present in France. As a trend, it is considered that the increase in membership of this type of room is around 370% to 4% per year.
But more broadly, this concern for the current body is also the result of a long historical process of "civilization", started in the XVIIIe century in particular, gradually promoting the idea that the individual is at the center of society. With the erasure of the major “imposed” ideological benchmarks such as political communism or adherence to 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.
When capitalism structures our vision of the body
In the contemporary period, this tendency has been accentuated with the evolutions of capitalism. If it is certain that there is not one, but several capitalisms, we refer here to the economic system as a model of macroeconomic production. Among other characteristics, this system is based on structuring principles such as the valorization of private property, the sacralization of the organization of production, the accumulation of capital, and the search for individual profit socially valued on a market.
However, since the 1980s in particular, this capitalism has been marked by four major trends that have had an impact on our vision of the body: (1) the sacralization of the entrepreneur 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 sacralization of entrepreneur model refers to the idea of the self-made man/woman, who takes risks and who, if he/she succeeds, deserves a just reward. In addition to the risks, he/she must therefore organize himself by rationalizing his production plan, that is to say leaving nothing to chance, and giving priority to work. In short, the reference to the model of the entrepreneur contributes to the cult of individualized performance, where the “body-project”, product of “no pain no gain”, constitutes a possibility of concretizing this entrepreneurial spirit.
2. The sportification of existence, which designates the reality where sport is increasingly present in our daily lives, is linked to the first principle. In fact, the social injunctions to promote individual health through sport, which have only increased for more than 30 years ("eat and move", "eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day", etc.), have contributed to the emergence of an entrepreneurship and a company of the body. Hence the fact that the model of the acclaimed entrepreneur is the "athlete", who has succeeded thanks to the sacrifices made in sport. The individual responsibility to subscribe to such a logic is then to "undertake" oneself through one's 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 manages to produce the “right” body, the individual derives a just benefit, for himself but also for society. To paraphrase former American President JF Kennedy, by investing in the body, the individual should not wait on 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 wears 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 did not meet this challenge? The economic and social condemnation of obesity illustrates this question.
3. Information technology appeared and disseminated, essentially since the 1990s, have participated in the constitution of a globalized world operating in networks and sanctifying immediacy. In this context, particularly via social media, it is always a question of “making people see” in order to “be seen” by as many people as possible. 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. Again, the body is at the heart of this process, since it is this “physical resource” that can easily be displayed socially: postures, clothing, and sports performance of course. In fact, he constructs an imaginary of the body summoned to embody that "everything is possible provided you want it", creating a multiplication of desires.
4. We have entered a capitalism of vulnerabilities since the 1980s. vulnerabilities refer here to life situations in which the individual lacks the resources (economic, social, health, etc.) to face these life situations and lead an existence inclusive of society. While job-related vulnerabilities have often been highlighted during this period, vulnerabilities relating to the feeling of physical insecurity, gender identity, health and the environment take an increasing place. more decisive. These vulnerabilities are accompanied by various fears: the fear of being attacked, the fear of not being "man or woman" enough, the fear of being sick, the fear of dying, and now the collective fear of seeing human hope 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 both a reflection of the economic system (through the body as a place of rationalization and the increase of "lean" (muscle without fat) for example) as its vector: applying the principles from capitalism to one's body corresponds to legitimizing the rules of the system, just as investing the body leads to the emergence of new economic activities which constitute a new sphere of capital accumulation. By way of illustration, note that the world market for food supplements 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 the "body-institution": it is perceived as the ultimate value, the path to salvation, the safe haven par excellence, in a context of the deconstruction of the welfare state, of a less impact of total ideologies and the emergence of frequent globalized crises.
The concept of institution is mobilized 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 rules of sports training 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 anchor in a world of anxieties.
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 quantitatively accumulating tangible capital than of being able to use it to the best of its ability to be flexible, reactive, on the move, and therefore to adapt in order to survive. The body is seen as the ultimate institution that will allow us to “cope” in a world of uncertainty.
This is why, in neoliberal capitalism as described, the “body-institution” encourages each individual to transform the nature of this body, by making it evolve from a physical resource to a capital that can be directly valued on a market. This market can be economic (labour market) or symbolic (the acquisition of a social status through social interactions, real or virtual).
Admittedly, tangible capital is special in that it is labile, not perfectly transferable to heirs and not directly recoverable a priori economically 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 who is 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 to hope to draw a individual profit. Likewise, we see more and more flowers classy gyms where the development of tangible capital is a means of developing one's social capital.
This status of the “body-institution” in neoliberal capitalism is not without revealing contradictions. For example, we note that the production of the body contributes to the blurring of the work/leisure boundary, since producing the desired body is akin to real work.
Like any work, it can create benchmarks, but also the "evil of infinity" to quote the sociologist Emile 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 discrepancy between the production of the body – based on the long term – 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: 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 at stake: denying the weaknesses of the body, isn't that denying the human?
William Vallet, Senior Lecturer, Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.