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Body projects and the regulation of normative masculinity

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Drawing on interviews with 140 young British males, this paper explores the ways in which men talk about their own bodies and bodily practices, and those of other men. The specific focus of interest is a variety of body modification practices, including working out (at a gym) tattooing, piercing and cosmetic surgery. We want to argue, however, that the significance of this analysis extends beyond the topic of body modification to a broader set of issues concerned with the nature of men’s embodied identities. In discussing the appearance of their bodies, the men we interviewed talked less about muscle and skin than about their own selves located within particular social, cultural and moral universes. The surfaces of their bodies were, as Mike Featherstone (1991) has argued, charged primarily with ‘identity functions’, allowing men to establish a place for themselves in contemporary society. Using a social psychological approach which can be characterised as a discursive analysis (Henwood, Gill & McLean, 1999; Lupton, 1998), this paper makes connections between men’s private feelings and bodily practices, and broader social and cultural trends and relations. It shows that in talking about seemingly trivial questions such as whether to have one’s nose pierced or whether to join a gym, men are actively engaged in constructing and policing appropriate masculine behaviours and identities; above all, in regulating normative masculinity. We identify five key discourses or ‘interpretive repertoires’ (Wetherell & Potter, 1992) which together construct the meanings for these men of attempts to modify the appearance of the body. The five discourses or repertoires were focused on the themes of individualism and ‘being different’; libertarianism and the autonomous body; unselfconsciousness and the rejection of vanity; a notion of the ‘well-balanced’ and unobsessional self; and self-respect and the morally accountable body. Our analysis lends support to the claim that the body has become a new (identity) project in high/late/postmodernity (e.g. Shilling, 1993; Featherstone, 1991), but shows how fraught with difficulties this project is for young men who must simultaneously work on and discipline their bodies while disavowing any (inappropriate) interest in their own appearance. The analysis highlights the pervasive individualism of young men’s discourses, and the absence of alternative ways of making sense of embodied experiences.

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