UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 9 | Oct.
The Body Beautiful
Physical culture muscles its way into academia
By Erica Smishek
The body is big in the academy.
Once the territory of doctors and biologists, the body has
emerged as a hot topic for scholars in an increasing number
of disciplines including anthropology, sociology, literature
and history. They argue that the body can only be fully understood
in its social and cultural context and they’re challenging
long-held ideas about gender, sexuality, race and more.
“The ivory tower used to be all about the mind,”
says Patricia Vertinsky, a professor in UBC’s School
of Human Kinetics and a 2004 Peter Wall Distinguished Scholar.
“Now it’s well accepted that changing cultural
conceptions of the body affect experience, policy and social
theory, and that we need to understand better how body and
mind work together.”
Vertinsky and Jennifer Hargreaves, a feminist sociologist
of sport from London’s Brunel University, will convene
an international conference, Physical Culture, Power and the
Body, Oct. 15 and 16 at UBC’s Peter Wall Institute of
Advanced Studies. Presenters are all contributors to an upcoming
book on physical culture to be published by Routledge in 2005.
Participants include UBC sociologist Becki Ross, who researches
female striptease and the controls that have been placed on
the nature of strippers’ performances; Kate O’Riordan
from the University of Sussex, who studies the way technology
is transforming the body and our understanding of what is
“natural”; and John Hoberman, from the University
of Texas, whose controversial book Darwin’s Athletes:
How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth
of Race focuses on society’s fixation with black athletic
achievement and how this obsession has come to play a troubling
role in African-American life and the country’s race
“Our focus is physical culture,” says Vertinsky,
“cultural practices in which the physical body -- the
way it moves, is represented, has meanings assigned to it,
and is imbued with power -- is central. We want to focus in
a cohesive and broad way on how power impacts the way we use
Considered one of the most influential thinkers and producers
in sports studies and the body / society paradigm, Vertinsky
studies how ideas about the female, male, youthful, aging,
racial and disabled body have been fashioned in modern society
through exercise, sport and dance.
“We have to look critically at the way in which our
society decides what is normal in relation to the body as
well as the mind,” she says.
Her work examines how culture controls people, shaping our
view of the normal body, the beautiful body, the toned and
fit body, the athletic body, the tattooed body -- and bodies
that deviate from these accepted standards -- and influencing
how we view ourselves, how we behave, how we interact with
others, how we look, even how we are trained in physical education.
“Why do we teach the kinds of sports that we do in
schools? Why do kids play basketball in gym class instead
of swimming, bicycling or dancing?” says Vertinsky.
“There are historical reasons in modern society for
selecting the sports and physical activities that we find
most appropriate for boys, girls, older people and so on.”
For additional information about Physical Culture, Power
and the Body, visit www.hkin.educ.ubc.ca/faculty/vertinskyp/Conference_Main.htm.