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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 9 | Oct. 7, 2004

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 relations.

“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 our bodies.”

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.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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