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To what extent do individuals have control over their bodies in today’s society?

This article aims to set out how much control individuals have over what the world teaches them about their bodies, and how power is exercised over this.

Even though the individual has little control over these processes, certain strategies like health education are beneficial.

 

Foucault has set out several means of control over individuals’ bodies in his career.

In 1963, he described the concept of the medical gaze through which medical professionals create disease categories, exert their power to define diseases, and label people as such (Armstrong, 1997). According to Foucault and his scholars, the aim of this manifestation of control is social order, promotion of health, and in a contemporary capitalist society, productivity (Lupton, 1997). On the other hand, they argue that it is not a calculated way of exercising power because it can develop body knowledge and understanding. Surveillance techniques like dental check-ups, cervical screenings, and health promotion are examples of this (Lupton, 1997).

Foucault defines his views on medical power further throughout the ’80-ties and ’90-ties and bases them on two concepts: bio-politics of the population and anatomo-politics of the human body (Lemke, 2011). Bio-politics involve collective interventions governments can implement on (groups of) populations to maintain social order and economic prosperity (Gastaldo, 1997). Examples are the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 in the UK due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to try to contain spreading of the virus, and the intermediate partial re-openings of e.g. restaurants, hairdressers and shops to boost the economy.

Anatomo-politics focus on the individual body and aim to promote health. However, Foucault argues that at its base, the medical world has control over what is labelled as healthy and what is prescribed as a healthy lifestyle (Gastaldo, 1997), and that governments objectify people and erase health individuality (Lemke, 2011). An example is the standard diagnose of obesity at a BMI of 30 and labelling that by definition as unhealthy without knowing if the person suffers ill health or not.

Overall, Foucault recognises that an individual has little control over their own body although he also states the positives which can help people to make better decisions about their health.

 

Socialisation is an additional factor that determines body image, and as such exercises control.

Individuals learn norms and values by experiencing and interacting with family, peers, community, workplace, education, and mass media (Thompson, 2022). It shapes our ideas about what normal and abnormal bodies are because time spent with these people or on these activities takes up most of our days. In the last decade, social media in particular has become the biggest source of media consumption for young people. 45% of Gen Z report that they use social media more than four hours a day (Pooley and Goodwin, 2022). This supports that social media has great influence on how individuals perceive their and other bodies, whether positive or negative.

 

Linked to the neoliberal discourse of prevention are the strategies of health education that are omnipresent and control what people think they should do with their bodies.

Health education teaches people that they lead a life full of risks, and encourages them to develop good habits like exercising, eating healthy, and not smoking or drinking. Social inequity and community health have become part of this as part of the NPH policies (Gastaldo, 1997). The WHO’s Global School Health Initiative has encouraged schools to promote health education to their students since 1995 (WHO, 2023). This way, children learn about their bodies from a young age, and will internalise ideas about a healthy lifestyle.

 

Today, the individual has little control over what they perceive as healthy or unhealthy, or normal or abnormal bodies because of the power of the medical world, social institutions like governments, and socialisation agencies like social media. On the other hand, health education empowers people to make better decisions about their bodies and adopt healthier lifestyles.



References

 

Armstrong, D., (1997). Foucault, Health and Medicine [online]. London: Routledge.

 

Gastaldo, D., (1997). Foucault, Health and Medicine [online]. London: Routledge.

 

Lemke, T., (2011). Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction [online]. New York: NYU Press.

 

Lupton, D., (1997). Foucault, Health and Medicine [online]. London: Routledge.

 

Pooley, A. and Goodwin, A., (2022). Do you control your social media [online]. Wahroonga: RICA. Available from: https://www.rica.nsw.edu.au/resources/do-you-control-your-social-media/ [Accessed 3 January 2023].

 

Thompson, A.K., (2022). Socialisation [online]. ReviseSociology. Available from: https://revisesociology.com/2022/10/21/socialisation/ [Accessed 3 January 2023].

 

World Health Organisation, (2023). Health promoting schools [online]. Geneva: WHO. Available from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/health-promoting-schools#tab=tab_1 [Accessed 3 January 2023].

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