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The Embodiment of Age
Julia Twigg
Prof Julia Twigg with Prof Mim Bernard, President of BSG

Social gerontology has been reluctant until recently to engage with the body. I want to suggest that this is a mistake and that we have much to gain from addressing with this area, bringing important aspects of later years into view, as well new perspectives to bear on our subject – refreshing and reinvigorating the social gerontology imaginary.

But why has social gerontology been reluctant to engage with this area? The first reason comes from sense that to focus on the body is a retrogressive step, threatening to return ageing to a physiological, bio-medical account. Social gerontology by contrast, particularly the political economy school, has been concerned to show how the lives and experiences of older people are determined as much by social processes and divisions, especially those of class and gender, as by physiology. It is rightly reluctant to lose those conceptual gains. But I want to argue that acknowledging the body and embodiment does not entail this. Rather, focusing on embodiment allows us to see how social processes interact with bodily ones, constructing and constituting particular sorts of bodies, endowing bodily changes with particular social meanings, allowing us to explore how these shift historically and cross culturally.

The second reason for the reluctance to engage with the bodily comes from a sense that to talk about people in terms of their bodies is to denigrate and demean them.   This perception draws on the long neo-Platonic inheritance in the West whereby the mind or spirit is prized above the grossly material or bodily. Such valuations can be seen in a range of social processes. Mary Douglas, for example, analysed the ways in which the body is downplayed in formal social settings, with power and dignity marked by distance from the bodily. Subordinated groups are often portrayed in terms of their bodies. There is a long history of racism that focuses on the bodies of racialised groups. Women similarly have been subjected to crude bodily emphasis. Older people too have been made subject to these forms of cultural disparagement, focusing on their bodies and their failings.  It has, very properly, been one of the concerns of social gerontology to avoid that kind of denigration, asserting the centrality of the feeling subject not the failing body.

The third reason for neglect relates to the assertion that since we all have bodies, and since embodiment is a necessary condition of being, there is little to be added by this focus. But this is to miss something important. There are parallels here with the analysis of gender. We are all gendered - that too is a condition of being - but we need to be able to address the ways we are so. Indeed focusing on embodiment can allow us to do this in a particularly enlightening way, looking at the ways in which physiology is - and is not - significant.  What is important is that we do this in a non-essentialist way. And this applies as much to age, as gender.

This focus does not imply an apolitical analysis. Much theorising around the body is rooted in postmodern and post-structuralist approaches, and these have often been associated with disengagement from, and even undermining of, the political realm. It is important that social gerontology does not lose its critical, politically engaged edge.  But focusing on embodiment, I suggest, will not do this - rather the reverse, potentially deepen our understanding of the politics of age. We cannot understand Ageism unless we acknowledge that it is a bodily based form of oppression. Meanings, of a largely negative character, are read on to the aged body, and are then used to justify exclusionary practices, underwriting the presentation of the old as essentially different. Relatively minor physical differences become manifestations of fundamental Otherness. Focusing on the body and embodiment can help address some of the negative discourses that surround later years and contribute to the culture of ageism, allowing us to think of later years in a wider and ultimately more generous way.

The new interest in embodiment is part of a larger intellectual development, the Cultural Turn, whereby the social sciences - or some of them – have widened their agendas to incorporate theories, analyses and subject matter from a range of fields, particularly those of the literature, the humanities and arts. It has been accompanied by new interest in questions of agency, identity, time and space, the visual and the virtual, and with it, the body and embodiment. In terms of older people, this has opened out fruitful new territory, allowing us to pursue humanistic analyses that take subjectivity and the experiences of older people as their core subject matter. It has helped shift analyses away from an overly objectifying account of ‘older people’, towards one that is more willing to foreground the experiences of people, as they themselves age. User movements, and the focus on user empowerment, have tried to do this within the analyses of services. Cultural perspectives sit very well alongside these political aspirations, locating them in a wider analytic landscape, so that rather than undermining political engagement, they endorse and enable it.

In the plenary on which this article is based, I used an area of research – clothing and dress – to illustrate some of these intellectual developments, suggesting how it intersects with some of the key debates within social gerontology. Clothes mediate between the naked body and the social world. They are the vestimentary envelope that contains our bodies, presenting them to the wider world. Clothes are thus central to how older bodies are experienced, presented and understood within culture.  Indeed they lie across one of the central lines of debate in social gerontology, concerning the interaction between the body and the social world, between ageing as a physiological process and the socio-cultural one. Though clothes are wholly cultural artefacts, they encode meanings that derive from culture, embodying social structures. We know from work in the sociology of fashion or from anthropology, how dress plays a key role in how social groups are constituted, how they display their identities both to themselves and to the surrounding social world. They are part of how social difference is made manifest at a directly material level. Much work that looks at clothes in this way has focused on sub-groups, usually of a deviant or transgressive sort. There is an emphasis on the edgy and the fashionable that marks Cultural Studies more generally.  Old age tends to be excluded from this.

But if we want to look at Master Identities, then age is surely one of the most significant. How we are perceived, who we socialise with, how we are judged and ordered socially is crucially determined by our age, or our location within an age categorisation. Age is one of the key structuring principles in society. And yet it has been relatively neglected by sociology, and has not received the same attention that other dimensions of difference such as gender, class or race have. Thinking about age, thinking about the role of embodiment in its constitution, enables social gerontologists to engage with and contribute to new theorising in other fields of social analysis, and indeed to challenge and disturb some of their assumptions.

Clothing is also significant in debates around the role of consumption in the reconstitution and reordering of later life. Cultural critics have argued that the nature of identity has shifted under postmodernity becoming increasingly rooted in lifestyles and consumption, open to negotiation and self fashioning. Here consumption is seen as performing an integrative function within an increasingly individuated culture. In clothing terms this means that the long established pattern of age ordering, whereby particular styles of dress are thought suitable – or more often, unsuitable – for older people, loses it hold. Older people increasingly shop from the same style conscious sources as do younger ones.  Consumption thus offers older people opportunities to integrate into mainstream culture, to resist the cultural exclusion traditionally associated with their state.

In this brief article I have tried to convey some of the ways in a focus on the body and embodiment offers us new and fruitful ways of thinking about later years. I have suggested how it is central to how we conceptualise and understand old age, and to the varying contributions of physiological and cultural factors in this. Clothing and dress offer one route into this territory. 

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