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Background: Within sociology it is generally accepted that the body has become an object or “project” that is worked on and transformed as a central part of self-identity (Baudrillard 1998; Corrigan 1997; Featherstone 1991; Giddens 1991; Turner 1995, 1992; Shilling 2003). An alternative to such arguments, Leder (1990) conceptualizes the body as an “absent presence”. He argues that, while the body plays a central role in shaping our experience of the world, we are frequently oblivious to our own bodies. For Leder, bodywork is sporadic. He contends that specific social and/or physiological experiences cause the body to “dys-appear”, or enter into direct consciousness, and that such experiences compel individuals to take action intended to shift the body out of explicit awareness. It has been suggested that these two perspectives are in conflict, because they imply contradictory understandings of the relationship between the body and self-identity. Purpose: This study examined the relevance of the ‘absent body’ and ‘body project’ perspectives for the workout practices of young adult and older men. Specifically, this study posed the question: How does the relationship between the body and self-identity vary across age in the context of men’s workout practices.? Design: Five young adult men, ranging in age from 23 to 27, and three older men, ranging in age from 60 to 70, participated in individual depth interviews. To be eligible, participants had to engage in some form of gym-related exercise on a regular basis. The length of time the participants had been working out varied from a few years to more than a decade. Responses to the interview questions were taped and transcribed. Responses were classified into themes using an iterative process of coding and categorising. Connections were then sought between themes. Findings: Based on the accounts of the men in this study, working-out points to an understanding of the body as a project. While the men were interested in a rejection of vanity, they were, at the same time, very conscious of, and actively concerned about, the management, maintenance and appearance of their bodies. The men regarded their bodies as projects, charged with expressing identity and difference from others. Contra the body project perspective, however, working-out was also frequently described in terms of bodily ‘dys-appearance’, and so attests to the relevance of Leder’s (1990) notion of the ‘absent’ body. The men described experiences where their bodies had begun to dys-appear, becoming more conspicuous by way of various protuberances and failings. To alleviate their body’s problematic ‘dys-appearance’, the men turned to working-out. Also, contra the body project perspective, the men’s motives for, and meanings of, working-out were not exclusively tied to ‘objective’ properties of the body, such as shape and size. For instance, many participants perceived time spent working-out as time for oneself, as time to ‘do one’s own thing’. This is perhaps best illustrated by the finding that participants avoid social interaction during their workouts. It was suggested that working-out alone fosters independence and self-discipline. The main differences were identified in terms of how the young adult and older men relate to their bodies and workout practices. Firstly, the young men were concerned with developing a body predicted on muscularity. The perception that muscularity signified masculinity dominated the younger men’s accounts. Conversely, the older men were concerned with the health and optimum functioning of the body. Secondly, for older men, working –out is very habitual, in that they have essentially used the same routine for years. In contrast, for the young men, working-out is a learned process that varies over time. A further difference between participants, along the lines of age, pertained to the relationship between working-out and employment. A predominant theme throughout the interviews with only the young men was that of working-out as a form of release and relaxation from the demands of their jobs. Conclusion: Working-out provides men with a means to express identity and difference from others, because it allows them to not only ‘do one’s own thing’, but also to transform their bodies in line with notions of the self. At the same time, working-out provides men with a tool for self-expression, because it enables them to alleviate intrusive bodily self-awareness. Accordingly, when taken together, the ‘absent body’ and ‘body project’ perspectives allow for greater appreciation and understanding of the complexities of the relationship between self-identity and the body in the context of men’s workout practices. The two ‘competing’ perspectives are not only relevant to the meanings that young adult and older men attach to their bodies and workout practices, but also essential for understanding those meanings. This study’s findings also show that young adult and older men attach different meanings to their bodies and workout practices.
Dunne, A. (2008). Making Sense of Men's Workout Practices: the Body, Age and Identity. Masters dissertation. Dublin Institute of Technology. doi:10.21427/D7Z02N