Young Women, the Body Quest and Agency in the Culture of Appearances
The study focuses on the body experiences of young, white Finnish women who study in upper secondary school or university. The study is comprised of three sub-studies that explored the accounts of upper secondary school students, students of social sciences and students of women’s studies. In order to explore the relationships between an individual, social groups and society as manifesting in the individual’s body experience, the study analysed both collectively and individually produced accounts of body experience, focus group discussions and individually written accounts, and utilized in their analysis grounded theory–inspired coding and interpretative phenomenological analysis. The dissertation argues that the common experiences of self-critical body surveillance and body anxiety among contemporary young women rise from the experience of a representational self, constructed by a culture of appearances. In this study, young women’s body experiences were constructed within contradictory demands posed by current cultural beauty and health imperatives and the current cultural self imperative requiring individual, resistant agency in not surrendering to the cultural body imperatives. Consequently, the young women were on a quest for the ideal body, the ideal self and an inner experience of well-being beyond the experience of the representational self. The young women typically utilized a strategy defined in this study as Cartesian agency, emphasizing the young woman’s independence from culture, other people and her own body. Yet Cartesian agency mainly maintained a state of bodily alienation. Through new corporeal experiences, in combination with critical (feminist) reflexivity, some of the young women were able to inhabit their bodies in new and more empowering ways. The agency of the body itself in acquiring new ways of being, thus enabling the young women to re-embody themselves, helped to cause a rupture in their previous socialization of disembodied selves inhabiting objectified and problematic bodies. The study contributes to the emerging social psychology of embodiment, to multidisciplinary discussions on embodiment and agency, and to critical health psychology.