Bodily Selves, Beauty Ideals, and Nature: An Ethnographic Comparison of Cultural Difference in Shanghai, China

Starr, Julie, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Shepherd, John, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Damon, Frederick, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Danziger, Eve, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Kokas, Aynne, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation presents a comparative analysis of 'Chinese' and 'Western' understandings of bodily-selves, set against the backdrop of the rise of the individual and consumer culture in Chinese society and the pervasive concern in Shanghai for ‘Westernization.’ Dedicated to a comparative approach to ethnography, I focus in the dissertation on two groups of young professional women, one Chinese and one Western (in their own vernaculars), who were living and working in Shanghai during my 18 months of fieldwork. While in Shanghai, I spent time with these women as they engaged in practices of eating and dieting, working out, and going to beauty salons. I found that the two groups of women had strikingly different understandings of bodily-selves, which had implications for the moral valence they attached to modifying bodies. The Chinese women I knew conceptualized their bodily-selves as subject to continuous modification by their environment and daily practices; they were explicit about the fact that modifying bodies could and should influence their success in the world. In contrast to this, the Western women viewed selfhood as a static aspect of their identities, which they often linked to unmodifiable features of the body. They saw wanting to change the body as indicating that social norms had infiltrated the self, which they considered a morally troubling acquiescence to social pressures. In contrast to scholars who argue that bodily-based identities are becoming ‘naturalized’ in China’s recent transition to consumerism (much as they are in the West), I suggest that the Chinese women were operating with a cultural understanding of bodies that allowed them to understand their identity as bodily and yet not naturalized or essentialized.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
China, Body, Food, Comparative Ethnography, Shanghai
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