Angela Trethewey, Cliff Scott, Marianne LeGreco. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.
In spite of the considerable emphasis placed on bodies at work—how they should look, feel, and act in the workplace—the body remains an absent presence in contemporary organizational theory. Through everyday organizational processes and practices, social discourses of power are appropriated, reproduced, and/or transformed in ways that enable and constrain how members enact and embody professional identities. It is often through organizations that “we come to understand who we are and who we might become,” and the body plays an important and gendered role in this process (Trethewey, 1997, p. 218). In this chapter we explore and critique particular processes, including those we title commodifying, risking/securing, and servicing, through which the bodies of organizational members are made professional in gendered ways. Furthermore, we examine the gendered (and often classed) consequences of those constructions for both professional and nonprofessional employees.
Theorizing the Professional Body at Work
There is a variety of practical reasons for organizational communication scholars to study the body. Employee bodies are both the medium and the outcome of practice and knowledge. Nurses’ understandings of patients, for example, may be mediated by touch (Shakespeare, 2003, p. 54). Employees’ relationships with other professionals and clients may be facilitated or hindered by embodied expressions of professionalism, care, or expertise. Health and safety concerns often focus on employee bodies. The study of bodies at work can tell us how employees “use their bodies in a competent way and how do they use their bodies to show they are competent” (Shakespeare, 2003, p. 54). Examining the discursive construction of the professional body can help answer questions about the relationship between work and identity.
We deploy poststructuralist and feminist theories that conceive of the body as both a product and process of discourse. How our bodies become meaningful in everyday work life is a partial product or effect of the discursive structures that comprise our social worlds. And yet, as we perform our sense of who we are or wish we could be at work, we actively draw upon and occasionally attempt to resist (in more or less privileged ways) these very structures. White middle-class professional women come to experience and understand their aging bodies through the cultural master narrative of decline in which aging is associated with the loss of face, body, and sexuality. Yet these women simultaneously resist the master narrative, largely through class-based consumption, and attempt to craft professionally viable bodies and identities (Trethewey, 2001).
We assume that meanings for professional bodies and, indeed, professional bodies themselves, are largely discursively constituted. Social discourses of power, including gender, race, class, and entrepreneurialism, work in concert to constitute particular organizational subject positions. As Weedon (1997) explains,
Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the “nature” of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern. Neither the body nor thoughts and feelings have meanings outside of their discursive articulation, but the ways in which discourses constitute the minds and bodies of individuals is always part of a wider network of power relations, often with institutional bases. (p. 105)
To say that embodied identities are discursively constituted does not mean that individuals are determined by discourse. Instead, agency is manifest when social actors reflexively choose among, creatively combine, and/or resist the subject positions offered by various discourses of power in circulation at a particular historical moment. While discourses often attempt to fix the meaning of a subject position, they can never do so completely or finally because they are conflictual, contradictory, and contested (Trethewey & Ashcraft, 2004). A discourse may offer a preferred identity, but its “very organization will imply other subject positions and the possibility of reversal” (Weedon, 1997, p. 106). The discursive construction of public, masculine work as a primary and preferred site of identity negotiation for professional employees is largely accomplished through differentiating public, paid employment from less valued private, feminine, home and family activities. And yet, because the distinctions between public and private and masculinity and femininity are discursively constructed and constantly shifting, individuals are afforded opportunities to enact embodied identities in keeping with, in opposition to, and in the interstices of those competing subject positions (Alvesson, 1998; Mumby, 1998; Murphy, 1998).
A focus on the discursive construction of the body is not meant to deny its materiality.
We believe the relationship between discourse and the material world can be understood as a dialectic tension such that discourse cannot explain every aspect of the material world and material conditions do not simply determine discourse (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004). Hands, breasts, and varicose veins exist outside of texts and embodied discourse yet are understood through discourses that are written upon bodies in specific ways. Bodies are things that have physical presence, but they become meaningful as “residues of discourse that can only be understood through discourse” (p. 56). Thus, our embodied experiences involve a complex negotiation of both physical and discursive space (Gillies et al., 2004). Attempts to accomplish a professional self often imbue embodied identities with asymmetrical, gendered value (Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000; Trethewey, 1999). Discourses not only position gendered (and classed) bodies but often do so with material consequences.
The ways we adorn, pose, sculpt, feed, ignore, and obsess about our bodies have very real consequences for our personal, organizational, and societal well-being. Yet, organizational communication research has developed “an epistemological blindspot … wherein the extent to which organizations exert tangible effects on real, flesh-and-blood people gets frequently overlooked” (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004, p. 78). Scholars’ tendency to reduce organizations to text or discourse has, however unintentionally, neglected the embodied, material consequences of discourse that members face as they negotiate their everyday lives.
A sustained exploration of the discourses that work to construct our symbolic and material selves is warranted. Indeed, we begin this essay by outlining how discourses of gender and entrepreneurialism position the body as a feature of one’s identity to be assembled, improved, and monitored. As Giddens (1992) claims, “the body is less and less an extrinsic ‘given,’ functioning outside the internally referential systems of modernity, but becomes itself reflexively mobilized” (p. 7). Contemporary organizations are the site of that embodied mobilization. Gendered, professional identities are “a product always in progress” that need further empirical investigation in organizational life (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004, p. 9).
We find it ironic that scholars of organizational communication have largely ignored embodied experience, even though organizational discourse has long been occupied with members’ bodies as a locus of social control. Frederick Taylor’s (1911) drive to find the “one best way” to execute tasks was meant to ensure that workers’ bodies would be used in the most efficient way possible. His scientific management posited a managerially prescribed system for the ways in which a worker could use his/her body. In short, head work—the conception of work—was left to managers, while body work—implementation of managerial work design—was left to employees (Braverman, 1974). “The managerial principles of scientific management meant that the working body (as a source of skill) came to be the object of inquiry in order that the human body (as the source of effort) could become the object of more exacting control” (Hancock & Tyler, 2000, p. 87). Townley (1994) catalogues the variety of ways that employees’ tasks and, by implication, bodies are still codified, organized, and controlled through contemporary human resource management (job analysis, performance appraisals).
Contemporary organizational discourse and practice still treats the employee’s working body as an entity that can be rationalized, disciplined, regulated, and tested (random drug tests; personality tests) (Holmer Nadesan, 1996, 1997; Townley, 1994). This extends into the symbolic when organizations make explicit the symbolic force they want organizational bodies to exert. Management’s interest in shaping corporate culture derives from the desire to have workers’ bodies “speak” the organization’s “core values” (Peters & Waterman, 1982). Dress codes and other nonverbal markers, including employee demeanor and style, come to represent the organization literally and figuratively. Control of employee bodies is now more insidious because it is often self-imposed. The disciplinary power of discourse “seeps into the very grain of individuals, reaches right into their bodies, permeates their gestures, their posture,” their being (Foucault, 1980, quoted in Martin, 1988, p. 6). As we will argue, this is particularly true for women and other marginalized groups whose bodies and identities are stigmatized in organizational life.
The professional body is not a fixed, stable entity. It is a discursively constituted process and product. In this chapter we pay particular attention to how discourses of gender and entrepreneurialism and their attendant classed implications work to shape both the bodies of professional employees and their non-professional counterparts. We articulate how gender and entrepreneurialism are two primary discourses at work on professional bodies. We then address the commodification, risking/securing, and servicing through which professional bodies are enacted. Finally, we discuss the ways in which organizational scholars may contribute to reforming organizational bodies.
Organizational discourse is gendered. It tends to reflect and reproduce preferred modes of being that ascribe asymmetrical value to masculinity and femininity. Specifically, it articulates masculinity/femininity as a difference that makes a difference in organizational life such that hegemonic masculinity is typically preferred. This argument has been made powerfully and persuasively by organizational scholars (Acker, 1990; Ashcraft, 2004; Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004; Buzzanell, 2000; Marshall, 1993; Mumby & Putnam, 1992), so we will draw attention here to the ways organizational discourse privileges that which has historically been linked to masculinity.
Organizational discourse tends to value rationality, the public sphere, and the mind, all of which have been socially constructed as masculine and tends to marginalize that which is associated with femininity, namely: emotionality, the private sphere, and the body. Acker (1990) suggests that organizational discourse, far from being neutral, offers a masculine version of the ideal worker, one whose body is free from the demands of childbearing, menstruating, and emoting. While “women’s bodies are ruled out of order, or sexualized and objectified, in work organizations, men’s bodies are not” (p. 152). Women’s bodies are often suspect or marginal in professional contexts, leaving women to engage in struggles to negotiate their bodies and their identities (Mumby, 1997; Trethewey, 1999). These struggles for identity create additional burdens for professional women and their non-professional counterparts (Acker, 1990).
If gendered discourses assume that women’s bodies are essentially unfit for the professional world, entrepreneurial ones offer all women, indeed all employees, an increasingly ubiquitous, market-driven, and market-located mode of “fixing” their bodies and gendered identities in ways that align better with a preferred, organizational ideal (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005). Employees are increasingly encouraged to treat the self as an enterprise, so work is primarily where they enact an enterprising identity (du Gay, 1996). Through the consumption and subsequent performance of training courses, seminars, self-help literature, professional attire, and other symbols of organizational and social status (BlackBerrys, PDAs, automobiles), employees often seek to manifest a successful, professional identity. Much of this consumption plays out in asymmetrical ways wherein otherwise functional/healthy, typically feminine bodies are pathologized (Gullette, 1997; Tavris, 1992; Trethewey, 1999). Garsten and Grey’s (1997) analysis suggests that enterprising subjects are focused on skill acquisition and self-discipline where the underlying assumption is that “control of the self can lead to control of the world” (p. 217).
However empowering the discourse of enterprise may at first appear to be, it exerts control by creating needs through advertising and public relations rather than imposing norms. It replaces the disciplinary gaze of the supervisor with autosurveillance, and rather than repressing its subjects, it constructs and entices them. The subject becomes, above all, self-regulating and self-disciplining (du Gay, 1996). Not all subjects are equally able to enact enterprise, despite the apparent availability of the discourse. While consumption may be a strategy employed to craft preferred identities, the entrepreneurial project of the self remains gendered and classed (Bourdieu, 1984; Jagger, 2000; Holmer Nadesan, 1999; Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000). Organizational contexts add yet another layer of complexity to women’s attempts to craft an enterprising self and body. When women enter the public sphere of work, masculine expectations for professionalism, or what Holmer Nadesan (1999) calls an “aestheticized masculinity,” create another set of gaps for women whose bodies are viewed as repositories of emotions and sexuality and other devalued and marginalized traits.
Here again, women rely upon strategies of consumption to master their unruly selves. In order to overcome their emotionality, women purchase popular success texts or invest in other therapeutic technologies to learn to better manage their emotions and present a more professional (read: masculine?) self (Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000). To present a more professional and enterprising (read: less feminine?) image/ body, women consume a variety of products. At work they often find themselves in a never-ending and ultimately impossible quest to reach the entrepreneurial ideal and to get their professional identities and bodies “right” (Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000). While both men and women are impacted by discourses of enterprise that create an ideal no one can ultimately achieve, women’s difficulties are more pronounced because gendered discourses articulate their bodies in terms of a “debased otherness” (Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000).
Gender is not the only discourse that impacts a subject’s ability to embody an enterprising, professional self. The ability to consume is determined by purchasing power or socioeconomic status and, as a result, our bodies bear the imprint of class tastes (Bourdieu, 1984). All consumers, regardless of purchasing power, use and appropriate commodities and services as identity signs and symbols. Goods and services have both an instrumental use value and an identity value such that consumption is a means to express and reproduce social differences. Bourdieu (1984) argues that classed differences are produced when consumers develop “habitus”: taken-for-granted preferences for and a sense of appropriateness regarding cultural goods and services. These habituated preferences, or classed taste differences, which are born of material conditions, are inscribed onto consumers’ bodies such that each class has a “clearly identifiable relationship with its body” manifest in body size, shape, posture, ways of eating, walking, drinking and moving (Jagger, 2000, p. 53). Working-class individuals may treat their bodies instrumentally and thus prefer to engage in weight lifting or other activities that build strength rather than the slimming and sculpting that reproduce fit middle-class bodies. These embodied distinctions are not fixed or universal; rather, the body is a form of cultural capital and a site of struggle that is often enacted through consumption and entrepreneurialism.
The discourses of gender and entrepreneurialism are two of the primary forces that work in concert to position members’ bodies as professional or, conversely, as lacking professionalism. An exhaustive exploration of embodied professionalism would include race, sexuality, class, age, and so on. In the following sections, where we make gender and entrepreneurialism prominent, we also suggest how other facets of identity might figure into the professional body.
Social discourses of power, gender, and entrepreneurialism reinforce the notion that professional bodies are skillfully crafted. Professionalism is a feature of one’s identity that can be managed and manipulated by enterprising subjects. Organizational communication scholars have begun to empirically explore the ways gendered organizational discourses affect how women’s bodies are literally and discursively positioned at work, in “real” or “professional” jobs.
The dominant vision of the professional body today is aligned with our culturally preferred and ideologically constructed meanings for a real job. According to Clair (1996), a “real job” (read: professional position) “pays well, holds the possibility of ‘advancement,’ includes being a part of ‘management,’ allows for ‘independence’ and ‘your own office,’ is ‘full-time’ at ‘40 hours’ with ‘benefits’ and with a ‘reputable company’” (p. 257). These jobs have historically been the province of men. Thus, it is no surprise that our scholarly discussion of the construction of the professional body has focused on challenges faced by professional women struggling to succeed. Trethewey (1999), following Bartky (1988) and Bordo (1989), indicates that white middle-class women make use of, understand, and craft their professional bodies in very particular ways.
The professional body is physically and emotionally fit. Women who are not physically fit are viewed as being out of control and less able to endure the demands of work. Second, white middle-class women treat their bodies as a text to be read by others. They use nonverbal behaviors (ways of sitting, walking, and moving) and other performative strategies to display a body that is confident, not threatening; engaging, not available; and feminine, but not excessively so. Nevertheless, women’s abilities to embody professionalism are compromised because their bodies are constructed as excessive. Professional women describe their bodies and those of other women in terms of spillage, slips, and leaks. Pregnancy, menstruation, emotional responses to work, and the inadvertent (and nearly unavoidable, given our cultural construction’s of women’s sexuality) sexualized display of the body are all cast as potential liabilities. Women experience, describe, and constantly monitor their seemingly excessive bodies because they may, at any moment, unintentionally reveal their inappropriateness, their femaleness, their otherness. Among professional women, “the response, therefore, is to keep the body in check, to prevent leaks, in short to discipline and control the body” (Trethewey, 1999, p. 445). Women’s own participation in rendering their professional bodies docile through self-surveillance works to normalize and individualize the politics in current gendered constructions of professionalism.
Acker (1990) reminds us that while female bodies certainly have difficulty embodying the organizational ideal, some (most?) male bodies may not have equal access to the abstract ideal either. The male body which a woman assumes to be hegemonic is not only gendered, but raced and classed as well (see p. 154).
The ability of working-class men and/or men of color to embody professionalism is also compromised (Collinson, 1992). As Ashcraft and Allen (2003) argue, “At least in the U.S., we depend on the convergence of raced and classed divisions of labor to concentrate people of color in ‘cheap,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘invisible,’—at minimum, devalued—support roles” (p. 22). Indeed, the absence of men and women of color in the upper levels of organizational hierarchies suggests that whiteness is not only normalized but privileged in ways that suggest real jobs are not just figuratively white but literally so. Those with nonwhite bodies face the difficult task of negotiating their identities themselves so they are not read as “unruly others” or not “really” professional (Holmer Nadesan, 1999, p. 216; see also Allen, 2001; Spellers, 1998).
While organizational scholars have often theorized in ways that assume that “white (collar) workplaces and work/ers constitute ‘universal’ settings, identities, and practices,” this is clearly not the case (Ashcraft & Allen, 2003, p. 25). Although these workers, their work, and their contexts may be the culturally preferred or dominant models, they are certainly not the most common or most real. That fewer and fewer individuals are actually employed in such positions has not yet diminished the ideological power of this model that serves as an ideal(ized) and normalizing standard by which other positions and the workers who occupy them are (de)valued (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999). And yet, embodying professionalism may have more to do with performing whiteness, an (idealized and normative) subject position that is also classed (see Ashcraft & Allen, 2003; Trethewey, 2001). Thus, the ideological standards we use to evaluate real professionals are not only gendered, raced, and classed but also affect employees’ abilities to embody professionalism at work. In the following sections we take up the specific processes employees engage in their struggles to embody professionalism.
Discourses of entrepreneurialism, which, as we’ve suggested, are not unrelated to discourses of whiteness, encourage professional employees to treat their bodies as sites of intervention through consumption. As organized individuals attempt to make projects of themselves through this discourse, they turn to the body as an easily malleable commodity. The body, especially for women, becomes a site for enacting technologies that change or alter its appearance in ways that, increasingly, make it more marketable. From the application of makeup to more permanent strategies like cosmetic surgery, these technologies are used by individuals as a form of “bodily capital” in which the “physical body is an economic asset” (Monaghan, 2002, p. 337).
Exotic dancers epitomize workers who engage in a variety of body technologies to achieve a successful performance. These women often go to great lengths to achieve, or at least perform, the contemporary (often impossible) ideal of feminine attractiveness marked by a thin, lithe body, large breasts, blonde hair and white skin (Wesely, 2003). Strippers find that this Barbie doll look gets the most attention and financial rewards from the (mostly male) customers. Doing the work involved in achieving this ideal is no small accomplishment. Wesely (2003) reports that dancers employ a variety of strategies to “manage” their weight, including taking addictive and illegal drugs, undergoing liposuction, developing eating disorders, and exercising obsessively. Dancers also shave their body hair, dye their hair, choose to have their bodies—particularly their genitalia—pierced, make their hips and breasts prominent when they walk, and often undergo cosmetic surgery to more closely replicate the fantasy image expected of them because, as one explained, “the bigger your boobs, the more table dances you got” (Wesely, 2003, p. 654). While these technologies do provide dancers with greater material rewards, they are certainly not without danger. Ingesting drugs, undergoing elective surgery, and binging and purging, for example, are clearly risky. The dancers’ identities are also at risk when they are objectified and reduced to their physical attributes.
While exotic dancers may seem to embody an extreme form of femininity/sexuality, their strategies are in keeping with those that professional employees practice routinely. As we have indicated, for many women, “sexuality is an unspoken component of their work. Their jobs do not have to require them to take their clothes off for them to feel that to be successful they must shape and discipline their bodies toward a prescribed feminine image” (Murphy, 2003, p. 309; see also Cockburn, 1991).
While exotic dancers may treat their commodified bodies as assets, other women may use similar consumption strategies to attempt to prevent theirs from becoming professional liabilities. In a culture thatcelebrates youth and understands aging in the context of an ideological master narrative of “decline” (Gullette, 1997), professional women adopt a variety of entrepreneurial workplace strategies to better manage their aging process and the loss/lack associated with it. To counter or mitigate the effects of graying hair, menopause, lined faces, or changing bodies on their professional identities, at midlife women often attempt to pass as younger. They color their hair, hire personal trainers, wear expensive clothing, and are supportive of those who make the “personal choice” to undergo cosmetic surgery to sustain or regain their youthful appearance (Gullette, 1997, p. 203).
Organizational and cultural discourses encourage women to treat their aging bodies as an individual(ized) problem “best ‘managed’ through ‘enterprising’ choices” (Trethewey, 2001, p. 214) rather than as a social problem constituted by corporations, health care organizations, the media, and other institutional discourses. Such an entrepreneurial approach to aging enables some, particularly white middle-class women, to continue to be successful professionals. These strategies may enable some professional women to combat the master decline narrative; however, they simultaneously “absolve privileged women of the responsibility for recognizing and fighting against other types of oppression that affect [aging] women such as poverty, racism and homophobia” (Grimes, 2000, p. 3). Thus, entrepreneurial strategies that feature consumption reproduce the social construction of whiteness and reinscribe white (middle-class) privilege (Trethewey, 2001). Simultaneously, entrepreneurialism enables those who age less “successfully,” who are left without the benefit of pensions, who are downsized, who are passed over for someone more hungry to be explained away by their lack of entrepreneurial savvy.
All sorts of employees are positioned by entrepreneurial discourses as manifest in the rapid and pervasive increase in cosmetic surgeries. White middle-class men are one of the fastest growing segments of the cosmetic surgery market. Top executives, for example, are electing to undergo liposuction, Botox injections, face-lifts, and other procedures to stay competitive in a labor market that places a premium on youth. Gay men are increasingly targeted as niche consumers and, indeed, their identities are “increasingly dependent upon consumer practices for their expression” (Holt, 2003, p. 47).
Although discourses that commodify our bodies tend to constrain professional identities and practices, they might also enable opportunities for resistance. Authors du Gay, Hall, Janes, MacKay, and Negus (1997) argue that meaning is always made in usage. Consumers have the ability to resist and reframe discourses of commodification because of their power to appropriate a variety of meanings.
By resisting the passivity that often accompanies consumption, consumers reclaim the power of demand, exercise agency, and participate more actively in practices of organization (Twitchell, 2000). As we consider potential sites of resistance to commodification, we must search for the spaces where organized individuals have exercised their agency as consumers to challenge more pervasive discourses (LeGreco, 2005). In doing so, organizational scholars may extend research concerning the body to consider practices of appropriation (du Gay et al., 1997). For example, Zoller’s (2003a, 2003b) research regarding the proliferation of on-site fitness centers has suggested that organizations have become increasingly interested in the health of their workers. As suggested above, this desire to produce fit members might be a covert discourse of commodification; however, it has been argued that our analysis cannot end with commodification (du Gay et al., 1997). We must explore how workers use or appropriate these fitness centers to fulfill a variety of needs.
While producers/organizations might design a product, like a fitness center, to better control the bodies of their workers, these workers also reap the material benefits of reduced blood pressure, lower stress levels, and improved general health. As they use such products, they might be better positioned to make demands that the organization provide healthier food or more choices within their health care plans. Perhaps the best resistance to the commodification of the body is the commodification of the workplace. Such actions and the analysis of them must attend carefully to the operations of social class, because workers lacking job security and status may have less agency to make demands on their organizations. Exploring the dialogue between commodification and appropriation presents us with a fresh perspective on the choices and resources available to workers in the construction of professional identities and bodies.
It is often said that ours is an age of complexity, fragmentation, and insecurity. In the workplace, “individuals confront the realities of hypercompetitive marketplaces, technologically mediated relationships, inconsistent empowerment, and economic insecurity” (Pratt & Doucet, 2000, p. 204). Risk has always been a key feature of the relationship between individuals and their organizations. Workers bring their bodies to work and put them at risk through labor in exchange for tangible (money) and intangible (identity, meaning, control) benefits that are often unstable and can easily be withdrawn. Professional bodies are often the medium and product of gendered efforts to resolve this insecurity. Everyday performances of gender at work can be viewed as embodied attempts to resolve insecure subjectivities, and this communication often reflects and reproduces social and material risks to the body. Thus, by interrogating our understanding of our bodies in relation to organized risks we may better understand the role of communication in the construction of gendered workplace meanings (Acker, 1990; Hassard, Holliday, & Willmott, 2000; Trethewey, 2000). The embodied doing of gender is therefore meaningfully (and problematically) accomplished in the context of insecurity and risk.
In the absence of other sources of security, the workplace increasingly functions as a site of identity formation where we engage in the more individualistic pursuits of success, achievement, enterprise, and consumption often as a means of securing preferred gender identities (du Gay, 1996; Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000). Insecurities may function as sources of gender identities that are more or less preferred. Following Collinson (2003), we define insecurity as “an irreducible ambiguity at the heart of identity construction” that emerges as a discursive medium and outcome of efforts to fix meanings of the self. Insecurity is tied to a “dual experience of the self” in which members are “active agents in the world” (subjects) who also reflexively monitor how others see them (objects) (p. 532; see also Giddens, 1991). Yet, as we will suggest, insecurities may also be considered sites where the doing of gender is accomplished through micropractices that draw upon and often reproduce discourses that attempt to fix the meanings of gender asymmetrically.
Everyday understandings of what it means to be a man or woman at work are often accomplished in relation to personal risks. Many of us go to work not just to earn a living but to find meaning, belonging, and identity. These collective resources cannot be obtained autonomously. Structures of power shape the means by which members must discipline themselves, including their bodies. To avoid the risks of rejection, identity loss, and insecurity, we often submit to a normalization (Foucault, 1977, 1980) in which “the eccentricities of human beings, in their behavior, appearance, and beliefs, are measured and if necessary corrected” (Collinson, 2003, p. 528). While we can withhold thoughts and (particularly negative) feelings from others (Hochschild, 1983; Kramer & Hess, 2002), our bodies can be gazed upon, evaluated, and disciplined asymmetrically. As we seek security in the senses of belonging, identity, and control that can be obtained through conformity with local expectations, organizational discourse provides resources for accomplishing gender in embodied ways (Trethewey, 1999, 2000). As such, our embodied attempts at resolving gendered insecurity have the potential to reproduce the structures of insecurity to which we respond (Collinson, 2003; Giddens, 1984). Collinson’s (1992) study of male shop floor employees demonstrates how their efforts to resolve or even resist the insecurities produced by the discourses of working-class masculinity often had the unintended consequence of reproducing the very structures of meaning that alienated these workers from both management and one another.
Enacting gendered professionalism at work involves our ability to draw upon, reproduce, and occasionally resist contradictory extra-organizational discourses about bodily appearance. Trethewey’s (2000) study of women’s bodies at work demonstrates how these professionals often consider their bodies objects on display. Although women have traditionally been the objects (and subjects) of discourses about dressing for success, the male professional body—once relatively invisible—is now arguably the object of mounting expectations for fitness as well. Thus, both women and men may experience insecurity about their bodies, and attempt to perform as secure subjects in order to resolve those ambiguities.
In addition to providing standards by which our gendered performances are judged, insecurities also provide sites at which to accomplish gender (Collinson, 2003). Since insecurities threaten a preferred sense of self, embodying gender in locally appropriate ways often requires that we craft our bodies in opposition to these threats. The varied, gendered meanings of professionalism are thus carried out in organizational practices through which we attempt to comport, position, and otherwise discipline our bodies in relation to interpersonal and material hazards. As a case in point, the accommodation and negotiation of risk has long been a resource for the performance of masculinity. While this performance takes on different forms, depending on the class of masculinity being enacted (Willis, 1977), a willingness to decisively take on risk has long been a precondition for the believable performance of masculine organizational roles (Collinson, 1999; Zoller, 2003a).
Our bodies are often cast as professional regarding in relation to risks through communication that relies upon and reproduces gendered and classed notions of how bodies should appear at work. The very idea of looking professional (“dress for success”) connotes a secure, usually male, middle-and upper-class body far removed from the taint of physical labor. Suits and designer shoes are only practical when our bodies are isolated from many physical dangers and we do not have to work with our hands. Thus, professional dress calls upon and reproduces class divisions. It is ironic that increasingly informal workplace dress codes (“business casual” or “blue jean Fridays”) have emerged in the United States during a historical moment in which risky physical labor is considered by many either distant or irrelevant due to global outsourcing and an increasingly service- and information-based economy.
While many seek a sense of professionalism through isolation from bodily risks, others seek security through isolation from professionalism. Empirical studies of gender in blue-collar contexts have documented how some employees position their own personal, organizational, and occupational identities against notions of professionalism, preferring instead to engage in skilled manual labor and/or jobs designed for the daily negotiation of risk (Collinson, 1992, 1999; Haas, 1977; Knights, 1990). Many studies of blue-collar workplace masculinity describe men’s discursive efforts to collectively construct notions of self that ascribe asymmetrical value to types of work that are more or less embodied; where, for example, working with one’s hands is a pursuit worthy of real men and paper pushing is feminized. Collinson (1988, 1992), in his study of male shop floor employees, documents the efforts of members to engage in discursive practices that construct their collective identity in opposition to management, an emasculated other that they construct in feminine terms (“Nancy boy”). For them, what would be gained by adopting a more professional identity is outweighed by the risks of aligning one’s self and body with the feminized managers who are viewed as literally afraid to dirty their hands. Similarly, Scott (2005) describes the efforts of municipal firefighters to secure masculine workplace identities (being “real” firefighters) by violating safety procedures and risking their bodies in pursuit of hypermasculine badges of honor. When fire conditions became so extreme that incident commanders ordered firefighters out of burning structures, some younger firefighters disobeyed so that they could melt and disfigure parts of their helmet, a seemingly sure means of passing as an authentic firefighter.
When the accommodation of bodily risk is integral to efforts to stabilize and secure preferred identity, embodied acts of resistance to managerial discourse (resisting or disobeying rules intended to protect employees) may be employed to secure identity even as they may also threaten one’s physical safety. Scholars must move beyond romanticizing such acts of resistance to consider their unintended consequences (Collinson, 1992), particularly when they are directed at the resolution of insecurity. In her analysis of the biometric surveillance of the body, Ball (2005) argues that retinal scans and fingerprint technology have emerged in workplaces to secure the body as a source of truth and an anchor for identity. Ball, however, suggests that the body is always changing and often unstable. Organizational practices that attempt to fix the body often instill us with a false sense of security. Indeed, there is little evidence to suggest that insecurities are ever fully resolved. Scholars should explore the material, embodied consequences of security and insecurity at work and the discourses that work to produce them.
In their quest to craft a secure identity, professional employees often rely upon others to service their bodies (and those of their family members). For professional employees, especially women, these service providers enable and maintain the seamless performance required by the entrepreneurial self. Professional women often rely upon a cadre of others to care for, attend to, and fine-tune their bodies to better respond to the symbolic and material demands of work. The services of hair stylists, colorists, manicurists, fitness trainers, aestheticians, personal shoppers, massage therapists, plastic surgeons, health care professionals, and others are required to keep the gendered professional body in working order. These apparent requirements of the professional body are, of course, discursive effects of commodification, entrepreneurialism, medicalization, gender, and class.
Those who do the work of maintaining others’ professional bodies are rarely among the professional class. Indeed, “to maintain a certain distance from one’s own body, and especially from those of others, has developed as an important sign of hierarchical position in western societies” (Hancock & Tyler, 2000, p. 98). Work that involves touching others’ bodies is often stigmatized, and those who do it are often physically or socially “tainted” (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999) in gendered and classed ways. For example, nurses who do bodywork or lots of touching are looked down upon, as “touching is not considered ‘real work’ by others” (Van Dongen & Elema, 2001, p. 161). Nurses manage this tainted activity by describing bodywork as an art or a calling, crafting for themselves a more preferred identity. Their doing so is in stark contrast to the masculine “ideology of excellence” practiced by medical students. Scheibel (1996) describes how medical students learn to appropriate female bodies mechanistically. One way they manage the potential taint associated with touching patients’ bodies is to construct their work as technical, skilled, and not at all touchy-feely. They describe performing gynecological exams with language that is detached and mechanical. One doctor described an unconscious woman patient as a “vending machine”; each student “walks up and sticks a hand in” (p. 318).
The management of taint and the doing of gender and class may intersect and function as communicative activities that mutually constitute one another. In their comparative study of taint management among correctional officers and municipal firefighters, Tracy and Scott (in press) note that the highly masculine image afforded firefighters gave them a “status shield” that enabled them to ward off the taint of certain tasks (“shit work”) and clients (“shit bums”). Firefighters were also able in this way to employ performances of masculinity and sexuality to manage taint through discursive techniques that were less available to correctional officers.
Not only do professionals engage in a variety of strategies to maintain their bodies and professional images, they also regularly hire others to attend to the unsavory aspects of their own bodily functions or those of their loved ones. In so doing, they free themselves to pursue preferred work identities. Indeed, “many of the gains of professional-class working women have been leveraged on the backs of poor women” (Flanagan, 2004, p. 128). In her exposé of how professional women are able to become “liberated,” Flanagan makes it clear that middle-class professionals often employ teams of working-class, often Third World women to tend to their literal and figurative “shit” work, including cleaning their toilets and changing dirty diapers. Barbara Ehrenreich (2001) reminds us that “shit happens,” and it happens “to a cleaning person every day” (p. 93). It was not always this way. White second-wave feminists were loath to enlist the aid of their black counterparts as domestics, and many encouraged alternative means to attend to domestic matters while they entered the workforce, including advocating wages for housework, men’s participation in it, and communal living. Today, most of those alternatives appear to have fallen away, as the first world has “been flooded with immigrant domestic workers” in the past 20 years (Flanagan, 2004, p. 114), and professional women’s “equivocations about the moral justness of white women’s employing dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated” (p. 114).
It is possible to resist the current arrangements in which bodies are serviced. Greater awareness about how feminine bodies are tainted or pathologized may empower women and men to find new ways of creatively maintaining and displaying the body to their satisfaction. As consumers, we can also inquire about the wages and working conditions of those who serve us and spend money reflectively rather than reactively. Gender may also be employed positively in the seemingly inevitable practices of taint management. Tracy and Scott (2003) conclude with “cautious optimism” that some performances of gender and sexuality have the capacity to manage taint in ways that could uphold rather than stigmatize so-called dirty occupations. They demonstrate how firefighters employed performances of masculinity and heterosexuality to reorganize tainted and feminized dimensions of identity-threatening job tasks, including serving clients that they deem unworthy (who were not experiencing a “real” emergency). They note, however, that such performances were less available to correctional officers, the other occupation represented in their sample.
Reforming the Body: An Action Agenda for Organizational Communication Research
We began this chapter by arguing that, whether professional or unprofessional, the body remains an absent presence in the study of organizations. We have reviewed a number of studies that do, but they are exceptions that prove the rule. Most organization studies are predicated on the unacknowledged modernist assumption that organizational processes are mental, that the social practices that make up the experience of organizing are enacted without passion, pain, pleasure, hunger, or joy. They have often dissociated mind and body and have tended to psychologize embodied experience (Acker, 1990; Deetz, 2003; Hassard et al., 2000). It would be nice if that this scholarly disregard for the body had only scholarly consequences. Unfortunately, however, the mind/body dualism in the academy is related to a similar tendency in everyday workplace discourse, which has life-and-blood implications for the embodied experiences of people at work, implications that our discipline has often failed to acknowledge. Thus, research and pedagogy have perpetuated the myth that organizing is a disembodied process, even as it “assumes and celebrates particular bodily performances” (Sinclair, 2005, p. 89).
We have largely failed to study the discursive constitution and material effects of working-class bodies. Studies documenting the discursive constitution of working-class identities are numerous (Collinson, 1992; Connell, 1995; Willis, 1981), but missing from nearly all of them is a theoretical account of the material implications of such identity work for workers’ bodies. Sixty percent of the U.S. workforce makes less than what is considered a living wage and experience chronic and acute distress as a result (Ehrenreich, 2001). Their embodied experience of work centers less on identity management and more on survival.
We think it is troubling, for example, that, to date, there have been no critical studies in our field of Wal-Mart. One of the nation’s largest employers, Wal-Mart has a dubious record in its relations with its largely low-wage, part-time employees. Discrimination against its female employees has been alleged in a recent class action suit, the largest workplace bias case in U.S. history. It was brought by six female employees who claim the company has systematically denied women promotion and paid them less than men (Greenhouse & Hays, 2004). Wal-Mart can be viewed as an artifact of current material, economic, and (embodied) experiential trends in the workplace. Indeed, some have coined the Wal-Martization of the economy to explain a general downward pressure on wages. Wal-Mart
pays its full-time hourly workers an average of $9.64, about a third of the level of union [grocery] chains. It also shoulders much less of its workers’ annual health insurance costs than rivals, leaving 53% of its 1.2 million employees uncovered by the company plan. (Conlin & Bernstein, 2004, p. 64)
A former manager at Wal-Mart describes how he would routinely “‘load workers into my truck to take them down to United Way’” for support services. He kept on file the telephone numbers of local homeless shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens because his employees, “couldn’t make it on their paychecks” (p. 64). If we are true to the fundamental tenets of our discipline, the communicative basis for these material conditions will be explored and the possibilities for change theorized, even enacted.
We believe it would be a mistake to lay the blame for the current situation only on institutions, such as corporations or universities. Scholars have probably also been constrained by their own theoretical concepts. For example, much of the extant scholarship on organized bodies is predicated on the work of Foucault (1977, 1980). While Foucault’s conceptualizations of the relationships among discourse/ power, identity, and the body have led to great developments in the study of bodies and identities in organizations, the ongoing appropriation of Foucault may have had the unintended consequence of a kind of “text positivism” in which the body is just another text (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004). Here, the tendency is to focus on the discursive and cultural consequences to identity work without attending to the very real, embodied experiences that make up the texture of work.
This critique does not aim at Foucauldian analyses per se, but rather argues for a more direct consideration of the capacity of discourse to enable the production of positive and negative material realities. Consider the embodied conditions of the working female poor and their children. Single women are overrepresented among the working poor, for whom wages often do not cover child care costs or barely do so. Women are overrepresented in low-wage service jobs that often lack health insurance or pension coverage. It is not surprising, then, that the “U.S. has the highest child-poverty rate in the industrialized world. Our low-income mothers work twice as hard as those in any other industrial country—but their kids are worse off” (Conlin & Bernstein, 2004, p. 64). To what extent do organizational communication studies of women at work address these material realities and the processes of organizational communication that draw upon gendered societal discourses to produce them? To what extent is our work instead overwhelmingly biased toward the experiences and perspectives of white upper-middle-class managers who are privileged to be able to focus on middle-class gender issues such as enterprising selves, image management, and glass ceilings because they don’t have to worry about paying the rent, getting day care for their kids and health insurance?
Reforming our research on professional bodies will require several shifts in our disciplinary practice. First, if the body remains an absent presence in organizational theory, existing lines of research should be revised and extended to account for embodiment. Second, scholars should pay greater attention to the material conditions that produce and are produced by embodied organizational discourse. Third, the research on organized bodies cannot be taken seriously until it considers how discourses of race, class, and sexuality function as resources for doing gender and/or professionalism. Finally, we urge that scholars pay careful attention to how their own research, whether or not it is intended to address gender, disembodies the very research subjects it intends to empower. Doing so requires greater methodological self-reflexivity. They could consider how their own research designs and other scholarly practices function to accommodate, resist, or supplant mind/body dualism.
As we contemplate how to enact such scholarship, perhaps the study of organizational policy provides us with an opportunity to explore alternative forms of organizing that focus on embodied needs. Organizations often enact policy as a “documented posture of the organization, revealing the essential tension, contradiction, and struggle between rights granted and privileges withheld” (Peterson & Albrecht, 1999, p. 170). As individuals construct their professional personas, these policies operate as a discursive guide to make sense of the material conditions of our organized bodies.
Policies pertaining to health insurance, workers’ compensation, and parental leave provide employees with a framework to interpret their bodies when they fall ill, get hurt, or choose to have children. Policy statements illustrate a relationship between organization and individual that hinges on trust, vulnerability, and dependence (Goold, 1998). Policies rely on the allure of stability and security to control the meanings and actions of workers, especially in terms of their health (Conrad & McIntush, 2002). When our bodies align with socialized expectations, we fabricate a sense of mastery or control over our more primitive desires (Bordo, 1993). The idea that we take personal responsibility for the health of our bodies, particularly as they operate in the workplace, fuels the discourses of professionalism and the need for policy to provide clear courses of action.
While policies might provide workers with key resources to interpret and construct their organizational experiences, they often function communicatively to conflate the gendered needs of bodies. As Martin (1990) illustrated in her analysis of pregnancy in organizations, a male executive’s heart attack differs greatly from a female executive’s childbearing both in their embodied experiences and in the discourses used to construct them. Organizations and individuals negotiate a preferred posture for making sense of embodied needs. We must realize that efforts to secure organizational policies are always implicated in the gendered organization of work. Workmen’s compensation, for example, was developed when white male workers dominated the labor market. It was designed to accommodate the needs and experiences of this specific group (Boris & Kleinberg, 2003). Other policies were designed to protect the worker from harm, suggesting that work placed the (male) body at risk. Women’s emergence into the labor force marked a notable change in the construction of social and organizational policies concerning women and work (Rose, 1991). Women’s bodies were constructed as problematic within the traditional worker paradigm. Policies derived from women’s experiences often drew from and sustained the otherness of their bodies through the justification for initiatives like parental leave (Boris & Kleinberg, 2003). These gendered discourses positioned the leaky, protruding female body as placing the work at risk. As a result, organizations and individuals tend to view the material needs of a woman’s body as cumbersome to professional advancement.
Policies may reify the worker’s position of powerlessness, as they dictate how workers should interpret their gendered, raced, classed, and aged experiences. For example, Clair (1993) argues that sexual harassment policies that advocate a “say-no” approach or a “keep-a-record” solution further dis-empower victims and privatize issues by keeping grievances out of our daily public discourses. At the same time, however, policies also present workers with public possibilities for resistance by providing structural resources for holding organizations accountable for their safety, security, and well-being. As Clair further demonstrated, when victims draw from alternative resources by, for example, making policy procedures, brochures, and punishments more visible, they resisted the dominant practices of silencing and marginalizing. When they hold their colleagues, superiors, and organizations accountable for benefits and safety accorded through policies, they make these issues a part of our public organizational discourses. Moreover, they open a dialogue for ensuring the needs and rights of the worker. When we let the organization set the sole terms of participation, we abdicate our individual needs in the service of that organization. In doing so, we enable the organization and the policies that it enacts to define our needs, interpret our experiences, and understand our bodies for us.
In their current state, the majority of organizational policies reflect the motivations of managerialism—the reproduction of working-class dependence on the organization to define needs and dictate practice (LeGreco, 2002). In more critical incarnations of research, we might continue to look at the disjunctures between policy and practice (Kirby, 2000; Kirby & Krone, 2002) as they both enable and constrain the actions of the working class. At the same time, more participatory forms of research hold a great deal of promise for transcending the constraints of policy and reframing organizational practice. Scholars will continue to praise increased employee participation (Deetz, 1992) and call for bold research projects that engage socially significant problems in practical ways (Cheney, Wilhelmsson, & Zorn, 2002; Tracy, 2002; Trethewey, 2002). We argue that the applied study of policy serves as a starting point to translate our scholarship into material benefits for the individuals we study. If we enabled a discussion between management and working-class families regarding parental leave, family health programs, and child care, for example, we could build new organizational policies from the ground up that reflect the embodied needs of working families. In doing so, we might more effectively bridge the gap between our research concerning organized bodies and those that actually do the work.
Organizational communication scholars are well positioned to stake a claim among those on the forefront of the effort to reform organizational bodies. We can document the experience of both professional employees and the working poor, who often enable professional bodies to thrive. We can serve as advocates not only of professional women, but also of working-class employees. We can critique the organizational discourses and policies that reinforce the glass ceiling and make family leave difficult as well as those that enable and perpetuate low-wage work, unsafe working conditions, and the growing crisis in health insurance. And we can celebrate organizational best practices that serve a variety of professional and nonprofessional bodies.