Special Session Summary the Re-Emergence of the Body in Consumer Behaviour Research

SESSION ABSTRACT - With a few exceptions, the body has been largely ignored as a focus of research within the field of consumer behaviour (see Thompson and Hirschman 1995). This session examines the body as a vehicle for self-expression and identity construction, the mutability of which is constrained by societal standards and biological limitations. The centrality of the body in everyday definition and construction of the self, in social affiliation, and in the development of dysfunctional behaviours are examined from various theoretical perspectives and from the perspective of social marketing.


Luk Warlop and Suzanne C. Beckmann (2001) ,"Special Session Summary the Re-Emergence of the Body in Consumer Behaviour Research", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 18-22.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 18-22



Luk Warlop, KULeuven, Belgium

Suzanne C. Beckmann, Copenhagen Business School and Saatchi & Saatchi. Denmark


With a few exceptions, the body has been largely ignored as a focus of research within the field of consumer behaviour (see Thompson and Hirschman 1995). This session examines the body as a vehicle for self-expression and identity construction, the mutability of which is constrained by societal standards and biological limitations. The centrality of the body in everyday definition and construction of the self, in social affiliation, and in the development of dysfunctional behaviours are examined from various theoretical perspectives and from the perspective of social marketing.


Consumers want to comply with physical appearance norms that exist within the groups they wat to identify themselves with. They are driven by powerful social motives. Individuals are often rejected or feel rejected if their appearance does not correspond to the norms and standards that exist in the social group they affiliate with (DeJong 1980), while they are rewarded for looks that do match these stereotypes (Feingold 1992). The body is also increasingly accepted as a vehicle for the motives of self-expression and identity construction through body adornment and alteration practices, from the virtually riskless and temporary (cosmetic use), to the dangerous (self-starvation) and irreversible (tattooing, plastic surgery). Individual problems in creating an identity may be revealed in dysfunctional body-related behaviours such as eating disorders or self-mutilation, and attract (or should attract) the attention of social marketers (Richins 2000).

(Evolving) societal standards about appearance sometimes drive these alteration behaviours (like in dieting), and sometimes constrain how far an individual can go in creative self-construction (eg, piercing and tattooing). But also the body itself acts a constraint. For example, the properties of one’s body constrain the unlimited creation of self through clothing. And, while the mutability of the body is increasingly accessible and increasingly acceptable, there are limits to the extent the body allows mutation and change. The success of dieting, for example, is constrained by genetic factors (Brownell and Rodin 1994).

As more artificial and artistic means of altering the body become available, we must ask ourselves the question: "what are the limits of human self-creation"? This session explores the many ways in which consumers use the body to push the limits of self-identity. Four contributions illustrate how the body may act simultaneously as an instrument of and as a constraint on identity construction. WARLOP, LEROUGE and HEYMANS document the existence of potentially harmful perceptual distortions of the body image and of self-ideal discrepancies, and their links to a number of appearance-related consumer behaviours. BECKMANN & HELWEG’s case study follows up on this research by describing how deep-rooted problems in creating an identity may translate in eating disorders, and discusses both the genesis of a social marketing campaign to address these issues and the difficulties of communicative execution. BANISTER and HOGG studied how consumers negotiate between different identities, and adapt to the constraints imposed by the body in the choice of clothing and accessories. Finally, VELLIQUETTE and BAMOSSY take a broader perspective and discuss explicitly the emergence of the dialectic between societal standards and a personal need for self-identification as revealed in body adornment and mutilation practices.

Although varying in content, scope and methodology, the four contributions are united in their attempt to revive interest in the body as a central construct in the study of consumer behaviour. Furthermore, they are linked together by central concepts such as self-identification, identity and ideal/real selves, relating these concepts to the use of the body in contemporary societies with seemingly unlimited opportunities of self-expression.



Luk Warlop, KULeuven, Belgium

Davy Lerouge, KULeuven, Belgium

Robin Heymans, KULeuven, Belgium

Physical appearance is extremely important in a person’s life. This is not unwarranted. Many studies show that attractive individuals receive more favourable treatments from society than their unattractive counterparts (Feingold 1992).

More generally, body image has been recognised as an important determinant of a number of consumer behaviours. A first stream of research measures how body image deviates from ideals, and relates this to (possibly dysfunctional) consumer behaviours (e.g., Rozin and Fallon 1988). A second stream examines individual differences in traits that reflect the level of concern with and the evaluation of one’s own body. Netemeyer, Burton and Lichtenstein (1995) developed a vanity scale, with subscales for physical vanity measure evaluation and (exaggerated) view of one’s own body. In this study we try to combine both perspectives.

Personal concerns and societal norms of attractiveness have a lot to do with body image, which according to Cash and Pruzinsky (1990) has two main components. The first component is perceptual: individuals differ in the extent to which their perceived physical appearance deviates from reality. In past research, perceptual distortions of body size have been found correlates of eating disorders. Other findings suggest that these distortions also occur in normal populations.

The other component is motivational. Perceptions of one’s own body deviate from personal ideals, and from the norms consumers project in the minds of other individuals in society. Self-ideal discrepancies have also been found significant predictors of a number of consumer behaviours, some of which may be harmful if used excessively (sunbathing, fitness, plastic surgery, and so forth).

Burton et al. (1994) found that concern but not the positive view was related to discrepancies between ideal and perceived breast size in women. They also found a positive correlation between both discrepancy measures and the likelihood of considering plastic (breast) surgery. We extend their research in several ways. We collected measures of self-perceptions and ideal images about breast size, but also waist-to hip ratio and overall body size from 455 female university freshmen using the silhouette method developed by Rozin and Fallon (1988). The respondents were shown sheets with 48 female silhouettes differing in breast size (4 levels), waist-to-hip ratio (4 levels) and overall body size (3 levels), and were asked to indicate the figures most similar to their actual body image, their ideal body image, and the respective ideals of other women and men. Data were collected during routine freshman medical tests, and were complemented with physician’s evaluations using the same scale. The main dependent measures were the distortion of body image, defined as the distortion between perceived actual size and the physician’s evaluation on all three dimensions, and the discrepancies between actual image and one’s own ideals and other’sBmale and female- ideals on the same dimensions. In addition, we administered a Flemish adaptation of the vanity scale, and we collected frequency measures of sunbathing, exercising, dieting, cosmetic use, and consideration of plastic surgery.

The complete analysis will be reported at the conference. Currently we can only report preliminary results. We partially replicate the findings of Burton et al. (1994). We find large deviations between ideal and actual breast size, but no relationship to either of the two physical vanity subscales. Neither do we find evidence for perceptual distortions in breast size. We do find quite large perceptual distortion effects for both waist-to-hip ratio and overall body size. The respondents systematically perceived themselves larger and with a higher waist to hip ratio then objectively warranted. Self-perception of body size (corrected for actual size) is significantly less accurate for respondents with a low-positive view then for those with a high positive view of their own appearance. There is no relationship with concern about appearance.

A remarkable, and hitherto unexplainable, finding is that waist-to-hip ratio perceptions are more accurate in deflated view respondents than in inflated view respondents. We do find that the discrepancy between self-perception and ideal body size and waist-to-hip ratio is larger for lower view than for higher view respondents. For each measure ideal self-perceptions are closer to the perceived measures than their estimates of the deals of others.

Concern about the body is a significant predictor of all investigated body-related consumer behaviors. View is (negatively) related only to dieting behavior. Analyses of mediation and moderation by perceptual distortion and self-ideal discrepancies of the vanity effects on body alteration consumer behaviors are currently under way.



Suzanne C. Beckmann, Copenhagen Business School and Saatchi & Saatchi, Denmark

Pernille Helweg, Saatchi & Saatchi, Denmark

Eating disorders are a widespread phenomenon in Western societies, mainly affecting young girls, but increasingly also young boys. In Denmark alone, it is estimated that 30% of young people between 14B20 years old are at risk to develop an eating disorderBeither anorexia or bulimia. Contrary to popular beliefs eating disorders are neither hysterical diets of teenagers who wish to become supermodels, nor do they have anything to do with food. Eating disorders are a psychological disorder, rooted in a denial of constructing one’s own identity. They are a symptom of a lack of ability to handle challenges and conflicts, thus reflecting an inner vulnerability that is expressed through a distorted way of thinking, feeling and acting about body, food and weight. This inner vulnerability is touched by various different events, such as difficulties within the family, loss of a close friend or fear of growing up. Inner vulnerability is also related to young people’s search for identity in their process of breaking away from parents and childhood and of searching new groups of peers to satisfy their need for belonging. If this search for identity becomes too difficult, the young person may react by denying the identity construction process and thus launch into an eating disorder.

Against this background, this year’s campaign for "Advertising for a good cause" was developed. Introduced in Norway ten years and in Denmark 3 years ago, this event annually gives a 10 mill. DKK advertising campaign for free to a non-profit organisation, which is selected by a jury in a competition. The 2000 organisation chosen in Denmark was "Anoreksiforeningen" (Association for Anorexia). Saatchi & Saatchi Copenhagen was asked to write the brief for the pitch of the advertising agencies, one of which eventually won the honour of executing the campaign which will be aired in the first 6 weeks of 2001. Advertising for a good cause 2000 in Norway has, simultaneously and not knowingly, chosen the same topic, but the results are not yet published.

The focus of this paper is on how the scientific and practical knowledge about eating disorders was turned into a campaign brief. Examples of the submitted campaigns will illustrate the difficulties of translating a complex and very sensitive issue into cause-related communication campaign ideas (see the Danish print-ads in Figure 1 for the competition below). The target group is not young people suffering from eating disorders, but their parents and other adults closely connected to teenagers, thus aiming at increasing both knowledge and understanding of the nature of eating disorders. The reaction of the public will be closely monitored in early 2001 when the campaign is aired, so that the three issues of cause, communication and consequences for the denial of identity through a specific form of body mutilation can be linked. The findings of this monitoring and analysis will be presented at the conference.





Emma N. Banister, UMIST, United Kingdom

Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, United Kingdom

"The old sayingBthat the human person is composed of three partsBsoul, body, nd clothesBis more than a joke" (James 1890)

This study responds to Joy and Venkatesh’s call (1994) for further research into the interrelationship between body, clothing and fashion as they identified how the #full force of marketing [links].. the body to numerous products and servicesBperfumes, fashion, clothing..". This research focuses on two of the three 'parts' considered to be essential elements of the human person according to William James (1890). Clothing links the body to the social world (Wilson 1985); and because the body is "the visible carrier of the self" (Featherstone 1991) it is an important site for negotiating identity and consumption.

Turner (1994) argues that "for the self in a consumer society, it is the body image that plays the determining role in the evaluation of self in the public arena. The surface of the body is the target of advertising and self-promotion, just as it is the body surfaces which are the site of stigmatisation". Body image is the mental picture that one has of his or her body at any moment in time (Kaiser 1997) and it is this 'mental’ picture which associates what is essentially a physical aspect of the self concept, to more psychological aspects of the self. Body image "is a complex phenomenon with at least three aspects: perceptual, cognitive, and emotional" (Gallagher 1986) which contribute significantly to consumers’ feelings about themselves and their self-conceptBboth positive and negative (Schouten 1991).

Much of the literature on the area of body image has focused on the notion of idealised body images and the impact which advertising has on (usually) women’s self esteem and self concept (Richins 1991; Martin and Kennedy 1993; Hogg, Bruce and Hough 1999). Our research focuses on how clothing is used by individuals as an expression of their feelings about their bodies, the usage of clothing to disguise what are perceived to be negative attributes and to prevent the activation of any negative feelings that they may possess. Unlike Schouten (1991), who explored the use of plastic surgery as a means to avoid negative images of the self, we looked at the more usual (and less irreversible) routes used by consumers in impression management: the ritual of the adornment of the body surface to create positive or avoid negative images of their bodies. The linkages between bodies and clothing imply that consumers use clothing to express their thoughts and feelings about their bodies. For this reason, consumers’ discussion of their fashion and clothing choices provides an effective means by which to elicit consumer attitudes to their bodies.

The specific purpose of this paper is to explore the importance of consumers’ body image to one of their possible selves (Markus and Nurius 1986): the negative self-concept. Two facets of the negative selfBthe undesired self (so not me!) and the avoidance self (just not me) have been identified (Banister and Hogg 2001) elsewhere. A third facet is proposed for this study: the irrelevant self (meaningless to me). Body image is a crucial feature of the self which relates to all three facets of the negative self.

The study was carried out with 30 participants (both male and female) between the ages of 19 and 30, and used qualitative methods, including informal interviews and a projective technique. The exploration of body image was not the original focus of the study but the importance of body image to many of the participants was a key emergent theme (Miles and Huberman 1994) providing an important link in the study of the negative self-concept and negative symbolic consumption.

The rejection of clothing items and fashion images could be linked to perceptions, thoughts and feelings about the self. Body image emerged as an important constraint on clothing preferences, operating in three primary waysBeach of which can be closely identified with a particular dimension of the negative self.

Firstly, there was the body as a practical constraint on clothing selction. This was the main impetus behind the rejection of clothing based on consumers’ irrelevant self. Consumers avoided (or did not even consider) the purchase of certain brands and retail brands because they perceived them as clothing that would not fit or suit their body size or body shape.

Secondly, the body was also interpreted as both a psychological and physical constraint on consumers’ clothing preferences and choices. This constraint appeared to be closely connected with consumers’ avoidance self. Consumers would reject clothing that they believed would be more suitable or flattering on people other than themselves. The interpretation of brands, items and retailers that evoked consumers’ avoidance self would depend on physical (i.e. body shape and size) and non-physical (i.e. character and personality) aspects of consumers, so the same item of clothing or brand might be interpreted positively on one person and negatively on another.

Thirdly, the body also generated an emotional constraint on clothing choice. When clothing evoked notions of the undesired self, this represented rejection 'out of hand’ of items, styles, brands and retailer brands. Rejection of clothing on the basis of the undesired self was often because these particular clothing styles or brands were felt to communicate what were perceived as negative messages regarding the consumer. The undesired self had connections with consumers’ notions or attitudes to the body generally, most notably with the affective aspects of attitudes and often fairly strong feelings of revulsion.

A second issue which emerged was the gendered nature of the findings. Little information about body image was volunteered by the male participants. Discussions regarding the body were very limited amongst males, this in itself represents an interesting finding which would warrant additional research to establish the place of the body image in men’s views of their possible selves, including their negative self especially in the light of the finding that "the body has become a mark of selfhood for men as well as women" (Jagger 1998). This provides considerable scope for exploring how men use fashion and clothing on their body surfaces in their adornment rituals.



Anne Velliquette, University of Utah, USA

Gary Bamossy, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The general focus of this study is product symbolism and body adornment. In the past decade, many nations in Europe and North America which would be grouped as comprising "Western Culture," are experiencing a resurgence of tribal body adornment practices. While these practices vary from one country to another, this large and diverse group of tattooees have been collectively referred to as the "new tattoo subculture." In terms of consumer behavior, the signs and symbols chosen by members of the tattoo subculture can be viewed as part of a discursive mix used to communicate individual and group identity. Thus, the conceptual literature that becomes important in understanding why consumers participate in the tattoo subculture involves various identity theories. Taking a postmodern view of Western society, consumption becomes the primary means for the construction of self (Firat and Venkatesh 1995). Through the consuming body (i.e., through fashion, body adornment/modification, and overall image and style), an individual can produce and reproduce a desired identity at will.

Many theorists (including Deleuze, Giddens, Guattari, Foucault, and Jameson) believe that the self is destabilized (but not dissolved as Baudrillard would argue) through the commodification of culture. While social identities still exist, these identities now have their basis in consumption. The individual is turned into a consumer of signs and images, and identity (which is now formed through television, movies, advertising and other forms of cultural media) becomes chronically unstable, inconsistent and incoherent (Dunn 1998). This means that the term identity may no longer be useful in its original form. A new term, identification, may be more useful under the postmodern conditions outlined herein. Identification is seen as a construction; a continuous process of change and transformation where identities are always conditional and contingent, and thus, never completed- always in process or motion (Hall 1996). Related to this notion is the idea of identity or life politics (e.g., see Hall 1996 and Giddens 1991).

Consumer researchers have long suggested that objects (as well as the use of the body as an object) may be value-expressive, however, they are just beginning to explore the social and political implications. The early interpretivist researchers emphasized an extreme form of agency (i.e., the liberating potential of symbolic consumption) when attempting to understand consumption behaviors, where consumers actively, freely, and playfully create and interact to shape their environment and sense of self (e.g., Belk 1988; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Levy 1981; and Rook 1985). At the other extreme we have Grant McCracken’s (1986) theoretical account of structure (i.e., marketing institutions, advertising, and media) and its primary role in the transfer of cultural meaning to consumers, whereby consumers are pawns in the game of consumption. Both of these views ignore the political and oppressive potential of the symbolic. That is, when a consumer chooses a particular style or image, they automatically align themselves with a particular subject position while they simultaneously distinguish themselves from others. The consumer is then judged by those who are different and forced to defend their chosen subject position. In this sense, the consumer is involved in a form of emancipatory or identity politics, in which he/she has to fight for liberation from the groups and social forces that constrain them (Giddens 1991). Hence, the result for identity formation is that it is a constant process of negotiating/renegotiating and defending one’s various subject positions. In summary, this research sheds light on the dialectical tension that exists between the consumer acting freely and playfully as agent in the creation of self, and the structures and social forces that regulate the creation of self. One phenomenological case will be discussed in detail focusing on the role that consumption acts/choices and tattoo symbolism play in the life-long processes of identification and life politics.


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Luk Warlop, KULeuven, Belgium
Suzanne C. Beckmann, Copenhagen Business School and Saatchi &amp Saatchi. Denmark


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001

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