People are social creatures and our interactions with other people play a critical part of our lives that, unfortunately, impedes on our own individual sense of uniquity. This phenomenon can be described as the advertent and inadvertent influence of social structures that limit our agency. Social structures being the relationships that bring various parts of society closer together (Crossman & Scherer, 2015) and “set powerful limits and boundaries within which we live our lives that often appear to be quite natural” (Crossman & Scherer, 2015, p.14). Agency being “the ability of individuals and groups to act independently in a goal-directed manner and to pursue their own ‘free’ choices” (Crossman & Scherer, 2015, p.14). Our human nature of socializing has complex consequences that manifest themselves in rules and resources that hinder individuals’ freedom. Furthermore, many aspects of an individual’s life can be accredited to society’s broader macro and global structures. C. Wright Mills, devised this concept of the sociological imagination (Crossman & Scherer, 2015). The sociological imagination is split between three kinds of sensitivities in which we can analyze society – historical, critical and comparative. Relative to my body, the concept of the sociological imagination can be self-applied as I have sought out to change my body’s physique, conforming to society’s idealized hegemonic masculine physique. Crossman & Scherer (2015) state hegemonic masculinity as “the dominant vision of masculinity that many boys and men consent to as something that is entirely ‘natural’ and ‘self-evident,’ even while [it] is being perpetually challenged, reinforced, and reconstructed” (p.16). In addition, I will argue that my physique is shaped more by society’s social structures instead of my own agency due to society’s impact through the three types of sensitivities. After analyzing my own body, I will provide an insight on society’s powerful, but unseen effect of manipulating people’s physique.
Growing up as a relatively skinny, underweight boy, I wanted to change my appearance by gaining more muscle mass on top of what little I already had – surrendering to society’s trends. I always felt like I was being criticized for my body shape and size. Even though most people in my social circle never verbally commented on my physical appearance, I could always sense that it was something they would speak about behind my back. Weighing approximately 125 pounds and a height of 5 feet 10 inches, my Body Mass Index (BMI) resulted in a 17.9, which is considered underweight (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, n.d.). I committed myself to a bodybuilding style of weight training alongside strict nutrition that would help me obtain a better-built body that I can look in the mirror and be proud of and also feel good about. Moreover, my body now has shoulders that have started to round off, biceps that visibly have tone and have started to peak, as well as a chest that has striations running all across. In addition, I can see all the different muscles in my back. For example, my latissimus dorsi have begun to spread wider and other areas have become thicker such as my rhomboids and trapezius. My legs have grown to where I can now see separation between my rectus femoris and vastus medialis. And my hamstrings have become incredibly thicker over time. Over the months, I have followed a rigorous journey of workout and nutrition programs to get where I am today weighing roughly 170 pounds with a BMI of 24.4, which is considered normal weight (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, n.d.). I put my body through serious amounts of stress during my weightlifting sessions for my muscles to be able to adapt to change and thus, grow back bigger and stronger. I have now built a body that resembles society’s idealized hegemonic masculine body shape, which currently in today’s day and age is having a lean, toned, average-sized body. I am more satisfied with my current physique; however, my desire to change my body shape originated from structural influences that I was unconscious of at the time.
The first sensitivity associated with the sociological imagination is the historical sensitivity, which is situating people’s present experiences in the context of history (Crossman & Scherer, 2015). The idealized hegemonic masculine physique trends tend to reflect the current state of the world and are constantly evolving. For example, being overweight to demonstrate wealth in the late 19th century, skinny like a rock star in the 60’s, or muscular like the bodybuilders during the 80’s. Despite society’s current trend, past trends are still prevalent today acting as a background to influence people’s opinions regarding their body shape. For instance, someone who has been raised during the trend of tremendously muscular male physiques may believe this is what the ideal male physique should look. In other words, it is the ideal norm. Moreover, this generational factor plays a significant role in determining idealized hegemonic masculine physiques and slows down society’s reaction to changing physique trends. I have always looked up to people with muscular builds, interpreting their physique as symbolizing a “real” man. My view of my body is inseparable from society’s view due to social structures’ dominance over my own agency. Being born in a different time, my body shape would be contrasting from what it is today as there would be a dissimilar idealized hegemonic masculine body image influence. However, my opinions of my body would be influenced by society’s norm and society’s norm would be influenced by its historical background.
The second sensitivity linked with the sociological imagination is the comparative sensitivity. The comparative sensitivity describes how cultures socially construct their own ideal body types (Crossman & Scherer, 2015). As a Chinese-Canadian who has grown up in Canada, my current body shape would have differed if I were raised in China. This was due to China’s dissimilar ideas of hegemonic masculine physiques compared to those of North America. As I have spent an abundance amount of time in China and got the opportunity to understand more of their past and current culture regarding bodybuilding, I learned that China was not as influenced by North America’s trend of movie stars and the quickly-growing sport of bodybuilding. This was until 2013 when the first ever professional bodybuilding contest was ever held (Lee, 2013). For China, the ideal male physique is having a very slim or thin body. Living my entire life in Canada, I have been socialized to Canadian society’s hegemonic masculine norm of a well-built, muscular physique as opposed to China’s ideal body shape of normal/under-weight, slim body type physique. Cultures socially construct their own ideal physique that can be severely different from other cultures such that one’s socialization in that certain culture is a determinant of how he/she wants his/her body to look.
The third and final sensitivity is the critical sensitivity. This sensitivity acknowledges that individual aspects of society is constantly needing to be updated and reviewed to accommodate societal changes (Crossman & Scherer, 2015). As society in Canada becomes more supportive of individualized freedom, people will challenge ideal body norms. Additionally, Body image acceptance is gaining in popularity to enforce that in society, no one specific body shape is representative of what a “real” man should look like. I am satisfied with my physique and do not wish to alter it in any way due to the hard work I have put in. Although, my appreciation that I have for my physique could derive from the current norm of society and change when society’s norm changes. One profession that I am interested in pursuing in the future is personal training. Many young men such as myself may seek out a personal trainer who looks muscular, lean, and toned. However, considering how ideal body norms are shifting directions, people growing up 10 years from now may want a different looking trainer to achieve a different physique that this trainer has due to societal differences compared to today. Lastly, the degree of society’s impact on my own opinion of my body is uncertain due to their inseparable nature. Without a doubt, society’s ability to influence people is powerful. Using Mills’ idea of the sociological imagination as a framework for applying the three kinds of sensitivities to my body, I have demonstrated that my body’s physique is shaped more by society’s idealized hegemonic masculine physique than my own agency. In the long run, agency for even something as private as an individual’s own body is inseparable from the subconscious influence that social structures have on us. These social structures develop from the diverse historical and cultural background of society in which norms are constantly being updated and changed due to a changing society. If I were not raised in the historical and cultural environment that I was raised in, I may never have reached where I am today in my fitness journey.