Contested Values: The Gendering of Body Work and the Undervaluation of Women's Labour

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW1.2.04 (Tower One)
Rachel Lara Cohen, City University London, London, United Kingdom
Carol Wolkowitz, University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom
This paper argues that one reason why the value of women’s work is contested is that it often involves what we conceptualise as ‘body work’ (Wolkowitz 2006; Cohen 2011, Twigg et al 2011, Wolkowitz et al 2013), i.e. paid work focusing directly on and involving manipulation of the bodies of others. These bodies thus become the object of the worker’s labour; the material of production. Conversely, the undervaluation of body work partly rests on its deeply gendered character. Paid body work is overwhelmingly undertaken by women; for example, nursing, hairdressing, care work and massage are largely female occupations, although jobs involving an explicit control function, such as prison warder or bouncer, are usually masculinised. Today equivalent body work activities continue to occur within both domestic and non-domestic environments and across market, quasi-market and non-market settings. This ambivalent positioning affects the social meaning and value attributed to body work. This work is also largely hidden – physically and socially – and stigmatised. We draw upon historical, ethnographic and quantitative sources and provide examples of historical transformations in the meanings, social location, organisation and costs of the provision of body work over time, paying particular attention to the two sectors, hairdressing and care work. We discuss the historical movement of body work into and out of the commodity sector and highlight the unique nature of bodies as a material of production – highly variable, indivisible and unpredictable. We suggest that this produces problems for organisation of the labour process by capital.  Thus, we argue, the intractability of the gender division of labour and the undervaluation of body work result from interplay between the changing meanings of inter-corporeality in many service sector occupations and the spatial, temporal and labour market requirements of work that takes others’ bodies as its material of production.