Bodies. We All Have Them

Bodies. We all have them – our lives depend on this fact. So, what exactly are they? How do we define them?

Anatomists, along with practitioners from a myriad of health care professions, interact with bodies – other people’s as well as their own – throughout their working lives. Yet how many of us would find it hard to coherently explain what we know the body to be? Strange as it might seem, many of us would be likely to experience some difficulty if we were to put on a spot and required to plainly explain how you interpret this term. David Nicholls, a physiotherapist and critical thinker, portrayed this in his commenting (2018, p. 121):

“Ask a physiotherapist what the body means to them and they are likely to look at you as if you had asked them a trick question.

The body is so obvious to physiotherapists, so commonplace that to attempt to define it seem[s] odd. The body is what physiotherapists work on. It is the object of their gaze and the defining feature of their work.

The body is to the physiotherapist what the tree is to the carpenter or the cloth is to the tailor. Physiotherapists [… along with anatomists, acupuncturists, bodywork and movement therapists, chiropractors, dentists, dieticians, doctors, massage therapists, midwives, naturopaths, nurses, occupational therapists, optometrists, osteopaths, paramedics, podiatrists, pharmacists, physiotherapists, and surgeons, to name but a few of many] are [all] artisans of the body”

Maybe it’s a bit like this for you too, whether or not you are a physiotherapist. It certainly is for me (an anatomist and former physiotherapist).

For lots of us, our pre-clinical knowledge of bodies and human anatomy was learned from our teachers and textbooks. Much of which was derived from their teachers and textbooks, and, before them, their teachers’ teachers and textbooks, etc.. The anatomical information now available to us about bodies has continually been added to and refined over millennia. On the other hand, our basic beliefs about what bodies are have generally received far less attention, and have rarely, if ever, been formally examined (Birke, 1999). From an academic perspective, I think this seeming lack of critical attention to so important a subject is rather surprising… and may also, possibly, be scholastically troublesome.

In actual fact, there are many ways of defining ‘the body’ (OED Online). Some of which include:

  • A thing which exists
  • Something whole that functions as an organised unit
  • A material object that has physical existence and extension in space
  • A mass of something that is perceptible to the sense of touch
  • A person
  • A corpse
  • The complete physical or mortal form of a person, in contrast to their soul body
  • The entire assemblage of parts, organs, and tissues that constitutes a person’s material body
  • The main, central, or principal parts, as distinguished from subordinate or less important parts, of a person’s material body.

How many of these are congruent with the ways you think about bodies?

The task of defining the body becomes even harder, more complicated and puzzling, when we acknowledge that people’s bodies (none of which are exactly the same as another) are constantly changing and moving, from the moment of their conception through to their biological death. The body you had as a child, for instance, looked quite different to the way it looks now, and maybe last year, even though it was-and-is the same body.

At the end of the day, most of us have a pretty fair idea about what we think a body is, even if we don’t find it easy to succinctly define it. But – and this is an important ‘but’ – does everyone you encounter think of the body in the same way as you do?


Birke, L. (1999). Feminism and the biological body. Brunswick, NJ, US: Rutgers University Press.

Nicholls, D. A. (2018). The end of physiotherapy. London, UK: Routledge.

OED Online. “body, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2021, Accessed 4 September 2021.

The Living Website by Sue Adstrum PhD

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