The healthy self as body capital: Individuals, market-based societies, body politics and visual media twentieth century Europe

Do you know how much rapid eye movement (REM) sleep you need to work efficiently, look at food labels to ensure that you are getting all the required vitamins and minerals or know someone who uses a step counter to know if they are getting enough physical activity? These are just a few examples of the perceptions of health and individual practices in twentieth century Europe. This century may be characterized by an expansion of products and techniques for the body and its health. These are not only witnessed by, but contributed to and were affected by, a flood of visuals that circulated transnationally and the advent of a media society. Bodily health has evolved as a new form of capital (Bourdieu 1979): a form of symbolic capital that can be transformed into economic capital.

The ERC funded research group “The healthy self as body capital: individuals, market-based societies and body politics in visual twentieth century Europe” led by Christian Bonah (Université de Strasbourg) and Anja Laukötter (MPIHD, Berlin) will research this understanding of body capital, and its history, by focusing on the history of visual mass media (film, TV, Internet) and inédits (amateur, family and private visuals) throughout the twentieth century in Europe and beyond.

The research project begins with the premise that visuals are not conceived merely as a mirror or expression of what is observed; visuals are regarded as a distinct, interactive performative power of mass media societies. We consider them essential and novel firstly because their distribution is considerably extensive, secondly because they transcend professional and social groups, thirdly because of their utilitarian character and fourthly they echo economic market principles in terms of promotion/communication. Herein, we suggest visuals have heuristic and analytic meanings.

Our objective is to understand the role that modern visual mass media have played in what may be cast as the transition from a national bio-political public health paradigm at the beginning of the nineteenth century to societal forms of the late twentieth century where better and healthier life is increasingly shaped by market forces/fundamentalism. Herein, the beginning of the nineteenth century is characterized by collective bodies, a work force and labour society, as well as state interests in being able to mobilize large cohorts of able-bodied workers, soldiers and colonial subjects and the late twentieth century is characterized by individuals, body capital in a consumer society, and market incentives – leading to what may be defined as commoditized or commodified bodies.  We aim to study these developments through the lenses of the visuals in the histories of three European countries that are central to the economy and visual production, yet differ in their visual culture and their embrace of neo-liberal market policies during the twentieth century: France, Germany and Great Britain. Moreover the developments in and influences of the United States and Canada, as well as Russia/USSR, will be included as complementary references and as analytical counterpoints. Within this spatial historical framework the project focuses on four main fields of health interests in the twentieth century:

-  history of food/nutrition

-  history of movement/exercise/sports

-  history of sexuality/reproduction/infants

-  history of dependency/addiction/overconsumption.

BodyCapital Research Group

Université de Strasbourg

Christian Bonah, principal investigator

Tricia Close-Koenig, project manager and researcher

Joël Danet, researcher

Jessica Borge, post-doctoral researcher

Emmanuel Nuss, documentalist

Elisabeth Fuchs, translator

Anne Masseran, associated researcher

Philippe Chavot, associated researcher

Alexandre Sumpf, associated researcher


Max-Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

Anja Laukötter, principal investigator

Sandra Schnälbach, post-doctoral researcher

Philipp Stiasny, research assisant



Pascal LABORDERIE, associated researcher

Additional information

BodyCapital project description HERE.

The program and videos of the February 2017 inaugural conference HERE.

For further information or any questions HERE.

The BodyCapital project is hosted by the Université de Strasbourg, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Advanced Grant agreement No 694817).