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Geographers at work: history and putting theory into practice

Representation and non-representation

A number of students expressed being confused or puzzled by the distinctions between representation, non-representation and more-than-representation. Below are examples of articles or research that help to raise question about the relationships between representation and non-representation, and why these distinctions can be fuzzy. Feel free to respond to any or all of the examples in comments.

  • This article at The Atlantic asks, "Why do most languages have so few words for smell?" What is the answer to this question? How is place, or geographic context, relevant to the answer? What does the article suggest about the relationship between sensory experience (non-representation) and communication of that experience (representation)? Is it always possible to put into words what we sense? Does experience, or sense, need articulation (or representation) to be "real"? Can a sense like smell be characterized as "more-than-represenational"?
  • This entry at Geography Directions points to recent research by geographers on body image. Does the representation of body size in measurements like pounds or clothes sizes clearly represent how people feel about their bodies? Do people with the same measurements feel the same way? What might account for these differences between representation (measurement) and non-representation (feeling)? Why is body-image both representational and also non-representational (or, more-than-representational)?
  • Finally,  this article at Vox looks at how people from "latin" countries and places choose to identity themselves (this is the comic the author references). This question clearly deals with representation - what terms people use to describe themselves - but how is identity also related to non-representational themes (feelings, emotions)? To what extent does it seem like people simply settle on using certain words to represent who they feel they are?  Can identity be characterized as more-than-representational? 


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Matt Herbert

The “Feeling Fat” article makes the argument that body weight should not reflect the health of a person. The article expresses that our culture today (North America) puts a strong emphasis on the importance of body image through media and people feel negatively about their bodies when they do not match up to these unrealistic standards. In terms of cultural geography our bodies are the ‘geography’, and the way we feel about ourselves in non-representational. In response to the value media places on extreme thinness, bulky/muscled physique, people try to obtain this body image to feel better about themselves. Many people try to make their body image representational to communicate their value and worth. People shouldn’t feel shame about themselves because of their body image, nor should they base their value and worth on themselves if they have an “excellent physique.” It may be a healthier approach to keep body weight and personal identity separate. As a side note, it’s also important to realize that obesity in America is a problem and this may actually represent poor health in someone who is obese. People shouldn’t stop trying to be healthy in spite of America overemphasizing and overvaluing unrealistic expectations of body image.

Kamalei P.

The recent research done by geographers on body image, was something that I was interested in reading. The 'feeling fat' article clearly states that, "our bodies affect our identities". Many people may not be overweight, but they'll feel overweight, leaving them unhappy with their body size, appearance, and eating portions. So in this case, our body size in measurements do represent how people feel about their body. But not everyone with the same body measurements feel the same way. Olivia Campbell is a size 18-20 model in the UK and she said proudly that, "You cannot determine a person's health just by looking at them". In my opinion, when models represent themselves, they represent confident, healthy and fit young people. When in reality, people who look up to these models don't understand the non-representation part, that the models don't show to their audience. Because in reality models are starving, still feel insecure and try way too hard to keep their job. Body image is both representational and also non-representational, because like I said, someone with an attractive body figure might appear one way, but feel self-conscious themselves.

Moana Gianotti

I agree with Matt, the way someone's body looks does not make that person unhealthy. Obviously there is some correlation between how we see ourselves and our mental health, because of the beauty standards that are pushed upon us since we were children with examples of what a person should look like, such as Barbie and Ken. This push of unrealistic beauty standards continues throughout everyone's life seeing examples of them everywhere people turn. However, just because someone does not fit into that specific "goal" does not mean that they are unhealthy or that they are healthy. Like Kamalei points out there are many models and actresses that people everywhere aspire to look like have eating disorders, or unhealthy habits.

Peggy  Smith

The Atlantic article references the culture of the Jihai and their list of descriptions of smells. In our American culture scents are often described as stinky, sweet, putrid, or fresh/clean. But the discovery of the large number of names for many smells in their culture raises questions about the vocabulary the Jihai seem to have a special awareness to smells. The representation of the awareness of the many facets of many types of scents in one flower and the names that emerge in their culture for each type of scent that they have a heightened olfactory awareness and perhaps a cultural non representative enjoyment through all scents that they have encountered in their geographic place. The fact that they have names for so many types of smells that suggests an awareness and perhaps a one-ness of their geographic location.

Mack Little

The whole culture of the US in the past and even today has been to have the "perfect body". Like Moana said, Barbie and Ken is a perfect example. Those bodies are the ones that Americans think the perfect body looks like. Just because someone looks a little over or underweight doesn't mean that they are unhealthy. Some people struggle from genetics or their lifestyle. It doesn't automatically make them unhealthy.


After our class discussion I still had some questions regarding the representational and not. I think that the vox article showed both sides well. The article discusses how different groups wish to be identified either by the term Hispanic, Latino or neither. The article explains both sides, only focusing on the literal words that are being decided upon. However, then it goes on to talk about how each culture feels so different, and has many different customs. I think that the beginning of the article showcases representational cultural geography in a very good way, while the second part of the article is a representation of the non-representational. Seeing how the author ends by talking about how both aspects should be addressed mirrors how to become more than representational you have to take both into account.

I do still have one clarification about these topics that I dont feel was addressed in these articles. When discussing the “more than representational” does that only mean taking both the representational and non representational into account? Or is there another aspect outside of these two that makes something more than representational?

Ming Ng

In the "Feeling Fat" article it focused on body sizes. The way people feel could be from the way they see themselves. There are so many influences of body sizes from advertisements and pictures showing people what is beautiful in society. However, like the article said,"There is a difference between being overweight and feeling overweight; so many people are unhappy with their body size, weight, proportions, and appearance, regardless of whether they are physically ‘overweight’.". People see others like models as someone being beautiful and loving their body. But the reader or people who view them, dont feel the same way about themselves. In my opinion its really about the inside, on how you see yourself. If you see yourself as this strong independent person, then you will be seen as how you feel. A good attitude and personality is what true people will really see.

John Stone

The "Feeling Fat" article goes on to prove just how toxic the modelling industry can be. Women are expected to be as slim as possible and men are expected to have chiseled bodies. It's very harmful to plaster pictures of the "perfect body" everywhere, especially for younger and more impressionable audiences like teenagers. These beauty standards lead people to be less confident with themselves and develop self-esteem issues, which can lead to harmful side effects like anorexia. Certain body types shouldn't be pushed as being perfect or normal, everybody should feel comfortable and confident in their own bodies.

Christian Hammerich

The "Feeling Fat" article talks about people and their body sizes. I agree with what Mack said, there are a lot of people that struggle because of their genetics and it doesn't automatically make them unhealthy. Being healthy can also be defined as feeling good about yourself mentally and enjoying what you are doing.

Halie Korff

Feeling Fat article points out what everyone already knew, that the model industry is putting women down on a regular basis because it is not ideal body shape that we portray. And every time women hear about a completely beautiful women being turned down about her perfect size makes it so much worse. yes a lot of people are over weight, but a lot of people also can't help it and aren't naturally skinny like the models we see on TV, and publicized everywhere we look.

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