Embodied Aging: Everyday body practices and Later Life Identities among the South Asian Indian Gujarati Diaspora in Canada


  • Anusmita Devi Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar
  • Laura Hurd The University of British Columbia (Vancouver Campus)
  • Tannistha Samanta Department of Sociology, School of Liberal Education, FLAME University




Diaspora, embodied aging, body practices, later life identities, India


This study explores how South Asian Indian Gujarati older adults in Canada (Greater Vancouver area) strive to maintain personal continuity, citizenship, and selfhood through everyday body management practices (exercise/yoga, medication/health supplements, skin, and hair care routines) and cultural markers such as food, sartorial choices, and community engagement. This examination, we contend, is noteworthy against the backdrop of contemporary North American academic and popular discourses of a burgeoning consumerist movement around the medicalization of bodies and anti-aging technologies. Drawing on in-depth qualitative interviews of 26 older adults, we discuss how growing old in the diaspora is marked with moral ambivalence between ‘successful aging’ and ‘aging gracefully.’ Based on an inductive thematic analysis, we identify four major themes in how the older diaspora negotiate aging and reorganise their lives through changing social relations and shifting cultural institutions. The first theme is the growing salience of both bodily and social changes in conceptualizing “old age,” and how the experiences of aging vary by gender. Specifically, while most of the female participants visualized old age in terms of a loss of physical functionality, the male participants described agedness in terms of a loss of economic and social worth. The second major theme encapsulates the acceptable coping strategies for dealing with bodily changes and the associated reconfigurations of social roles. While a fit body and functionality were regarded as foundational traits for aging well by all participants, corrective measures or anti-aging products were not espoused as the most culturally appropriate “Indian” way of growing old. The third theme highlights the apprehensions regarding growing old in a foreign country, including a foreboding anxiety of dependence and frailty in the absence of traditional familial care networks. The final theme, explores how for most participants, the notion of home evoked ambivalence in constructing their sense of belonging and identity, often expressed through everyday practices and memory-keeping. Taken together, we ultimately show how age and embodiment are inextricably linked in the experience of growing old in the diaspora.

Author Biographies

Anusmita Devi, Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar

Doctoral Candidate

Laura Hurd, The University of British Columbia (Vancouver Campus)

Professor, Faculty of Education, School of Kinesiology

Tannistha Samanta, Department of Sociology, School of Liberal Education, FLAME University

Associate Professor


Alcoff, L. 1988. “Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: The identity crisis in feminist theory”. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, 13(3), 405-436.

Andersen - Ranberg, K ; Christensen, K ; Jeune, B ; Skytthe, A ; Vasegaard, L ; Vaupel, Jw (1999). Age and Ageing, 28(4), 373-377

Antonsich, M. 2010. “Searching for Belonging – an Analytical Framework.” Geography Compass 4 (6): 644–659.

Bartb, S.L. 1997 Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, London: Routledge

Bauman, Z., & Raud, R. 2015. Practices of selfhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bayer, K. 2005. “Cosmetic surgery and cosmetics: Redefining the appearance of ag”e. Generations, 54,13–18

Bennett, J. 2015. “Snowed In!: Offbeat Rhythms and Belonging as Everyday Practice.”.” Sociology 49 (5): 955–969.

Bennett, E. V., Clarke, L. H., Kowalski, K. C., & Crocker, P. R. (2017). “I’ll do anything to maintain my health”: How women aged 65–94 perceive, experience, and cope with their aging bodies. Body image, 21, 71-80.

Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture and the body. University of California Press

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. 2006. Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology, 3(2), 77-101.

Brijnath, B. 2014. Unforgotten: Love and the culture of dementia care in India (Vol. 2). Berghahn Books.

Brooks, A. 2010. “Aesthetic anti-ageing surgery and technology: Women’s friend or foe?”, Sociology of Health and Illness 32(2), 238–57

Butler, J. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1993. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. New York: Routledge

Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing gender. New York: Routledge

Calasanti, Toni M., and Kathleen F. Slevin. 2001. Gender, social inequalities and aging. NY: AltaMitra Press.

Carter, C. 2016. “Still sucked into the body image thing: the impact of anti-aging and health discourses on women's gendered identities”, Journal of Gender Studies, 25:2, 200-214

Clarke, A. , J. Fishman , J. Fosket , L. Mamo and J. Shim .2003 “Biomedicalization: Technoscientific Transformations of Health, Illness, and US Biomedicine”, American Sociological Review 68(2): 161-94

Cohen, L. 1998. No aging in India: Modernity, senility and the family. UK: Oxford University Press.

Conrad, P. 2007. The Medicalization of Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Coupland, J., & Gwyn, R. (Eds.). 2002. Discourse, the body, and identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Davey, J., & Glasgow, K. 2006. “Positive ageing: A critical analysis”. Policy Quarterly, 2(4), 21-27

De Beauvoir, S., & Parshley, H. M. 1953. The second sex (p. 105). New York: Vintage books.

Estes, C.L., & Binney, E.A. 1989. “The biomedicalization of aging: Dangers and dilemmas”. The Gerontologist, 29(5), 587-596

Featherstone, M., & Hepworth, M. 1991. “The mask of ageing and the postmodern life course”. In M. Featherstone, M. Hepworth, & B. S. Turner (Eds.), The body: Social process and cultural theory (pp. 371–398). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Featherstone, M. and Hepworth, M. 2005. “Images of ageing: Cultural representations of later life” in M. L. Johnson, V. L. Bengston, P. G. Coleman and T. B. L. Kirkwood (eds) Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 354–62

Fernandes, L. 2006. India's New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform. University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, M. 1973. Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (R. Howard, Trans.) New York: Vintage.

Foucault, M. 1975. The birth of the clinic: An archeology of medical perception. (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.) New York: Vintage.

Foucault, M. 1979. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan., Trans.). New York: Vintage.

Foucault, M. 1991. 'Governmentality', trans. Rosi Braidotti and revised by Colin Gordon, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, pp. 87–104. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

Fraser, S. 2003. Cosmetic surgery, gender and culture. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Furman, F. K. 1997. Facing the mirror: Older women and beauty shop culture. New York: Routledge

Gagne, P. & McGaughey, D. 2002. “Designing hegemony and the exercise of power among women who have mammoplasty”. Gender and Society. (16)6. 814-38

Gergen, K. 1985. “Social constructionist inquiry: Context and implications”. In K. Gergen & K. Davis (eds.), The Social Construction of the Person (pp. 318). New York: Springer-Verlag

Greenhalgh, S. 2015. Fat-talk nation: The human costs of America’s war on fat. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Gilleard, C., & Higgs, P. 2005. Contexts of ageing: Class, cohort and community. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Gilleard, C., & Higgs, P. 2018. “Unacknowledged distinctions: Corporeality versus embodiment in later life”. Journal of Aging Studies, 45, 5-10.

Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma. Hammondsworth. UK: Penguin.

Gullette, M. M. 1997. Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of Midlife. University of Virginia Press

Hockey, J. and James, A. 2004. “How do we know that we are aging? Embodiment, agency and later life”. In E. Tulle (eds,) Old age and agency, (pp.157–172). New York: Nova Science Publishers

Holstein, M. B. 2006. “On being an aging woman”. In T. M. Calasanti and K. Slevin (eds.). Age matter realigning: A feminist thinking. (pp. 313-334). Routledge

Heywood, L. and Drake, J., eds., 1997. Third wave agenda: being feminist, doing feminism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hood, B. 2012. The self illusion: Who do you think you are? London: Constable and Robinson

Hurd Clarke, L. 2002a. “Beauty in later life: Older women’s perceptions of physical attractiveness”. Canadian Journal on Aging, 21 (3), 429–42.

Hurd Clarke, L. 2002b. “Older women’s perceptions of ideal body weights: The tensions between health and appearance motivations for weight loss”. Ageing and Society, 22 (6), 751–73.

Hurd Clarke, L. and Korotchenko, A. 2010. “Shades of Grey: To Dye or Not to Dye One’s Hair in Later Life”, Ageing and Society 30(6), 1011–26

Jayaram, N. 2008. “Heterogeneous Diaspora and Asymmetrical Orientations: India, Indians and the Indian Diaspora”. Diaspora Studies, 1(2), 1-21.

Jenkins, R. 2010. Social Identity. 3rd ed. London: Routledge

Katz, S. 1996. Disciplining old age: The formation of gerontological knowledge. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia

Kauh, T. O. 1999. “Changing status and roles of older Korean immigrants in the United States”. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 49(3), 213-229.

Lamb, S. 2000. White saris and sweet mangoes: Aging, gender, and body in North India. University of California Press.

Lamb, S. 2002a. Love and aging in Bengali families. Everyday life in South Asia, 56-68.

Lamb, S. 2002b. “Intimacy in a transnational era: The remaking of aging among Indian Americans”. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 11(3), 299-330.

Lamb, S. 2013. Personhood, appropriate dependence and rise of elder care institutions in India. In C. Lynch and J. Danley (eds.) Transitions and transformations: Cultural perspectives on aging and the life course. (pp. Berghahn Books

Lamb, S. 2014. “Permanent personhood or meaningful decline? Toward a critical anthropology of successful aging”. Journal of Aging Studies, 29, 41-52.

Lamb, S., Robbins-Ruszkowski, J., Corwin, A., Calasanti, T., & King, N. 2017. Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. Rutgers University Press.

Laz, C. (2003). Age embodied. Journal of aging studies, 17(4), 503-519.

Moody, H. R., & Sood, S. 2010. “Age branding”. In A. Drolet, N. Schwarz, & C. Yoon (Eds.), The aging consumer: Perspectives from psychology and economics (pp. 229–245). New York: Routledge

Moore, S. 2008. “Gender and the new paradigm of health”. Sociology Compass, 2, 268–280

Näre, L. 2017 “Identity and ambivalence in everyday transnationalism: older-aged Gujaratis in Londo”n, Identities, 24:5, 625-640,

Rowe, J. W., & Kahn, R. L. 1987. “Human aging: Usual and successful”. Science, 237, 143–149

Rutagumirwa, S. K., & Bailey, A. 2017. “I Have to Listen to This Old Body”: Femininity and the Aging Body. The Gerontologist, 59(2), 368-377

Samanta, T. 2018. “The ‘Good Life’: Third Age, Brand Modi and the cultural demise of old age in urban India”. Anthropology & Aging, 39(1), 94-104.

Slevin, K. F. 2006. "The Embodied Experiences of Old Lesbians." T.M. Calasanti & K. F. S Levin (eds.) Age Matters: Realigning Feminist Thinking (Pp. 247-68). NY, New York: Routledge

Slevin, K.2008. “Disciplining bodies: The aging experiences of older heterosexual and gay men”. Generations, 32(1), 36-42

Slevin, K. F. 2010. “’If I had lots of money… I'd have a body makeover’: Managing the Aging Body”. Social Forces, 88(3), 1003-1020.

Slevin, K. F., & Mowery, C. E. 2012. Exploring embodied aging and ageism among old lesbians and gay men. Sex for life: From virginity to Viagra, how sexuality changes throughout our lives, 260-277.

Simpson, P. 2016. “The resources of ageing? Middle-aged gay men's accounts of Manchester's gay voluntary organizations”. The Sociological Review, 64(2), 366-383.

Smirnova, M.H. 2012, “A will to youth: The woman’s anti-aging elixir”, Social Science & Medicine,75(7), 1236-43.

Sontag, S. (1972, September 23). The double standard of aging. Saturday Review of the Society, 1(1), 29-38

Terry, G., Hayfield, N., Clarke, V., & Braun, V. 2017. “Thematic analysis”. The Sage handbook of qualitative research in psychology, 17-37.

Twigg, J.2004. “The body, gender and age: Feminist insights in social gerontology”. Journal of Aging Studies, 18(1), 59-73

Twigg, J 2009. “Clothing, Identity and Embodiment of Age”. In J Powell & T. Gilbert (eds) Aging and Identity: A Postmodern Dialogue, New York: Nov Science Publishers.

Twigg, J., & Martin, W. (eds.) 2015. The Routledge handbook of cultural gerontology. London: Routledge.

Twigg, J. 2018. “Fashion, the media and age: How women’s magazines use fashion to negotiate age identities”. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 21(3), 334-348.

Vatuk, S. 1990. ‘To be a burden on others. Divine passions: The social construction of emotions in India, 64-91.

Wolf, N. 1991. The Beauty Myth. New York: Anchor.

Wong, S. T., Yoo, G. J., & Stewart, A. L. 2006. “The changing meaning of family support among older Chinese and Korean immigrants”. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 61B,S4–S9.

Woodspring, N. 2016. Baby Boomers: Time and Ageing Bodies. Bristol: Policy Press.