Gender and the Body
From Women's Studies
Historical Trends of the Ideal Female Body Types
The bounce of the hair, the sway of the hips, the chest held out, the ideal body type historically has always been one to be seen and admired by men and other women alike. Despite the ever changing tides of what is ideologically seen as vogue, women’s ideal body types have always felt coercion to conform to some type of look. The body types in particular that will be examined will show a fluctuating trend of absurd thinness to a more natural acceptance of female curves, oscillating back and forth between the two archetypes. Starting with the Victorian era and ending in current era, female body types have felt the hegemonic pressure of the contemporary culture, only to rebel against it later.
Queen Victoria defined an era of women’s beauty and body that demanded conformity, conformity of the absurdly small waist created by the use of the corset. The ideal female shape was the hour glass figure: a corset was tightened to pull the waist in and push the chest out into one mono-bosom. Using it on a daily basis, the corset could taper the waist by four to six inches; the exemplar waist line could be as little as 13 inches (Penny 1).
Photo source: http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2008/02/of_corset_matte picasaweb.google.com debutanteclothing.com
Although it may appear to be a slight alteration of the female Victorian, the early 20th century “Gibson Girl” allowed the woman to, in many ways, breathe. Created from the imagination of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson girl was used in advertisement and promotional schemes that quickly came to define the female body type. Used in marketing, she came to define the “all American girl”. Still employing a corset, Gibson designed the girl to have a more relaxed, natural, fuller bodied figure. Drawn by a man, the Gibson girl also needed to have a large chest.
The “Flapper” was a startling new look when juxtaposed against Victorian and the Gibson Girl. Consisting of a shortly bobbed haircut, rising hemline, flattened breasts, and lack of a contrasting waistline, the Flapper girl rebelled against all things demure that resembled “old times”. The Symington Side Lancer was an interesting contraption that did to the breasts what the corset did to the waist: it tightened and flattened the chest to be smaller than actuality. The desired look of a Flapper was that border lining androgyny, creating a somewhat boyish effect (Weston Thomas 1).
Continuing on this see-saw of ideal female types, the classic 1950’s pin up girl brought back, with a modern twist, the all American Gibson girl. Created during World War II to send to G.Is over seas, the pin up girl idealized the sexy girl next door (Stein 1). Not only was voluptuous curves trendy again, the creation of the push up bra allowed women to have the cleavage they once lacked. As an icon of that time, Marilyn Monroe was the quintessential pin up girl. Fluctuating between an eight and ten size pant, she embodied sex, especially for the male gaze ( Buys 1).
Bringing the trends to current times, the past 20 years ushered in an era that is nostalgic of Victoria and her corsets. Often setting the precedence of contemporary fashion, high runway models exemplify what hegemonic society wants woman to look like. Words to describe the look of catwalk models: waif, anorexic, absurdly thin. In an interview with the New York Times, model Jessica Stam said, “I don’t know if [models] are healthy or not, but I don’t think the frail, fragile look is very feminine, and I don’t think it’s attractive” (Wilson 1). As a cause for concern, the portrayal of unrealistic body types influences not only young girls, but even adult woman. Dr. Nada Stotland, professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College in Chicago and vice president of the American Psychiatric Association, commented in an interview published in USA Today, “We know seeing super-thin models can play a role in causing anorexia” ( Hellmich 1).
Fluctuating between petite, unrealistic thinness to a general acceptance of feminine body curves, Western society has always prevailed upon woman to conform to some type of body ideal. Of course these observations are general ones, but they allow for a step to be taken out of everyday life and evaluate beauty in a way that has not become desensitized. Susan Bordo said in her introduction to Twightlight Zones, “ The more a cultural practice is engaged in, by greater and more diverse numbers of people, the more ‘normal’ it seems and the less likely we are to point the beam of evaluative or critical consciousness in its direction."
By Taylor Staiger
Chemical Hair Relaxers for African American Women
Since its invention by Garrett Augustus Morgan around 1910, hair relaxers have become an essential part of how African American women take care of their hair (McClain 1). Relaxers use chemicals to permanently straighten hair which makes African American hair that naturally tends to tangle and knot more manageable. But a controversy has arisen out of this practice as the majority of African American women chemically process their hair rather than style it naturally. It has caused a dramatic change in what is considered beautiful, and the standard for maintaining that beauty among the African American community.
The hair care industry that caters to this ethnic group mostly revolves around chemical relaxers, totaling $45.6 million in sales during 2008 (Louis 1) despite the damaging effect it has and can have on hair. This is because relaxers “leave hair weak and extremely susceptible to breaking and further damage… hair thinning, lack of hair growth, scalp irritation, scalp damage, and hair loss are just some of the complaints from many who experience problems due to the misuse of chemical relaxers” (McClain 1). Relatively cheap, at home relaxers are readily available, as it is recommended to touch up “new growth” hair which becomes noticeable after 6-8 weeks (McCain 1). But for those who can afford it, professional hair stylists can reapply a relaxer every month and extensions can be added to the hair to achieve the look of long, straight hair. This further adds to the beauty gap, a growing separation of the poor and rich because “poverty has always been visible on the human body… money [can] now buy perfection” (Bordo 8). In many instances, women will don the relaxed look because natural hairstyles are seen as “foreign or other… because skin color couldn’t change, hair became a way to articulate a sense of American-ness” (Abdullah and Douglas 1). Braids, dreads, and afros are larger seen as ugly and unattractive. Through acculturation and other cultural changes, straight, flowing hair has been set as the norm for what African American hair should look like (Omohundro 43). Susan Bordo, a professor at the University of Kentucky, lamented “My undergraduate students, whatever their genetic predisposition or cultural heritage, want to look like the women on Friends, hair straight and swinging, buns tight, breasts perky… Your hair doesn’t swing like Jennifer Anniston? No problem- a good “relaxer” will do the trick” (Bordo 8). In the modern age, African American women are always bombarded by images of celebrities and models, including the majority of those in their own race, that promote this idea of what beauty is and the measures one must go to in order to achieve it.
Breast Augmentation and Its Socio-cultural Context
The woman has been both idealized and demoralized in our culture throughout history. Our cultural construction of what the “ideal” woman should look like stems from an “Unhealthy message that [one] must be physically “perfect” in order to be loved” (Bordo, 8). Because of this, “we are learning to expect “perfection” and to find any “defect” repellent, unacceptable (Bordo, 3). The majority of women feel pressured to meet these high expectations and thus they decide to physically alter their bodies in order to create a more “perfect” self.
Plastic surgery, and in particular breast augmentation is one way to change the body. We live in “a culture where “perfect” breasts (i.e. round, large, “perky”) are normalized and fetishized, encouraging women, especially small-breasted women, to view their natural breasts as inadequate or defective (O’brian, 95). According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Breast augmentation is currently the most commonly performed procedure in the U.S. This procedure is not a new discovery; Implants have been used since at least 1895, but more recently breasts have become hyper-sexualized and often used as a source of sexual power. The majority of women who undergo this procedure are Caucasian, only 20% of all cosmetic procedures in 2008 were performed on racial and ethnic minorities. With high costs, of approximately $3,583 for saline and $4,005 silicone implants, only the financially secure can afford breast augmentation. Like any surgical procedure, there are many dangers involved, and yet this procedure is commonplace in many elite sub-cultures such as the media/celebrity community. There is much current debate and discussion over plastic surgery addiction and the whether or not “the powerful influence of cosmetic survey advertisements and socio-cultural pressures to achieve the perfect body undermines the ability for women to make decisions about this procedure rationally” (Parker, 57). Other feminists and bioethicists such as Lisa Parker contend that overly restricting and regulating access to breast implants demeans women by suggesting that they are incapable of making decisions in their own interest.
My paper is about diamond engagement rings. Through the example of diamond rings, I attempt to see how images of womanhood in modern societies are constructed. I believe that the diamond ring as a cultural phenomenon can make us understand the following: the meaning of marriage in modern society, the notions of ideal woman under capitalism and the relationship between the women’s understandings of their selves and and capitalism. In my paper I will talk about three aspects of diamond rings. In the first part I will explore the concepts associated with the diamond rings. In this part I will refer to the commercials of diamond rings in the published and visual media. In the second part of my paper, I will explore the criticisms against diamond rings and how marketers successfully articulated those criticisms to their strategies of marketing. In the third part, I will talk about the political economy of diamond rings through the case of DeBeers and how the transformations in its production pattern reflected itself in its marketing strategy. In this part, I will try to show how gender images can be created by the needs of capitalism and successfully intertwined with the existing patriarchal structures of a society.
First of all I want to refer to some facts about diamond rings: 80% of American brides receive a diamond engagement ring before they get married. Average cost of a diamond ring is 3200$. The diamond ring tradition is not very old: 19th century and discovery of mines in South Africa can said to be a beginning but it was not until 1930 DeBeers started a campaign. In the following years we encounter the song “Diamonds are a girls best friend” in the James Bond movie. And guess what who is the sponsor of the film? Yes, DeBeers. Between 1930 to 1950, in which the tradition became real, many Hollywood tricks played. By 1965, 80 percent of American women had diamond engagement rings. The ring had become a requisite element of betrothal—as well as a very visible demonstration of status. The notions used in DeBeers commercials are eternal love, belonging of the woman wearing it, a husband having a good status, successful marriage, woman who worth it, woman making sacrifices and getting a diamond ring etc. With second wave feminism the old notions of gender are not enough. Women were no more mothers and wives only but they were independent. The marketers should think something new. And they decided to use the language of feminism to sell. In 2003 Debeers launched the right hand campaign:This campaign emphasized that women do not need men in order to wear those beautiful diamond rings. So the campany asked woman why do not you buy your own diamond rings to wear in right hands. Of course this campaign targeted women who have enough money to do so.
With second wave feminism the old notions of gender are not enough. Women were no more mothers and wives only but they were independent. The marketers should think something new. And they decided to use the language of feminism to sell. In 2003 Debeers launched the right hand campaign:This campaign emphasized that women do not need men in order to wear those beautiful diamond rings. So the campany asked woman why do not you buy your own diamond rings to wear in right hands. Of course this campaign targeted women who have enough money to do so.
Reality Television’s Beauty Obsession
In recent years, a beauty obsession has swept over reality television. A new format has been created wherein plastic surgery, diets, and consuming exercise routines are proudly heralded as the keys to a “new” you. Some of these shows present makeovers as inspirational tales while others crown the most changed as the winner. In 2002, ABC debuted Extreme Makeover1, one of the earliest reality television shows that focused on makeovers. The show highlighted the self-improvement journey of average men and women who were striving to meet perfection—the media’s beauty ideals. An “Extreme Team” of plastic surgeons, dieticians, and trainers aided the participants in their goal. The show put the stories and emotions of each participant on display to create a connection between the viewer and participant.
The Swan2 (2004) combined changing one’s appearance drastically with competition. The put eight average women in a competition where they would be molded to fit the media’s beauty ideal; however, only one woman would truly be The Swan. The Biggest Loser3 also premiered in the United States in 2004. Like The Swan, the show links competition and self-improvement. The show focuses on the lives of contestants labeled obese and overweight and their plight to reach perfection through diet and exercise. The show measures success in pounds rather than confidence or health. The latest development in this trend comes from E! Entertainment Television4. The show Bridalplasty5 centers around a competition where twelve brides-to-be compete for plastic surgeries that they’ve placed on a wish list. The women in the show choose rings, dresses, and other wedding must-haves and place them in their “bridal closet”; however, only the winner will receive these prizes. In addition to competing for surgery, the girls must compete to stay on the show by forming alliances and creating enemies in order to avoid elimination, in addition to increasing drama. Jezebel contributor, Tracie Egan Morrissey, has commented on the ethics of the show as well as its self-parodying position6. Issues arise with these shows because they promote a mythic beauty ideal that the majority of American women will never achieve. The shows do not highlight the expenses of these makeovers. Most Americans do not have the income to afford multiple surgeries and specialists. Yet, these makeover shows aim to make viewers believe that their lives may be changed drastically like the contestants. By stressing the positive effects of these makeovers, these shows conceal the body issues and obsessions that frequently arise after the contestants’ time spent on television. The prevalence of these beauty obsessed reality television shows reinforces the media’s beauty ideals that lead to eating disorders and body loathing.
By Sara Kantner
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