Response to: Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture In her book, Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture, Debra Gimlin focuses specifically on how the bodies of women are turned into projects in which the goal is to attain the ideals of beauty. The most important point that she makes is that, “Contemporary ideals of female beauty – and the work required to become beautiful – have long-lasting and devastating effects on women” (16). Despite contemporary beauty standards being detrimental to personal health, they also produce conflictions between race, class, ethnicity, and gender.
In the first chapter, Gimlin focuses on mostly on how (white) hairdressers/hairstylists have a difficult time attempting to plunge out of the stereotypes stating that they are not professionals, and that they are low-class/lower middle class, etc. Gimlin asserts much emphasis on how the hairdressers/hairstylists bridge “the gap between those who pursue beauty and those who define it” (16). She explains that it could be difficult to distinguish whether hairdressers are professionals or they fit the stereotype that they are merely service workers providing service.
In chapter 2, the focus is on how aerobics and involvement in athletic activities deviate women from falling into the traps of society’s beauty ideologies and norms, and in turn provides other alternatives such as having confidence and focusing more on their personal characteristics. Her study revolved around an extensive ethnographic research project, where she observed the way people functioned in aerobics classes and why they acted or thought the way they did.
Besides observing, she also interviewed several people to understand why they were taking the aerobics class and what they thought of their bodies. In a peculiar way, many of the women were participating in aerobics because they felt like “their bodies changed in ways that they could not control and with which they did not feel comfortable” (58). Many of the women claimed that not only did they not feel “fit” or beautiful”, but also how family members and acquaintances constantly reminded them of their physical imperfections.
Besides being pressured to improve their weight, many women recognized that the males in their family or the males that they knew in general were rarely or never directed to “diet” because it’s a “female thing” (59). While Gimlin describes her findings and the attitudes of the aerobics participants, it is implicitly evident that aerobics does not necessarily diverge a woman’s thoughts to their personal inner qualities, but rather, to their physical appearance. Chapter 3 examines the costs and effects of cosmetic surgery, not just monetarily, but both socially and personally.
Gimlin’s research suggests that plastic surgery is so “extreme” and “invasive” that it surpasses the extremities to which women are willing to pursue in order to obtain or alter personal beauty, such as “aerobics, hairstyling, or even dieting” (75). In an interview that she conducted with a woman that underwent cosmetic surgery, liposuction to be exact, she notices that although the woman shows some signs of regret and uncertainty, she still is willing to undergo another surgery to fix another part of her body that she is not satisfied with, or that in her mind is lagging .
Unsurprisingly, the number of people partaking in some sort of cosmetic surgery yearly, such as liposuction, breast augmentation, blepharoplasty, continues to rise despite the physical and financial potential burdens. The main point that Gimlin is trying to prove is that an astonishingly large amount of women are willing to put their lives at risk with these different surgical practices, in order to fulfill the contemporary ideologies of beauty.
In chapter 4, Gimlin uses the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) as an example of how different groups of people fight societal ideals of beauty. She describes how the NAAFA seeks “to increase the well-being of fat people” (111) and the difficulties people face being fat. Such difficulties include verbal offenses, employment discrimination, and mental guilt. The NAAFA fights back by creating social events that try to disprove the stigmas pinned to fat people, and in turn expose the positive physical and characteristic features.
The whole point of using the NAAFA as an example is to show that unlike cosmetic surgery, hairstyling, and aerobics, where the objective is to deliberately utilize the body to create an identity that fits society’s beauty principles, the NAAFA attempts to work the opposite way by cautiously separating the connection between the body and the identity of a person. The chapter that I find quite problematic and arguable would be chapter 1. Towards the end of the first chapter, Gimlin concludes that hairdressers are rather not professionals, which sounds quite contradictory to her initial claims.
In the beginning, she had stated that hairdressers are often considered low-class, “icons of fabricated femininity”, and gossipers, however, they “neither consistently satisfy nor significantly deviate from these stereotypes” (24). In the end of the chapter however, she ambiguously states “beauticians are more similar to service workers than to professionals or artists because their jobs depend in large part on their ability to forge emotional ties with their clients” (36). She cautiously uses the word “forge”, in order to indicate that they do fit the stereotype of “icons of fabricated femininity”, and low-class.
Gimlin’s points become very conflicting when she says that hairdressing meets all the formal requirements such as extensive training, certifications, regular pay, but they still are not educated enough or earn enough money to be considered as professionals (36). Many other details that are mentioned in the chapter such as the humble fact that anyone can cut hair, however it takes a skillful and trained person to cut it correctly and professionally, allude towards the indication that hairdressers are in fact quite professional and artistic.
Something that is interesting to consider is that although society’s beauty ideals may be harmful to the mental and physical health of individuals, it plays a large part in how our economical finances function. For example, if all women were comfortable with their bodies or how their hair naturally looks on a daily basis, then there would be no need for cosmetic surgeons, or aerobics instructors, or the over 700,000 workers in beauty and cosmetic care.
Hairdressers and other professions, which primarily focus on enhancing beauty for a living, would be useless. The whole point of their occupation is to provide security of beauty at least in regards to the hair, which is considered by many to be a woman’s most valuable physical feature. If most women did not lack self-esteem and confidence in the way they look compared to the way a regular model or a “beautiful” person looks, then there would be no use for commercial models and advertisement.
If everyone truly believed that they are physically perfect, then society would be left with an astonishingly monotonous community where everyone thinks the same, acts the same, and hold close to the same professional positions because the need for skillful people like hairstylists would not be needed. Generally speaking, if beauty ideals did not exist, then the need for cosmetic care and beauty products would be unnecessary, cancelling out of one of the major parts that help in the fuelin g of our economy.