Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ordinary bodies

Contexts is a sociology journal published by the American Sociological Association, our most important and prestigious professional organization for the discipline of sociology. About a decade ago, they launched a great new journal that, like the Jon Witt text we use in class, is full of pictures and cutting edge analysis of social phenomenon. Even more recently, they launched a blog called Sociological Images that specializes in interesting photographs accompanied by sociological analysis.

Check out the latest blog entry here and consider the issues raised. http://contexts.org/socimages/2010/01/26/contradictions-in-the-depiction-of-plus-size-model-crystal-renn/
As a reader points out, the average American woman is a size 14, so why is the model considered "plus-sized" at size 12? How would this question be answered using the C. Wright Mill's concept of the sociological imagination? What would each of the sociological perspectives contribute to the discussion?

Since you are mostly beginning sociologists, I'll answer my own questions.
First, the sociological imagination, as you recall from the text and lecture, links individuals' personal issues, their biography, with history and public issues. Since the late-1960s, fashion magazines have exclusively displayed images of women only if they are extremely thin, even emaciated. Only very thin women were considered "beautiful" and worthy of display in magazines and on the fashion runway. Regular American women who sought to become thin by dieting, working out, and even surgery, are not responding to some kind of individualist desire for thinness, but are responding--even unconsciously--to the mainstreaming of these images of extreme thinness. In other words, women's private, personal, individual quests for thinness are linked to the public issue of thin women's bodies being the only style of body that is seen as beautiful, as fashionable, as acceptable. Seen through a sociological lens, women who have eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia are suffering from a social problem that manifests itself in individuals' psychologies. Time to call in a clinical sociologist!

As you recall, sociologists who work within the structural functionalist perspective (SF) believe that societies seek order and stability above all else. Societies must be careful to align their social institutions to maintain order and stability. Thus as ideas about fashion change, so must industry, religion, education, the family, and other social institutions. Sociologists have noted that religious ideas about women's bodies have changed in recent decades to match fashion and industry ideas that promote extreme thinness in women. For example, many mainline religions promote thin women as being more moral than fat women, even offering "fitness" classes in churches. (Check out this blog entry about one of the winners of "The Biggest Loser" TV reality show here if you have doubts about my claim of a strong link between religion and women's thinness: http://blog.newsok.com/religionandvalues/2010/01/09/julie-haddens-fat-chance/) So, according to the SF perspective, societies will have to ensure that all of their institutions align with each other before plump women will truly be acceptable fashion icons.

You will recall that conflict theorists think that societies are characterized by oppositional groups who are in constant conflict with each other. A key question conflict theorists ask is this: "who benefits?" So, who DOES benefit from an ideology that women must be extremely thin in order to be considered beautiful? Weight loss organizations, the fitness center industry, insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry, fashion manufacturers... and who else? Conflict theorists would also closely examine ideologies--elaborate belief systems--that justify and maintain the power of dominant groups. Think about what kinds of ideologies you know about that concern women's body size... think about all the fat women jokes, the public expression of fat phobia, the disdain for fat women that is socially acceptable to express, the constant weight talk many women engage in, and you will understand that these are all examples of ideologies about women and fat.

Sociologists who work within the symbolic interactionist perspective (SI) would examine the phenomenon of Crystal Renn as a performance. An SI theorist might be puzzled about why Harper's Bazaar airbrushed the cellulite out of Renn's legs in the final picture in the series. If Harper's Bazaar is promoting Renn's image as fashionable, as beautiful, why rearrange her performance by taking out the cellulite? The answer, according to SI, might be to avoid the perception of a botched performance. Americans are socialized to understand that the performance of American feminine beauty does NOT include cellulite. Americans would be confused if they saw cellulite on a fashion model, and might not understand the performance as a fashion spread. So, according to what a SI theorist might say, Harpers Bazaar airbrushed the photo to eliminate the cellulite so that most Americans would understand the performance.

I'd be curious to hear your sociological analysis of the Crystal Renn photos and Context's article. Your comments on our class blog are welcome, as long as you keep them sociological and on topic.

Thanks to Sociological Images for the photo of Crystal Renn.


  1. The self-fulfilling prophecy is a very powerful phenomenon. Simply put, we often behave ourselves as we believe others expect us to behave ourselves. Society impresses on women an expectation that they should seek thinness in order to be seen as beautiful. It an effort to fulfill this expectation many women go to great lengths while striving for the often unhealthy and unattainable goal of extreme thinness.
    Conflict theorists might consider male supremacists as also benefiting from the ideology of extreme thinness in women connoting beauty. Maintaining power and influence is served well by diminishing the esteem of the subjugated.
    I’m assuming that Harper’s Bazaar’s intention was to promote the beauty of Chrystal Renn even though she wasn’t underweight. Having grown accustomed to cellulite free depictions of beauty, most Americans would have difficulty getting past the cellulite to the intended message of beauty. From a symbolic interactionist perspective, the clarity of their intended message would be obscured by cellulite.

  2. Well analyzed, Mr. Donnelly, sir. Friends, Mr. Donnelly's comment is an excellent example of how to sociologically comment on this blog.