(originally posted HERE at the Gender & Society blog)
Last fall, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece (here) about beauty, or really, about ugliness. The Gender & Society blog Erynn Casanova and me, to write responses to the article and comment on the 2013 book that prompted the NYT commentary. Both of our responses are below. What a fabulously fun intellectual conversation!
By Erynn Masi de Casanova
Ugly. Some words sound like what they mean. We avoid calling people ugly in polite conversation, but are usually bold enough to whisper it behind their backs. Julia Baird’s recent op-ed in The New York Times raises the question of how children are socialized into beliefs about and reactions to a less-than-lovely appearance. As a case study, she chooses a children’s book based on the real-life experiences of its author, Robert Hoge, which is a memoir recounting his childhood with a large facial tumor and distorted limbs. His book is simply titled Ugly. Baird wonders how children come to learn about and take part in a system of “looksism,” and “why we talk about plainness, but not faces that would make a surgeon’s fingers itch.”
Surgery came immediately to my mind on reading Baird’s column. Elective surgery to alter the human body’s appearance goes by many names. Plastic surgery emphasizes the malleability of the body and its parts. Aesthetic surgerymakes it sound as if we can turn our bodies into works of art. Cosmetic surgeryconjures makeup rather than sedation and scalpels. And while Baird acknowledges that surgeons might want to fix faces like Mr. Hoge’s, she doesn’t mention that the possibilities cosmetic surgery opens up also affect social judgements of appearance in everyday life.
If we stick with the example of “distorted” facial features, but consider adults’ rather than children’s reactions, we can imagine people thinking, “Why doesn’t he fix it?” Surgeries exist that can help people in their quest for a “normal” appearance, which some research has shown is a more common goal for patients than achieving drop-dead gorgeous glamour . Eschewing elective surgery seems like a conscious choice to live “with flawed features in a world of facial inequality,” as Baird puts it in her op-ed.
Here’s where the rise of what sociologist Victoria Pitts-Taylor calls “cosmetic wellness” comes in. In the United States and other wealthy countries, taking care of our health—and all the bodily practices that it involves—is now a requirement to be a moral person. Contemporary health morality pressures us all to monitor our health: this pressure and the blame it spawns are clearly visible in pop culture’s portrayals of obese people. We interpret an attractive appearance as evidence of physical and mental health. If looking good is health and being healthy is being a good person, then unattractiveness becomes an even bigger threat to social acceptance. Ugliness becomes as immoral and irresponsible as fatness or smoking cigarettes—also frowned on by the devotees of the new health morality. Good patient, good consumer, and good person are coterminous.
But “facial inequality” doesn’t exist outside of other kinds of inequality. Our financial resources limit our ability to participate in cosmetic wellness and health morality. Sometimes the answer to why he doesn’t fix it is that he can’t afford to. Elective surgery is expensive. Yet middle-class and working-class people pay in installments, take a second job, or cross national borders to be able to afford it. If a normal appearance can be bought, then those who aren’t able to buy it can be shunned. We begin to contemplate a future in which the high price of compulsory cosmetic wellness means that only the poor will be ugly. There’s nothing attractive about that.
Erynn Masi de Casanova is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. She is the author ofMaking Up the Difference: Women, Beauty, and Direct Selling in Ecuador, winner of the National Women’s Studies Association’s Sara A. Whaley Book Prize, and most recently, Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity. She is co-editor (with Afshan Jafar) of the books Bodies without Borders and Global Beauty, Local Bodies.Casanova and Jafar also co-edit the book series Palgrave Studies in Globalization and Embodiment. She is a member of the editorial board of Gender & Society.
By Kjerstin Gruys (me!)
In the November 2014 NYT article, “Being Dishonest About Ugliness,” writer Julie Baird cites Australian author Robert Hoge, who argues that adults need to stop telling children that “looks don’t matter.” After all, he says, “They know perfectly well they do.” Instead of telling kids they’re all beautiful, we should “tell them it’s O.K. to look different,” and that, when it comes to physical beauty, children should “know that it’s just one thing in life, one characteristic among others.” In other words, it’s important for children to know that one does not need to be beautiful in order to find success, love and happiness.
Psychological research bears much of this out. Statistically speaking, beauty has only a negligible impact on overall happiness. For example, in one study, researchers found that, despite being highly-prized by respondents, physical attractiveness predicted only small variances in survey respondents’ reports of pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and life satisfaction. In another study, participants were asked questions about their levels of happiness while, unbeknownst to them, their looks were being rated on a one-to-five scale by the research team (yes, this is kind of creepy, but let’s leave the methodological conversation for another day!). Those rated in the top 15% in terms of beauty were roughly 10% happier than those in the bottom 10%. Now, a 10% increase in happiness may seem pretty meaningful (I’d take it!), but be careful to remember that this means that the most stunningly beautiful people – the breathtaking outliers – are only 10% happier than the most profoundly unattractive.
“I’m happy to concede the point,” Hoge says, “that some people look more aesthetically pleasing than others. Let’s grant that so we can move to the important point – so what?”
People often state that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but when the seemingly subjective concept – and social consequences – of “ugliness” maps again and again onto the bodies of poorer, fatter, and aging women of color, it’s time to acknowledge a broader structural problem. Yes, it’s important to help children develop healthy self-esteem and body image, but without addressing the power relations that drive our beauty standards, these efforts treat the symptoms rather than curing the disease.
Dr. Kjerstin Gruys is a Thinking Matters Fellow at Stanford University and a Postdoctoral Scholar (by courtesy) at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, also at Stanford. Her research broadly explores the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality, with a particular focus on gender as it intersects with race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, and age. She is currently developing a book manuscript, tentatively titled: True to Size?: A Social History of Clothing Size Standards in the U.S. Fashion Industry.
Jane Doe Asks: How can I open a conversation with my parents about getting treatment? (posted here first)
First, congratulations on deciding to take this important step in your recovery. It can be nerve-wracking to talk to your parents about getting treatment for an eating disorder. It’s difficult to tell parents about something personal, especially if it’s something you’ve been hiding from them, but your physical and emotional health must be the priority. Every family is different, so there’s no one perfect script that will work in every instance, but here are some ideas to get you started.
First, I suggest you do some journaling to collect your thoughts. What sorts of symptoms are you experiencing? How are these symptoms making you feel? What are you hoping to get out of the conversation with your parents? Do you want to see a therapist? Do you want to see your regular doctor? (Both are a good idea!) Writing down a short list of talking points will help you remember everything, and it will help you get back on track if the conversation takes off in a different direction.
Before speaking with your parents I recommend taking the NEDA Online Eating Disorders Screening. This quiz can help you develop a stronger sense of what’s going on, and sharing the results of the quiz with your parents is a great way to start the conversation. The results of the quiz may help your parents better understand what you’re experiencing, and they will also see that you’re taking this seriously. Once you’ve described your symptoms, it’s important to mention what kind of help you need, such as “I think I need to go to an eating disorders specialist” or “I’d really like to see my doctor about this.”
With luck, your parents will already be familiar with mental health concerns, including eating disorders, and will be comfortable helping you seek treatment. However, if your parents are less familiar or comfortable with mental health issues and treatment options, I suggest directing them to the Parent Toolkit on the NEDA website.
In my experience, almost all parents want to be supportive and are willing to learn about eating disorders to help their child. However, if you’re worried about how your parents will react, definitely tell them this in advance, and ask them to focus on being good listeners. If talking to them in person is too overwhelming, try writing them a letter instead. Hopefully reaching out to your parents will leave you feeling more supported. However, parents aren’t perfect and some are downright dysfunctional.
Therefore, if talking to your parents isn’t an option (or if you speak with them and it goes poorly), there are other sources of support available to you, such as a doctor or school counselor. Also, NEDA has a great program called NEDA Navigators, which connects individuals (aged 13 and older) struggling with eating disorders, or those supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, to volunteer NEDA Navigators who can share information, experiences and resources to help you figure out where to go next and how to get to recovery. You can find more information here.
Having big, serious conversations with your parents is never fun or easy, but seeking support from the adults in your life is a crucial step to getting healthy. I wish you the best of luck with it.
"Jane Doe" asks: Where did you go to school? What are good programs for someone like me who wants to study the sociology of mental health, specifically eating disorders and body image? I struggled with my ED for years but can now say that I've been in recovery for five years. I want to devote my life to the cause, but I don't know how. (Originally posted at Proud2Bme.com)
Once upon a time, a long long time ago, I was an undergraduate at Princeton University, where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate (equivalent to a minor) in gender studies. For my senior thesis I designed a study that examined body image among sorority women. I LOVED the experience of conducting my own research, but I wasn’t sure about continuing on to graduate school. Instead, I wanted a “cool” job, so I applied for positions in the cosmetics and in the fashion industries.
I ended up working at Abercrombie & Fitch Corporate, and then at GAP Inc. I enjoyed many aspects of this first career, but I missed the sense of excitement and purpose I’d felt when conducting research on topics I felt so passionately about. I also felt conflicted about working in an industry known for promoting narrow beauty standards (there are definitely ways to work in fashion without doing this, but I didn’t know that at the time).
And so I applied to sociology PhD programs, focusing on departments that had a strong reputation in research on gender, culture and the body. I ended up at UCLA, where I was able to work with Dr. Abigail Saguy, who does cutting edge research on gender, culture, inequality and bodies (among many other things!). It was a perfect fit for me, with fabulous training and many opportunities to conduct the kind of research I’m passionate about.
That said, a program that was perfect for me won’t necessarily be perfect for everyone. For example, you mentioned a specific interest in the sociology of mental health, which wasn’t my main focus, so I know less about programs with strengths in that particular area. However, the American Sociological Association lists a Section on Mental Health, which is a smaller organization made up of sociologists who share this interest. Their website lists more than a dozen sociology graduate programs that offer a mental health concentration, HERE.
As a sociologist, I’m naturally excited when someone expresses interest in my field, but I also want to make sure you know that there are MANY different ways to contribute to eating disorders prevention, treatment and recovery. I have friends and colleagues from all walks of life who have dedicated their careers to this cause, including: psychologists, therapists, physicians, activists, fiction writers, dieticians, nonprofit leaders, bloggers, politicians and, yes, even fashion designers! Whatever path you take, you will join a dedicated and diverse community. Welcome!
Paying mindful attention to what your body needs to be healthy is a critical aspect of loving it. Few things are worse for your health than feeling hatred towards your body, which is associated with all sorts of unhealthy behaviors.
So, the simple answer to your question is, YES, you can learn to love your body—an emotional and psychological process—while taking care of it, physiologically. Indeed, showing kindness to your body is often the first step to loving it, rather than the other way around. If we waited to be 100% in love with our bodies before treating them well, we’d be waiting a long time!
That said, I am curious to know why you think that you need to “lose weight for health reasons.” You see, our culture is quite obsessed with thinness, not only in an aesthetic sense, but in a medical sense as well. We are often told that it is impossible to be healthy at higher weights, which simply isn’t true. In fact, research shows that people who are categorized as “overweight” on the BMI scale have a LOWER risk of mortality than people in the “normal” weight category.
This finding is based on data collected on thousands and thousands of people, and it is statistically sound. That said, I’m not bringing it up to tell you that you should find a way to get yourself into the “overweight” BMI category, but because I want you to question some of the assumptions you may have about the relationship between health and body size/weight.
I’m a sociologist, not a medical doctor, so I cannot make determinations about your individual physiological health, but I encourage you to learn more about the Health At Every Size philosophy (which you can read about HERE), which contends that healthful habits are more important than the number on the scale. Below, I’ve copied 4 HAES principles, which I try to remember for my own health and happiness. Best of luck on your own journey!
1. Accept your size. Love and appreciate the body you have. Self-acceptance empowers you to move on and make positive changes.
2. Trust yourself. We all have internal systems designed to keep us healthy—and at a healthy weight. Support your body in naturally finding its appropriate weight by honoring its signals of hunger, fullness and appetite.
3. Adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Develop and nurture connections with others and look for purpose and meaning in your life. Fulfilling your social, emotional and spiritual needs restores food to its rightful place as a source of nourishment and pleasure.
Find the joy in moving your body and becoming more physically vital in your everyday life.
Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full and seek out pleasurable and satisfying foods.
Tailor your tastes so that you enjoy more nutritious foods, staying mindful that there is plenty of room for less nutritious choices in the context of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.
4. Embrace size diversity. Humans come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Open your mind to see the beauty found across the spectrum and support others in recognizing their unique attractiveness.