Sunday, November 27, 2011

Debra Gimlin--Body Work: Beauty and Self Image in American Culture (2002)

In this text, Grimlin looks at the ways in which women participate in shaping their bodies in an attempt to meet cultural norms.  Acknowledging in the introduction that such norms are unachievable for most women, she claims that “Women’s bodies are, therefore, by definition, violations of cultural imperatives” (Location 58).  Focusing on four locations where women take active roles in their physical appearance—a beauty salon, an aerobics class, a plastic surgeon’s office, and a political/social organization for fat women—Grimlin claims that these women, rather than simply being “dupes” of cultural power, as she understands Foucault’s descriptions of power to indicate, are in fact consciously repositioning themselves with respect to (as well as resisting) these hegemonic cultural forces (Location 96).  In Gimlin’s sociological approach, she will focus on the significance of social structures such as “group forces, commercial interests, professional considerations, and the structures of communities” (Location 99) in the “body work” these women engage in and undergo.
Ultimately, Gimlin says that she “learned that arenas of body work provide women with the “socially approved vocabularies” that explain their failure to accomplish ideal beauty and thus serve to neutralize the flawed identity that an imperfect body implies in Western society” (Location 156).  Additionally, in all four locations she researched, she discovered that there was a process of either attachment, reattachment or detachment which took place between selfhood/identity and the body.  At the salon, the gym, and the plastic surgeon’s office, women strive to make their bodies match their identity.  Many of them feel as though their current bodies aren’t in alignment with who they “really” are, and use various strategies to correct what Gimlin identifies as “accidents.”  In this way, they learn to reattach their identities to their new bodies.  At NAAFA, on the other hand, they learn partly to detach their identities from their bodies—though their bodies might read as “lazy” or undisciplined, these women learn to accept who they “really are” apart from their bodies. This is ultimately not completely successful; as Gimlin points out, “Meanings of the stigmatized body are clearly difficult to displace because self and body, at least in mainstream American culture, are too closely linked” (Location 1285).
However, other branches of this group instead works to change the meaning of the “deviant” body; encouraging social events with men are sexually attracted to these women, there’s instead a reclaiming of the “sassy, impertinent, disobedient” female body (Location1291).  According to Gimlin, though, these attempts to defy norms are ultimately unsuccessful, and thus “provides empirical evidence for the limits of women’s capacity to negotiate nondeviant identities in light of deviant bodies” (Location 1370). 

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