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Body Work

Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture

Debra L. Gimlin
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 181
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  • Book Info
    Body Work
    Book Description:

    Today women are lifting weights to build muscle, wrapping their bodies in seaweed to reduce unwanted water retention, attending weigh-ins at diet centers, and devoting themselves to many other types of "body work." Filled with the voices of real women, this book unravels the complicated emotional and intellectual motivations that drive them as they confront American culture's unreachable beauty ideals. This powerful feminist study lucidly and compellingly argues against the idea that the popularity of body work means that women are enslaved to a male-fashioned "beauty myth." Essential reading for understanding current debates on beauty, Body Work demonstrates that women actually use body work to escape that beauty myth. Debra Gimlin focuses on four sites where she conducted in-depth research--a beauty salon, aerobics classes, a plastic surgery clinic, and a social and political organization for overweight women. The honest and provocative interviews included in this book uncover these women's feelings about their bodies, their reasons for attempting to change or come to terms with them, and the reactions of others in their lives. These interviews show that women are redefining their identities through their participation in body work, that they are working on their self-images as much as on their bodies. Plastic surgery, for example, ultimately is an empowering life experience for many women who choose it, while hairstyling becomes an arena for laying claim to professional and social class identities. This book develops a convincing picture of how women use body work to negotiate the relationship between body and self, a process that inevitably involves coming to terms with our bodies' deviation from cultural ideals. One of the few studies that includes empirical evidence of women's own interpretations of body work, this important project is also based firmly in cultural studies, symbolic interactionism, and feminism. With this book, Debra Gimlin adds her voice to those of scholars who are now looking beyond the surface of the beauty myth to the complex reality of women's lives.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92686-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Body Work as Self Work
    (pp. 1-15)

    At nine o’clock on a summery Saturday morning on Long Island, New York, Pamela Swanson, the owner of Pamela’s Hair Salon, readies her workstation for her first appointment of the day.¹ Pamela prepares dye, cleans several brushes, and sharpens a pair of scissors in anticipation of her first client, Rebecca Graham, a forty-eight-year-old grade school principal. Rebecca will have her hair colored a dark brown to camouflage its gray strands and then cut into a wispy, brushed-back style and blow-dried.

    Two towns away, in his clinic, Dr. John Norris completes the only surgery he has scheduled for the day. In...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Hair Salon: Social Class, Power, and Ideal Beauty
    (pp. 16-49)

    “You have to let your clients know that this is what you do and you know best, or at least better than they do, what looks best on them,” says Joanna, one of the beauticians at Pamela’s Hair Salon, as she explains how she convinces her customers to accept her hairstyling advice. Joanna claims special knowledge of both fashion and styling techniques. She “knows best,” she suggests, because she has immersed herself in beauty culture, better understands the current standards of beauty, and is committed to those standards. The hairstylist bridges the gap between those who pursue beauty and those...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Aerobics: Neutralizing the Body and Renegotiating the Self
    (pp. 50-72)

    Maintaining a positive identity requires that individuals distance themselves from characteristics and acts that violate social standards.¹ For women, who are valued according to their appearances and whose appearances are—by their very femaleness—flawed, the struggle to construct positive conceptions of selfhood is certainly difficult. They may, as I show in chapter 1, resist beauty ideology by claiming that more important responsibilities like work and family override appearance as an indicator of selfhood. During my research in two aerobics classes, I found that women may also use body work to deny personal responsibility for their appearance. In this setting...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Cosmetic Surgery: Paying for Your Beauty
    (pp. 73-109)

    After several unsuccessful attempts to schedule an appointment, I finally managed to meet with Jennifer, a twenty-nine-year-old grade school teacher who volunteered to talk with me about her cosmetic surgery. On a typically cold November afternoon, I spoke with Jennifer in her apartment on the south shore of Long Island. Jennifer is 5 feet 6 inches tall and has long, straight blonde hair and expressive light blue eyes. That day she was dressed in an oversized gray pullover and black sweatpants. While we talked, she peeled and sliced the crudités that would be her contribution to the potluck engagement party...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR NAAFA: Reinterpreting the Fat Body
    (pp. 110-140)

    The last three chapters have examined women’s attempts to negotiate nondeviant identities within institutions organized around altering the body. Hairstyling, aerobics, and plastic surgery serve not only as methods for shaping women’s appearances but also as techniques for neutralizing bodies that will never meet cultural standards for beauty. Furthermore, I have shown—particularly in the introduction and chapter i—that women can create spaces of empowerment from within an oppressive system of beauty ideology while neither rejecting that ideology nor clearly challenging it.

    Importantly, hairstyling, aerobics, and plastic surgery involve body work aimed at changing minor, run-of-the-mill departures from ideal...

  9. Conclusion: The Body, Oppression, and Resistance
    (pp. 141-150)

    The body is a site of oppression, not only because physically stronger individuals can overpower weaker ones but also because systems of social control operate through it. I do not mean to imply that physicality in itself is oppressive, but instead that the body serves as a symbol of social difference and a basis for discrimination. In a society that equates the body with both self and moral worth, cultural meanings are attached to physical differences, so that the body provides a foundation for oppression based on gender, class, ethnicity, and age—all social characteristics that are deeply embodied.


  10. NOTES
    (pp. 151-164)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 165-171)