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American Beauty

An excellent example for paper 1. Fall 2008.

Every day all over America, women strive to be beautiful. They make choices from how to style their hair, to what clothes to wear, what make-up to apply and perhaps what surgical improvements could be made to help them match the idealized version of physical beauty. There seems to be no limit to what some women will do to attain this perfection. Why are women willing to spend large amounts of time and money, while sometimes risking their health to try to attain the unattainable?

Our world is full of images of ideal women. Commercials show women who appear to be instantly beautiful because of a new make-up or hair styling product. Magazines show new weight loss programs and surgical procedures that will get your body into the perfect shape. Once the image has been planted in the minds of the audience, it is real for them. This is how women are supposed to look. Each year millions of dollars are spent to fix, improve or hide our imperfections. According to a report recently published by the YWCA, "Women in the United States spend a total of $7 billion each year on cosmetics" (Beauty at Any Cost). To further understand the broad scope that these social issues have, we just need to look at the current statistics on cosmetic surgery. "In 2007 the top five cosmetic procedures for women in the United States were breast augmentation, lipoplasty, eyelid surgery, tummy tucks and breast reduction. Together, expenditures for these procedures totaled $5.3 billion" (Beauty at Any Cost).

The amount of money spent on cosmetics and cosmetic surgery are clear indicators that this is a societal issue, not just a personal trouble that a few women are experiencing. As defined by C. Wright Mills, "Troubles are privately felt problems that spring from events or feelings in one individual's life" but "Issues affect large numbers of people and originate in the institutional arrangements and history of a society" (Andersen). Each individual may work on the aspect of their appearance that they feel most strongly about, but in the background there is a social structure at work causing these womens' feelings of inadequacy.

In order to see how ridiculous these beauty rituals are, we must step back and look at what we do and why we do it. Critical distance is necessary to see the heart of the issue. Critical distance is defined as "being able to detach from the situation at hand and view things with a critical mind" (Andersen). As I read Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner, I felt sorry for the people of this tribe who seemed to blindly follow rituals that seemed so foreign and harsh. I was amazed by the power their society held over them. How could they feel so obligated and perhaps even forced by their society to participate in such odd and sometimes painful ceremonies. I found myself appalled by the fear that ruled their society. It must be fear, because what other force could possibly convince them to continue with these rituals? The more I thought about this fear, the more I began to see the parallels between their society and ours. We fear not fitting in or not being accepted by our society just as the tribe that was described. Miner moves us away from our own culture by using words like tribes and medicine man. In doing this, Miner leads us away from our own cultures and has us look from the outside in. The author created the milieu that the reader needed to achieve critical distance from his or her own society by reading about another.

The fear in our society is that if we do not conform, we will be labeled as different or an outsider. We believe that we will be seen as less than everyone else. A conflict theorist would argue that the corporations with the power are the ones who have created these beauty standards and continue to dictate what beauty looks like. In many cases, cosmetics are "produced by particular industries that profit enormously from the products and services that people buy" (Andersen). They have created these standards for their benefit, not ours. The people who feel obligated to participate in these rituals spend large amounts of time and money and when they do not participate, they are made to feel as if they are not living up to society's expectations.

While conflict theory contends that society is formed through power and coercion (Andersen), functionalism operates on the belief that "each part of society is dependent on other parts, and each institution has consequences for the whole of society" (Andersen). Using this interpretation and the cosmetic surgery industry as an example, functionalist may reason that cosmetic surgery only exists because there is a demand for these services. I believe that cosmetic surgery is much more acceptable now than it was 20 years ago, therefore as public opinion changed, so too did our society. As any one aspect of society changes, so will all other aspects of society.

In addition to conflict theory and functionalism, there is a third major framework to consider - Symbolic Interaction. Symbolic Interaction takes a deeper, more microsociological approach. This framework suggests that "people behave based on what they believe, not just on what is objectively true" (Andersen). Women intellectually realize that cosmetic surgery is not the answer to all that makes them unhappy or insecure, but there is still the thought that maybe surgery will do enough for them to improve their lives or status just enough. Over time, cosmetic surgery has become much more available to the common person. New meaning has been attached to a woman's willingness and financial ability to try to improve on nature. This change is a key element in symbolic interaction.

As a woman who has grown up in a world where beautiful women are splashed on magazine covers and found on many television shows, I have been taught what beauty is supposed to look like, at least as far as certain industries are concerned. Our society is tough and at times unforgiving towards those who do not conform to our cultural values. I have experienced the insecurity that stems from the fear of not measuring up or fitting in. I felt this so strongly that I risked my health and underwent a cosmetic surgery procedure just to reduce the feeling of not fitting in. While I knew that this was not going to make me one of the "beautiful" people, I felt a certain obligation to myself to do whatever I could to improve my status any way possible. Of course, years later and a bit wiser, it is hard to believe how I allowed the media and other industries to influence my life choices to such an extreme degree. Remarkably, most of the women friends that I talked to before the surgery expressed envy at what I was about to do and voiced their own litany of faults. Their dreams of hitting the lottery and being able to fix all that they felt was inadequate was my validation that what I was about to do was the right choice. My fear of not fitting in with our society overrode my fear of surgery, general anesthesia and weeks of recovery. With that one life altering decision, I became a member of the Nacirema tribe.

Every day we all make choices. Some good, some bad, but ultimately each choice we make has an effect on someone else somewhere down the line. My decision to have cosmetic surgery influenced two of my friends who ultimately also risked their health to improve their own feelings of insecurity. We must not allow the media, cosmetic industry or any other industry make us feel that we are inadequate or less than perfect. Our decisions and choices need to be made with a clear understanding of why we may feel pressured to make this decision. Consider the source, who benefits, who loses and remember to never make a choice based on fear.

Works Cited

Andersen, Margaret and Howard Taylor. "Sociology in Everyday Life." Andersen, Margaret and Howard Taylor. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning, 2008.

"Beauty at Any Cost." August 2008. www.ywca.org. 5 October 2008 http://www.ywca.org/site/pp.asp?c=djlSl6PIKpG&b=4427615
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Miner, Horace. "Body Ritual among the Nacirema." 29 September 2008 http://www.srwolf.com/wolfsoc/soc204/readings/miner.html.