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Seeing the American Culture from a Detached and Outside Perspective

Excellent sample first paper from Chloe Mills - Winter 2009

The American culture as a whole is a very self conscience culture focusing on appearance and success. The steps people take to be culturally accepted by society in America are seen as important daily acts, such as taking a vast amount of time preparing one's hair or makeup, or deciding the clothes that they wear. Other times this striving for acceptance goes to greater lengths and sometimes becomes expensive, such as surgically altering cosmetic features. Yet these rituals that the people of the American society perform upon themselves are seen by a person of this society as normal things to do. These customs are all socially acceptable and are perhaps necessary so that one can fit into the culture and conform.

Upon reading Horace Miner's article, "Body Ritual among the Nacirema," my initial thoughts of that society were that their cultural customs were more on the bizarre side of the spectrum, and that the Nacirema were rather unlike any other culture I had heard of before. As Miner so states, one particular ritual that is conducted "consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures" (Miner, retrieved 2009). That these people went to such great lengths of practices so far from what is considered the norm in the American culture was interesting, but rather absurd compared to what society has taught us to think is normal and within the norms of American society. However, I could also draw parallels between this culture and the values that exist in my own upbringing in American culture. The human body is seen as ugly and that both cultures strive to improve their self image for what is considered ideal, as well as the discreteness towards routine bodily functions and actions, such as excretory acts and having sex, both of which are both viewed as being taboo or not polite to discuss.

However, when I read Miner's article a second time, I noticed that the region that this culture inhabited was in North America, the same region that I live in, yet I had never heard of this culture until now. It was then that I realized that "Nacirema" is actually "American" spelled backwards. This surprising realization was quite fascinating, because the first time that I analyzed and formed my thoughts on these people I had considered this society to have very odd and different customs and norms than that of the American society, when in reality, these are the very daily rituals that we perform upon ourselves to fit the values and ideals of culture. Americans, like any other culture, follow the so called "rules" of society because otherwise we fear, consciously or not, that we will be rejected by other people in society.

It was not until I read about the American culture in a different, detached light that I realized the absurdity of some of our rituals that we perform. The way that Miner introduced his studied society in a perspective that uses specific wording to suggest a more primitive-like culture, allowed readers to consider what exactly Americans actually do to themselves to fit in with society, but from a removed and critical distance. As stated in "Sociology in Everyday Life" (Andersen and Taylor, 2008:8) critical distance is so that we can "detach from the situation at hand and view things with a critical mind," and is important in debunking ("looking behind the fa├žades of everyday life") the ideals and rituals that Americans do all of the time. This is so that we can see and analyze our socially influenced values that would otherwise seem completely normal and wonder why exactly we are shaped by society to want to feel or do something a certain way (Andersen and Taylor, 2008:7).

Once it is realized that this article is about the American culture, it becomes almost blatantly obvious what these rituals are. The rituals that Americans view as important but are thought of as normal because that is what we are all taught to believe by our society, seem very different when phrased in a way that allow us to actually examine them without considering them to be our socially shaped norm. As stated earlier, Miner used specific ways of describing the culture so that it seemed worlds away from our own, thus allowing us to view these rituals from an outsider's perspective rather than that of our own. One such example is the topic of the "shrine." Closer examination reveals it to be simply, the bathroom, which to Americans (including myself) does not seem at first a highly important aspect of life. However, after Miner does point out all of the ways that we spend so much time in the bathroom, and how this room in the house even affects status, we can see that it is after all an important standard of living, even if it is taken for granted. The number of bathrooms in a house often affect its price, and display the wealth of the people living in that house. It is the center of many of our household activities, such as bathing, excretory acts, applying makeup and styling our hair to what society expects, and brushing our teeth.

Brushing one's teeth and the general need for dental hygiene in our culture is something that is especially desired, but until examining how far we go in our society to keep our teeth in tip-top shape, I had taken this aspect of appearance for granted. Most people regularly visit the dentist (which Miner has called "holy-mouth-men" [Miner, retrieved 2009]) and consider going to the dentist to be a safe and good thing to do. But the way that Miner states the procedures that occur in the dentists office do reveal that these are quite frightening and somewhat bizarre acts to attempt to preserve our teeth. American culture views dental hygiene as important, and so thus, Americans want to have good teeth to avoid repelling a potential mate, since poor dental hygiene is pretty highly frowned upon in our culture.

Our incessant need to better our body image is something that I had considered somewhat unique among cultures, but had not necessarily viewed closely before. The great lengths that our society propels us to feel like we need to do to to better our body shape, our skin complexion, our facial structure even, is radically different than that of many other cultures. Other cultures that I had learned about or seen suggest that bodies are sacred and are not viewed as vile, not something that always and must be improved. Americans however, often undergo surgical procedures such as breast augmentation or liposuction to name a few, which are not cost effective and therefore (among other things as well) fuel our want for success and thereby our need for money. "...Much of the people's time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity" (Miner, 2009). We value success and money so that the money can be spent on culturally defined "necessary" material items and improvement toward ideal bodily image.

Once we have viewed our own routines and rituals that try to move our image toward the nearly unattainable standard that society has created, we can finally see how these things really are somewhat odd tasks, and we can critically analyze these behaviors to understand how society has shaped us, and how people attempt to create an image of themselves that fits the demands of society. In addition, if we do not perform these rituals and achieve what societal influences are upon us, such as commercials and billboards showing us perfectly sculpted bodies, we fear that we will not fit in, we will be excluded from society.

A shallow look at the American culture from an insider's perspective appears that the behaviors and rituals that we perform are normal functions of life, because that is what we are used to, what we are taught by society to think. However, once we do see how our culture functions from a critical distance it can be noted that how we act, how society has shown us what is "right," is quite unique compared to other cultures. We feel like we must do these things to better our self esteem, to fit in with everyone else, because as social creatures we want to go along with society. But perhaps this isn't the correct choice, to have our bodies and minds so enormously influenced by the society in America. Our culture pressures us to go to such great lengths to improve ourselves, which is such a normal and acceptable thing to do in this culture. However, often is not noticed or realized how extreme some people are willing to go to conform to the expected norm of American society, until one looks at the demands that society places upon us from the outsider's perspective of American culture.

Works Cited

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

Miner, Horace. Retrieved 20, January 2009. Body Rituals Among the Nacirema. http://www.srwolf.com/wolfsoc/soc204/readings/miner.html.