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Body Work

Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture

Debra Gimlin (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 181 pages
ISBN: 9780520228566
January 2002
$28.95, £24.00
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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.
1. Introduction: Body Work as Self Work
2. The Hair Salon: Social Class, Power, and Ideal Beauty
3. Aerobics: Neutralizing the Body and Negotiating the Self
4. Cosmetic Surgery: Body and Self in a Commodity Market
5. NAAFA: Reinterpreting the Fat Body
6. Conclusion: The Body, Oppression, and Resistance
Debra L. Gimlin received her Ph.D. from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is now Vice President of V2, Inc., based in Philadelphia. She lives and works in Bristol, England.
“Scholars working on gender, the body, and/or disability will find helpful three recent books in history, sociology, and communications.” “Breaks new ground in insisting that individuals use bodies as sites to articulate and materialize the definitions of status, beauty, normalcy, and health.” “It imagines bodies not as they are socially constructed by outside forces, but rather as malleable entities upon which the self is continuously negotiated through processes like hair styling, exercise, cosmetic surgery, and socializing.”—Carolyn Thomas De La Pena Unknown
"Beautifully written, cleverly argued, and skillfully researched, Debra Gimlin's Body Work goes beyond the argument that the beauty industry exists only to control women. Instead, Gimlin examines women's relationship to beauty from a feminist sociological perspective, finding that women are not dupes of the beauty industry but rather use body work in both empowering and degrading ways. It's about time a sociologist delved into women's complicated relationship to the beauty industry!"—Verta Taylor, author of Rock-a-By Baby: Feminism, Self-Help, and Postpartum Depression

"This fascinating study reveals how changing the body is really an effort to reconstruct the self-from aerobics, cosmetic surgery, and hair salon makeovers to therapeutic groups about accepting one's "fat" body. Gimlin fuses theoretical acuity with tender analysis, enabling the reader to engage critically and empathetically with these quotidian social constructionists. With efforts to transform the body becoming ever more frenzied as Baby Boomers age, this book is both timely and important."— Michael Kimmel, author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History

"Gimlin effectively demonstrates how the business of beauty is ultimately not about abstruse theories but rather about how women negotiate beauty to transact in everyday life. This perception that beauty may be the one area where the personal is not political recasts all theories previously forwarded on the subject and adds significantly to the literature about the culture of beauty."—Raquel Scherr, author of Face Value: The Politics of Beauty

"This thoughtful, interesting, and well-written book emphasizes the complexities of contemporary U.S. women as they negotiate identity through both participation and resistance to dominant beauty ideologies."—Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World

"Much more than a straightforward feminist critique of the beauty industry, Body Work offers a nuanced and sensitive analysis of the types of work that women do to construct and to maintain an identity with which they can live comfortably, steering clear of representations of women as passive victims of oppressive structures."—Nilufer Isvan, Assistant Professor of Sociology, State University of New York at Stony Brook

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