Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture

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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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520228566
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/2/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 181
  • Sales rank: 1,292,473
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Table of Contents

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


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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2003

    Striving for Perfection: Women make the choice

    Gimlin achieves her purpose of sharing information on the justification behind body work through the format of her book. First, she presents her research then she provides a conclusion. Gimlin does this for each chapter, which changes as she looks at the different forms of body work. This allows the reader to assess the work and come to their own conclusion before reading her thoughts. This directly incorporates the reader into the book, which maintains their interest. The format is a major strength of the work. Another strength of the book is the quotes from interviews that Gimlin conducts with the subjects and her field research. The interviews add reality to the work and also encourage the interest of the reader. In Sociology, field research involves the researcher actually being in the environment of the subjects and even participating in their activities. This also adds to the element of realism and gives an everyday perspective of what women go through. These elements combine together to add personality to the work. A weakness of the book would be the author¿s focus on only female body work. For comparison purposes, including males in the study would open up interpretations for the double standards placed, or shed light on whether men have the same stigmas to overcome. Gimlin answers the question on her exclusion of males by stating, ¿While contemporary men must undoubtedly work to negotiate the relationship between body and self, women, more than men, face social pressures that make the negotiation difficult and complicated¿ (Gimlin, 12). An aspect of the book that I truly enjoyed was its feminist sociological viewpoint. So often we only see situations from a male viewpoint, even if the literature is geared towards women. Gimlin takes a whole new look at the beauty industry and its relationship to women and comes up with a perspective of the self-empowerment of women. We are not forced to conform by society, but we choose. As a young woman on my way out on my own, I value this book. It gives women a new outlook so that instead of feeling helpless and pressured to look a certain way in order to succeed and be happy, they can change or not change their body based on one thing: their own happiness. Gimlin¿s stress on empowerment is something every woman can take away from this book. Her message is reinforced by her format and the purpose of the book is accomplished.

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