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In every society, people use their appearance as a way to express their social relationships. Applying makeup, adding or removing clothing, building muscles, or piercing various parts of the body are examples of how people try to change their appearance in order to fit in, or in some cases, to stick out. In suburban America, girls struggle to reach the goal of a Barbie-doll figure, whereas in Jamaica, it is more desirable, and socially accepted, to be fat. American women use makeup to express feelings and moods while Bedouin women use tattoos as a means to reveal their personalities. Contemporary Western culture sees the body as an object that is separate from the self, while many other societies see a person as an integration of the mind, body, and spirit. By studying the effects of body image in a few different cultures, a new understanding is given to the reasons why people describe, perceive, appreciate, and alter their bodies as they do.
In suburban America, teenage girls starve themselves while in Jamaica, a larger body size is what is valued. Socially dominant individuals who are enmeshed in sound relationships are usually large and bigness tends to ensure reproductive success and survival in times of scarcity. All in all, plumpness is generally considered attractive. Such is the case in many of the West African societies from which people were taken to Jamaica as slaves. In these societies, those who can afford to do so seclude their adolescent girls in special “fattening rooms” and, after a period of ritual education and heavy eating, the girls emerge fat and attractive. Weight loss signals social neglect in Jamaica, and instead of congratulations for a noticeable “drop-in-the-pounds”, one wonders about the sorts of life stresses that have caused such an event. Fatness is associated with moistness, fertility, and kindness, as well as with happiness, vitality, and bodily health in general. “Fatness connotes fullness and juicy ripeness, like that of a ripe fruit well sweet and soon to burst” (Sault, p. 137). Diet foods and beverages are only seen in bigger towns and assumed to be meant for diabetics because no one should wish to be thin; quite a drastic difference in attitudes from that of the American ideal.
In a study done with 42 college students in Iran and 53 college students in the U.S., the Iranians scored reliably higher on a Body Self Esteem Scale (Akiba, p. 539). Those with little or no access to westernized media perceived themselves on a more positive level and were less likely to have eating disorders as well. Whether it is the media to blame, or the culture as a whole, is definitely a question not easily answered.
In America, television programs present slender women as the dominant image of popularity, success, and happiness. One in every eleven commercials includes a direct message about beauty, which are almost exclusively directed toward women (Parker, et.al., p. 108). Common magazine covers will read “how to lose weight, how to look skinnier”, giving females the notion that losing weight should be a constant goal. Our society encourages engagement in directed effort to improve the body in an attempt to achieve perfection. Because perfection is the ultimate goal, improving one’s body no longer means simply losing weight. (Alderbaran, p.5).
Makeup is a major concern for a large amount of women in American society. A great deal of time, money, effort, and energy is spent in using makeup and a range of emotions is experienced with its use. ” Among everyday appearance practices in contemporary Western society, “visible makeup clearly marks the production of “womanhood” and “femininity”: overall, women are the ones who wear makeup, men do not” (Holmes, pt.1).
Women’s everyday makeup and appearance practices are indeed part of the social organization of gender, race, class, femininity, sexuality, and the social construction of self. “Many women who say at least some makeup is essential express their feeling that wearing makeup is indeed an important part of being dressed, and feeling ‘themselves’” (Beausoleil, 1992). Thus, in evaluating how they look wearing makeup, women often define who they are and are not, who they want to be or not be. Women use makeup and appearance to create the self, to reflect on and elaborate who they are. As Sociologist Murray Wax said, “the ‘typical’ American woman tends to view her body as a craftsman or artist views his raw material” (Wax, p.590). The same idea could very well be applied when trying to understand the tying and tattooing among the Rashaayda Bedouin.
The Rashaayda Bedouin of eastern Sudan impose their culture on human bodies as well as on the bodies of animals. They use tight saddle girths and painful nose rings to break their camels, and once tamed, the animals are branded. Rashiidy women also wear nose rings and bind their hair and face masks tightly with belts and straps. Instead of branding, tattoos, often shaped like camel brands, are hidden by pieces of cloth and heavy silver jewelry, and are revealed only during sexual intercourse. Rashiidy women tattoo themselves on three parts of the body: the forearms, the lower half of the face, and the upper portions of the legs and thighs. The tattoos on a woman’s arms are simply decorative patterns with little significance. The import of the tattoos, however, is not merely decorative; they have strong erotic associations (Sault, p.63). These indelible marks are effective proof of unchanging devotion when they are seen by the right man. Rashaayda use tattoos as a nonverbal signs to express their deep feelings, as most societies have tokens of some kind. Whether it is makeup, jewelry, or tattoos, it seems that there is a common meaning connecting the symbolism of each.
Body image and social relations exists in all human societies. Some societies view the person as a whole, including body, mind, and spirit as integrated aspects of the self, while other societies view the person as a self that is separated from the parts called the body. All in all, it seems to come down to expression. Whether or not the expression has a healthy meaning to back it up can be obvious in cases of vanity, yet controversial in non-destructive ways such as using makeup. We use the body to symbolize the self, society and social relationships, but in doing so we affirm either fragmentation or wholeness. Indeed, it seems that body image is present in all cultures, in many different forms, with many different meanings.
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