Challenging Gendered Beauty Norms: Ashley Judd's Conversation
Did you read Ashley Judd’s essay regarding the media attention to her appearance?
It is a rare day that an actor calls attention to the disparities and inequalities in our societal structure. Ms. Judd’s essay is a great example of sociology and social science in action. Her argument has direct connections to feminist theory and uses a sociological perspective.
She describes beautifully how the societal surveillance of women’s appearances and bodies may humiliate women as individuals and also objectifies them at a more macro level of culture and society. Objectifying women encourages them to live their lives focused on their appearance and their relation to men, which reinforces the patriarchal power structure in society. One gender group (women) is made passive and submissive so that the other gender group (men) retains their dominance and power.
This is not just an abstract theory; it is a very practical theory that can help us better understand many dynamics that affect our lives. Health issues (such as depression and eating disorders), domestic violence, the gendered wage gap, and many other inequalities and experiences can be better understood by applying this theoretical framework.
The news media has reacted to her reaction by continuing to talk about her essay. However, it is clear that not many commentators really understand the points she is making.
If you’ve taken a sociology class and read conflict and feminist theorists, her comments should make a lot of sense. Think about them in the context of the current flurry of attention to bullying. We seem able to acknowledge that there is inequity and unfairness in society, yet it is difficult to see how we participate in these issues by our own behavior, or how the structure of society both creates and perpetuates bullying.
Ms. Judd mentions in this NBC interview that we should identify our own ”puffy face” or “big butt” moments so that we can identify the problem and stop reinforcing these dynamics:
I think it's the objectification of girls and women and this hypersexualization of the society that creates the criticism. we're anesthetized by it, we're taught not to feel how badly it hurts. get back to the gym, buy another butt clenching dvd, when it's contributing to the pain. I want people to share their puffy face moment and talk about being excoriated, being humiliated, being objectified, and ridiculed, and men as well. My husband and I watch a lot of motor sport in our house, and the products that are marketed to men and the products boys are given to be masculine and sexy are so ridiculous. equally so. I think what happened to me is very common. It might look a little different in other people's lives because they may not be public figures, but we all go through it.
The news media seized upon this challenge, but not quite in the way Judd intended. The Daily Beast, the site that originally posted her essay then invited people to post their “puffy face” moments. Period.
However, they gave no further guidance on how to frame such a discussion. Most of the comments missed that mark by a mile. Actually, by much more than a mile. Discussing weighty societal issues that hit people where they live is most likely not possible on a website comment space. That’s what classrooms are for, whether virtual or on campus.
Learning and education do not happen just by sharing information and then commenting on it. Reflection must be informed by critical analysis if it’s going to lead to actual learning and deep understanding.
Ms. Judd had an experience, thought about it and analyzed it, using her academic expertise. (If her Wikipedia entry is correct, her Bachelor’s degree minors in anthropology, art history, and women’s studies are among her many areas of expertise.)
She makes a reasoned and informed argument in the essay that she then shared with the rest of us via the web. Here are two excerpts from the last part of her essay:
I hope the sharing of my thoughts can generate a new conversation: Why was a puffy face cause for such a conversation in the first place? How, and why, did people participate? If not in the conversation about me, in parallel ones about women in your sphere? What is the gloating about? What is the condemnation about? What is the self-righteous alleged “all knowing” stance of the media about? How does this symbolize constraints on girls and women, and encroach on our right to be simply as we are, at any given moment? How can we as individuals in our private lives make adjustments that support us in shedding unconscious actions, internalized beliefs, and fears about our worthiness, that perpetuate such meanness? What can we do as families, as groups of friends? Is what girls and women can do different from what boys and men can do? What does this have to do with how women are treated in the workplace?
…If this conversation about me is going to be had, I will do my part to insist that it is a feminist one, because it has been misogynistic from the start. Who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery? Our culture, that’s who. The insanity has to stop, because as focused on me as it appears to have been, it is about all girls and women. In fact, it’s about boys and men, too, who are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood. It affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings. Join in—and help change—the Conversation.
Following Judd’s lead, how can you join and change the conversation?