March 18, 2010

Rethinking Nudity and Deviance

new sally By Sally Raskoff

When is it appropriate to show one’s breasts to people you don’t know? When is it appropriate be invited to feel the breasts of people you don’t know? You might have thought about Mardi Gras, some other performance event, or any form of sex work.

I recently thought about this when I accompanied a friend to a medical office visit. Suffice it to say that this was a place that offered cosmetic surgeries among their services. I was fascinated by the dynamics and behaviors that occurred there and over the months following her procedure.

Getting cosmetic surgery is often considered a deviant act in our culture. You may disagree with this statement; however I came to this conclusion based on many different aspects. “Good” cosmetic surgery is done without notice; if people can’t tell you had it done, then it’s good. People who have obviously had it done, perhaps too much or done badly, face social stigma and are labeled as deviant even if they joke about it, e.g., Michael Jackson, Octo-mom Nadia Sulemon, and Joan Rivers. clip_image002

Those who have had cosmetic surgery often know how to identify others who have had it done, and thus they form an in-group. In-groups and out-groups are smaller entities than entire cultures yet are related to the concept of deviance. People who have had some form of cosmetic surgery often feel a kinship with others who have had such procedures. Once my friend let other friends know about the procedure she was to undergo, other friends stepped up and disclosed their experiences. When these people gathered in the same places, they often examined each other’s “work” and shared tales of the experience. When it comes to breast surgery, the examination of the work often includes not just looking at the outcome but actually feeling it to experience how “normal” and “real” it feels.

When I witnessed this happening and was invited to participate, I mentioned how unusual an event this is but they corrected me. They explained that this kind of sharing helps them to feel good about both the process and its results. Women who have breast reconstruction after cancer and women who have had elective breast implants or breast reductions may react to the process differently. However, whatever the reason for the surgery, the outcome is “new” breasts. For some women, being in a room with other women who have “new” breasts creates community. This “in-group orientation” reduces the stigma of having experienced such a procedure and creates social ties and positive emotions.

This sharing process can include the people who have had the work done, but also their other friends or family who know about the surgery. This works to expand the in-group to include people who might have been out-group members. Not all family or friends may be comfortable or supportive of the procedure, but including them in the inspection process creates an intimacy and reinforces the social ties between them. Though those people haven’t had the work done and aren’t easily included in the in-group, they can become members by participating in this redefining the situation as deviant into one of acceptable conformity to group standards.

At the first medical office visit, one of the women who worked there moved her blouse and showed us her results before any procedure was scheduled. At the time, we were amused by how comfortable she was doing this. I wondered at the time if she showed her breasts to every potential patient. Her act seemed deviant to us. However, after watching other employees do the same thing during subsequent visits and after watching the behavior of friends post procedure, it became apparent to us that this kind of behavior is part of in-group orientation and also helps women manage the stigma associated with having such work done.

clip_image004The plastic surgery websites that feature before and after pictures also work to redefine and manage this stigma and create not just an in-group but also affect the entire culture’s attitudes toward cosmetic surgery. These body modifications are done in part to conform to our expectations about body symmetry and beauty. (They are also done to remedy physical problems.) While this in-group will not expand into an actual subculture, as they don’t have a long roster of unique cultural markers like special foods or dress, they may have an impact upon the larger culture by challenging the deviance of this particular status. Paradoxically, having good cosmetic surgery means that people can’t tell you’ve had it done. If more people were aware that people have had it done, there might not be as much stigma associated with it.

To answer the questions that I asked at the beginning, it seems that showing one’s breasts in public is an appropriate part of inducting someone as a new member of a cosmetic surgery patient in-group. The experiences of this group have helped them reoriented their definition of deviance.

To what other groups would similar dynamics occur? For what other behaviors would such a situation explain?


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It's interesting that plastic surgery is considered deviant in our society considering how much value most people put on appearance. People are shown a picture of what is understood to be beautiful and pressured to conform, but they are expected to go without society's acceptance? I'm not really for plastic surgery unless it is for medical reasons, but I thought that that was ironic.

This sounds a lot like what happens at transgender/transsexual meetings. One wouldn't usually talk about, say, genitalia, but among trans men it's common to discuss genital growth caused by hormone therapy, stand-to-pee devices, etc.

And, like with good plastic surgery, many trans people are perceived consistently as their intended gender. The only visible ones are the ones who can't "pass" (or who don't want to "pass") or the ones who are vocal about their gender history. I think many people would be more trans-friendly if they knew that the kind lady next door was raised as a boy.

Let me add that not all "cosmetic surgery" should/could be considered deviant. Females sometimes will reduce their cup sizes with a comfort/health reasoning behind it. So I wonder if the critics of this practice would say that females acted with deviance in such conditions.

Many women get breast implants to feel better about themselves. Deviance lessens as in-groups grow. As long as people are happy, we will rethink deviance and nudity.

This also made me think about the ongoing debate about breastfeeding in public. What could be a more natural reason as a female mammal to bare your breast than to suckle your young? Yet people who view women's breasts as inherently sexual objects think this is a deviant practice.

In my opinion, I don't think the practice of clinic employees showing their breasts to people should become not deviant. I find it strange that people would do that in a public place just to display the work they've had done. However, I do think that the idea of cosmetic surgery for medical reasons shouldn't be considered deviant. Hopefully, our culture will just end up not putting as much stock in appearance so the need for surgery will decline. This would decrease the whole in-group, out-group distinctions and make people more equal.

I agree with Lauren on this post. I don't think the fact that someone has had breast surgery should make them exempt to this deviance and make it okay for people who have had breast surgery to show themselves in public. A breast is a breast, whether it has silicone underneath it or not.

in my personal opinion I think that Cosmetic surgery is completely unnecessary unless it is some thing along the lines of reconstructive surgery for someone who has been in a bad accident. However thats just my opinion, many others have the right to disagree with me and thats okay.

We are affected tremendously by what goes on around us. Many famous people affect us and they way we look at ourselves. We look at the famous person and then take a look at ourself. We want to be young and beautiful like they are. Sometimes people take certain measures to do so like getting plastic surgery. I didn't know that getting plastic surgery was considered deviant in our society. I think it's perfectly fine to get it if you need it for medical reasons, but I don't understand why someone would do it to change their body.

Thank You Kristin L. Why would someone use plastic surgery as a way to change their body purely for aesthetic reasons? Let me first start off by telling you a true story. My mom had implants when she was in her late twenties, early thirties, but she has never told me. When i was little boy around 6 to 10 i started to notice men staring at her breasts, and it made me feel so awkward about my mom that it scarred me forever. I remember telling her "mom why is that man looking at you like that." she told me to ask the man "what are you looking at!" which i did but my mom didn't seem to care to much that her oldest son was trying to protect his mom, because that was the whole reason why she even pumped her breasts up. Woman say that they hate when men stare into their shirts. That is a load of BS, and a huge truck full it. If women hate men staring into their chest why make it bigger to attract more flies? So who does it really help? So far reading these comments had made me nauseous about women these days. No wonder when my girlfriend asks if she looks fat and I tell her she doesn't, but she asks again. "okay fine you look fat, okay is that what you want to hear?" Does this make sense to any guy or girl, that a girl with plastic boobs is somehow better than or should be revered as a "strong independent woman", thats just bull, a woman's basic instinct is to attract as many men around them, where a males basic instinct is to mate with as many women as can, but if men were to start getting their penis enlarged at the same rate women were changing their appearance women would still change their appearance. The percentage of men compared to woman is amazing a whopping 13%! That is telling you something. Its crazy how ridiculous the majority of the USA is fatuated on fake tit garbage. Now I guarantee that if a group of guys formed a meeting and started to grope each others balls or penises, or having the doctor show just how "well" his procedure went, woman would be in riots and be boycotting male doctors. Why is that. Why is when a picture of a boy looking up a woman's dress is looked as cute or "he is just acting as a boy", where a girl ready to unzip a man's jean is looked upon as deviant. There are some really messed up people that have been brainwashed into thinking that other peoples assumptions are what makes a person. If that were the case i don't think that 3/3 of the woman out there would ever be happy. Why trick yourself into feeling better by looking exactly like the other woman? Women out there that actually have a brain for themselves have to know that there are other woman out there actually suffering from bodily harm or injuries. Think of this ladies, the next time you think you look bad or fat? Do what I do, ignore it, because whether it be physical or mental, scars are forever, and they will still no matter what, take control of our perceptions.

hi ... this blog about "Rethinking Nudity and Deviance" is very interesting .. I am very interested in this subject because I have to submit a report on this in college. The part that catches my attention is "The plastic surgery websites that feature before and after pictures also work to redefine and manage this stigma and create not just an in-group but also affect the entire culture’s attitudes toward cosmetic surgery. These body modifications are done in part to conform to our expectations about body symmetry and beauty." thanks for the information.

With time plastic surgery will become more popular and more people will choose to do it. With this said, I think plastic surgery will become considered less of a deviant decision and slowly become accepted as a social norm.

I believe that being open with your body is no longer considered a deviant in most cultures, the society is obviously changing. In places around the world some women want to show off what they have paid for, so they will show their breasts or their body, being proud of what they have had done. I believe eventually our culture will be the exact same way.

Social norms seem to change quite drastically overtime. Piercings and tattoos that were once seen as deviant behavior are now considered normal among society. It seems that emerging behavior that becomes obviously prevalent in society causes society to adapt to new social norms; as a result, the social stigma once associated with a negative behavior becomes softened, and almost nonexistent in some cases. Perhaps once society realizes the omnipresence of cosmetic surgery it will one day change in norms that would uplift the negative stigma surrounding the practice and the individuals that are practiced on.

I find it interesting how deviant it is to show breasts in modern industrialized communities compared to many older or tribal communities. The human body is such a big part of our identity as a species, but we also identify strongly with discomfort showing it. As a woman in the US, I'm completely uncomfortable with the idea of walking around topless. But maybe if I went somewhere it was considered normal, it'd be much easier for me.
As far as cosmetic surgery, I wonder how cultures that show their breasts would react to women with the procedure showing them to be part of the in-group.

Many people have commented that plastic surgery will be considered less deviant because more people are utilizing it and it has been around longer. I find this hard to believe. In our society, people are viewed as deviant because they smoke cigarettes. The practice of smoking has been around for ages, but society still looks down upon it. I believe that as long as plastic surgery is done for purely cosmetic reasons, it will remain a deviant behavior. It isn’t the act, but the reason behind it that gives it a negative connotation. It is an elective procedure, which makes it more vulnerable for criticism.

There is an alternative to plastic surgery and weight loss surgery!I also had weight loss surgery roughly 5 years ago. Very liberating and I know how it feels to finally be freed of your turmoil with weight loss, etc. I have also found that with losing weight, so rapidly and at such a large amount it can be extremely frustrating when it comes to loose skin... I have found that reshaping garments are great post surgery and help a tremendous amount with this issue. Not only can you reshape and redefine your new body you can also make money in the process. I found this out at

It's nice that women can have a place to openly ask questions, see results of and have tangible examples of what their surgery outcomes will be.
Breast reconstruction is terrifying for a lot of women. If more cancer survivors could just be open about it more it would help get rid of the embarrassment of a mastectomy and make recovery and reconstruction a less tense, scary, unknown and painful experience. This atmosphere is a huge bonus and it needs to spread to all clinics where breast reconstructive surgery, breast augmentation and breast reduction surgeries are performed.

In this modern world, showing off your personal assets to other people are very normal and no one feels offended.

I'm currently working on a presentation about body modification as a deviant sub-culture for my sociology class, and this article was very helpful for my research because I am focusing specifically on plastic surgery.

Ladies today very much into beauty enhancements. Sometimes, they get very affected by what they read on the magazines or what they see on TV. At this ea, the vanity lane is always upbeat. Looking good always matters, and plastic surgery has become more than just a cosmetic field. And there are surgeons that place importance in the high demand for quality in the field. Some are try to keep their reputation by just doing what is right and only what the body can take. This is what should be put in every individual's mind: plastic surgery is not bad, and sometimes people who want more out of it do not need surgeons but psychologists who will enlighten them about respecting their body and knowing the true purpose of this medical field.

The etymology of the word stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a kind of tattoo mark that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. I feel that in these cases, with cosmetic surgery, many put a stigma on those who feel the need to perform these operations.

Very nice article. As a sociology student, I’m curious why our society considers plastic surgery deviant but not makeup or other cosmetics. They are, after all, for the same purpose. Both makeup and plastic surgery involve the use of artificial substances and processes in order to improve physical appearance. I wonder if simply the fact that makeup is far more common makes it socially acceptable.
I would also like to know how a sociologist would explain self beautification. Obviously if those in your group are pretty, there is an urge to conform. However individuals who are more physically attractive than their friends do not seem to all of a sudden stop trying to look good. Perhaps men and women turn to beautification in response to sanctions they receive should they ever appear unattractive. I would like to know more about this.

Well, in some cultures, especially in tribal areas, showing of breasts in public is a normal thing and not a taboo or a deviance. It's the same with those who had cosmetic surgery in which some accepted it as a reconstructive process for injuries.

Such a nice piece of information. Really liked your article. Post more content like this. Awaiting.
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