April 19, 2012

Challenging Gendered Beauty Norms: Ashley Judd's Conversation

imageBy Sally Raskoff

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. image

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.

One might think that they intended to encourage such exploration of culture and reinforcement of social norms and normative structures by discussing these issues.

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?


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I love the way she took charge! It is unfair that there are so many inequalities between genders. I completely agree with the last part of her essay. Both men and women are labeled as something (be it passive for women, strong and aggressive for men) and they are stuck under that stereotype. Like she wrote, it completely denies people of the "full and dynamic range of their personhood".

That's right totally agree, the man and the woman why not equal?

I believe that unconsciously, a lot of peoples try to fulfill their social role to maintain old traditions. I also believe that is the reason why peoples don't have as much dynamic range as they possibly can. A stereotype is not a law, and can easily be broken through recognition and a response to this recognition of being under a stereotype.

She is so courageous to stand up and say what she wants! And she is so right! People get caught up about how they look and how they want others to think and look at them. People would be happier if they could be how they want to be and not feel self-conscious about their image.

I think that a lot of people will have their own opinions and input, but many are biased and the person will not even realize it. Society has fed all of us traditional views that we don't even always recognize. I don't think it's all so bad though. I'm not sure that the criticism for male's or female's to want to look healthy and fit and to work out in a gym to be accurate. it promotes a good life and people are attracted to that, the idea of health is attractive. However in a work place, law, and anything else professional body image and health should not be important. Nor should gender, like she said, "I think it's the objectification of girls and women and this hypersexualization of the society that creates the criticism." This invites the idea that we take our own opinions and biases to professional areas and in my opinion that is not right. What I would like to see is people start to realize their own traditional ideas that they have sub consciously and question them.

What type of change needs to take place for girls to fit in?
Does a economic shift need to go or do we need a moral shift to? What is it going to take for this to happen, the women that change their face or change the "butt" is because they are inscure about themself. Yes, the media is making money off insecurity which is wrong. Would these happen thou if women were secure with themself. It starts with the raising of your childern to become the new shift.

Men and women will probably always be stereotyped under their sex category. If a man acts a certain way, such as taking charge and being aggressive about it, people would say that it's what men do. But if a woman did it, they would not understand.

I think an important way to join and change the conversation is through excepting our flaws- we don't have to be perfect. The media focuses so much on looks and attaining perfection, it becomes naturalized though it's anything but natural to feel shame about our own bodies and minor imperfections.

Like Judd stated, even men face similar pressures. They are taught to act aggressive and tough in order to be a 'real man' and this behavior is made to seem natural and even biological while it is only socially taught.

Men and women will probably always be stereotyped under their sex category. If a man acts a certain way, such as taking charge and being aggressive about it, people would say that it's what men do. But if a woman did it, they would not understand

Gay men, however, are also very into their appearance. They work out more and are more into their bodies than straight men (I realize that's a huge generalization, but there's truth there).

Bravo Ashley Judd for bringing these important issues to light.

Sure men and women will stay under their sex category. But i hope this will change in the future. Media attention can only helps.

It's the same thing with vegetables. So many messages saying, Yuck, who wants to eat those. But if they're marketed as fun and delicious, people (kids especially) suddenly want to eat them.

I like the fact that she includes boys and men in this conversation. Although I'm a little torn. There's nothing wrong with looking good. But unnecessary plastic surgery is definitely going too far.

She's 47 now. Looks like the good roles in Hollywood have dried up for her.

It is quite rare that a public figure, let alone a woman criticized on her appearance speaks about the wrongful and unfair comments by about her from the media. Daily society is critiqued and judged based on our appearance and it seems to play a huge factor on celebrities whose appearance affects their work. Ashley Judd, spoke on a moment that truly affected her and by doing so she focused on the physical objectification of women and how physical appearance seems to be an enormous factor on how we choose to live our lives. We often focus on how to improve our appearance or how to remedy the flaws instead of talking about the flaws itself and how these flaws make us human. Judd spoke her mind, and as a woman even in the 21st century, was criticized for it. She made valid points as far as how women and men " denigrate and dissemble " each other without thinking. We attack each other, we denigrate our bodies and faces to fit in, to belong. I truly enjoyed reading Ashley Judd's essay, and to be quite honest more people should be informed and converse about these types of topics. Its sad that in our world today beauty is worth more than our own integrity and success.

While appearance is certainly only one of many factors that make up a person's identity, it is nevertheless an important one. Biology and evolution have made it so. Sexual reproduction throughout the animal kingdom (and we are animals) is often based, at least in part, on visual cues.

The key is to accept ourselves and not wait for other to accept us--you might be waiting for a while.

I'm very impressed with Ashley Judd's poise, moral bearing, and intelligence.

It's worth asking, I believe, who exactly is the media these days? Is it CNN? The New York Times? People magazine? DailyKos? Mother Jones? Or is it us? All the people who use Facebook and Twitter? I personally don't believe there is THE media anymore.

Nice work ashley...got Kentucky

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