Thursday, September 22, 2011


So I kind of know the topic for my thesis...transnational images of beauty.

Now I'm working on the methods, the how. For my thesis, it's looking like I will be doing a content analysis of beauty magazines read by American and Ugandan women. It's gonna be tedious...but should lay a good foundation for my dissertation (which will hopefully involve interviews).

So far I'm thinking I'm going to analyze Cosmopolitan (highest circulating beauty mag in the USA), Essence (second highest circulating African American magazine), African Woman (leading beauty mag in Uganda, and the first)...and possibly a magazine called Bride & Groom circulated by a newspaper in Uganda. I have a meeting with an LSU librarian this coming Monday to brainstorm ideas about how to get access to these magazines. Wish me luck! Getting my hands on African beauty magazines is going to be tricky/expensive/possibly impossible (now that's an oxymoron for you...)

Here's some notes I took earlier today during a google search:

-Things to consider:
-the history of fashion/beauty magazines in each country (help me defend my choices)
-the history of the beauty industry in general—look back to that one article that talked about history of beauty magazines—in my lit review
-why fashion has become equated with beauty—fashion and accessories—if it is about body, then it tends to be “health”…so health and beauty (like Shape) vs. Fashion/Beauty (Vogue)—differences in audience? In message? In models? Does Uganda have equivalent?
-history of magazines in Uganda in general
- article about Sylvia Owori, the founder of Ugandan beauty industry as far as high fashion, modeling, and beauty magazines go, founder of African Woman magazine
-either choose Ebony or Essence (top two circulation African American magazines) and then defend my choice (a website with graph of top African American magazines)
*Ebony listed as men’s and women’s mag while Essence targets more women?
-choose a top fashion magazine—in the US is cosmopolitan the top?
- *this article gives a list of top ten fashion magazines with their September covers: “2011 September issues: Breakdown of the top 10 women’s fashion magazines” by Cristina Everett 8/24/11
- (magazine awards—women health beat out other beauty mags)
- (list of top circulating so far in 2011) 1) Cosmopolitan 2) Glamour 3) Redbook—Cosmopolitan wins overall highest consumer single-copy sales (i.e. from grocery stores) so far
“Audit Bureau of Circulations” Website

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Panopticon and a Room of One's Own, among other things

I don't watch TV very often. Sometimes I watch Bones and Biggest Loser on Hulu. Bones because I love the nerd humor and the tension between Booth and Brennan (for those of you who know whose those characters are). Biggest Loser because I used to be an athlete, and there's something about seeing people exercise and go from unhealthy and frustrated/insecure to athletic and confident that still pulls at my heart strings. Notice I said unhealthy, frustrated, and insecure to designate contestants on the show. What makes these overweight people unhealthy, frustrated, and insecure? Ok, so the unhealthy part may be medical (though not all large people are unhealthy, by any means). But frustrated and insecure? Are they all frustrated and insecure? Why do some of them experience those emotions? Why do I think they experience those emotions? Why do I think they are overweight? These are questions that exist in the relationship between the individual and the institutional, a person and his/her culture. I’ve made the journey from unfit to fit and back again (via repeated injuries) many times. One thing I notice is that when I am injured and thus “out of shape” I don’t feel pretty. That’s a very frustrating thing for me. It makes me insecure about my body. I’m actually there right now. My habit of exercising is probably more tied to my love of looking a certain way than to some inherent love of physical activity. Yes, exercise produces some hormones that help me manage stress…and I do love some activities. I love hiking (with people) and spin cycling at the gym (again, with people), and playing just about anything (with people). But most of the time my gym activities consist of swimming (not with people), lifting weights (also not with people), and riding the recumbent bike or doing the elliptical. I just don’t have time for spinning and playing sports, and hiking isn’t very convenient where I currently live.

BUT…I digress. That’s the think with beauty. It’s easy while I’m reading and thinking through theories to get off track and start to think about my own life, my own beauty journey. It is impossible as a woman studying women and as a woman studying beauty not to connect everything to my experiences. But those are what I have. It is my standpoint (to use Smith’s idea). It is where I can’t help but start, and pretending to start from anywhere else would only cloud my research and confuse the journey more than it is already confused. I’m studying beauty in a particular way, approaching from a particular angle, because I have had experiences with it that will shape the questions I think to ask.

One thing I hate about TV is its portrayal of beauty. Of course, there are the typical complaints. Women actors must be incredibly beautiful and young, or at least appear young, to be selected for many parts. They are often paired with older male actors, who somehow don't seem to "age-out" of lead roles like women do. But beyond the actual shows that feature beautiful women (Brennan from Bones is smart and super attractive--attractive enough to win the heart of a super hott FBI agent, and the Biggest Loser's female trainers are buff and beautiful)--beyond the shows, there is the commercials. Hulu nearly lets me get away without them, but not quite. And it's in the commercials where one can see our culture's current definition of beauty come out.

Among many things, beauty is an object in many ways (NOTE TO SELF: find some theorists who write of beauty as an object external to self, identify which theories I’m already engaging that conceptualize it this way). It is an object in the sense that it can be bought. If you feel you don't have enough of it naturally (whatever that means), you can purchase an array of products that will enhance and/or increase your beauty. It is an object to be cared for--almost like a pet. I have been wanting a dog for quite some time now. But I keep thinking if I buy a dog, I will have to buy food for it, and pay for vet bills, and then I will have to spend time walking and playing with it, because no one who has a dog should neglect it--it requires food and shelter and proper care and nurturing. It's a lot of responsibility! So, I don't have one. Yet. According to common perceptions of beauty, if one has it, it requires the purchase of shampoos and conditioners, make up, lotions, etc. It requires nurturing (countless hours in front of a mirror and at the gym) and accessories (what beautiful girl doesn't have a decently full closet and jewelry box?). Because one who has beauty should never neglect it! Animal neglect is now legally a crime. Thus far, beauty neglect is simply a social crime. A crime against the institutionalized feminine beauty ideal.

The things is, even if one doesn’t have beauty, or if one doesn’t have enough of it, the same purchases and the same disciplined routine is necessary to create beauty and to maintain it. Women who don’t take care of what they have, who don’t “take care of themselves” are often looked down on by other women and I wonder if men don’t also look down on them to some extent. For example… (if I may digress again). Facebook is arguably the most popular networking site in the entire world. It is a global network. We’ll come back to this fact later, when I read/discuss what kinds of images are disseminated in such a global network. But for now, let’s focus on my self presentation on my facebook page. I get to choose which pictures to show on my profile for the most part. I can “untag” embarrassing photos posted by friends. So my choice of profile photos, the ones that people see when they open my page, reflects my decisions of what I want people to see. I tend to choose “prettier” pictures, ones that I see and am pleased with. In college, a male student who was an acquaintance of mine asked me this question: “Why don’t you every try to do your hair and makeup? You don’t try to be pretty. I see your facebook pictures and you look hott, but then I see you in real life and…” he left that one hanging. I’ve heard other men and even women make remarks (not referring to me, hopefully) such as “she looks good now, but have you ever seen her without makeup? Scary!” And so you see, beauty is a double binds of sorts. Women are expected to maintain natural beauty, to be beautiful without enhancement (have you ever heard a guy say “I like a girl who can rock sweat pants and a cut off tee”), but they are also expected to be beautifully made up and to have the resources and skills to participate in the beauty market and use products to enhance their beauty (again, comments such as “she just doesn’t take care of herself” or “she has a pretty face, but she’s overweight—she’d be good looking if she was skinny”).

This ideal has been institutionalized in many cultures and places across many time periods. It basically says that women should be beautiful, but leaves what is beautiful up to that particular time/place/culture. So there is an over arching ideal that women should be beautiful, but that is left largely up to various other institutions to describe. We learn what is beautiful in school and through interaction with peers and family, through music and television and other forms of media. We also learn what is beautiful through surveillance—children pick on other children who don’t fit cultural norms. I was born without fingernails and got made fun of on the playground in elementary school. In middle school a girl asked me “do you ever brush your hair?” Women often marginalize other women who don’t measure up to standards. Women feel as if men choose the women who fit the standard best (though this is a hard “truth” to support with research).

Ultimately, women also survey themselves. Self-surveillance and shame drive many of our beauty actions. Relying on Foucault, Sandra Bartky uses the Panopticon, which is a special kind of prison, to discuss how women discipline and self-survey their bodies. The Panopticon is a circular prison in which prison cells form a structure built around a tower. Guards in the tower can look out to see each and every prisoner, who can only look toward the tower. The pressure of such surveillance, of the knowledge that one is always visible, drives inmates to participate in self-surveillance. So every prisoner “becomes their own jailer” (Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power, p. 95). Foucault uses this example to discuss “docile bodies of modernity” but Bartky argues he overlooks the kinds of disciplines that produce a uniquely feminine body and that the Panopticon for women is different than that for men (p. 95). She goes on to discuss three categories of disciplinary practices performed by women: “those that aim to produce a body of certain size and general configuration; those that bring forth from this body a specific repertoire of guestures, postures, and movements; and those directed toward the display of this body as an ornamented surface.” (p. 95—NOTE TO SELF: combine Barky’s ideas with ideas of other scholars from Gender/Sexuality literature who talk a lot of embodied gender/sexuality…beauty is also embodied).

Thinking of the Panopticon brings me to Virginia Woolf’s discussion of a “room of one’s own”. The Panopticon seems to be the reverse of having a room of one’s own. It is always being watched, becoming so tortured by a lack of privacy that one cannot even find privacy in one’s own head because one begins to watch over oneself. Woolf’s cry for a room of one’s own is a cry for women to have their own intellectual space, a space to create without the constant scrutiny of patriarchy, a scrutiny that leads us to scrutinize ourselves, to self-censor or feel bound to a strictly “female” creative space. Woolf points out that women in literature are often presented in their relation to men, and that men are often the ones presenting women in this way. She says “suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!” She describes how literature has been impoverished by “doors that have been shut upon women.” Relating all of this back to beauty leads me to the question, what would women look like if they were allowed to manage their appearances, to create beauty, from rooms of their own? What do women see as beautiful? Has female beauty been impoverished because it is so often represented from the perspective of men? (FTR p. 138).

Friday, September 9, 2011

Why I am here, and What this is

This semester I have been reading. Not that this is unusual for a masters/PhD student…but I have read an unusually large number of pages, and it will only grow. The beginning of a discipline that will be necessary if I am to complete this academic journey over the next several years. This year is my thesis year. My rough idea is to look at transnational perceptions of beauty, how they vary by culture and generation, where they intersect and diverge, what role globalization plays in creating crossroads of perceptions. I want to focus on Uganda and the United States. Why? Because I lived in Uganda for several months in college, so it is dear to my heart and a place of family and friendship, a large piece of what I consider to be my multi-cultural-ness…if one can be bi or tri cultural, like being bilingual, then I am a mix of American first, Ugandan second, and French third, with experiences in various other European countries contributing to the puzzle. I am perhaps most at home in America, but I have found that as my sense of at-home-ness increases within other cultures, my ethnocentrism and peace in my native culture is fading.
In this blog, I will be reflecting on things I am reading. Writing a thesis is intimidating. There are days when I look ahead and think there is no way I can do this. I wonder how anyone can do this. But anyone can blog, right? This is my reminder to take it day by day, idea by idea. It is a place for me to record thoughts, and for you to comment (if you so desire), so when it comes time to collect them into a thesis paper, I have already laid a foundation. This is my place, where grammar and theoretical accurateness doesn’t necessarily matter. It is a place of contradiction, I am sure…but I hope as I struggle with these readings and grapple with my experiences and thoughts that some lines of thought will emerge, and that from these lines my thesis and dissertation will be born.
Thanks for reading…but if you don’t, that’s ok. This is ultimately for me. It’s me encouraging myself to think and to engage…me chronicling my progress so in the end I can look back and see the distance I have traveled and revel in my accomplishment all the more because I can see the path that brought me here (wherever “here” may be in the next several years). That’s all I’ve got to say for now…time to read and to respond.