The holiday season is officially upon us as thousands of individuals woke up early on this Black Friday to score the best deals of the season. This time of year brings joy to the hearts of many, but also exposes one of the greatest contradictions in American society. Along with the excitement of holiday shopping and purchasing a 50 inch TV for half-price, this time of year is also supposed to be about giving. From Thanksgiving through Christmas more people volunteer and donate food and/or money than any other time of year. In 2012, to combat the popularity of consumption during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, more and more people are participating in Giving Tuesday (the day after Cyber Monday), a day to give to those in need. While we can certainly see the merits and benefits of giving a toy to a child who has none or a coat to someone who is cold, we should also ask ourselves why charity is needed in the first place and why charity is so intimately linked with consumption. (more…)
In an advanced capitalist society, such as the United States, individuals express their identities through the items they purchase, how they present themselves to others. For those with a lot of money, this often means conspicuous consumption, or buying items with the express purpose of being able to show them off to others (e.g. a waterfront mansion, a yacht, a Maserati). But expressing one’s personality through clothing, jewelry, make up, and other grooming practices is not just reserved to the rich. We are all taught to be conscious of our appearance. We know that we are being judged based on the choices we make, and our ability to conform to fashion norms and trends. In this way, fashion is a performance in which we all engage. (more…)
Over the past 400 years, the Western criminal justice system (CJS) has greatly evolved. Like virtually all social institutions, its evolution has been highly impacted by the wider social environment. Along with the arrival of new technologies, philosophies, and aspirations, the Western CJS has altered its policies and practices. One very important change that has taken place over the past few centuries has been the birth of the modern prison system. Strongly inspired by factors related to capitalism, the prison system has continuously oscillated between focusing on incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. Beyond economic reasons, part of this fluctuation has taken place because of the West’s increasing desire to punish offenders mentally as opposed to physically as well as its vacillating theories regarding the true “nature of man.” In response to such ideas, it is important to consider exactly where and how the modern prison was born as well as what factors contributed to its creation. (more…)
In the two weeks since I wrote about Secret’s “stress sweat” ad campaign, I’ve been thinking a lot about American society’s beauty standards for women. The prevailing model of female beauty (especially for young women, say 16-35 y/o) is best described by a term coined at Duke University: “effortless perfection.” As the Duke researchers explained, their interviewees felt they “had to be not only academically successful, but also successful by all the traditionally female markers — thin, pretty, well-dressed, nice hair, nice nails. And, the real rub is you had to do it with no visible effort” (see the Steering Committee’s report here). Secret reinforces this unrealistic standard through their new line of products. Take, for example, their clinical strength sport stick (which I mentioned briefly in the last post). Thanks to the efforts of feminist activists around the nation, the otherwise all-male realm of sport has opened up, ever so slightly, to women athletes. But this has not altered the heterosexist structures that govern women’s lives. Women are expected to balance it all—work, family, school, love, and now sports—and be at our best, without ever breaking a (literal or figurative) sweat.
The pressure for “effortless perfection” envelops women daily. When it comes to beauty, “effortless perfection” is about looking as lovely as every retouched fashion model, but making it seem as though it comes naturally to you. Like women roll out of bed with “soap opera” curls in their hair, are born with pink blush splotches on their cheeks, and have eyebrows that sculpt themselves. Take this ad for Clairol’s Nice n Easy hair dye. In it, the husband marvels at his wife’s nearly magical ability to maintain her youthful beauty even as life’s ups and downs have left him with grey hair. “I don’t know all her secrets” he tells us, “but I do know that Kate’s more beautiful now than the day I married her.” Kate’s dirty little secret is that she isn’t perfect—that 15 years of marriage, new jobs and homes, and carrying and delivering 2 babies weren’t effortless endeavors for her. And yet she hides her greys to maintain the allure that captivates her husband.
Its directive is simple, but impossible to achieve. “Effortless perfection” is artificiality masquerading as nature. It is the female athlete who glows (not sweats) on the field and the wife whose flaxen hair grows more golden with age. It is, perhaps, best exemplified by the “au natural” makeup trend, easily found in any fashion magazine. Just for fun, I found this guide online. Getting the “natural beauty” look that “guys love” requires 5 multipart steps and more than 10 beauty products/tools: face wash, makeup remover, moisturizer, tinted moisturizer or foundation, concealer, liquid shimmer luminizer (which sounds more like a sci-fi weapon than makeup to me), eyelash curler, mascara, blush, and loose powder. And since all of this is set in a hypercapitalist context, you can’t just buy any old makeup; you’ve got to buy the right stuff or risk exposing the artificiality of one’s perfection—mascara flakes tell the truth about your insufficient lashes and the wrong shade of foundation reveals that your skin is not actually made of porcelain or milk chocolate or caramel.
And this is where things get more complicated. While all women living in our society are subjected to some version of heterosexist beauty standards, only some are able to live up to them. That is, the pressures of “effortless perfection,” problematic though they may be, are themselves a privilege restricted to women of certain class positions. As one reader commented on my Secret post, these products are costly—Secret’s clinical line costs up to 3 times more than a regular stick of deodorant. Natural looking cosmetic products are pricey. Women who are economically disadvantaged cannot afford this beauty ideal and are often stigmatized. Moreover, this ideal is racialized. While product lines are increasingly including more cosmetics for women with darker skin tones, these options are still limited compared to those for lighter skinned women. Additionally, deodorants which claim to be invisible on skin are often only invisible on light skin; when dark skinned women wear it, we see the “effort” in their “perfection.” The ideal of “effortless perfection” emerges from society’s center: white, middle class, heterosexuals. Marginal women are always already excluded, as their bodies have historically been the foil for white, middle class women, the proof of white women’s superiority.
Ultimately, the ideal of “effortless perfection” is bad for all women—it says to us, “As you are, you will never be good enough.” And then it whispers, “But some of you can try.”
One way that capitalism creates consumers is by convincing us that our identity is developed and demonstrated through the items we purchase. Your new clothes, shoes, house, car, and jewelry tell the world who you are and what you are worth. Most importantly, these products can fix our flaws (which, we are told, are many). With each new purchase, we think we are improving ourselves. But if we ever felt complete, fixed, perfect, we might stop buying, so capitalists must continue to create new problems in need of solutions (Gwen Sharp has a great, related post at SocImages).
The body has long been a site of capitalist pathologization. We are taught that our bodies, often women’s bodies, require manipulation or control, and that medicines and hygiene products are our best options. This is readily evident in a recent ad campaign for Secret’s “stress sweat” line (view here). According to Secret, all sweating is embarrassing; it is a problem requiring a solution. It is especially embarrassing for girls and women, Secret’s target consumer base. The site links to WebMD, where girls can rate their symptoms to determine whether their sweat is “abnormal,” and ultimately, how mortified they ought to be when sweat happens. But stress sweat is the worst smelling sweat of all, Secret tells us. According to their website, there is a scientific explanation for its extremely foul odor: it emerges from different glands than exercise/activity induced sweat, with different bacteria to cause more odors (you can watch a “cute” video on the “science” of stress sweat, produced by Secret’s parent company, Proctor & Gamble, here). In stressful situations, girls and women are told, “Don’t focus on your speech/date/test/presentation/etc. Worry about your armpits and B.O.” Thanks a lot, Secret.
So, Secret begins by telling us that we have a problem—we are stinky, wet beasts. We must buy Secret deodorant/antiperspirant and keep our natural scent “secret.” According to their site, a sweaty daughter “may isolate herself, avoiding activities she previously enjoyed, in an effort to prevent embarrassment and teasing, so it’s really important to give her emotional support.” Rather than encouraging your daughter to find self-confidence internally, mothers are told that the best course of action is to take her shopping. Secret goes further; not only will the new deodorant give her confidence, it will allow her to express her true self: “With 10 unique scents to choose from, she’ll have fun picking the sparkly one that fits her personality.”
So we see that Secret uses the tried-and-true capitalist tactic of selling insecurity; but is this gendered? Secret is a producer of products for women. They wrap their deodorants in pastel pinks and purples, fill them with flowery or fruity scents and name them Ohlala Lavender and Cocoa Butter Kiss. Secret teaches women that their natural smells and bodily processes are so gross that they require the daily application of carcinogenic chemicals (see also Lisa Wade’s post on similar issues with douching). Part of what makes the new Secret campaign so insidious, in my opinion, is that it masquerades as empowerment. For example, one variety of Secret Clinical Strength deodorant is called “Mean Stinks”—when consumers purchase this deodorant stick, Secret donates a bit of money to organizations fighting girl-on-girl bullying. And yet, the ads themselves encourage girls to compete with and compare themselves to one another. A teen girl is now pushed to ask herself, “Do I smell worse than her? What about her?” This particular line of products pressures women to conform to the social expectation that women be soft, pretty, sweet-smelling creatures regardless of activity or context—we’re supposed to glow, remember? Even female athletes are encouraged to worry about sweating during practices and games but don’t worry, their cure is Secret’s Clinical Strength Sport stick. (One could also look at the gendered pressures conveyed in deodorant/hygiene ads for men. My guess is you’d find a lot of normative expectations about heterosexuality and muscularity.)
As I finish writing this post, I feel I must admit something—I’m sweating. It’s a bit humid in here, the AC could be on higher, I could have chosen an iced coffee. And as I read about “normal” vs. “abnormal” sweating, a small part of my mind whispers, “Is my sweating normal? Can everyone tell?” None of us is exempt from the pressure. But neither are we powerless.
(*These would be good references for those interested in the dynamics of hygiene/health ads for men.)
(*I’m not aware of the original author, but this piece circulated the internet, and would be a great handout for students during a discussion of bodies and capitalism)
There appears to be a link between neoliberalism, individualism, and violence. In reference to the association between neoliberalism and individualism, consider neoliberalism’s insistence that we do not need society since we are all solely responsible for our personal well-being (Peters 2001; Brown 2003). From a criminological standpoint, it is not hard to understand how this focus on the individual can lead to violence. According to Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory, for instance, broken or weak social bonds free a person to engage in deviancy. Since, according to this theory, individuals are naturally self-interested, they can use the opportunity of individualization to overcome the restraining powers of society. Bearing in mind neoliberalism’s tendency to value the individual over society, it could be argued that this ideology is hazardous as it acts to tear apart important social bonds and to thereby contribute to the occurrence of ego-driven crimes, including violent interpersonal crimes. Such a thought suggests that as neoliberalism becomes more prominent in a country, it can be expected that individualism and, as a result, interpersonal violence within that country will increase. (more…)
Robert K. Merton, in 1938, began delving into how societal arrangements could create, maintain, and exacerbate social tension and individual stress. His theory of ‘strain’ – tremendously oversimplified – proposes that crime/deviance becomes more likely when a disjuncture exists between culturally derived ends (i.e. monetary success) and what the social structure makes possible. This theoretical framework, from its onset, has been the focus of numerous efforts; being tested, criticized, buttressed, and modified to increase its viability. As a result, sociology and criminology now offer a variety of strain models so as to enhance an understanding of criminogenic conditions, criminal behaviors, and social deviance (see Merton, 1938; Cohen, 1955; Cloward & Ohlin 1960; Agnew, 1992, 2002; Messner & Rosenfeld 1994). However, criminologists and sociologists alike are recognizing conditions that, once again, may result in the modification or further development of the strain tradition.