Navigating Public Spaces: Gender, Race, and Body Privilege in Everyday Life Samantha Kwan
Feminist Formations, Volume 22, Issue 2, Summer 2010, pp. 144-166 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/ff.2010.0002
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Navigating Public Spaces: Gender, Race, and Body Privilege in Everyday Life Samantha Kwan
Borrowing from and refining Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) ideas on white privilege, this article introduces the concept of “body privilege” and examines how a lack of body privilege materializes in everyday life. Interviews with forty-two “overweight” women and men reveal a body privilege continuum distinctly patterned by gender and race. Specifically, while a majority of participants are not able to experience a level of comfort when navigating public spaces, women generally report more instances of body nonprivilege. Moreover, a number of Hispanic and white women experience a heightened level of “body consciousness” that leads to some form of “body management.” This article documents and discusses this body privilege and its racial and gendered embodiment, along with differences between body privilege and McIntosh’s original concept. It also discusses how body privilege sheds new light on crucial debates regarding cultural ideals, women’s bodies, and agency. Keywords: agency / beauty / beauty ideals / body / body consciousness / body management / body privilege / ethnicity / fat / gender / overweight / race Western cultural norms emphasize a thin and firm body ideal for women and a muscular ideal for men (Bordo 2003; Pope, Phillips and Olivardia 2000). Feminist scholars have examined these norms (often described as “Eurocentric white ideals”), their effects, and the various demands of the “fashion beauty complex” (Bartky 1990; Chapkis 1991; Collins 2000). Today, many women continue to live under a “tyranny of slenderness” (Chernin 1994), engaging in widespread body-modification practices or “body work” (Gimlin 2002). These practices range from dieting to cosmetic surgery and their negative physical, ©2010 Feminist Formations, Vol. 22 No. 2 (Summer) pp. 144–166
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psychological, and social consequences indicate that hegemonic ideals remain a key site of women’s oppression (Sprague-Zones 1997; Wolf 1991). While scholars have studied these overt manifestations of body norms, in 1988, Peggy McIntosh (2000) changed our language and understanding of oppression by introducing the concept of “white privilege.” Unlike overt forms of oppression—whether manifested in hate groups, anti-miscegenation laws, or racial slurs—white privilege is a package of unearned assets that whites cash in on a daily basis. In this article, I borrow and refine McIntosh’s idea of white privilege to understand a parallel concept of “body privilege” to further the understanding of embodied oppressions. Drawing on in-depth interviews with forty-two “overweight” women and men, I show how certain women experience a form of body oppression that leads to heightened “body consciousness” and the need for “body management.” I also highlight how body privilege is patterned by gender and race. Furthermore, while I draw on McIntosh’s concept, I show how this new concept of body privilege is both similar and different to McIntosh’s original concept. Finally, I illustrate how body privilege sheds new light on crucial debates regarding cultural ideals, women’s beauty work, and agency. Body Privilege McIntosh’s concept of white privilege centers around a form of power that racially privileged people take for granted on a daily basis. According to McIntosh, as whites go about their everyday lives, they experience advantages that racial minorities do not. McIntosh notes that whites are often oblivious to their privilege, taking it for granted and operating as if their lives and experiences are normative and morally neutral. Instances of white privilege that help to clarify this concept abound. For example, McIntosh admits that, as a white woman, she can reasonably assume that her neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to her; she can turn on the television and see people of her race widely and positively represented; and she can easily buy dolls, toys, and magazines featuring people of her race. These so-called privileges come with various benefits. She says that “[s]ome privileges make me feel at home in the world. Others allow me to escape penalties or dangers that others suffer. Through some, I escape fear, anxiety, insult, injury, or a sense of not being welcome, not being real. Some keep me from having to hide, to be in disguise, to feel sick or crazy, to negotiate each transaction from the position of being an outsider. . . . Most keep me from having to be angry” (2000, 35). Thus, similar to Iris Marion Young’s (1990) “cultural imperialism” that constructs the Other as deviant and undesirable through interactions such as gestures, speech, and reactions, these examples illustrate how members of privileged groups experience a level of comfort when navigating daily life. Those with privilege are able to perform mundane routines with ease, something those without privilege cannot necessarily assume. As Young observes, these acts
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enable the dominant group to practice avoidance, aversion, and separation from the Other, and to signify other bodies as ugly, dirty, defiled, and contaminated. The concept of white privilege has been discussed and used extensively by scholars and activists, such that there is even an annual “Knapsack Institute” that explores “invisible weightless knapsacks of privilege” (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs 2009). However, the concept is not without critique. For example, Ladelle McWhorter (2005) observes that white privilege draws on a juridical understanding of power that insists on the primacy of a sovereign subject. Thus, white privilege tends to essentialize whiteness, assuming that whiteness is not constructed through cultural discourses. Consequently, critics like McWhorter argue that white privilege emphasizes ridding whites of “unearned assets,” rather than disrupting and realigning networks of power. Indeed, I am mindful of such critiques when I apply McIntosh’s original concept to understand appearance-based oppressions. The parallels I draw with body privilege attempt not to essentialize “fat”—a bodily state that is not only potentially transitional, but is constructed through, among others, economic, social, cultural, and medical lenses (Kwan 2009). Specifically, this article examines how fat intersects with other signifiers, such as gender and race, to influence everyday interactions, thereby acknowledging how networks of power work in complex, multiple, and seemingly innocuous ways—namely, through interactions and self-surveillance. Like structures that privilege whiteness, cultural and social structures privilege the thin, or at least what has been deemed a “normal”-sized body. Classical social-psychological research indicates that beauty functions as a visible status cue that operates in a similar manner as race or gender and shapes expectations about an individual’s personality and behavior (Webster and Driskell 1983). Individuals often assume that beautiful people are good and/or talented and expect them to be smarter, lead better lives, hold more prestigious jobs, and have happier marriages (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972; Landy and Sigall 1974). Many of these expectations do, in fact, hold. For example, a meta-analysis of experimental studies finds that for both men and women, physical attractiveness is an asset in hiring, evaluation, and promotion (Hosoda, Stone-Romero, and Coats 2003). From cradle to grave, attractiveness correlates with desirable social outcomes. (For a review of both classic and contemporary studies, see Kwan and Trautner .) Moreover, not only do beautiful individuals have social “privileges,” their bodies avert stigma. “Obese” individuals experience bias, discrimination, stigma, and stereotyping in many arenas of social life (Puhl and Brownell 2001; Sobal 2004; Solovay 2000). Poor treatment of “overweight” women is especially apparent; for example, large women face a significant wage penalty for their weight (Conley and Glauber 2005; Pagan and Dávila 1997; Rothblum, Miller, and Garbutt 1988), and for overweight women, size correlates with downward social and economic mobility (Rothblum 1992).
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A Western cultural body-hierarchy thus creates body privilege, an invisible package of unearned assets that thin or normal-sized individuals can take for granted on a daily basis. These “normal” bodies, because of size, shape, or appearance, unwittingly avert various forms of social stigma, while simultaneously eliciting social benefits. Their privilege is protected by structures that venerate a narrow conception of beauty, particularly for women (Bordo 2003; Wolf 1991).1 Applying McIntosh’s (2000) original examples, we see: Ubiquitous media images that reinforce and perpetuate the normalcy of thinness; that thinness is rarely challenged or questioned as a state of being; and that thin individuals are made to feel welcome and normal in the usual walks of public life. The thin body is such a coveted cultural standard that it is an unchallenged norm. Meanwhile, those without privilege must negotiate daily interactions, sometimes feeling shame, guilt, and anger because of their bodies. In short, body privilege allows its possessor to avoid physical and emotional injury. Young’s (1990) “loathsome bodies”—namely, those deviant fat bodies—experience the reverse. This cultural hierarchy leads to important questions concerning everyday experiences. While feminist scholars have devoted significant attention to women’s body-work practices, they have paid less attention to how body norms surface in micro-level interactions. How does body-norm violation affect mundane routines, such as going to school, working, and shopping? In light of Western culture’s body-hierarchy and the visibility of the body as a status cue, how do overweight individuals experience their lack of body privilege on a daily basis? Additionally, given the importance of race and gender in understanding social outcomes, experiences, and the self, how does the body intersect with gender and race to affect its everyday accomplishment? Methods To understand how a lack of body privilege plays out in mundane life, I interviewed forty-two individuals who identify as “overweight.” I conducted semistructured interviews so as to explore in-depth the participants’ perspectives. I recruited participants in two ways. First, I administered a survey about culture and body in classrooms at a community college in a mid-sized southwestern city. Survey participants reported their height and weight and indicated whether they would be interested in participating in a follow-up interview.2 I calculated each survey-participant’s Body Mass Index (BMI), and then contacted overweight participants who expressed interest in being interviewed.3 Because the BMI is a problematic measure (Oliver 2006), I began with this measure, but ultimately relied on participants’ self-definitions and self-labels for sample inclusion. Second, I recruited participants through print advertisements placed in the community college’s newspaper and on campus bulletin boards. I relied on these discrete methods, as body issues are often sensitive and anxiety-inducing. Also, it would have been unethical to approach potential
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participants directly, or to rely on snowball sampling that involved asking participants to recommend study participation to overweight friends and family members. While the methods I employed generated neither a representative nor random sample, this exploratory study nevertheless illuminates important social processes concerning Western culture’s body-hierarchy. Additionally, because I intentionally turned to a community college, I recruited a lower social-class sample.4 This is advantageous, because there is an inverse relationship between obesity and socioeconomic status (typically measured by using income or education, and less often by occupation), particularly for women (Sobal and Stunkard 1989; Zhang and Wang 2004). Body studies tend to rely mostly on convenience samples drawn from more economically advantaged college-aged women (Grogan 2008), thus often overlooking economically disadvantaged populations. To enable comparisons, I also ensured variation by race and gender. My findings therefore speak to an understudied economically disadvantaged group that faces more barriers to body conformity, and also to groups that are often overlooked in body studies, such as racial minorities and men. I asked participants a series of questions about body and culture. Specific questions about body consciousness included: What is your relationship to your body? Is weight something that is important to you today? Please share with me some of your experiences about school/work, dating/relationships, clothes shopping, and eating out: Does your body/weight affect these experiences? How aware are you of your body on a daily basis? Digitally recorded interviews, lasting typically two hours, were transcribed shortly after each interview. Atlas.ti 5.0, a software program, aided with the analysis of transcripts. In this qualitative software program, I created a summary sheet for each participant and coded transcripts for key themes and patterns. I then sorted recurring themes and developed theoretical propositions grounded in the data (Glaser and Strauss 1967). The sample consists of twenty-three women and nineteen men, twenty of whom (47.6 percent) identified as white, ten (23.8 percent) as Hispanic, seven (16.7 percent) as African American, three (7.1 percent) as mixed race, one (2.4 percent) as South Asian, and one (2.4 percent) as Native American.5 According to medical-community standards, 20 (47.6 percent) would be labeled as overweight, and 22 (52.4 percent) as obese. The mean BMI was 32.5, ranging from 25.1 to 46.3, and the average age was 34.4, ranging from 24 to 49. All participants were either part-time or full-time students, as this was a criterion of sample inclusion. Fourteen (33.3 percent) participants were not working as they completed their education, while the remaining worked either full- or part-time. Nearly two-thirds of the sample (26, or 61.9 percent) indicated a household income of under $30,000, and the mean household income was approximately $30,000. In their interviews, the majority of participants identified as lower or working class. Thirty-nine participants identified as heterosexual.
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Navigating Public Spaces As overweight participants perform mundane tasks, others remind them that they cannot take certain comforts for granted. Daily, they confront the reality that thin is the privileged norm. While body privilege enables thin individuals to perform simple tasks comfortably, for overweight individuals, at times these tasks elicit hurtful and insulting comments and stares. The majority of participants, but particularly women in higher weight categories, reported that they experienced negative stereotyping, stigma, and/or social isolation because of their bodies. These experiences often began in childhood and carried on through adulthood and, as a whole, confirm the literature that the stigma of fat is widespread. For example, female participants reported that strangers accosted them by telling them that they were fat, should not be wearing certain types of clothing, or should have greater self-control. Alena (age 33, white) recalls walking with friends in a beach town when several young men rolled down their car windows and yelled, “You’re too fat and ugly! Go home!” Sometimes this public harassment was framed altruistically; for example, at a hair salon, a woman approached Estella (age 27, Hispanic) to inform her, “You know, you need to love yourself.” This woman then proceeded to provide Estella with various strategies. These annoyances can be frustrating, as Estella articulated: “When I go get my hair cut, I want to get my hair cut, right? You know, when I take the bus somewhere, I just want to take the bus somewhere!” Alongside these overt acts, body privilege also surfaces in subtle ways. As McIntosh (2000) discusses, some privileges allow her to escape penalties or dangers like verbal harassment, while others allow her to escape the sense of not being welcome or real. For example, shopping was sometimes a difficult experience for female participants, because not only did it induce anxiety about finding clothing, but also because of feeling that they became invisible in these spaces. Melanie’s (age 27, white) description of an incident at one international clothing franchise is exemplary. She spoke about how, as she carried out this simple task, she felt an awful stigma: I went into Banana Republic and I was a size 16. I walk in and I was like “Hi, could you help me?” And they didn’t even look at me. So I went over and I found something. I found a sweater and I was like “Hi do you have this in my size?” Didn’t look at me. . . . So it’s been difficult. But because I’ve started to lose weight, my self-image is improving. I’m starting to fit into my old clothes again. I’m feeling better about myself. . . . I’m starting to feel like I’m a human being again. . . . I think that there’s this awful, awful stigma. . . . I don’ know if it’s against men because I’ve never been a fat guy. But I have been a very fat girl and there’s definitely this awful, awful stigma. And it’s so hurtful, because it’s like “Why are you judging me based on that?”
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Similar experiences were described at, among other stores, Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret. These experiences confirm McIntosh’s (2000) claim that privilege enables its holder to “escape fear, anxiety, insult, injury, or a sense of not being welcome, not being real” (35). As Melanie’s quote indicates, it is only when she started to lose weight that she felt like a “human being again.” Weight loss accompanies body privilege, which permits greater comfort in everyday interactions. Body Consciousness and Body Management Body nonprivilege is patterned insofar as women report greater instances of this type of body oppression in public spaces. Conforming to racial patterns that other researchers have observed (see, for example, Grabe and Hyde 2006; Lovejoy 2001), body privilege is also patterned by race. On the one hand, overweight men and African American women generally report fewer experiences of body oppression. On the other, a number of Hispanic and white women experience a heightened awareness of their bodies and a need to somehow respond to this awareness. I label this awareness “body consciousness,”6 which I define as a heightened awareness that one’s body does not conform to hegemonic cultural ideals. In this way, it is an extension and magnified form of everyday body consciousness—namely, a general awareness that many participants expressed about their bodies being overweight. However, the body consciousness I describe here is greater in intensity and is often triggered by a stimulus that signifies to a participant that her body diverges from aesthetic norms. It also elicits a desire to perform some sort of physical or emotional adjustment, what I call “body management.” As scholars have pointed out, in Western cultures, fat can be understood as a form of “deviance,” or a “deviant master status,” which, like other undesirable labels, requires “impression management” or “neutralization” (Goffman 1959, 1963; Sykes and Matza 1957). Researchers have documented that, to cope with “a deviant fat identity,” fat individuals turn to strategies such as avoiding situations where fat is problematic; overachieving in other areas of life, such as school; or through “accounts” including “fat stories” that explain why an individual became fat (Degher and Hughes 1999). Others have observed the use of resistance strategies, including the denial of negative traits (for example, “I am not unattractive or sexually undesirable”) or the distancing of oneself from the deviant label (for example, “At least I’m not as fat as she is”) (Cordell and Rambo Ronai 1999), along with expressions of anger, displays of flamboyance, fat activism, and/or focusing on the positive aspects of weight (Joanisse and Synnott 1999). Strategies may even involve “passing” (Goffman 1963)—that is, trying to appear thin, since successfully passing may mean reaping the benefits of the body hierarchy and averting social sanction, however fleeting.
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While impression management centers on one’s attempts to influence public perceptions of the self, body management is a way of handling a difficult situation so that one does not feel psychologically scarred, particularly from the deviant label. In this way, similar to impression management, body management is sometimes a way of presenting a different and more socially desirable body—a conforming body that is privy to social benefits and eschews social stigma. This management can be physical and/or emotional. Physical management involves physically manipulating one’s body or available props (such as clothing) to manage a situation, or changing one’s actual behavior to avert a potentially anxious situation (such as a public setting). Psychological management can be a self-directed pep talk that reassures oneself of self-worth. In either form, body management is an attempt to cope with body consciousness—an awareness that elicits anxiety. Examples from conversations with participants help to ground these new concepts and to illustrate them at work. As overweight women go about their daily tasks, they come across various objects, situations, and persons that make them aware of their body nonconformity. It is expected that women experience multiple triggers: Body image is not a static concept, and it fluctuates as women encounter new experiences and reinterpret old ones (Paquette and Raine 2004). For example, whereas thin or normal-sized individuals take things such as chairs, desks, and public bathrooms for granted, women like Jeannette (age 35, white) experience these objects as triggers to body consciousness and as a form of patrolling: The first day of class was awful because they had these evil little chairs that I couldn’t fit into. And desks that are connected, I hate that. So I had [to use] the handicapped tables and chair which was kind of embarrassing. . . . Bathroom stalls are made for smaller people. It’s all very subtle. It’s all telling you in a way, you shouldn’t be that big. . . . If you can’t get into the bathroom stall, you should do something about it. I’m afraid of first being looked at. I mean, I’ll use the handicapped stall. . . . But in a way, being overweight, big, is a handicap. You can’t fit into things. You go to a restaurant, I hate booths. They’re made for smaller people. You know, even though they’re trying to feed you.
Physical structures built for thinner individuals become stressors that must be managed, emotionally and physically. Jeanette must choose a different desk and she must also neutralize her embarrassment. She likens being fat to being disabled, and this allows her to manage emotionally these stressful situations. Rhonda (age 40, white) describes a similar level of body consciousness. In her case, triggers are both physical objects and a “generalized other”—an abstract concept representing the collective expectations of society (Mead 1934). Heavier female participants like Rhonda report that they sometimes feel they are the object of a constant and watchful eye:
152 · Feminist Formations 22.2 When you’re on a bus or you’re in an airplane, I’m self-conscious about making sure I’m in my own space. . . . In a movie theater, I go to the ballet and stuff. I get self-conscious about where my arm is and stuff, make sure I’m not in the other person’s space. Because I don’t want them to say, “You’re heavy, you’re taking up my space.” . . . So it just makes me aware that I’m not the skinniest thing, so I don’t want people glaring at me like that.
To ensure that she is not encroaching on other people’s spaces, Rhonda tries to take up as little room as possible. She feels compelled to make adjustments, to perform body management. The gaze of this generalized other is present for her in many public spaces, as she says, whether on an airplane, riding a bus, or in a movie theater. Heightened body consciousness because of this watchful eye meant continuous preoccupation with appearance management, despite reassurances from friends or significant others that one looks fine. The possibility that this generalized other is observing and judging prompts extensive body management for this audience, however imagined. This, of course, is the self-discipline of which Michel Foucault (1977) writes. Notably, Susan Bordo (2003) draws on a Foucauldian interpretation of hegemonic body norms, observing a shift from repressive strategies of physical restraint and coercion to more subtle disciplining techniques of self-correction. Central to this new form of postmodern power is “self-regulation.” Body consciousness and body management are forms of self-surveillance. Moreover, it is extreme self-regulation that demarcates various groups. Specifically, a handful of Hispanic and white women exhibit a heightened form of body consciousness and perform body management that can, at times, be very disruptive and invasive. It is sometimes so severe that it impedes their everyday routines. In many ways, this consciousness and management are hallmarks of body privilege: Individuals who possess body privilege can navigate public spaces comfortably and safely; those without it suffer emotionally and, sometimes, quite severely. For example, Brittany (age 24, Hispanic) shares how she is so aware of the fat under her chin that, in public spaces, she physically postures herself in a way that manages her profile: “In public situations, I’m really uncomfortable. I went with my boyfriend’s family and I was just—Oh my God—you know, I’m sitting there and I had a little skirt on and a shirt. I sat up straight and I’d try and keep my head up so you can’t see my chin. You know what I mean? So it’s always there. It’s always, always there!” To appear thinner, female participants tugged, pulled at, twisted, and straightened clothing (a body-management prop), while physically holding in body parts. Alena (age 33, white) does something similar to Brittany in a restaurant, all the while questioning her own behavior: “I’m constantly kind of pushing, pulling my shirt down and trying to sit up straight and suck in my gut. And I’m going, ‘You know, I’m here to eat. Who’s looking at me, and who
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cares?’ But I still do it. I’m very uncomfortable in those kinds of situations.” Throughout dinner, both Brittany and Alena focus less on enjoying their meals than on ensuring that their fat does not show—or is, at the very least, minimized in appearance. Women’s fidgeting and manipulation of clothing to strategically hide body parts may be partly due to the clothes available to women, because in general, women’s clothing is designed to show off the body and is often neither functional nor comfortable. Overweight female participants, particularly in upper-weight categories, expressed difficulty finding clothes they thought were attractive, comfortable, and/or affordable. Body consciousness in public settings may be so strong that some women do not even want to leave their homes. Only after some psychological management in the form of a self-reaffirming talk does Melanie find the courage to continue with her day. She describes the psychological processes that take place on these days: “I’ll take a step back and go, ‘You know what? No, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re fine. Just go about your day.’ ” Similarly, Brittany experiences such pronounced body consciousness in public spaces that she prefers to stay within the safe confines of her home. Staying home allows her to avoid the gaze of the generalized other that might judge her. As she says: “Oh, I don’t go out. Like at all. Really. I don’t really go out and do anything. . . . I don’t have to worry about what other people are thinking about me or how I look in other people’s eyes. . . . Sometimes I don’t even want to go out to eat at a restaurant or like go out. Even just coming to school is like really hard. . . . Go to a bar or go to the movies or go to the mall. Go to the pool for God’s sake.” At the same time that these select Hispanic and white female participants were highly body conscious and performed body management, they conceded that often there was, in fact, no one watching them. For example, Jeanette admits a certain level of “paranoia,” believing that “everybody’s watching me. . . . And I had to talk myself out of that, that they’re not watching me. And actually I learned to look around and I noticed that they’re not looking at me.” Similarly, Brittany admits that “I kind of look around and see who’s looking . . . and nobody is, but still I just feel really uncomfortable.” Yet even after admitting that nobody was watching them in these public spaces, they nevertheless felt compelled to manage their bodies. Gender, Race, and Body Privilege How women, and especially a number of Hispanic and white women, experience body consciousness and body management starkly contrasts with men’s daily experiences with their bodies. When I asked male participants to discuss their experiences in public spaces like clothing stores and restaurants, they often responded nonchalantly. While they desired to look good, they expressed very little body consciousness and rarely did they speak of extreme appearance management. For example, male participants believed that dining out is
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primarily about enjoyment—having a good meal and good time. They spoke about their favorite restaurants and foods, expressing minimal concern about others or the need to manage their bodies. As Matthew (age 31, white) put it: “I go to a restaurant, it’s on. That’s all there is to it. I eat whatever I want. I drink whatever I want. Because if you’re going out to enjoy yourself, you’re going out to enjoy yourself . . . when I go out to dinner, I go out to dinner.” On the rare occasions when men experienced heightened body consciousness, their reactions were quite different than women’s. Kirk (age 26, white), for example, recounted a time when clothing elicited body consciousness: In a clothing store and unable to fit into a pair of size 44 pants, he threw them down and stormed out. However, upon exiting, he changed his mind and scolded himself: “Wow, you put way too much thought into what you’ve been doing with yourself physically. . . . When have you ever gotten this mad about being the way you are? And why in the world are you upset about it? Well, oh God, you’re an idiot.” While Kirk’s behavior illustrated a certain level of body consciousness and emotional management, it was clearly a very different kind of management. Kirk was angry that he had become concerned about his weight in the first place; he vowed to be unapologetic about his size. He reframed the situation and prevented himself from feeling the need to do further body management, refusing to be that body conscious. In the same way, none of the female participants who expressed an intense level of body consciousness or performed extensive body management was African American. Alesha’s (age 34, African American) perspective was typical, making a special point to indicate that she was not body conscious. While she wished to be thinner and ideally would lose weight, body issues played a very minor role in her life. Throughout her narrative, she told me that “she is fine,” emphasizing that she was able to do her job, take care of her family, and that she was generally content with her body. On a daily basis, then, body issues did not run her life. She experienced little body consciousness and consequently had little need for body management. Regarding being in public spaces, such as while shopping or dining out, Alesha and other African American women did not discuss in-depth a heightened awareness of their bodies being “deviant.” For example, when I ask Shawntea (age 36, African American) whether she encountered differential treatment or stigma as she went about her daily routines, she responded: “Not that I’ve ever noticed. I remember one of my friends, like a couple of them, told me that they felt like that they were treated differently because they were overweight. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it that I can think [of] right offhand. I don’t think so. But I’m just one of those people, I’m just, I’m me, and I’m outgoing so that’s what you first see. . . . I’m just too outgoing, too bubbly.” Shawntea refocused the conversation on her personality and downplayed external responses to her body. This does not mean, however, that men or African American women do not want to lose weight or that they do not experience
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body stigma. They are not entirely immune from Western body norms; indeed, the majority of participants, regardless of gender and race, coveted weight loss. What their contrasting statements indicate is that as these men and African American women went about their daily lives, size was a less salient part of their cognitive repertoire. Consequently, they generally experienced a greater sense of entitlement and level of comfort when navigating public spaces, and did not experience a heightened awareness that their bodies deviated from cultural norms. Therefore they felt less compulsion to manage their bodies’ nonconformity. Discussion In-depth interviews with forty-two participants document a range of body privilege experiences, which fall along a continuum exhibiting distinct gender and racial patterns: On the one end are men and African American women who report relatively few difficulties navigating public spaces, and on the other, is a small group of white and Hispanic women who express an intense form of body consciousness and body management. How might these experiences be theorized? What accounts for these differences?7 Overweight men’s experiences of body privilege can be theorized in part as a subset of “male privilege” (McIntosh 2000). Avoiding greater social sanction in public for their bodies and experiencing a higher level of comfort in daily interactions may be part of the invisible package of unearned assets that men—simply as men—can cash in on each day; overweight men can generally take for granted that they will be treated with respect and dignity as they go about their daily routines. This translates into a higher degree of comfort that is then internalized; their bodies rarely become an issue in public situations that affects or impedes action. The overall entitlement men experience in public spaces is thus a privilege that transfers to overweight men. Men’s reported experiences of greater body privilege must be situated in Western culture’s construction of normative masculinity. Cultural scripts of hegemonic masculinity dictate certain acceptable behaviors (and even appearances) for men (Connell 1995). The behaviors and characteristics associated with so-called “real men” include, among other things, independence, physical strength, and emotional toughness (Kivel 2003). Conforming to this prevailing construction of masculinity may mean that men avoid a concern for weight loss, dieting, and other related issues, or at the very least avoid discussing these matters, as they are often viewed as a feminine preoccupation.8 In other words, men may be “doing gender” by downplaying experiences of body oppression (West and Zimmerman 1987). In this context, Matthew’s focus on food and fun may be interpreted in part as gender performance. Bordo sums up these cultural expectations well when she writes that “[m]en are supposed to have hearty, even voracious, appetites. It is a mark of the manly
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to eat spontaneously and expansively” (2003, 108; emphasis in original). This performance of masculinity may also mean that when men do experience body consciousness, it is of a different type than women’s; instead of a concern with weight loss, social expectations may induce greater anxiety about not conforming to the firm, muscular Adonis ideal. Notably, over the past decades, there has been an increase in boy’s and men’s preoccupation with muscularity. This has been attributed in part to women’s growing equality such that men’s bodies have become one of the few remaining sites of masculine enactment (Pope, Phillips, and Olivardia 2000). Women’s more extensive and intensive experiences of body oppression can be interpreted as part of a disadvantaged status caused by the intersection of multiple systems of oppressions. Patricia Collins (1998) maintains that oppressions are not linear and can be understood as interlocking configurations that combine to influence important social outcomes, along with self-identity (see also West and Fenstermaker 1995). When theorizing the type of embodied oppressions observed here, this intersection potentially involves (at the very least) experiences based on body size, gender, and race/ethnicity. I begin by examining the intersection of body and gender, before turning to how race/ ethnicity complicates experiences and manifestations of body oppression. Overweight women are uniquely situated in a culture that not only exhibits a strong body hierarchy mandating thinness, but also a gendered body hierarchy mandating female thinness. Indeed, the overweight female participants I spoke with knew they did not comply with both aesthetic body norms and norms of femininity, acknowledging in part that “ideologies of weight closely parallel ideologies of womanhood” (McKinley 1999, 97). Most female participants, such as Kelly (age 37, white), are aware of this double standard. She highlighted how body norms are gendered: “I think society treats women worse. Because it goes back to the whole 36-24-36. You’re supposed to have this hourglass figure. . . . I think that it’s the whole generation thing, bred into society that if you don’t look a certain way, if you’re a female, then you’re just . . . you’re ousted from society.” Failing to achieve both body norms and the interconnected norms of womanhood, female participants are thus doubly stigmatized: They are double failures.9 Mass media reinforces these ideologies and objectifies women’s bodies, thereby exacerbating women’s body consciousness. Objectification theory points to how media produces an objectifying gaze of women’s bodies and their body parts (Frederickson and Roberts 1997). In a patriarchal hetero-normative culture, a “male gaze” constructs women as objects for viewing by a male spectator (Berger 1972; Mulvey 1989). These images of objectification can then lead to women’s heightened sensitivity to body norms, contributing to the selfcorrection and the performance of management observed. A Foucaultian interpretation of hegemonic body norms that shifts our attention from repressive strategies of physical restraint and coercion to subtle
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disciplining techniques of self-correction is thus appropriate (Bordo 2003). Body consciousness and body management are, in fact, direct manifestations of this self-surveillance. We can understand Estella’s (age 27, Hispanic) comments within this context: “Just that you always have that feeling in the back of your mind like somebody’s looking at you and judging you because you’re fat, because you’re overweight. But then you begin to look at the other people and you realize they’re not even looking at you. You’re like, they’re not even looking! You yourself, I guess, are your own demon.” On an ongoing basis, society—as represented by individuals acting on behalf of their own or an institution’s interests—reminds overweight women that they do not conform. Someone is watching, patrolling, and judging—a message that is then internalized. This patrolling heightens body consciousness and reminds women that body management is necessary for survival. So while it may appear that these women are acting in ways that are paranoid, their behavior and attitudes are actually far from extreme. As McIntosh (2000) puts it, it is privilege that enables one not “to feel sick or crazy” (35). Yet, experiences of the body are not only mediated by gender, they are complicated by another intersecting axis: Race/ethnicity. At the same time that beauty ideals work in ways that distinctly disadvantage women as a group, certain racial/ethnic identifiers can buffer or intensify experiences of body oppression. Explicitly, the interviews indicated that while experiences of body oppression are reduced for African American women, they are exacerbated for white and Hispanic women. To understand how race/ethnicity shapes experiences of gendered body oppression, it is necessary to turn to the growing literature on race and body norms. For example, researchers theorize that as Hispanic and Asian women are increasingly assimilated into American culture, their patterns of body satisfaction may eventually resemble those of whites (Altabe and O’Garo 2002; Kawamura 2002). Studies with young Latinas confirm this: Their ideal body image correlates with exposure to time spent in the United States (Lopez, Blix, and Blix 1995). Research also indicates that eating disorders are no longer just a white middle- to upper-class phenomenon; Mexican American adolescents from a lower socioeconomic status are just as susceptible (Joiner and Kashubeck 1996). Thus, heightened sensitivity leading to high levels of body consciousness and body management among certain Hispanic female participants may be attributed in part to their embracing the white ideal. In fact, several Latina participants explicitly stated that they rejected a more voluptuous Hispanic ideal, openly admitting that they subscribed to what they believed was the thin, white American ideal found in fashion magazines. Moreover, studies of African American girls and women point to more flexible conceptions of beauty by blacks as compared to their white counterparts and higher levels of body satisfaction, although there is some dispute over the extent of racial differences (Collins 2000; Grabe and Hyde 2006; Parker et al. 1995). Activist Amie Harper (2009) has highlighted how even resistance
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embodiments, such as veganism, often imply a white thin ideal that fails to acknowledge blacks’ standards of full-body beauty. Additionally, Melissa Milkie’s (1999) interviews indicate that minority girls’ lack of identification with white media images serves as a buffer to their harmful effects on self-concepts. Meg Lovejoy (2001) captures the key dynamic at work when she claims that black women subscribe to an alternative aesthetic that comprises a form of cultural resistance. A more flexible and egalitarian aesthetic found in black communities celebrates uniqueness and harmony in diversity (Collins 2000). This black aesthetic encourages self-acceptance among African American girls and women, leading to higher levels of body satisfaction. Laura Hensley Choate (2005) concisely summarizes several key correlates that insulate African American women from negative body images. These include a broader view of an ideal body type; family support that contributes to the development of independence, strength, and self-esteem; and supportive peer and community relationships that value distinctive, individual styles. Thus, the minimal body consciousness and body management expressed by African American female participants likely reflects, in part, resistance to white beauty ideals and the embracing of a black standard. If these participants aspired to a racial beauty standard that is more flexible and encompassing, then their experiences of body consciousness would be minimized. The interviews support this interpretation. While many African American female participants wanted to lose weight, they nevertheless voiced strong identification with black ideals that downplayed thinness. In sum, despite the distinctly gendered body norms that disadvantage overweight women as a group, an African American community ethic shields overweight black women from the intense experiences of body oppression shown by some overweight white and Hispanic women. While there are parallels between white privilege and body privilege, there are also several notable ways by which these concepts differ. First, McIntosh (2000) claims that individuals with privilege are often oblivious to its conferred benefits. However, because body size can fluctuate, individuals who lose weight may actually become aware of possessing a newfound body privilege. This heightened awareness may result in increased monitoring when weight gain occurs or when one’s body does not conform to the ideal. For this reason, Foucaultian self-surveillance may manifest itself in the especially powerful and intrusive ways that were observed among this select group of women participants. Second, unlike a lack of white privilege, the experiences of body oppression may actually be exacerbated by the belief that weight, unlike, say, race, is controllable. There is a widespread belief that bodies are malleable and thinness is attainable with the right combination of self-discipline, will, and determination (Brownell 1991); indeed, the body is often considered a reflection of one’s emotional, moral, and/or spiritual state (Bordo 2003). Where an ideology of
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individualism is present, a blame-the-victim mentality is even more salient, and individuals are more likely to say that fat is due to a lack of willpower (Crandall and Martinez 1996). This individualist ideology may translate into intensified experiences of body oppression and self-surveillance. Third, given the moral discourse underlying the Western body narrative, it is not surprising that some participants experienced blatant verbal abuse. In many ways, such abuses are unique to body oppression. As Young (1990) maintains, overt expressions of racism are generally considered illegitimate in a dominant liberal context. While the feminist and civil rights movements may have pushed overt acts of sexism and racism into new and/or hidden forms, interview participants reported experiences of overt “sizism,” such as name-calling. Several participants expressed the belief that, unlike with race or gender, body size is still considered an acceptable basis of discrimination, verbal harassment, and/or negative treatment. Although fat-acceptance movements and a growing discipline called “fat studies” are now educating the public by exposing discrimination and advocating on behalf of fat individuals, unlike the highly visible and mobilized race and gender movements, size-based equality still faces significant barriers (Kwan and Fackler 2008). Differences between the experiences of body oppression and racial oppression reflect, in part, the importance of different histories, legacies, and techniques of disciplining. The fat-acceptance movement is only now gaining momentum, while the civil rights movement that began decades earlier has led to the substantial restructuring of key values and social institutions. Finally, the concept of body privilege sheds new light on key debates concerning culture, structure, and agency. On the one hand, scholars like Bordo (2003) have framed women’s body-modification practices as part of a homogenizing and normalizing process that contributes to the creation of “docile bodies.” In this vein, women who participate in, say, cosmetic surgeries can be considered complicit in their own oppression because they are in need of consciousness raising and/or body acceptance (Chapkis 1991; Davis 1995). On the other hand, the concept of body privilege permits an understanding of body-conformity practices without abandoning individual agency. These practices can be interpreted as the actions of savvy cultural negotiators who understand cultural and social structures; conformity occurs partly because they know all too well that straying from body norms potentially leads to stigma and denial of privilege (Gimlin 2000). As Kathy Davis (1995) observes, contrary to common feminist rhetoric that cosmetic surgery is a form of co-optation or false consciousness, beauty work is a way of regaining control of one’s life, feeling normal, and/or righting the wrong of ongoing suffering (see also Gimlin 2000; Kaw 1993; for an integrated perspective, see Gagné and McGaughey 2002). Similarly, overweight women’s attempts at body conformity are not necessarily simplistic acts of complicity, but rather can be interpreted as active and conscious ways to pursue body privilege.
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Conclusion This article illustrates how a lack of body privilege for some overweight white and Hispanic women leads to a form of body awareness that needs to be managed physically or psychologically. It also highlights how the body intersects with gender and race, affecting the experience of body oppression. The research presented herein moves beyond previous studies that focus on racial- or ethnicgroup variation in body satisfaction by also illustrating how body dissatisfaction materializes differently for members within specific groups. Specifically, positive body images for men and African American women manifest as forms of entitlement in public spaces. This entitlement means experiencing public spaces safely and comfortably, instead of with extreme discomfort, strong feelings of not belonging, and the need to perform ongoing management of body and self. The importance of body image, alongside the prevalence of social stigma and discriminatory treatment particularly for women, points to the need for continued research on how body ideals work in subtle though powerful ways. Further comparative analyses related to race and class are encouraged. The data here focus primarily on contrasts between African Americans, Hispanics, and whites, showing a range of experiences in this primarily lower- to middle-class sample—a group that may encounter greater barriers to body conformity, given the financial and time constraints often required to attain it. Future research should examine how other social groups experience body privilege. Research on body ideals and sexual orientation suggests that cultural processes are complex (Rothblum 2002). My predominantly heterosexual sample does not permit claims about the body oppression of gays, lesbians, and other gender groups; important questions about the intersection of privilege by, for example, size and sexual orientation thus remain unaddressed. Given the significance of intersections, it is imperative that this research turns to those whose vantage point provides a unique epistemological standpoint. Just as, say, African American women provide a unique perspective, or even a subjugated or “situated knowledge” (Geertz 1983; Haraway 1991), overweight women of various racial/ethnic backgrounds, ages, gender identities, abilities, and so on may provide special vantage points for understanding embodied oppressions. Future research should also explore how other body characteristics intersect to shape social interactions and understandings of self. Future analyses must acknowledge the role of weight fluctuation, the complexities and contingencies of intersectional analyses, and how this potentially affects the self and social outcomes. What role do facial features, hair, visible handicaps, and/or height play? How do these impact the experience of body privilege or nonprivilege? In light of other intersecting signifiers, is there a paramount master status? The relationship between body privilege and social inequality suggests that future studies should pay special attention to organizational settings such as educational institutions, the workplace, the medical field, and the legal arena.
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Cultural and social structures create body privilege, where the unprivileged must manage their subordinate status. Cultural ideals manifest tangibly in everyday lives in mundane yet sometimes extraordinarily powerful, intense, and invasive ways. Nearly two decades after Naomi Wolf (1991) exposed the cultural beauty ideal as myth, body ideals still continue to bind, both emotionally and physically, women’s bodies and minds. This article’s research with forty-two participants highlights the gendered and racial dimensions of body privilege, body consciousness, and body management. However, whether it is experienced by women or men, body privilege, like white or male privilege, is an unearned advantage that confers dominance (McIntosh 2000). In an egalitarian society, body privilege should not be a privilege, but “simply part of the normal civic and social fabric” (36). Achieving this state requires questioning and restructuring the body hierarchy and its supporting institutions, along with individual responsibility in everyday interactions, where individuals take “responsibility for their actions, habits, feelings, attitudes, images, and associations” (Young 1990, 151). Such changes potentially contribute to a society wherein women of all body sizes can perhaps navigate their daily lives comfortably. Samantha Kwan is an assistant professor of sociology and a women’s studies faculty affiliate at the University of Houston. She conducts research in the areas of gender, body, culture, and health, focusing on how cultural and social structures shape women’s physical and emotional well-being. She teaches various courses, including the sociology of body, sociology of gender, and research methods. Her articles have appeared in Sociology Compass, Sociological Inquiry, and Qualitative Health Research. She is co-editor (with Chris Bobel) of Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules (forthcoming, Vanderbilt University Press). She can be reached at email@example.com. Notes 1. While there are different forms of body privilege based on various physical features—for example, height, hair color, facial features, and so on—I focus on body privilege by size. Here, I am not referring to extreme thinness, which also has been criticized in public discourses; indeed, thinness is regulated by the pathology of anorexia nervosa. 2. A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant compensated interview participants for their time. 3. The BMI is a calculation based on an individual’s height and weight. According to the medical community, an individual with a BMI between 19.5 and 24.9 is considered “normal,” while an “overweight” individual has a BMI of between 25.0 and 29.9. A BMI above 30.0 indicates “obesity” (USDHHS 2001). Throughout this article, I generally use the term “overweight,” as this was preferred by interview participants. “Obese” has derogatory meanings and, as such, I generally avoid using it. 4. I asked participants two questions regarding their socioeconomic status: How would you describe your family’s class background when you were growing up? How
162 · Feminist Formations 22.2 would you describe your class background now? I draw the conclusion that I recruited a lower-social-class sample based on responses to this latter question. The large majority of participants identified as lower- or working-class. 5. At the end of each interview, I asked participants to complete a one-page demographic survey that included questions about race and Hispanic identification. This figure is based on the demographic information provided by participants. 6. In contrast, Becky Thompson (1992) uses this term to describe “the ability to reside comfortably in one’s body (to see oneself as embodied) and to consider one’s body as connected to oneself” (556). Her use of this term focuses primarily on the split between body and mind—that is, feeling unable to control one’s body, hiding in one part of one’s body, or not seeing oneself as having a body. 7. Because of the extremely small numbers, I avoid making theoretical claims regarding other minority participants in my sample. 8. Hegemonic masculinity may have affected men’s interview responses. That is, the men I spoke with may have been more reluctant than women to talk about body issues and to disclose incidents of body oppression. However, that male participants were actually quite candid and expressive during the interviews strengthens the validity of my findings; they were generally frank and forthright, even thanking me for the opportunity to discuss body issues behind closed doors. 9. It is noteworthy that women’s experiences of body oppression potentially vary by weight levels. While it might be expected that cultural norms affect female participants in higher weight categories more than they do women who deviate less from them, the interviews point to intense body consciousness and body management among women of various weight categories—from Alena, who falls into the lower end of the overweight category, to Jeannette, who would be classified by medical standards as “obese.”
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Published on Nov 7, 2013
Published on Nov 7, 2013
023- Navigating Public Spaces: Gender, Race, and Body Privilege in Everyday Life http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ff/summary/v022/22.2.kwan.html