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by Debra L. Gimlin
University of California Press, 2002
Review by Talia Welsh, Ph.D. on May 7th 2004

Body Work

Debra Gimlin writes in her conclusion to Body Work—"The body is a site of oppression, not only because physically stronger individuals can overpower weaker ones but also because systems of social control operate through it." (141)  In an effort to better explain just how the body can be (although not necessarily is) a "site of oppression," Gimlin examines four places where women "work" on their bodies—the hair salon, an aerobics studio, through cosmetic surgery, and finally with the NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance).

The text is written in a clear and approachable manner.  One reads each section on each group or practice and has a conclusion chapter at the end.  Gimlin makes sure to pay attention to how people react to her presence (the most problematic is her being a normal-sized woman in the NAAFA group).  Certainly the most interesting chapter is the NAAFA chapter.  For instance, one finds out that, at least in this group, the women are not interested in dating similarly large men.  Rather, they prefer normal-sized men who appreciate large women. 

However, aside from a few interesting moments, this books strikes me as utterly unremarkable.  First of all, she only visits one aerobics studio, one hair salon, a few people who have gone through plastic surgery, and one NAAFA group.  Thus, one cannot generalize any of her claims.  But, I wouldn't suggest that the manner in which bodies have become sites of oppression would be best revealed by a large statistical study.  Gimlin's approach might be more relevant if she spent some serious theoretical work in investigating each site or practice or made it clear why she chose these four "areas"—i.e., how they are interrelated, how they support or reject a certain interpretation, etc.  Instead, her depictions are superficial and usually simply state what any thoughtful person would have already realized prior to reading the book.   For instance, there exists a class distinction in a hair salon between the wealthier clients and the poorer hairdressers.  Or, people engaged in aerobics are perhaps living up to untenable, ideal standards that also confine them (even if they do receive some control and happiness engaging in the practice).  She notes that people who have plastic surgery are the most isolated of her four examples.  Well, obviously since plastic surgery isn't a group endeavor!  I simply did not find anything in the book, aside from some descriptions about NAAFA, a group I had not heard of, to be theoretically valuable.

Perhaps the one theme which is never explored or justified, but still potentially promising, is the idea of how a group can provide some protection or freedom in the face of body ideals.  She notes that women are not simply oppressed by the work—they often love getting their hair done (one woman calling it her favorite place in the world), going to aerobics class, and celebrating their bodies in a supportive, group environment.  With NAAFA, there is a desire to celebrate how one is, in the aerobics studio and hair salon one discovers a shared endeavor to make oneself attractive. "Finally," Gimlin writes, "woman who engage in body work often enjoy the work itself" (147).  The women who engage in plastic surgery are the most alienated, even after their transformations; they remain the most unsure and the most embarrassed since they don't have these support networks.  It is the ritual which is important?  Or it is a necessary reaction to an oppressive set of ideals?  If we had a society without a certain, relatively narrow, set of norms for attractiveness, would women still enjoy hair salons?  Is the group simply another set of norms one has to live up to and, thus, not really liberating at all?  For instance, the fact that normal-sized women are considered a threat at NAAFA.  If one lost weight, one could then be excluded from this group just as the group itself is excluded from common acceptance.

Gimlin is strangely silent in the face of a contemporary wealth of interesting theory on embodiment, power relations in society, and the media's role in our self-image.  It is mystifying why the University of California Press would publish this text as is.  Perhaps with some more theoretical analysis, Gimlin could transform the occasional interesting remarks and schematic studies into a text which explores how people can be happy working on a body even if their body goals are determined by a power structure over which they have no control. 


© 2004 Talia Welsh


Talia Welsh, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga


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