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The Intersection of Race, Class, Power and Identity
By Lee Miller, Doctoral Student
Missouri School of Journalism
1623 Hershey Ct., Columbia, MO 65202
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Submitted to the Commission on the Status of Women of AEJMC for
consideration of presentation at the 2005 Annual Conference, San
The Intersection of Race, Class, Power, and Identity: A Theoretical
Survey of Implications for African-American Women
Borrowing from cultural feminist and critical race paradigms, this
research investigates race, class and power as they relate to body
identity and African-American women. The theoretical literature
review surveys concepts of power and juxtaposes hegemonic concepts of
body identity against African-American perceptions. Social
constructions of the body and societal and cultural implications of a
hierarchal body are primary concerns in this investigation. Findings
indicate that African-American women experience feminine
fragmentation as both passive and active media consumers.
The recent flourish of scholarly interest in body politics has
resulted in a proliferation of theoretical studies focusing on the
concept of power and the social, political, historical and social
role the body and body ideal play in contemporary culture. Several
feminist theorists believe beauty ideals, the resulting circumstances
of beauty aesthetics, and identity are socially constructed by
powerful hegemonic forces (Bordo, 1997; hooks, 1990/1992; Ashe, 2001;
Gatens, 1992). Susan Bordo explains, "The spread of eating disorders,
of course, is not just about images. The emergence of eating
disorders is a complex, multilayered cultural "symptom" reflecting
problems that are historical as well as contemporary, arising in our
time because of the confluence of a number of factors" (1997, italics added).
Feminism, cultural studies, and research grounded in critical race
theory call into question those factors and hegemonic forces in the
media and in the patriarchal capitalist society that actively define
beauty and femininity. Feminist media research struggles to
understand and explain the struggle over how femininity and beauty
are constructed in contemporary and popular culture. Of primary
importance is the body and body image as an indication of power and
mobility, the concept of societal and individual power, cultural
convergence, and the entangling web of ideologies and discourse
surrounding body image and the beauty aesthetic (Wolszon, 1998;
hooks, 1990; Gatens, 1992; Poran, 2002; Murphy, 2000). Feminist and
sociological research on body image seeks to fill the gap between
biology and culture and power and society (Duke and Kreshel, 1998;
Schilling, 1991; Wolszon, 1998; Gatens, 1992; Bordo, 1993).
Scholars such as Bordo (1993) are not only concerned with the message
that various media voices send to women to be thin, but also with the
illusion of power that is sold to women. Bordo claims that one of the
most influential messages is that it is imperative to the
continuation of patriarchal order that the female body be controlled
and overcome physical fitness. She writes, "These women are not
'cultural dopes'; usually, they are all too conscious of the system
of values and rewards that they are responding to and perpetuating.
They know that Bally Matrix Fitness is telling the truth about our
culture when it tells them that 'You don't just shape your body. You
shape your life.' They may even recognize that Bally Matrix is also
creating that culture. But they insists on their right to be happy on
its terms" (1993).
This paper, which serves as a chapter of a larger study that will
investigate the construction of femininity in several popular
lifestyle and fashion magazines seeks to comprehensively survey the
literature concerning body image theory, power, and the political,
social and cultural circumstances surrounding the issue. Body image
is defined as a multi-dimensional concept of aesthetics that includes
the thoughts, feelings and attitudes related to the body (see for
example Botta, 2003; Ashe, 2001; Bordo, 1997). The current research
study is concerned with the historical and societal significance of
the body and body image in the lives of all women. However, its
primary focus is African-American1 women. As previously noted, the
body, power allotted the body in a societal realm, the illusion of
power surrounding the body, and implications of the formation of a
dominant body ideal is heavily researched in several areas, including
feminism, religion, cultural studies, sports and fitness, etc. With
the exception of a few key studies, this paper reviews only
literature grounded in feminist cultural studies and critical race theory.
Power and the Cultured Body
Feminist cultural studies is a combination of the cultural studies
and feminist paradigms that examines roles within our cultural
interactions (Kane et al., 2001; Durham, 1999). Cultural studies
analyzes culture, or the social practices of individuals and groups.
Culture consists of a system of beliefs and values that are
meaningful to those people who are a part of that particular group.
Raymond Williams (1958) explains culture as a way of life. Cultural
studies presumes that social behaviors occur within the larger
culture, and social practices impact individual behavior. Feminist
cultural studies, however, examines how culture influences our
beliefs about gender. It challenges hegemonic, gendered values and
practices by questioning common cultural assumptions about gender.
Western society generally understands male as masculine and female as
feminine. Masculinity and femininity are culturally and socially
defined sets of characteristics. Often, these characteristics are
conflated with our physical appearance. Our bodies become the text of
femininity or masculinity. Feminist cultural studies connects
cultural representations of the female body, expectations of female
eating, and consumer culture (Bordo, 1993).
Critical race theory was born out of a need to combat racism and the
laws that bind them. It breaks away from traditional research
structures by employing rhetorical strategies such as narrative,
storytelling and oration, which allow researchers to conduct
scholarly work and integrate cultural experiences and "experiential
knowledge, drawn from shared history as "'other'" (Ladson-Billings,
2003). Wolf argues the beauty myth is used as a political weapon to
fight feminism (1991). Extending this rationale to a racial context,
the beauty myth, fused with degenerate sexual stereotypes promoted by
white patriarchy, works to thwart the liberation of black women from
the triple caste system of oppression (hooks, 1992; King 1993;
Collins 1993). From a multicultural feminist and critical race
theoretical perspective, we can see how sexuality and femininity are
undoubtedly classed, gendered and racialized. The white male ideology
surrounding sexuality surfaces in black America in a myriad of ways
-- most distinctly on the body. The physical body then becomes the
visual site of assimilation of or contestation to the Eurocentric ideal.
Inherent in both feminist cultural studies and critical race theory
are the following issues, among many others: The body's social,
cultural and political roles, the link between body image and
identity, and how body image is influenced by technological,
patriarchal, and biomedical discourses. Specifically, this literature
review is interested in work that theorizes the relationship between
body image, identity, and cultural ideals in relation to power. Also
included in the central paradox is the question of how power operates
through body image in the context of cultural flux, consumerism and
commodification. Therefore, to query this phenomenon, foundational
theories motivating power and its relationship to the body will be
examined. After which, those theories will be discussed in relation
to literature that communicates the relationship between
African-American women and body politics.
Body Image and Social Perspectives of Power
Power is an individual or social ability to obtain goals (economic or
social) through controlling or influencing others (Weitz, 2001).
Ideas about culture are interwoven into notions of control and the
dynamics of power. For Michel Foucault, power was "not a group of
institutions and mechanisms that ensure the subservience of the
citizens" but a force that permeated all realms of society, with no
visible center and no one employing power tactics (1977). Thus, the
body is a site that struggles with power. The disciplinary power that
constructs femininity in the female body is everywhere, yet it is
nowhere. The absence of a formal institutional structure creates the
impression that the construction of femininity is voluntary or
natural (Bartky, 1998). According to Foucault (1979), to carry out
the tasks of modern economic and social life, societies require
"docile bodies," such as regimented soldiers, factory workers who
perform their tasks mechanically, and students who sit quietly --
passive individuals who internalize opposed to negotiate intended
messages. To create such bodies, "disciplinary practices" have
evolved through which individuals both internalize and act on the
ideologies that underlie their own subordination (Weitz, 2003). Many
feminist theorists agree that this has resulted in a commodified body
that is replete with political meanings.
The early Foucaltian perspective, which was developed in the Marxist
tradition and heavily adopted by feminist theorists, thoroughly
articulates the inherent influence society has on the body (Bordo,
1993). He later revised his perspective in "The Subject and Power"
(1983) and theorized that in order to understand the workings of
"modern power," feminist theorists must develop three key
understandings: power must be seen as a network of forces opposed to
the possession of a group or individual; forces of power are
historical in form; and subjectivity is maintained through individual
self-surveillance and self-correction to norms (Bordo, 1993). Says
Foucault, "There is no need for arms, physical evidence, material
constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each
individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point
that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this
surveillance over, and against himself" (1979). Thus, this model of
power posits that individuals who naturally or voluntarily succumb to
images or idealized femininity become overseers of their own bodies
based on an idea of normalcy.
Power, Resistance and Commodification
Foucault's oppressor/oppressed model provided a framework for many of
the later theoretical formulations concerning the relationship
between body image, culture and power (Fiske, 1987; Butler, 1990).
Bordo furthered this view: "These are practices which train the
female body in docility and obedience to cultural demands while at
the same time being experienced in terms of 'power' and 'control' "
(1990). She acknowledged that it was this perspective that guided her
interpretation of discipline and diet and exercise "and to my
understanding of eating disorders as arising out of and reproducing
normative feminine practices of our culture (Bordo, 1993). Adopting
the view that "power relations are never seamless, but always
spawning new forms of culture and subjectivity," Bordo added that
resistance is always present even in the case of an illusion of
power. Therefore, liberation and cultural transformation are also
possible areas of resistance. In "The Marked Body," Balsamo (1995)
argues that the illusion of power creates an "identity semiosis" that
translates identities into signs and signs then become commodities,
therefore complicating the idea of a cultural transformation. In
support of her theory of power resistance and positive transformation
resulting from Foucault's concept of power through self-surveillance,
Bordo (1990) offers an illustration of a female who adopts a rigorous
exercise program to reshape her body only to discover that the weight
training has also given her added physical strength. According to
Balsamo, this is merely an example of the confused politics that
result in the commodification of bodies and identities.
The slimming, shaping, and reconstructing of the female body can be
understood as the production of femininity based on the male
perspective, the persuasive abilities of the cosmetics industry, or
mass-mediated images. Several feminist researchers (see for example
Duke and Kreshel, 1998; Nader et al., 1997; Bordo, 1990; Poran, 2002)
agree that the power of these often institutionalized entities lies
with the consumer and their option to choose. The question of choice
is central to how many businesses and media institutions generate
power in the shaping of women's bodies. Body manipulation and
cosmetic purchasing options are examples of the ways in which the
illusion of power works in the context of consumer culture.
Nader et al. (1997), in their ethnographic exploration of the
components of power, argue that resistance to the free-choice
persuasion in the beauty complex requires consumers to understand the
multi-dimensional functions uncovered in aggressive fieldwork. Her
theory is informed by Linda Coco's work, which chronicles the history
of America's multi-million dollar beauty industry, which she argues,
"segments the female body and manufactures commodities of and for the
body" (Nader et al., 1997). Similarly, Shilling (1991) views the
management of the body as central to "the production of cultural and
economic capital and the attainment and maintenance of status."
Maintaining one's body, from their perspective, becomes an
identification of social and economic mobility, and therefore permits
those in power in a capitalist society to prey on the desires and
"needs" of "insecure" consumers with the creation of idealized images
and beauty aesthetics. Included in Nader et al.'s study is a direct
illustration of the practice of body commodification:
Coco (1994:111) quotes a past president of the American Society of
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (ASPRS): "There is substantial and
enlarging medical knowledge to the effect that these deformities
[small breasts] are really a disease which result in the patient's
feelings of inadequacies, lack of self-confidence, distortion of body
image, and a total lack of well-being due to a lack of self-perceived
femininity … Enlargement … is therefore .., necessary to ensure the
quality of life for the [female] patient (1997).
Although there is no premising distinction between race and
ethnicity, Wolf, in her seminal work, "The Beauty Myth: How Images of
Beauty are Used Against Women" (1991), theorizes that an unattainable
standard of beauty privileges women's bodies and overlooks her
intellectual abilities. The work is one of several that attempts to
capture the female mind and body from the constructions of beauty
found in magazines, television, film, and music that are perceivably
key forms of cultural and societal oppression. "It is often
unconscious and reflexive like racism," Wolf said regarding the
feminist backlash by men to promote the beauty myth (1991). While
they may not be cognizant of their participation in supporting the
dominant beauty standard, cultural gatekeepers make aesthetic
decisions about casting, wardrobe and makeup to normalize white
beauty. Milkie (2002) argues that it is here at the institutional
level that women struggle to contest the symbolic representations of
beauty displayed in the media. Furthering this idea of
institutionalized cultural power to acts of racism, this "symbolic
annihilation" privileges those in positions of cultural dominance --
whites, men, and upper-middle-class individuals. Milkie explains that
specific images are placed into cultural frames in order to construct
an idea of normalcy. She goes on to say that the distorted mediated
images, the powerful and culturally defining to some, are able to be
resisted and by individuals and some group.
There is a significant amount of scholarly work dedicated to the
interpretation of mass-mediated images and measures of resistance
(Fiske, 1987; Bordo, 1993; Durham, 1999; Duke & Kreshel, 1998), most
of which is motivated by Stuart Hall's active/resistant reader model,
which, opposed to the aforementioned theoretical underpinnings,
empower the media consumer instead of the media institution or
society. Hall's encoding-decoding model (1980) privileges media
consumers by theorizing that they have the ability to negotiate
meaning and interpret messages based on individual social and
cultural interaction. Although both he and Condit (1989) caution that
there is a producer preferred meaning, Hall argues that textual
interpretation is influenced by varied social factors including race,
class, gender and personal experience.
Communication scholars alike grapple with the underlying scientific
or societal motivation behind diverse reading and interpretation
practices. Fiske (1987) and Condit (1989) agree that audience members
may understand the dominant meaning of a text; however, diversified
values are applied to negotiate meaning. This theoretical conclusion
supports claims realized through mostly social scientific research
studies that concluded that women from specific ethnic traditions are
less susceptible to the influence of dominant media images and
messages (see for example Cantor & Harrison, 1997; Harrison,
1997/2000; Makkar & Strube, 1995; Milkie, 1999; Neff et al., 1997;
Powell & Kahn, 1995; Bordo, 1997; Frisby, 2004). Therefore, one of
the dominant ways in which power motivates body image perception in
terms of black women is empowerment through the ability to
individually cognitively or socially manipulate oppressive images and
messages. Consequently, anorexia is constructed as a middle-class
white women's disease.
Missing from many of the early body image studies were
African-American women because of the misconception that they were
inoculated against the afflictions of eating disorders and oblivious
to media's display of purported beauty ideals because of familial
relationships and a community that is more accepting of different
body types and sizes. However, it is dangerous to assert that black
women who confront racism straighten their hair and bleach their
bodies to fit the white beauty ideal, the same black women do not
take issue with weight.
Existing research that considers the race variable is severely
limited in theoretical formulations of power and the body. Only a
limited number fully examine culture as an indication of body
perception and power. Foucault's oppressor/oppressed model suggests
that upon consuming societal messages individuals will adopt
self-measuring practices that lead to a "natural" inclination to
judge against oneself. In regards to black women and their
self-perceptions of body image, the question then becomes whether
they operate under similar self-constraints and in what way? The
literature that explores African-American female resistance to such
messages varies. Therefore, also of importance is the possibility of
cultural confusion. With cultural flux, how does power influence
black female body politics?
Power, Body Politics and the African-American Female
The beauty ideal is a widespread dilemma. Contrary to popular
belief, women affected by societal pressures to be thin or conform to
a dominant ideal are not just white, middle-upper class individuals.
Research studies in the past five years have concluded that body
dissatisfaction among black women is more common than previously
reported. In a study locating the relationship between body image
versus race, gender and age, Demarest found body dissatisfaction to
be greater for women regardless of race (2000). Three years prior to
Demarest's study, Abood and Mason found only a 10 percent discrepancy
between black and white women who reported being terrified at
becoming overweight. It is probable that black men's desire for
voluptuous women contributed to black women's embrace of larger body
types. However, without a definitive notion of black female beauty
and as black women are continually negatively portrayed according to
historic associations, the desire to unconsciously or consciously
Critical race theorists, in an exploration of the dichotomy between
the white male agenda and black female body politics, argue that it
is imperative to first understand the origin and timeline of the
fluctuating misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the black
female body. To look through the lens of capitalist patriarchy, the
black woman is worthless. She hangs from the bottom rung of the
socioeconomic ladder. In her construction, she is assaulted by
racism, sexism and classism. The academic history of black female
body politics is a legacy of sociological and scientific analyses
produced for the purposes of proving black women's sexual deviance.
Sexual Deviance and Dominating Differences
Theories that have grown out of the debate framing the construction
of the black female as the embodiment of illicit sex were ignited by
the late nineteenth-century comparison of the black female body to
that of the iconic Hottentot Venus and the prostitute, during the
mid-Victorian era (Matus, 1995; Weitz, 2003; Greene, 2000;
Somerville, 2000). According to hooks, a black feminist and cultural
critic, it is Sander Gilman's (1986) "Black Bodies: Toward an
Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art,
Medicine, and Literature" that introduced the antithetical paring
between nineteenth-century racism and the images that continue to
shape and oppressively define black female sexuality (1992). Says
hooks, "Gilman documents the development of this image, commenting
that, "'by the eighteenth century, the sexuality of the black, male
and female, becomes an icon for deviant sexuality'" (Gilman, 1986).
He emphasizes that it is the black female body that is forced to
serve as "'an icon for black sexuality in general'" (hooks, 1992).
Magubane (2001) argues against the idea that curiosity in this black
woman's anatomy is the source of negative representations of all
black women. Studies utilizing Gilman's socio-biological framework
(see for example Matus, 1995; Weitz, 2003; Greene, 2000; Doy, 1998),
she posits, only further the "assumptions" about race and sexual
differences. As noted by Foucault in his theoretical formulation of
modern power, which is motivated by self-surveillance and comparison
to internalized norms, forces of power are most often historically
based. Stereotypes and constructed normalities stemming from
nineteenth-century racism and oppression produced a culturally based
notion of the African-American female's body politics. Black women
today confront, contest and sometimes unconsciously conform to
Gilman's historic tenacious definition. Combined with a proliferation
of media images that often subvert or stigmatize the black female
body, this socially constructed stereotype of sorts conveys distorted
messages of promiscuity, exaggerated sexual prowess,
unattractiveness, and assaults the very construction of who and what
possesses value in a society that appraises the physical
attractiveness, sexual desirability, and social standing upon a
narrow definition: European and thin.
In a patriarchal society where white is dominant and the dominant
beauty aesthetic is white and thin, women of color are posited as
Other, according to hooks (1992). There is no black subjectivity in
Otherness. Therefore, as black women, we see no beauty when we look
at ourselves as "Other" with white eyes. In John Berger's "Ways of
Seeing," he explains how women are trained to view themselves from a
masculine perspective. Extending his assertion to black women, we
are trained to view ourselves from white and masculine perspectives,
creating what feminists theorists have termed "a period of
invisibility" (hooks, 1990; Collins, 1993; King, 1993). The invisible
black female body, as narrated by hooks (1992), is based on a
primitive fascination with differences and the Otherness of the black
body by the dominant culture. She personifies the fetish-like allure
with comparisons to images of exposed black women on the auction
block and those who were artistically displayed as the sexualized
other at elite European gatherings. The exclusion of black women from
the halls of beauty because of body size and shape drives many to
overeat, binge, starve and resort to cosmetic surgery; thereby
supporting the capitalist ideology that commodifies the female body
and falling prey to the idea that appearance is a dominant social
identifier (Wolszon, 1998; Bertram, 2001; Greene, 2000; Fears, 1998;
Murphy, 2000; Krane et al., 2001; Shilling, 1991). This active
practice of commodifying the body symbolizes Balsamo's (1995)
illustration of identity semiosis, wherein the technologically
manipulated body has become a cultural sign of identity; thereby, a
thinner body has become a material item available for purchase, or to
rent in hopes that the weight does not return.
Constructionists (Foucault, 1979; Butler, 1993) similarly argue that
socially constructed ideals order and discipline the body by creating
specific desires that are attached to specific identities that are
often expressed through the consumption of material products such as
clothing or technological body rearticulations such as liposuction
and other forms of cosmetic alterations. Others (Shilling, 1993;
Giddens, 1991) have taken a more liberal view and posited that the
body is simply an "unfinished project."
The space to rearticulate one's body is also a site of contestation,
not just for black women but for all women. The valorization of large
female body parts within the black community is perhaps misconstrued
by the dominant class to mean all black men desire larger body
sizes. Most black men still operate within a very gendered construct
of beauty where thinness, regardless of race, prevails (Greene, 2000;
hooks, 1992; Collins, 1993). Popular culture is a site where the
thin beauty ideal echoes. In black music videos beautiful, desirable
and sexy black women are by in large, thin. Particularly in movies,
large black women are mammified. The association of large body sizes
to the mammy image has elite women in South Africa resorting to
liposuction and buttock-reduction. In an international body image
study, Weightless group leader Thandi Ntshihoeoe confessed that it is
embarrassing to be a 'fat African mama now.' (Schuler, 1999). While
middle-class blacks chop their posteriors, poor women in Jamaica
swallow fowl pills to increase their buttock and breast size. The
pill, an anti-infection drug, is designed for poultry.
For hooks, the most accurate and culturally representative depiction
of black beauty is one that does not silence the black body but
instead showcases the curvaceous black woman. Otherwise viewed as a
sign of heightened sexual activity, hooks praises the celebration of
the protruding buttocks in contemporary media. More specifically, she
argues that the song, "Doin' the Butt" by Washington, D.C.-based
group EU, in accordance with Spike Lee's "School Daze" started a
revolution that promoted a beauty aesthetic that distanced itself
from the dominant society and challenged "assumptions that the black
body, color and shape, is a mark of shame" (see Weitz, 1998).
Relative to the representation of black women in popular media, hooks
says of this shift to illuminate opposed to mask and alter black
beauty, "Undoubtedly the most transgressive and provocative moment in
School Daze, this celebration of buttocks either initiated or
coincided with an emphasis on butts, especially the buttocks of
women, in fashion magazines" (see Weitz, 1998).
Unlike skin tone and hair texture, the acceptance of the thin beauty
ideal may depend on class status. Bordo recounts how women who engage
in eating disorders feel a sense of powerlessness (Bordo, 1997).
Black women binge and engage in compulsive eating from their lack of
control over their personal lives (Abood and Mason, 1997). According
to the literature, eating disorders are prevalent in the black middle
class community where the culture of thinness is pronounced because
of their proximity and association with dominant culture (Browne,
1993; Hill, 2002; Ashe, 1995/2001).
Besides elevating the white/light skin tone to the grandeur of
physical desirability, our modern-day Venus dons long, straight and
preferably blonde hair with a thin, often emaciated, body type,
thereby further marginalizing the kinky haired full-figured female
Other. This classical beauty is a mythic figure even few white women
embody. But it is a standard by which all women live. bell hooks
(1992) and several other feminists and critical race theorists have
engaged in scholarly discussions surrounding the "hair theory" and
black beauty. Perhaps even more than skin color and body type, hair
texture functions as a distinct identifier of one's degree of beauty
and socioeconomic mobility. If a place exists on the body where black
women struggle with identity, it is definitely seen with hair (hooks,
1992). In Durham's (1999) comprehensive study of the resistance
practices of adolescent girls, she found, through a review of the
literature that although African-American girls seemingly possessed
positive body image perceptions, their struggle with body politics
was also motivated by intraracism along with an internalized
inferiority to the Eurocentric ideal. There is an abundance of
studies that articulate the power struggle with hair texture and skin
tone (see Hill, 2002; Buchman, 2001; Ashe, /19952001; Fears, 1998).
To perm or not to perm becomes the cultural conundrum for black women
who recognize straight hair as a white beauty aesthetic. Authors such
as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde use
literature as a platform to bring attention to the way hair is used
as a representation of black beauty. Feminist theorist Bertram Ashe
(2001), in an attempt to understand the good hair/bad hair dichotomy
in reference to the white beauty aesthetic, explores the hair theory
posited by White and White:
According to the prevailing racist ideology of eighteenth-century
America, the physical attributes of African Americans – their skin
color, facial structure, and, of course, their thick, curly hair –
was freighted with negative connotations. Whites frequently referred
to blacks' hair as 'wool' (the association with animals was hardly
accidental), in order to differentiate it from the supposed superior
white variety… Obviously blacks were not supposed to be proud of
their hair" (2001).
Based on this interpretation, Ashe concludes that the historical
struggle over hair motivates the contemporary "issues"
African-American women have with attractiveness in a society that
values European (white) features. In opposition, Ingrid Banks
(2002), author of "Hair matters: Beauty, power, and black women's
consciousness", problematizes the idea that blacks have a self-hatred
relationship with their hair. Her assessment of the ongoing struggle
between natural and chemically processed is that it represents, as
with skin bleaching and weight loss practices, free choice.
Discussion: Fragmented Femininity
A key factor dominating the body politics literature is the illusion
of power disguised as free choice. The illusion of power theory, as
described by Bordo (1993), operates as a self-manipulating tool
created to pleasure the individual while simultaneously oppressing
her. Shuler's (1999) study that explored weight loss practices among
the elite in South Africa and those in a lower class status in
Jamaica represented a direct example of the manner in which the
illusion of power oppresses African-American women. Power in terms of
appearance and body image is a social mobilizer that often closely
aligns those physically and economically synonymous with the dominant
ideal. Thus, the member currently immersed in an elite social group
seeks to rearticulate her body in order to maintain a lifestyle.
Underprivileged black women who engage in unhealthy body maintenance
practices seek to elevate themselves to a level of individual and
The hair theory, yet another indication of free choice, inhabits
several notions of power that contribute to the struggle or concept
of self-hatred many black women (and men) experience. Though not
detailed in the literature, there is a level of intraracism
surrounding issues of skin tone and hair texture in the
African-American community. In an attempt to appeal to a Eurocentric
ideal, the black female who alters her appearance for this reason
specifically (there are factors not in congruence with conforming or
self-hatred) is negotiating messages according to Foucault's
oppressor/oppressed model. Already oppressed by a patriarchal
society, this body maintenance method, along with those that involve
technological manipulation and anorexia nervosa or bulimia, the
individual then self-oppresses.
Also not included in the literature was a thorough discussion of
black men's desires. hooks (1990) and Collins (1993) offer
commentary; however, there is no comprehensive explanation of how
this may influence body image perception among black women. Duke
(1998), in a study of primarily white teenagers, found that females
typically set body standards according to a male perspective, white
male. As a result, black women, who are measured against dominant
culture ideals and their own cultural expectations experience
"feminine fragmentation." The absence of a definitive notion of black
female beauty, along with a proliferation of media ideals,
conceptually confuses (potentially) the black female who is not an
active (opposed to passive) media consumer. Therefore, based on the
exploration of theoretical formulations regarding theory, in
accordance with those that motivate the body politics of
African-American females, future research will explore the issue of
feminine fragmentation and cultural flux, with consideration given to
the "network of forces" involved in theories of power.
1 The terms black and African-American are used interchangeably in
this research study to describe and reference Americans of African decent.
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