From an early age, I understood that the body is an important tool for communication. During my childhood journey into dance, musical theater, and then acting professionally for film and television, I trained my body to convey emotion through movement. I could add a bounce to my step to indicate joy or hang my head down in sorrow. By consciously positioning my body, I could transform myself into a character – my southern belle sat tall with hands folded on her lap while my middle-schooler clutched the straps of her backpack in nervous anticipation of encountering the bully. Even the degree of my movement mattered greatly depending on the medium within which I acted. In theater, my body had to take up space on a wide, open stage. I could smile as wide as a Cheshire cat. For film, subtlety was key so as to not escape the frame of the shot. Smizing (a term coined by Tyra Banks, supermodel and creator of America’s Next Top Model, to describe the ability to smile with one’s eyes and not the mouth) was often necessary for close-ups. My years in entertainment also revealed to me the industry’s preoccupation with looks and the resulting pressures performers face to mold their bodies into a particular shape and aesthetic.
While I understood the body to be an actor’s tool, it was not until I began work as an undergraduate peer educator at Princeton University that I realized that the body could become a project. During my training in the university health services, I came across Joan Jacobs Brumberg‘s The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls on the list of recommended reading. For The Body Project, Brumberg studied the personal diaries of young American girls written between the 1830s and the 1990s and discovered a historical trend among girls towards greater self-consciousness of their developing female bodies—a body increasingly viewed as a personal project that is central to a woman’s identity. Brumberg argues that contemporary young women are “under more pressure because of a unique combination of biological and cultural forces that have made the adolescent female body into a template for much of the social change of the twentieth century” (xxv). Indeed, as I witnessed firsthand, western consumer culture places a high premium on the look and shape of women’s bodies, resulting in a high degree of angst and self-regulation of bodies.
Intrigued by Brumberg’s socio-historical arguments, I ventured on a personal mission to better understand this connection between bodies and society. First, I began with the not so simple question of the historical origins of the notion of “ideal” body weight by tracing the evolution of the height and weight table in turn of the twentieth century America. (My findings were published as an article, “From Average to Ideal: The Evolution of the Height and Weight Table in the United States, 1836–1943,” in the journal Social Science History.) Used originally as a tool to facilitate the standardization of the medical selection process throughout the life insurance industry, these tables later operationalized the notion of ideal weight and became recommended guidelines for body weights. The height and weight table was transformed from a tool of the trade into a means of practicing social regulation. The popularization of this tool by medical, educational, and public institutions produced a new way of classifying bodies into underweight, overweight, and normal weight categories. With these guidelines established, Americans internalized a normalizing gaze and employed individualized disciplinary practices in order to conform their bodies to an established ideal. By tracing the history of the height and weight table, I saw how weight guidelines serve to discipline populations by shifting public attention towards a body that now needs to be measured and disciplined.
Next, I wondered what happens to non-ideal bodies in a culture fixated on “the perfect body.” Pursuing my graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City (a major fashion capital of the world) provided me the opportunity to study one of the primary cultural institutions involved in the construction of beauty and “ideal” bodies—fashion and plus-size modeling. I was intrigued by the existence of plus-size models. What does it mean to have models that do not embody the normative (i.e., thin) body in fashion? What impact do plus-size models have in challenging thin privilege in fashion (and our larger culture)? These types of questions sparked my research for Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling. In the process, I decided to try modeling and step into her high-heeled shoes, so to speak, so I could better understand the nature of modeling work.
In the end, I learned that acting and modeling are alike in terms of using the body as a tool to get a job done (be it a convincing character or selling a garment), but, in modeling, the body is the explicit focus of an extensive aesthetic labor process that transforms women into models and, potentially, fashion icons. Plus-size models engage in, at times, severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size, as well as more routine bodily manipulations, such as applying make-up and hair products, wearing shapewear, and adding body padding to make the body frame more proportional. The body is a tool but it is also a never-ending project.
The image used at the beginning of this post is copyright of Amanda M. Czerniawski.