Essay on Sociology: Self and Society
The issue regarding the role of appearance and beauty in contemporary society has been widely discussed in academic literature and the mass media sources. Beauty is not only biologically programmed to function in human representation, but also it is culturally constructed to address the culture of human societies (DeMello, 2007). It has been found that human character can be better understood if there is a reflection of one’s sense of identity that can be found in the way an individual is dressed or how he/she behaves (Finkelstein, 2013). Psychologists state that there are many significant physical features that “both men and women are programmed to find beautiful, including smooth skin, thick shiny hair, and symmetrical faces and bodies” (DeMello, 2007, p. 28). Most people would agree with the fact that appearances could be created to impress others. For example, “dressing after a particular fashion is done in order to convey a certain impression”( Finkelstein, 2013, p. 1). Beauty is not an isolated quality, according to Plato, as beauty and appearance are associated with goodness. However, in some cases, the increased attention to beauty and appearance leads to the violation of effective functioning of the value system. Thesis statement: The emphasis on appearance and beauty in contemporary societies reflects and promotes a distorted system of value because inner beauty is often ignored by the individuals, who highlight the role of appearance in social interactions.
The major goal of this paper is to discuss whether the emphasis on appearance and beauty in contemporary societies reflects and promotes a distorted system of value. In order to achieve the established goal it is necessary to discuss the role of appearance and beauty in contemporary society, the nature of the distorted system of value and the relationship between appearance and beauty and the accepted system of values.
The role of appearance and beauty in contemporary society
Appearance and beauty play an important role in contemporary society because any individual can be judged by appearance, based on the fact that “the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible” (Wilde, 2009, p. 49). The importance of beauty is learned by an individual from the early age. The values of society regarding the role of appearance and beauty cannot be kept from children who realize that unattractive men and women cannot become movie stars or leaders. Children are taught to accept the cult of beauty because parents and teachers are obsessed by the existing system of valuing human worth. In fairy tales, ugly characters are always wicked and ill-natured or unhappy because of the lack of outer beauty.
Some people believe that outer beauty is a reflection of inner beauty because those people, who are in love, always look beautiful and attractive. In ancient cultures, the definition of beauty differed from modern cultures. Both men and women grow older and their beauty is said to grow with their age. This fact means that wisdom that comes with age can be valued as a deeper or inner beauty. According to researchers, “in today’s society looking good is more important than you would think”(Edom, 2011, p. 134). Psychologists point out to the fact that physical appearance does matter because it is associated with the traits of personality that influence human interaction and treatment. According to psychologist Nancy Etcoff, attractive people are “perceived as being nicer, smarter and more sociable,” and “more competent and moral than unattractive people” (qtd. in Edom, 2011, p. 134).
The propaganda of the beauty ideal can be found in the mass media sources. In recent years, practically every newspaper, magazine and the Internet sources highlight the significance of appearance and beauty, providing pictures of “enlarged breasts, whittled down waists, wrinkle-free foreheads, pumped up lips, reduced vaginas, etc” (Edom, 2011, p. 134).
In addition, today everybody knows that human face is a reflection of beauty. Face can be perceived in different ways: “as a mask in social interaction,” “the face as art: makeup and plastic surgery” and “the face as battlefield: a source of ideological controversy” (Synott, 1989, p. 55). Face cannot be ignored in the process of human interaction because the beauty of face influences the effectiveness of interaction and the significance of the self. In other words, the beauty of face can be perceived as goodness. Actually, face reflects the character of an individual, making his/her appearance more attractive. Both Aristotle and Plato supported the idea of the significance of beauty in human interactions (Synott, 1989). According to Plato, beauty is identical to success, happiness and wisdom. Thus, the beauty of human face signifies not only attractiveness, but also wisdom.
Nevertheless, there are several widely accepted assumptions, such as sayings “beauty is only skin deep”, “appearances are deceptive” and “all that glitters is not gold” (Synott, 1989, p. 55). The ideology of beauty is controversial in its nature because face can be perceived not only as mask of the self, but also as the mirror of the soul, which reflects inner beauty. It is necessary to assess the role of cosmetic surgery, which promotes the ideal of beauty (Synott, 1989).
The nature of the distorted system of value
The distorted system of value is propagated in human society. Undoubtedly, a serious damage is done to children who do not understand the difference between outer beauty and inner beauty. The distorted system of value in relation to appearance and beauty is based on improper understanding of the notion of beauty, which includes outer beauty and inner beauty. According to researchers, the human soul has the capacity not only to deal with hardships, but also to reflect inner beauty. The purity of human soul helps to maintain a positive outlook on different life circumstances, avoiding the growth of negative experiences, such as oppression and discrimination (Canfield, 2002). It is necessary to match inner and outer beauty in order to use the power over others, especially in social interactions. This fact means that is an individual does not embody the outer beauty; he/she could use the beauty of the soul to succeed in interactions.
A system of value is considered to be distorted if there is no harmony is social interactions. If the emphasis is placed on appearance and beauty in contemporary societies, the system of value will be distorted because the role of inner beauty is ignored. The distortion of moral values leads to damaged cultures and destroyed people. Today special attention is paid to the promotion of the ideal of beauty. Central role is given to moral transformation of individuals who ignore inner beauty. As a result, there are many critical responses to the promotion of cosmetic surgery, which ruins inner beauty, making people look perfect, but using face as a mask in social interaction.
The relationship between appearance and beauty and the accepted system of values
There is a close relationship between appearance and beauty and the accepted system of values. This relationship can be explained by individualism. People accept what is good in terms what is useful for them. Individualism is associated with selfishness, which promotes injustice in social interactions. According to Finkelstein (2013), “in the consumer culture of modern society, physical appearance has come to be seen as an important means for claiming a degree of social status” (p.2). Undoubtedly, this fact means that appearance and beauty can promote social inequality in human interactions. Many individuals are focused on using various strategies in order to improve their physical appearance. They tend to buy clothing made by world famous fashion designers, use individualized fitness programs to improve their physical forms, buy special sport equipment for home usage, attend yoga classes and follow strict diet regimes. These practices contribute to supporting the ideal of beauty, but ignore the system of values in some way. For them, physical appearance is of great importance.
Certain implications of the question
Certain implications of the question discussed in this paper are concluded in different perceptions of appearance and beauty. Some people would not agree with the fact that the emphasis on appearance and beauty in contemporary societies reflects and promotes a distorted system of value. They consider that attractiveness of one’s own appearance cannot express real character of an individual. They believe that it is necessary to judge an individual based on his/her personality traits, no matter what appearance he/she has. According to Finkelstein (2013), “this conflation of reality with appearance has a long tradition”(p.2). Moreover, appearance can be changed by employing a variety of cosmetics and specially developed devices. In contemporary society, it is easy to use conspiracy, which helps to create artificial complexion and body shape, but overlook the real representation of one’s own character. It is very important to understand the identity of an individual’s character to avoid any misunderstandings and misperceptions.
In addition, the ideal of beauty is changing because the elements of appearance that can be perceived as attractive are changing. According to researchers, “the same themes are reworked and re-interpreted in each age”(Synott, 1989, p.73). This fact means cultural, social and even political changes influence the perception of appearance and beauty. For example, the growth of Black Nationalism has led to the perception of “black beauty”, while the growth of feminism movement has led to the “rejection of beauty trap” (Synott, 1989, p.73). These changes can have certain implications on the established perception of the ideal of beauty.
The criteria for answering the question
The criteria assumed for answering that question are based on individual perception of appearance and beauty. It is necessary to measure the extent to which the emphasis on appearance and beauty in contemporary societies reflects and promotes a distorted system of value. For example, in the 19-th century, both appearance and an individual’s character were very important in social interaction. Finkelstein (2013) provides Samuel Well’s explanation of the process of reading an individual’s character. He states that in most cases, “appearances are deceitful” (qtd. in Finkelstein, 2013, p. 5). In other words, it is crucial to associate an individual’s character with his/her physical appearance, but observe positive and negative features.
The major problems addressed by the question
The problems the question is asking to address include the problems of inequality and injustice that occur in the process of social interaction. According to Finkelstein (2013), it is necessary to have a deep understanding of human character from personal experiences because “appearances, styles and images have become an authoritative narrative of modern social life, which has a significant influence on our habits of sociality” (p. 9). For example, those individuals who have constructed powerful social identity and effectively use beauty and attractiveness to succeed in social indications can have negative attitudes toward others. In general, the problems addressed by the question that has been raised in this paper require prompt and adequate solutions. Beauty and appearance should not promote conflict between individuals through distortion of the accepted system of value.
Thus, it is necessary to conclude that the emphasis on appearance and beauty in contemporary societies reflects and promotes a distorted system of value. There is a close relationship between appearance and beauty and the accepted system of values because the ideology of beauty contributes to the promotion of ignorance regarding the real traits of character, making individuals selfish and self-absorbed. Individualism that is caused by the increased attention of contemporary societies to cosmetic surgery leads to the violation of the functioning of the value system.
Reflection on "Sociology of Disability" Course
I have found this course to be a breath of fresh air, and I could not have taken Sociology of Disability at a more fitting or providential time. The article readings, discussions, and movies aided me in viewing my own disability narrative from an objective and critical perspective, and also helped me to think differently about my role as a social worker within the helping profession.
I remember distinctly Sharon Dale Stone, my professor, discussing in the first class meeting that the recognition and fear of difference in children is a learned behavior; it is not an innate predisposition of humanity. This idea struck me quite powerfully because I then realized that I had become socialized to my own "otherness" or "difference" at about the age of five, as I can recall my parents talking to their friends in hushed whispers about my "so called" peculiarities, which until that point I assumed were normal. As you can imagine, this revelation was not celebratory in nature by any means. It was marked with fear and shame that would be concurrent themes throughout the next twenty years of my life. I have many other vivid memories of how I was subtly or overtly taught by my family, peers, the media and other sources to prize normalcy and shun difference. Such incidents include my sister asking me why I played with a girl who was obviously developmentally delayed (I was unaware until it was mentioned), being reprimanded by my parents for being curious about people with physical impairments, and not being educated about, or integrated with, the "special needs kids" at my elementary school.
Since taking this course I have become very passionate about educating my own children (when I have them) about the diversity and beauty of the human body and mind. In accordance with my Christian beliefs, I am going to teach my children that everyone is created in the image of God, and God created everyone differently on purpose. Similar to the "ideal human image," as discussed in Lennard J. Davis's article "Constructing Normalcy," I am going to teach my children that there is no such thing as "normal." I am also going to encourage my children to approach disabled people on the street, in a respectful and courteous manner, as they might approach anyone else.
In the opening paragraph of "Unless Otherwise Stated: Discourses of Labeling and Identity in Coming Out," John Swain and Colin Cameron quote Mairian Corker, who says: "For a person who is oppressed, one of the key tasks of identity formation then involves 'coming out' as different and integrating that sense of that difference into a healthy self concept" (68). This statement resonates with me deeply because it encapsulates my own experience with coming to terms with my own learning disability. Instead of coming out publicly, though, over the course of the last year, I have come out to myself about my own difference. For a long time, I felt ashamed of my difference because of my apparent inability to learn in the same manner as others. This course gave me the tools I needed to begin to see myself in a new way.
My coming-out-to-self process began the year I started university, as at the urging of my parents I underwent a psycho-educational assessment before leaving Vancouver. The results, which suggested that I process information differently from most people, were forwarded to me in Thunder Bay, but for various reasons, no follow up was done. The results were downright terrifying to me, to the extent that they drew attention to the fact that some of my cognitive abilities deviated significantly from "the norm." To cope, I flat-out denied the results for two years, but by the fall of third year I felt ready to try to come to terms and understand my weaknesses that were presented in the report. By using Google I self-diagnosed myself as having a non-verbal learning disability. I immediately started having panic attacks; the next six months were the most trying and difficult months of my life. Since taking this course, I now realize that the reason that I reacted this way was because I had internalized the hegemonic medical model ideal that "conformity" was something to be valued above all else, as discussed in Swain, French, and Cameron's chapter "Who's Model?" I always felt that if I worked hard enough I would one day achieve a magical state of "normalcy." The psycho-educational report confirmed my worst fears that I would only ever, at best, be passing as normal.
John Swain and Colin Cameron comment that "[c]oming out, then, for disabled people, is a process of redefinition of one's personal identity through rejecting the tyranny of the normate, positive recognition of impairment and embracing disability as a valid social category" (76). Since "coming out to myself" six months ago, I have been on a journey of redefining my personal narrative and disability identity from a positive viewpoint. I am already much more understanding of myself, and way less defensive because I don't feel that I have to constantly hide who I really am. Nick Watson's remark that "[o]ur sense of self is constantly evolving" (511) resonates with my own experience of coming to terms with my abilities. I acknowledge that I still have a long way to go until I am ready to disclose my learning disability publicly, but I believe it is something that I eventually must do; otherwise, I would be a culpable colluder in the perpetuation of a hegemonic view of disability. Publishing this paper is a (scary) first step towards my "going public." At the moment it feels like the right thing to do. Only time will tell whether it continues to feel right.
Before taking this course I was ignorant regarding the extent to which our society devalues and excludes people with disabilities, and this course has taught me about the structural oppression and discrimination facing people with disabilities today. I especially found Brendan Gleeson's article, "Can Technology Overcome the Disabled City," helpful in understanding how discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people became entrenched in our institutions and social structures. Gleeson argues that our discriminatory ableist practices and attitudes originated in our historical and geographical valuing of the average working male, stemming from the economic shift to a capitalist, competitive and stratified labor economy. Gleeson gives the example of the feudal period as a time when impaired individuals were valued and included in society, and this resonated with me because it provided evidence supporting the principle that disability is a socially constructed phenomenon and fluctuates depending upon current societal norms. This is exciting for me because knowing that we were once more inclusive in the past gives me hope for the future, and hope for a time when more disabled and non-disabled people will be partners working to re-conceptualize disabled people's role and value in society.
As a future social worker, I also learned about how not to behave and act towards people with disabilities. I found Sally French's first-hand account of growing up with a vision impairment to be a telling reminder of how health and welfare professionals are often implicated in perpetuating oppressive attitudes and beliefs by imposing their definitions of dependence and independence onto disabled people. I am now more convinced then ever of the importance of basing one's therapeutic practice on the firm principles and ideals reflected in empowerment theory and a strengths perspective. That is, social workers need to work towards empowering their clients so that they can make decisions for themselves, and social workers need to recognize and work with the strengths that their clients already have. I share the vision offered by Stephen Gilson and Ellen Netting in their article, "When People with Pre-existing Disabilities Age in Place: Implications for Social Work Practice," as they encourage social workers to politically engage in the disabled people's movement.
Finally, I am now more cognizant of the ways that the socio-emotional needs of many people living with disabilities are overlooked, as discussed in Sharon Dale Stone's book A Change of Plans: Women's Stories of Hemorrhagic Stroke. Many of the women interviewed in the book complained of consistent insensitivity and failure of health and welfare professionals to adequately deal with their socio-emotional needs and wants after a stroke. As a systemic issue facing disabled people, I now know it is my professional responsibility to advocate for and/or provide direct counseling services for disabled people to ensure that they are being validated and listened to.
In conclusion, this course has been very helpful in teaching me to critically examine my own disability narrative from a social model perspective of disability. Learning about the oppression facing disabled people has helped me have a greater understanding of the need to partner with the disability community to bring about social change. Finally, I learned to critically examine the helping profession, and my own professional practices when working with disabled people.
Kathryn Burris is a fourth year student of Social Work at Lakehead University. She is interested in pursuing a career in community development related to food security issues. She grew up in Vancouver, B.C. but now calls Northwestern Ontario home. She is an avid sports enthusiast and loves playing hockey, cycling, and rowing.