This post was inspired by Dr Kathryn Woods’ seminar last November at the CHM (the warm welcoming Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick). Woods as a colourful person, presented her research vibrantly. The seminar was titled: ‘No carrots, no carrots’: Hair colour, humoral medicine and social difference in early modern Britain’ (check out all her other FASCINATING talk titles for yourself, and then you’ll understand!),
You’re probably thinking … ‘early modern – that’s like late 1400s to late 1700s .. how is this relevant, or even interesting’…..
But in a terribly basic summary her research explores how body appearance – or appearance markers (so hair, skin colours, facial shapes or body shapes) are linked to different forms of consumption, intakes or technologies (so in modern day TANNING or make-up; diet plans; building muscles (PROTEIN POWDER), or even hair dye!). These ‘consumptions’ connect to popular assumptions and meanings — so they build your identity (or how you represent yourself to others). And this strongly links to the culture you’re in, AND our cultural ideas of health and medicine.
In this end, this determines whether you’re INCLUDED or EXCLUDED in social groups ( ‘why is that 1 goth kid with all those surfer chicks?’ ).
Such a simple change – such as hair colour or skin colour/make-up/weight gain or loss – can drastically influence social ideas of a body (and responses to a body). This can have an impact on:
- Your SOCIAL STATUS (most sunlight historians write on twentieth-century positive associations of tanning with wealth, health and beauty).
- Your EMPLOYMENT (check out this amazing article on how 1930s Weimar republic could claim ‘cosmetic’ / plastic surgery free through their welfare health system, because ‘beauty’ became a ‘professional’ requirement, and women struggled to be employed if not ‘beautiful’).
- Your RELATIONSHIPS.
- Sometimes even your LIVING ENVIRONMENT – determining whether you’re welcomed into the area and ‘fit in’. And even your WORK ENVIRONMENT.
In summary, the way you present yourself influences how people treat you. It impacts your EVERYDAY lived experience. Coming back from Cyprus with my naturally and beautifully pale friend we noticed (and discussed) how often people comment on her skin colour, which was a lot. All the time … ‘you’re so white!’. Depending on the person and the environment, the individual commenting on her skin always hints either a positive or negative association, BUT ALWAYS states a comparison to others or themselves.
This illustrates that associations linked to appearance markers are constantly changing and are dependent on the social group, their culture, the location, and over time (I highly doubt that a British Association of Dermatology (BAD) Group is going to praise a bronzed complexion during the late 1990s ‘war on skin cancer’ media hype). And more significantly, we think that our immediate reactions to appearances is normal and ‘natural’. But, this isn’t the case.
This is where Woods’ research comes in – and makes me question my own research (or makes me think twice when judging people – or organisations – who judge stereotypes).
First, she contextualises pre-1700s society. In the past, people knew the faces that they passed everyday very well, and were familiar with their reputation/history (and their families). But, there was a gradual decrease of everyday face to face interactions with the same people. Growing migrations (especially in London) increased movement, people became even less familiar with others. This decline meant that it was more important to have social markers of acceptability.
As a result, MANUALS were written on how to judge people – who could be trusted? There were manuals on how people should look, what you should expect, and how this should change depending on the context of the environment or relationship (work, friends, family and formal gatherings). Social rules, trained meanings, expectations, knowledge systems of appearances – spelled out. ‘Constructed’. People created stereotypes (for survival?). And this taught (or suggested the best) emotional responses. After all, who are we without our skin, and how would we emotionally respond to others if they did not have their skin?
So, with this in mind. Is pride in our image/identity/appearance/representation less narcissistic, and much more important than we think? (an early modern onwards method of social survival? And rules to help us act accordingly?).
We can deny it but we all do it all the time.
Months ago, I was in a beer garden relatively late on a weekday evening. A small blonde middle-aged woman approached us. Jewellery. Make-up. Small, soft and rounded features. And her eyes crinkled up in a smile as she walked towards us. She spoke very softly, barely an accent. And engulfed in black warm clothes, she shifted her shoulders closer together, making her look colder and more vulnerable (it was only 12 degrees).
Politely, she stated that she had finished work, and had no change. She was going to miss the last bus home, which was about to leave (PRESSURE). Because we were sat down, she bent her hip outwards and leaned forwards, lowering herself and making herself look smaller.
Barely a second, Jake and I, without hesitation handed her a total of five pounds in coins. She saw the amount and smiled (may have even smirked), she said her thank yous, and walked off into the darkness. The whole event must have taken half a minute.
A minute later 2 things struck me.
1. Overwhelmed by the short space of time to decide, her appearance, voice, body language, the environment and the company that I was in (my philanthropic boyfriend who always makes me feel bad when walking past homeless people) had caused me to not even question, or contemplate the legitimacy. I had seconds to react. And my hand was handing her pounds before my brain had even decided her story was genuine.
2. Most fascinatingly, would I have done the same IF it was a middle-aged man, TALL, with broad shoulders, in gruff work clothes, muddy boots, and a strong accent. Fear and intimidation (I’m not small, but I’m not intimidating looking). So then panic. So perhaps not. But. If I did, I may have handed him less money?
So overall. We may be quick to judge those who judge others on their appearances. But history shows that we all have done it and we will continue to do it. It’s a skill developed to survive – even if just socially.
So I’d like to end on a personal note.
Those who know me know that I’m not prejudice at all to appearances. I’m just fascinated by human nature, appearances and observations (hence my research), but my second chapter in my thesis will go against the creations of stereotypes in public health campaigns. But the research of others has made me realise that we shouldn’t be quick to condemn those who create stereotypes without knowing, and those who respond accordingly and instinctively to another’s appearance.
We are, in many cases, likely to be very wrong. And it’s certainly not ‘natural’. But, as Kathryn Wood’s research demonstrates, it is a relatively old human form of judgement for social survival. And with the creation and popular use of Instagram, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, and the endless dating applications (Tinder, Her, HappN, and now Bumble?),
– and even ‘WALK MY DOG’ apps (where you judge whether you want to walk someone’s dog by their display pic’s CUTENESS) –
in the twenty-first century land of selfies …. this won’t be changing any time soon.