I've seen the above image floating around on Facebook and it reminded me of some other problematic Facebook memes that have been going around.
This picture has been circulating and appears to be a call for women to accept their bodies regardless of whether they fit the "ideal" or not, but as this blogger points out, the image still portrays women's bodies as objects deemed worthy based on physical ideal (especially the one marked "Men's Ideal Size") and privileges a very narrow view of beauty: white models; long, flowing hair; hour-glass figures. In short, it doesn't really accomplish what it seems to accomplish on first glance.
Likewise, Sociological Images took on the Marilyn meme that ostensibly promotes a healthy body image. They point out that we are still objectifying women's bodies and we're still valuing one type of body at the expense of another (in this case, we're pointing to thin women as unattractive). We're also referring to women as a "this," using synecdoche in a way that makes a woman's physical appearance stand in place of her self as a whole person.
So, let's go back to the photo that I want to take a closer look at:
What's going on here? This image has a lot of similarities with the Marilyn one. It uses nostalgia to harken back to "better times." It compares people in different eras in similar, but not identical, poses. It uses comparison to make a critical evaluation of society's norms. And, like the Marilyn meme, this image may at first appear to be taking a positive stance, but is actually damaging.
First of all, both images use nostalgia in a way that ignores historical context. As Sociological Images points out:
Marilyn Monroe was, to put it mildly, very sad, very often. She was a sex symbol, and thus, stopped existing as human being, a regular girl. Almost everything that fucked up Marilyn’s later life had to do with being “adored” by men. Men used her, or deified her (and that’s a hard come-down for those dudes when they found a human being in their bed the morning after). Political brothers purportedly passed her around like a toy. Conventional wisdom, political conspiracy aside, has it that Monroe killed herself. Being “adored by thousands of men” didn’t stop her demons from consuming her.Glorifying her physical image without taking into account what that physical image meant for her life as a real, actual human being is an oversimplification that ignores reality.
Likewise, looking at the image of those black men from the 1950's and placing it next to an image from contemporary America ignores the bleak reality of racial interactions during the '50's. Yes, those men on the left are better dressed, but they also lived in a time when schools were segregated, black Americans were relegated to the back of busses, racist practices like redlining limited options on housing and mobility, and the threat of racial violence was a potent presence. To ignore that reality oversimplifies the image and removes its context.
Finally, just as the image of Marilyn and the three women of different sizes still limits women's value to their physical appearance, these juxtaposed images of the black men limits their value to their clothing. Clothing can be an important form of non-verbal communication. It is unlikely, for instance, that those men on the right are going to get hired if they show up at a job interview in those outfits. However, just like all other kinds of communication, clothing is a fluid part of our expression and not a marker of our inherent identities. The way we choose to communicate is a rhetorical act, and it can be conscious or unconscious. It can be effective or ineffective. But it cannot stand in for our full character and sense of being.
These men are more than their clothes just as those women are more than their bodies. Reductionist perspectives that try to boil people down to an at-a-glance value judgment promote stereotypes and limit our abilities to see beyond them.