The Body & Mind – Sociology & Deviance
Physical Characteristics of Deviance
Obesity Trends in the U.S.
Expression, fitness, and the body
Ask: Can undesirable physical characteristics be regarded as a
form of deviance?
Most sociologists would argue that absolutely physical characteristics
factor into being known as a deviant or not. There is an underlying
principle that sociologists examine when looking at physical
characteristics as holding a “right or wrong” quality. Within the
framework of social stratification (layers) we find those qualities that
society deems desirable and those qualities that society deems less
desirable or even heinous.
Let us first examine Social Stratification- the creation of layers
(strata) of a population, who possess unequal shares of scarce
desirables, the most important of which are income, wealth, power
Wealth- all the economic resources possessed by an individual or
Power- the ability to control the behavior of other’s even against their
Prestige- Social recognition, respect and admiration that a society
attaches to a particular status.
Social Stratification is a “ranking system” Another text calls it
“Structured Social Inequality”
---Draw Stratification Diagram on Board---
(Values) Social Worth
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Invite students to describe attributes they think determine our “status”
or “rank” by physical characteristics.
When students give a category briefly discuss what would be seen as
a “positive/high” and “negative/low” form of that category.
As you can see, we often place a value (whether you feel it right or
wrong) on the physical appearance that one another has. One
sociologist who was most interested in this idea of presentation of self
was Erving Goffman.
In 1963, Goffman wrote the book, Stigma – Notes on the Management
of Spoiled Identity. Here he wrote a variety of ways we are graded.
Stigma: is the manifestation or outward appearance of an inner
deficiency, one that either has been or may be noticed, which
results or would result in infamy and dishonor.
Goffman argues that some who has been stigmatized is a blemished
person, disqualified from full social acceptance. When this is an
extreme blemish, it may even become the one single trait that defines
how you know the person – a MASTER status.
Goffman doesn’t say that all stigma comes from the physical, he also
says there are plenty of ways to become stigmatized as an individual
with no outward problems.
Stigma that appears as violations of notions of proper behavior and
belief and that which is physical- he refers to as abominations of the
body- the various physical characteristic.
Central to many early and primitive examinations of physical deformity
in children was the idea of the god or devil argument being involved.
Specifically in medieval days, God was often perceive to be the
creator and thus those who were born with deformity were often seen
as a monster, unholy, or a child of the devil.
Today there is more fluid examination of physical deformity where the
church may say that it is a child of God, others argue a science
argument that deformity is a biological problem only.
**At the core of the discussion of physical characteristics is really the
notion of Aesthetic norms.
Aesthetic norms represent standards that dictate how people out
to look: their height, weight, attractiveness, coloration,
possession of the requisite limbs and organs (and no more), the
absence of disfigurement, the absence or presence of specific
more or less permanent body adornment or alteration
(scarification, tattoos, lip plugs, elongation of the ear lobes, neck,
There is the second side to the physical norms which relates to bodily
impairments. A bodily impairment impacts a major life function such as
walking, seeing, hearing, etc. We see it as “normal” to be able to see,
hear, eat, walk, sleep, and if you are unable to do this then you are
“different” or outside the norms.
How do these things change over time?
Marilyn Monroe vs. Others now???
Children’s Appearance Study
Physical appearance can then also be tied to a host of other deviance
and labeling. A famous study on children’s misbehavior was
conducted in 1972 where participants were shown various pictures of
different children (some ugly and some pretty- by the standards then).
If the child’s behavior was mild, (stepping on a dog’s tail) the sample
groups were not influenced by the children’s look.
But when the misbehavior was more serious (throwing stones at a
dog, causing it to yelp and limp away) for the unattractive children,
members of the sample regarded this as a serious character flaw; for
the attractive children the sample of college students tended to be
more lenient and indulgent, to give them the benefit of the doubt,
passing off their misbehavior as trivila;.
Then they were asked to comment on the children, the ugly children
were often regarded in a poor manner, while the attractive children
were discussed in a positive light.
In the workplace, study after study, shows that often a more attractive
person will be hired over one who is obese, has a deformity, etc.
Work done by less attractive people is evaluated more negatively than
work done by more attractive people; people tend to work less hard for
more unattractive people than for attractive people, and something
that is lost is less likely to be returned to the owner if they are
physically less attractive.