Who stops the sweatshops?

I’ve studied my field, body image, for the last 6 years. I have published, presented and gave media interviews about how important a topic it is. I completed my, 90,000 word PhD in it last year.

And since then I have had time to reflect and I’m not sure that what I was doing was right.

I’ll step back. What are we, as body dissatisfaction or beauty impact researchers, hoping to achieve through our research? I believe it is ultimately to make the world a little more just. We know the consequences of unrealistic beauty ideals. We know how people tend to dislike their appearance. We know this impacts our wellbeing, relationships and aspirations in myriad ways. Ultimately we want our research to point out that this is a problem, is suffering, is an injustice and needs remedy (or justice).  
Nancy Fraser (2001) says that justice can only be achieved when both of the following are undone:
1) misrecognition,“[the] institutionalized patterns of cultural value [that] constitute some actors as inferior, excluded, wholly other or simply invisible, hence as less than full partners in social interaction” (p. 24),  
2) or maldistribution, “economic structures, property regimes or labour markets deprive actors of the resources needed for full participation” (p. 27).
I am concerned that the research we produce isn’t helping. That we only focus on misrecognition and this comes at the expense of maldistribution.
More specifically, body dissatisfaction researchers point out that various industries such as the fashion, fitness and toy industries, create unrealistic appearance ideals (e.g., through too thin models or overly muscular action man toys). In turn people compare themselves to these unrealistic ideals and thus experience body dissatisfaction and its myriad impacts.
These industries endemic use of sweatshops in which, in China alone, around 285 million people work, in which workers are paid so myzirely little for so miserable a labour, in which outrage is so weak that even the deaths of 1,100 Rana Plaza sweatshop workers 4 years ago still has not led to safe working conditions, cannot be ignored.
But we do ignore this injustice. And what’s worse is we obscure it by making the following 3 assumptions:
  1. That the fashion, fitness and toy industries only harm through misrecognition
    For example body dissatisfaction campaigner Tess Holliday recently encouraged her 20,000 Instagram followers not to worry about their clothing labels lest they make them feel fat. Inconsistent clothing sizes are frustrating as is fat stigma. However, in her post Holliday included two labels from Torrid and DARE both made in Chinese and Mexican sweatshops, respectively. Not Holliday, her followers nor the extensive media coverage had anything to say about these sweatshop made items.
  1. That these industries only harm those living in the Global North
For example, researchers have surveyed rates of body dissatisfaction in fashion students and models in order to highlight how harmful the fashion industry is. The logic being that these groups of workers face greater injustice because their occupations bring them closer to the industries. It is only these workers who are assumed to be harmed by these industries' injustices. The largest group of workers in these industries, those most affected, the sweatshop workers, are ignored.
  1. That these harms can be undone without any loss of profit
For example there exist many studies that have addressed the fashion businesses directly arguing that using more realistic catwalk models or featuring older women in advertising not only stops people having body dissatisfaction but it also makes people like these businesses more and crucially spend more money with them. Thus these studies are legitimizing these industries. By helping them become more profitable, these industries become more powerful and create more sweatshops.
Many of us are embarrassed by the privilege academia affords us. We can weaponize this. Our universities spend around £10 million on sweatshop electronics per year. We can use this vast purchasing power, along with People and Planet, to negotiate better conditions in these factories. Indeed, I think we must.  

By Glen Jankowski is a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. He is interested in critical-, feminist- and Marxist psychology. He is also a committee member of the Psychology of Women Section and the International Society of Critical Health Psychology.

For more information please see People and Planet’s campaign here: https://old.peopleandplanet.org/sweatshopfree/goals

And to read more on this please see Jankowski, G. S. (2016), Who stops the sweatshops? Our neglect of the injustice of maldistribution, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(11), 580-591. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12272 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12272/abstract


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