Debra Gimlin: Academic Obituary

The body might be a location of domination, but it is also a tool for resistance and agency in the construction and reconstruction of contemporary selfhood (2002: 149).
The benefits of aesthetic procedures are largely outweighed by their cultural meanings and, particularly, by their suggestion of vanity, selfishness and self-indulgence (2012: 2).


Shocks reverberated through sociological and feminist networks as people heard that our much admired and loved colleague Professor Debra Gimlin had unexpectedly died. I expect myself, still, to pick up the phone and hear her deep, slightly lispy Southern Belle accent (after many years in the UK her Texas drawl was still very much a part of her embodiment), to rush off for martinis with her after a long day of conferencing, or to receive one of her quirky and meaningful packages in the post (mine were a bottle of Mo√ęt, a pendant necklace in the shape of a vulva, and a pack of razors—I’m sure that other friends have equally diverse collections to remember her by).

Debra was an utterly delightful person and a hugely talented and extremely hardworking academic. I first met her in 2009 when we presented at the ‘Cosmetic Cultures’ conference in Leeds. She struck me as edgy and extremely modest in person, in contrast to the authoritative academic persona of her writing. Her keynote was brilliant. She was one of those rare public speakers who learns their speech off by heart and then delivers it in a manner that seems effortless. She spoke that day about her findings around differences between British and North American women’s descriptions and justifications of their cosmetic surgeries. This complex and fascinating research would later form part of her book Cosmetic Surgery Narratives: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Women’s Accounts (2012).
Debra was fascinated by cultures of the body, and especially in those interventions, managements, performances, and modifications of the body that are so prevalent in everyday contemporary life. Her work took her into hairdressing salons, aerobics classes, cosmetic surgery clinics, and fat-acceptance groups. More recently she had begun to theorise her own experiences as an urban street runner, and to conduct situated ethnographies in military-style fitness boot camps.
Her research was deeply woman-centred and was often about gender, but her analyses didn’t follow traditional feminist paths. Instead, she was instrumental in transforming those feminist critiques of body work that too often viewed (and still do view, to some degree) practices like cosmetic surgery in terms of their participants being victims: of their own poor psychology, of ‘the media’, or of capitalist patriarchy. Debra refused to tow any of these rather easy intellectual lines, understanding—I think at a personal and intuitive level as well as a sociological one—that we are always already framed and created by our economic and cultural environments and are therefore all ‘victims’ of these forces. She worked instead to extend feminist sociological perspectives on embodiment by asking different questions and listening intently to the answers. In the acknowledgments to one of her books she wrote:
…more than 100 women have shared their stories with me—stories of bravery, disappointment, ambivalence and triumph. They did so with incredible generosity and despite my own weaknesses in formulating the ‘right’ questions (2012: viii).

This humbleness is typical of Debra but also shows what a good sociologist she was: never putting herself in a position of authority or superiority over her informants, never presuming to be the one with the ‘right’ questions, let alone the correct answers. In endeavouring to convey what people got out of body work she determinedly set about demonstrating, through sound ethnographic data collection, the ways that maligned practices such as cosmetic surgery are deployed to enhance and enrich everyday life and even to express and create selfhood. Thus she was a pragmatic sociologist, looking always to see the common-sense behind decisions, to ask how we explain our actions and choices to ourselves and to others. Crucially, she explored what we do to make our lives more manageable, what actions we take to render our bodies more liveable.
In Body Work: Beauty and Self in American Culture (2002) Debra refused to assume that ‘body work’ such as exercising or hairdressing are by default oppressive for women. Instead she conducted situated fieldwork about the actual experiences of what (for many) are everyday activities: an aerobics class, a plastic surgery practice, a hair salon, and a chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. This last site seemed not to fit, as it was about body acceptance rather than body modification, but Debra didn’t try to shoehorn it into a neat theoretical paradigm: she remained true to analysing each example on its own terms and found that, perhaps surprisingly, it was that group that was the most oppressive: ‘Although the chapter provides its members with an arena in which to enact sexuality, it does so by defining women almost exclusively n terms of their weight… members are positioned as no more than a body type…’ (2002:144).

Many of the interviewees in Body Work thought of their bodies in some sense as ‘accidental’ or, in other words, as neither stable nor deserved, and certainly not as God-given. Thus, bodies were understood as ripe for improvement, normalisation and enhancement via body work such as grooming, exercise, and cosmetic surgery. In determining to ‘fix’ the accidentally unattractive body her respondents were performing a kind of resistance. And Debra showed how this resistance is connected to other forms of labour: consider the woman who told her of working, in order to pay for her facelift, a ‘day job, one night job [and] occasionally a third job’, and who also had to save ‘four weeks of overtime… so she could take time off to recover from the procedure’ (2002: 89). This information was analysed according to the respondent’s own explanations, which were to do with looking younger for employment purposes, but also as ‘ “…a matter of personal esteem. If you feel you look better, you feel better about yourself” ‘ (2002:90). Debra wrote: ‘By granting cosmetic surgery the power to provide self-esteem, Ann Marie—like many of the other women I spoke with—effectively legitimizes an otherwise illegitimate activity‘ (2002:90). This willingness in her work to listen and then to accept explanations on their own terms rather than to act as transcendent expert is utterly refreshing.  

Importantly, Debra found that ‘body work is not only a resource for resistance; it is also a source of pleasure involving physicality, sexuality, and activity’ (2002:146). It is this analysis of pleasure that is so missing from much feminist sociology of the body, and that makes Body Work so compelling. She explained the pleasures in building strength and flexibility in aerobics, the fun in participating in sensual experiences in hair salons, and the relief women feel through joining acceptance groups where the deviant fat body is reclassified as ‘majestic’, ‘powerful’, ‘complete’, ‘sensual’ and ‘feminine’ (2002:132). She even found that the cosmetic surgery recipients she interviewed enjoyed sexual activity more after surgery. Most of the pleasures she describes are connected in some way to a change in appearance but they are also about pleasurable sensation itself: paradoxically, while body work is about enhancing appearance it can also lead to a set of experiences in which the body loses sight of itself and is able to be enjoyed in terms of feeling and affect rather than in terms of being seen. This is one of Debra’s most powerful findings; feminist theorists of the body would do well to take it up and examine it in different arenas.
In Body Work Debra found that beauty ideology is more often about class than it is about fitness or slimness. In Cosmetic Surgery Narratives she extended her range to comparative national contexts, finding that while the UK’s tight regulation around cosmetic surgery prompts recipients to narrativise in terms of the social good, the US’s largely privately-funded health care system allows for more flexible, heterogeneous narratives to emerge. In the US cosmetic surgery is explained as an investment, a sign of strength of character: ‘I’m doing it for myself, I’m worth it’. In the UK it is more likely to be defended as a kind of psychic pain relief. Cosmetic Surgery Narratives developed an entirely original approach, drawing upon French Pragmatism and repertoire theory to consider these distinctive narratives. Cosmetic surgery is analysed in this book in such a way that it highlights much wider socio-cultural practices and paradigms, including notions of social accountability and privilege, acceptability, and the wellbeing of individuals in context of the state.  

Debra was a feminist researcher in the most valuable sense: studying the practices and desires of women but also teaching, through example, how to do that in a kind, open, accepting way. She heard her participants, valued their stories, and was always conscious of the intertwinings of experiences across class, nationality, and time between herself and those she studied. She sometimes joined them in their endeavours and she recognised her own body work as ripe for analysis. Connected to this was her deep commitment to the importance of understanding interactions between women, as shown beautifully and simply in the dedication page of Cosmetic Surgery Narratives: it reads ‘For the women whose stories have most profoundly shaped my own.’
Debra was a generous and loving friend. She was a humble, supportive collaborator and an engaging colleague who was huge fun. Her students, colleagues, family and friends will miss her deeply and her future readers will be left wishing for more.
An award has been established in Debra’s name, see details at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/giving/news/10538/

Meredith Jones ( Brunel University, London) is a feminist scholar specialising in theories of the body. She is one of the pioneers of social and cultural research around cosmetic surgery. Her books and articles in the area are widely cited. She is currently writing (with David Bell and Ruth Holliday) a book about cosmetic surgery tourism, based on data collected as part of the project Sun, Sea, Sand and Silicone (http://www.ssss.leeds.ac.uk/).

Comments

  1. Thank you for this moving tribute. Debra was a dear friend of mine in graduate school at Stony Brook. I was one of her research subjects in Body Work. (We became close friends after that.) I feel her loss very deeply, and the scholarly loss to all of us is staggering. I'm grateful for your words in tribute to her and her work.

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