Things, Fashion, and the Health of Man (nequins)

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I was at the mall, shopping with my family, when I had yet another encounter with the weird. We were walking through JC Penney, looking for new shoes, when my father pointed out the mannequin shown above. Several things struck me as odd about it. One was the fact that it had been given incredibly well-defined muscles, another was that it had a torso and arms, and the third was that it was wearing two pairs of underwear with one sagging below the other. Each of these oddities made me ponder why the mannequin had been constructed as it had been, and in thinking about it, I actually remembered some of the issues that we have talked about in class.

The muscles on the mannequin were weird, because they seemed to so unabashedly project ideas of the “ideal person” onto a figure that was foremost meant to sell clothing. In “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Who Should Not Inhabit the World?”, Ruth Hubbard discusses how there is a long-standing tradition in western society for people to use health and fitness as indicators of worth (93). “It is not new,” she states, “for people to view disability as a form of pollution, evidence of sin,” (Hubbard 93). In other words, if someone has some sort of physical “abnormality”, they are often judged as having something morally wrong with them as well. Therefore, the logic goes, if we want to be the best we can be, we must have the “best” body possible. The mannequin, elevated on a pedestal above all the shoppers with its sculpted abs and pecs, represents an effort to further imprint these ideas in the minds of shoppers. “Look at me”, it says, “This is what your body should look like when you are in your underwear. Looking like this will make you satisfied with your life.” What is weird is that this is not the slightest bit true. Nothing about having an “unhealthy” body makes it impossible to have a meaningful life, and nothing about having a “healthy” body guarantees a happy life. As Hubbard explains, “Many of us know a person with a disease or disability whom we value highly and so-called healthy people that we could readily do without” (93). People of all shapes and sizes wear underwear, so it was weird for the store to present such a chiseled form as the common user of their product.

Furthermore, it was weird for the store to include the human-shaped torso at all. One does not really need to see a torso to understand how the underwear will fit on their designated part of the body. Therefore, I believe that the torso and arms were included simply to help personify the mannequin. In doing so the store actually helped to blur the line between living and non-living, human and non-human. By making a non-human entity look like a human, people are more likely to conceive of the agency of those entities, a concept explored heavily by Jane Bennet (9). “That plastic looks like a person,” the people might say, “so maybe it can act on the world like a person can.” This mental exercise could then lead those same people to imagine that any “thing” could have the ability to actively change and affect the world around it. Bennet might balk at this method of recognizing “thing power”, due to the fact that she would like to recognize things as having power separate from that of people and their desires, but I believe that she would appreciate the end result.

Finally, something was also weird about the way they chose to place two pairs of underwear on the mannequin. This raised questions of who exactly the store was trying to market the product to. No one that I am familiar with wears their underwear like this, so why would the store advertise them as such? One theory I have is that they were trying to evoke the idea that their underwear existed outside of any preexisting associations with class or race. In “The Pleasures of Taxonomy:  Casta Paintings, Classification, and Colonialism”, Rebecca Earle discusses how in colonial South America, people of one class or race could “pass” as another by dressing in a manner associated with another (436). This demonstrates the heavy connotations that can be paired with an article of clothing. By presenting their underwear in a style in which no one currently wears them, JC Penney could have hoped to transcend socially constructed barriers between races and classes in order to market their product to the largest group of people possible. If this was in fact their intention, then their advertising technique may actually have a positive effect on dissolving binaries and boundaries. However, it is also possible that JC Penney was using the two pairs of underwear to represent how the underwear would look if someone wore them while sagging their pants. In this case, they may have just been trying to show that their product was hip by associating it with a current fashion trend.

Regardless of JC Penney’s intentions in displaying this mannequin as they did, it caused me to stop and ponder the implications of its strange form. In doing so, I thought about western society’s fascination with “healthy bodies”, the inherent power located inside of things, and the way that clothing can be used to construct or destruct barriers between races and classes. I suppose that that really was the purpose of this assignment and this course – to be able to find the weird in the world and use it to examine the beliefs that society and myself may hold.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke U Press, 2010. Print.

Earle, Rebecca. ” Casta Paintings, Classification, and Colonialism .” The William and Mary Quarterly 73.3 (2016): 427-66. Web.

Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability.” The Disability Studies Reader. By Lennard Davis. 2nd ed. N.p.: Routledge, n.d. 93-103. Print.

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