deviance & social control: women’s body hair

Hi champs! I know it’s been an age since I published a post, and my last post came with a promise to promptly write the next instalment in the France diaries but, well, if you’ve been following wildecrafted for any length of time you should know not to believe my claims that I’ll post more regularly. Life is just a bit too life-y these days…

One of the most life-y parts is university (I love it!). Anyway, I told a bunch of interested friends that I would share my essay for my Intro to Sociology unit once it had been marked, on the proviso that my tutor didn’t tell me that I’d totally missed the point and royally screwed it up. Well, he didn’t tell me that. He told me nice things about my work and gave me a lovely grade. So, my own blog feels like the best spot to share it, so here’s the essay…

Deviance and Social Control: Women’s Body Hair

By Kimberley Wilde


In 2006, fashion blogger Erin McKean wrote:

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

While quoted in countless memes that continue to circulate widely on social media, McKean’s assertion is misguided. Women are, indeed, expected to present themselves according to particular norms that exemplify a socially accepted ideal of feminine beauty (Schur 1983, 66). For example, in Western cultures, women are expected to remove physiologically normal body hair to achieve a feminine aesthetic ideal, and violation of this dominant standard of beauty is considered deviant (Braun, Tricklebank and Clarke 2013; Fahs 2014). This essay will discuss the sociological concepts of deviance and social control using the example of women’s body hair. Beginning with a definition of deviance, before applying Durkheim’s functionalist theory, then contrasting with a conflict theory approach, and finishing with a brief exploration of mechanisms of social control.

Deviance, whether behavioural, physical, intentional or unintentional, is defined as any violation of social norms. Failure to adhere to norms can have significant impacts on the social acceptability of an individual or group. Labelling deviance offers dominant groups the means to define, categorise, discredit, and control others (Schur 1983, 3). Both norms and deviance are social constructs, and therefore changeable. What is perceived to be deviant in one culture, sub-culture or historical period may be the norm in other cultures, sub-cultures or historical periods (van Krieken et al. 2014, 360). For example, in mainstream Western societies women’s body hairlessness is taken for granted, however within both lesbian and feminist sub-cultures women’s body hair is more likely to be accepted as normal (Fahs 2013, 168).

Durkheim viewed deviance as necessary to the maintenance of social order (van Krieken et al. 2014, 364). He theorised that people are born into societies with existing structures and traditions, which he called social facts, and it is social facts that shape the attitudes and behaviours of individuals (van Krieken et al. 2014, 417). Durkheim saw deviance itself as a social fact, and he identified three main functions of deviance. Firstly, deviance demonstrates social boundaries and reinforces cultural values. Secondly, collective reactions to breaches of social norms serve to unify groups of people, and therefore deviance increases social cohesion. Finally, as the deviant behaviours of today become the social norms of tomorrow and vice versa, deviance can be a source of social change (van Krieken et al. 2014, 364).

In April 2015, pop star Miley Cyrus posted a photo of herself with visible armpit hair to social media (London, 2015). Journalists, celebrity commentators, fans, and critics alike shared overwhelmingly negative reactions, unifying in collective disdain for Cyrus’s breach of acceptable feminine grooming standards. This backlash served to remind Cyrus, and women generally, of the expectation that women shall obey beauty norms, or risk ostracism. However, instead of bowing to pressure to conform, Cyrus responded to criticism by dying her deviant armpit hair pink and documenting the whole process with more pictures posted to social media (Waering, 2014). Due to her celebrity status, Cyrus’s actions were performed on a public stage. Van Krieken et al. suggest that celebrities have the power to shape history (2014, 88), and a functionalist perspective would deduce that Cyrus’s recalcitrant attitude to this particular beauty norm might indeed create social change.

In contrast to functionalism, conflict theory views deviance as a means by which dominant social groups can exert power over subordinate social groups. Based on the work of Marx, conflict theory identifies norms as benefitting some at the expense of others (Ritzer and Stepnisky 2013, 273). Marx perceived economics, or class, to be the source of all social conflict. Those who own the means of production have power over the working class, and will use deviance labelling to their advantage. Unlike the functionalist approach that questions why individuals become deviant, conflict theorists question who defines, and who gains from the defining of, deviance (Eitzen 1988, 196). It is in the interests of companies that produce and sell beauty products to perpetuate mainstream beauty norms (Schur 1983, 68). These companies will continue to make significant financial gains as long as women believe they need to perform an endless list of body modifications to achieve unattainable standards of appearance.

Unlike Marx, Weber argued that social stratification is multi-dimensional. A Weberian analysis suggests that society is stratified according to class, status and party (Ritzer and Stepnisky 2014, 127). Weber’s theory of social stratification is more applicable to contemporary Western societies, and particularly to the status of women, than traditional Marxist analysis. Women may belong to different economic classes and political parties, while still sharing the same status of womanhood. In patriarchal societies the status of women is devalued, and therefore women are subservient to the dominance of men (Schur 1983, 7). Beauty norms serve to maintain the powerlessness of women, relative to men. Women cannot refuse to subscribe to dominant beauty norms without facing the negative consequences that will result (Schur 1983, 80).

Whether it is viewed from a functionalist or a conflict theory perspective, deviance is subject to social control. Social control may be internal or external. Internal social control is self-regulation, a result of socialisation. Judith Butler, a postmodern feminist philosopher, draws on Foucault’s theories of power to show that women’s choices regarding their bodies are shaped by regulative gender discourse (Ritzer and Stepnisky 2013, 474-475). Women in Western societies have been socialised to preference removing their body hair, and while many women will claim it is their personal choice, it is a choice informed by the social fact that women’s body hair is stigmatised (Fahs 2013, 170 & 173; Braun, Tricklebank, and Clarke 2013, 478). If socialisation is not enough to control deviance then sanctions, in the form of rewards and punishments, act as external control mechanisms. Fahs’s research into women’s lived experiences with body hair identified several external control mechanisms that were exerted upon women who stopped removing their body hair. These included homophobic and heteronormative comments, and anger and threats from friends, family and sexual partners (2013, 173-175). Conversely, when women conform to the norm of hairlessness they are perceived to be, and therefore treated as though they are, more sociable, intelligent, capable, and sexually attractive (Fahs 2013, 169).

In Western cultures the physiologically normal body hair of mature women is stigmatised, and its removal is normalised. Drawing on this example, this essay has defined the social constructs of deviance and social norms. Durkheim’s primary functions of deviance have been identified and applied. Then, through the lenses of conflict theories as articulated by Marx, Weber and Butler, the role of deviance in maintaining social power imbalances has been highlighted. This essay has identified the significant effects of deviance labelling on individuals and social groups, touching on the development of internal social control through socialisation, as well as introducing the processes of external social control that are commonly exercised upon deviance.


Reference List

Braun, Virginia, Gemma Tricklebank, and Victoria Clarke. 2013. “ ‘ It Shouldn’t Stick Out from Your Bikini at the Beach’: Meaning, Gender, and the Hairy/Hairless Body.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 37(4): 478-493.

Eitzen, Stanley D. 1988. “Conflict Theory and Deviance in Sport.” International Review for Sociology in Sport 23(3): 193-204.

Fahs, Breanne. 2014. “Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 38(2): 167-180.

London, Bianca. 2015. Miley Cyrus causes ANOTHER online backlash by revealing her armpit hair in Instagram selfie… but she’s not the only celebrity to ditch the razor.

McKean, Erin. 2006. You Don’t Have to Be Pretty.

Ritzer, George, and Jeffrey Stepnisky. 2013. Sociological Theory. 9th ed. New York, USA: McGraw-Hill.

Schur, Edwin. 1983. Labeling Women Deviant: Gender, Stigma, and Social Control. Philadelphia, USA: Random House.

Van Krieken, Robert, Daphne Habibis, Philip Smith, Brett Hutchins, Greg Martin, and Karl Maton. 2014. Sociology. 5th ed. Australia: Pearson.

Wareing, Charlotte. 2014. Miley Cyrus dyes her armpit hair pink and possibly somewhere else in latest bizarre selfie spree.

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