Body Monoculture

by John Holbo on June 13, 2012

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, a couple months back, I found this gallery of classic images of Venus – downsized courtesy of Anna Utopia Giordano and Photoshop. (The gallery was down for a while, so I didn’t post about it at the time. But now I see it’s up again.) Coates also linked to this post by Bob Duggan, responding to the Photoshopped images. I disagree with almost everything Duggan says. The grotesque results do not in any way shape or form show that there is anything grotesque about the thin, modern beauty standards the artist means to critique (I assume this is the intent.) It’s like trying to prove that moustaches are funny by drawing moustaches on famous paintings. You could also perform the exercise in reverse. Take some reasonably iconic superthin female image and give it the Titian treatment – or the full Rubens – and I’m sure the results would be incongruous and funny. It wouldn’t prove hips and stomachs are themselves inherently hilarious.

Which is not to deny that the superthin standard is grotesque, in a technical sense: it’s extreme and unrealistic to the point of caricature. Duh. But it seems to me that what is objectionable here, if anything, is not the extremity but the standardization. It’s also quite puzzling. Why is beauty culture (per the specs of the fashion industry) such a stable, monolithic body-type monoculture? Feel free to pipe up about how you like ’em with more meat on the bone, so you must be a feminist! (So do I!) But that’s not really what I’m asking. People – men and women – in fact find a wide variety of female body-types attractive. Fashion is all about variety and the new. It seems natural enough to me that the fashion world should gravitate to extremes, and that power-law-type distributions should tend to apply. But fashion is way more than 80-20 in favor of a very particular flavor of thinness. (Or am I wrong?) And thin has been in for a long time. Setting aside whether/to what degree this is to be condemned and/or something done about it, why is it this way? In your expert opinion.

Why don’t we get more change and multi-polarity in ‘ideal’ body-types from the fashion world?

Is it just that fashion designers like to draw nine-heads tall stick figures. And it all flows from that?

Prebuttals, part 2

by John Quiggin on June 13, 2012

The facts about inequality in the US, and increasingly in other developed countries, are now so clear-cut that the defenders of the status quo have little solid ground left on which to stand. So, they are mostly confined to arguments that have already been effectively rebutted. As new talking points emerge, it’s become increasingly easy to pick them out before they are fully formed and have a prebuttal ready.

That’s the case with data showing that income inequality arises mainly from differences in current incomes* rather than from inheritance. As I pointed out a couple of months ago, the absence of large inherited inequalities is a logical consequence of the fact that the distribution of income in the postwar generation was relatively equal.

Sure enough, here’s the prebutted talking point, stated by John Cochrane[1], who asserts

There are a lot of facts: the widening distribution comes from a skill premium, not inherited wealth.

He goes on with some older points, long rebutted

It’s new people getting rich, not the old rich keeping more money. It’s pretax income, not the rich keeping more money.  Consumption inequality is much less than income inequality. And so on.

In reality, income mobility is falling not rising, and the tax system has become less progressive not more. And I’ve dealt with the consumption inequality point here and here.

fn1. This is a bit disappointing to me. In his technical work in finance theory, which overlaps with mine, I’ve found Cochrane to be admirably precise in his analysis and sensible in his comments on the critical issue of the equity premium. But his contributions to the broader public debate over the past few years have been very poor (of course, there are plenty who say the same about me).

* As JW Mason points out in comments, much of the growth in income for the rich has taken the form of capital gains rather than higher salaries. Piketty and Saez rank income-earners based on income net of capital gains, which obscures this fact.