Graduation Year

2003

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

Communication

Major Professor

Ph.D, Carolyn Ellis

Keywords

stigmatized, autoethnography, interactive interviewing, micromastia, strabismus

Abstract

If cosmetic surgery has become the cultural lens through which Americans look at issues of beauty and ugliness (Haiken 1997), then minor bodily stigma is the personal lens through which we scrutinize our bodies and self-diagnose our own flaws in the first place (Ellis 1998). In this dissertation, I interrogated the stories of eight women who struggled with two specific minor bodily stigmas--strabismus (crossed eyes) and micromastia (small breasts). Cosmetic surgery presents a potential "cure" for both of these conditions, however, as some of my interviewees could testify, the results are unpredictable. While some women reported being grateful that they could try to resculpt their bodies with surgery, others were too afraid to try, or annoyed that the option existed in the first place.

Using a Grounded Theory approach, I combined autoethographic techniques with interactive interviewing to collect and interpret my data about how individuals cope with, and talk about, minor bodily stigma in an age of cosmetic surgery. The two flaws I chose to examine carry a great deal of cultural significance because in the West, eyes are revered as "windows to the soul," while breasts are regarded as powerful symbols of sexuality. Consequently, I looked at each woman's exposure to culture at three levels--the mass media, the local culture, and the circle of family and friends. First, I wanted to find out how these women identified themselves as flawed in the first place, and what impact their perceived stigma had upon their lives. I wanted to know if, and how, they communicated to others about their minor bodily stigmas. Next, I delineated the eight coping strategies outlined by my interviewees and examined the efficacy of each.

Finally, I looked at how each woman made and communicated her decision regarding whether or not to pursue cosmetic surgery as a solution to her minor bodily stigma. I asked those who had surgery to elaborate on their decision and its outcome.

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