Light or Dark: We Got Our Skin Sayin’

Chompoo Araya Hargate, a Thai super star, at Cannes Film Festival 2014.
Kim Kardashian on red carpet at the 2015’s Grammys

One of the prominent themes of fashion is its constant change in meaning and value. Skin tone, like style of clothing, is also subjected to the idea of change. The desirable skin tone for women has changed historically as well as geographically. In Black Hair/Style Politics, Kobena Mercer discusses how hair “is merely a raw material, constantly processed by cultural practices which thus invest it with meanings and value” (Mercer 34). Similar to hair, human’s skin tone is subjected to social “cultivation”, which is the transformation of raw material into social use and value (Mercer 38). Since skin is considered as something organic and natural, the disciplining of skin is sometimes invisible and absent from the social discourse. Still, social constructed codes of different skin tones remain prevalent, resulting females to discipline their skin as means of communication and social mobilization. By comparing practices in disciplining skin tone in the USA and Thailand, it is evident that societal force plays a vital role in disciplining people’s appearance. I argue that the different ideal skin tone of women in Thailand and USA explains how individual disciplines body by managing oneself in relation to societal norms to achieve reward or avoid punishment.

Kate Middleton in her bikinis on her private yacht

Skin tone and texture can be used to portray luxurious lifestyle due its organic trait. Mercer further discusses that “social mobility are therefore determined by one’s ranking on the ethnic scale and involve the negotiation not only of socio-economic factors … but also of less easily changeable elements of status symbolism” (Mercer 36). One of these less easily changeable elements is skin; American and Thai cultures essentially associate the desirable skin tone with luxury and leisure. In Theory of Leisure Class, Thornstein Veblen stated, leisure connotes the “nonproductive consumption of time…as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of adleness” (Veblen 28). In Thailand, agricultural work is historically tied to heavy labor and poor income. These outdoor agricultural jobs often darkens women’s skin tone. Hence, those who have lighter skin tone are thought to have the luxury to stay inside to consume time nonproductively. However, American women who have tanned skin are associated with their ability to go on vacation and expose themselves to sunlight. The media often feature snaps of celebrities sunbathing in their bikinis during vacation, creating a role model for women. Therefore, different connotations of bright and dark skin tone in two countries are results of how women consume nonproductive time differently, substantiating Veblen’s theory of conspicuous leisure.

More importantly, social discourse of disciplining one’s skin tone plays a significant role in the internalization of the ideal skin tone. In Conspicuous and Authentic, Alice Marwick mentions, consumption also “includes thinking about goods, talking about purchases, collecting objects, imagining fantasy purchases, and a diverse array of other activities, ideas and engagement with objects” (Marwick 2). These discussions disciplines individuals to desire the right skin tone by indoctrinating rewards and punishments. One of the most significant institutions that inform and reinforce the rewarding and punishing messages is the media. By comparing fashion magazines, such as Vogue, in Thailand and America, it is apparent that the magazine from different countries features models and celebrities with different skin tones. As a consequence of ubiquitous representation of one skin tone, men and women learned to aspire for one shade of skin.

Kate Upton on the cover of US Vogue in June 2013.
Yaya Urassaya Sperbund, Thailand's famous actress, was featured in Vogue Thailand in June 2014. Her lightened skin tone exemplifies Thai culture's obsession with light skin tone. (Source: http://women.kapook.com/view100464.html)
Yaya Urassaya Sperbund, Thailand’s famous actress, was featured in Vogue Thailand in June 2014. Her lightened skin tone exemplifies Thai culture’s obsession with light skin tone. (Source: http://women.kapook.com/view100464.html)

Moreover, compliments and criticisms are introduced to reinforce rewards and punishments in the society. Phrases are introduced in both cultures to associate specific types of skin tone with positive or negative attributes. In Thailand, there is a phrase “ee-dum-tub-ped”,which literally translates to “black like duck liver”. The phrase is often used to condemn females who have darker skin tone. For instance, Maeya Nonthawan Thongleng, 2014’s Miss Thailand World, was the first dark-skin Thai woman to receive the crown. In one talk show, she explained how she was hurt by comments from her friends and even tried to use detergent to wash off the darkness on her skin. On the other hand, tanned skin tone is often associated to positivity in America. An example of this is the phrase “summer glow”, which is used to describe a tan skin that result from exposure to the sun. This summer glow is associated with beauty as well as financial resources that allow an individual to go on vacation.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 10.35.52 PM
Maeya Nonthawan Thongleng during “Wooody Talk Show” talks about being bullied because of her dark skin tone , and how she had grown to love her skin tone. (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xhRsuiCqZ4)

After internalizing the ideal skin tone, American and Thai women discipline their skin tone in various ways. First is the consumption of skin products and cosmetics. While skin whitening lotions flood shelves of Thai drug stores, skin-tanning lotions gain their place in the United States. In Becoming Women to the Backbone, Christian Jantzen discusses, “inter- and intra-psychological identity can be experienced and managed by buying and using products generally not visible in public” (Jantzen 182). This indicates that the discipline of women skin tone is not always for the sake of public display. Although skin products do not provide significant results in altering individual’s skin tone, the very act of consumption privately disciplines a woman’s skin tone and identity. In contrast, the consumption of cosmetics to discipline skin tone substantiates the idea of conspicuous consumption. The ability to use cosmetics to naturally modify skin tone reflects individual’s financial capital because this requires an individual to consume multiple products. Furthermore, Thai women sometimes consume whitening pills that consist of “gluta” or glutathione to lighten their skin tone while American women visit tanning salons to darken their skin.

These cosmetics were featured on Elle’s article, “How to Get that Perfect Summer Glow”

Nevertheless, women’s skin tone is not the only factor that connotes their social standing. To make sense of an individual’s social standing, skin tone has to be read with other cultural cues. According to Veblen, “as wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further in function and structure, and there arises a differentiation within the class” (Veblen 48). The differentiation within the class of skin tone can be made through engaging in activities that demonstrates individual’s cultural capital. In Thai culture, females with smooth dark skin tone can be seen as a member of the upper class. Still, these women communicate their high social standing with luxurious activities such as eating at high-end restaurants and carrying brand-named handbags. In the United States, these cultural cues also include ethnicity due to the distinction between tanned and brown skin tone. While Caucasian females who have darker skin tone are often associated with high social status, African-American females who have darker skin tone are not. This conveys that connotations of skin tone are tied to individual’s ethnicity in America. Thus, an individual’s skin tone has to be read with other cultural contexts such as expensive fashion items and social activities to identify social status.

An Instagram post of a tanned-skin upper class Thai female in her party outfit.
An Instagram post of a tanned-skin upper class Thai female in her party outfit. (Source: https://instagram.com/p/17wi14m0k-/?taken-by=janetira)

To conclude, the comparison of American and Thai women’s ideal skin tone demonstrates how individuals discipline themselves according to social expectations. More importantly, disciplining women’s skin tone is a mechanism to keep women socially inferior. In Dress Reform and the Bloomer, Jennifer Lad Nelson claimed, “by assigning women characteristics and roles that precluded their participation in men’s activities, society ensured that women would not pose any challenge to men’s position or authority.” (Nelson 22). If women are still continuously pressured to look and act certain ways even in different cultures, they are restricted from the freedom to be an individual. Media and other social institutions need to realize the significant influence that they have upon how men and women make sense of themselves.

Work Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge. (1984): N. pag. Print.

Jantzen, Christian. “Becoming a Woman to the Backbone”. Journal of Consumer Culture. n.d, (2006): 177-202. Print.

Marwick, Alice. “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA, 2011. Print.

Mercer, Kobena. “Black hair/style politics.” New Formations, No. 3. Winter. 33-54. Print.

Nelson, Jennifer Lad. “Dress Reform and the Bloomer”. Journal of American & Comparative Culture 23,1. (2000): 21-25. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. 23-42. Print.

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SoulCycle: The Cult of Powerful Women

soulcycle bike

As soon as my shoes were clipped to those paddles, I knew I was hooked. I pushed the paddle harder after the instructor gave another encouragement to the whole class. I looked up and saw a row of loyal bikers in their white shoes; they were paddling intensely and rocking their body to the beat. I did not even have time to breathe; yet other SoulCycle riders were all there to motivate me. The room was completely dark, and we rode to four candles that surround the instructor, who stood tall on her bike in front of the room. The instructor told us to close our eyes and enjoy the blasting electronic dance music tune that was blasting in the dark room. Once my eyes were closed, I felt empowered by the pack of people that were paddling to the same rhythm, and I was focused totally on my body and inner self. After 45 minutes of standing up on the bike, I knew that I have found another part of me who is strong and fun. I felt empowered and inspired to be a different person. In class, the instructor encouraged us to keep going, and she motivated us with phrases such as “as you push that paddle, you find someone stronger within.” However, my male friend who attended the class did not resonate with these messages at all.

The dark room filled with SoulCycle bikers.
The dark room filled with SoulCycle bikers.

I realized that SoulCycle is not just an expensive indoor biking class. The loyal SoulCycle customers were not addicted to the brand SoulCycle; they were addicted to the disciplined and stronger self that they have found within. SoulCycle is a process of body modification, which transforms how women feel about themselves both physically and mentally. Women use SoulCycle as a way to express their powerful, and independent self. SoulCycle membership conveys the ability to meet the aspired, upper-class female urban lifestyle, which requires tremendous effort to balance work and leisure. I argue that SoulCycle is new form of conspicuous consumption in which women show off their power and luxurious lifestyle.

First, SoulCycle membership demonstrates a woman’s luxurious lifestyle that blends work and leisure activity. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, work is a “sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result” (“Work”). SoulCycle asks one to physically work to achieve an outcome of a fitter physical and mental health. Consistent class attendance and workout promises the result of a fit body. SoulCycle resembles this notion of work. At the same time, SoulCycle also resembles leisure activity in various ways. According to Elizabeth Wilson in Fashion and City Life, “the spending of money became a leisure activity in itself” (Wilson 143). In the case of SoulCycle, the spending of $34 per class becomes the leisure activity because one could be doing other forms of exercise for free or cheaper price. Another aspect of SoulCycle’s leisure activity is that it offers a similar experience to dance clubs. We often define clubbing as leisure activity since it is a “non-productive consumption of time” (Veblen 28). From riding in the dark room that only has four candles to blasting electronic dance music for 45 minutes, the atmosphere mimics the experience of when individuals are at the club. In addition to the atmosphere, participants are asked to stand up and ride the bike; this action resembles dance moves and the jumping movement in the dance club.

Second, SoulCycle demonstrates women’s control over their the transformation of their identity. The transformation of identity of SoulCycle members is witnessed through their apparel. In Language of Personal Adornments, Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher stated “different combinations of apparel with their attendant qualities are capable of registering sufficiently consistent meanings for wearers and their viewers” (Roach and Eicher 154). In this case, both the combination and transformation of their apparel consistently portray the identity of the wearer as the independent, successful woman of the 21st century. When frequent members arrive at SoulCycle, most of them are in their work apparel: shirt, blazer, skinny jeans and ankle boots. They carry brand-named bags such as Chanel, Hermes, Bottega Veneta and Celine. These expensive adornments signify professionalism and achievement in their career. Once they change into their gym apparel, these Lululemon pants and SoulCycle biking shoes signify discipline, self-love and leisure. When these cues are read together, they signify the identity of independent, successful women of New York City. It portrays these women’s ability to control and balance their career with leisure activities, both by using not only financial resources but also mental work and effort.

The transformation from work apparel to gym apparel can be witnessed at the lobby of the studio.
The transformation from work apparel to gym apparel can be witnessed at the lobby of the studio.

Third, SoulCycle is where patricians conspicuously consume. In Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence, Young Jee Han, Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze defined patricians as those who are “concerned with associating with other patricians rather than dissociating themselves from other classes of consumers” (Han et al 17). Luxurious brands that most SoulCycle riders use rely on implicit cues that require the cultural capital from others who have high purchasing power. The handbags from Bottega Veneta, Celine and Hermes rely on distinct yet subtle designs that require those who participate in high fashion to read their values. This conveys how patricians at SoulCycle are only concerned with associating themselves with those who have the same cultural capital.

In contrast to the quiet display of wealth, the explicit display of lean and fit body in gym apparel portrays SoulCycle members’ discipline and hard work. The regular SoulCycle members could easily be spotted; they are the ones in the front row, who could keep up with the pace of the class. In addition to their SoulCycle gear and their purchased biking shoes, they all have skinny and fit body. These skinny and fit bodies resonate with Thorntein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption”, which is a method of “demonstrating the possession of wealth”(Veblen 53). However, women at SoulCycle are not only demonstrating their possession of wealth, but they are also demonstrating their discipline to achieve the ideal body type. This idea of discipline becomes as valuable as financial resource due to the temporariness of the fit body. In order for women at SoulCycle to maintain their skinny and fit body, they have to have financial resource, leisure time and discipline to work for it. Thus, maintaining this particular type of body reflects a luxurious and self-conscious lifestyle. The work apparel that these women arrived in and gym apparel show women’s ability to spend money on luxurious brands and activities.

To conclude, SoulCycle completes the lifestyle of the new independent woman. The motto, such as soul warrior, and the actual empowering experience are catered to females in urban areas who are aspired to achieve career success as well as healthy lifestyle. This demonstrates how women redefine success as related to the ability to control our physical and secure social status. Since women are often subject to control of others, SoulCycle is another opportunity for women to be in control of themselves. SoulCycle is a way for women to exercise their power physically and mentally through adornments and hardcore exercise.

The outside of SoulCycle studio in NOHO, New York. The SoulCycle gears are also displayed on the window.
The outside of SoulCycle studio in NOHO, New York. The SoulCycle gears are also displayed on the window.

Work-Cited

Han, Young Jee, Joseph Nunes, Xavier Dreze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing (2010): 15-30. Print.

Roach, Mary Ellen, and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 109-20. Print.

Veblen, Thornstein. “The Theory of Leisure Class”. Ed. Dover Thrift. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1994. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Introduction”. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. New Jersey: Rutgers University, 2003. 1-15. Print.

“Work.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2015. Web.

Images

thelala. “Why Everyone Is Freaking Out About SoulCycle.” Photograph. Webshots. 15 February 2015. Web. 11 March 2015.

sosh. “SoulCycle”. Photograph. Web. 11 March 2015.