This interview is part of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.
Scholars’ Conversations: Kjerstin Gruys and Ashley Mears
Professors Kjerstin Gruys and Ashley Mears had a conversation about their overlapping interests in the areas of consumption, markets, gender, and beauty. The following conversation miraculously unfolded over a series of emails between two sociologists who are also, these days, each caring for their new babies.
Ashley: Kjerstin, I feel like you and I may share similar narratives about how we ended up studying aesthetics, labor, bodies, and consumption. I came to it through direct experience and, well, confusion about what I experienced in my college years. In my case, I worked as a model in Atlanta as a teenager and later as a college student at the University of Georgia.
I was living the teen dream doing photo shoots and fashion shows at the mall! It was in this context that I became attuned to issues of embodiment, the impossibilities of femininity, and the role of aesthetics in labor markets, really by grappling with the demands of a punitive and precarious workplace that transformed the glamorous dream of fashion into, at times, the nightmare of self-scrutiny and rejection.
My language here foreshadows your first book, Mirror, Mirror, which grapples with these issues in a personal and poignant way. How did you come to study aesthetics so personally?
Kjerstin: I started grappling with bodies, aesthetics, and consumption several years before thinking about the sociology of work. Like you, my academic interests started with direct experience. I struggled with an eating disorder in my teens and early 20s and my recovery coincided with a sort of feminist awakening while in college. Taking a number of sociology and gender studies classes helped me reframe my eating and body image troubles as being tied to social and cultural phenomena (rather than only medical and/or psychological). I started to shift my self-understanding away from shame and more towards anger and, eventually, research and activism.
After graduation I took a detour from academia, working in the fashion industry for a few years. I’d worked in clothing stores throughout college (buying more clothes than I sold!) and spent a lot of my free-time reading fashion magazines. After graduation I worked as a merchandiser in the corporate office of Abercrombie & Fitch, and later worked for Gap Inc. In these jobs, I was intimately involved in the clothing production process, including working with designers to identify upcoming trends, communicating with factory reps during garment manufacture, styling outfits for catalogue marketing, and tracking sales and profits.
Like you, Ashley, I enjoyed the creativity, glamour and—frankly—the status associated with working in fashion. But I also saw its ugly side. Ultimately the rampant sexism, racism, elitism, and fat-phobia had me missing sociology’s critical lens. I also became more aware of the problematic work conditions that proliferate in this industry, particularly for garment factory workers, retail workers, and unpaid interns.
Ashley: Oh fascinating! I hadn’t realized you actually worked at Abercrombie, the icon of troubled aesthetic workplaces for both front-facing employees and those in the corporate backstage.
So how was the process of transforming your experiences into a research question and a project?
Kjerstin: In my first semester of grad school I worked as a salesperson in a women’s plus size clothing store, “Real Style,” as an ethnographic project for my qualitative methods class. I didn’t really have a research question beyond “What interesting stuff about bodies, gender, and fashion happens here?” I assumed I’d study how customers talk about their bodies while shopping, but the more interesting story that emerged was about work, and about aesthetic labor more specifically.
I found that, despite being a “plus size” clothing store, thinner workers (including myself!) were more likely than plus-sized workers to be in jobs with higher pay, higher status, and greater autonomy. Additionally, sales associates had to constantly indulge both customers and managers when they complained about their bodies through “fat talk,” which I argue is a demeaning form of emotional labor. The managers, who were all standard-sized, gave a lot of mixed messages about body size, such as by organizing a weight-loss contest for the sales staff, and then buying pizza for the winners!
Ashley: Wow, you really held a number of positions in the fashion industry to sharpen your analytic eye on it.
Kjerstin: It feels like a lifetime ago! Ashley, I’d love to know more about your early experiences with research. What was your first publication and how did it come about?
Ashley: My first publication is also instructive. In my case, I luckily took an undergraduate seminar my senior year at UGA on Work and Occupations taught by James Coverdill. He had us reading all kinds of ethnographies of work, such as by Kathy Newman and Robin Leidner, and that was when I first had the idea to study the fashion modeling industry ethnographically. From there, William Finlay, another sociologist of work in the department, supervised my independent senior project based on interviews with models I had been working with in Atlanta. We later co-authored an article based on those interviews which became my first publication, explicitly engaging with literatures on emotional and embodied labor, published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. It came out in 2005. A good four years after the idea emerged in that fateful undergrad class. I’m so grateful for Coverdill for showing me ethnographies of work at that crucial time, and to Finlay for showing me how to ride out the long peer review process to ultimately land a journal publication.
An early version of that paper was my writing sample when I applied to grad school, and again in a stroke of luck I went to NYU, which was exactly the right department and city in which to expand an ethnography of the fashion modeling industry.
Kjerstin, how about you? What’s the backstory to Mirror, Mirror?
Kjerstin: My book, Mirror, Mirror, OFF the Wall, is a sociologically-informed memoir of a year I spent avoiding mirrors. In the midst of collecting data for my dissertation I was also planning my wedding. When I tried on wedding dresses I found myself feeling insecure and hypocritical—a body image expert with a body image problem. Avoiding mirrors was a way to push back at a consumer culture telling me (1) that my wedding should be the most important day of my life, and (2) that my appearance would be the most important aspect of it. I started blogging and ultimately wrote a book about the project. It’s amazing how much writing a person can accomplish while avoiding her dissertation!
Ashley: Tell me about the process landing your first journal publication, your paper on plus-size retail in Social Problems which, by the way, won the Best Student Paper prize from the Consumers and Consumption Section.
Kjerstin: That paper was such an important experience for me. It was based on the ethnography I described above, of a women’s plus-size clothing store. I submitted it to Social Problems because it drew heavily from an article published there by Christine Williams, theorizing the “glass escalator” that men who work in feminine occupations ride to the top of their fields. I was proud of my paper but nervous to learn what reviewers thought. The editor offered me an R&R… along with comments from SEVEN (!) reviewers. I was thrilled that people wanted to read the article, but completely overwhelmed. It took me over a year to resubmit. Ultimately it was accepted (and much improved thanks to all of the feedback). These days it takes an especially mean reviewer to phase me! This paper ended up being one chapter of my dissertation, which examined “aesthetic labor” across three case studies. A second dissertation chapter, “Making Over Poor Women: Gender, Race, Class, and Body Size in a Welfare-to-Work Nonprofit Organization” was just published in Sociological Forum.
Ashley: Congrats on publishing this in Sociological Forum! Kjerstin, it’s interesting that though we are both sociologists of work, we are also highly attuned to consumption. How does consumption come into your work?
Kjerstin: I was interested in consumption before I was interested in work. That feminist awakening I mentioned earlier gained a lot of momentum after I watched Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne and then read Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth. Neither of these women are sociologists, nor terribly empirical, for that matter, but their critiques linking consumer markets to women’s body-image and mental health were scathing and relevant to my own experiences.
I’m still fascinated to see how markets produce consumers just as consumers sustain markets. I’m exploring this in my current project, on the world of clothing size standards in the U.S. ready-to-wear fashion industry. Ready-to-wear fashion refers to clothes that everyday people buy at stores like Target or JCrew, which are made in factories and literally “ready-to-wear” off of the sales rack (compared to high fashion that is custom-made to fit a particular elite consumer’s body). Clothing size standards interest me because they give people information about their body size and shape, bodily characteristics that are deeply connected to identity and status, especially for women.
I’m in the messy planning part of this project, so I have more questions than answers. That said, I’m following Joshua Gamson’s “tripartite model” for linking (1) cultural texts to (2) their production, and (3) their reception. Standards and standardization aren’t typically analyzed as cultural texts in the same way that, say, a painting or piece of music might be, but I still find this framework extremely useful. How have clothing size standards, themselves, changed over time? To what extent do fashion firms intentionally fiddle with their standards to attract and retain body-conscious consumers—and what gendered, racialized, classed, and ageist assumptions about embodiment go into these processes? Finally, how do clothing size standards impact consumers, women in particular? Addressing this last question, I recently published an article in Gender & Society with Katelynn Boyle and Maddie Evans, titled “Sized Out: Women, Clothing Size, and Inequality.” Our data show that clothing size standards and the retail spaces in which women navigate them create social, psychological, and material inequities that harm women, especially those with bodies outside of “standard” sizes.
Ashley, Who are some of your favorite theorists and writers on consumers and consumption?
Ashley: That’s funny I too devoured The Beauty Myth when I was 20. And I love your new project, which strikes a chord for the catwalk, because one popular strategy that activists try in the fight against “size zero” fashion models is to advocate changing the standard sample sizes which are very small (size 2-4) and travel across multiple markets, even globally, with the fashion shows. If we could make more than one sample garment for the shows, or make it in a size 6-8, we might be able to achieve some size diversity. I think sample sizes are just one point in the size-zero problem in fashion, but an important and overlooked one.
On my theoretical inspirations: Pricing Beauty was very much about labor and the production of value in beauty in the context of cultural production. It has a lot of Howard Becker and Pierre Bourdieu in there as background to help me think through the work of producing fashion, as both art world and as a field, but the central theoretical storyline is Viviana Zelizer’s circuits of commerce. I love her way of doing theory through the careful unravelling of empirical problems, and I found in circuits the right balance of micro and macro analysis to understand how markets come together through work practices and cultural beliefs.
My new book, Very Important People, is an ethnography of the global party scene catering to the world’s rich and mobile “VIPs,” and the women who are recruited to adorn them. It’s a case of conspicuous consumption and the production of value in a setting ostensibly about leisure, though so much of the ethnography documents all of the work (gendered, emotional, embodied) that it takes to make the scene.
Here I’m using consumption in the old sense of the word, when it meant waste, because in the VIP party circuit, clubs organize the night in the hopes of mobilizing rich people, mostly men, to drop thousands of dollars on champagne. Sometimes they buy so much champagne they end up gifting bottles to strangers in the room. Or they shake up the bottles and spray them, or just pour them out for everyone to see. It is shameful behavior, everyone agrees after the fact, but in the moment, the ritual display of conspicuous waste makes perfect and pleasurable sense. That’s quite the organizational accomplishment.
Kjerstin: Wow, that’s intense! How do you make sense of these behaviors?
Ashley: When trying to make sense of these wasting rituals, I started with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption: in our time of ballooning economic inequality, we should read Veblen much more carefully than we do. The Theory of the Leisure Class is a satire, sure, and Veblen himself was a quirky person, but there are valuable insights there. Sociologists of culture have been occupied with Bourdieu’s cultural capital and the mechanisms of cultivating legitimate taste among the bourgeoisie and professional classes in pursuit of distinction. But Bourdieu always acknowledged that the very top of the upper classes can use money to showcase their power, irrespective of cultivating taste. Just think about Trump, and you see the theoretical limitations of cultural capital as distinction.
To make sense of conspicuous waste, I went back to older economic anthropologies and theories of abundance—Marcel Mauss, George Bataille, Franz Boas. Boas had documented wasting rituals called potlatch among Pacific Northwest tribes, which influenced Veblen’s satire in which he likened elites to tribal elders. Again, Veblen was a funny guy, but this was and remains a great insight: here are these titans of industry, supposedly captains of a highly rational capitalist economic system, spraying champagne onto one another in a timeless quest for status via consumption. I’ve been working on an article for a long time now that tries to revive the potlatch as a useful metaphor to describe contemporary forms of wasteful consumption rituals. And when I say this article has been taking a long time, I look back to my first article publication experience with William Finlay as easy breezy.
What about you, Kjerstin? What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your works?
Kjerstin: In addition to Jean Kilbourne and Naomi Wolf, who I mentioned above, I’ll echo your appreciation of Bourdieu and Veblen. My research on service interactions is very much in debt to Christine Williams for her book Inside Toyland: Working Shopping and Inequality, which helped me tune into the interactional side of consumption, as did Amy Hanser’s 2012 article “Class and the Service Encounter: New Approaches to Inequality in Service Work” and Rachel Sherman’s book Class Acts as well as her 2011 article “The Production of Distinctions: Class, Gender, and Taste Work in the Lifestyle Management Industry.”
Last but definitely not least, Ashley, your work has been very influential for me, not only for its theoretical contributions but also more personally. Some scholars consider fashion and beauty to be frivolous topics, but your work has deservedly changed that perception while paving the way for scholars such as myself. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything that you’ve published and can’t wait to get my hands on your new book, Very Important People!
Ashley: Thanks, Kjerstin! That’s a very high compliment from a colleague whose work I also admire. Although seriously, by now, what sociologist could think that the $3 trillion dollar global fashion industry is frivolous? It’s one of the most profoundly important industries for self-expression, the reproduction of globally unequal labor practices, not to mention its catastrophic environmental impacts! As a case, fashion now speaks for itself.
So perhaps we should take this opportunity before we end our conversation to give a nod of thanks to the Consumers and Consumption Section for giving us space and recognition to pursue our work on topics historically considered “frivolous” in sociology, like fashion, beauty, and even consumption.
Kjerstin: 100% agreed. This has been fun! I hope to see you at ASA in August.
About the Scholars
Kjerstin Gruys is Assistant Professor at University of Nevada, Reno. She is the author of Mirror, Mirror, OFF the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery, 2014). Her academic articles appear in Social Problems, Gender & Society, Sex Roles, Sociological Forum, and Social Science & Medicine. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA.
Ashley Mears is Associate Professor of Sociology and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University. She is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press, 2011). Her forthcoming book (Princeton University Press) is an economic anthropology of VIP consumption. Her articles appear in Poetics, American Sociological Review, and Social Forces, and she has written for The New York Times, ELLE, and The Week. She received her Ph.D. from New York University.