Farha Ghannam, Associate Professor of Anthropology, went on leave last year to pursue her fieldwork in Egypt, where she has been examining attitudes toward the body. “I was very interested in how the global flow of images, producers … are transforming people’s views of their bodies,” she explained. Until recently, for example, “plumpness was considered very beautiful” among Egyptian women, as was “a full, round, face.” “But now you have the media saying slimness is more beautiful. … How do young women negotiate these ideas?”
Ghannam’s study of the relationship between Egyptian women and their bodies led her to ask similar questions about men. She found that “there is this negation of the importance of the body in the formation of masculinity and manhood” in Egypt. Instead, the men she encountered were “totally focused on their hair.” “We often assume that [only] women are obsessed with their hair,” she said. But the young men she observed did “invest a lot of time and money” in hair care.
Ghannam said, “The other thing I was interested in was the color of the skin.” In Egypt, light skin has long brought “prestige” to its bearers, but skin-lightening was historically not achievable. Now, Egyptians have access to a wide array of beauty products that purportedly lighten skin color. Many of these products are European; their countries of origin, said Ghannam, only increase consumers’ convictions that “they’re going to work.”
Although Ghannam did not originally set out to study “the issue of death,” she found the topic increasingly interesting because “death forces us to consider the relationship between body and self, religion and body.” She began to ask, “How do people make sense of the death of young men? What kind of language do they use? What is the role of religion?” Ghannam observed that “in Egypt, death is part of everyday life.” In Western culture, by contrast, “because we equate the body and the self, death creates a major crisis for us.” Next summer, Ghannam hopes to continue work in this “unexpected direction.” “This sense of flexibility … is what’s so exciting about anthropology.”
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