Writing an Argument

Thesis in a Scholarly Context

Big Picture

Scholars advance knowledge by making arguments about texts, issues, and topics. Here’s what Harvard faculty say about writing an argument.

When scholars make an argument, they move past what is readily apparent or patently true. They do this by posing an analytical question, intervening in a debate, or explaining an important discrepancy in a text, issue, or topic.

What Faculty Are Saying


Do the Exercise


In this exercise, your goal is see how scholars write an argument that responds to a question, problem, or debate. You will do this by color-coding the essential elements of an introduction.


What to Do

1) Prepare by reading “Making It Matter” below, to the right of the essays. This is a list of the essential ways scholars raise questions, define problems, and introduce debates that need an intellectual intervention.

2) Choose three or four essays and read just their introductions.

3) Use the highlighter to color-code the three-part structure of the introduction: one color for the thesis; one color for the problem, debate, or standard interpretation that the thesis intervenes in or arbitrates; and one color for the intervening vocabulary (such as but, however, although, or yet).

4) Take note of what you are seeing. Which essays are using the three-part structure more explicitly? Which essays are using it more as a guiding principle?

5) Now reflect on what you are seeing. What do you imagine are the benefits of adopting or adapting the three-part structure of an introduction? Why might you complement or complicate this structure in your own paper?

“A good thesis

isn’t just

describing something

that happened.

It’s about arguing

for a position,

ideally when

there are multiple



 – Ann Blair, History

Writing an Argument: The Takeaway

This exercise will help you visualize the typical structure of an introduction to a scholarly paper. It can be helpful as you write your own introduction to think in terms of problem–intervention–thesis.

Read the Essays

JOANNA LI, ’13     [PDF]

Rethinking Modern Alienation
in McDonald’s Window Workers

2009 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing


In the early nineteenth century, the industrial revolution sparked an onslaught of socioeconomic change, bringing millions of former subsistence farmers, artisans and craftsmen into the factories across Europe and America. This permanently altered the nature of labor, as Karl Marx famously noted in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx suggested that industrial working conditions, which had become increasingly centralized, routinized and managed, had unprecedented impacts on worker psychology. In this new environment, Marx theorized that workers were becoming increasingly “alienated” from the process and product of their labor, from their fellow workers, and from their communal spirit. Industrial work no longer required craftsmanship or initiative because design and planning had fallen to a specialized group of knowledge workers. It no longer required community and motivation because the capitalist supplied the motive of profit. Work was compartmentalized into units. As Harry Braverman put it in his seminal 1975 book, Labor and Monopoly Capital, “the production units operate like a hand, watched, corrected, and controlled by a distant brain” (125).

In the years since Marx, and even in the years since Braverman, the composition of the American economy has changed; the number of blue-collar workers in the service sector now dwarfs the number of those in traditional manufacturing and industrial jobs. Attempting to apply nineteenth-century theories of alienation to modern service workers, such as the McDonald’s window workers that Robin Leidner follows in Fast Food, Fast Talk, can lead to counterintuitive conclusions. Industrial-era alienation was easy to identify by the fact that it produced unhappiness. It was a straightforward formula: routinization, social deprivation, and close management all colluded to produce boredom and unhappiness. At first glance this equation does not seem to apply to Leidner’s McDonald’s interviewees; their work, though heavily routinized and managed, also requires a certain degree of social savvy, and the majority of them feel satisfied, in some cases even enthusiastic, about their work. Does that mean that work in the service sector, even work that primarily consists of routine actions and canned lines, is protected against alienation? Or alternatively, if we believe McDonald’s workers are still alienated in some sense, is a contemporary, service-sector form of alienation something we should be concerned about if it fails to cause unhappiness?

These questions form the main objections against applying Marx’s theory of alienation to McDonald’s service workers. These workers may not be alienated at all, and if they are, they do not seem to mind too much. There is a strong case to be made for this argument, as will be seen from the wealth of evidence that seems to suggest so. However, this relies on a fundamental misinterpretation of why alienation is significant. A closer reading of Marx reveals that alienation is not equivalent to routinization or unhappiness; rather, alienation is a distorted relation of the worker to himself, his human nature, and his fellow workers. The chief crime of alienation is not that it causes unhappiness, but that it is wasteful of the “intelligent and purposive character” (Braverman 56) unique to human beings. Instead of expanding a worker’s creative and social identity, it stifles what Marx called a worker’s “species-being” as well as his human nature. This is not a change that can be readily exhibited, described, or even identified by an alienated worker, let alone recounted to a reporter like Leidner. Because service-industry alienation is hard to quantify or verify, we are tempted to dismiss situations such as the Leidner case, but this is a mistake. Instead we ought to reconsider how this century’s new, highly psychological context for labor relations might cloud our view of a human phenomenon that still exists, even in the service industry.


We start from a relatively familiar framework: McDonald’s window workers are trained in routines that encompass every aspect of their work, from pushing buttons on machines that dispense fixed quantities of soda to following the “Six Steps of Window Service” script while taking orders (Leidner 72). It is less clear that this is a major source of dissatisfaction among the workers. One worker tells Leidner that the Six Steps “work well” and another explains that “you can hit a groove…a kind of high… not…having to think about it any more” (Leidner 138). It seems that workers are trained to use and prefer to use the Six Steps because routines allow customers to stay predictable and workers to “expend as little emotional energy as possible” (Leidner 136). Quick, standard exchanges, Leidner reveals, had the added benefit of protecting workers from intrusive or uncomfortable personal conversations (146). Given the long lines and customer expectation for speedy service, highly personalized conversations were often desired by neither party and workers preferred customers who were “ready to give their order” (Leidner 143). As Leidner notes, McDonald’s management valued a friendly atmosphere but emphasized speed as their first priority; routines helped workers who “prided themselves on their speedy service” (143) to stay efficient and professional.

For those workers who desired more social contact, the Six Steps did not restrict them to robotic formulae. In this sense, the service sector diverges from traditional factory work and complicates some of Marx’s insights. Management had an interest in humanizing the McDonald’s experience, and workers were told to act naturally, not in a stilted way that would have made customers uncomfortable (Leidner 73). Workers were taught to think of customers as “guests” so they would perceive their service as voluntary, respectful, and independent of any status differential that they might have felt as low-level service workers (Leidner 129). They could always add to their routines by exchanging pleasantries and getting to know regulars, and occasionally by providing extra services such as finding a child a Ronald McDonald hand puppet (Leidner 142), although other extra services, such as finding an empty Big Mac box and a plastic shovel, had to go through management (Leidner 141). Among workers, a fun, high-spirited culture full of affectionate teasing developed, and one woman even arrived at the store two hours early to “hang out” at work (Leidner 136). Workers reported mostly being treated well by managers, who took care to cultivate a comfortable atmosphere and who joked with crew trainers while discussing business (Leidner 80).

McDonald’s management style is obviously designed to keep worker morale high, a goal that seems favorable for both the corporation and the workers. Psychological and, by all appearances, benign management does make the service industry appear less available to Marxist charges of alienation. Managers made an effort to notice and compliment good work, and incentives such as free meals and friendly sales competitions also motivated workers to work hard (Leidner 79). Of course, normal tensions arose when some managers strayed from “corporate directives” and used more authoritarian methods, but the corporate directives themselves were quite effective in encouraging good worker behavior (Leidner 81). Leidner even describes a scene in which a manager explains to workers that they need to keep labor costs down by scheduling the bare minimum of workers to a shift, and the workers agree that this policy is reasonable despite the burdens it places on their workload (80). Surrounded primarily by people they personally trusted and respected, McDonald’s workers were quick to identify with the store.


So where is the problem here? Leidner has a point in saying that “labor-process theorists who treat workers’ preference for jobs that are varied, challenging, and personally involving as a constant have not provided a satisfactory account of those workers whose responses to routinization are not entirely negative” (138). Perhaps Leidner is right: we are too quick to dismiss routinized jobs as uniformly unfulfilling. Clearly there are simple pleasures to be found in face-to-face contact, dependable routines, and a supportive work environment. In the McDonald’s case, mere brainwashing is too dismissive an explanation for the very real satisfaction that these workers seem to feel. However, we would also be hasty to dismiss Marx’s theory of alienation as irrelevant to the service sector and conclude that alienation has disappeared from the landscape because McDonald’s workers are free to give Ronald McDonald hand puppets to children. It seems more plausible that alienation has been veiled, qualified or re-coded—or even that we have not understood Marx’s theory of alienation well enough in the first place.

It may be appropriate here to return to Marx on “Estranged Labor” and delve into it more closely. Marx speaks of four types of alienation in labor, which include alienation from the act of production, alienation from man’s “species-being,” and alienation from fellow workers (Marx 113-114). (For the time being I will not address alienation from the products of labor, as the changes between the industrial and service economies do not seem as significant.) Marx describes alienation from the act of production as labor that is “external to the worker,” that “does not belong to his essential being” and in which “he does not affirm himself but denies himself ” (110-112). Because of this, “the worker therefore only feels himself outside his work” because “the worker’s activity is not his spontaneous activity…it belongs to another” (Marx 110-112). Because Marx conceives man’s labor as closely tied to man’s identity, this results in “the loss of his self ” and yields “self-estrangement” (110-112). This aspect of alienation seems to rely strongly on a subjective measure of well-being, but Marx is more abstract in describing alienation from man’s species-being (Marx 112).

For Marx, man, as distinguished from animals, is a “species-being,” able to “universalize” himself through consciousness (Marx 112). This “species-being” is the basis for sociality in man, and also defines his relation to his labor, or life activity, which becomes the “object of his will and of his consciousness” (Marx 113). Under conditions of alienated labor, work is not directed by the will and consciousness of human nature but is merely a “means of satisfying…the need to maintain physical existence” (Marx 113). As a result, man is unable to apply what makes him most human to his life activity, and his vistas narrow. Man’s focus now is only on his individual life, which “becomes the purpose of the life of the species” (Marx 112-113). Without the ability to see man’s essential nature and universal species-being behind his own individual life, he becomes estranged as well from other men, “viewing the other in accordance with the standard and the relationship in which he finds himself a worker” (Marx 115).

Alienation, in the Marxist sense, is therefore not merely an emotion that can be expressed or identified, but a changed and disconnected relation to oneself and to the world. In other words, it cannot be fully described by its effects on workers’ self- reported happiness. We have been looking for the subtraction of utils (an imaginary unit used in economics for comparing utility, or happiness) when we ought to be looking for the marks of a subtler conflict—something hardly to come up in conscious thought let alone in an interview with a journalist like Leidner. For instance, most workers prefer speedy, routine interactions to personal service, yet they go out of their way to find hand puppets and Big Mac boxes for children. Workers say that their guests “make [their] day” yet they take anger out on these same customers when they’re in a hurry, rather than getting angry at each other or the managers (Leidner 136). We can attribute much of this variation to personality differences between workers, whether the day has gone well, and other chance factors. However, the big picture seems to show that these employees as a group experience conflict between their identities as social beings, as workers, and as loyal members of the McDonald’s corporation.


This sense of inner conflict is no surprise to anyone who has ever held a job—it would be too much to ask for every act on the job to emerge seamlessly from our innermost consciences. This is obviously not a practical goal that we should take from Marx. However, there are aspects of McDonald’s window work that require prolonged and stressful suppression of workers’ personal needs and inclinations for the good of McDonald’s profit margin, causing workers to act as though they feel “outside [them]selves” or alienated from the act of production (Marx 110). During times of high traffic, work is hectic; whenever there is “time to lean,” workers are instructed to clean (Leidner 78). One grill worker is reprimanded for taking a moment to look at the work schedule because managers “did not want to pay workers for a moment of nonproductive time” (Leidner 78). Workers eventually internalize this grueling work ethic, agreeing that it is only sensible for the company to overwork the minimum number of workers possible rather than hire more and waste money (Leidner 80). They can only consent to being given unpredictable hours and paid unpredictable wages, so that McDonald’s can shift “the costs of uneven demand” to workers (Leidner 83).

Window workers are also the targets of customer frustration and anger, as they are the only visible representatives of their corporation, but they also cannot respond because they have to maintain professionalism (Leidner 131). McDonald’s use of suggestive selling, which instructs workers to prompt customers to order additional items, particularly provokes customer anger and worker humiliation as it cuts short any genuine sociability; suggestive selling, in other words, brings both of them sharply back into the realm of scripted, profit-driven interaction (Leidner 140). In the Leidner study, workers regularly describe ways of dealing with customer abuse, and have clearly grown accustomed to exercising self- control. In representing McDonald’s to the outside world and working for the benefit of McDonald’s, workers more often than not have to put aside their own needs as human beings to serve the interest of the corporation—and even, in some cases, come to see it as what should be done, not only what must be done.

This constant stress and strain in the process of labor contributes to alienating workers from man’s species-being and from his fellow workers. Window workers’ creative processes are limited to variations on the Six Steps of Window Service, pleasantries, and an extra service now and then, but normally the work is machinelike and a poor substitute for work that truly demands human ability. The highly routinized nature of the job meant that workers could only challenge themselves by pushing for greater efficiency and faster service, “hit[ting] a groove [and] not having to think about it anymore” (Leidner 138, 143). In times of stress, managers prioritized efficiency over friendliness, and tensions rose between workers and customers. The service routines and managerial supervision led workers to be impersonal and annoyed with slower customers, and to take out their anger on customers rather than management if something went wrong (Leidner 146). Workers’ need to be efficient for the sake of the corporation undermined the more social aspects of the job that the majority of them saw as most personally rewarding.


Even in workers’ normally tranquil relationships with one another, the interests of management can cause tensions to spring up. Leidner notes that carefully chosen methods allowed managers to extract the names of uncooperative crew people from their fellow workers (Leidner 80). Cooperation between workers was encouraged, but not to such an extent that they ever became a “powerful force for resisting managerial demands” (Leidner 133); as friendly as it might have been, Leidner reports, “the peer culture was not a unified one that could enforce alternative definitions of work” (134). Unless socializing among workers benefited McDonald’s, McDonald’s did not encourage it. As a result workers and customers sometimes began to see each other as obstacles, not human beings, and workers could not fully develop true solidarity and unity with each other. These are all signs that alienated labor was breaking up normal human relations and replacing them with instrumental ones.


Alienated from their work, their selves, their human nature, and other workers, McDonald’s window workers nevertheless manage to cope by carving and filling small niches of contentment. The niches they create for themselves, the self-control they have learned to develop, and McDonald’s psychological management all combine to create an initially counterintuitive picture of contemporary alienation. The Leidner case demonstrates that Marx’s theory of alienation can be extended to cases that do not show all the outward symptoms of disease, but which do reveal signs of a growing distortion and tension between the self ’s needs and the limitless demands of alienated labor. Alienated happiness is at best impoverished—we need to look beyond reported happiness to examine how alienated workers must struggle to reconcile their dual identities as corporate machines and as social human beings.



Works Cited

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.

Leidner, Robin. Fast Food, Fast Talk: Service Work and the Routinization of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International, 1964.

 LISA WANG, ’14     [PDF]

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Troubled Attitude
Toward Nonviolent Resistance

2011 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing


When it comes to the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, there would seem to be little to debate: he was an idealistic martyr for civil rights, a man who pressed for his “Dream” through doctrines of nonviolent resistance, patience and redemption. In a certain sense, he is a model of what can only be described as superhuman restraint, godly wisdom and infinite love, and it was these characteristics that positioned King to lead a successful civil rights movement that transformed the basic social and legal framework of the United States. But this image of King persists despite a critical fact we have yet to address fully: in his later writings, King began to question his emphasis on patience, redemption and brotherly love. Where he professed in 1958 a “deep faith in the future” and the “democratic ideal of freedom and equality … for all,” a decade later he was conceding that his staunch belief in nonviolent resistance needed a different reckoning. Today, we seem to know little of the extent to which he found that his work had not achieved true equality, in his words, beyond a mere “absence of brutality and unregenerate evil.” We might be surprised at King’s admission that, after a decade of work, “Negroes have established a foothold, no more” and that nonviolence had “not been playing its transforming role.” King in these later writings had lost faith in the transformative potential of his earlier belief in nonviolence, and it is a loss of faith we rarely acknowledge.

How do we make sense of this change in King’s beliefs, and how do we account for our image of King as an unshakable crusader for nonviolent resistance, universal justice, and brotherhood? It might be easier of us to deal with King’s own professed inconsistencies and questions by ignoring them, dismissing them or marginalizing them. However, it would be deceptive to believe in such a depiction of King or to accept the enormous potential of nonviolent resistance as King originally presented it. To examine this unexplored transformation, we will consider works from the earliest and latest points of King’s civil rights career: his 1958 memoir Stride toward Freedom, a 1968 reflection called Where do We Go from Here?, and a 1968 reflection article titled “Showdown for Nonviolence.” By focusing on these moments that bookend much of his work, we can more clearly see the stark contrast in King’s changing ideology. There is, in other words, an important shift in the course of King’s work that these moments highlight. We may be tempted to understand this shift as simply a reflection of the difficulties of the time period, and to write off King’s wavering faith as simply his acceptance of the slow pace of change. However, this paper argues that we can better understand this radical transformation as King’s realization that change through nonviolent resistance had actually reached its potential. This change suggests, simultaneously, that King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance had also reached its limits.


Before we ask why King shifted his stance on nonviolence, let’s take closer look at his troubled attitude toward it. In the 1960s, King reversed his original vision on race relations from a horizontal connection focused on reciprocity, brotherly love, and redemption to a more vertical, contractual, and antagonistic relationship. Despite King’s earlier prostrations for agape, or brotherly love, to define the African American’s relationship to the prevailing culture of the United States, the term is not mentioned in his 1960s writings. Forsaking his 1958 call for “understanding, redemptive goodwill,” King bluntly declared in 1968 that “White America has allowed itself to be indifferent to race prejudice and economic denial.” This marks an important shift in King’s thinking. He previously had placed the burden of change on African Americans, and his writings reflected the belief that African Americans needed to forgive, love and exist peacefully with the prevailing culture of America. In 1958, King writes: “Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it…It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community.” By 1968, however, he begins to transfer that sense of agency to whites. By referring to “[t]he future [that Americans] are asked to inaugurate…To end poverty [and] extirpate prejudice” in 1968, King attached important conditions to a race relationship that he previously approached with the language of unconditional love. King’s change in language here can be described as a shift from a focus on religious goodwill and cohabitation to a more contractual obligation. The shift in King’s thinking is clear: agape was beginning to fade as a reality by the late 1960s.

A cursory reading might construe King’s shift as a result of a change in the presiding sentiment in the white community at the time. The logic here is simple and compelling: in 1958, King could talk about agape because whites were responding to his ideas, but in 1968 the increased stubbornness of whites forced him to be more demanding. In other words, King was only as magnanimous in his hopes for a communal racial order as the proportion of whites who appeared to be receptive to such a vision. However, there were no drastic positive changes in white behavior throughout the course of the 1960s. This cursory reading would also ignore the extent to which the white community in the late 1950s was uncomfortable with the thought of change. In 1958, for instance, King himself had decried the country’s “tenacious and determined resistance” to change as the very impetus of the civil rights movement; and yet, he managed to believe at the time in forgiveness and redemption for the abuses the African American community endured. In other words, this resistance from the prevailing white culture of America was largely the same a decade later, when King seemed to give up on agape. Clearly, King’s altered understanding of race relations did not reflect a change in attitude in the prevailing culture of the United States. In fact, we could argue that it was quite the opposite: his transformation in thinking actually reflected a frustration with the lack of change in those attitudes. It is no secret that, even after historical civil rights legislation, African Americans continued to find their civil rights violated and continued to find equal employment a distant reality. Simply put, King had hoped that nonviolence would spark far more change. His sense of agape, however boundless, could never be realized when the prevailing culture remained unwilling to negotiate its social position and wealth.

King’s discovery of the limits of his earlier tenets caused a change in tone from hopeful patience in 1958 to frustration in 1968. In 1958, for instance, King urged his followers to love for “the need of the other person” and “expect no good in return, only hostility and persecution.” But King’s later writings became more aggravated. In 1968, in his “Showdown for Nonviolence,” King reflected on his “bitter experience” even though he had cautioned his early followers against “succumb[ing] to the temptation of becoming bitter.” In this article, King delivered a no-holds-barred account of the disappointments that marked the civil rights struggle for African Americans. He lamented the United States’ “tragic mix-up in priorities” (like spending more on the Vietnam War than on domestic programs) and its insufficient social legislation when compared to European nations. King concluded: “All of the misery that stoked the flames of rage and rebellion remains undiminished.” Statements like this reveal the extent to which he was becoming bitter at the pace of social change envisioned by his original faith in nonviolence. Despite professing in 1958 to expect little more than “hostility and persecution,” King was becoming frustrated just a decade later.


Why, then, does the perception of King as a staunch idealist persist? One reason is because King continued to speak in favor of nonviolence, agape and universal justice even as he was beginning to question their efficacy. It is difficult for us to hear King’s misgivings on the strategy of nonviolence, in other words, when he vowed in 1968 to continue to “preach it and teach it,” even if nonviolence were to fail. In his “Showdown for Nonviolence,” he even spoke of a survey in Detroit that revealed a majority of people believed in the effectiveness of nonviolence, and in this writing he seems to pull great hope in his strategy of nonviolence from the public’s continued faith in it. But what we tend to miss in his writings and his speeches are the important qualifications he himself makes: he warns about the inevitable violence from frustrated African Americans. Speaking about several recent job riots, King warned in 1968 that “The urban outbreaks are “a fire bell in the night,” clamorously warning that the seams of our entire social order are weakening under strains of neglect.” This was an idea King rarely brought up in his earlier writings, and when he did, they were more abstract. (Compare, for instance, his language earlier, in 1958: “Forces maturing for years have given rise to the present crisis in race relations.” ) The disparity between his declarations and his qualifications are critical to understanding King as a more complex actor in the civil rights era of the 1960s, an understanding from which we should not exempt ourselves. However subtle his misgivings, we can see a growing sense in King that nonviolent resistance was not as capable of achieving the kind of equality that many had come to expect.

But we also tend to continue believing in King’s image as a crusader of nonviolence because he seemed to be an advocate for the poor, not just for the African American community. Such an emphasis on poverty rather than on race alone produces, for us, an image of true agape. This understandably gives us the impression that King remained committed to nonviolence and to universal justice. It is hard, in other words, to miss his belief in a universal march for equality when, in 1968, he recalled their collective work at protesting peacefully: “When we began direct action in Birmingham and Selma, there was a thunderous chorus that sought to discourage us. Yet today, our achievements in these cities…are hailed with pride by all.” His emphasis on the collective “we” and on achievements “hailed with pride by all” helps to reify the impression we have of King as an unwavering advocate of nonviolent resistance. Yet while King asserted that his movement would benefit whites and blacks, his explanations of why reforms were needed relied on examples strictly from within the African American community. This focus on the African American community had the effect of potentially alienating poor whites who were eager to advocate King’s nonviolence campaign in the 1950s but found themselves out of place a decade later in a movement that seems less inclusive in the words of its leader. For instance, when expounding on the “economic question” in 1968, King addressed the unemployment rate of African American youths. He noted, rather cynically, that “[w]hen you have a mass unemployment in the Negro community, it’s called a social problem; when you have mass unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression.” By stressing the neglect that African Americans suffered from society at large, King set them apart as his primary focus and thus made his mention of benefits to impoverished whites seem like a passing suggestion rather than a goal he took as seriously as the eradication of black poverty.


This essay has meant to be polemical, but it has also meant to suggest ways for further and more full inquiry into King’s radical transformation in his thinking. In 1958, as a newly championed leader, King invested so much time and energy under the banner of a philosophy he fully endorsed that he could not lower his hopes for full equality for a moment. Yet when he stopped and reflected in 1968 about the extent of his achievements and how they measured up to his earlier predictions, full equality seemed even further beyond his reach than when he started. Confronted with the desolation of the situation and the imminence of what he called a violent “holocaust” and “guerilla warfare,” King knew he had to make changes to his approach. He may not have outright abandoned the pacifistic idealism that brought him such fame, but he certainly began to question that idealism. He seems to have begun to adopt a more grounded realism. He still called his vision “nonviolent resistance” by name, but his new outlook demonstrably lacked many of the elements by which nonviolence was known to his fellow Americans, elements like agape, reciprocity, and patience. This does not mean, of course, that King should not be lauded for his persistence and his role in transforming the political, racial and economic landscape in the United States. He remained, even in his most troubling moments with agape, a constant opponent to violence. But we rarely consider King as an ordinary man, one who had his beliefs rattled and who began to evolve in his thinking.

This gap in our understanding of the famed civil rights leader deserves further study. There are obviously more reasons and circumstances that would account for this shift between 1958 and 1968 than this paper can address, and there are certainly more nuances to the accounting I have put forth. Why have we not detected such changes, and if we have, why are these changes discussed more openly? A more thorough line of inquiry into these questions would do well to start with an analysis of the media, which sensationalized and deified King in an effort to attract mass readership. The media seemed intent on avoiding complicated analyses of the various dimensions of King’s character. We would also do well to look at the way history is written, especially when it is relatively recent. When textbooks rely on newspaper accounts for a primary perspective on a vital player in American history, for instance, it is not surprising that students would come to adopt a similarly static conception of a figure like the Reverend King. Certainly, the 1960s was a time of great cultural change spearheaded by leaders such as King, and having stable actors for our retelling of such a tumultuous era helps lend a sense of constancy to the entropy of history. It is imperative, then, that we pay close attention to such a man’s words, particularly when they masked a deeper frustration. It is a contradiction that we should take care to explore.



King, Martin Luther, Jr.,. “Showdown for Nonviolence.” In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1986.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. First published in 1958 by Harper & Brothers. Page references are to the 2010 edition.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. First published in 1968 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.. Page references are to the 2010 edition.



AISHA DOWN, ’14     [PDF]

The Problem with Documentary Poetry

2011 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing


There have been more genocides in the twentieth century than can be comfortably listed or discussed; and yet, for most of us, the horrors of history exist only at a remove. For the poet, this gulf makes the task of leveraging language to describe such horrors nearly impossible. What words can confront the unspeakable? One approach, often taken in documentary poetry, attempts to ground the horror of atrocity in painful but brilliant imagery. In Carolyn Forché’s prose poem “The Colonel,” for instance, she invokes scenes of torture so specific we cannot help but imagine the physical realities behind her descriptions. The poem, which marks her experience visiting a military official at his house in El Salvador, vivifies the atrocity of torture in the clarity of detail: the salt and mangoes brought by a silent maid, the shards of broken glass nested in concrete retaining walls, the human ears poured on the floor like “dried peach halves” (16). Hers is a poem intended to document, but not necessarily discuss, her experience inside the house of a torturer. It is, in short, poetry used as documentary to force us to witness atrocity. The sort of blazing imagery she uses is the mark of much of documentary poetry, and she combines this imagery with understated emotion to give the sense that what she has recorded lies beyond our ability to comprehend it. Her poem, in other words, lies wholly outside our normal experience, even as we are called to witness what it describes. This sort of poetry becomes troubling, then, because of the way it encourages us to read: we cannot presume to know what is beyond our own imagining. Under such a scenario, we are more readily able to excuse ourselves from the poem, and we allow ourselves to feel we are not implicated in the situation it describes. Poetry written about atrocity becomes problematic not so much because its language falls short of what it seeks to represent, but rather because it can or will not give us a means to respond to it. The muted emotion in documentary verse like “The Colonel” forces us to remain silent. But how can we remain mute in the face of such tragedy?

We might find an answer to that question in an extended reading of a poem by Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet and holocaust survivor who escaped from a Ukrainian concentration camp at the age of 14. His most famous poem, written in pencil in the sealed railway-car, seems a ready example of documentary poetry, one that on the surface promises to expose us to the locked innards of a boxcar bound for a death camp. In this poem, there is much to be read as documentary verse. Pagis never overtly appears in the poem, for instance; instead, we are given an achingly clear title, a pencil scrawl in a shut boxcar, and the cryptic words that follow; because the title here implies these words are not even his, one could argue this poem is more documentary than poems like “The Colonel.” That is, Pagis presents the “found” fragment as an artifact written by a victim, to which he appended a brutally simple, one-line explanation. If we further examine the poem, however, we find it does much more than merely document a victim’s experience, and in doing so, it invites us to be far more than silent witnesses. In short, the work captures a vicious moment, with lines so harrowing that we become trapped in that boxcar. The poem, in other words, bridges the gulf between witness and experience by creating a situation that requires us to psychologically participate in it. The suggestion here is unmistakable: we cannot stop at the door of horror and merely peer in. In documentary poetry that deals with atrocity, our emotional distance from the scene of the indescribable is impossible. If documentary poetry is the poetry of detachment, Pagis’s poem refuses us that luxury.


Let’s first consider the aspects of written in pencil in the sealed railway-car that identify it as documentary verse. The title is perhaps our clearest indication of documentary: it frames the poem as an artifact from the Holocaust rather than a poem composed after the fact; and we are led to believe we have found these terrible penciled words in a sealed boxcar, much the way Pagis himself suggests he discovered them. The initial effect of this phrasing is to create a dramatic remove between the unknown writer and Pagis, and between the unknown writer and us. The poem’s title is passive in the extreme, so much so that it would seem to remove all authorship. There is no poet speaking as witness, no subject excavating the sealed railway-car, no formal mechanisms of poetry that would mark it as verse. It is, quite simply, written in pencil in the sealed railway-car.

The precision of the title only adds to its documentary character: the fragment was found “written in pencil,” the railway-car was “sealed.” In the original Hebrew of the poem, the sentence is composed using words that are far newer to the language than the rest of the poem – “pencil,” for instance, and “railway” – the effect of which is to distance the title (and its audience) from the writing that follows. This distance makes the words seem like a fragment discovered long after the act of writing. The fragment itself, meanwhile, seems to exist in real time, with a message that was somehow cut off, and only later found: the sixth and final line of the fragment, “tell him that I,” ends suddenly on an incomplete appeal, and it is here that we reach the horror of the situation. The abruptness makes the line feel as if guards had caught the writer in the act of documenting herself. Its end implies that this woman was cut short before her final expression of soul or self could escape her, and it is in this state of incompletion that the poem captures the horrors it seeks to suggest. The poem’s title and broken scrawl become a way to document a moment. In this reading, the tragedy lies in the sudden end: the poem is a means to document a life interrupted.


However, if we interpret this poem as the work of documentary, we perhaps rely too heavily on our immediate impressions of the poem’s title and ending. When we consider the fragment itself, particularly its sparse language and the double meanings of some of the original Hebrew, we find that the poem becomes much more participatory than its documentary title might suggest. The poem, as we will see, pulls us into itself until we become part of its telling. Part of this is because the poem is cyclical, and as its terrible story repeats itself it has time to become more than a framed narrative from which we can remain detached. Instead, its repetitions sweep us into the story being told; in our involvement in the story, we, too, find ourselves trapped in that sealed railway-car. It is this kind of inevitable participation that casts the documentary frame of the poem aside, and forces us to psychologically participate in its scene of horror.

Before moving forward, then, it might be worth looking at the entire poem, with a closer eye on how it translates and on how the original Hebrew makes multiple suggestions for reading. The poem, in its entirety, reads:

written in pencil in the sealed railway-car

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of adam
tell him that I

The title’s “sealed railway-car” is the first intimation of the poem’s overwhelming sense of containment, and the fragment that follows lays before us a sense of her inevitable destiny: Eve and those with her are trapped, “sealed” in with no escape, heading towards death. In the “railway-car” they are totally severed from the world outside, and the immediacy of the poem’s language demands that we, too, be present “here in this carload.” But a more careful reading here in the context of the original Hebrew suggests that the poem is not so much fragmentary as it is cyclical. Consider again the poem’s last line, “tell him that I.” In Hebrew, the “to be” verb is contained within the subject, so “tell him that I” could just as easily be translated as “tell him that I am.” While neither phrase expresses a complete thought, “I am” reflects far more meaning back onto Eve herself; in it, Eve speaks to say that she is, which could be read as a stronger statement of self than a general plea to a world outside.

In other words, if we consider the translated ending as we did initially, “tell him that I,” the poem seems to sway much more toward the “documentary” interpretation already put forth: these are a woman’s final words, cut short, fragmented and later excavated, sent as a cry for help or hope into a world in which she no longer exists. The interpretation emerging from the original Hebrew, however, points toward a possibility that the poem itself is more cyclical than fragmentary: the last line, “tell him that I am,” is to be followed by returning us to the first line, “here in this carload.” This would make sense. In Judaism, passages of scripture are read over and over; when one finishes reading, one goes back to the beginning to start reading once more. It is possible that this poem is intended in a similar manner, that Pagis has constructed a poem that connects tell him that I am back to here in this carload. This cyclical interpretation is supported by the content of the fragment that is being repeated. The name “Eve” in Hebrew is nearly identical to the word for life, which allows the sentence “I am eve” to easily read as “I am alive.” And so we can trace the continuing cycle of her survival: Eve is “here in this carload,” she is alive (for now). The poem has moved away from fitting neatly into the documentary context of its title. Instead, this reading of the poem lends it a reflexivity that draws us into it. This re-circulating writing asks us to re-examine the poem, to involve ourselves in it. In the examination, we become pulled into its logic: in the poem’s never-ending cycle, there is no end to the words, and once their repetition has begun, there is no clear place for speaker or her audience to stop. Any end at all will seem forced.

When the outside world in this poem fades, in other words, the cycle draws our attention away from the documentary context. Its pull serves to diminish the power of the documentary title, for as it wraps us into its desperate repetition, it pulls apart from the frame with its own momentum; the poem is totally self-contained, a universe apart. Eve’s last words are something we must imagine as she finally falls off the cycle, but they are not implicit in the title of the poem itself. We can picture them, but with terrifying latitude. Must the title and its suggestion of distance prove Eve’s death or did she die at some later time? Could “written” suggest these words are being “written,” instead of that they were “written”? No matter our interpretation, the poem has sidestepped its initial enclosure into something far more frightening: it has assumed an indeterminate end, and it has drawn us into it. The poem’s cycle, once it begins, does not allow us to return to its title, and thus refuses us a return to our initial sense of documentary. The objective remove we are accustomed to experiencing at the hand of documentary verse is compromised as this poem turns in on itself; a human hand, a larger message, has become visible in its creation. In the process of iteration and reiteration, we become part of the process of writing.


If the problem of documentary poetry is that it separates us from what it summons us to witness, Pagis’s poem makes such detachment difficult. But it is not just the cyclical nature of the poem that draws us in; also at work here is a universal narrative that we are meant to more readily comprehend than, say, a genocide as brutal as the Holocaust. So, where a more detached witness might read Eve’s words as her singular prayers as she recognizes her life ending, the Genesis narratives that Eve invokes make the poem more than the final thoughts of a dying woman. As the poem repeats itself, we re-examine the people who act and move within it, and we find that its cycle shifts again from a personal litany of a faceless woman to something far more universal. In other words, we might be led to interpret Pagis’s use of the Biblical name Eve as a conceit meant to emphasize the significance of each life lost in the Holocaust without having to name a particular individual; we might likewise read Eve in the poem as a conceit meant to emphasize the magnitude of the lives lost. But either reading would render Eve a generality. Eve, however, cannot be a generality; hers is a name and a word that encircles all of humanity, and it therefore implicates us in the terror of that shut boxcar. The loss of Eve is not just the loss of an originator of a people, but also the loss of our own ancestor, a threat to some fundamental part of our identity.

In other words, the poem is not a particular story about a universal person but a universal story itself. Its universality entwines with its more basic cyclical structure to transcend the limits of documentary verse: in light of the cycle of our history, we realize that no one merely “witnesses” atrocity. Let’s take a look, then, at a few of the instances in which this poem broadens past the prayers of a single woman. In Hebrew, the words “with abel my son” (3) can also be read as “the people of abel,” broadening the poem to include multitudes. The people of Abel, of course, are the people who are being killed. Cain, the “older son” referenced in line 5, is not simply the son of Adam; the roots of the word “adam” could imply that he is also “cain the son of blood,” “cain the son of the soil,” or, in the Hebrew turn of phrase, cain ben adam – “cain the human.” The poem’s narration of a Biblical story suggests that the atrocity it describes is, in some way, a repetition of a more primordial atrocity, perhaps the first homicide. More disturbing is the suggestion that this sort of atrocity is cyclical, that the Holocaust is but one more iteration of a violence that has yet to end. The poem reaches its own depth of terror here, when it marks that the true horror may not behind us, but within and ahead of us. We are alone with ourselves in the boxcar of our civilization. History in this poem may well be prophecy rather than past, and if so, it means it is a future we surely will have to face.

The immediate suggestion in the poem, of course, is not the possibility of more horror on the horizon. Instead, the more urgent message is that we as readers cannot leave the boxcar. Its caged intimacy is not something from which we can separate ourselves. Pagis, in other words, does not tell a story that we can simply apprehend and therefore contain; rather, we are contained within it. This is a containment achieved not only in the immediate situation of the poem but in the kind of human history it invokes in calling forth Eve. We are all still bound by our own ancestry, in which the earth is not a roomy enough boxcar to separate us from other stories. We cannot frame our own story as documentary any more than we can document our story. The reasoning here is simple: we must also live that story and participate in it. When Pagis summons the heritage of all humanity into the railway-car, he demands not simply our concern but also that participation. We must live the fate of Eve and not merely bear witness to it. That fate must invoke a visceral reaction, for “eve” is the proverbial mother of everyone; if she is caught by the guards in the act of documenting her life, if she herself dies, then what must this mean for us?

The poem’s sense of inclusion is only broadened by the double meanings in its various shades of translation. Depending on how we understand the original Hebrew, we can read the poem as drawing entire groups of people into individual names; Eve is, in one translation, among “the people of abel,” and she is speaking of “cain the human.” Abel has grown from a brother to a tribe, and Cain from an elder brother to “the human.” Their expansion suggests not only that the atrocity of the Holocaust is a form of repetition of some original act of violence, but also that we are still contained within the same family, that even a horror as systemized and impersonal as that which was sealed in the railway-car is fratricide, and that any instinct we have to remove ourselves from these horrors is illusory. Eve’s capture and extermination is no longer an enclosed or discreet act of violence from which we can detach ourselves; it is terrifyingly intimate. Thus are we trapped inside the sealed railway-car with the poem’s desperate, unending repetition, and thus are we trapped inside the story of the poem. This isn’t to argue that the poem sidesteps its more immediate story of violence and genocide. While the narrative it relates is an artifact of the Holocaust, its overtones are of a much older homicide that repeats itself. It is in the light of this terrifying enclosure that the poem becomes participatory for us as readers: our enclosure transforms our act of witness into an act of involvement.


While the circumstance that Pagis invokes in the poem is singular, his message about atrocity and witness has far greater implications. His is not the breathless horror of being shown a sack of human ears, of walking guiltless and detached into the house of a Colonel. Rather, in summoning Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel, he reminds each of us of our own vast capacity for horror, and reveals that this ancestral horror is one that is still renewing itself. Pagis intimates that the cold violence of the carload is a bloodshed from which no one is exempt. More profoundly, perhaps, the poem suggests that detachment is not blameless, that to persist in silence, to distance oneself from the boxcar, does not wash blood from our hands. We examine the role of “cain the human,” the absent child to whom Eve is appealing, and we find that though there are several ways to interpret Cain’s role in the poem, one truth is clear: though Cain is “human,” and though his connection with the sealed railway-car is uncertain, he is still marked with the blood of his sibling. There are none who go unimplicated.

The consequences of detachment, moreover, are terrifying. In the fragment Pagis offers, it is not simply Abel who is being killed, as in the Biblical story, but also Eve. The story has been twisted on itself in the intervening centuries, and the death of Eve suggests that it has spun out of control, that it promises an irreparable negation of parts of our identity. For, while the scriptures hold that Cain and Abel had another brother, there was only ever one Eve. Her death would be an irreparable contortion of the human mythology. As such, the threat on Eve’s life in this poem is not simply a repeating pattern in human history but an atrocity that has become twisted as we attempted to remove ourselves from it. Though we may attempt to contain atrocity and to distance ourselves from what proceeds in sealed spaces, we still cannot absolve our responsibility or negate our heritage. In fact, in allowing such detachment, we might allow the atrocity to consume us all. It is in participation, and not in witness, that we have hope in understanding; it is likewise in participation, and not in witness, that documentary poetry can apprehend what is otherwise impossible to articulate. And perhaps it is ultimately in participation, in the transfer of the mind that shows us inside every boxcar we construct, that the cycle of horror in our history may finally be made to cease.


Works Cited

Forché, Carolyn, “The Colonel.” The Country Between Us. New York: Harper Collins,1981. Print.

Pagis, Dan. “written in pencil in the sealed railway-car.” The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. Berkeley: U California P, 1996. Print.


Elucidating the Current State of Tuberculosis
Through Maternal HIV/TB Coinfection Data
Collection in Sub-Saharan Africa



Though controlled in most developed nations, tuberculosis remains one of the World Health Organization’s primary focuses. Their Millennium Development Goals reflect the need to combat tuberculosis incidence, particularly among regions like sub-Saharan Africa, whose lack of resources and poor living conditions make it highly susceptible the disease. Before the World Health Organization takes further action in its fight against global tuberculosis, they must first re-evaluate the current state of the disease in the regions it affects most. Unfortunately, poor health care systems combined with a lack of proper data collection make it difficult to ascertain the effects of tuberculosis in developing nations. What is known, however, is that not only does tuberculosis affect women more than men, but also that women comprise 70% of HIV-infected adults in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, those infected with HIV are more vulnerable to contract tuberculosis. I argue that efforts to determine the incidence of tuberculosis should begin by focusing on the most vulnerable population: HIV-infected women in sub-Saharan Africa. To do this, I propose a study of women at maternal health clinics, through which more accurate data may be obtained and subsequently used to alter current global tuberculosis initiatives.


With 1.77 million deaths in 2007 (Glaziou et al. 2009), tuberculosis (TB) remains one of the world’s most troubling public health issues. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) has established a series of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that focus, in part, on combating diseases like HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome), malaria, and tuberculosis (as described in Glaziou et al. 2009). While these goals are an important motivator for the strategies of global health professionals, the likelihood of achieving the goal of complete TB eradication by 2050 is slim. Inaccurate data collection impedes global health professionals’ abilities to accurately assess the state of TB which, in turn, affects their strategic allocation of resources. Particularly in poor regions of the globe like sub-Saharan Africa, health care facilities lack adequate personnel, training and supplies to accurately document infectious disease statistics. Therefore, WHO may not understand the true burden of disease within a region, as it is not supplied with sufficient information. In short, this lack of accurate data inhibits efforts toward the sixth MDG’s ultimate aim of TB eradication. To address this issue, I propose a study at maternal health clinics that focuses solely on obtainment of quality data among one of the most vulnerable populations: HIV-positive women in sub-Saharan Africa.


Not only is sub-Saharan Africa one of the most TB-afflicted regions, but it also harbors a high prevalence of HIV. Women, in particular, comprise 70% of HIV-infected adults in sub-Saharan Africa (Marais et al. 2010) and thus face a greater risk of also contracting TB (CDC 2010). Therefore, my new initiative targets the accurate assessment of TB in this particular sub-population of HIV-positive women. WHO can then use these data to better determine what measures to enact for all populations moving forward toward the goal’s deadline of 2050. The relationship between TB and HIV in women may be representative of some broader trends of the disease in other developing nations. Therefore, by understanding this association between HIV and TB among women in sub-Saharan Africa via more accurate data, the results can be applied to other populations, helping tailor WHO’s advance toward complete eradication by 2050.

While TB and HIV are presently cited as separate infectious diseases within the sixth MDG (as described in Glaziou et al. 2009), research has demonstrated a strong link between TB and HIV. Not only do individuals with HIV have a higher risk of developing TB (CDC 2010), but TB also serves as one of the most common causes of morbidity and the most common cause of death in HIV-positive adults in developing regions (Corbett et al. 2003). Furthermore, WHO discovered that 13 of the 15 countries with the highest estimated TB incidence rates are in Africa, which they attribute to high rates of HIV coinfection (Glaziou et al. 2009). These findings illustrate a strong association between HIV and TB for two main reasons: if a woman has HIV, she is more likely to contract TB (CDC 2010); and most people with HIV die because they are also infected with TB. Exploiting this relationship in my study will allow WHO to formulate conclusions for how to effectively direct its actions in pursuit of the sixth MDG. However, simply designing a study that tests all individuals in sub-Saharan Africa for HIV and TB is impractical and inefficient. As an alternative, since women account for 70% of HIV-infected adults in sub-Saharan Africa (Marais et al. 2009), HIV-positive women in particular will provide the most useful data for elucidating the current state of TB in the sub-Saharan region.


With a justified population of interest in place, the next component of my study requires the election of a specific sector of women that can consistently be evaluated for TB and HIV. Because the greatest burden of TB in women is during childbearing years (Marais et al. 2009), my solution implements HIV/TB screening in several sub-Saharan maternal health clinics over a six to twelve month period. Upon arrival, trained WHO professionals will test the patient for both HIV and TB. For this study’s short amount of time, WHO will focus strictly on the accurate compilation of TB and HIV prevalence data among the women, and not immediate treatment following a positive diagnosis. These data, collected by trained WHO employees, will supply global health professionals with credible information to discuss how to better address the lack or presence of HIV/TB coinfection in these endemic areas.

Though TB occurs most frequently in developing regions of the world (WHO 2009), a lack of information impedes an accurate assessment of the true gravity of the situation. Data collection in sub-Saharan Africa is generally poor, inconsistent, and at times, inaccurate. Laboratory errors, lack of notification of cases by public and private providers, failure to identify patients as TB suspects, and lack of access to health care combine for inconsistent and inconclusive data collection in these regions (Glaziou et al. 2009). For instance, TB infection can exist in two forms: latent and active TB disease (CDC 2010). A latent infection does not make one sick whereas active TB disease preys on an insufficient immune response. Both are characterized by TB pathogens living within the body, but only a person with active TB disease will display symptoms and be contagious (CDC 2010). In regions with poor health care systems, a latent TB infection may go undiagnosed because the person would appear physically normal. If WHO analyzes and addresses TB based on these inadequate data, health professionals’ ability to effectively allocate funds, personnel, and energy with respect to the MDG of TB eradication is obstructed. Therefore, my study focuses solely on the obtainment of accurate TB data to later be used for planning and executing the next wave of WHO action.


Accurate data collection is crucial to any health response strategy, but with respect to infectious disease it bears even more importance. The inconsistency and inaccuracy in data collection pose significant handicaps for achieving complete eradication by 2050, as the combination contaminates WHO’s perception of the actual current severity of tuberculosis. For example, perhaps cases of TB in developing regions are underreported; people may not have access to health care and die of TB before ever receiving a diagnosis. A useful data report, such as the one my proposed study will provide, contains the following: a carefully chosen, controlled group of people; diagnoses performed by trained health care professionals; and a designated period of time for data collection. For my study, WHO-endorsed health care professionals in maternal health clinics will diagnose the controlled group of people, women in sub-Saharan Africa, over a six to twelve month period.


While my study contains all the basic, necessary components for successful data collection, the results may indicate some surprising statistics regarding TB in these regions. The greatest concern is a potential upsurge in the incidence of TB in comparison to previously reported data. While this may appear to be because of a rise in TB, the most likely cause is an improvement in data collection and analysis. For example, WHO discovered that the death rates in HIV-positive people in years leading up to and including 2007 were substantially higher than their previously published estimates; they attribute this not to an increase in the number of cases, but to enhancements in analytical methods (WHO 2009). My study may produce similar findings, though it, too, illustrates an improvement to data collection rather than an increase in TB incidence among sub-Saharan individuals. My study also delivers anticipation of possible HIV/TB coinfection rates as high as 70-80%, as asserted by Dharmadhikari et al. (2009). In their study of sex-trafficked Nepalese girls and women, they discovered that 88% of TB cases were HIV coinfected, data which they assert “are not dissimilar to HIV coinfection among TB-infected persons in some sub-Saharan African countries” (Dharmadhikari et al. 2009:544). While this was a specific study of an isolated population, it certainly lends support for my proposal, given the aforementioned high rates of HIV in women of sub-Saharan Africa.


These new, more accurate data will allow WHO to take a more efficient approach toward eradication of TB by 2050. For example, perhaps high rates of coinfection will imply that more money and resources should be spent on HIV treatment and prevention, which in turn may lower the risk of TB. Though my study exposes the current state of TB among women in the sub-Saharan region, WHO may use these data to infer information about TB/HIV rates in men as well. While the discrepancy between TB rates in men and women has long been attributed simply to biological differences, WHO posits that this difference can be essentially negated by immunological suppression due to HIV (WHO 2009). Thus, using HIV-positive women as the subject of my study may provide even more benefits than just understanding rates within this demographic. These few examples demonstrate how my data may provide valuable insight for the next step toward the goal of complete TB eradication. The most useful victory that can come from my suggested study, however, is an accurate snapshot of the current state of tuberculosis in this region, for the study focuses specifically on quality data collection. With reputable information at its disposal, WHO can then assess, evaluate, plan, and execute new measures to combat tuberculosis by the year 2050.


Works Cited

[CDC] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010. Tuberculosis (TB) [internet]. Division of Tuberculosis Elimination: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; [cited 10 Aug 25]. Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/tb/topic/basics/default.htm

Corbett EL, Watt CJ, Walker N, Maher D, Williams BG, Raviglione MC, Dye C. 2003. The growing burden of tuberculosis: global trends and interactions with the HIV epidemic. Archives of Internal Medicine. 163(9):1009–1021

Dharmadhikari AS, Gupta J, Decker MR, Raj A, Silverman JG. 2009. Tuberculosis and HIV: a global menace exacerbated via sex trafficking. International Journal of Infectious Diseases. 13(5):543–546.

Glaziou P, Floyd K, Raviglione M. 2009. Global burden and epidemiology of tuberculosis. Clinics in Chest Medicine. 30(4):621–636.

Marais BJ, Gupta A, Starke JR, El Sony A. 2010. Tuberculosis in women and children. Lancet. 375(9731):2057–2059.


[WHO] World Health Organization. 2009. Epidemiology. In: [WHO]. Global tuberculosis control: Surveillance, planning, financing. WHO Report 2009. Geneva: WHO.


Gray Grace

The Street Singer’s New Aesthetic

2010 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing


Beauty doesn’t usually come in gray — nor in pallid skin and dirty clothes. It did, however, for Édouard Manet. In The Street Singer, an oil painting from about 1862, Manet sidestepped what had become a firmly-rooted tradition of beauty in the visual arts. He immersed the large, towering canvas of The Street Singer in muted hues, linearity, and flatness rather than in vibrant colors and gentle curves. His painting is atypical even in its subject, an unflattered street performer exiting an equally unglamorous café. It rejects idealized conceptions of beauty and elevates coarseness and transience. However, Manet painted The Street Singer with a formal unity and complexity befitting a subject of uncommon beauty, even if that subject is a “common” café singer. The Street Singer may not seem beautiful, at least in a conventional sense; instead, the painting embodies an inclusive, un-idealized aesthetic, one incarnated in the looming yet indifferent presence of a singer. It is a new aesthetic that Manet leveraged against the otherwise stiff standards of his viewers. In doing so, Manet continues to push us to question beauty itself even today. The Street Singer suggests that beauty can be defined by inclusiveness rather than narrowness, by the un-idealized in place of the flawless. Perhaps most important, the painting suggests that a common café singer warrants the same craft and complexity as a more traditionally beautiful subject.


Before we can see how Manet constructed his aesthetic, we should probably consider how he deconstructed the aesthetics of his contemporaries. In order to depart from conventions of beauty, Manet omitted several conventions of technique, including common artistic tendencies like chiaroscuro, careful finishes, vibrancy, and curvature. Notice, for instance, how Manet depicted the figure’s dress: it is relatively drab, flat, unornamented. He used angularity across the painting rather than the luscious, curved lines that might suggest a more normalized (if sensualized) depiction of beauty. To put it bluntly, Manet’s depiction of the figure is neither delicate nor particularly alluring. Her face appears flattened by uniform values and by the darkness surrounding her; shadows line the insides of her eyes; and the cloth of her dress is not the clinging, translucent drapery of classical sculpture or Romantic painting, but rather a relatively shapeless, de-feminized mass. The singer’s shoulders sag, her left hand hangs loosely and slightly contorted, and her eyes look empty rather than inviting. Formally, the painted surface remains unpolished, with brushstrokes easily visible in several areas of the painting: at the base of the dress, in the guitar, on the edges of the doorway. In these choices Manet set himself at odds with some of the values of his contemporaries. He painted his singer with certain attributes clearly omitted. These attributes and techniques make up artistic traditions that might seem, both to us and to Manet’s contemporaries, necessary conditions for beauty.

Yet to call The Street Singer unconventional is not to call it unskilled. In this sense, Manet’s painting has the potential to split two traditionally linked elements: the conventional, ideal beauty of the subject’s portrayal and the effectiveness of the artist’s formal execution. Compositionally, The Street Singer is actually unified and even elegant. (Click here to launch an interactive viewer of The Street Singer from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.) Almost every line is echoed in another place: the angles of the singer’s shoulders reappear in the tops of the doors; the guitar creates clear parallel lines with the dress trimming; the dress’ folds match its edge; and vertical lines repeat on both the sides and in the center of the painting. Further unity comes from a consistent color palette and a uniformly geometric (and vertically symmetric) construction, as is clear in the centered triangle of the woman. Design and technique, then, are in fact strong in The Street Singer, even if they are not in the service of an ideal beauty. They instead elevate the relatively unglamorous subject of a café performer.


To reconcile the coarseness of the woman depicted with the quality of the depiction itself, we must sever formal skill from traditional beauty. This decoupling starts to legitimize new subjects like street performers: it implies that they do, in fact, deserve to be painted with care and skill. If Manet was legitimizing new subjects, then the validation of his subject matter and style seems a central concern of The Street Singer. Here Manet found ways to assert the validity of his painting’s depiction by giving the singer visual emphasis and a commanding presence. Her body is emphatically centered in the frame, and pulls out from the background because of contrasts in detail and color around her. Light tones highlight her right side, while the guitar’s yellow sheen emphasizes the left; both underscore her form as the painting’s dominant compositional element. She becomes firmly concrete, and nearly architectural, by the stark opacity and pyramidal construction of her dress. The singer fits into the space as would a statue, gently surrounded by an arch-like curve formed by the doors behind her. Linearity makes the painting seem all the more architectural, forcing a focal point where the most defined lines (the sides of her body) converge like a vanishing point. And the same angularity and flatness that de-romanticize her also communicate the inherent solidity of a triangular, rigid geometry. What depth we do find – the shadow on the ground, the lighting in the doorway, the seeming recession of the café – serve to visually force her forward. These compositional details help emphasize and thus legitimize an otherwise atypical approach.

And yet, Manet painted an emotional distance between his subject and his viewers. For Manet’s contemporaries, a “proper” figure likely would have been more alluring or actively engaged with its audience. Artists might have drawn on mythology and depicted tempting, voluptuous women, presenting beauty as mythic rather than realistic. (For an example of a more typical depiction of such figures, see Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus). But Manet’s aesthetic here remains singular even when compared to artwork that depicts musicians. Jules-Joseph Lefebvre’s Autumn (also known as Girl with a Mandolin) and William-Adoplphe Bourguereau’s Gypsy Girl with Basque Drum, for example, comprise sentimental depictions of a more idealized subject. In The Street Singer, on the other hand, we are drawn to the singer’s face. Almost all of the lines on the dress converge on her visage, where the paint is already the brightest and has the most contrast. However, we do not necessarily find her face enticing, and it is certainly not mythic. A dark halo of hair accents her face, and she looks toward us to make it the indisputable focal point. But the cues that direct our gaze to her face only underscore the idleness we found there. She is unfocused on her actions, and her stare is blank. The left and right sides of her face seem, on closer inspection, to differ in expression: one side of her mouth appears open, the other looks closed; one eye reflects light, the other seems opaque. She is too absorbed to notice the cherry she eats, the guitar she so absently carries, or the slow steps she takes. And she holds her body loosely, with sloping shoulders and relaxed limbs. Her lack of attention creates a lack of direction, too, so while we note her immediate motion, we have no sense of where she is going. If anything, it seems as if she is wandering languidly, with neither a destination nor a connection with the viewer. Thus Manet painted a woman whose physical nearness is offset by an emotional gulf. Just as he managed to demonstrate formal skill without ideal beauty, he painted the figure to appear close, even as she distractedly ignores the viewer.

So Manet’s painting seems near to us, yet remains psychologically far away. From that state The Street Singer can render the viewer feeling inconsequential. The sheer size of the canvas and figure only magnify the singer’s detachment. Her architectural presence places her high in the frame; her feet, obscured by shadow, are hidden enough that she seems to float over us. Even if the painting were displayed at ground level, the figure would seem above the ground and therefore above us. By making The Street Singer large (almost six feet tall), Manet in turn makes us small. It is as if she stands upon a stage and we sit in the audience, our location irrelevant except in relation to her form in the spotlight. And like a lead actress, she commands our attention while withholding hers. Whatever knowledge she might be privy to remains singularly hers. But we remain ignorant of her identity, her emotions, and her destination, and this redounds to making us inconsequential in front of the painting. The world we perceive essentially ignores us, as she walks by with an empty glance and as the faint figures in the café continue to eat and drink. Yet that world draws us in. We became implicated in it, as well as subservient to it: we are by association made part of what we witness, thrust into the life of the street. Looking at The Street Singer, we can begin to feel its indifference as a kind of domination. Vis-à-vis the painting, we feel a towering presence.

Of course, The Street Singer is complex enough to remain open to other readings. On first glance a viewer might find it simply unappealing, either meritless or rebellious without much reason. However, the painting’s unity, deliberateness, and shrewd characterization of the figure should render such an objection groundless. Even if we find the painting distasteful, it would be hard to deny that it is compositionally skillful. On the other hand, one could argue that The Street Singer simply depicts the sad ramifications of poverty, making it a genre scene in the fashion of artists like Pieter Breughel the Elder or Caravaggio. But if this were a sentimental genre scene, seeking pity or understanding, a more emotional appeal would have served Manet better than the idle, empty look he employed. Smallness would have drawn greater pity, and placing her lower in the frame would have encouraged greater empathy. Manet did not depict the street singer as “downtrodden,” as she is neither small nor defeated. In this scene, we are the small; we are the defeated. She does not offer the feeling of a common humanity among us. Instead, she holds power over us.


What better way to reject the conventional than by defying the expectations of a more conventional audience? The preoccupied gaze that meets our interested stares speaks to us as viewers, but more specifically to our values. If our lives are hardly worth a glance, then what of our taste in art? Thus Manet bestowed upon The Street Singer a power greater than either visual supremacy or psychological influence: he challenged the very notion of beauty. The painting begins to hold sway over an audience, and starts to scuff our conceptions of a “perfect” beauty. If this is true, perhaps we can finally understand the new aesthetic Manet has to offer. Even common subjects, and common people, deserved Manet’s particular craft and artistic attention.

It is important to note, at end, that Manet seemed to avoid claims about what is beautiful, or even explicitly how to portray beauty; it is likewise possible that he presented no clear agenda here, no concrete rules for a “correct” method or an “appropriate” subject. In other words, it might be more accurate to say that he expands the realm of aesthetics to allow for a multiplicity of subjects and modes of representation, rather than prescribing any particular one. He did, after all, leave us a complex and multifarious body of work. We can therefore define his aesthetic by the possibilities it leaves open: if he resisted strict rules, he remained open to various subjects and various modes of representation. In offering us another angle in The Street Singer on this new aesthetic, in other words, he did not lay claim to an absolute standard. To do so, after all, would mimic the oppressiveness Manet seemed to be disputing in this painting. The implications of that dispute extend past the elevation of a single subject, or the disruption of a single artistic trend. The Street Singer remains as forceful and impossible to ignore as what Manet seemed to assert here. An aesthetic of new subjects, new techniques, and new values – an aesthetic that belittles neither beauty nor reality by idealization – was beginning to emerge.


Works Cited

Bouguereau, William-Adolphe. Gypsy Girl with Basque Drum, 1867. Private collection.

Cabanel, Alexandre. The Birth of Venus, 1875. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of John Wolfe, 1893. 94.24.1.

Lefebvre, Jules-Joseph. Autumn (Girl with a Mandolin). Private collection.

Manet, Edouard. The Street Singer, about 1862. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Sarah C. Sears, 1966. 66.304.



The Infamous Hourglass:
Constructing the Perfect Female Figure

2008 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing


“The corset will live as long as the innate desire to please lives in woman’s heart…One can destroy a religion, overthrow a government; against the corset one can do nothing!…Hail, O corset! You are blessed by all women, and even those whom nature has overwhelmed with gifts cannot pass your competitive exam…May your power grow still greater, if this is possible, and may your name be glorified all over the earth…Amen.”

—Advertisement for Léoty corsets, La Vie Parisienne, 1886:127.


Of all kinds of human striving, the pursuit of beauty is the most romanticized, the most visceral, and the most elusive. We do not pen sonnets to exalt brilliance or commend late-night studying; we do not compose symphonies to honor terrific strength or recognize arduous weight training. No: we celebrate wit, daring, bravado, honesty, and faithfulness—qualities of character, not of arbitrary genetic advantage. Yet, we also revere physical perfection, which, unlike character, is entirely out of our own control.

Or is it? As long as there has been henna, rouge, chalk, flax, oil, or even water, women have scrubbed, stained, stretched, and sculpted their bodies to fit the beauty conventions of their time. The acceleration of beauty technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, whether in makeup, surgery, chemical treatments, or restrictive clothing, has left very little beyond control. Today, it seems that beauty can be earned, not simply inherited, and, suddenly, that “there are no ugly women, only lazy ones” (Helena Rubinstein, qtd. in Riordan, 2004:vii). Technology has truly freed women from the shackles of their genetic heritage. But it has also made them slaves to constant striving. The democratization of beauty did not make attaining it easy. If science has made each woman more beautiful, it has also raised the stakes for all women.

The Victorian-era corset perfectly exemplifies how a once-sensible preference for health and vitality was exaggerated by technological progress into an irrational obsession. Indeed, no other single physical characteristic can compete in importance to the stylized “hourglass” figure of the human female. Nose length, hair luster, neck arch, nail sheen—these are minor considerations next to the endless quest for the perfect figure. And though fickle fashions have, at different times, prized emaciated bones, wiry muscles, voluptuous bulges and slender curves, the preference for comparatively small waists and wider hips has remained constant. This 0.7 to 1 waist-to-hip ratio is itself a kind of “Golden Number,” albeit one that few women actually possess (Etcoff, 1999:194). The whalebone and steel corsets of the 20th century are perhaps the most infamous technologies dedicated to this pursuit. And they have generated a veritable cottage industry of debate. Everyone from evolutionary biologists to contemporary feminists has sounded off on the origins of the comically tiny waists of the Victorian era. But the answer to this phenomenon lies somewhere in between their theories: corsets were the inevitable consequence of a mismatch between the aggressive pace of technological development and evolutionarily stagnant human preferences.

Though my analysis it is unabashedly hetero-normative, partly to reflect the cultural dominance of strict gender roles in the corset’s time, and partly to simplify my own task, it speaks to questions of self-image that all women face no matter what their sexual orientation. And though it is focused narrowly upon the female sex, ignoring men altogether, it speaks to the endless struggle for self-improvement and rejection of natural boundaries that all humans face no matter what goals they set for themselves. What is the cost of the endless pursuit of perfect beauty, aided by all the imperfect arts that human progress has afforded us? And if our imperfect intuitions lead us to reach beyond the natural into the realm of fetish, can we accept the alternative of ceasing to strive altogether?


It began innocently enough. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded men- tion of the word “corset” is a 1299 account of the fashions at the court of King Edward I (qtd. in Etcoff, 1999:194). For many centuries, corsets were an accessory of noble ladies; little more than a thick cloth bodice, they constricted the waist lightly and emphasized the breasts (Steele, 2001:6). But with the first true corsets, made of “whalebone bodices” in the early sixteenth century, came the first cases of tight-lacing, the process by which “young Virgins…thinking a Slender-Waist a great beauty, strive all that they possibly can by streight-lacing themselves, to attain unto a wand-like smallnesse of Waste [sic]” (Bulwer, 1653:338-339).

Tightlacing in this era was not yet extreme, primarily because the technology was too crude for it to be. As a supporting material, whalebone was weaker than its successors, and susceptible to breakage; therefore, stays were not quite form-fitting and left more space for the expansion of the diaphragm. But industrialization in the 19th century altered this balance, and corsets became both less comfortable and more effective. Metal eyelets, patented in 1825, made it possible to lace them more tightly. Cording and light boning in the 1830s made them stiffer and easier to shape (Riordan, 2004:177). Steam-molding after 1869 allowed corset-makers to generate standardized, ideal figures (189).

At the same time, the onward march of mass-production empowered middle-class women to take part in corseting as never before (180). Suddenly, corsets and their complements—farthingales, panniers, crinolines, and bustles—were everywhere, cinching the waist, flattening the stomach, plumping the breasts, augmenting the hips, exaggerating the rear, or otherwise molding the typically soft, sedentary body of the middle- or upper-class young woman into an impossibly curvaceous living doll. From childhood, these girls were quite literally shaped by the demands of beauty, trained like young saplings in the steel cages of cultural expectations. And by the turn of the 20th century, corsets had become so common that “physicians began to believe women came that way” (Hatfield and Sprecher, 1986:231).

Of course, when it became possible for ordinary women to purchase corsets that only the wealthiest could once afford, what used to pass for extraordinary would no longer do. Standards would have to rise, and they did: at the height of the corseting craze, the most fashionable women reportedly had their lower five ribs removed (231). (It is important to note that scholars continue to disagree on whether or not women removed their ribs. Steele most recently questioned the bases for this information; however, it remains part of conventional wisdom about the era.) While even the women of the time acknowledged that the “healthy average waist” was not less than 26 inches (The Family Herald, 1848), most women restricted themselves to 23 or 25 inches, and the social queens of the time boasted of 18-inch waists or even smaller (Steele, 2001:88). Technology made the impossible ordinary, and, unchecked, the human tendency for excess took over. Corsets had the power to harness the wildest fantasies of the imagination, and were taken up by tightlacing fetishists seeking waists of seven- teen, sixteen, or even fifteen inches. Even ordinary women often reduced their waists far beyond the 0.7-to-1 ideal (92).

It is not that the health dangers of corsets were not known at the time—far from it. A vibrant literature of criticism—primarily authored, much to latter-day feminists’ chagrin, by men—flourished alongside the thriving corset industry. Under the penname Luke Limner, illustrator and essayist John Leighton wrote the most famous of these critiques. Madre Natura versus the Moloch of fashion blamed the corset for a litany of problems from reduced fertility to fainting fits, and portrayed the women who wore it as victims who had “escaped from death [and] to this day bear evidence … in the form of scars where the flesh has been seared, and contracted joints where the bones have been broken” (Leighton,1874:12).

Understandably, these images horrify the modern reader. Corseting appears monstrous, perverse, inhuman. And yet it was a cherished and common practice until only a century ago. How could it have happened?


The emerging field of evolutionary psychology provides some answers. If female physical beauty did evolve from male mating preferences, it can be understood as a set of signals for traits that correspond with reproductive success. Those traits include: fertility, or whether a woman is hormonally balanced and a fully developed female; health, or whether she is likely to carry her child to term and survive birth; nulliparity, or whether she has previously undergone pregnancy; and youth, or how long she has been ovulating past earliest child- bearing age. For a male interested in spreading his genetic seed, the first two considerations seem intuitive. The last two are trickier. Not only would nulliparity and youth favor a woman’s direct reproductive success, measured in the likelihood that her fetus would survive (Fretts et al., 1995), they would have even greater importance to the prospective father: without previous offspring, his own would face less competition for its mother’s attention; like- wise, a younger mate could offer a monopoly on all childbearing years and therefore both security and abundance in reproductive opportunities. A vibrant psychological literature is predicated on exactly that assumption (Kenrick and Keefe 1992).

Recent evidence shows that the signal theory of beauty holds especially well with respect to perceptions of the female figure. Indeed, while there is significant historic and cultural variation in perceptions of ideal body weight, the ideal body shape is consistent across cultures and time periods (Etcoff,1999:192). This shape is defined by the ratio of the waist to the hip: in men, it is about 0.9-to-1; in women, it is 0.7-to-1 (191). This is the “Golden ratio” that defines the great beauties of pop culture today: we see it in Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe; in supermodels, Playboy bunnies, and Miss Americas. Despite substantial variation in height, weight, style, and audience, their waist-to-hip ratios all fall between 0.68 and 0.72 (193). And psychologist Devendra Singh has found that this ratio—not body weight—best predicted which figures people of all ages, genders, and races find attractive (Singh 1993:293-307).

Crucially, the 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio manages to predict each of the four traits essential to reproductive success. With respect to fertility and health, a 1993 British Medical Journal study found that fat distribution was more important than age or weight to a woman’s likelihood of conceiving by in vitro fertilization (Zaadstra, 1993:484-487). And with respect to youth and nulliparity, it is obvious from the phrase “girlish figure” that the wasp waist is a badge of adolescence: “ephemeral…disappear[ing] early in pregnancy and hard to regain” (Etcoff, 1999:191). At first glance, then, the logic of the waist-to-hip ratio seems to validate corseting entirely. To an average woman of ratio 0.8 or 0.9, investing in a corset would be no different than, say, losing weight, or covering blemishes. The golden ratio would be a perfectly natural goal to strive for—a standard of health and fertility as obvious as a target BMI or clear skin.


But how natural are our ideals? Some seem convincingly so. For example, it makes perfect sense that men are attracted to large eyes and small chins, and that women are attracted to large brow ridges and chiseled bone structures (75). The former indicates low and the latter high levels of testosterone. Likewise, the nearly universal attraction in both sexes for healthy muscle tone, clear skin, and symmetrical features has a clear basis in health and vitality. But the exaggerations embraced by breast enlargement surgery and competitive bodybuilding, as well as the caricatures we portray in manga and airbrushed photos, reflect an uneasy scientific fact: human sensors of beauty are not perfectly tuned to anatomical realities (26). Some ‘natural’ preferences may not be so natural after all.

Indeed, this is precisely what thinkers of the third-wave feminist movement of the 1990s insisted. They argued that beauty was not a biological fact at all. With Naomi Wolf’s blistering critique of “the beauty myth” as its manifesto, that school declared that female beauty was solely a social construction perpetrated by men: a “myth…claim[ing] to be a celebration of women…[but] actually composed of emotional distance, politics, finance, and sexual repression. The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power” (Wolf, 1991:12-13).

Wolf’s logic is compelling in light of the corset’s symbolic meaning for the women who relied on it. Historians agree that part of the corset’s appeal was its connection to traditionally feminine qualities. Stays represented virtue, chastity, and good breeding (Hatfield and Sprecher, 1986:232), while “an unlaced waist was regarded as a vessel of sin” (Rudofsky, 1972:111): coarse, unrefined, and promiscuous. It is impossible to imagine this symbolism with- out a patriarchal context in which female sexuality is suppressed and controlled at the whims of men. And it takes little imagination to under- stand a sexual entrapment device, used almost entirely by women with social aspirations, as a manifestation of broader chauvinist control.

Wolf saw this control as a fundamental pattern in Victorian society. She blamed physicians in particular for teaching women that they had to be saved from their own vitality, sexuality, and physical freedom. “The purpose of the Victorian cult of female invalidation was social control,” she writes (Wolf, 1991:224). And to some extent, texts from the time show that the “cult” was real:

It is true, the corset impairs the [naked] personal attractiveness of the wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is off- set by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity (Veblen, 1911: 172).

Apparently, by Thornstein Veblen’s time, the beauty of the corseted waist was not wholly or even predominantly physical—quite the opposite. If women had once worn corsets to appear more beautiful, by the early 20th century they were doing so to be more beautiful—that is, the corset itself became a signal of reproductive success, symbolizing the things that beauty itself is supposed to represent. Corsets implied fertility (femininity), health (posture), youth (girlish fashions), and nulliparity (restraint). Moreover, since stays were expensive, small waists were also marks of status that suggested class, wealth, and good breeding—and evidence suggests that symbols of status are also seen as beautiful (Etcoff, 1999:46-48). Eventually, women may have corseted for the corset’s own sake; an undergarment once used to cheat age and genetic misfortune had become an inescapable social norm.


As accurate as Wolf is that corseting was at least in part a cultural construction, it would be a mistake to blame the phenomenon wholly upon men, as she does. Valerie Steele notes in Corset: A Cultural History that it was “older women, not men, [who] were primarily responsible for enforcing sartorial norms…the cultural weight placed on propriety and respectability made it difficult for women to abandon the corset, even if they wanted to” (Steele, 2001:51). Wolf would likely reply that it was men who maintained control by the very fact that it was men who these women strove to impress, whose perpetration of the beauty myth created such norms in the first place (Wolf, 1991:59). But that answer is problematic for two reasons. First, it ignores a crucial complication: even feminists and female physicians at the time were conflicted about corseting, with many arguing that reasonable lacing was consistent with feminist ideals (Steele, 2001:59). Second, it tells us only the obvious—that women sought to impress men—and tells us nothing about why they employed corsetry in particular to reach that goal.

For an answer to that question, we must return to the work done by evolutionary psychologists, whose work indicated that the 0.7-to-1 waist-to-hip ratio was a valid measurement of both beauty and reproductive success. It is also through their work that we may reconcile the popularity of corseting with our modern intuition that it was dangerous, destructive, and fundamentally irrational. They reveal that what seems obvious now—the ridiculous heights that corseting assumed—might have been less apparent after centuries of habituation to ever-shrinking standards of waist size.

Psychological evidence suggests that humans are susceptible to hyperstimuli: we react more strongly to exaggerations of things that have proven through natural selection to be useful, because our perception of excess is not finely tuned. The power of hyperstimuli is most obvious when it comes to food. We love salty, sweet, fatty foods much more than a healthy diet requires; an understanding of hyperstimuli suggests that we do so because our bodies evolved in a time when things rich in salt, sugar, and fat were rare. For a hunter-gatherer facing starvation on a daily basis, the very idea of modern diseases like obesity and heart disease would have been patently absurd (Pinker, 1997:195).

What is true about our tastes in food is also true of our tastes in each other: in experiments on facial attractiveness, researchers have discovered that both hyperfemininity in women (Perrett et al., 1998) and hypermasculinity in men (Thornhill and Gangestad, 2008) are preferred over average, healthy proportions; women invest in lip injections, and men in shoulder pads for that very reason. (Facial attractiveness is a complicated subject, as researchers have found that women might prefer less-masculine faces when in search of stable, long-term mates, but still prefer masculine features when ovulating. Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad argue that this strategy enables women to maximize their reproductive success in terms of both resources, through a faithful partner, and genotype, through a desirable but unfaithful mate.) Preferences for waist-hip ratios could have evolved in the same way: since wasp waists are naturally uncommon in women, the smallest waists were the most reproductively effective, and there would be no reason to evolve a precise sense of what was too narrow. Equipped with only a general attraction to small waists, then, people would be vulnerable to respond to hyperstimuli, which would only become more extreme as previously extraordinary waists became every- day. Hence the impossible .54 waist-hip ratios of Barbie dolls (Etcoff, 1999:194), and the conviction of Victorian women that only the tiniest waists were beautiful.

That is not to say that we have no awareness of the absurd—merely that is not so finely tuned. Few of us will eat spoonfuls of sugar, and even fewer will swallow pure lard; likewise, women eventually jolted to their senses at the sight of Neanderthal-like faces, and Victorian men often complained that extreme tight- lacers’ waists were grotesquely small (Steele, 2001:106). But we do willingly eat brownies and crme brulee—and our love of Big Macs and sodas is largely to blame for the modern obesity epidemic. Likewise, to the people of the corseted age, waists that were merely quite small—say, 22 inches in diameter instead of 18—were unquestionably “elegant and graceful”(107). Between their strong innate preference for the golden ratio and their weaker alarm system for the absurd, there could be no contest: in all but the most ridiculous cases, a smaller waist appeared more attractive. Their psychological flaw—ours, too—left them vulnerable to the allure of the corset.

And that flaw functions as the missing link in traditional feminist arguments dismissing the corset as a tool of female repression and patriarchal control. Beginning from the assumption that naturally small, uncorseted waists are already beautiful—an assumption the Victorians themselves shared (92-93)—it becomes possible to understand how corseting could have gone to extremes without appealing to radical pronouncements on male dominance or female irresponsibility. Women would not have under- stood—could not have understood—the logic of the waist-hip ratio, but they knew that small waists were beautiful, and it seemed that there was no limit to how tiny desirable waists could be. Why not strive for ever-smaller ratios? Like large biceps among men, small waists would have gained cultural importance to Victorian women as symbols of social status because of their natural significance. Natural preferences provided an impetus; cultural symbolism followed. And eventually corsets gained enough normative power to at least give the illusion of having entirely replaced the natural symbolism of the Golden ratio.


By the turn of the 20th century, corseting had become a social institution. Within twenty years, however, the practice had all but disappeared. Its precipitous fall can be traced in the medical literature to the turbulent first decades of 1900s, when criticism of corseting grew ever more strident and mainstream. The British Medical Journal was typical of the medical community when it argued in a 1903 book review that “corsets should be abandoned, and women should not even be measured for rational clothing until some days after discarding them, so that the figure should have had time to reapproached the normal” (BMJ, 1903:1003).

But medical criticism had existed alongside the corset for its entire history, and its surge is better understood as a symptom of the corset’s decline than as its cause. After all, it was self- styled medical experts who, declaring existing corsets unhealthy, created the “straight front, S-curve “health corsets” in the late 19th century that constricted women’s bodies far more painfully than “unhealthy” corsets ever had (Riordan, 2004:194). Simply put, previous corset abolitionists often had sexist and med- ically-inaccurate agendas of their own. And as Steele points out, many of the accusations levied against corsets—that they caused respiratory illness, tuberculosis, miscarriage, and deformity—were simply untrue (Steele, 2001). The corset did not fade away because it was unhealthy: we recognize that it was unhealthy because it has, by now, faded away.

Instead, the corset declined because its cultural-normative implications became untenable to women claiming social and political liberation—and because technological innovation gave them substitutes that served just as well. Its disappearance mirrored the rise—and fall—of bloomers, the advent of female suffrage, and the spread of now-incontrovertible ideas of female athleticism. Yet, none of these reasons would have been enough without a technological substitute for the corset. Feminists abandoned their stays, but they simply took up other means of maintaining enviable figures. Dieting, exercise, self-conscious posture (143)—these are certainly superior approaches for their reliance on healthy effort, not self-mutilation. Yet, many a 20th-century woman shrugged off her corset only to pull on a Lycra girdle (Riordan, 2004:201) or slide onto an operating table for liposuction. Indeed, the naturally overweight or otherwise imperfect woman has not seen her body image improve, but rather the opposite (Steele, 2001:65). With the shortcut of exterior stays stripped away, she finds herself facing an internal corset of eating disorders and plastic surgery.

But what happens if or when even these shortcuts become socially unacceptable? Granted, the corset’s unnatural stranglehold upon women’s figures and men’s imaginations is hard to swallow. It was then what plastic surgery is now and what genetic treatments may one day become: proof, in Leighton’s words, of “the abject littleness and pitiful fatuity with which, even in an assumed condition of high culture, the Human Mind will bow to the tyranny of an ideal, worshipped Despot of its own creation, even to the subjection of body and soul” (Leighton, 1874:25). But it was also liberating. For women with flawed bodies, a corset was a shield; for the overweight, it was the great equalizer that gave them an advantage over smaller women without fat to mold (Steele, 2001:64). The corset trapped women into a spiral of ever-smaller waists and ever-rising standards. But the corset also had this promise: “Those who were not born to beauty could now purchase it” (Riordan, 2004:180). Without these technologies, another equalizer, another means of striving, will have been eliminated; the hierarchy of the beautiful will have been restored.


The corset serves as testament to a truth that still holds today. Women have always faced a devil’s bargain between two kinds of oppression: they may either be slaves to natural endowments, resigning themselves to their luck in the genetic lottery, or they may be slaves to choice, resigning themselves to the ceaseless pursuit of impossible objectives and constant competition with each other. Yet, “invention … changes what is possible” (Riordan 178), and the march of technological progress has made the second option both more tempting and more dangerous. After all, “we are products of evolution and cannot change instincts…It may be difficult to change human nature, and easier to start by fooling her” (Etcoff, 1999:74). Today, some women do refuse to fool nature. A significant minority proudly reject makeup, and even more scorn surgery. But commercials like Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” celebrate the same natural beauty that so many women are ashamed to admit that they lack. They are left with a choice that is hardly a choice at all: to revere the arbitrary or chase the nonexistent.

As with too many important problems, there is no right answer. As far as we—as a sex, as a society, as a species—are willing to tolerate ambition, obsession, and self- destruction, technology holds great promise as a way to free us from the vagaries of chance and our natural limitations. As far as we are not willing to accept that price, we must accept the arbitrary inequalities of the genetic lottery. Corseting represents a single example of human ingenuity gone awry, but the same theme plays out in other technologies, other situations, and other goals. Beauty, intelligence, strength, humor, optimism, sociability: every quality worth having comes more easily to some than to others. Whether we choose to fight that tragic fact about our species will determine the narrow path future technologies navigate between the palpable and the unearthly, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the appallingly callous and the heartbreakingly human.



Bulwer, John. 1653. The Artificial Changeling. London: William Hunt.

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What to Do

Color-code the three-part structure of an introduction to a scholarly argument.


Highlight the Essays

Making It Matter

Common Ways to Establish What’s at Stake

Hover over each for an explanation.

1. Challenge an initial read.

2. Challenge a published view.

3. Explain an inconsistency, gap, or ambiguity.

4. Explain unexpected conclusions.

5. Intervene in a debate.

6. Point out how a piece of evidence encapsulates a larger issue.

7. Point out how an insignificant moment is actually critical.

8. Point out the limits of the existing literature.

9. Point out a problem others don’t usually see.