Re: Physical nomenclature

Toby Cockcroft (
Sat, 10 Aug 1996 16:53:18 -0400

In article <4ug84a$>, (Patrick Riley) wrote:

>The question I asked was if one of
>you academics could give me a reference to a text that sets out a
>standardized temininology to describe a human being without actually
>being able to touch the person being described.

ie.: by physical descriptions tall short etc.. I presume.

>If that's too difficult to understand let me try an example.

Go for it Pat.

>You've just seen the
>movie Some Like It Hot. Describe Marilyn Monroe to someone who has
>never seen her using a terminology that is commonly accepted and can
>be used to describe other persons and have the same meanings.

Well let us explore this term "commonly accepted". Some years ago it
would have been perfectly acceptible (though perhaps not scientific enough
for you) to have described her as a bouxom floozie. This term was used to
describe others like her and meant the same thing. Problem. Today such a
description would lead to derision and outrage. Well let us see if we can
do a better job nowadays: blond hair (though originally she was a
brunette but blondes have more fun you know), well endowed (compared to
whom and why should breast size be of such importance), tall a good
quality (as opposed to short). You see my friend no matter what system
you choose the criteria that you will use to describe someone will either
be in comparison to some other or for ethnocentric reasons. Physical
appearance is unimportant what matters is how you fit into
society/culture. This debate ended thirty years ago give it up. I still
question your need to classify and describe people, you must know by now
that any descriptive schema that you invent is a cultural construct and
will ultimately betray you personal and cultural biases. You seem to be
sayin 'is there an objective model out there for the description of
humans' and the answer is no. The description of Marilyn's gender,
social status, class affiliations etc... will tell us more about her that
any mere physical description, by objectifying her and reducing her down
to physical traits you end up telling us less about her and more about

>As a little background information I asked a similar question on the
>commercial Hairnet: Could someone please provide the name of a text to
>describe all current hairstyles and terminologies? I received a
>sensible reply that there is none followed by a discussion of why and
>how great it would be if such a thing existed. If the hairdressers can
>do it is there some reason to expect a lesser performance from the
>anthropologists in their specialty area?

We have done it but realised the futility of such projects. And don't
think for a second that even descriptions of hair styles is apolitical.

Toby Cockcroft MA Anthropology University of Western Ontario