In Michael Kimmel’s sociology of gender textbook, The Gendered Society, he offers us the following two pictures and asks us to decide, based on our gut-level reactions, whether the two individuals pictured are male or female:
If you are like most people, you find, perhaps to your own bewilderment, that the first individual seems male despite the female pubic hair pattern and apparent female genitalia and the second individual seems female despite the presence of a penis and scrotum.
Kimmel suggests that this is because, in our daily life, we habitually judge individuals as male or female on the basis of their secondary sex characteristics (e.g., body shape, facial hair, breasts) and social cues (e.g., hair length) and not, so much, their primary sex characteristics (i.e., their genitalia).
In that sense, Kimmel argues, social cues and secondary sex characteristics “matter” more when it comes to social interaction and gender is really about gender (socially constructed ideas about masculinity and femininity), not so much about sex (penises and vaginas).
Images borrowed the images from Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, by Kessler and McKenna. University of Chicago Press. Originally posted in 2009.
The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.
For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro. Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people. Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.
I came across this ad for bathing suits from the 1920s and was struck by how similar the men’s and women’s suits were designed. Hers might have some extra coverage up top and feature a tight skirt over shorts instead of just shorts but, compared to what you see on beaches today, they are essentially the same bathing suit.
So, why are the designs for men’s and women’s bathing suits so different today? Honestly, either one could be gender-neutral. Male swimmers already wear Speedos; the fact that the man in the ad above is covering his chest is evidence that there is a possible world in which men do so. I can see men in bikinis. Likewise, women go topless on some beaches and in some countries and it can’t be any more ridiculous for them to swim in baggy knee-length shorts than it is for men to do so.
But, that’s not how it is. Efforts to differentiate men and women through fashion have varied over time. It can be a response to a collective desire to emphasize or minimize difference, like these unisex pants marketed in the 1960s and 70s. It can also be, however, a backlash to those same impulses. When differences between men and women in education, leisure, and work start to disappear – as they are right now – some might cling even tighter to the few arenas in which men and women can be made to seem very different.
Eyelid surgery is the third most common cosmetic procedure in the world. Some are necessary for drooping eyelids that interfere with vision, others are undertaken in order to enable people to look younger, but many people choose these surgeries to make their eyes look more Western or whiter, a characteristic often conflated with attractiveness.
Recently Julie Chen — a TV personality and news anchor — revealed that she had undergone eyelid and other surgeries almost 20 years ago in order to comply with the standards of beauty and “relatability” demanded of her bosses. She released these photos in tandem with the story:
Chen said that she was torn about whether to get the surgeries. Her entire family got involved in the conversation and they split, too, arguing about whether the surgeries represented a rejection of her Chinese ancestry.
Ultimately, though, Chen was under a lot of pressure from her bosses. One told her “you will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese.” He went on:
Let’s face it, Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? ‘On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I’ve noticed when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested, you look bored.
Another man, a “big time agent,” told her: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.”
While cosmetic surgeries are often portrayed as vanity projects, Chen’s story reveals that they are also often about looking “right” in a competitive industry. Whether it’s erotic dancers getting breast implants, waitresses getting facelifts, or aspiring news anchors getting eyelid surgery, often economic pressures — mixed with racism and sexism — drive these decisions.
What should we make of changes in fashion? Are they the visible outward expression of new ways of thinking? Or do fashions themselves influence our sentiments and ideas? Or are fashions merely superficial and without any deeper meaning except that of being fashionable?
It’s summer, and once again magazines and newspapers are reporting on beachwear trends in France, proclaiming “the end of topless.” They said the same thing five years ago.
As in 2009, no systematic observers were actually counting the covered and uncovered chests on the beach. Instead, we are again relying on surveys – what people say they do, or have done, or would do. Elle cites an Ipsos survey: “In 2013, 93% of French women say that they wear a top, and 35% find it ‘unthinkable’ to uncover their chest in public.”
Let’s assume that people’s impressions and the media stories are accurate and that fewer French women are going topless. Some of stories mention health concerns, but most are hunting for grander meanings. The Elle cover suggests that the change encompasses issues like liberty, intimacy, and modesty. Marie-Claire says,
Et en dehors de cette question sanitaire, comment expliquer le recul du monokini : nouvelle pudeur ou perte des convictions féministes du départ ?
But aside from the question of health, how to explain the retreat from the monokini: a new modesty or a loss of the original feminist convictions? [my translation, perhaps inaccurate]
The assumption here is that is that ideas influence swimwear choices. Women these days have different attitudes, feelings, and ideologies, so they choose apparel more compatible with those ideas. The notion certainly fits with the evidence on cultural differences, such as those between France and the U.S.
Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 2013 Harris survey done for Expedia.)
This second graph could also support the other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies. If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior.
This process is much like the general scenario Howie Becker outlines for deviance.
Instead of deviant motives leading to deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation. Vague impulses and desires … probably most frequently a curiosity … are transformed into definite patterns of action through social interpretation of a physical experience. [Outsiders, p. 42]
With swimwear, another motive besides “vague impulses” comes into play: fashion – the pressure to wear something that’s within the range of what others on the beach are wearing.
Becker was writing about deviance. But when the behavior is not illegal and not all that deviant, when you can see lots of people doing it in public, the supportive interpretations will be easy to come by. In any case, it seems that the learned motivation stays learned. The fin-du-topless stories, both in 2009 and 2014, suggest that the change is one of generations rather than a change in attitudes. Older women have largely kept their ideas about toplessness. And if it’s true that French women don’t get fat, maybe they’ve even kept their old monokinis. It’s the younger French women who are keeping their tops on. But I would be reluctant to leap from that one fashion trend to a picture of an entire generation as more sexually conservative.
Last year the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study aiming to determine the relationship between body mass index and the risk of premature death. Body mass index, or BMI, is the ratio between your height and weight. According to the National Institutes of Health, you are “normal weight” if your ratio is between 18.5-24.9. Everything over that is “overweight” or “obese” and everything under is “underweight.”
This study was a meta-analysis, which is an analysis of a collection of existing studies that systematically measures the sum of our knowledge. In this case, the authors analyzed 97 studies that included a combined 2.88 million individuals and over 270,000 deaths. They found that overweight individuals had a lower risk of premature death than so-called normal weight individuals and there was no relationship between being somewhat obese and the rate of early death. Only among people in the high range of obesity was there a correlation between their weight and a higher risk of premature death.
Here’s what it looked like.
This is two columns of studies plotted according to the hazard ratio they reported for people. This comparison is between people who are “overweight” (BMI = 25-29.9) and people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9). Studies that fall below the line marked 1.0 found a lower rate of premature death and studies above the line found a higher rate.
Just by eyeballing it, you can confirm that there is not a strong correlation between weight and premature death, at least in this population. When the scientists ran statistical analyses, the math showed that there is a statistically significant relationship between being “overweight” and a lower risk of death.
Here’s the same data, but comparing the risk of premature death among people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are somewhat “obese” (BMI = 30-34.9). Again, eyeballing the results suggest that there’s not much correlation and, in fact, statistical analysis found none.
Finally, here are the results comparing “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are quite “obese” (BMI = 35 or higher). In this case, we do see a relationship between risk of premature death in body weight.
It’s almost funny that the National Institutes of Health use the word normal when talking about BMI. It’s certainly not the norm – the average BMI in the U.S. falls slightly into the “overweight” category (26.6 for adult men and 25.5 for adult women) — and it’s not related to health. It’s clearly simply normative. It’s related to a socially constructed physical ideal that has little relationship to what physicians and public health advocates are supposed to be concerned with. Normal is judgmental, but if they changed the word to healthy, they have to entirely rejigger their prescriptions.
So, do we even have an obesity epidemic? Perhaps not if we use health as a marker instead of some arbitrary decision to hate fat. Paul Campos, covering this story for the New York Times, points out:
If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that does not increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.
It’s worth saying again: if we are measuring by the risk of premature death, then 79% of the people we currently shame for being overweight or obese would be recategorized as perfectly fine. Ideal, even. Pleased to be plump, let’s say, knowing that a body that is a happy balance of soft and strong is the kind of body that will carry them through a lifetime.
At the end of last year, Robin Thicke took a lot of heat for both the lyrics of his song, Blurred Lines, and the accompanying video. The latter is a transparent instance of a very common strategy for making men look cool: surround them with beautiful and preferably naked women.
It seems especially effective if the men in question act unimpressed and unaffected by, or even disinterested in, the women around them. It’s as if they are trying to say, “I am so accustomed to having access to beautiful, naked women, I don’t even notice that they’re there anymore.” Or, to be more vulgar about it, “I get so much pussy, I’ve become immune.”
This is all to introduce a satirical series of photographs featuring performance artist Nate Hill who, on the mission page of his “trophy scarves” website (NSFW), writes: “I wear white women for status and power.” And, so, he does. Here are some maybe safe-for-work-ish examples:
There are more, definitely NSFW examples, at his site (and thanks to German C. for sending the link).
Hill brilliantly combines a tradition of conspicuous consumption – think mink stoles – with a contemporary matrix of domination in which white women are status symbols for men of all races. It’s not irrelevant that he’s African-American and the women he chooses are white and, yes, it is about power. We know it is because women do it too and, when they do, they use women below them in the racial hierarchy. Remember Gwen Stefani’s harajuku girls? And consider this FHM Philippines cover:
I’m amazed at the ubiquitousness of this type of imagery and our willingness to take it for granted that this is just what our visual landscape looks like. It’s social inequality unapologetically laid bare. We’re used to it.
Somebody — lots of somebodies, I guess — sat around the room and thought, “Yeah, there’s nothing pathetic or problematic about a music video in which absolutely nothing happens except naked women are used to prop up our singer’s masculinity.” The optimist in me wants to think that it’s far too obvious, so much so that the producers and participants would be embarrassed by it. Or, at least, there’d be a modicum of sensitivity to the decades of feminist activism around the sexual objectification of women.
The cynic in me recognizes that white supremacy and the dehumanization of women are alive and well. I’m glad Hill is here to help me laugh about it, even if nervously. Gallows humor, y’all. Sometimes it’s all we got.
The images below are all screen shots from the fantastic American Anthropological Association website on race. They are designed to show how we take what is in reality a nuanced spectrum of skin color and turn it into racial categories. In this first image, they show how we could, conceivably, separate human beings into short, medium, and tall based on height:
In this second image, they show how, by adding two additional figures, both taller than the tallest in the previous image, the way in which we designate people can easily change.
And this third image demonstrates how, when we actually consider all potential heights, where we draw the line between short and medium and medium and tall is arbitrary and, ultimately, not very useful.
Skin color is like height. If we just look at three groups with very different skin colors, there appears to be a significant and categorical difference between those three groups of people.
But, if we consider a wide range of people, it becomes clear that skin color comes in a spectrum, not in categories (such as the five from which U.S. citizens are forced to choose on the census).