Tag Archives: bodies

The Politics of Facial Hair

Recently we ran a graph showing the evolution of facial hair trends starting in 1842. It showed that about 90% of men wore facial hair in the late 1800s, but it was a trend that would slowly die. By 1972, when the research was published, almost as many were clean shaven.

So, why did facial hair fall out of fashion?

Sociologist Rebekah Herrick gives us a hypothesis. With Jeanette Mendez and Ben Pryor, she investigated the stereotypes associated with men’s facial hair and the consequences for U.S. politicians. Facial hair is rare among modern politicians. “Currently,” they noted, “fewer than five percent of the members of the U.S. Congress have beards or mustaches” and no president has sported facial hair since William Howard Taft left office in 1913, before women had the right to vote.

Using an experimental method, Herrick and her colleagues showed people photographs of similarly appearing politicians with and without facial hair, asking them how they felt about the men and their likely positions. They found that potential voters perceived men with facial hair to be more masculine and this was a double edged sword. Higher ratings of masculinity were correlated with perceptions of competence, but also concerns that the politicians were less friendly to women and their concerns.

In other words, the more facial hair, the more people worry that a politician might be sexist:

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In reality, facial hair has no relationship to a male politician’s voting record. They checked. The research suggests, though, that men in politics — maybe even all men — would be smart to pay attention to the stereotypes if they want to influence how others see them.

Thanks to my friend, Dmitriy T.C., for use of his face!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Disappointment in Women’s Real Faces

Most women in the U.S. go to considerable lengths to consistently protect the majority of men from their unmasked faces (it’s a “disguise,” remember?). Comedian Amy Schumer wonders what might happen if men saw the real us…

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Trans Teen Takes on the DMV, Wins Right to Wear Makeup

Sociologists are interested in studying how our institutions — in addition to our ideologies and interactions — reflect social norms in ways that tend to reproduce the status quo. A great example happened recently in South Carolina. In this case, the institution is the Department of Motor Vehicles, the norm is that boys and men don’t wear makeup, and the case is Chase Culpepper, a male-bodied trans teen who wanted to wear makeup in her driver’s license photo.

The officials at the DMV told her that she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup in the photo because it would be a “disguise.” As reported by NPR:

The department… cited a 2009 rule that prohibited applicants from “purposely altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity.”

They told Culpepper to take off her makeup or go home without a license. She did what they said. She shared these before and after photos with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, who shared them with the public.

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It’s hard to defend the idea that somehow makeup distorts a man’s identity, but not a woman’s. It has exactly the same illusory power on a female face as a male one; that’s exactly why women wear it. The DMV’s policy did nothing, then, to help it do its job, it only served to press citizens of South Carolina to conform to the gender binary, at least as far as their primary form of identification went.

With the help of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Culpepper sued and the DMV settled. As part of the settlement,

[they] agreed to change its policy to allow people seeking drivers’ licenses to be photographed as they regularly present themselves, even if their appearance does not match the officials’ expectations of how the applicant should look. The department also promised to send Culpepper a written apology and train its employees in how to treat transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in professional settings.

This is what institutional change looks like, at least potentially. Thanks to Culpepper and her advocates, the South Carolina DMV is a little bit less gender binary than it was before.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Frequencies in Whisker Forms

At Vox, Phil Edwards dug up and revived an article from the American Journal of Sociology published in 1976. It tracks facial hair trends — or what the author whimsically calls “frequencies in whisker forms” — from 1842 to 1972. He notes, in particular, the overwhelming dominance of the clean face at the time of publication.

This is your image of the week:

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The original author uses the data to make an argument about the existence of fashion trends. He’s interested, too, in why fashions change and, in like any good sociologist, recommends further research. He does speculate, though, about one possible driver of change: old people. He writes:

…as long as any considerable number of people who have stuck to a superseded form of personal appearance are still living, the young may tend to avoid such a mode as old hat. These distasteful associations seem to be safely overcome only after the passage of a century or more.

His theory holds. If his data is correct, beards disappeared right around 1915. It’s been a hundred years and beards are back!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Power and the Gaze: What Does Resistance Look Like?

In 1975, Mulvey conceptualized the gaze as the power derived by the viewer when they cast their glance upon a hierarchized, usually female, body. This idea perfectly captures the way a subject on film is both frozen in a time and space, and consumed. I want to turn that around, in a more kyriarchal and postmodern fashion, and allot power to the subject.

Refinery 29 has a series of photographs by Blaise Cepis. Through them, women discuss and display their body hair.  In a beautifully hued array, these women speak of personal choice, empowerment and acceptance in ways that act as a counternarrative to the Brazilian-plucked-chicken-prepubescent-non-mammal-landscaping construct that is currently in vogue.

And yet. Yet. Among this abundance of hairy joy – there is no direct gaze. Among the 21 slides there are faces in profile, lower portions of faces, averted glances with pupils looking away. There is only one woman directly glancing at the viewer, and even as her defiant brows dominate her face she is neither fully seen nor subsequently fully known.

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Also, nowhere in the 21 slides does the women’s whole body occupy the visual frame. The pictures show a bushy underarm with barely a chest wall or breast, a lushly forested pudenda without whole legs or torso, or a lightly furred arm without a hand attached.

Counter this power and gaze conundrum with Kim Kardashian’s photoessay for Paper’s Winter issue where she appears, full frontal, body hair free, and fully faced. With the hashtag #breaktheinternet, the intent of the shoot is clear. Neither during the photoshoot’s extended video interview or the accompanying print piece does Kardashian invoke feminism’s ideals of choice, power or acceptance. Yet, in her direct gaze and whole body there is a definitive power of being fully present in the visual medium.

Censored to be safe for work, but you can see the original here:5

In his classic Disidentifications, Munoz interrogates the intersections between queer theory and life as performance to illustrate the ways hegemony is constructed. All the women in the photoessay above are performing: to disrupt a gaze by capturing the consumer; to deliver through visual imagery a counternarrative to normed assumptions; to shine a spotlight upon their bodies so that other stories can be told about them that subsequently reflect the world. These are all photos of “naked women”, but they are not equal in power.

Make no mistake, Kardashian’s photoshoot does not aspire to be anything but  performance – a denuded spectacle that we can believe – illustrating her power to create reverberating social narratives. But the theme of empowered, hirsuit women who embrace the social, sexual, and personal repercussions of their decision is undercut by the disembodied visual presentation. The power of these women has no whole body in which to reside. They are intended to be read as both brave and everyday, but they are visually reduced to decontextualized hair clumps; the performances of pride do not ring true because the viewer does not witness the incorporation of their body pride into a fully human landscape. Frankly, if women are going to “grow hair there” – we need to fully embody it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerrita K. Mayfield, PhD is an experienced social justice oriented educator and teacher trainer, with over 20 years working in urban and rural classrooms and alternative educational settings. Currently teaching ESL at UMass Amherst to liminal non-benefitted workers, she was the first student to earn a graduate minor in Women’s Studies at the University of Wyoming.

Just For Fun: The Secret to a Perfect Body…

…genetics!

From College Humor.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Where Do Young People Get Knowledge About the Clitoris?

Flashback Friday.

The D.C. Council’s Committee on Health released a report after surveying high school students about sex education. One of their questions was about the source of sexual health information. The pie chart below shows that students name, in order, their parents or guardians, health workers, teachers, friends, and boyfriends or girlfriends as the most common sources of information.

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I asked a similar question in a study I did with college students (full text). The students in my sample rated their friends, secondary school teachers, books, their sexual partners, and the media as their most important sources. Men also included pornography. Very few students counted parents among their most valued sources. (Significance indicators are for sex difference.)

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My co-authors and I were interested in how those sources correlated with actual knowledge, specifically knowledge about the clitoris. And so we gave them a “cliteracy test,” we had them answer a set of true/false questions about the clitoris and find it on a diagram of the vulva.

We then compared their scores on the test to their reported sources of knowledge. The table below is a regression showing which sources of knowledge were most predictive of a high score. The findings were interesting: only two sources predicted significantly higher scores on the test: media (for men and women) and self-exploration (for women).

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So, only one of the most frequently used sources of information, media, actually translated into real knowledge. And, ironically, the best source of information for women, their own bodies, was among the least often cited source of information for women, beating out only pornography and parents.

In other words, the best source of information about the clitoris is probably the… clitoris, but female college students would rather read books to learn about it.

This puts the D.C. study into some perspective.  The high school students in that study reported that their parents or guardians, health workers, teachers, friends, and boyfriends or girlfriends were sources of sexual information, but that doesn’t mean that they are good sources. It could be that they’re giving them misinformation or good information only about certain things.

Originally posted in 2009. You can see a summary of our findings on the correlation (or lack thereof) between knowledge about the clitoris and orgasm for women here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Who Farts? And Who Cares?

Sociologists Martin Weinberg and Colin Williams wanted to know. They and their team interviewed 172 college students about their habits and concerns about farting and pooping. They published their results in an article called Fecal Matters. They discovered that everybody farts and everybody cares, but not everyone cares all the time or equally.

They separated their results by gender and sexual orientation. When they asked people if they were worried that the hearer would “feel disgust,” heterosexual women were most likely to agree and heterosexual men the least, with non-heterosexual men and women in the middle, but flipped such that men were more worried than women.

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Heterosexual men were the most likely to think it was funny and the most likely to engage in “intentional flatulence.” Almost a quarter said that they “often” did so, whereas only 7 percent of heterosexual women said the same. “Guys would say it’s raunchy and then say ‘Nice one,’” explained one heterosexual guy, “because if it’s strong it’s more manly. You know, because women would not try to clear a room with a fart.” Heterosexual women felt like they were violating gender norms if their farts were stinky: “The worse it stinks,” said one, “the nastier they think I am.”

Heterosexual women were the most concerned that it would affect their relationship with the hearer. They were also the most likely to do things to reduce the likelihood that others would detect their bathroom activities, like go into another room to pass gas or let their stool out slowly to avoid a kerplunk. Two thirds said they would wait until they were alone to poop and only women reported flushing repeatedly to ensure that the sights and smells of their defecation had disappeared.

As a counter example, one of the heterosexual men interviewed said that the only thing he was willing to do to protect others from his bathroom activities was close the door.

Non-heterosexual men were an interesting conundrum. They were as likely as heterosexual men to think that the hearer would think it was funny, but the least likely to engage in intentional flatulence and the most likely to make sure that when they poop, they do so alone.

Non-heterosexual women were also a conundrum. They were the least likely to think the hearer would laugh at a fart, but second only to heterosexual men in the practice of farting on purpose to get a reaction.

This study is a great example of what social scientists call doing gender, modifying our behavior to conform to gendered expectations. Generally, women are expected to have better control of their body, to be more polite, and to avoid offending others. All of these things are consistent with being more discreet with farts and poops.

The interesting data from non-heterosexual men and women may be explained by the conflation of sexual object choice and the performance of gender. It’s not universally this way, but in the U.S. today gay men are feminized and lesbians masculinized. This is a stereotype, but also gives non-heterosexual men and women some permission to deviate from gender rules. As one non-heterosexual man explained:

Only around people that I’m regularly naked with would I be comfortable with them knowing what I was doing in the bathroom. I’m on the self-prescribed “pretty pill”—where you don’t fart, sweat, burp, or use the bathroom… I learned it from my diva friends.

Similarly, some non-heterosexual women may feel a little less pressure to be as girly or girly all the time.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.