Tag Archives: bodies

New Documentary: The Illusionists

1

Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists.  I’m really excited to see the rest.  The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.

The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically.  As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.”  The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.

Watch for yourself (subtitles available here):

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

U.S. Army Releases Racially Biased Hairstyle Regulations

1Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs of the National Guard in Georgia has always plaited her hair into two twists around her head. She has been in the military for six years and has worn her hair natural (meaning no chemical treatments [perms] or hair extensions [weaves]) for four of those years. But according to the new hair-grooming requirements the U.S. Army recently released, her hair is now out of regulation.

And so are the Afro-centric hairstyles of many black women in the Army, who make up 31 percent of Army women.

Jacobs, who said she is “kind of at a loss now with what to do with my hair,” has started a White House petition asking the Army to rethink its new hair guidelines. The petition has collected more than 7,000 signatures from soldiers and civilians, but needs to reach 100,000 signatures by April 19th in order for the White House to address it.

The petition states:

Females with natural hair take strides to style their natural hair in a professional manner when necessary; however, changes to AR 670-1 offer little to no options for females with natural hair… These new changes are racially biased and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent.

The new Army Regulation 670-1  was published Tuesday and illustrates with photos the types of hairstyles that are unauthorized for women. Those include dreadlocks, twists or any type of matted or coiled hair. A particularly cumbersome requirement disallows the bulk of a woman’s hair to “exceed more than 2″ from her scalp.” That rules out Afros and most types of non-chemically altered black hair.

Basically, almost every natural hair option that black women in the Army could wear is now off limits. One of the few traditionally natural hairstyles that was listed as appropriate is cornrows, but a slew of specifications and rules surrounded even that. The diameter of each cornrow can’t be more than one-fourth of an inch, and no more than one-eighth of an inch of scalp may be shown between cornrows.

The only way to realistically meet the new standards would be to shave one’s head, perm one’s hair or wear weaves or wigs.

Jacobs said twists like the one she wears are very popular among black women soldiers because the style requires little maintenance when in the field. Her hair’s thickness and curliness makes pulling her hair back into a bun (a style popular among white women soldiers) impossible.

A spokesperson for the Army said the grooming changes are “necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population.” When that need for “uniformity” erases the ethnic differences of a group of women and forces them to constrain themselves to European standards of hair, it presents a serious problem.

“I think, at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t understand the complexities of natural hair… I’m disappointed to see the Army, rather than inform themselves on how black people wear their hair, they’ve white-washed it all,” said Jacobs.

Screenshots taken from Army Regulation 670-1.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Is Sugar a Diet Aid? The Answer Depends on the Decade

Last week NPR reported that scientists now trace some of the rise of American obesity to the fear of fat.  Beginning in the 1970s, nutritionists began warning Americans to consume less fat.  This initiated the “low fat” and “fat free” crazes that still linger.

Yet, it now seems that people who followed the advice of nutritionists at the time — to eat less cheese, milk, and meat and more pasta, potatoes, and rice — were likely to get fatter, not skinnier.  The closer a person stuck to the dietary guidelines, the more weight they would gain and, the more weight they gained, the more others would pressure them to stick to the dietary guidelines.  The phrase “cruel irony” only begins to capture it.

The ad below, from 1959, is a peek into another era.  Just a few years before the fear of fat began, the sugar industry was plausibly suggesting that eating more sugar was the best way to stay slim.  This was industry association propaganda, but no doubt the potato and pasta industries contributed to the story in the ’70s just as the meat and dairy industries are in on it today.

1

The revision of our nutritional guidelines reminds us to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom.  Moreover, it should inspire us all to check our tendency to judge others.  We don’t have perfect knowledge that allows us perfect control over our bodies.  Scientists are doing the best they can — and hopefully not taking too much funding from for-profit food industries — and individuals are restricted by whatever knowledge and resources they have.

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

Doing Gender with the Face, Featuring Erika Linder

Sociologists often say that gender is partly a performance. How we talk and laugh and what we say; how we stand, sit, and move; how we dress, wear our hair, and adorn our faces and bodies with make up and accessories — all these things are gendered. Insofar as we follow the rule that we perform in ways that match our genitalia, male-bodied and female-bodied people will seem more different, more “opposite,” than they really are.

Today I stumbled across another really striking example of gender performance. This one involves model Erika Linder doing both masculinity and femininity in a commercial for JC Jeans Company. What is striking to me is how she does gender with her face. It reveals that the “sexy model face” isn’t built into our DNA, bone structure, or psychology, but projected. Here are two stills, both Erika Linder; the whole commercial is embedded below.

11 12

Here are two more from her Unique Models page:

13

H/t Ms. Magazine.

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

Liberation and the Sanitary Napkin: One Man’s Journey

1A touching BBC story describes a new documentary, Menstrual Man, that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a humble man in India who sought to offer his wife a sanitary napkin.  After marrying, he discovered that his wife kept from him a secret: the rags she used and re-used to collect menstrual blood.

Only 12% of women in India used pads; they were simply too expensive for most to buy. Nearly three-quarters of all reproductive diseases were caused by poor menstrual hygiene.  A combination of high cost and embarrassment kept women from developing a safe method of managing menstruation.  Nearly a quarter of girls dropped out of school when they started their periods.

Arunachalam Muruganantham was driven to offer women a solution.  He was going to design a machine that would produce low cost menstrual pads.  He asked his wife to serve as an experimental subject, but one woman menstruating once a month wasn’t enough of a sample.  He asked medical students to participate, but the responses were slim.  He fashioned a fake uterus and collected goat blood, trying to experiment himself.

“Everyone thought he’d gone mad.”

His wife left, his mother left, his friends avoided him; it was suspected he was some kind of diseased or possessed sexual pervert, collecting menstrual blood to do god-knows-what.

Figuring out how to make highly absorptive cotton was a significant challenge.  He finally tricked a  multinational company into sending him samples of the raw material: cellulose from the bark of the tree.  Now he just had to design a cheap machine that would turn the raw material into pads.

Four-and-a-half years later, he was producing affordable menstrual pads for Indian women on a cheaply made machine.  He won an award.  His wife came back.

He built 250 machines, which he then took to the poorest areas of Northern India.  He gave them to women, at no profit, who could then produce the pads and sell them to local women.  Each woman now runs her own business.  ”Over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.”

8

He is now looking to expand to 106 more countries.

About his success, Muruganantham said:

Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty — everything happens because of ignorance…. I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness.

Watch the trailer here.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

What Do Little Girls Really Learn from “Career” Barbies?

Like a lot of moms, I faced the Barbie dilemma when my daughter was younger. Ultimately I  figured a little bit of Barbie would sate her appetite (and stop the nagging) without doing too much harm. Like a vaccination, or homeopathic inoculation against the Big Bad. I told myself my daughter didn’t use her dolls for fashion play anyway: her Barbie “funeral,” for instance, was a tour de force of childhood imagination. I told myself I only got her “good” Barbies: ethnic Barbies, Wonder Woman Barbie, Cleopatra Barbie. Now that she’s 10 and long ago gave the dolls away (or “mummified” them and buried them in the back yard in a “time capsule”), I can’t say whether they’ll have any latent impact on her body image or self-perception. It would seem ludicrous, at any rate, to try to pinpoint the impact of one toy.

But now, according to a study published this week,  it turns out that playing with Barbie, even career Barbie, may indeed limit girls’ perception of their own future choices. Psychologists randomly assigned girls ages 4-7 to play with one of three dolls. Two were Barbies: a fashion Barbie (in a dress and high heels); and a “career” Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. (NOTE: I just pulled these images from the web: I don’t know which actual Barbies they used.)

5

The third, “control” doll was a Mrs. Potato Head, who,  although she comes with fashion accessories such as a purse and shoes, doesn’t have Barbie’s sexualized (and totally unrealistic) curves.

So, after just a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers, according to the authors, were male-dominated and half were female dominated. The results:

Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.

More to the point:

There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.

Obviously, the study is not definitive. Obviously, one doll isn’t going to make the critical difference in a young woman’s life blah blah blah. Still, it’s interesting that it doesn’t matter whether the girls played with fashion Barbie or doctor Barbie, the doll had the same effect and in only a few minutes.

That reminded me of a study in which college women enrolled in an advanced calculus class were asked to watch a series of four, 30-second TV commercials. The first group watched four netural ads. The second group watched two neutral ads and two depicting stereotypes about women  (a girl enraptured by acne medicine; a woman drooling over a brownie mix). Afterward they completed a survey and—bing!—the group who’d seen the stereo- typed ads expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers than classmates who had watched only the neutral ones. Let me repeat: the effect was demonstrable after watching two ads.

And guess who performed better on a math test, coeds who took it after being asked to try on a bathing suit or those who had been asked to try on a sweater? (Hint: the latter group; interestingly, male students showed no such disparity.)

Now think about the culture girls are exposed to over and over and over and over and over, whether in toys or movies or tv or music videos, in which regardless of what else you are—smart, athletic, kind, even feminist, even old—you must be “hot.” Perhaps, then, the issue is not “well, one doll can’t have that much of an impact,” so much as “if playing with one doll for a few minutes has that much impact what is the effect of the tsunami of sexualization that girls confront every day, year after year?”

Peggy Orenstein is the author of four books, including The New York Times best-seller Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  You can follow her at her blog, where this post originally appeared, on facebook, and on twitter.

Are Hipsters to Blame for a Rise in Facial Hair Transplants?

Last month I wrote about how the revival in the popularity of beards was hurting razor sales, causing companies like Proctor & Gamble to ramp up advertising encouraging “manscaping” below the neck.  Here’s another response to the trend: hair plugs for your face.

Capture

According to a facial plastic surgeon interviewed for an article at DNAinfo New York, the rate at which he is asked to do facial hair transplants has skyrocketed from “ just a handful of beard transplants each year a decade ago” to about three a week.  The surgeons mention the hipster beard trend as one cause of the rise in interest, but also cite a wide array of people who might be interested in fuller facial hair:

…clients include men who have struggled since adolescence to grow a beard, those undergoing a gender transition from female to male, men with with facial scarring and Hasidic Jews who hope to achieve denser payot, or sidelocks.

Expense for the procedure ranges from $3,o00 for partial transplants to $7,000 for a full beard.

What a fascinating example of the intersection of race, gender, religion, technology, and capitalism.  Which men’s faces have more power to determine appearance norms for men?  Or, what does masculinity look like?  Men with Asian, American Indian, and African backgrounds are less likely to be able to grow full beards, but a society centered on whiteness can make their faces seem inadequate.  If the situation were reversed, would we see white men, disproportionately, going in for laser hair removal?  Would transmen feel less pressure to be able to grow a beard to feel fully masculine?  Would they feel more if they were part of a Hasidic Jewish community?

Also, is this really about hipsters?  How much power does a young, monied demographic have to set fashion trends?  To send a wide range of people to surgeons — for goodness sake — in the hopes of living up to a more or less fleeting trend?  How do such trends gain purchase across such a wide range of people?  What other forces are at work here?

What can we learn from this about other plastic surgeries that we are more likely to take for granted as the result of natural or universal beauty?  Breast implants for women, breast reductions for men, liposuction, facelifts, labiaplasty, or eyelid surgery?

Lots of interesting conversations to be had.

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

The Privilege of Assuming It’s Not about You

Haley Morris-Cafiero is an artist, a photographer, and a scorned body.  Aware that her appearance attracts disgust and mockery from some, she decided to try to document people’s public disdain.  The result is a series of photographs exposing the people who judge and laugh at her.  She chose to publish several at Salon:

5 6 7 8

Dmitriy T.C. was the last of many who’ve suggested I write about this.  I’ve decided against it in the past because I anticipated a critique, one that dismissed the project on the argument that we can’t really know what is going through these people’s minds.  Maybe that cop is just a jerk and he does that to everyone?  Maybe the gawkers are looking at someone or something on the other side of her?  Where’s the proof that these are actually instances of cruel, public anti-fat bias?

In some cases, Morris-Cafiero has a story to go along with the photo.  The girl waiting to cross the street with her, she said, was slapping her stomach.  In another instance, she overheard a man say “gorda,” fat woman.  This type of context makes at least some of the photographs seem more “legit.”

But, as I’ve thought more about it, I actually think the project’s strength is in its ambiguity.  The truth is that Morris-Cafiero often does not know what’s going on in the minds of her subjects.  Yet, because she carries a body that she knows is disdained by many, it is perfectly reasonable for her to feel like every grimace, look of disgust, laugh, shared whisper, and instance of teasing is a negative reaction to her body.  In fact, this is how many fat people experience being in public; whether they’re right about the intent 100% of the time is irrelevant to their lived experience.

And this is how people of color, people who speak English as a second language, disabled people and others who are marginalized live, too.  Was that person rude because I speak with an accent?  Did that person say there was no vacancies in the apartment because I’m black?  Was I not chosen for the job because I’m in a wheelchair?  Privilege is being able to assume that the person laughing behind you is laughing at something or someone else, that the scowl on someone’s face is because they’re having a bad day, and that there must have been a better qualified candidate.

For many members of stigmatized groups, it can be hard not to at least consider the possibility that negative reactions and rejections are related to who they are. Morris-Cafiero’s project does a great job of showing what that looks like.

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