Many sociologists argue that gender, as we know it, is not innate, but put on and performed. Certain moments of our lives, like weddings and quinceañeras, are opportunities to really emphasize femininity and masculinity; but gender is also performed in mundane ways every day in the ways that we talk, move, dress, and adorn ourselves.
These photographs of child beauty pageant participants, taken by Susan Anderson and published in her book High Glitz, illustrate how much of feminine sexual allure is put on and performed. These kids are adultified with make-up and they also often wear false teeth and hair extensions. You can browse additional images at Powerhouse Books.
People often object to this sort of adornment on a child being unnatural, but when adult women use these same strategies — fake eyelashes, makeup, veneers, and hair extensions — it is no more natural. Adult women are, no less than those kids, performing femininity.
To take it one step further, as The Spinster Aunt does, if you react to the idea of child beauty pageants with horror, then than horror should be applied to the project of femininity itself, not just the fact that children are participants:
I submit that anyone who is uncomfortable with [the] Little Miss Perfect [pageant] is ethically obliged to be just as uncomfortable with femininity in general. Little Miss Perfect is merely one of a gazillion equally nauseating points on the Porno-Feminine Continuum within which all female citizens of the globe are confined by a culture of oppression.
So, if it’s troubling when girls do it (and, for that matter, also troubling to many when men do it), then why isn’t it troubling when women do it?
Originally posted in 2010.
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:
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!
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…
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.