Flashback Friday.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Flashback Friday.

Yesterday I went to Marshall’s to take some photos for this post and overheard a conversation between a teenager and her mother that perfectly illustrated what I was planning on posting about. The teen pulled her mom over to look at a purse she wanted for Christmas. It was $148, but she was making a case to her mom that it was actually a great buy compared to how much it would have been at the original price, which, as she pointed out to her mom, was listed as $368.

Ellen Ruppel Shell discusses this topic at length in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Here’s a relevant photo I took:

It indicates that you are getting a great deal by shopping at Marshall’s compared to the original price of the item.

Except that is not, in fact, what they are saying. Look at the image again: the wording is “compare at…” The tags do not say “marked down from” or “original price” or “was.” There is a crucial difference: when you are told to “compare at,” the implication is that the shoes were originally $175, making them a super steal at $49. The “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” (MSRP) gives you the same info.

But as Shell points out, these numbers are largely fictional. Marshall’s is not actually telling you that those shoes were ever sold for $175. You’re just supposed to “compare” $49 to $175. But $175 may be an entirely meaningless number. The shoes may never have been sold for $175 at any store; certainly no specifics are given. Even if they were, the fact that a large number of them ended up at Marshall’s would indicate that many customers didn’t consider $175 an acceptable price.

The same goes for the MSRP: it’s meaningless. Among other things, that’s not how pricing works these days for big retail outlets. The manufacturer doesn’t make a product and then tell the retailer how much they ought to charge for it. Retailers hold much more power than manufacturers; generally, they pressure suppliers to meet their price and to constantly lower costs, putting the burden on the suppliers to figure out how to do so (often by reducing wages). The idea that manufacturers are able to tell Macy’s or Target or other big retailers how much to charge for their items is ridiculous. Rather, the retailer usually tells the manufacturer what MSRP to print on the tag of items they’ll be purchasing (I saw some tags at Marshall’s where it said MSRP but no price had been printed on it).

So what’s the point of a MSRP on a price tag, or a “compare at” number? These numbers serve as “anchor” prices — that is, they set a high “starting” point for the product, so the “sale” price seems like a great deal in comparison. Except the “sale” price isn’t actually a discount at all — it’s only a sale price in comparison to this fictional original price that was developed for the sole purpose of making you think “Holy crap! I can get $175 shoes for just $49!”

The point is to redirect your thinking from “Do I think these shoes are worth $49?” to “I can save $126!” This is a powerful psychological motivator; marketing research shows that people are fairly easily swayed by perceived savings. A sweater we might not think is worth $40 if we saw it at Banana Republic suddenly becomes worth $50 if we see it at Marshall’s (or T.J. Maxx, an outlet mall, Ross, etc.) and are told it used to sell for $80. We focus not on the fact that we’re spending $50, but on the fact that we’re saving $30.

And that makes us feel smart: we’ve beat the system! Instead of going to the mall and paying $368 for that purse, we hunted through the discount retailer and found it for $148! We worked for it, and we were smart enough to not get conned into buying it at the inflated price. Shell describes research that shows that, in these situations, we feel like we didn’t just save that money, we actually earned it by going to the effort to search out deals. When we buy that $148 purse, we’re likely to leave feeling like we’re somehow $220 richer (since we didn’t pay $368) rather than $148 poorer. And we’ll value it more highly because we feel like we were smart to find it; that is, we’re likely to think a $148 purse bought on “sale” is cooler and better quality than we would the identical purse if we bought it at full price for $120.

And stores capitalize on these psychological tendencies by giving us cues that seem to indicate we’re getting an amazing deal. Sometimes we are. But often we’re being distracted with numbers that seem to give us meaningful information but are largely irrelevant, if not entirely fictional.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

I am so grateful to reader Emma Farais for recommending that I look into the history of the leotard. It was invented by — well, who else — Jules Léotard.

Born in 1842, Jules grew up to be an acrobat. He is credited with inventing trapeze and performed with French circuses. He invented and then began performing in leotards and he was a big hit. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum:

The original leotard was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes. Even more importantly, it showed off his physique to its best advantage.

He was a huge hit with the ladies. Alas, he died at age 28. Or 32, depending on the source.

But the leotard lived on. Leotards were adapted for women, but the form and function were similar. Think vintage muscle men and women.

Jules Léotard, circa 1850 (left); Circus Strong Man and Women, circa 1890 (right):4

Male dancers, athletes, and thespians wore leotards well into the ’70s. Eventually, though, disco happened. Disco fashion emphasized leotard fashion for women, as this roller disco shot from the Empire Rollerdome reveals:

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(Oh, to be a roller disco queen in ’70s Brooklyn. Sigh.)

Men eventually abandoned leotards as they became increasingly popular with women. We saw the same pattern, of course, with high heels and cheerleading: male flight from feminizing fashions and activities. The more women wore leotards, the less men wore them. Eventually, companies stopped making leotards for men altogether.

To the disappointment of all the (het) ladies, I’m sure.

Today, a Google Image search for leotard returns all ladies. Mostly girls, in fact. Not a guy in the bunch:

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I can only think of two arenas in which leotards for men still hold sway: wrestling and professional weight lifting. And, now I guess we know why.

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.

2Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

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At the turn of the 19th century in the U.S. and Europe, it became wildly popular — and that’s an understatement — for ladies to wear feathers and whole taxidermied birds on their hats. One ornithologist reported taking two walks in Manhattan in 1886 and counting 700 hats; 525 of which were topped by feathers or birds. Buzzfeed has a collection of vintage hats featuring birds; here are some of the ones that were most stunning to me:

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At the time, not many people thought much of killing the birds. Europeans and their American cousins “didn’t believe they could put a dent in an animal’s population.” Birds seemed to be an “abundant, even inexhaustible” natural resource.  So take they did.  Millions of birds all over the world were harvested for hat makers for years. The Fashioning Feathers blog offers this example:

A single 1892 order of feathers by a London dealer… included 6,000 bird of paradise, 40,000 hummingbird and 360,000 various East Indian bird feathers. In 1902 an auction in London sold 1,608 30 ounce packages of heron… plumes. Each ounce of plume required the use of four herons, therefore each package used the plumes of 120 herons, for a grand total of 192, 960 herons killed.

Ornithologists started to sit up and take notice. One estimated that 67 types of birds — often including all of their sub-species — were at risk for extinction.  Not only were birds killed for their feathers, they were killed when their feathers were at their most resplendent. This meant killing them during mating season, interrupting their reproductive cycle and often leaving baby birds orphaned.

A campaign to end the practice began. In Europe the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds targeted women. They launched a sexist campaign accusing women of supporting the heartless slaughter of birds. Fashioning Feathers includes this image from a pamphlet titled “Feathered Women” in which the president of the Society calls them a “bird-enemy.”

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Virginia Woolf went for the jugular, pointing out that — even though the image shows a woman swooping down to kill a bird — it was largely men who did the dirty work of murder and they were also the ones profiting from the industry.

Ironically, middle class women were at the forefront of the bird preservation movement. They were the rank and file and, thanks in part to their work, in the U.S. the movement led to the formation of the first Audubon societies.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society organized a feather boycott, angering hat makers who called them “extremists” and “sentimentalists.” Politicians worried out loud about the loss of jobs. Missouri Senator James Reed complained:

Why there should be any sympathy or sentiment about a long-legged, long-beaked, long-necked bird that lives in swamps and eats tadpoles.

Ultimately the Massachusetts Audubon Society succeeded in pushing through the first federal-level conservation legislation in the U.S., the Lacey Act of 1900.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

When you hear the phrase Hush Puppies, think of basset hounds, and see these shoes, do you think “rugged, masculine, virile”? Because that’s what the copy says. In fact, this ad argues that wearing these shoes might make a women’s rights advocate call you a male chauvinist pig because they’re that masculine.

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If this isn’t evidence of the fact that masculinity is socially constructed and changes over time, I don’t know what is.

Found at Vintage Ads.

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.

One of the more difficult sociological concepts to explain is the social institution.  When sociologists talk about institutions they don’t mean hospitals or churches or any of the concrete organizations that easily come to mind, they mean something much bigger and more difficult to pin down.  They  mean institutionalized ways of doing things or, as I’ve defined them elsewhere:

Persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.

Education, then, is an institution, as is medicine and transportation.  In my textbook, I discuss the examples of sanitation and sport.  One can’t play on a team all by oneself and it’d be pretty gross to take a personal potty with you everywhere you went.  Instead, we have organized sport and the provision of toilet facilities. Eventually, institutionalized ways of solving social needs get taken-for-granted as the way we do things, often to the point that we forget that they were invented in the first place.

I was inspired to write about this by a post at Sociological Cinema by sociologist Tristan Bridges.  He uses a clip from The Devil Wears Prada to illustrate just this phenomenon.  Meryl Streep plays the editor of a fashion magazine.  Fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.  Even the most industrious and clever among us, those who make their own clothes, will buy the fabric with which to do so.  Almost no one in a Western country has the faintest idea of how to make fabric, let alone the resources.

In the clip, Streep’s character responds icily when a holier-than-thou fashion outsider scoffs at her as she goes about her work.

She says:

You think this has nothing to do with you.

You go to your closet and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.

But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.

And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that, in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns and then I think it was Yves St. Laurent — wasn’t it? — who showed cerulean military jackets…

And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers.  And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled down into some Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.

However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical that you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.

An institution has emerged to put clothes on our back.  The scoffer who inspires Streep character’s rant would like to think that she is outside of the fashion industry, that it has nothing to do with her. Likewise, many of us would like to think that we’re outside of the institutions that we don’t like. But we’re not.  That’s the rub.  No matter how enlightened or inspired we are to fight social convention, we can’t get outside the institutions that organize our societies.  We’re in them whether we know it or not.

Here’s the clip; it’s worth it, even given the advertisement:

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.