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.
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.
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?
I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa. I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.
Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa. That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.
One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.
She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting. She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so. To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”
You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:
Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs. I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway. If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds. Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t 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.
Sociologists like to say that gender identities are socially constructed. That just means that what it is, and what it means, to be male or female is at least partly the outcome of social interaction between people – visible through the rules, attitudes, media, or ideals in the social world.
And that process sometimes involves constructing people’s bodies physically as well. And in today’s high-intensity parenting, in which gender plays a big part, this includes constructing – or at least tinkering with – the bodies of children.
Today’s example: braces. In my Google image search for “child with braces,” the first 100 images yielded about 75 girls.
Why so many girls braced for beauty? More girls than boys want braces, and more parents of girls want their kids to have them, even though girls’ teeth are no more crooked or misplaced than boys’. This is just one manifestation of the greater tendency to value appearance for girls and women more than for boys and men. But because braces are expensive, this is also tied up with social class, so that richer people are more likely to get their kids’ teeth straightened, and as a result richer girls are more likely to meet (and set) beauty standards.
Hard numbers on how many kids get braces are surprisingly hard to come by. However, the government’s medical expenditure survey shows that 17 percent of children ages 11-17 saw an orthodontist in the last year, which means the number getting braces at some point in their lives is higher than that. The numbers are rising, and girls are wearing most of hardware.
A study of Michigan public school students showed that although boys and girls had equal treatment needs (orthodontists have developed sophisticated tools for measuring this need, which everyone agrees is usually aesthetic), girls’ attitudes about their own teeth were quite different:
Clearly, braces are popular among American kids, with about half in this study saying they want them, but that sentiment is more common among girls, who are twice as likely as boys to say they don’t like their teeth.
The same pattern is found in Germany, where 38 percent of girls versus 30 percent of boys ages 11-14 have braces, and in Britain – both countries where braces are covered by state health insurance if they are needed, but parents can pay for them if they aren’t.
Among American adults, women are also more likely to get braces, leading the way in the adult orthodontic trend. (Google “mother daughter braces” and you get mothers and daughters getting braces together; “father son braces” brings you to orthodontic practices run by father-son teams.)
Teeth and consequences
Caption: The teeth of TV anchors Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Robin Roberts, Suzanne Malveaux, Don Lemon, George Stephanopolous, David Gregory, Ashley Banfield, and Diane Sawyer.
Today’s rich and famous people – at least the one whose faces we see a lot – usually have straight white teeth, and most people don’t get that way without some intervention. And lots of people get that.
Girls are held to a higher beauty standard and feel the pressure – from media, peers or parents – to get their teeth straightened. They want braces, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this subjects them to needless medical procedures and reinforces the over-valuing of appearance. However, it also shows one way that parents invest more in their girls, perhaps thinking they need to prepare them for successful careers and relationships by spending more on their looks.
When they’re grown up, of course, women get a lot more cosmetic surgery than men do – 87 percent of all surgical procedures, and 94% of Botox-type procedures – and that gap is growing over time.
As is the case with lots of cosmetic procedures, people from wealthier families generally are less likely to need braces but more likely to get them. But add this to the gender pattern, and what emerges is a system in which richer girls (voluntarily or not) and their parents set the standard for beauty – and then reap the rewards (as well as harms) of reaching it.
If the past few months in the music industry have left you demoralized — what with the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and all — Lily Allen might make you feel better, emphasis on might. Her single, with the sarcastic refrain “It’s hard out here for a bitch,” satirizes all of it and takes some ugly missteps along the way. In doing so, she reinvigorates an important conversation about satire, race politics, and feminism.
2. She points to the extreme standards of beauty for pop stars, singing the lyrics “You should probably lose some weight/’Cause we can’t see your bones” and beginning the video in surgery alongside a discussion about her “terrifying” post-baby body:
Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?
This is a retort to Thicke’s line, “I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.”
4. She refers to the Sinead O’Connor/Amanda Palmer debate about whether women in the music industry have agency. Breaking the fourth wall, the video features a middle-aged, white male executive in a suit telling her to treat a banana like a penis and showing her and her dancers how to twerk.
5. Finally, she goes after materialism and product placement:
Her final lines:
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay Always trust injustice/in justice ’cause it’s not goin’ away
Interestingly, I’m not sure if the lyric is “injustice” or “in justice.” Or both!
What to Make of It All?
Not everyone is loving this video. Some are arguing that she is using her race and class privilege to take advantage of the debate; her use of women of color as props, for example, is no different than Cyrus’. Even if the frame is satire, the visual is the same.
Some of her lyrics mock rap and hip hop generally, making it a racialized scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in the world, which happens. She sings, “I won’t be bragging about my cars/Or talking about my chains.” In one scene she washes rims surrounded by champagne, in another she mocks the car culture associated with hip hop.
Even if her satire were straight on, there’s always the risk that people won’t get it, despite the fact that she refers to it directly. This is a serious risk as indicated by the fact that a significant proportion of politically conservative viewers of The Colbert Reportdon’ t know he’s kidding.
I’ll be interested to see the conversation about the song and video as it plays out. In the meantime, I’m pleased for the reminder that the music industry isn’t monolithic.
First, there are people in the industry that object to racism, sexism, and materialism: Lily Allen, I think, but also likely many of the people who worked with her to make this song and video happen.
Second, there’s money in fighting back. This highly produced single and video would not be here if executives didn’t think it would be profitable. They think there are people out there who are sick of exploitation in the music industry… and they’re right.
Alternatively, this is just a modified version of the same exploitation that Cyrus is guilty of: a feminism that serves white women well, but continues to marginalize women of color.
The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons has released new data on the incidence of invasive and non-invasive cosmetic procedures. The U.S. leads in sheer numbers of procedures but, accounting for population, we fall into 4th place. South Korea leads for the number of procedures per person, followed by Greece and Italy.
By far the most common kinds of surgical cosmetic procedures are lipoplasty and breast augmentation. Along with fat, breasts seem to be a particular concern: breast lifts and breast reductions for both men and women are also in the top ten. Abdominoplasty, nose jobs, eyelid surgeries, and facelifts are as well.
Likewise, we’ve posted about surgeries that create an epithelial fold, a fold of skin in the eyelid more common in people with White than Asian ethnic backgrounds. This surgery is a trend among Asians and Asian-Americans, as colonization has left us with an association between Whiteness, attractiveness, and power.
Breast augmentation, the second biggest surgical procedure, is most commonly performed in America and Brazil. Buttock implants are also a Brazilian specialty, as is vaginal rejuvenation. Asia is keen on nose jobs: China, Japan and South Korea are among the top five nations for rhinoplasty.
More on where and how many procedures are being performed, but nothing on why, at the ISAPS report.
While I’m most well-known for my work on hook up culture, I’ve written extensively on a different topic altogether: how Americans talk about female genital cutting practices (FGCs), better known as female genital “mutilation.” While FGCs are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”
The main source of distortion has been the mass media. Aiming to encourage journalists to think twice when covering the topic, the Hastings Center has released a report by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa. In the rest of this post, I briefly discuss some of the things they want journalists — and the rest of us — to know and add a couple of my own:
Using the word “mutilation” is counterproductive.
People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is a more aesthetically pleasing one. The term “mutilation” may appeal to certain Westerners, but people in communities where cutting occurs largely find the term confusing or offensive.
Media coverage usually focuses on one of the more rare types of genital cutting: infibulation.
Infibulation involves trimming and fusing the labia so as to close the vulva, leaving an opening in the back for intercourse, urination, and menses. In fact, 10% of the procedures involve infibulation. The remainder involve trimming, cutting, or scarification of the clitoris, clitoral hood (prepuce), or labia minora or majora. While none of these procedures likely sound appealing, some are more extensive than others.
Research has shown that women with cutting are sexually responsive.
Women who have undergone genital surgeries report “rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction…” This is true among women who have experienced clitoral reductions and undergone infibulation, as well as women who’ve undergone lesser forms of cutting.
Health complications of genital cutting “represent the exception rather than the rule.”
News reports often include long lists of acute and long-term negative medical consequences of FGCs, and these may feel intuitively true, but efforts to document their incidence suggest that health problems are, for the most part, no more common in cut than uncut women. The Report concludes: “…from a public health point of view, the vast majority of genital surgeries in Africa are safe, even with current procedures and under current conditions.”
Girls are not generally cut in response to the influence of cruel patriarchs.
Most societies that cut girls also cut boys; some groups that engage in cutting have relatively permissive sexual rules for women, some do not; and female genital cutting practices are typically controlled and organized by women (correspondingly, men control male genital surgeries).
FGCs are not an “African practice.”
The procedures we label “female genital mutilation” occur only in some parts of Africa and occur outside of the continent as well (source):
Moreover, cosmetic genital surgeries in the U.S. are among the fastest growing procedures. These include clitoral reduction, circumcision of the clitoral foreskin, labia trimming, and vaginal tightening, not to mention mons liposuction, collagen injected into the g-spot, color correction of the vulva, and anal bleaching. While it would be simplistic to say that these are the same as the procedures we typically call “mutilation,” they are not totally different either.
Western-led efforts to eliminate FGCs are largely ineffective and sometimes backfire.
It turns out that people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children. Benevolent strangers who try to stop cutting in communities, as well as top-down laws instituted by politicians (often in response to Western pressure), are very rarely successful. The most impressive interventions have involved giving communities resources to achieve whatever goals they desire and getting out of the way.