Tag Archives: emotion

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:

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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 co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Rethinking a Zero Tolerance Approach to “Female Genital Mutilation”

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 co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Compulsory Coupling: Fit In By Finding Someone

Erika T. sent in this 30 second commercial for Frito Lay chips and dip.   Masquerading as simply “cute,” instead the cartoon sends strong normative messages.

It straightforwardly suggests that single people are inherently sad.  Being coupled up is presented as the norm and single people’s pathetic-ness is visible for all to see, even if they try to hide it.  It’s also implicitly heteronormative (different colors = the perfect blend) and overtly promotes monogamy between two and only two people.

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.

The Feminization of Love and Masculinization of Sex

What comes to mind when you think of romance, love, and Valentine’s Day?  Probably things like sunsets, flowers, chocolates, candles, poetry, and bubble baths.  You know, girl stuff.

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Francesca Cancian, who writes on love, calls this the feminization of love.  It makes love seem like its for women and girls only.  This is a problem for at least two reasons.  First, because men are supposed to avoid girly things in our culture, they are pressured to pretend like they’re not into love and love-related things.  That’s why men are offered the alternative Steak and a Blow Job Day.

Second, it makes other ways of expressing love less visible.  Maybe he shows love by always changing the oil in the car or making sure the computer is updated with anti-virus software.  These can be mis-recognized as not about love because they aren’t the proper socially constructed symbols.  So, if he doesn’t also show up with flowers or candy once in a while, maybe she doesn’t feel loved.

The flip side of this is the masculinization of sex.  The rather new idea that what men are really interested in is sex and that this is secondary or, even, obligatory for women.

The feminization of love and masculinization of sex manifests itself in a myriad of ways across our culture, causing all sorts of problems.  In the case of Valentine’s Day, it makes it seem as if the (assumed heterosexual) holiday is for women but, if he does it right, he’ll get sex as a reward.  How romantic.

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.

The Social Construction of Solitude

This animated poem, sent in by Dmitriy T.C., artfully addresses the stigma of being alone. It begins by differentiating between social contexts in which solitude is expected or accepted (libraries) and those in which we are taught it is embarrassing or sad (restaurants). It ends with a defense of the pleasure of being only with oneself.

Video by Andrea Dorfman; poem, music, and performance by Tanya Davis.  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.

Valentine’s Day as Youth Rebellion in India

I am always surprised when Valentine’s day rolls around in America as the fiery public outbursts don’t seem so prevalent. In contemporary India this day holds a special significance especially for youngsters. More than the average date-night with an exchange of chocolates, gifts, and flowers, Valentine’s Day provides an opportunity for young practitioners to authenticate and reify their practice of dating and pursuing “true love.”

While arranged marriages are considered  the moral norm, pursuing individual love fantasies are potentially frowned upon and discouraged in a lot of modern Indian homes. Hindutva followers (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) also recommend boycotting the day labeling it western, anti-Hindu, a moral corruption of Indian youth.

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Indian youngsters, however, represent a marketable youth desiccated by parental norms, traditional values, and mixed sexual messages. Valentine’s Day appears as an oasis of freedom, filled with everything the society and parents condemn. They are marketable not only with chocolates, pretty red roses and heart-shaped goods, but also marketable for practices that condone a “way of life” very different from those their parents seem to follow.

In this sense, participation in Valentine’s Day is a kind of religious act. Counter-culture, anti-traditional, and even anti-caste (according to the DMK), participation is of the utmost necessity to its ardent young fans and signifies their socio-cultural milieu.

While some think it’s quite inauthentic for Indians to be celebrating Valentine’s Day, Indian youngsters see it as a natural display of their modern values in response to their conservative parents. They may even connect across religious diversity upon this issue. As a mode of rejecting the anti-dating model culturally imposed by parents, kids take to streets kissing in public, exchanging cards and flowers, hungry to share their love with each other.

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Ultimately the observer has to notice that the plethora of critiques have made Indian celebrators broaden their definition of love, invoking Valentine’s Day for animals and celebrations with destitute elders and those mentally challenged.

“For charity and for love” seems to provide an example for a more neutral celebration, condoned by older members of the community. Each time the day is evoked the ritual is transformed. Even in America some call this day a “Hallmark holiday” and refuse to buy into the propaganda that tells you to monetarily express your love.  Others reject the day, crying that it forces gender stereotypes and creates unwanted expectations. Far divorced from the roots of a religious tradition called Christianity, St.Valentine’s Day has morphed into a Hallmark holiday for Americans and an excuse to publicly proclaim your dating culture for Indian youth.

What the Indian haters of Valentine’s Day need to realize is that it’s probably nothing personal. Young people have always wanted an excuse to make-out in the back rows instead of pay attention in class. India also just seem to “love love” as a friendly visitor once told me. But, we cannot ignore the fact that these practices are changing based on the lifestyle needs of modern urban Indians, and that they are also changing peoples expectations and expressions of love.

The Hindutva respondents are like some Christians and Muslims who argue that participating in yoga might make you Hindu. They certainly aren’t wrong in implying that participation in a practice could  transform your worldview. Far from being irrelevant to religion, opposing meanings of what the practice of Valentine’s Day may create only indicates that “you never know what you’re gonna get!”

Deeksha Sivakumar is a Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions at Emory University, GA. Her current research interests surround a particular enactment of a goddess festival and its unique celebration in Southern India as Bommai Golu. You can follow her on TwitterThis post originally appeared at Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

Does Stymied Educational Attainment Lead to Depression?

A popular quote urges us to shoot for the moon: even if we miss, it tells us, we’ll land among the stars. According to new research, there’s more to it than cheesy inspiration. Using data from two waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, sociologist John Reynolds and Chardie Baird test the common notion that failing to attain as much education as expected is associated with symptoms of depression in early/middle adulthood.

First, their results show that individuals with lower levels of education are more likely to exhibit signs of depression.

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But, further statistical wrangling shows that their depression doesn’t come from the gap between plans and achievement. It comes from the low level of educational attainment in itself.

Reynolds and Baird conclude that there are no long-term emotional costs to aiming high and falling short when it comes to educational aspirations. This contradicts decades of research that holds that unmet educational expectations lead to psychological distress. In fact, not trying is the only way to ensure lower levels of education and increased chances of poor mental health. So, go ahead and shoot for that moon.

Hollie Nyseth Brehm is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Minnesota.  She is the graduate editor of The Society Pages.  This post originally appeared at Contexts Discoveries.

Female Celebrities and the “Faint Sexual Flame”

3Thanks to a tip from Jay Livingston, I came across this quote from The Pursuit of  Loneliness by sociologist Philip Slater.  It’s long, but wow:

[I]t can’t be denied that the female ideal in America is nonaggressive and nonthreatening, to the point of caricature.  Take for example the film personality of the much-idolized Marilyn Monroe: docile, accommodating, brainless, defenseless, totally uncentered, incapable of taking up for herself or knowing what she wants or needs. A sexual encounter with such a woman in real life would border on rape – the idea of “consenting adults” wouldn’t even apply.  The term “perversion” seems more appropriate for this kind of yearning than for homosexuality or bestiality, since it isn’t directed toward a complete being.  The Marilyn Monroe image was the ideal sex object for the sexually crippled and anxious male: a bland erotic pudding that would never upset his delicate stomach.

It’s important to realize that this Playboy ideal is a sign of low, rather than high, sexual energy.  It suggests that the sexual flame is so faint and wavering that a whole person would overwhelm and extinguish it.  Only a vapid, compliant ninny-fantasy can keep it alive. It’s designed for men who don’t really like sex but need it for tension-release – men whose libido is wrapped up in achievement or dreams of glory.

Slater wrote this passage in 1970, hence the reference to Marilyn Monroe.  I would have to think hard about whether I think it still applies broadly, but I think it’s fair to say that the “bland erotic pudding” is still part of the repertoire of essentially every female celebrity who is successful in part because of her appearance.  I did a search for some of the most high-profile female actresses and singers today, looking specifically for images that might fit Slater’s description.  I invite your thoughts.

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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.