Tag Archives: bodies: fat

Gender and the Body Language of Power

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky once observed that being feminine often means using one’s body to portray powerlessness.  Consider: A feminine person keeps her body small and contained; she makes sure that it doesn’t take up to much space or impose itself.  She walks and sits in tightly packaged ways.  She doesn’t cover the breadth of the sidewalk or expand herself beyond the chair she occupies.

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Comic by A. Stiffler at Chaos Life.

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Likewise, burping and farting, raising one’s voice in an argument, and even laughing loudly are considered distinctly unfeminine.  A feminine person doesn’t use her body to forcefully interact with the world, she lets others do for her when possible.  ”Massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste,” Bartky wrote.

Stunningly, when you think about it, these features of feminine body comportment are, in fact, not uniquely feminine, but associated with deference more generally.  Bartky again:

In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat.  Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return.  What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease…

Acting feminine, then, overlaps with performances of submissiveness.  Both men and women use their bodies in more feminine ways when their interacting with a superior, whether it be their boss, their commander, a police officer, or their professor.

New evidence suggests that this is not pure theory.  Psychologist Andy Yap and his colleagues tested whether “expansive body postures” like the ones associated with masculinity increase people’s sense of powerfulness and entitlement.  They did.  In laboratory experiments, people who were prompted to take up more space were more likely to steal, cheat, and violate traffic laws in a simulation.  A sense of powerfulness, reported by the subjects, mediated the effect (a robust finding that others have documented as well).

In a real world test of the theory, they found that large automobiles with greater internal space were more likely than small ones to be illegally parked in New York City.

Research, then, has shown that expansive body postures that take up room instill a psychological sense of power and entitlement.  The fact that this behavior is gendered may go some way towards explaining the persistence of gender inequality and, more pointedly, some men’s belief that they have earned their unearned privileges.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and 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.

“Hard Out Here”: Lily Allen Skewers the Music Industry

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.

1.  Surrounding herself with twerking black women, she makes a reference to Miley Cyrus’ use of women of color as props in her VMA appearance:

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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:

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3.  She refers to the “rape-y” lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, singing:

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.

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5.  Finally, she goes after materialism and product placement:

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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.

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Screenshot_5Even 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 Report don’ 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.

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

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.

Anna Rexia Halloween Costume

We originally posted about this six years ago.  But, yep, they’re still selling it: The “Anna Rexia Dreamgirl” costume.
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Copy reads: “You can never be too rich or too thin.”  Costume comes with a measuring tape belt.  In 2007, it was also featured in “plus size”:

H/t @RGWonser.

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.

An Argument for the Total Irrelevance of Beauty

Today is  Love Your Body Day and is this is our favorite body positive post of the year, re-posted in celebration.  Enjoy these seven beautiful minutes in which Kara Kamos explains that she is ugly and she couldn’t care less (most of the time):

What’s more important than being beautiful?

  • Breathing
  • Living
  • The universe
  • New life forms
  • Doing stuff
  • Friends
  • Having fun

Personally, I really identified with the discussion that starts at 3:51 about not letting how she looks get in the way of her doing things.  Often when I’m asked to do public speaking or appear on video, a part of me silently asks the question, “Am I attractive enough to deserve to do this?”  The question is absurd.  Not because I AM pretty enough, but because the question assumes that, if I weren’t, I would turn down an opportunity on that basis alone.   And that  is plain silliness.

See all of our body loving posts from the archive!

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’s Causing the Rise in Obesity? Everything.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

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 Weird New World of Girl Cheese

In May we featured a block of cheese that inspired quite the response.  Riffing off the name “Monterey Jack,” a company was selling “Monterey Jill”: the same old cheese, but reduced fat.  It was an excellent example of the way dieting is feminized.

People — myself included — were pretty stunned to see gendered cheese; who knew this was going to be a thing.  In fact, Liam sent us an example of gendered string cheese with the exact same theme: there’s string cheese animated by a male character and reduced-fat string cheese animated by a female character.  Also, they’re surfing; aaaaaand I have no analysis of that.

Screenshot_1Thanks for reminding the ladies to be worried about their waistlines cheese people!  It’s not as if we don’t get that message absolutely every time we turn around!

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 Fat Joke: Power and the Meaning of Words

If this PostSecret confession doesn’t break your heart, you are a bad person.

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Last week I chatted with the Canadian Broadcasting Company for a segment they’re doing on humor and power.  I used hateful jokes about fat people as an example of how patterns in comedy reveal our biases: who it is okay to revile, whose feelings we can dismiss, who we see as less-than-human.

I was surprised when the host said that some argue that pointing out people’s weight isn’t offensive because it’s “just a fact.”  I responded, “Sociologists don’t believe in that kind of fact.”  Two hundreds years ago being called fat would have been a compliment: it represented power, success, wealth, and (yes) health.  Today the meaning of fat has changed.  The word is now a weapon.  For the person who wrote this secret, fatness is not a fact; it’s a “humiliat[ion].”  This is what dehumanization feels like.

Whoever you are, I wish I could give your warm, comfy body a big giant hug.

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.

Cultural- and Individual-Level Interventions Against Eating Disorders (Trigger Warning)

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

The problem:

A Brazilian modeling agency, Star Models, recently released a new series of anti-anorexia PSA advertisements. They illustrate one of the ways ultra-thin body ideals characterizing women’s bodies in the fashion industry today are institutionalized, or made part of the way we “do” fashion. Fashion sketches — the way that people communicate designs to one another — idealize these bodies, with their exaggerated proportions, long slender limbs, and expressionless faces. The PSAs place real women alongside the sketches, graphically altered to similar proportions, in order to problematize the ideal.

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Sociology professors are constantly asking students to analyze what they might be taking for granted. One issue we take for granted is that the images on the left are what “fashion” looks like and ought to look like. That they are culturally recognizable as fashion sketches speaks to the ways in which hyper-thin feminine bodies are institutionalized at a fundamental level in the fashion industry today.

The Dove Evolution video – as a part of their “Campaign for Real Beauty” — vividly illustrates the work that goes into the production of advertisements. Using a time-lapse video depicting the diverse labor that goes into the production of an ad was a simple illustration of the impossibility of contemporary beauty ideals. Viewers are left thinking, “Of course we can’t look like that. She doesn’t even look like that.”

Star Models’ anti-anorexia ads promote a similar message, but also call our attention to the more dangerous aspects of adherence to industry ideals. Similar to depictions of what Barbie might look like as a real woman, altered images of dangerously thin models aside these sketches have a very different feel from the sketches they imitate.

What is being done about it?

In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) passed a Health Initiative in recognition of an increasingly global concern with the unhealthily thin bodies of models and whether/how to promote change in the industry. The CFDA is working to better educate those inside the industry to identify individuals at risk, to require models with eating disorders to seek help and acquire professional approval to continue working, to develop workshops promoting dialog on these issues, and more.

The CFDA’s Health Initiative, however, treats eating disorders as an individual rather than social problem. This allows the CFDA to obscure the role it might play in perpetuating cultural desires for the very bodies it purports to “help” with the Health Initiative.

Susan Bordo famously wrote about anorexia as what she termed “the crystallization of culture.” We like to draw firm boundaries between normality and pathology. But Bordo suggests that anorexia is more profitably analyzed as culturally normative than as abnormal. Similarly, Star Models’ PSAs play a role in framing the fashion industry as (at least partially) responsible for ultra-thin feminine body ideals. Yet, they arguably fall short of providing institutional-level solutions as the tagline — ”You are not a sketch. Say no to anorexia.” — concentrates on individuals.

The CFDA’s focus on health initiatives and support for individuals suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are critical aspects of recognizing issues that seem to plague the fashion industry. While this surely helps some individual women, the initiatives simultaneously avoid the cultural pressures (in which the fashion industry arguably plays a critical role) that work to systematically conflate feminine beauty with ultra-thin ideals. Similar to problems associated with focusing attention only on the survivors of sexual assaults (failing to recognize the ways that sexual violence is both institutionalized and embedded in our culture), these images simply illustrate that individual-level solutions are unlikely to produce change precisely because they fail to locate “the problem” and ignore the diverse social institutions and ideals that assist in its reproduction.

Thanks to a student in my Sociology of Gender course, Sandra Little, for bringing this campaign to my attention.

Tristan Bridges is a sociologist of gender and sexuality at the College at Brockport (SUNY).  Dr. Bridges blogs about some of this research and more at Inequality by (Interior) Design.  You can follow him on twitter @tristanbphd.