We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
The philosopher Susan Sontag has written achingly about the way in which men are allowed to age and women are not.
The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks — heavier, rougher, more thickly built…
There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat.
What a stunning example of Sontag’s observation. The men are not considered unattractive by virtue of the fact that you can tell they have skin. The women, in contrast, have faces that are so smooth that they look inhuman; their images are halfway between photograph and cartoon. Amazingly, this treatment of images of men and women is so ubiquitous that it now looks more or less normal to us.
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.
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.
We’ve highlighted the ways in which society portrays men as people and women as women many times over. So many times, in fact, that we started a Pinterest collection. There are two scenarios in which men are the default person: (1) masculine spaces, like the workplace and politics, and (2) neutral spaces that aren’t associated with men or women, like museums and the internet.
When something is distinctly feminized, however, things flip. @jessimckenzi and @freedenoeur forwarded us a pointed example: a brand of lotion called “everyone.” Everyone lotion comes in two types: everyone lotion “for everyone and every body” and everyone lotion for men:
This practice reminds us who belongs where by making one gender or the other the neutral participant and then adding a modifier in order to selectively include the other sex. Another example of this phenomenon is the masculinizing of feminine products in order to sell them to men and the feminizing of masculine products to sell them to women. Together these practices affirm and naturalize gender-based segregation in our social spaces and activities.
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.
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?
New life forms
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.
In a wonderfully provocative article titled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (full text), writer and poet Adrienne Rich argues, among other things, that the assumption of heterosexuality in the context of patriarchy alternatively erases and stigmatizes woman-to-woman bonds.
Though the title specifies lesbianism, she means intense and meaningful relationships between women more generally. In other words, an overbearing heterosexuality orients women towards men not just as sexual and romantic partners, but as the arbiters of all that is good and right. Accordingly, women don’t turn to other women to validate their ideas, their value, their beauty, or anything else about them. This post, analyzing the reality show Battle of the Bods, is a stark example.
If only men can validate women’s worth, then other women exist only as competition for their approval. This is good for patriarchy; it divides and conquers women, keeping them constantly looking to please the men around them and making them feel invisible and worthless if they can’t get attention from or endorsement from men.
There are various strategies for getting men’s stamp of approval: being the busy and useful mother of a man’s children is one way, while being a childless so-called “trophy wife” is another. You can imagine, right away, that these two kinds of women might see themselves as in competition. One may be more harried, with less time to tend to her physical fitness and keep her hair shiny and her make-up and clothes just right. The other may have plenty of time to keep herself fit and beautiful, but knows that her connection to her husband may feel less permanent without children to tie her to him. Moreover, the childless wife is often a second wife. So all sexy, single, childless women are, theoretically, a threat to the wife and mother. And all husband/dads are, theoretically, a target for wanna-be second wives.
Pop culture constantly re-affirms these narratives. It frequently naturalizes the idea that women should turn to men, and not women, to reinforce their value. Portraying women as in competition is part of that. The “trophy wife” vs. the “busy mom” is one of those match-ups. Enter this Volvo ad, sent in by Dolores R.:
The ad encourages us to think mean-spirited thoughts about the married but (presumably) childless woman with the puckered lips. She clearly sees herself as in competition with the redhead, looking over to check that she is, in fact, more beautiful, and looking satisfied that she is. The redhead, though, has (supposedly) more important things to do than check herself out in the mirror. She’s got kids. How shallow the blond, we’re told to think, how fake. “Designed for real people,” the narrator explains, “designed around you.”
As my good friend Caroline Heldman says, when we see women that excel in some way — whether they be accomplished in their career, impressive fashionistas, incredible parents, truly loved partners, inspired artists, or what-have-you — we are taught to find something about them to dismiss because they make us feel insecure. Instead, we should think “How fabulous is she! I want to tell her how great she is and be her friend!”