Tag Archives: gender: bodies

What Do Little Girls Really Learn from “Career” Barbies?

Like a lot of moms, I faced the Barbie dilemma when my daughter was younger. Ultimately I  figured a little bit of Barbie would sate her appetite (and stop the nagging) without doing too much harm. Like a vaccination, or homeopathic inoculation against the Big Bad. I told myself my daughter didn’t use her dolls for fashion play anyway: her Barbie “funeral,” for instance, was a tour de force of childhood imagination. I told myself I only got her “good” Barbies: ethnic Barbies, Wonder Woman Barbie, Cleopatra Barbie. Now that she’s 10 and long ago gave the dolls away (or “mummified” them and buried them in the back yard in a “time capsule”), I can’t say whether they’ll have any latent impact on her body image or self-perception. It would seem ludicrous, at any rate, to try to pinpoint the impact of one toy.

But now, according to a study published this week,  it turns out that playing with Barbie, even career Barbie, may indeed limit girls’ perception of their own future choices. Psychologists randomly assigned girls ages 4-7 to play with one of three dolls. Two were Barbies: a fashion Barbie (in a dress and high heels); and a “career” Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. (NOTE: I just pulled these images from the web: I don’t know which actual Barbies they used.)

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The third, “control” doll was a Mrs. Potato Head, who,  although she comes with fashion accessories such as a purse and shoes, doesn’t have Barbie’s sexualized (and totally unrealistic) curves.

So, after just a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers, according to the authors, were male-dominated and half were female dominated. The results:

Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.

More to the point:

There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.

Obviously, the study is not definitive. Obviously, one doll isn’t going to make the critical difference in a young woman’s life blah blah blah. Still, it’s interesting that it doesn’t matter whether the girls played with fashion Barbie or doctor Barbie, the doll had the same effect and in only a few minutes.

That reminded me of a study in which college women enrolled in an advanced calculus class were asked to watch a series of four, 30-second TV commercials. The first group watched four netural ads. The second group watched two neutral ads and two depicting stereotypes about women  (a girl enraptured by acne medicine; a woman drooling over a brownie mix). Afterward they completed a survey and—bing!—the group who’d seen the stereo- typed ads expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers than classmates who had watched only the neutral ones. Let me repeat: the effect was demonstrable after watching two ads.

And guess who performed better on a math test, coeds who took it after being asked to try on a bathing suit or those who had been asked to try on a sweater? (Hint: the latter group; interestingly, male students showed no such disparity.)

Now think about the culture girls are exposed to over and over and over and over and over, whether in toys or movies or tv or music videos, in which regardless of what else you are—smart, athletic, kind, even feminist, even old—you must be “hot.” Perhaps, then, the issue is not “well, one doll can’t have that much of an impact,” so much as “if playing with one doll for a few minutes has that much impact what is the effect of the tsunami of sexualization that girls confront every day, year after year?”

Peggy Orenstein is the author of four books, including The New York Times best-seller Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  You can follow her at her blog, where this post originally appeared, on facebook, and on twitter.

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.

Courtesy Stigma and the Consequences of Deviance

In 2010 a scandal that erupted when designer Mark Fast decided to use four plus-size models (US sizes 8-10) in his catwalk show at London Fashion Week.  Protesting his decision, his stylist and creative director quit, leaving him just three days to find replacements.

The incident is a great example of how even relatively powerful figures (e.g., designers with catwalk shows) often have to pay a price for deviating from cultural rules. Designers are often criticized for only hiring waif-like models, but this shows that they don’t get to do whatever they like without consequences.

 

While it’s easy to condemn Fast’s stylist and creative director for walking out on him, the truth is that even being associated with deviance can bring consequences.  Sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the idea of the “courtesy stigma” to refer to the stigma that attaches to those who are merely associated with a stigmatized person. A recent Grey’s Anatomy episode dealt with exactly this idea in a story about the reaction to an attractive blonde married to an obese man. Her willingness to stay with such a person was a source of curiosity and disbelief.  Similarly, siblings of the mentally ill or mothers of children with  attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder might suffer courtesy stigma when people wonder if the mental illness is genetic or the parenting is bad, respectively.

So, while it’s tempting to say that Fast’s employees hold reprehensible ideological beliefs (a hatred or intolerance for “plus-size” women), it’s also possible that they thought being associated with the show could hurt their chances of success in a very competitive career.  In an industry that stigmatizes fat so powerfully, I can imagine it might be terrifying indeed to be seen as endorsing it.

Cite: Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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.

The SocImages Re-Touching/Photoshop Collection

We’re cultivating a Pinterest page featuring revealing examples of re-touching and photoshop.  Here are our nineteen newest contributions, borrowed from JezebelBuzzfeed, and Photoshop Disasters.

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Perfect without a belly button (ebay); Lindsey Lohan once also had a mighty migrating belly button:

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Terrifying proportions (Westfield Mall):

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And Good Housekeeping too:
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Take care with the placement of that right hip (Victoria’s Secret):

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Let us count the ways (Speigel, Victoria’s Secret, and Laffy Taffy via Photoshop Disaster):

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See our full Pinterest page here.

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.

Do Cartoons Have to Exaggerate Gender Difference?

One criticism of my post on gender dimorphism in Disney movies was that good animation inevitably exaggerates sex differences. There are a lot of these comments here on SocImages and at Slate. Here’s one example:

Cartoons aren’t meant to accurately portray people, EVER. They are meant to exaggerate features, so that they are more prominent and eye catching. So feminine features are made more feminine, and masculine features are made more masculine. … The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.

Flipping through IMDB’s list of the top 500 animated movies reveals that Disney is certainly not alone in emphasizing the larger size of males. But there are a few successful counterexamples as well.

Here are some good ones where the male and female characters are similarly proportioned. Note these are not just random male and female characters but couples (more or less).

From Kiki’s Delivery Service by Hayao Miyazaki:

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From Dreams of Jinsha:

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Even some old Disney movies have romantic moments between physically-similar males and females. The original Snow White (from the 1937 movie) was paired with a Prince Charming whose wrists were barely bigger than hers:

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Disney non-human animal pairs were sometimes quite physically matched. Consider Bambi and Faline (Bambi, 1942):

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Or Dutchess and O’Malley from Aristocats (1970) in which their exaggerated femininity and masculinity are not conveyed through extreme body-size difference:

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In other realms of animation, Marge and Homer Simpson, the most durable couple in animation history, have very similar features: heads, eyes, noses, ears. His arms are fatter and neither of them really have wrists, but I’d put this in the category of normal sex difference:

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Of course, Lucy and Charlie Brown were virtually identical if you think about it:

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I’m open to other suggestions.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Shifting Discourses of Motherhood: The Victorian Breastfeeding Photo Fad

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

Last year Lynne Grumet set the internet a-flutter when she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine breastfeeding her toddler. Reactions were largely negative, often reflecting unease at the open display of a sexualized body part being used to feed a child older than the age we generally find acceptable. Others objected to what they saw as the sensationalism of the photo. Grumet later posed on the cover of another magazine in a pose that focused on bonding and intimacy, commonly cited as benefits by breastfeeding advocates. The entire episode tapped into larger cultural anxieties about appropriate mothering.

And as Jill Lepore explains in The Mansion of Happiness, it’s just the latest round in the changing discourse about breastfeeding; in the mid-1800s, images of breastfeeding mothers became a fad in the U.S. The use of wet nurses had never been as common in the U.S. as in Europe, and it became even less popular by the early 1800s; breastfeeding your own child became a central measure of your worth as a mother.  Cultural constructions of femininity became highly centered on motherhood and the special bond between a mother and her children in the Victorian era.

As daguerreotypes became available, women began to pose breastfeeding their infants, capturing them in this most essential of maternal roles:

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Cosetra has created a Pinterest board of vintage photos and paintings of breastfeeding that has more examples.

Within decades, American women suddenly seemed to lose the ability to adequately feed their babies, just as infant formula hit the market. Doctors continued to push breastfeeding, but cultural perceptions changed, and with them the social construction of femininity. Rather than being a symbol of maternalism, breastfeeding seemed incompatible with femininity — or, specifically, with white upper-class femininity. Breastfeeding didn’t mesh well with ideas of delicate, refined white women; it was too animal-like, too uncivilized. As Lepore relates, by the early 1900s, a study in Boston found that 9 out of 10 poor mothers breastfed, but only 17% of wealthy mothers did.

By the 1950s, only 20% of mothers nursed their children. Then, ideas about motherhood changed once again; suddenly comparatively privileged, white women were drawn to movements that advocated breastfeeding. Formula came under increased scrutiny. And so continued the ongoing cultural debate over breastfeeding, motherhood, and proper femininity.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.  Sources: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (direct link to daguerreotypes here); Marvelous Kiddoliveauctioneers.

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

Wrinkle-Washed: Female Faces in Film Marketing

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.

Perhaps nowhere is this more plain than in the movies, where men’s love interests stay the same age as they get older, and @sphericalfruit sent in a fantastic example.  The four posters below are part of a new marketing plan for the forthcoming movie, The Counselor.

Notice anything?

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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.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and VitaminW.

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.

Re-Touching the Consequences of Extreme Thinness

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

A former editor at Cosmopolitan, Leah Hardy, recently wrote an exposé about the practice of photoshopping models to hide the health and aesthetic costs of extreme thinness. Below is an example featuring Cameron Diaz:


The story about Diaz, in The Telegraph, includes the following description of the image’s manipulation:

  • Face: Cheeks appear filled out
  • Bust: Levelled
  • Thighs: Wider in the picture on the right
  • Hip: The bony definition has been smoothed away
  • Stomach: A fuller, more natural look
  • Arms: A bit more bulk in the arms and shoulders

Another example was posted at The Daily What. Notice that her prominent ribcage has been photoshopped out of the photograph on the right, which ran in the October 2012 issue of  Numéro.

Hardy, the editor at Cosmo, explains that she frequently re-touched models who were “frighteningly thin.”  Others have reported similar practices:

Jane Druker, the editor of Healthy magazine — which is sold in health food stores — admitted retouching a cover girl who pitched up at a shoot looking “really thin and unwell”…

The editor of the top-selling health and fitness magazine in the U.S., Self, has admitted: “We retouch to make the models look bigger and healthier”…

And the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, has quietly confessed to being appalled by some of the models on shoots for her own magazine, saying: “I have found myself saying to the photographers, ‘Can you not make them look too thin?’”

Robin Derrick, creative director of Vogue, has admitted: “I spent the first ten years of my career making girls look thinner — and the last ten making them look larger.”

Hardy described her position as a “dilemma” between offering healthy images and reproducing the mythology that extreme thinness is healthy:

At the time, when we pored over the raw images, creating the appearance of smooth flesh over protruding ribs, softening the look of collarbones that stuck out like coat hangers, adding curves to flat bottoms and cleavage to pigeon chests, we felt we were doing the right thing… We knew our readers would be repelled by these grotesquely skinny women, and we also felt they were bad role models and it would be irresponsible to show them as they really were.

But now, I wonder. Because for all our retouching, it was still clear to the reader that these women were very, very thin. But, hey, they still looked great!

They had 22-inch waists (those were never made bigger), but they also had breasts and great skin. They had teeny tiny ankles and thin thighs, but they still had luscious hair and full cheeks.

Thanks to retouching, our readers… never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny. That these underweight girls didn’t look glamorous in the flesh. Their skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology, leaving only the allure of coltish limbs and Bambi eyes.

Insightfully, Hardy describes this as a “vision of perfection that simply didn’t exist” and concludes, “[n]o wonder women yearn to be super-thin when they never see how ugly [super-]thin can be.”

UPDATE:  A comment has brought up the point that it’s bad to police people’s bodies, no matter whether they’re thin or fat.  And this is an important point (made well here) and, while I agree that some of the language is harsh, that’s not what’s going on here.  The vast majority of the models who need reverse photoshopping aren’t women who just happen to have that body type.  They are part of an social institution that demands extreme thinness and they’re working hard on their bodies to be able to deliver it.  This isn’t, then, about shaming naturally thin women, it’s about (1) calling out an industry that requires women to be unhealthy and then hides the harmful consequences and (2) acknowledging that even people who are a part of that industry don’t necessarily have the power to change it.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and The Huffington Post in Spanish, French, and German.

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.