Tag Archives: gender: children/youth

Girls Braced for Beauty

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.

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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.

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:

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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.

This lines up with other studies that have shown girls want braces more at a given level of need, and they are more likely than boys to get orthodontic treatment after being referred to a specialist. Among those getting braces, there are more girls whose need is low or borderline. A study of 12-19 year-oldsgetting braces at a university clinic found 56 percent of the girls, compared with 47 percent of the boys, had “little need” for them on the aesthetic scale.

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

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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.

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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.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality, Adios Barbie, and Jezebel.

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.

Over Half of Today’s Teenagers Are Virgins

In my lecture about the sex lives of college students, I remind students that they didn’t invent casual sex.  This always prompts some snickers.  The fact that today’s students have about the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age evokes an even stronger response.   About 1/5th of college students will be virgins when they graduate college.

In fact, college students aren’t as sexually active as the moralizing makes it seem.  And neither, it turns out, are teenagers.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 57% of girls and 58% of boys age 15 to 19 have never had penile-vaginal intercourse.  Moreover, the percent of teenagers that have had intercourse has been dropping consistently over the last 20 years.

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So, despite the fact that young people are more likely than earlier generations to engage in oral sex before initiating penile-vaginal intercourse (especially fellatio), they continue to take intercourse very seriously.  This may be, in part, because men are becoming more like women in this regard.  Men’s numbers have dropped much more sharply. In addition, for the first time the CDC study found that boys’ #2 reason for not having engaged in intercourse was that they were waiting for the right person.  Men cited this reason 29% of the time, compared to 19% for girls.  For both boys and girls, the #1 reason is that it’s against their religion (41% of girls and 31% of boys).  Concerns about pregnancy come in third.

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.

Halloween Costumes: Then and Now

It’s become a tradition, every year about this time, to have a national conversation about the rise of sexy Halloween costumes, especially for little girls.  But are they really sexier than before?

Sure enough.  Jessica Samakow at the Huffington Post put together a gallery of then and now photos, sent along by Katrin.  See for yourself:

More about sexy costumes for women and girls: boy and girl cookie monster costumeswhen sexy overtakes all reasonsexy femininity and gender inequalitysexy scholarHarem girl, the sexy body bag costume, and a Halloween gender binary.

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.

Tiny the Pterodactyl and the Gender Ideology of Halloween

Here’s an interesting example of the triumph of ideology over simple fact.  Fia K. sent in a link to a costume sold at Amazon titled “Tiny Boy’s Costume.”  The costume is a green pterodactyl.  There is no equivalent Tiny Girl’s Costume.  When I search for that phrase, the search engine deletes the word “girl” and sends me back to here.

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This is more than just an instance of associating boys with dinosaurs and excluding girls, although that would be problematic enough.  No, the costume is called “Tiny” because it’s associated with a cartoon character with that name from the show Dinosaur Train.

Funny thing is, Tiny is female (note the eyelashes, you can always tell by the eyelashes).

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This is evidence of how powerful gender ideology can be.  Tiny’s actual fictional femaleness is less powerful than the ideological association of boys and dinosaurs.  Hence, a Tiny Boy’s Costume.

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.

How Sexy Stole Naughty

Lindy West for the win at Jezebel, asks what’s so sexualizing about calling a child’s costume “naughty.”  The costume below was widely criticized for sexualizing little girls, but West nicely observes that there is a non-sexual, child-related meaning to the word naughty.  You know, being bad.  The non-sexual version of bad.  Doing something you’re not supposed to do.  A non-sexual thing.  You know what I mean!  West writes:

Sure, naughty has had sexual connotations as far back as the mid-19th century, but it’s been used to describe disobedient kids since the goddamn 1600s. So why did we let hornay college chicks hijack the word in all its forms? Why can’t children be naughty anymore?

It’s a great question.

The instinct that “naughty” means “bad and sexy” probably stems in part from our Puritanical roots.  Today it gets tied up with the infantilization of women and the notion that women should be cute like girls.  Add the rampant sexualization at Halloween, including costumes in which women dress up like little girls dressed up like sexy adult women.  It’s hard to see how one could avoid interpreting this “naughty leopard” as an example of the sexualization of little girls.

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Nevertheless, West is right.  The biggest problem with this costume’s title is that it includes the word “leopard.”  Because that’s just false advertising.  It doesn’t say sexy leopard and the dress — I’ll stop calling it a costume now — is not particularly sexualizing.

West calls for change:

Why don’t we send “naughty” back from whence it came—into the realm of wedgies and spitballs and pies cooling on the windowsill with bites taken out of them!? It’s time, people. You know it is. Take Back the Naughty. For the children.

And for the grown ups, too, who are tired of the idea that being a sexual person makes us bad, bad girls and boys.

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 “Sworn Virgins” of Albania: Social Rules and Accommodations

New interest in the virgjinesha inspires us to re-post our coverage from 2012.

Rigid gender roles often inspire creative solutions.  Families in Afghanistan, for example, when they have all girls, often pick a daughter to pretend to be a boy until puberty.  The child can then run errands, get a job, and chaperone “his” sisters in public (all things girls aren’t allowed to do).  The transition is sudden and doesn’t involve relocation, so the entire community knows that the child is a girl.  They just pretend nothing at all strange is going on.  In fact, it’s not strange.  It happens quite routinely.

A similar phenomenon emerged in Albania in the 1400s.  Inter-group warfare had left a dearth of men in many communities.  Since rights and responsibilities were strongly sex-typed, some families needed a “man” to accomplish certain things like buy land and pass down wealth.

In response, some girls became “virgjinesha,” or sworn virgins. A sworn virgin was a socially-recognized man for the rest of “his” life (so long as the oath was kept).  Many girls would take the oath after their father died.

There are only about forty sworn virgins left; as women were granted more and more rights, fewer and fewer girls felt the need to adopt a male identity for themselves or their families.

Some of the remaining virgjinesha were featured in a New York Times slideshow.  Two of the images, by photographer Johan Spanner, are reproduced here.

After becoming a man, Qamile Stema [below] said she could leave the house and chop wood with other men. She also carried a gun. At wedding parties, she sat with men. When she talked to women, she recalled, they recoiled in shyness.

Qamile Stema said she would die a virgin. Had she married, she joked, it would have been to a traditional Albanian woman. “I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man, but of course I never did everything a man does,” she said. “I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets.”

Photographer Jill Peters has captured images of sworn virgins, including this images of Lumia from 2011:

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.

Power, Mickey Mouse, and the Infantilization of Women

Here and there the media becomes interested in the sexualization of little girls and, when they do, I often get a call from a reporter or two.  I’ve yet to see any of them pick up on what I think is the really interesting story.  They want to talk about child models, little girls in beauty pageants, and the transitional tween years for Disney star prodigies, but I always want to add into the mix the infantilization of adult women.

The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of adult women are two sides of the same coin.  They both tell us that we should find youth, inexperience, and naivete sexy in women, but not in men.  This reinforces a power and status difference between men and women, where vulnerability, weakness, and dependency and their opposites are gendered traits: desirable in one sex but not the other.

Now, thanks to @BonneZ, I know that this has something interesting to do with Mickey Mouse.

The original Mouse, Stephen Jay Gould has observed, was a kind of nasty character.  But, as he has evolved into the “cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom,” he has appeared increasingly childlike. This six figures below indicate Mickey’s evolution over time:

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Childlike features, Gould argues, inspire a need to nurture: “When we see a living creature with babyish features,” he writes, “we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.”   Allison Guy observes that we see a similar trend in recent toy makeovers — larger eyes, bigger heads, fatter stumpier limbs — but we see this primarily in toys aimed at infants and girls, not boys:

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Guy interprets this trend as the “result of a cultural imperative for women to embody both the cute and the sexual.”  So, women don “cute” clothes with colorful patterns associated with children and wear “flippy skirts” and “baby doll” t-shirts. They wear eyeliner to give the illusion of the large eyes of childhood, foundation to hide the marks of aging on the face, and pink on their cheeks to mimic the blush of youth.  They are taught these imperatives from an early age.

What does it mean that feminine beauty is conflated with youthfulness, but masculine beauty is not — that we want women to be both cute and sexual?  It means that we feel comfortable with women who seem helpless and require taking care of, perhaps we even encourage or demand these traits from women.  Perhaps these childlike characteristics are most comforting in women who are, in fact, the least needy; I submit that we are more accepting of powerful women when they perform girlish beauty.  When they don’t, they are often perceived as threatening or unlikable.

So, yes, the sexualization of girls is interesting — and no doubt it’s no good for girls and likely contributes to older men’s sexual interest in young women — but it’s not just about sexualizing kids early.  It’s about infantilizing adult women, too, as a way to remind women of their prescribed social position relative to men.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and 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.

Why Male Pregnancy Matters

The reproductive health police are at it again, and this time they’ve got the gender and sexuality cops with them.  Despite the CDC reporting a decline in teen pregnancy across ethnic groups, public health and privately funded campaigns are popping up across the U.S. aimed at chastising, shaming, and blaming teenage mothers.

And now, the city of Chicago has gotten in on the act. Not satisfied with the traditional images of cheerleading teenage mothers with babies strapped to their chests, or wailing toddlers scolding their mothers for being too poor or too single, or even pop music icons who assure young women that motherhood ‘sucks’ even more than high school, the city of Chicago has decided to get creative. The Chicago Department of Public Health has created a series of posters featuring shirtless young men with apparently pregnant bellies – below the caption “Unexpected?”

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Ok, I get it. The campaign was designed to communicate the fact that most teen pregnancies are, yes, unexpected, and that teen fathers should bear an equal responsibility for said pregnancies. But as someone working at the interstices of narrative, health, and social justice, I am less concerned with wondering if teen pregnancy is ‘bad’, or even if shame and/or shock are effective motivators for behavior change (which I would argue they are not, check out Brené Brown’s eloquent argument). What concerns me is what other work such images are doing. In other words, what additional cultural stories is this campaign telling, and are those narratives socially just or unjust?

As this fantastic take-off from the Media Literacy Project shows, the primary problem with the Chicago campaign is its deeply trans-phobic narrative:

In the frame of the advertisers, the pregnant bellies in the ads are solely female while the rest of the body is solely male. The contrast is supposed to cause discord in the viewer, yielding feelings that the image is “disturbing” or “unexpected,” as the ads say. However, sex and gender are much more complicated than the advertisers understand. Transgender boys and men can become pregnant. Calling their bodies disturbing perpetuates a culture of ignorance, prejudice, and violence against transgender people.

The truth is, bodies which do not look traditionally ‘female gendered’ can and do become pregnant (consider the much publicized story of Thomas Beattie, for instance, a transgender man who bore three children) while bodies which do look traditionally ‘female gendered’ sometimes can or do not.

Philosopher Judith Butler asserted that gender is nothing more than a series of repetitive performances; behaviors which, in cis-gendered (not transgendered) people, are often so subconscious as to feel ‘natural.’ But simply consider that the gender-coding of many such behaviors have changed over time. Hairstyles, clothing, and work-home-balance are all easy examples. Requiring at the very least a working uterus, pregnancy is one type of public ‘performance’ that still appears ‘naturally female.’ Therefore, ‘male pregnancy’ can be a subversive act, as with the work of cyber-artists Virgil Wong and Lee Mingwei, where, as feminist science scholar Donna Haraway would say, one ‘queers what counts as nature.’

But that’s not what is going on here. As with the broadly comic absurdness of male pregnancy in films like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Junior, this anachronistic Chicago campaign actually reinforces a traditional gender binary while essentializing pregnancy as a function of only cis-gendered female bodies. In doing so, the campaign defeats its own stated purpose. By looking at these posters, cis-gendered boys won’t feel like pregnancy can happen to them. Rather, they will scoff, or laugh at the ‘absurdness’ of male pregnancy, reassured that their (utterly and fixedly ‘masculine’) bodies are ‘safe’ from such conditions. More devastatingly, the cis-gendered general public looking at these images will have their own prejudices and expectations about male pregnancy reinforced: as something ‘unexpected,’ shocking, and ‘unnatural.’

Additionally, like other individual-level ‘shaming and blaming’/’shocking’ campaigns, this Chicago anti-teen pregnancy series deflects attention from more systemic understandings and structural changes: from finding funding for affordable and accessible reproductive health care, to anti-poverty work, to programs which support LGBTQ youth. While they may satisfy the need for a ‘moral panic’ among us middle-aged people as we ‘clutch the pearls and think of the children,’ what such anti-teenage pregnancy campaigns don’t do is actually increase the well being of our young people – be they male or female, cis- or trans-gendered.

Cross-posted at Adios Barbie.

Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies,  co-authored The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, and authored Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor.