Tag Archives: gender: femininity

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breast Feeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

My sister-in-law Charlotte was recently loudly admonished by a flight attendant on an international flight for allowing her “breast to fall out” after she fell asleep while nursing her baby. A strong advocate for breastfeeding, Charlotte has shared with me her own discomfort with public breastfeeding because it is considered gross, matronly, and “unsexy.”

I heard this over and over again from women I have interviewed for my research:  Women who breastfed often feel they have to cover and hide while breastfeeding at family functions. As one mom noted, “Family members might be uncomfortable so I leave room to nurse—but miss out on socializing.”  This brings on feelings of isolation and alienation. Because of the “dirty looks” and clear discomfort by others, women reported not wanting to breastfeed in any situation that could be considered “public.”

Meanwhile, I flip through the June 2012 issue of Vanity Fair and see this ad:

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We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer. Yet, we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child on an overnight flight.

What’s happening here? These campaigns send contradictory messages to women about their breasts and the way women should use them, but they have something in common as well: both breastfeeding advocacy and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns tend to reduce women to body parts that reflect the social construction of gender and sexuality.

Breast cancer awareness campaigns explicitly adopt a sexual stance, focusing on men’s desire for breasts and women’s desire to have breasts to make them attractive to men. Breast milk advocates focus on the breast as essential for good motherhood. Breastfeeding mothers sit at the crossroads: Their breasts are both sexualized and essential for their babies, so they can either breastfeed and invoke disgust, or feed their child formula and attract the stigma of being a bad mother.

Both breastfeeding advocacy programs and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns demonstrate how socially constructed notions of ownership and power converge with the sexualization and objectification of women’s breasts. And, indeed, whether breast feeding or suffering breast cancer, women report feeling helpless and not in control of their bodies. As Jazmine Walker has written, efforts to “help” women actually “[pit] women against their own bodies.”

Instead, we need to shift away from a breast-centered approach to a women-centered approach for both types of campaigns. We need to, as Jazmine Walker advocates, “teach women and girls how to navigate and control their experiences with health care professionals,” instead of pushing pink garb and products and sexualizing attempts to raise awareness like “save the ta-tas.”  Likewise, we need to support women’s efforts to breastfeed, if they choose to, instead of labeling “bad moms” if they do not or cannot. Equipped with information and bolstered by real sources of support, women will be best able to empower themselves.

Jennifer Rothchild, PhD is in the sociology and gender, women, & sexuality studies departments at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She is the author of Gender Trouble Makers: Education and Empowerment in Nepal and is currently doing research on the politics of breastfeeding.

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits.

This is what gender ideology looks like:

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That’s The Walking Dead’s Rosita Espinosa with newly shaven armpits.

This is also gender ideology at work: the privileging of an idea of gender over real life or, in this case, realism.

The Walking Dead’s producers go to great lengths to portray what a zombie apocalypse might be like. They are especially keen to show us the nasty bits: what it really looks like when dead people don’t die, what it looks like to kill the undead, and the evil it spawns in those left alive. It’s gruesome. The show is a gore orgy. But armpit hair on women? Apparently that’s just gross.

If gender ideology had lost this battle with realism, we’d see armpit hair on the women in Gilligan’s Island, Planet of the ApesThe Blue Lagoon, Beauty and the BeastWaterworld, Lost, and The Hunger Games – but we don’t. (Thanks to Ariane Lange at Buzzfeed for the whole collection and to @uheartdanny for the link.)

At least Rosita could conceivably have a razor. How do women supposedly shave their armpits on deserted islands? Did the Beast slip Belle a razor, you know, just as part of his controlling personality? And maybe some persnickety women would continue to shave even if they were lost in purgatory, but Riley in Alien? Come on.

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Our interest in realism only goes so far. Armpit hair on women is apparently one of its limits.

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.

Tropicana Ad Says That Girls Should Be “Easy”

Flashback Friday.

Sally R. sent in this two-page Tropicana ad she found in her morning newspaper.  The ad features, as Sally puts it, a “hard (bad) surly girl in pants and [an] easy (nice) girl in a dress with a flowery gift and passive smile…”  The first is labeled “hard to handle” and the second “easy to handle.”  The new orange juice container is supposed to be more like the “easy” girl.

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On the face of it, this ad is about parenting.  But there is so much more going on that makes the ad work.

Notice how easyness is communicated with symbols of femininity.  The message is that girls are, ideally, accommodating and passive.  Girls should be like objects, easy to “handle.”  Would the ad work quite the same way if the child was a boy?  Do we hope/expect that our boys will be completely passive and convenient to handle?

Sally also notes the “double meaning of easy” which, combined with the girl’s coy pose and smile, sends a sexual message.  The sexual promise that the ad makes (it/she is “easy to handle”) works despite (or because of?) her age.  Consider how similar the image is to these examples in which women and girls are simultaneously sexualized and infantilized with the use of passive poses and symbols of youth.

This conflation of object status, femininity, being female, and being well-behaved is obnoxious. It’s insulting to both boys and girls and affirms the false gender binary. It’s dangerous, too. It contributes to the idea that girls are objects to take advantage of who are misbehaving if they assert themselves. It’s disturbing to see it reproduced for something as trivial as an orange juice carton.

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.

“Man Up, Ladies!” … But Not Too Much

In order to be successful in many parts of labor market, women must exhibit traits that are typically considered “masculine.” The title of a fashion article in Glamour magazine hints at — okay, blatantly states — this reality:

Man Up, Ladies! That whole menswear separates look is so hot right now. (Suits, layers, plaids, you name it.) We’d promote you instantly!

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The article reinforces the idea that masculine characteristics are favored in many white collar jobs. In contrast, feminine characteristics carry a negative connotation, like when a New York Times article conflated being feminine and an undesirable employee when they contrasted the positive attribute of being “productive and results-oriented” with being a “sissy.”

Women can do masculinity, then, to reap some of the rewards offered to those who embody it, but there’s a catch: women must maintain their “femininity,” too. Women face gender rules that require that they wear makeup in order to be seen as beautiful and competent. Not doing so brings costs.

One study, for example, compared viewers’ perceptions of females with varying degrees of make-up, ranging from no make-up to glamorous. Research participants were shown photos of female faces and asked to rate the images on attractiveness, likeability, competence, and trustworthiness. Respondents rated the faces wearing make-up higher on likeablility, competence, and especially attractiveness, compared to the faces with no make-up.

These gendered behavioral and beauty norms amount to a double-edged sword for women.  They must do masculinity to be successful at work, but they must be feminine to get along.  So, man up, ladies… but not too much.

Chloe Albin is a senior at Chapman University studying dance and psychology. Dr. Georgiana Bostean is an assistant professor teaching sociology and environmental science and policy. She studies population health. 

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way around Local Customs

Ten women marched in defiance of the stigma against women smoking cigarettes as part of the New York Easter Day Parade in 1929.  The interesting thing was, however, it was all a sham. The tobacco industry had set the whole thing up with the help of public relations mastermind, Edward Bernays.  American Tobacco Company President George Hill  knew cigarette sales would skyrocket if more U.S. women smoked, a behavior reserved for men in the 1920s that had closed off the female market.

Within one year of Bernay’s stint, women were smoking.

Today, similarly, Japanese fast-food has found a way to bypass the cultural stigmas that impede their profits. One food chain noticed many women would not buy their biggest-sized burgers.  The culprit was ochobo, a Japanese custom that prevents women from opening their mouth widely in public.  Small mouths are considered beautiful and opening them widely is considered “ugly” and “rude.”  The restaurant concluded that it would get into the business of “freeing women from the spell of ‘ochobo.’”

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The burger chain invented a wrapper that would allow women to open their mouths larger, but not be seen: the liberation wrapper. It is a profitable tactic touted as a cultural solution.

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You can watch them introduce the wrapper in this short video:

The liberation wrapper was welcomed in Japanese media and social networks, spreading its popularity.  Similarly, Bernay’s public relation’s stint in 1929 garnered much of its success from the media hype that ensued then.

The approach has produced results. Sales of the Japanese chain’s biggest burgers jumped 213% after the wrappers were made because they allowed the burgers to become “socially available” to women.

Of course, the irony is that the burger chain’s “solution” isn’t actually liberating women.  By hiding the deviation behind a paper mask, it is actually reinforcing Ochobo. After all, the social reality remains — it is not acceptable for Japanese women to display an open mouth in public.

Michael Lozano is a graduate of CSULB’s Sociology Honors program and frequent contributor to NewAmericaMedia.org and VoiceWaves.org, a hyper-local news site based in Long Beach, CA.

Girls on the Run: When Efforts to “Empower” Girls Go Wrong

Every spring, my daughter receives an invitation to participate in a local Girls on the Run (GOTR) program. Every spring, I hesitate saying, “yes.”

Girls on the Run (GOTR) is a non-profit organization with about 200 councils across the U.S. and Canada. Over 10 to 12 weeks, councils help organize teams of girls in 3rd through 8th grades to train for and complete a 5K run.

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Volunteer coaches lead their team through the program’s pre-packaged curriculum, consisting of lessons that “encourage positive emotional, social, mental and physical development.” Among other things they discuss self-esteem, confidence, team work, healthy relationships, and “challenges girls face.” Boys are not allowed to participate in the program. The 5K is described by GOTR as the ending “moment in time that beautifully reflects the very essence of the program goals.”

The starting line has the atmosphere of a party. Music is played over loud speakers, pumping teen pop (with lyrics laden with sexual innuendo and “crushes” on boys) and oldies that carry an affirmative “you can do it” message like Gaynor’s, “I Will Survive.”

Vendors (local businesses and organizations) bring tables to engage the girls and their parents in products/services they have available. This is not the only form of capitalistic opportunism affiliated with GOTR. The international organization’s official sponsors include Lego Friends – a line of Legos that emphasize single-sexed socialization (not building!) and Secret’s campaign “Mean Stinks” (featuring another pop glam star, Demi Lovato) that emphasizes painting fingernails blue, among other frivolous things, to address girl-on-girl bullying.

The run is an odd scene. Though boys have been banned from participation, older male relatives, friends, and teachers are encouraged to run with girls as their sponsors. It has become a unique trademark of GOTR that these men, and many of the women and girls, dress “hyper-feminine” (e.g., in skirts, tutus, big bows, bold patterned knee-high socks, tiaras, etc.), apply make-up or face paint, and spray color their hair. The idea is to “girl it up.”

Over the years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with this event for a couple of reasons.

First, encouraging girls to “girl it up”—or I prefer, “glam it up,” so that we don’t appropriate these behaviors just for girls—can be fun, an opportunity to step out and beyond what is practiced in everyday life. But there’s no corresponding encouragement to “butch it up” if they desire, or do some combination of both.  In the end, then, this simply serves to reproduce gender stereotypes and the old-fashioned and false notion that gender is binary.

Second, by bombarding girls with “positive” messages about themselves meant to counteract negative ones, the program implicitly gives credence to the idea that girls aren’t considered equal to boys. What messages are girls really getting when special programs are aimed at trying to make them feel good about themselves as girls?

Although I have always given in to my daughter’s requests, at some point I am going to say “no.” Instead of reinforcing the box she’s put into, and decorating it with a pretty bow, we’ll have to start unpacking mainstream girl culture together.

Scott Richardson is an assistant professor of educational foundations and affiliate of women’s studies at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter.

A Reluctant Defense of Sunscreen for Men

Lotion is socially constructed as feminine in the U.S. and so some men, attempting to avoid the prevailing insults of our time – gay, fag, bitch, pussy, douche, girl, and woman – are disinclined to use it.

Eeeew, lotion!

You know who you are, guys.

Sunscreen is a category of lotion and so putting on sunscreen is equivalent to admitting you’re the sun’s bitch.  Men are supposed to let the sun bake their face into a tough, craggy masculinity that says “yeah, I go outdoors and, when I do, I don’t give a shit.”

Because caring about one’s health is for pussies, some scholars argue that being male is the single strongest predictor of whether a person will take health risks.  In fact, thanks in part to the stupid idea that lotion carries girl cooties, men are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer.

So, fine dudes, here’s some sunscreen for men.  For christ’s sake.

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Thanks to @r0setayl0r and @ryesilverman for sending along the product!  Check it out on our truly humorous pointlessly gendered products Pinterest board.

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.

Eating Meat is Funny and Sexy. Don’t Stop Eating Meat.

Activist Carol Adams has famously argued that the common phenomenon of sexualizing meat products is designed to make us feel better about eating animals. One of the ways it does this is by making it funny.  She explains:

Uneasiness becomes sexual energy… and everybody knows what to do about sexual energy.  You can laugh at it, you can talk about it, it reduces whoever is presented to an object.  And so it makes it okay again.

Sexualizing meat also turns the object of consumption, the animal, into a willing participant.  Sex takes two and, even when one partner is objectified, there is a desire.  If not “want,” it’s a “want to be wanted.”

If the meat wants you to want it, then you don’t have to feel bad about eating it.  As I’ve written before, “this works best alongside feminization, as it is women who are typically presented as objects of a lustful male gaze.”

This ad, in which roosters flock to Carl’s Jr to ogle and lust over chicken “breasts,” is a disturbing example.

Thanks to @wegotwits for the link!

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.