Tag Archives: gender: health/medicine

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 author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Black Women 40% More Likely to Die from Breast Cancer than White Women

Thanks to advances in early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, white women’s survival rates have “sharply improved,” but black women’s have not.  As a result, white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but black women are more likely to die from it.  Researchers from the Sinai Institute found that Black women are 40% more likely to die from the disease than white women.

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Experts trace the majority of the widening gap in survival rates to access, not biology.  Black women are more likely than white to be low income, uninsured, and suspicious of a historically discriminatory medical profession.

From Tara Parker-Pope for the New York Times.  Hat tip @ProfessorTD.

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.

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.

Breast Cancer-Themed Pink Sexy Leopard-ish Costume Blows Our Mind

No costume could more perfectly capture this October at SocImages.  From The Ethical Adman’s collection of the worst sexy costumes of the year, this breast cancer-themed, absurdly sexy, looks-nothing-like-a-leopard costume.  Posts collide.

Breast Cancer Leopard Costume

When I clicked on the link, they tried to give me a free pair of panties.  Maybe you’ll get lucky.

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.

Pinkwashing: Ethical Problems with Cause-Based Marketing

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Boston Globe included a discussion of the pink ribbon campaign and cause-related marketing (products marketed with a promise of a donation to a social cause) more generally.  It, like books by sociologists — including Samantha King’s Pink Ribbon Inc. and Gayle Sulik’s Pink Ribbon Blues — paints a pretty depressing picture of cause-related marketing.

As the article discusses, this approach to raising money for a cause is suspect for a number of reasons.  In many instances, the percent of profit that goes to charity is very small.  For example, one woman bought a candy bar being sold door-to-door under the auspices of a breast cancer donation, only to discover that she was invited to spent .42 cents to mail in a coupon (story here).  The company would then donate one cent to breast cancer research!  (And the chocolate was bad, too.)

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In other instances, companies have a cap on how much they’ll donate.  But consumers may or may not know that the cap is exceeded when they are in a position to buy the product.  This is the case with New Balance.

In addition, companies that participate in cause-based marketing may do so without thinking through and altering their own practices that may be contributing to rates of breast cancer.  Yoplait, for example, “pinked” their yogurt for breast cancer, even as it contained milk from cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone, a substance correlated with breast cancer rates.  After pressure from Breast Cancer Action, Yoplait changed its practices (Dannon followed).

This suggests that companies participating in cause-related marketing may not really be behind the cause, but may instead simply be interested in the profits.  However, cause-related marketing does give advocacy organizations a wedge.  If Yoplait hadn’t pinked its product, it’s unclear whether it would have felt compelled to change its ingredients.  In this sense, the hypocrisy was an opportunity.

The article also introduces Jeanne Sather, who blogs about “the most egregious, tasteless examples of pink-ribbon products.”  The winner of her most recent contest for the most tasteless product: Jingle Jugs, “plastic breasts mounted taxidermy-style on wood” that jiggle and bounce in response to music.  They are, as you might imagine, marketed largely to frat boys (and the like) and the breast cancer edition allowed fraternities to merge their philanthropic and misogynistic tendencies seamlessly:

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Jingle Jugs’ slogan: “Partnering with our nation’s youth to save our loved ones.”

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Nice double entendre there.

This type of objectification of women’s bodies in breast cancer awareness advertising is common.  Renée Y. sent in this advertisement for a breast cancer research fundraiser. Again, note that it says “Save a breast,” not “Save a woman’s life.”

Corina C. sent in this image of a t-shirt (I found a lot with the same catchphrase here):

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Opponents of cause-based marketing argue that it is fraught with ethical problems and, at its worst, is deceiving and offensive.  While it does result in money for the cause, it may also reduce the amount of money people donate directly because they think that by buying the breast cancer cookies, cream cheese, combination locks, cat food, cookware, chewing gum, limo rides, and golf accessories, they’ve already done their part.

Originally posted in 2009; images found here, here, and here.

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.

Pink Makes Women Take Breast Cancer Less Seriously, Not More

This week I had the pleasure of being a part of Take Part Live’s discussion of “pinktober.”  Here’s a really interesting piece of research that I didn’t get a chance to talk about, sent in by Lindsey B.

A paper in the Journal of Marketing Research suggesting that the current approach to raising awareness of breast cancer hurts more than helps.  You might have noticed, just maybe, I mean if you’ve been paying attention, that breast cancer awareness has become associated with the color pink.

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Stefano Puntoni and his colleagues found that when women were exposed to gender cues, like the color pink, they were less likely than women who had not been primed with a gender cue to think that they might someday get breast cancer and to say that they’d be willing to donate to the cause.  Pink, in other words, decreased both their willingness to fund research and the seriousness with which women took the disease.

Puntoni explains this finding with a common psychological tendency. When people are faced with a personal threat, they tend to subconsciously go on the defensive.  In this case, when women are exposed to information about breast cancer at the same time that they are reminded that they, specifically, are vulnerable to it, they subconsciously try to push away the idea that they’re vulnerable and that breast cancer is something that they, or anyone, needs to worry about it.

Originally posted in 2010, with an extended version appearing at Ms.

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.

Is the Penis Dangerous? (TW;NSFW)

*trigger warning for sexual violence; not safe for work*

In a wonderful article called It’s Only a Penis, anthropologist Christine Helliwell talks of how her time with the Dayak community of Gerai in Indonesian Borneo changed her perceptions of the sexual body.  She writes of a time when a man crept through a window and into the bed of a sleeping woman.  She continues:

[She] awoke, in darkness, to feel the man inside her mosquito net, gripping her shoulder while he climbed under the blanket… He was whispering, “be quiet, be quiet!” She responded by sitting up in bed and pushing him violently, so that he stumbled backward [and] became entangled with her mosquito net… His hurried exit through the window, with his clothes now in considerable disarray, was accompanied by a stream of abuse from the woman and by excited interrogations from wakened neighbors in adjoining houses.

The next morning:

I awoke… to raucous laughter on the longhouse verandah outside my apartment where a group of elderly women gathered… They were recounting this tale loudly, and with enormous enjoyment… one was engaged in mimicking the man climbing out the window, sarong falling down, genitals askew… both men and women shrieked with laughter.

Helliwell was appalled.  It sounded to her Western ears like a case of attempted rape.  It was frightening, not funny.  But, when she explained to the local women that what he did was bad, one replied, “No, no bad, simply stupid.”  Helliwell turned to the woman who had been approached by the man and said, “He was trying to hurt you.”  She replied, “It’s only a penis. How can a penis hurt anyone?”  The Gerai had no word for “rape.”

I often think of this story when observing the way that women’s and men’s genitals are represented in Western culture.  I find the Gerai’s perspective intuitively pleasing.  Penises are, in fact, very sensitive dangly bits imbued with much importance. I can imagine a culture in which their vulnerability was front-and-center, so to speak.  I’m reminded of an observation made by my colleague Caroline Heldman regarding the seemingly secret pact of all men not to fight “below the belt” so as to never draw attention to men’s obvious and uniquely male physical weakness.

Yet, in Western cultures, we do imagine the penis to be a potentially threatening piece of anatomy.  In contrast, Helliwell writes, the vagina is often “conceived of as a delicate, perhaps inevitably damaged and pained inner space.”  Accordingly, we have collectively agreed to somehow believe that penises are potentially brutalizing and vaginas easily brutalized.

Where do these ideas come from?  Well, here’s a clue: the frequency with which penises are represented, literally, as weapons.  Kira recently sent in this example: a lubricant with the name “Gun Oil” advertised in the San Jose Mercury News (this is also going straight to our pointlessly gendered products page).

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A while back, we received this safer sex ad from Germany:

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And Julie C. sent along a link to a set of safer sex ads that included these three:

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While I am all for encouraging sexual pleasure and safer sex, I would prefer that such efforts not conflate the penis with a weapon.  Doing so only contributes to the idea that the penis is inherently useful for enacting violence and women’s bodies naturally vulnerable to violation from men.  Moreover, Helliwell’s experience suggests that this isn’t simply imaginary, but may also contribute to the enactment of violence or lack thereof.

Cross-posted at 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.