Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Gender, Race, and Class Dynamics of “Effortless Perfection”

Source: Stepbystep.com (http://www.stepbystep.com/how-to-apply-coverup-makeup-29209/)

In the two weeks since I wrote about Secret’s “stress sweat” ad campaign, I’ve been thinking a lot about American society’s beauty standards for women. The prevailing model of female beauty (especially for young women, say 16-35 y/o) is best described by a term coined at Duke University: “effortless perfection.” As the Duke researchers explained, their interviewees felt they “had to be not only academically successful, but also successful by all the traditionally female markers — thin, pretty, well-dressed, nice hair, nice nails. And, the real rub is you had to do it with no visible effort” (see the Steering Committee’s report here).  Secret reinforces this unrealistic standard through their new line of products. Take, for example, their clinical strength sport stick (which I mentioned briefly in the last post). Thanks to the efforts of feminist activists around the nation, the otherwise all-male realm of sport has opened up, ever so slightly, to women athletes. But this has not altered the heterosexist structures that govern women’s lives. Women are expected to balance it all—work, family, school, love, and now sports—and be at our best, without ever breaking a (literal or figurative) sweat.

The pressure for “effortless perfection” envelops women daily. When it comes to beauty, “effortless perfection” is about looking as lovely as every retouched fashion model, but making it seem as though it comes naturally to you. Like women roll out of bed with “soap opera” curls in their hair, are born with pink blush splotches on their cheeks, and have eyebrows that sculpt themselves.  Take this ad for Clairol’s Nice n Easy hair dye. In it, the husband marvels at his wife’s nearly magical ability to maintain her youthful beauty even as life’s ups and downs have left him with grey hair. “I don’t know all her secrets” he tells us, “but I do know that Kate’s more beautiful now than the day I married her.” Kate’s dirty little secret is that she isn’t perfect—that 15 years of marriage, new jobs and homes, and carrying and delivering 2 babies weren’t effortless endeavors for her. And yet she hides her greys to maintain the allure that captivates her husband.

Its directive is simple, but impossible to achieve. “Effortless perfection” is artificiality masquerading as nature. It is the female athlete who glows (not sweats) on the field and the wife whose flaxen hair grows more golden with age. It is, perhaps, best exemplified by the “au natural” makeup trend, easily found in any fashion magazine. Just for fun, I found this guide online. Getting the “natural beauty” look that “guys love” requires 5 multipart steps and more than 10 beauty products/tools: face wash, makeup remover, moisturizer, tinted moisturizer or foundation, concealer, liquid shimmer luminizer (which sounds more like a sci-fi weapon than makeup to me), eyelash curler, mascara, blush, and loose powder. And since all of this is set in a hypercapitalist context, you can’t just buy any old makeup; you’ve got to buy the right stuff or risk exposing the artificiality of one’s perfection—mascara flakes tell the truth about your insufficient lashes and the wrong shade of foundation reveals that your skin is not actually made of porcelain or milk chocolate or caramel.

And this is where things get more complicated. While all women living in our society are subjected to some version of heterosexist beauty standards, only some are able to live up to them. That is, the pressures of “effortless perfection,” problematic though they may be, are themselves a privilege restricted to women of certain class positions. As one reader commented on my Secret post, these products are costly—Secret’s clinical line costs up to 3 times more than a regular stick of deodorant. Natural looking cosmetic products are pricey. Women who are economically disadvantaged cannot afford this beauty ideal and are often stigmatized. Moreover, this ideal is racialized. While product lines are increasingly including more cosmetics for women with darker skin tones, these options are still limited compared to those for lighter skinned women. Additionally, deodorants which claim to be invisible on skin are often only invisible on light skin; when dark skinned women wear it, we see the “effort” in their “perfection.” The ideal of “effortless perfection” emerges from society’s center: white, middle class, heterosexuals. Marginal women are always already excluded, as their bodies have historically been the foil for white, middle class women, the proof of white women’s superiority.

Ultimately, the ideal of “effortless perfection” is bad for all women—it says to us, “As you are, you will never be good enough.” And then it whispers, “But some of you can try.”

 

Further reading

Anderson, Tammy L., Catherine Grunert, Arielle Katz, and Samantha Lovascio. 2010. Aesthetic Capital: A Research Review on Beauty Perks and Penalties. Sociology Compass 4(8): 564-575.

Johnston, Josee and Judith Taylor. 2008. Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activists: A Comparative Study of Grassroots Activism and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign. Signs 33(4): 941-966.

Millard, Jennifer. 2009. Performing Beauty: Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign. Symbolic Interaction 32(2): 146-168.

Puppy Love: People and Their Relationships with Animals and Pets

Source: author’s personal photo

Last month, Sociology Compass published a unique article by David D. Blouin on the relationship between humans and their pets.  In “Understanding the Relations between People and Their Pets,” Blouin reviews the recent literature on how and why people show affection for their furry friends. Blouin explains that the current frameworks for assessing human relationships with animals are either one of caring or one of cruelty: some people treat their animals like children, while others may neglect or even act cruelly towards their pets. Ultimately, the author explains that this dichotomy is false: one person’s care may be another person’s cruelty. For example, some may view feeding their pet table scraps, dressing them up in costumes, or even restricting their environment to inside a house as love, while others see these acts as torture. At the core of this argument is that ideas about care and cruelty are culturally contingent and can vary across social statuses. Groups situated differently by race, class, gender, nationality, etc are bound to have different ideas about the treatment of animals.

This article got me thinking about PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and its campaign to give “backyard dogs” (dogs who live most or all of their lives outside) the shelter of dog houses and the warmth provided by hay and straw. Ideally, PETA would like all dog owners to keep their canines inside. However, when they cannot convince the pet owners that this is the right course of action, the next best thing is to provide the dogs with houses and warmth.

As a long time vegetarian, I subscribe to PETA’s email server, but I have to admit that I was conflicted when reading an email about this program back in December 2012. While I instantly related with the desire to make the dogs comfortable, I remember thinking about the classist assumptions behind PETA’s strategy. In order to assume that all dogs should remain inside, one must assume a space that is big enough to house not only people, but pets, too. What about people who do not have a large enough space for a dog? If people living on lower incomes do not have the space inside their home for a dog, would PETA say that they should not own that dog? My first reaction to this program was that there were some unexamined class privileges at work in this campaign.

Blouin’s article adds another layer of complexity to my initial concerns. What if some groups of people do not view the act of leaving their dogs outside as cruel? What if they are guided by their cultural ideas about how dogs ought to be treated? Why is it that PETA and its constituents should set the cultural norm for the treatment of dogs across space, place, and status? Should PETA make universal claims about the treatment of animals?

I do not have any good answers to these questions. While I find myself agreeing with PETA’s position on the treatment of dogs, I am reminded that this opinion is guided by my own race (white), class (middle class), citizenship (U.S.), gender (women) position. I am curious if others have thought about these issues and have come to any conclusions.

Suggested Readings:

Taylor, Nicola and Tania D. Signal. 2009. “Pet, Pest, Profit: Isolating Differences in Attitudes Towards the Treatment of Animals.” Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals 22(2): 129-135.

Atkins-Sayre, Wendy. 2010. “Articulating Identity: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal/Human Divide.” Western Journal of Communication 74(3): 309-328.

 

Stress Sweat and Stress about Sweat

Source: Secret.com

One way that capitalism creates consumers is by convincing us that our identity is developed and demonstrated through the items we purchase. Your new clothes, shoes, house, car, and jewelry tell the world who you are and what you are worth. Most importantly, these products can fix our flaws (which, we are told, are many). With each new purchase, we think we are improving ourselves. But if we ever felt complete, fixed, perfect, we might stop buying, so capitalists must continue to create new problems in need of solutions (Gwen Sharp has a great, related post at SocImages).

The body has long been a site of capitalist pathologization. We are taught that our bodies, often women’s bodies, require manipulation or control, and that medicines and hygiene products are our best options. This is readily evident in a recent ad campaign for Secret’s “stress sweat” line (view here). According to Secret, all sweating is embarrassing; it is a problem requiring a solution. It is especially embarrassing for girls and women, Secret’s target consumer base. The site links to WebMD, where girls can rate their symptoms to determine whether their sweat is “abnormal,” and ultimately, how mortified they ought to be when sweat happens. But stress sweat is the worst smelling sweat of all, Secret tells us. According to their website, there is a scientific explanation for its extremely foul odor: it emerges from different glands than exercise/activity induced sweat, with different bacteria to cause more odors (you can watch a “cute” video on the “science” of stress sweat, produced by Secret’s parent company, Proctor & Gamble, here). In stressful situations, girls and women are told, “Don’t focus on your speech/date/test/presentation/etc. Worry about your armpits and B.O.” Thanks a lot, Secret.

So, Secret begins by telling us that we have a problem—we are stinky, wet beasts. We must buy Secret deodorant/antiperspirant and keep our natural scent “secret.” According to their site, a sweaty daughter “may isolate herself, avoiding activities she previously enjoyed, in an effort to prevent embarrassment and teasing, so it’s really important to give her emotional support.” Rather than encouraging your daughter to find self-confidence internally, mothers are told that the best course of action is to take her shopping. Secret goes further; not only will the new deodorant give her confidence, it will allow her to express her true self: “With 10 unique scents to choose from, she’ll have fun picking the sparkly one that fits her personality.”

So we see that Secret uses the tried-and-true capitalist tactic of selling insecurity; but is this gendered? Secret is a producer of products for women. They wrap their deodorants in pastel pinks and purples, fill them with flowery or fruity scents and name them Ohlala Lavender and Cocoa Butter Kiss. Secret teaches women that their natural smells and bodily processes are so gross that they require the daily application of carcinogenic chemicals (see also Lisa Wade’s post on similar issues with douching). Part of what makes the new Secret campaign so insidious, in my opinion, is that it masquerades as empowerment. For example, one variety of Secret Clinical Strength deodorant is called “Mean Stinks”—when consumers purchase this deodorant stick, Secret donates a bit of money to organizations fighting girl-on-girl bullying. And yet, the ads themselves encourage girls to compete with and compare themselves to one another. A teen girl is now pushed to ask herself, “Do I smell worse than her? What about her?” This particular line of products pressures women to conform to the social expectation that women be soft, pretty, sweet-smelling creatures regardless of activity or context—we’re supposed to glow, remember? Even female athletes are encouraged to worry about sweating during practices and games but don’t worry, their cure is Secret’s Clinical Strength Sport stick. (One could also look at the gendered pressures conveyed in deodorant/hygiene ads for men. My guess is you’d find a lot of normative expectations about heterosexuality and muscularity.)

As I finish writing this post, I feel I must admit something—I’m sweating. It’s a bit humid in here, the AC could be on higher, I could have chosen an iced coffee. And as I read about “normal” vs. “abnormal” sweating, a small part of my mind whispers, “Is my sweating normal? Can everyone tell?” None of us is exempt from the pressure. But neither are we powerless.

 

Further Reading

Kwan, Samantha and Mary Nell Trautner. 2009. Beauty Work: Individual and Institutional Rewards, the Reproduction of Gender, and Questions of Agency. Sociology Compass 3(1): 49-71.

Moore, Sarah E. 2008. Gender and the ‘New Paradigm’ of Health. Sociology Compass 2(1): 268-280.

 

Dworkin, Shari and Faye Wachs. 2009. Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness. New York: New York University Press.

Gill, Rosalind, Karen Henwood and Carl McLean. 2005. Body Projects and the Regulation of Normative Masculinity. London: LSE Research Articles Online.

(*These would be good references for those interested in the dynamics of hygiene/health ads for men.)

 

Why Capitalists Want To Sell You Deodorant.

(*I’m not aware of the original author, but this piece circulated the internet, and would be a great handout for students during a discussion of bodies and capitalism)

The Value of Art In the Age of Financial Crisis

Yellow, Red, Blue Oil Painting by Rothko

The economic crisis of 2008 changed the way that many markets operate, their pace, size and reach. However one market that has not slowed is the art market. In November, Sotheby’s enjoyed the most successful night in its storied history, selling almost $375 million worth of Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art.[1] Like many markets, the art market is based in word of mouth and on the knowledge and history of previous sales. There is an aura created around an artist and their works based on these prices as well as in relation to supply or, uniqueness of the works of art based around ‘security.’ As Adam Davidson argues, “art isn’t gold, or any other commodity in which units can be evaluated objectively.”[2] Yet, is the way that the art market functions really that different from other markets? What is it about the art market that has allowed it to remain relatively insulated from other markets and experience growth during this downturn?

In order to examine the way the art market functions I want to look at two examples, and in particular to explore how key determining factors (such as uniqueness and ‘security’ of investment) alter the works of art and how they are sold (or not) within the current art market.  I want to firstly focus on the works of Mark Rothko. In 1967, a red Rothko sold to the National Gallery of Berlin for $22,000.[3] Over the last few years, Rothko’s work has sold at auction at extremely high prices. For example in May 2012 Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow sold for nearly $87 million.[4] There are many explanations for Rothko’s increasingly high sales. One is the suggestion that Rothko was born in Russia and that is works are being bought by new wealth in Russia.[5] Another notion is that the large size and blocks of bright colors appeal to people as objects to hang in their homes and, as such, his work is easily recognizable. The high prices of Rothko’s works have fuelled even higher prices in later auctions and have been supported by the inclusion of much of his work in permanent museum collections (Tate Modern, National Gallery of Art and the Museum of Modern Art). His works are now deemed ‘safe’ for investment at a moment in time when many investments are not.

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Gender and Children’s Books

Source: Wikimedia

One field of inquiry in the sociological study of gender and education is the depiction and stereotyping of male and female characters in children’s books. Historically, male characters are more prominent, usually taking the role of main protagonist. They are more active, adventurous, and autonomous. On the other hand, female characters historically have been more likely to fulfill smaller roles in children’s stories; they are less active in the plot and play more passive characters. Not surprisingly, they are more likely to take on caretaking and emotional roles. As most sociologists recognize, these representations are both reflections of the historical role of men and women in our society, but also reproduce those roles by providing a model for boys’ and girls’ behavior.

In preparing a lecture about this topic—gender, education, and children’s books—during the fall semester of 2012, I decided to make some of my own observations about more recent literature aimed at young children. I collected information on the top 4 Caldecott Medal winners from 2012 to evaluate to what extent these historical patterns held true. My findings show that, in the year 2012, the top four highly acclaimed Caldecott winners were just as likely to utilize male protagonists as female protagonists.

The top winner of the Caldecott award in 2012 was “A Ball for Daisy.” This story is nearly wordless, relying on pictures to tell the story of Daisy, a female dog who loses her favorite ball. The runner’s up were “Me…Jane,” a story about a young Jane Goodall and her passion for animals, “Grandpa Green,” a tale about the interesting adventures of a now aging grandfather, and “Blackout,” an account of a family that must entertain themselves when the power goes out. Of all four of these books, two clearly have female main protagonists (Daisy and Jane Goodall), one has a male protagonist (Grandpa Green), and one has both male and female protagonists (the family in Blackout).

What about the content of these books? The books depict both male and female protagonists equally, but do the representations transgress traditional gender norms? Yes and no. The books, “Blackout” and “A Ball for Daisy,” seem to reinforce the traditional feminine stereotypes. For example, “A Ball for Daisy” depicts Daisy’s distress over the loss of her ball. Though loss is not necessarily a gendered scenario, the use of a female protagonist, and one that never talks, reinforces the stereotypical notion of women and emotional responses. Additionally, in “Blackout,” it is the daughter, a female protagonist, who longs for the family to spend time together, even before the blackout.

The other two books, “Grandpa Green” and “Me…Jane” introduce both gender conforming and nonconforming themes. The book, “Grandpa Green,” explains all of the different life experiences of grandpa. Grandpa has served in the military, but he also was an artist. This sends the message that there are many options for young boys to express their masculinity. Also, “Me…Jane” tells the story of a young Jane Goodall, who has strong dreams at a young age. Jane’s desire to help animals could be read as a story about gender and emotions, but Jane’s ambitions are admirable and show young girls that they can make real change in the world.

Again, these are my observations from a very small sample. I am curious if other people have noticed new, or old, trends in children’s literature and/or media. Do children’s books and/or media continue to reinforce traditional gender norms? Or do they transgress stereotypical notions about gender?

 

McNabe, Janice, Emily Fairchild, Liz Grauerholz, Bernice A. Pescosolido, and Daniel Tope. 2011. “ Gender in Twentieth Century Children’s Books: Patterns in Disparities in Titles and Central Characters.” Gender and Society, 25(2): 197-226.

Mendez, Kaitlynn and Cynthia Carter. 2008. “Feminist and Gender Media Studies: A Critical Overview.” Sociology Compass, 2(6): 1701-1718.

 

 

 

Children’s Exposure to Violence: The Need to Acknowledge Their Plight

Source: Fotolia

Every day, children in the United States are exposed to violence. Whether they are personally victimized or bystanders to the victimization of others, youths across the U.S. are frequently subject to traumatic crimes. From headline-grabbing school shootings to often unreported acts of domestic violence, adolescents are not immune to the violent acts of others. While it may be easy to say that children are resilient and are better able than adults to overcome the consequences of being exposed to violence, recent research suggests that this may be very untrue. From infants to adolescents, violence in a child’s life can result in a variety of negative outcomes. As a result, it is becoming increasingly clear that children who have been exposed to violence need and deserve to receive services that are designed to help them cope with their experiences. (more…)