Monthly Archives: February 2013

Representing Nude Bodies

Source: Huffington Post and the Nu Project

Source: Huffington Post and the Nu Project

In the past weeks, I’ve focused on the normative beauty expectations that govern women’s bodies and bodily habits. I was excited to see a recent article at the Huffington Post on one Minneapolis photographer’s attempt to challenge those norms. Matthew Blum, assisted by his wife/partner, has begun the Nu Project (warning: website NSFW), a multipart photography project in North and South America, in which he attempts to document real women’s nude bodies. All volunteers, the “models” represent a spectrum of bodies—different ages, shapes, weights, heights, skin colors, breast sizes and so on. Although Blum admits that he hasn’t fully achieved the diversity he envisions—relying on volunteers means he can’t seek out the “type” of women missing from the project—the photos do present a variety of bodies. As he explains the project, “The things that I had seen either used models with typical model bodies or average people who were made to look extremely unimpressive. I figured there was a way to treat women (of any size/shape) like models and photograph them beautifully, respectfully without a lot of sexual under or overtones” (quoted from HuffPost). Projects like this may encourage more women to appreciate their bodies, and because Blum refrains from sexualizing the women, the presentation resists objectification. Blum reports that many of the volunteers say participation has helped them see themselves as beautiful.

But do projects like this produce social change? That is, do they actually challenge our deeply held beliefs about beauty? And what happens when we consider representations of stigmatized male bodies? (more…)

Building Answers into Physical Spaces

File:Bonifacio Global City.jpgWhile venturing around today’s modern city-scape, it appears new design principles have been employed. Perhaps the construction of the contemporary urban environment has been increasingly swayed by social, economic, political, and environmental factors. Scholars, also recognizing the changing face of urban environments, have noted the rise of “New Urbanism” (Bohl, 2000). Consider the following:

New Urbanism has been described as the most influential movement in architecture and planning in the United States since the Modernist Movement - Bohl

New Urbanism is the most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the Post-Cold war era - Muschamp

Aside from becoming a new object of study for the academy, New Urbanism has firmly staked a position for itself within the planning community (Calthorpe, 1993). In addition to explaining the major design principles of New Urbanism and discussing its popularity, this entry will reflect on how New Urbanism attempts to curtail social, economic, and environmental issues through better design strategies. (more…)

Feminism, Family, and Work

Source: Feministing

Source: Feministing

This week, Stephanie Coontz contributed an opinion piece to the New York Times in honor of the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz’s article, entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” explores some of the structural and economic reasons hindering equality between men and women. The attitudes and beliefs of individuals are not to blame for the stalled gender revolution; instead, Coontz points to a failing economy and inadequate work-family policies as the major obstacles to gender equality.

Coontz relies on recent research which suggests that many men and women want egalitarian relationships. Specifically, a 2010 Pew Poll found that 72% of men and women think that marriages based on equality are the best. The implication of this research is most people start out with an egalitarian relationship as “Plan A.” If the conditions are right, most couples want to fulfill a utopian vision of gender equality in their interpersonal arrangements. However, as in most situations, “Plan A” rarely comes to fruition, especially under a set of constrained structural conditions. At some point, many people have to fall back on “Plan B,” a plan that involves more work for men and more family responsibilities for women.

Coontz suggests a few reasons to explain the prevalence of this less than egalitarian back up plan. She describes economic conditions in which men make more money than women and in which neither men nor women have adequate access to family leave. When men and women have few economic options, they return to a more traditional arrangement because it is the most lucrative and/or the most obvious choice. Ultimately, Coontz makes a strong argument for better family/work policies in order to create the conditions for gender equality

I think Coontz’s analysis is insightful. As a sociologist, I appreciate her emphasis on the many structural problems that prevent more gender equality between men and women. Importantly, she showcases the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, highlighting the ways in which economic conditions uphold the patriarchal arrangements between men and women. We can’t expect a change in gender relations if our institutions do not reflect the goals of gender equality.

Yet, I am not convinced that these structural alterations are the only requirements necessary to produce the desired changes in gender relations at the individual level. Patriarchy has endured as a system of power not just because of social structures and institutions, but also because of cultural values and beliefs. While we have evidence to suggest that men and women want more egalitarian relationships, we also have evidence to suggest that cultural attitudes still reflect the belief that the household is women’s domain.

For example, when both men and women work, the bulk of the family and household responsibilities fall on the women. While this surely has something to do with economic conditions (for example, who can more easily leave the workplace without repercussions or significant loss of money), it also has something to do with the historical association of the household as the women’s domain.  This link between women and housework persists despite the many gains that women have made in the public sphere.

What I am suggesting is that we still have a ways to go with our cultural ideas about gender and family. Better social structures can help change these ideas, but can we think of others ways to disentangle women from the private sphere?

Suggested Readings:

Estes, Sarah Beth. 2011. “How Are Work-Family Policies Related to the Gendered Division of Labor?” Sociology Compass 5(3): 233-243.

Gerson, Kathleen. 2011. The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in an Era of Gender, Work, and Family. New York: Oxford University Press.

Latshaw, Beth A. 2011. “The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same? The Paradoxes of Men’s Unpaid Labor Since The Second Shift.” Sociology Compass 5(7): 653-665.

National Science Foundation. 2008. Chore Wars: Men, Women, and Housework

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A Review of Jennifer Baumgardner’s Look Both Ways

Jennifer Baumgardner's Look Both WaysIn Jennifer Baumgardner’s (2007) work on bisexuality, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, the author writes about her own experiences as well as recent pop culture events in an effort to discuss the common misconceptions (and hidden benefits) of bisexuality. One of the public’s biggest misconceptions, Baumgardner explains, is that bisexuals do not really exist. Straight people sometimes regard bisexuals as going through a “phase” while gay people sometimes regard bisexuals as being “part-time” homosexuals who want the best of both worlds. In reality, the author remarks that bisexuality has an interesting and potentially revolutionary position by being located between the entitlements associated with heterosexuality and the predicaments associated with homosexuality. By being able to bridge this gap, Baumgardner (2011:222) contends that bisexuals could be a source for positive transformation since “it takes someone who has known relative freedom, who expects it and loves it, to help ignite social change.” Using her life story to vividly illustrate the very realness of a bisexual identity, the author cites being able to look both ways as an indication that sexuality is fluid and, oftentimes, strongly impacted by one’s environment. Considering such an argument, I will use this post to critique Baumgardner’s book by critically evaluating its strong and weak points. (more…)

Is Breast Best?

Source: NYC.gov (http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/pr2012/pr013-12.shtml)

Source: NYC.gov (http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/pr2012/pr013-12.shtml)

This past September, a new initiative went into effect in NYC. The initiative, called Latch On NYC, is intended to support women’s right to exclusively breastfeed their infants, and to support women in that endeavor. To achieve its goal, the project involves a breastfeeding awareness campaign, and some voluntary limitations on hospitals—specifically, they are to limit new mothers’ access to formula.  The initiative emerges out of an increased understanding of breastfeeding’s benefits to infant health, among other things.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge the feminist quagmire that I’m entering by talking about breastfeeding. It is a contentious issue, and rightfully so. Even though feminist communities may not agree, at the core of their arguments is an acknowledgement of the social conditions that shape women’s experiences of child bearing and rearing, and the necessity of empowering women to live meaningful, autonomous lives. On the one hand, breastfeeding is often seen as part of a patriarchal essentialism that ties women inextricably and completely to their reproductive capacity (this article at Jezebel touches on this kind of feminist argument). Freeing women from these types of expectations (even from the requirement to be a mother) has been a primary goal of mainstream feminism in the US for decades. Formula gave many (predominantly white, middle class) women the ability to nurture careers and babies simultaneously. On the other hand, for many women, breastfeeding is a luxury that they have continually been denied. Working class and poor women, often women of color and immigrant women, face major barriers to breastfeeding—long work hours or multiple jobs, caretaking jobs that require women to be away from home for extended times, nutrient-poor food, health concerns and lack of access to medical consultation, etc. As documented by Dorothy Roberts and others, American society has long impeded the reproductive autonomy of women of color and poor women. And regardless of class status, the social stigma against public breastfeeding has, itself, been very restrictive.

Where exactly does Latch On NYC fit in this imbroglio? Well, it addresses some concerns and overlooks others. For example, the public awareness campaign—posters which feature angelic babes from varying racial/ethnic groups, and the slogan “Breast milk is best for your baby. It’s your right to feed your baby only breast milk and get the support you need”—may help dispel some of the social stigma. Additionally, by encouraging hospitals to develop better breastfeeding programs, we may be able to provide better information to new mothers, especially those who might not have had access to lactation consultants in the past.

But its emphasis on “you” individualizes what is actually a social (set of) problem(s). Like much of the public discourse on breastfeeding, the focus tends to be on women’s choices—in this case, to breastfeed or to use formula—and how their choices impact children. Sure, there is recognition that hospitals contribute in important ways to this choice, but the campaign still emphasizes the mother’s ultimate role in doing what is best for her baby. Just under the surface lurks a problematic sense of responsibility, a space to use guilt and blame to force a mother’s hand (see Sutherland, 2010 for more on mothering and guilt/shame). And more than that, this emphasis on the mother’s choice renders invisible those structural conditions that feminists from all backgrounds have questioned. The campaign does nothing to get employers to provide safe and hygienic spaces for women to feed or pump when necessary. It does not address the conditions poor women face—for example, it does nothing to longstanding structures of inequality (lower quality health care facilities in lower class neighborhoods, racial inequities in occupational and educational settings) that interfere with women’s reproductive and childrearing choices. Nor does it address the essentialist beliefs that many women want to reject.

To top it off, I don’t think that this campaign is even really about women and enabling their choices or rights. If the failure to address the many conditions that enable or constrain breastfeeding doesn’t convince you, perhaps the posters will. The priority, the person who matters, is the baby; the mom, the “you,” is implicit. Just like the famous fetal images that appeared in Time Magazine and were later appropriated by the anti-abortion movement, which seem to depict the fetus as independent from its mother’s body (see a short comment here), the breastfeeding mother and her body are all but erased by the Latch On campaign. I’m sure there are other ways to interpret the images—and I’m open to hearing them—but I am nervous about a campaign “for women” that seems so uninformed by feminist theory or the long, problematic history of infringements on women’s reproductive rights, and that literally leaves women out of the picture.

Further Reading

Roberts, Dorothy. 1999. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books.

Sutherland, Jean-Anne. 2010. Mothering, Guilt and Shame. Sociology Compass 4(5):310-321.

Taylor, Tiffany. 2011. Re-examining Cultural Contradictions: Mothering Ideology and the Intersections of Class, Gender, and Race. Sociology Compass 5(10): 898-907.

Sexism and Superbowl Commericials

Source: LA Times

In the wake of the U.S. Superbowl on Sunday, news sources and social media outlets are reporting on the notorious commercials that accompanied the big game. With every year, the Superbowl commercials seem to become a bigger spectacle. Anticipation and expectations are always high. Viewers tune in to see commercials that are greater, funnier, and more elaborate. Perhaps not coincidentally, the commercials seem to become more controversial and even more offensive. Viewers, commentators, and journalists now are quick to note the sexist, racist, and generally problematic nature of these commercials.

For example, the Audi commercial has created controversy for its presentation of masculinity and its reference to sexual assault. In this commercial, a teenage boy is getting ready for his prom. It seems as though he is not a popular guy in his school and so he sets out for the prom on his own. Luckily, his parents lend him their Audi for the occasion. Once in the Audi, the teenager is transformed. Girls look at him differently. He feels powerful and self-assured. He arrives at the school, parks in the principal’s designated spot, and walks confidently into the prom. At this point, he finds a beautiful teenage girl, grabs her, and kisses her without her permission. Though she is surprised at first, she eventually appears to give in. The girl’s boyfriend, on the other hand, is not impressed. The final scene of the commercial is the teenage boy driving away with a black eye, probably given to him by the enraged boyfriend. Though he has a black eye, he seems triumphant with his conquest for the night.

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Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade: The Best and Worst of Sociology?

In Tearoom Trade (1970/1975), Laud Humphreys’ writes about the homosexual relations that took place in various “tearooms” (i.e., public bathrooms) in an unidentified American city during the mid- to late 1960s. By pretending to be a simple voyeur, Humphreys explains that he systematically observed these activities and even recorded the license plate numbers of a sample of tearoom participants. While the systematic observation part of his study permitted an understanding of the rules and roles, patterns of collective action, and risks of the game associated with impersonal gay sex in public restrooms, his tracking down and interviewing a handful of the subjects allowed Humphreys to better understand the identity, lives, and rationality of those men involved in the so-called tearoom trade. While the author defended the ethics behind his research early on, he was still stunned by the backlash it received. Yet, even years after Humphreys’ death, the ethical issues that his study provoked continue to reverberate in the social research community. In response to such issues, I will use this post to critically evaluate the strong and weak points of his book. (more…)

Crime as a Mechanism for Governing

Whether flipping through channels, listening to the radio, or reading the newspaper, it is evident that crime has secured a mainstay position in today’s media. In order to achieve high ratings, television networks and news outlets must fill their allotted time slots with only those headlines sure to popular attention (see Best, 2004). Oftentimes, those stories and reports are generated by sensationalizing criminal events. However, the seemingly overrepresentation of crime and delinquency is not the focus for this essay. Rather, it appears that crime has become a generalized preoccupation that has transformed a number of U.S. institutions (see Hudson, 2003). More specifically, crime – and societies growing fear of crime – has become a mechanism through which a new mode of governance has emerged. (more…)