Archive: Mar 2016

maiden madonna maiden

My childhood friend, Gail, is six months younger than me. As adults, that age differential is totally meaningless, but as “pre-teens”, it apparently meant a lot. She reminds me that when my mother took me to the local department store to buy me a “training” bra, she followed suit.  “I had to get a bra because you had one”. We both bought Peter Pan “AA”s, ironically from a company named after a boy who never wants to grow up, played in film and play versions by petite adult women.

Underneath the story of the bra (literally) is the story of the breast, that contested body part – shall we say, the ONLY body part – on women that is multiply-functioned to feed, and to receive and give sexual pleasure; a body part which is also the site of deadly disease for growing numbers of women.

Purchasing a first bra is a rite of passage into womanhood, sort of like a secular Bat Mitzvah for young girls*. And how apt that this first bra is called a “training” bar, signifying a broader issue of how girls are “in training” to be women.

While many women – particularly those with larger breasts – may need or want a bra for comfort, the reality is that bras are not anatomically necessary to support breasts. In fact, the history of “the bra” suggests that they are literally shaped by cultural norms, which are historically situated, including the economic climate, the role of technology and available materials within a particular time period. My own drawer of bras – and yes, because I’m terrible at throwing things out, I have kept bras for at least a decade – is a veritable history of the changing notion of women’s beauty, as seen through the lens of the shaping of the breast. I might even go so far as to say that the bra is an element of physical and even social control that tells one chapter of the gendered history of women.

Short history of the bra

There is evidence that Greek and Roman women athletes in the 14th century wore simple bands of cloth covering their breasts while playing sports.bra ancient1

And apparently, medieval bras were called “breast bags”, which had distinct cut cups, in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands. In the 16th century, women in France wore corsets which flattened the breast and pushed it up and nearly out of women’s dresses. The containing and shaping of women’s bodies continued well into the 19th century, as women were corseted from breast to hip. In the Victorian era, women’s waists were tight-laced in order to emphasize the breasts and hips.

An American named Mary Phelps-Jacob is credited with inventing “the modern bra” in 1914. It was made out of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons, and she patented her design under the name of Caresse Crosby. Phelps-Jacob came from a well-to-do family, and she decided to create a bra that was more comfortable for dancing (presumably at fancy balls!).

Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design
Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design

She worked with her French maid, creating a design by tying two silk handkerchiefs together, sewing on baby ribbons as straps and a seam in the center front of the item. She later wrote: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”

By 1932, the bra company, Warner, introduced the notion of “cup sizes” correlated with letters – A, B, C and D – and added adjustable bands and eye hooks. This is the first time that breasts were no longer treated as one object; rather, they were viewed as two body parts to be enclosed separately.  Bras now used latex – as chemists had figured out how to transform rubber into textile fabric that could be woven and was washable.

bra ancient2
World War II era utility bra

During World War II, material shortages affected the design of the bra. Some were made out of minimal fabric, called “utility bras”, and they were comprised of cotton-backed satin or “drill”, often in a peachy pink color. Women also sewed their own bras from patterns or magazine instructions, using parachute silk or nylon or old satin wedding dresses.

Some women began wearing “torpedo” bras, which claimed to protect women in war factory jobs. In the 1950s, after the war, women were wearing pointy bras, called the sweater or bullet bra, which drew upon war imagery. The 60s brought the push-up bra.

In 1968, a small group of feminists staged a dramatic demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlanta, to protest the oppression of women. They picketed the event with signs saying, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People.” And they also dumped symbols of female oppression – girdles, cosmetics, high-heeled shoes, and bras – into a “freedom trash can”.

Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant
Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant

It’s unclear as to whether there was any real fire at this event, much less women baring their breasts publicly. But the image of bras going into a trash can was captured in a photo, and journalists tagged these women as “bra-burning feminists”, a phrase that was meant to brand them as crazy radicals, but only contributed to the overall protest movement, which catalyzed women for action.

In 1977, the first “sports bra” was created, made out of stretchy rubberized material that held in women’s breasts for comfort so they could do more active sports. That same year, Victoria’s Secret opened its first store, accentuating women’s breasts as objects of sexuality aimed at the male gaze. These two bra types reflected the complex notion of women’s roles in society. In the 1990s, if it wasn’t clear what the bra was intended to do, this “Hello Boys” ad came out for Wonder Bra!hello boys

While I know many women who would like to NOT wear a bra, these images are very compelling. Our choice to wear a bra – and particularly our choice about which bra style to wear – is consciously and unconsciously impacted by notions of the so-called ideal body shape, including the socially constructed notion of what it means to be “attractive” or “desirable”, and these notions have changed over time.

So how about today?

In the 2000s, technology has allowed the creation of the “bioform” bra – which provides a consistent shape of the breast that doesn’t rely on what’s underneath it. Pauline Weston Thomas says that this bra “uplifts and contours the breasts so well that it immediately takes ten years off a sideways sagging bust.  If you are past 40 with a full cup size you may realize that you have not seen your breasts in this position for twenty years, as it centers and uplifts the breasts.”

This new bra – made possible by synthetic materials and technology-driven design – promises to literally freeze, or even turn back, time! As we age, women’s breasts change in shape and form. They may sag, but the Bioform bra maintains a youthful veneer, or what we perceive as the young breast. The bra defines the shape of the breast, including the tilt and the amount of cleavage (think, push up bras). This bra claims to literally shave years off our age, without any invasive surgery. It’s tantamount to an anti-aging tool, and considered safe. We’re not injecting any foreign substance into our bodies when we wear this type of bra, so ostensibly, it’s not harmful. But is it necessary?

Research on bras…

Based on a study conducted by French researcher, Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon from the University of Besançon in eastern France, “bras are a false necessity”. Rouillon argues that “medically, physiologically, anatomically – breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity.” On the contrary, he says, “they get saggier with a bra”. Rouillon spent many years measuring changes in the orientation of breasts on hundreds of women, ages 18-35, and found that women who did not wear bras had less sag. “There was no dis-improvement in the orientation of their breasts, and in fact, there was widespread improvement”. A 28-year-old woman who participated in his study and stopped wearing a bra for 2 years says, “There are multiple benefits: I breathe more easily, I carry myself better, and I have less back pain”.

So is there anything wrong with wearing a bra?  NO, of course not. And if women need a bra for comfort, want a bra because they’re modest, or want to attract men or other women with their breasts – however they want to accentuate them through the use of the bra – it’s all good!  Who am I to judge? Nonetheless, some women find “the bra” constricting and would welcome more comfort.

Here’s a great piece about a woman who experiments with not wearing a bra for a week, and discovers that she initially feels naked, discovers her breasts are lop-sided, learns that it’s not as painful as she thought it would be and eventually realizes it’s more comfortable without. She also goes out clubbing and realizes that no one notices!

And here’s another great video with a few women who try it for one week!

 

* A Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ritual for Jewish girls signifying that they are now full-fledged members of the Jewish community with associated responsibilities.

 

 

People are often shockingly wrong about how much time they dedicate to various tasks.  In general, we tend to overestimate how much time it takes to do things we dislike and underestimate how much time we spend on tasks we enjoy.  So, people ritualistically overestimate how much time they spend on laundry, cleaning bathrooms, working out and underestimate how much time they spend watching television, napping, eating, or doing any number of tasks that provide them with joy.

Asking about how people use their time has been a mainstay on surveys dealing with households and family life.  We ask people to assess how much time they spend on all manner of mundane tasks in their lives–everything from shopping, sleeping, watching television, attending to their children, and household labor is divided up into an astonishing number of variables.  The assumption, of course, is that people can provide meaningful information or that their responses are an accurate (or approximately accurate) portrayal of the time they actually spend (see here).  This is why time diary studies came into being–they produce a more accurate picture of how people use their time.  People record their actual time use throughout the day in a diary, marking starting and stopping points of various activities.  And there are a number of different scholars who rely on this method and these data.  But Liana Sayer is among the leading scholars in the field.  When I’ve seen her present, or others present on time use data, the data are almost always visualized in the same way (as stacked column charts).  Personally, I love seeing the data this way.  The changes jump out at me and I feel like I instantly recognize trends and distinctions they discuss. But I have learned in my classroom that students do not always have the same reaction.

I’m interested because I use data visualizations in class a lot.  And in my (admittedly limited) experience, students have an easier time interpreting the story of time use data when it is visualized in some ways over others.

All of the examples here are pretty basic changes in data visualizations.  But, learning these basics are necessary to help students read the more complex data visualizations they may encounter.  Being able to interpret visualizations of temporal data is important; it’s part of what helps social scientists consider, measure, and critique the idea of “feminist change.”  Distinguishing between men’s and women’s time use is only one pocket of this field.  But, it’s the one I’ll focus on here, and on which Liana Sayer is among the foremost experts.  The data I’m visualizing below come from one of Sayer’s most cited articles: “Gender, Time and Inequality: Trends in Women’s and Men’s Paid Work, Unpaid Work, and Free Time” (here – behind a paywall).

It’s fairly common to present time use data with a series of stacked columns (the same way the Census often illustrates shifts in household types).  Below is a visualization of the differences between women’s and men’s minutes per day allocated to paid work, unpaid work, free time, and time dedicated to self care.  It’s all time diary data and we talk about why this is more reliable and a better measure – but also why it is more difficult to collect, etc.  Some students see the story of this graph immediately.  I do too.  Men’s time allocated to paid labor decreased while women’s increased.  And women perform more unpaid work than do men.  Lots of students, however, are stumped. stacked column

But when I present the data differently, students often have an easier time seeing the story the chart is produced to illustrate.  The Pew Research Center visualizes a lot of their data using stacked bar graphs.  And maybe it’s because these are more easily recognized by people with less experience with data visualization.  I have found that more of my students are able to read the chart below than the one above (at least for temporal time use data comparisons).stacked bar

Another way of presenting these data might be to use clustered columns.  I have also found that students are more quick to recognize the trend in these data with the graph below than they are with the initial stacked column chart.cluster column

But, I’ve found that students have the easiest time with line charts for temporal time use data.  On the chart below, I deleted the grid lines because The New York Times sometimes displays time trend data this way (see Philip Cohen’s piece on NYT Opinionater, “How Can We Jump-Start the Struggle for Gender Equality?” for an example).  Students that struggle to recognize the trend in the clustered column chart, are much faster to see the trend here.line

These aren’t an exhaustive set of examples, and all of them are basic visualizations.  For instance, we might use a stacked area chart to show these data (as trends in the racial composition of the U.S. are often depicted), a scatterplot (as data on GDP and fertility rates are often illustrated), a series of pie charts (as men’s and women’s various compositions in different economic sectors are sometimes visualized), or something else entirely. Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 9.59.28 AMIn fact, The New York Times produced a really incredible interactive stream graph visualizing data from The American Time Use Survey that illustrates differences in time use between groups. I sometimes have students explore this graph in my course on the sociology of gender.  But many struggle interpreting it.  This is, I think, in part due to the fact that we often take data visualization literacy for granted.  It’s a skill, and it’s one we should be better at teaching.

I think the point I want to make is that we (or I, at least) need to think more carefully about how we visualize our data and findings to different audiences.  Liana Sayer has an incredible mastery of this (she presents data in all of the ways mentioned in this post and more throughout her work).  One thing that I’m thinking more about as I write and teach about research and findings amenable to data visualization is which visualizations are best suited to which kinds of data (something all scientists are concerned with), but also which visualizations work with which kinds of audiences.  This is new territory to me.

Visualizing feminist change in a single chart is difficult.  And it’s often accompanied by, “Well, this is true, but let me tell you about what these data don’t show…”  But, I’m interested in how we make choices about visualizing feminist research and whether we need to make different kinds of choices when we talk about the findings with different kinds of audiences.

I am headed to the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Boston, MA this week. My main focus is the Digital Sociology mini-conference that is held in conjunction with the event. The mini conference’s first year was 2015, when I co-organized it with Jessie Daniels and Karen Gregory. My name is still on the organizers’ list this year with Jessie and Leslie Jones. I should say upfront that Leslie and Jessie did all of the legwork this year. My year was spent in various stages of completing three book manuscripts and settling into the first year of my tenure track job at Virginia Commonwealth University. This will be my first year presenting, organizing and contributing to an academic conversation as a “legitimate” sociologist. more...

The barbershop holds a special place in American culture. With its red, white, and blue striped poles, dark naugahyde chairs, and straight razor shaves, the barbershop has been a place where men congregate to shore-up their stubble and get a handle on their hair. From a sociological perspective, the barbershop is an interesting place because of its historically homosocial character, where men spend time with other men. In the absence of women, men create close relationships with each other. Some might come daily to talk with their barbers, discuss the news, or play chess. Men create community in these places, and community is important to people’s health and well-being.

But is the barbershop disappearing? If so, is anything taking its place?

In my study of high-service men’s salons—dedicated to the primping and preening of an all male clientele—hair stylists described the “old school” barbershop as a vanishing place. They explained that men are seeking out a pampered grooming experience that the bare-bones barbershop with its corner dusty tube television doesn’t offer. The licensed barbers I interviewed saw these newer men’s salons as a “resurgence” of “a men-only place” that provides more “care” to clients than the “dirty little barbershop.” And those barbershops that are sticking around, said Roxy, one barber, are “trying to be a little more upscale.” She encourages barbers to “repaint and add flat-screen TVs.”

Tony's Barber Shop. Yelp.com.
Tony’s Barber Shop. Yelp.com.

When I asked clients of one men’s salon, The Executive, if they ever had their hair cut at a barbershop, they explained that they did not fit the demographic. Barbershops, they said, are for old men with little hair to worry about or young boys who don’t have anyone to impress. As professional white-collar men, they see themselves as having outgrown the barbershop. A salon, with its focus on detailed haircuts and various services, including manicures, pedicures, hair coloring, and body waxing, help these mostly white men to obtain what they consider to be a “professional” appearance. “Professional men… they know that if they look successful, that will create connotations to their clients or customers or others that they work with—that they are smart, that they know what they’re doing,” said Gill, a client of the salon and vice-president in software, who reasoned why men go to the salon.

Indeed the numbers support the claim that barbershops are dwindling, and it may indeed be due to white well-to-do men’s shifting attitudes about what a barbershop is, what it can offer, and who goes there. (In my earlier research on a small women’s salon [see here], one male client told me the barbershop is a place for the mechanic, or “grease-monkey,” who doesn’t care how he looks, and for “machismo” men who prefer a pile of Playboy magazines rather than the finery of a salon). According to Census data, there is a fairly steady decline in the number of barbershops over twenty years. From 1992-2012, we saw a 22.5% decrease in barbershops in the United Stated, with a slight uptick in 2013.

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.
U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.

But these attitudes about the barbershop as a place of ol’, as a fading institution that provides outdated fades, is both a classed and raced attitude. With all the nostalgia for the barbershop in American culture, there is surprisingly little academic writing about it. It is telling, though, that research considering the importance of the barbershop in men’s lives focuses on black barbershops. The corner barbershop is alive and well in black communities and it serves an important role in the lives of black men. In her book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, Political Scientist and TV host, Melissa Harris-Perry, wrote about everyday barbershop talk as important for understanding collective efforts to frame black political thought. Scholars also find the black barbershop remains an important site for building communities and economies in black neighborhoods and for socializing young black boys (see here, here, and here).

And so asking if the barbershop is vanishing is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking: Where and for whom is the barbershop vanishing? And where barbershops continue as staples of a community, what purpose do they serve? Where they are disappearing, what is replacing them and what are the social relations underpinning the emergence of these new places?

In some white hipster neighborhoods, the barbershop is actually making a comeback. In his article, What the Barbershop Renaissance Says about Men, journalist and popular masculinities commentator, Thomas Page McBee, writes that these places provide sensory pleasures whereby men can channel a masculinity that existed unfettered in the “good old days.” The smell of talcum powder and the presence of shaving mugs help men to grapple with what it means to be a man at a time when masculinity is up for debate. But in a barbershop that charges $45 for a haircut, some men are left out. And so, in a place that engages tensions between ideas of nostalgic masculinity and a new sort of progressive man, we may very well see opportunities for real change fall by the wayside. The hipster phenomenon, after all, is a largely white one that appropriates symbols of white working-class masculinity: think white tank tops with tattoos or the plaid shirts of lumbersexuals. (See Tristan Bridges’ posts on hipster masculinity and the borrowing of working-class masculine aesthetics, and his post with D’Lane Compton on the lumbersexual).

When we return to neighborhoods where barbershops are indeed disappearing, and being replaced with high-service men’s salons like those in my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinityit is important to put these shifts into context. They are not signs of a disintegrating by-gone culture of manhood. Rather, they are part of a transformation of white, well-to-do masculinity that reflects an enduring investment in distinguishing men along the lines of race and class according to where they have their hair cut. And these men are still creating intimate relationships; but instead of immersing themselves in communities of men, they are often building confidential relationships with women hair stylists.

 

*Thank you to Trisha Crashaw, graduate student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, for her work on the included graph.

http://cdn.running.competitor.com/files/2012/12/treadmill.jpgA few years ago, I was on the treadmill at the gym, trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there much lately, and wanted to know why. I didn’t know her well and could have manufactured some quick story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth: my 97-year-old father had passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that “he is in heaven now,” and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled back wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I could believe my dad was in heaven and, as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…

She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do. Apparently distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she paused, and then told me that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believe “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims.” With those words, I was hooked again. I looked back at her and must have appeared surprised because she smiled uncomfortably…and then told me she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now because I saw this as a “teachable moment.”

Her comments really irked me. Here was a kind-hearted, well-meaning person who lacked real knowledge about Muslims, and seemed to be swallowing whole the Fox News/right wing extremist narrative. It upset me that people like her – presumably good people – can be so vulnerable to wrong thinking. Moreover, the current array of bigoted GOP candidates – fueled by and reinforced by right-wing media outlets – are able to reinforce people’s fears into a frightening political direction.

http://www.usnews.com/dims4/USNEWS/976e756/2147483647/thumbnail/652x454%3E/quality/85/?url=%2Fcmsmedia%2F84%2F1d%2F46a5f6984d0ab8c82e04377eb88a%2Fresizes%2F1500%2F150909-immigrants-editorial.jpgIn his analysis of why Donald Trump is gaining traction in this presidential race, scholar and activist Noam Chomsky says that Trump is “evidently appealing to deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, probably among sectors like those that are seeing an increase in mortality, something unheard of apart from war and catastrophe.”  Trump supporters, he argues, “are sinking into hopelessness, despair and anger”.  Instead of directing these feelings against the structures and institutions that are “the agents of the dissolution of their lives and worlds”, Trump incites people to blame “those who are even more harshly victimized,” including Muslims.  Add to this the fact that Trump is an entertainer! He cushions his message of hatred of “the other” with the bombast of a reality TV delivery. Chomsky warns us that these “signs are familiar,” as they “evoke some memories of the rise of European fascism.”

http://christewtechproject.weebly.com/uploads/1/4/4/8/14485152/1351702220.jpgI hearken back to the consistent message I heard throughout my life from my political activist father – that we must stand up for our beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was a very effective union organizer, fighting for better wages and working conditions for working men and women. But in 1954, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?” After much emotional wrangling, he decided to challenge the committee’s legality. As a result, he was “blacklisted” from employment in the U.S. and could only find work selling life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. Again in 1965, he was subpoenaed to testify before the Committee. By that time, he had become a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in an attempt to give voice to working people. His life choices affected his family. We lost friends and were rejected by family members. And yet I have internalized – without a doubt – the importance of challenging injustices.

So what did I say to my treadmill partner when she brought up her fear of radicalized Muslims? I told her that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. Didn’t the “Koran incite Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” she asked. I replied that I knew that was completely false, drawing upon knowledge I have gained over the years.

Did I say enough to challenge her thinking? I’m not sure. There is that moment when we may ask ourselves, “Am I going to challenge this person? How do I do it respectfully? Am I risking their wrath? Will I feel uncomfortable? While it might be a conversation with just one person, I have no doubt that these interactions can make a difference in changing people’s minds. Maybe they will be more thoughtful or less reactive. But I believe that if we remain silent, we are – in a way – complicit.

There are many ways to fight misinformation and to work for a better, more equitable world. We can organize, write, teach, and, sometimes, just talk with a friend, colleague, or acquaintance. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.