Many nights this week I felt choked up and emotional. Beyond the global issues we are currently facing- the attacks in Paris and many states refusing Syrian refugees- many of us are witnessing racism on our campuses. One of the students on my campus posted some provocative words on social media that resulted in strong emotional responses from both students and faculty.


Teaching Students of Color as a White Woman

Two years ago in my Sociology of Health Care class most of the students were women of color. When we studied health disparities and the impact of racism, the students were not surprised by what they read, specifically about the impact of racism on birth outcomes and mental health. I remember the day I showed a video on how racism affects birth outcomes, and the meaningful class discussion we had afterwards. As a white woman (and one in the South with credentials behind her name), I didn’t want to be “that” professor who talks about inequality based only on on data, with students assuming I am the expert, or that I might be trying to marginalize their experience and put it into categories, or that I knew what it felt like to be a person of color. Instead I told them I could share the sociological research and evidence, but as a white woman I was not going to pretend I had shared their experience, and that their voices were critically important in this discussion.

My beloved copy of Patricia Hill Collins book Black Feminist Thought is no longer on my bookshelf. I gave it to a student, a woman of color, who through tears, told me about the racism and discrimination she has faced in her life and on campus. Another student, a queer woman of color, waited a week during a break to come talk to me about a painful experience, where the intersections of race, gender, and sexual identities collide. I feel honored that these students trusted me and shared their painful stories. In saying this, I am not asking for an award for being an ally that my students trust. Instead, I am advocating that we let our students know we support them as allies. In doing so, we must listen to their experiences. Racism and social justice are issues we should all be working on and not just on the backs of those who already oppressed.

Free Speech? Social Media, Racism, and Threatening Language

Monday evening after arriving home from an event with my daughter, a post by a student I do not know at our institution made its rounds on Face Book (FB). The post critiqued the Black Lives Matter movement and associated protests in Missouri. This student didn’t just express their disdain for these protests; they made what some perceived as threatening claims about what would result if this happened on our campus. To add fuel to the fire, this student also expressed their severe dislike for those who are Muslim or Islamic, in response to the tragedy in Paris.

hateTo their credit, our administration responded through Facebook, as well as with a letter from our current president, acknowledging the importance of free speech as a constitutional right, and also saying that threatening comments violate our student code of conduct. The original post by the student has since been taken down. Unfortunately, too many people had taken screen shots of the post for it to be truly deleted.

As I was reading various responses via comments to the different Facebook posts about the incident and what students, alumni, and parents were writing, I was upset, angry, and sad. One set of comments ran the gamut, from the expression that God loves everyone, to the belief people were over-reacting, and that we can’t control free speech. Other comments pointed out the threats, the racism, historical legacies of racism, and emotions such as anger and fear. I felt a mixture of emotions as I read about how students of color feel on campus – many of them students I know personally. How do we advocate for social justice and ending oppression of our students while enabling free speech?

Our administration did respond, as I noted above, and I believe the incident is being taken seriously. Our NAACP chapter and minority students on campus also spoke out in regards to the incident. (Here is one story.)

I decided that this was an opportunity for my students to discuss these real life issues in one of my classes, where all but one of my students is a person of color. We discussed the Facebook messages, both in regard to racism on campus and also in relation to the Syrian refugee issues (as we live in state in which our Governor and leaders stated we would not allow them due “security” issues).

Students’ Voices on the Issues

I told my students this blog would be about these issues and they gave me permission to share with you part of our discussion. To preface this, I told them it was their time to talk. I wanted to know how they felt, what racism they have seen or experienced, and what solutions they thought might help. Not all the students agreed on solutions, but it was a fruitful discussion, and I wanted to share some of its highlights.

I admit it is difficult to put this in writing, as I do not want to misrepresent what students said nor just put their words into categories. To present important components of this conversation, here are summaries and a few quotes from the students, which is not in any particular order:

Whites are afraid of African Americans and when we (African Americans) speak it’s seen as riot comparable to the KKK.

Look around at us… 1 in 4 of us (as black) will end up in jail.

If a black student posted something with this hatred and threats they would be in jail.

Specific events have happened in the past on campus involving symbols of racism and slavery, which caused fear among students of color.

Children are socialized to be racist.

Greek residences on campus resemble plantations. Students of color feel uncomfortable with the whiteness in this space.

Things are not going to change until the system changes. We have to start with children and teach them what matters.

The Black Lives Matter movement can be seen in different ways in terms of it is going to work. “We are fed up” and “our people are dying” were stated.

Why are there mandatory classes on drinking and sexual assault on campus, but not about diversity issues relating to people of color? Why are we required to take math, but not a class on dealing with diversity? Even if classes are intended to be about diversity for incoming students, they may not really deal with the issues.

A student of color talked about a class she took on race issues, in which there were only two white students. One of these students was honest in the class and noted she wanted to learn more about diversity issues, but was afraid to ask questions as she might be labeled as racist in doing so.

Why is there a lack of diversity, more specifically people of color, as faculty and administrators on campus?

In summary, the conversation had many directions and I don’t think any of what my students said will surprise many people. Some of the conversation was hard as some students felt hopeless and angry. Others were more positive about change occurring and much of this was about kids and education. So, is presenting what the students said going to change things? I hope that it can lead to more conversations, but this is only a starting point. I feel that what I can do is listen, reinforce that their voices matter, and encourage them to talk to faculty and administrators on campus who do care. I take their words seriously and continue to think about through my role as an educator.

Understanding & Compassion vs. Violence & Fear

As I told my students, their voices are important, but it is not just their job to have these discussions on our campus (and all campuses) or in society. We can’t put the burden only on students of color and those who are oppressed, to do all the work. As part of systematic racism and oppression, we are all part of the problem and solutions. As sociologists who study and know that racism in all forms still exists, we can listen to our students and let them know their voices and concerns are legitimate.

ListenWe are not allies unless we are willing to listen. And in my eyes, this requires empathy and compassion. It’s also about acknowledging that for some of us, we benefit from and contribute to these systems of oppression, because of our own privileges. We need to have humility to take a step back. Even though we might be “experts” as professors and researchers, we need to listen. In doing so, we need to let our students, colleagues, and friends know our empathy is not just, “I’m sorry for how you feel”, but it’s also, “Please tell me how you feel and how do we work together to solve this.”

Black lives matter. My students’ lives matter. Let’s be there for them by standing up for social justice, enabling conversations to happen, voices to be heard, and recognizing our own parts in systems of oppression. I thank my former and current students for having these discussions.

In our society, within our local environments, within our country, and globally, it is evident we all do not all agree with each other or even understand each other. Because the root of many of these issues are structural, we are not going to solve all our social problems immediately. However, I believe we can try to understand with compassion, not fear or hate. In terms of all the current issues we are facing in society, with historical components, compassion and empathy is going to get us farther than threats of violence or actions based on fear.


Robin-Thicke-Blurred-LinesRobin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists—some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time. The media attention seemed to prove the media adage that any coverage is good coverage if Thicke’s continued celebrity is any measure.

It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, television shows etc. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture—but how we celebrate it and render it “sexy.” Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged: Why Consensual Sex Can Still be Bad.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.

Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique. The notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise) is pervasive. In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting, “What do you mean? / Ohh ohh ohh/ When you nod your head yes / But you wanna say no / What do you mean?” The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”

Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well—not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.

Image from Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog.

Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).*  The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s recent 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well.  But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.

Indeed, the music video (above) takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman whom he meets in a hotel room. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers. They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.

Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her—also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.

justin-bieber-what-do-you-mean-cover-413x413Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video. Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.


*See C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander’s forthcoming work in Gender & Society“Good Guys Don’t Rape: Gender, Domination, and Mobilizing Rape”—for more on what this discourse looks like and how it works.

As our department and numerous others think about ways to increase majors, I left our last faculty meeting thinking “Why Sociology?”. Not just for students, but why we – as faculty – studied, are teaching, or are using sociology in our research or work. I thought about not only personal statements I had to write for the job market, discussing my parent’s influence on my sociological perspective, but also jobs (pre- and post-PhD), volunteer experiences, and in general, my life in terms of why sociology or how I use sociology and continue to learn.

One can read numerous reports by the American Sociological Association on why students major in sociology and their paths after graduation . Most do not go on the “sociological academic” track (i.e. PhD programs in Sociology), but instead if they go to graduate school, they do so in more applied fields such as social work, public health, or the law. Sociology majors with various degrees, from the Bachelors, Masters, to the PhD, also work in a variety of settings. So, why sociology for a major? The skills? The mindset? What can entice students towards this major and what are the “benefits”? I believe if we cannot explain our own sociological perspective and mindset, including the utility to everyday life and careers beyond academia, we may be limiting sociology as a potential major or way of thinking for students. In today’s post, I’ll relate how I “came” to sociology.

My Background: A Sociology Major from the Beginning

I grew up in a family that fostered my educational aspirations by providing the access and financial means to do so. Despite these normative privileges afforded to me, my parents taught me important lesions about society and inequality that has impacted my personal values, work, and scholarship.

Hooded as "PhD"!
Hooded as “PhD”!

Growing up in the Midwest, I watched my parents actively participate in the Elks Club, in which service to others was a defining element of this benevolent organization. Each Holiday season, I helped assemble and deliver food baskets to economically disadvantaged families with my parents. I remember one year when we met a family who could not afford to turn on their heat. The whole family sat in front of the open stove in the kitchen for warmth. When I asked my parents about this, they explained to me the existence of poverty and inequality in our society. This small incident began what has become my lifelong exploration of and work toward ending social injustice. I was shown through example by my parents that social justice was something to strive for and that that our own comfortable middle class status was indeed a privilege.

My childhood and adolescence were also shaped by my mother’s job working as a claims’ administrator at the Social Security Administration (SSA). In an emotionally challenging job, my mother worked with a variety of people, from those with disabilities to those with economic difficulties, who were usually on the lower rung of the social class and status ladder in society. My mother’s duties included determining whether they qualified for Social Security, and the amount of benefits the government would provide. During high school, my mother took an early retirement from SSA. We discussed her job at length and the reasons why she was retiring at younger age, as she articulated a description of structural inequalities in society. My mom existed as the middle person between those in need and the government, and she found the rules and bureaucracy limiting. Emotional strain resulted when she had to work with those in need who did not receive what they needed to survive. This profound sociological insight has had a lasting impact on my views of structural inequality.

My parents in their younger years. My role models.
My parents in their younger years. My role models.

Coming from a background where service to others was important, at the end of high school and in college, I started working with people with  disabilities. My work included program development, life skills training, and community integration. Doing this work, I not only witnessed, first- hand, the discrimination that persons with disabilities face, but also learned life lessons from my clients. They taught me about friendship, understanding, and the importance of appreciating the simple things in life in a society that promotes perfectionism, able-ism, and cultural consumerism to make us happy. This job has had a significant influenced on my life. They were a part of my family. Starting this work while I was in high school, while also taking a sociology class, combined with the influence of my background and influenced my decision to declare sociology as a major in college. I knew that I wanted to make a difference. Working with people with disabilities allowed me to see how society is structured in a way that creates and constructs differences and meanings, and from a “disability” lens, how it is structured for able-bodied persons.

I declared my major as Sociology from the moment I applied to and started college, which I now understand is very rare. Also rare, especially at that time, was my ability to take a Sociology course in high school. But in taking this class, the idea of sociology resonated with my values, how I thought, and especially the lessons my parents taught me, and in particular, in my work with people with disabilities.

Why Sociology? Learning, Living, and Applying the Sociological Imagination

A common critique we hear in the field is that those who are obtaining their PhDs are being trained to be academics and not how to apply or use sociology outside of a professorship in academia. While not all programs are like this and despite the critique, we also understand for the most post, this is how our professors were trained and this is what they know.

Grad Students Act out Famous Sociologists
Grad Students Act out Famous Sociologists

However, I want to move beyond the graduate school academic versus applied debate to speak to how we talk and think about sociology, with undergraduates in mind. Why is sociology useful? Why are we not just an “easy” major or one that “confirms” common sense (or “debunking” it). How or why can sociology be useful to our personal lives? To do this, I will tell part of my story, in my next post in a few weeks. Not all will agree with what I have to say, but the beauty of sociology is that it is flexible.

Yes, I am back in the academy and want to be successful, but I also want my students (and potential majors) to know sociology is useful beyond a classroom and beyond teaching. In my next post, I will center on jobs I have had with a degree in Sociology (beyond a tenure track professor job) and the strenuous event of moving across the country from a metro area of the North to a small town in the Deep South, in which thinking about things in sociological manner indeed helped keep me sane.

I leave you with the following questions that are relevant to us “selling” sociology, but also to our own continued learning in the field. This relates back to historical debates about what sociology should be, why it is not social work (though as an MSW, I see the connections), and contemporary discussion on what engaged or applied sociology means.

  • How did you come to sociology as a field?
  • How do you define sociology (beyond a “textbook” definition)?
  • How do you think sociologically and how do you explain this others?
  • How you use sociology in your life?
  • What are core or essential skills of sociology training?
My student wins a social activism award from SWS
My student wins a social activism award from SWS

As a feminist, I recognize power in the structures and symbols that regulate society. I see how intersecting privileges and lack thereof operate to allow some communities more access to opportunities and others less. I know that while power and privilege may be firmly entrenched in ways that systematically marginalize large swaths of society I also know that people have agency. Feminists challenge power imbalances in the spaces we frequent most; in my case, the academy. Mentoring women of color and non-traditional students in their research prevents scholarship and the resultant status from producing it, from remaining the domain of the privileged. I believe that student researchers from marginalized populations challenge the racial/ethnic, class, gendered, and sexualized hierarchies that shape undergraduate research arrangements and thus the academy more broadly.

I teach at the University of Washington Bothell, an institution that greatly values the professor-student relationship. Our student body is very diverse: 42% students of color, 46% first generation college students, and 60% on financial aid. Many of the students I teach have life experiences meant to keep them out of college. For example, one Chicana student shared with me that her high school guidance counselor told the Latinas that there was no need for them to try in high school because they were just going to get pregnant and drop out anyway. This hateful, racist, and sexist message from a woman paid to be a mentor! Feminist mentoring of undergraduate students is a post-intervention, of sorts. Here I want to share the successes of five of my students; all five of whom represent communities of underserved populations.*

In May of this year I saw a CFP (Call For Papers) for an author of an encyclopedia entry about Chicana feminism. I had an idea for three of my undergrad students to work together to research and co-author the entry, with my close mentoring. The editor agreed, I asked the students, who enthusiastically and proudly said yes. I know these three students very well; they were in their third and fourth classes with me, have done research papers in my classes, and worked on group projects together. They are all excellent students but I knew the project was going to take a lot of my time, regardless. And it did: six iterations amidst an already hectic quarter. I knew I wanted these students to have the opportunity to write the essay; an opportunity typically not available to the demographics they all represent.

Donning their Latino/a Student Union shirts, Alejandra Pérez, Elizabeth Huffaker, and Jessica Velasquez
From left to right are co-authors Alejandra Pérez, Elizabeth Huffaker, and Jessica Velasquez. Alejandra and Jessica are seen in their Latinx Student Union shirts.

Alejandra is a Guatemalan born, 1.5 generation, undocumented immigrant and first generation college student. Alejandra, her brother, and mom came to the US in 2006 and were just reunited with her father after 8 years. Her mother works as a nanny and her father a construction worker. Alejandra is financing her education through scholarships and working; additionally, Washington state recently passed SB6523 which makes financial aid available to undocumented students. She does spectacularly in school, on top of her being an activist with a job. If given the chance she will eventually become anything she aspires to be. Or her parents may be picked up by the INS or ICE and deported to Guatemala. Her future is anything but certain.

Jessica has also overcome odds. She too is a first generation college student. Jessica is a Chicana, born to immigrant parents. She was raised in Eastern Washington (home to most of the state’s agroindustry) where her father works as a laborer and her mother a sorter for a produce company.

The final co-author is Elizabeth; a white mother/grandmother/ great grandmother from the Midwest. Elizabeth returned to college at the age of 65 after a 22-year hiatus when she worked as an accountant and a single-mother of six. Together these three rock stars rejected the social messages that tell them the privileged class in the academy has no room for them and in 2016 their names will appear in a prestigious encyclopedia as co-authors of an essay I will eventually assign in my classes.

shayne hires 2 revises.inddThe next two rock stars worked individually on pieces that now appear in my edited collection Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (SUNY 2014). During the revisions my editor asked me to write introductions to each of the three sections of the book. I loved the idea but had no idea where I was going to find the time. I called upon one of my undergraduates, Jessica (a different one) that I have a long history with, starting with her first quarter of college. I asked her if she was interested, she said yes, we found her a small stipend, and I handed over the unpublished manuscript and asked her to make sense of each section. Once she did, she wrote the introductions in a concise way to communicate the overarching themes. Jessica did an amazing job. Her accomplishment was also personally important as her family was not pleased with her choice or majors (not-Business) or her recent coming out as a lesbian. Jessica is a proud mixed Brazilian who has been in the U.S. since 2010. She is pursuing her dream to be an academic and will no doubt serve as a role model and mentor to queer and straight women of color.

Finally, Mahala. I have known Mahala the longest of all of these students. She took a Latin American studies class with me which required a research paper, and then another and unable to stop, eventually a directed study so she could keep researching. Her paper ultimately became a chapter in Taking Risks. Mahala is a white woman in her mid-twenties. She returned to college after a 5 year leave, while raising her 2 and 4 year olds, largely alone. She worked and single-parented full time, and quietly excelled in all of her classes. I saw her brilliance in her first very short paper for me and sought her out. She was always silent in class and was oblivious to her intelligence. I worked hard to get her to present her papers, get fellowships and anything else to make her realize her competence. I eventually asked her to transform her paper into a chapter for my book. Jessica and Mahala didn’t end up in my book because I was doing them a favor; my name is on the book so I needed to feel good about their work and I absolutely do.

From left to right are Shayne's colleague and co-author Kristy Leissle, author Julie Shayne and student authors Mahala and Jessica.
From left to right are Shayne’s colleague and co-author Kristy Leissle, author Julie Shayne and student authors Mahala and Jessica.

The results with these and other students I don’t have space to write about here energizes me to keep pouring my all into my undergrads and mentor them to go out and be confident social justice and feminist advocates in whatever professional sphere they choose. As feminists, especially those of us with status and privilege to mobilize, we need to undermine the power imbalances in the spaces to which we have access and in my mind, working with the aforementioned researchers is a small but important move in that direction.

* The students mentioned in this essay all read and edited it before I sent it to the editors at Feminist Reflections.

Image of Julie ShayneJulie Shayne is author/editor of three books: Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (editor), They Used to Call Us Witches: Chilean Exiles, Culture, and Feminism, winner of the Pacific Sociological Association’s 2011 Distinguished Scholarship Award, and The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba. She is a Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and Affiliate Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies & Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Washington Seattle.


My personal webpage

Taking Risks

They Used to Call Us Witches

The Revolution Question,2223.aspx

Singer-songwriter Hozier played “guess the man buns” on VH1, and Buzzfeed facetiously claimed they had “Scientific Proof That All Celebrity Men are Hotter with Man Buns.” Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, and David Beckham have all sported the man bun. And no, I’m not talking about their glutes. Men are pulling their hair back behind their ears or on top on their heads and securing it into a well manicured or, more often, fashionably disheveled knot. This hairstyle is everywhere now: in magazines and on designer runways and the red carpet. Even my neighborhood Barista is sporting a fledgling bun, and The Huffington Post recently reported on the popular Man Buns of Disneyland Instagram account that documents how “man buns are taking over the planet.”

David Beckham, Orlando Bloom, and Jared Leto all sporting man buns/
David Beckham, Orlando Bloom, and Jared Leto all sporting man buns/

At first glance, the man bun seems a marker of progressive manhood. The bun, after all, is often associated with women—portrayed in the popular imagination via the stern librarian and graceful ballerina. In my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, however, I discuss how linguistic modifiers such as manlights (blonde highlights for men’s hair) reveal the gendered norm of a word. Buns are still implicitly feminine; it’s the man bun that is masculine. But in addition to reminding us that men, like women, are embodied subjects invested in the careful cultivation of their appearances, the man bun also reflects the process of cultural appropriation. To better understand this process, we have to consider: Who can pull off the man bun and under what circumstances?

I spotted my first man bun in college. And it was not a blonde haired, blue eyed, all American guy rocking the look in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. This bun belonged to a young Sikh man who, on a largely white U.S. campus, received lingering stares for his hair, patka, and sometimes turban. His hair marked him as an ethnic and religious other. Sikhs often practice Kesh by letting their hair grow uncut in a tribute to the sacredness of God’s creation. He was marginalized on campus and his appearance seen by fellow classmates as the antithesis of sexy. In one particularly alarming 2007 case, a teenage boy in Queens was charged with a hate crime when he tore off the turban of a young Sikh boy to forcefully shave his head. encourages men to "Think more Indian Sikh than Kardashian at the gym" when creating their man buns. encourages men to “Think more Indian Sikh than Kardashian at the gym” when creating their man buns.

A journalist for The New York Times claims that Brooklyn bartenders and Jared Leto “initially popularized” the man bun. It’s “stylish” and keeps men’s hair out of their faces when they are “changing Marconi light bulbs,” he says. In other words, it’s artsy and sported by hipsters. This proclamation ignores the fact that Japanese samurai have long worn the topknot or chonmage, which are still sported by sumo wrestlers. Nobody is slapping sumo wrestlers on the cover of GQ magazine, though, and praising them for challenging gender stereotypes. And anyway, we know from research on men in hair salons and straight men who adopt “gay” aesthetic that men’s careful coiffing does not necessarily undercut the gender binary. Rather, differences along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality continue to distinguish the meaning of men’s practices, even if those practices appear to be the same. When a dominant group takes on the cultural elements of marginalized people and claims them as their own—making the man bun exalting for some and stigmatizing for others, for example—who exactly has power and the harmful effects of cultural appropriation become clear.

Actor Toshiro Mifune in the movie, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto/
Actor Toshiro Mifune in the movie, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto/
Sumo Wrestlers with the traditional chonmage/
Sumo Wrestlers with the traditional chonmage/

Yes, the man bun can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better. And like long-haired hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like. But it is also important to consider that white western men’s interest in the man bun comes from somewhere, and weaving a narrative about its novelty overlooks its long history among Asian men, its religious significance, and ultimately its ability to make high-status white men appear worldly and exotic. In the west, the man bun trend fetishizes the ethnic other at the same time it can be used to further marginalize and objectify them. And so cultural privilege is involved in experiencing it as a symbol of cutting-edge masculinity. male managers must survive in a politicized environment, one that can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, it is harder for  women because of the added gender dynamics embedded in the…culture. Women must deal with narrow parameters for what is considered acceptable behavior. They must contradict the stereotypes their male colleagues have about women, but avoid being considered too macho. They must be decisive, but not pushy; ambitious, but not expect equal treatment in terms of pay or rate of promotion. They must take initiative, but they must also follow other people’s advice.

This quote is taken from a book I wrote 20 years ago, in which I examined the workplace culture of a financial services company for the workers – women – who used its parental leave policy. (Men only took vacation time when their babies arrived.) I spent a year observing workplace dynamics with a gender and occupational status lens. And I learned that being a woman on the top was not easy. think about this study as I observe Hillary Clinton navigate the precarious waters of power politics. As I review what I wrote a couple of decades ago, it’s clear that while it may be easier now for women to rise to executive positions, it’s no picnic trying to get there, or for that matter, trying to stay there.

For women in politics, getting to, and being on, the top is fraught with personal and professional land-mines. Former Google executive, Cheryl Sandberg, advises women to be more assertive in the workplace and demand equal treatment, while Ann-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation, pushes for work and family policies that create a more even playing field. I tend to think that both approaches are relevant and true, and either alone is insufficient. Despite the unfriendly climate for women who seek and occupy high political office, there are a number of prominent women who have traversed this terrain. some would argue that women are more likely to promote policies that bring about peace, or work-family balance, or gender equity, this is not inevitable. Women are operating within the broader system, and their power is not necessarily equated with progressive social and economic policies, much less the promotion of gender equity. That said, there are women political leaders who are making real change. It’s fascinating to see how these women – and others who are less progressive – have historically risen and currently rise to the top.

Increase of executive women leaders globally

One can rattle off a list of noted women leaders over the decades, from the first female Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and the former Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, to more contemporary women leaders, like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, or Brazilian President, Dilma Vana Rousseff. Or one of my favorites (more later!), former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Concurrent to this rise of women executive leaders, there have also been a record number of women voted onto national parliaments worldwide. until a couple decades ago, women were entering the high echelons of political power at a very slow pace. But in the 1990s, 26 women became executive leaders, and 29 more women entered the ranks by 2009. Between the 1980s and 1990s, the number of new female leaders nearly quadrupled, and this trend continued through the 2000s. According to political scientist Farida Jalalzi, 71 women from 52 countries became national leaders between 1960-2009. While the greatest number of women in positions of executive leadership come from Europe, overall, they represent five world regions, including Asia, African, Europe, Latin America and Oceania. Hillary has a number of sisters who have done it for themselves.

I can imagine that Hillary has a bevy of advisors telling her how to navigate the treacherously gendered waters of power, telling her what she should wear; how she should balance a direct style with her desire to be approachable and likable; how she should argue and debate without being considered arrogant; or even how to use humor to deflect criticism. Just thinking about all of these considerations is exhausting!

Gendered landscape for women in the political process

Who are the women politicians who Hillary should be looking to for inspiration? How did they rise? What are the issues they are passionate about? What are their contradictions? How do they survive?

In her writing about the gendered landscape of women in the political process, political scientist, Farida Jalalzai, reports that the increased numbers of women in top political leadership positions has “sparked widespread discussion of the role of sex and gender in political life…For some, the rise of several prominent female leaders reflects the important gains that women have made in the political sphere”. But she warns that “the experiences and portrayals of female politicians, as well as the continued under-representation of women in politics more generally, draw attention to the many ways in which access to political office is still very much stratified by gender”.

Characteristics of global women leaders's%20Forum-3.jpgJalalzai offers some important insights regarding which women rise to executive power and in what contexts. Interestingly, women tend to become national leaders in countries where women’s education and economic status lags far behind that of men. Think, Indira Gandhi of India or President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. Women leaders in those countries are usually highly educated, and have far more privilege then most women in their countries. Gandhi was mostly taught at home by tutors when she was young, undoubtedly to ensure that she had access to quality education, and later studied political science, history and economics at Oxford university.

Sirleaf didn’t complete college in her homeland, but came to the US to do her BA degree, and then studied economics and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she received a Masters of Public Administration. In a 2011 speech she made at Harvard’s commencement, she thanked the university for the many professors and the “compliments you paid when my papers and interventions were top rate, and for the patience you showed when I struggled with quantitative analysis”. She also noted that the “self-confidence, sometimes called arrogance, that comes from being a Harvard graduate can also lead one down a dangerous path”, as she describes the consequences of questioning her government’s failure to address long-standing inequalities, in a speech at her high school alma mater.

This forced me into exile and a staff position at the World Bank. Other similar events would follow in a life of in and out of country, in and out of jail, in and out of professional service. There were times when I thought death was near, and times when the burden of standing tall by one’s conviction seemed only to result in failure. But through it all, my experience sends a strong message that failure is just as important as success.

Later, Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with two other women activists, in recognition “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

A number of high level political women were part of political family dynasties – like Indira Gandhi, who rose through the ranks when her father was Prime Minister, or Isabella Peron who became Prime Minister of Argentina following her husband’s death. Jalalzai also found that women were more likely to serve in parliamentary systems and as Prime Ministers, where they are selected by their own party, rather than as presidents, who come to power through popular vote. Moreover, she argues that there is a gendered nature to this role, as Prime Ministers tend to share power with cabinet and party members so they exhibit more so-called “feminine” qualities like negotiation and collaboration.

So what about Hillary?
Like many international women politicians, Hillary was introduced to the public through her status as wife to the President. Traditionally, the wife status is “lesser than”, but there has certainly been precedence for wives emerging as political leaders. Hillary is highly educated – undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and Law degree from Yale – and while she was being groomed to rise politically during her husband’s tenure as President, she was given the opportunity to demonstrate her strong leadership abilities, notably her efforts to reach consensus on health care policy in the US, an unwieldy job that was destined to fail, given the disparate forces involved.

Hillary was dealt a huge setback when her husband got caught having sex with an intern and then lied about it. All eyes were on her, as she – and her husband and all of their political consultants – had to figure out the smartest way to help her survive unscathed, walking a fine line of avoiding being perceived as a “scorned” woman, while personally maintaining self-respect, as an independent woman who was disconnected from her husband’s bad behavior. Ultimately, Hillary was able to establish herself as a professional, separate from this crisis that could have marred their family’s prospects for political engagement. And perhaps by some, she was viewed as grounded and able to tolerate adversity, and ultimately proved herself as a capable Senator and Secretary of State.

Many progressives are critical of Hillary’s moderate economic policies and links to big money, at the same time, feeling outraged at the sexism and ageism she endures. In a recent campaign speech, she retorted,

Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States!

Which women leaders around the world should Hillary look to for inspiration?

Which political leaders’ playlist can Hillary learn from?

Let’s start with former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who lambasted her opposition leader, Tony Abbott, in her now-infamous and highly watchable “Misogyny Speech”, in which she says, “I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not!” When Abbott claimed he was offended by a colleague’s discovered sexist texts, Gillard doesn’t buy it, saying:

Let’s go through the Opposition Leader’s repulsive double standards, repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism. We are now supposed to take seriously that the Leader of the Opposition is offended by Mr Slipper’s text messages, when this is the Leader of the Opposition who has said…and I quote, in a discussion about women being under-represented in institutions of power in Australia, the interviewer was a man called Stavros. The Leader of the Opposition says “If it’s true, Stavros, that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?

Or perhaps Hillary could learn a few things from Dilma Vana Rousseff, current President of Brazil, who – like Margaret Thatcher – has been dubbed “the Iron Lady” because of her apparent “brusque manner and short temper”, a title that doesn’t seem to faze her. She grew up in an upper-middle class home, joined the left-wing movement against Brazil’s military dictatorship which had seized power in 1964, and was imprisoned for three years during which she was subject to torture, and refused to break. She was called “the high priestess of subversion” during her trial. From 2005-2010, she was Chief of Staff to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And then she was elected President in 2011. While Rousseff is progressive around some economic issues, she is also a leader in a religious country. She herself is pro-life, supporting abortion only in certain circumstances (e.g., health of mother, cases of rape), but even then was criticized by the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups. Rouseff is also opposed to gay marriage, even though she supports same sex civil unions. Nothing is simple. return to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia since 2006 and the first elected head-of-state in Africa. Her collaboration with Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist who led a women’s peace movement, helped bring an end to Liberia’s civil war, which enabled a free election in 2005 that resulted in Sirleaf’s winning the Presidency. Gbowee was one of the activists who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Sirleaf, who understood the importance of being aligned with a social movement that reflected her values and promoted peace. Sirleaf has said she promotes women’s involvement in politics because she says women “have a story to tell” and their participation can promote more peaceful policies, economic empowerment, and provide young girls with role models and aspirations. finally, if Hillary is looking for a real ally, she should look no further than Tarja Kaarina Halonen, former trade unionist turned lawyer and two-term President of Finland (2000-2012). A human rights activist and avid supporter of LGBT rights with an 88% approval rating throughout her tenure, Halonen is currently an active member of the UN’s Council of Women World Leaders. Were Hillary ever to become President, this international “network of current and former women prime ministers and presidents” is a place she could possibly call home. The Council was founded in 1996 by Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President of Iceland (1980-1996) and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected president; Mary Robinson, President of Ireland (1990-1997) and Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders. It aims to “support(s) women’s full participation and representation in the political process at the highest levels, and future women leaders”.  Commenting on the status of women globally, Liswood said, “There is no such thing as a glass ceiling for women. It’s just a thick layer of men”.

Some may argue that women rule differently from men. But we have learned from history that all political leaders operate within the social and political context of which they are a part. Politics is a gendered space, and women leaders walk a narrow line. The wisest of political leaders look for allies who build the base and fight for change from the outside in, as well as the inside out.

Who are the other global women political leaders you admire?








10:15 a.m. Ten minutes before my first class of the semester. It was January and Connecticut was buried under several feet of snow. Damn. There was no point trying to run over to one of my friend’s offices to find an accomplice for my exercise. I’d never make it back in time. Who could I grab for this experiment so last minute? As I pulled out my phone to check the time, I mentally smacked myself on my head. Of course!

But I should back up a bit before I go on. Every year in my Introduction to Sociology class, I like to start the first class with an experiment. This is often an exercise that introduces my students to basic sociological concepts, such as norms, cultural values, roles, and legitimate authority (since all of these are very central to what I teach in my course). In the past, my experiments have included asking students to follow me around the building without explanation and then returning to the classroom and resuming the lesson; asking them to jump around the room; asking them to switch their seats in a given pattern (first two rows move to the last two rows, the middle rows switch left and right). But this year, I wanted to do something more. Something that was blatantly wrong. My original plan was to ask a faculty colleague of mine to stand outside the classroom with me and chat past the time that class was supposed to start. But now, just minutes before my class, my friend had told me she couldn’t make it. So here I was, considering my options. And now as the solution dawned on me while I stared at my phone, I muttered, “Who needs humans in the flesh when you have a phone at your disposal.” I went over the plan in my head. “Don’t give in in less than 10 minutes… you have to make it last.” I said to myself as I took a deep breath and walked into class.

From my position behind the podium, I watched the students shuffle in without greeting them. When they were all seated I announced, “This is Introduction to Sociology. Please put all cell phones away.” I then pulled out my own cell phone, walked behind the desk, sat down and started scrolling through my email on my phone. The students sat patiently. A couple of minutes went by and no one said a word. I was getting nervous at this point myself. I giggled as if I had read something funny. Clearly, it was not an emergency that was forcing me to stay on the phone. The students started to shift in their seats a little. I looked up and glanced around the room. They looked at each other. I went back to my phone.Using smart phone

Five minutes passed, although it seemed much longer. Not being one who uses her phone very much, I was really struggling to keep busy with my phone, plus I was nervous. I made a point to look at the clock. 10:32 a.m. Seven minutes had passed since the start of class. I heard a couple of students laugh uncomfortably but no one spoke to each other. I went back to my phone and pretended to scroll through news. “Just a few more minutes,” I thought to myself. “You need to go past the ten minute mark at least.”

At 10:37 a.m., exactly 12 minutes since class was supposed to start, I put my phone away, picked up the syllabus and started class as if nothing unusual had just transpired. After going through my office hours, assignments for the semester, policy on late assignments etc. I looked around and asked, “So, what questions do you have for me?” I encouraged them to deviate from the syllabus, “Ask me anything,” I prodded, “If appropriate, I’ll answer it.” They asked me all kinds of questions . . . but not the one I was waiting for. After a while, I looked around and said, “ Is there ANYTHING else you think you should ask me about?”

The students shook their heads.
At this point my experiment was complete and it was time to let them in on it.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
Uncomfortable silence.
“No really, why are you here?”
“To learn”, a student in the front row said after a while.
“Then why didn’t you ask me to stop using my phone and teach?”
The students gave me range of obvious answers, from they don’t know what I would do in return, to they don’t want to question the professor.
“What if I told you, you are also here to un-learn?” I countered.
Uncomfortable laughter.

From here on, we had a lively discussion about the lessons learned and un-learned from this exercise. To briefly summarize:

1) The first lesson of this exercise is to understand that social norms – how we are expected to behave in a given situation—are always working on us whether we know it or not. For my students, it was their socialization in schools, the expectation that they do not question their teachers that encouraged them to not challenge my inappropriate behavior. Students could probably excuse a professor coming in late by a couple of minutes, or taking a couple of minutes to get themselves together. But I had made certain that the experiment lasted longer than ten minutes – an arbitrary choice by me, but one I felt made the experiment long enough to make the situation absurd and unreasonable.

2) This experiment also exposed the power of the “path of least resistance”, (as Allan Johnson discusses in his book, The Forest and the Trees) for my students: nobody else was questioning me, so why should they? It’s much easier to do what everyone else is doing in a given situation. This lesson is one of the most valuable one perhaps, especially as we cover the by-stander effect later on in the semester when discussing hazing in fraternities, or military abuse of prisoners for example.

3) Relatedly, it also revealed the nature of legitimate authority and obedience to authority: my students obeyed my instructions (putting cell phones away) and did not question my behavior, not because they knew who I was as an individual, but because of the authority vested in me by the title of “professor”. In our society, we see professors and teachers as generally moral, intelligent, and ethical. The authority of a professor is further emphasized by the physical structure of the classroom with the professor at the front of the room, and by the “material culture” of a classroom: desk, podium, chalkboard, and smart-board for professors. The students on the other hand, sit in chairs, physically looking up to the professor.

These are all sociological lessons that my students learn on the first day through this experiment. But implicit in this experiment is the hope that they will “un-learn” some of the behavior that they’ve been socialized into, whether it’s being a passive student or a passive by-stander. It is only through learning about and critically analyzing our social world that we are actually able to “un-learn” or challenge the many lessons we’ve been taught.

As a critical, feminist sociologist, that is the most important lesson that I can teach my students—sociology is not a collection of facts and theories, it is a perspective, a way of seeing. And as the writer Arundhati Roy says “once you see, you can’t unsee.” To this I would add: truly seeing, that is, seeing the world through a sociological lens, is the first step towards unlearning. Welcome to Introduction to Sociology.

Works Cited:

Johnson, Allan. 2014. The Forest and the Trees. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Roy, Arundhati. 2001. “The Ladies Have Feelings, So . . . Shall We Leave it to the Experts?” In Power Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


Jafar-2015Afshan Jafar  is in the sociology department at Connecticut College. She studies globalization, gender, and the body.

In 2010, did a “quick poll” to ask “whether commercialization of the pink ribbon adds to the cause.” They reported that 71 percent of respondents said “YES” – pink ribbon commercialization adds value. Well, there we have it! But is it true? As I wrote in the new introduction to Pink Ribbon Blues,

Breast cancer is indeed one of the most popular and profitable social causes of our time. The pink ribbon not only signifies a good and moral cause but also functions as a proxy for awareness and support. Countless promotions and publicity materials are carefully crafted to capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of eager, well-meaning consumers as imperative language echoes across the pink cultural landscape: hope, fight, win, celebrate, give – now, today, forever. The formula morphs into any number of fun-filled activities from pub crawls and fashion shows to the now commonplace runs and walks “for the cure.” While these actions offer symbolic support and raise money, they sometimes do little to help the diagnosed, promote real awareness, or impact the epidemic at large.

Public attention to breast cancer and the pink ribbon have grown over the past thirty years entwined with a medical system at once the hope and bane of the disease, situated within communities of advocacy and support that help as much as hinder, and popularized to the degree that pink consumption has become more of a trendy lifestyle choice than a rallying call for social change.

Hidden beneath the highly publicized pink ribbon celebration, the push-pull of breast cancer advocacy gave way to those with the largest megaphones, political influence, and marketing potential. As pink ribbon promotions increasingly exploited the cause for public relations purposes and to keep revenues and profit streams flowing, tenacious groups continued to work on the margins to affect the epidemic and support the diagnosed in meaningful and healthful ways.

A persistent reticence persists amid the halo of sound bites, survivorship mantras, product placements, and inattention to strategies and actions that may be more useful. These individuals and organizations go beyond fundraising and self-promotion to consider issues of bioethics, evidence-based medicine, health communication, social justice, conflicts of interest, neglected areas of research, and the limits of consumption-based advocacy. Though they diverge in the problems they tackle and the methods they use, these groups share a critical stance that fosters new thinking about breast cancer and how to address it.

In recent years members of the public have joined their voices to a chorus of serious and uncomfortable questions about breast cancer:

• Are we any closer to knowing what causes breast cancer, how to prevent it, how to keep it from coming back, and how to keep people from dying from it?

• Why are the“slash, burn, and poison” approaches to treatment still the norm?

• Are pink ribbon products outpacing efforts to provide meaningful support to the diagnosed and to influence the epidemic?

• Where does the money go, and who/what does it help?

Not long ago, outside of trusted circles, such questions would have been uttered in hushed tones. Many, including those treated for breast cancer, felt guilty for doubting a cause that was commonly accepted as overwhelmingly good. As the inner workings of pink culture and industry become more visible, largely through the misconduct of breast cancer charities and profit-driven industries, growing numbers are calling for transparency, accountability, and alternatives.

This year for breast cancer awareness month, let’s get behind those calling for change. Let’s move beyond the pink pendulum of fear mongering and feel-good, consumption.

Let’s look at the messaging for what it is.

Simple. Emotional. Symbolic. Advertising.

Breast cancer exists.

Ch4 SunSoy Image 164

Be afraid.

CheckYourself Before Its Too Late

All women are at risk.

Daughter-Sister-Mother-Friend IMG120

Have hope.


Show courage.

024 CourageNightImage 20.1

Cop a feel.


Get a mammogram.

Mammogram Billboard

Have a biopsy.

BandaidImage 283

Think Pink.


Shoot Pink.


Cheer Pink.

Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders

Jeer Pink.

Go Pink or Go HOme

Fight Pink.


Win Pink.


Walk Pink.


Drive Pink.


Eat Pink.

mmsForTheCure EgglandsBestPinkRibbonEggs

Drink Pink.

0197 Sip, Swirl, Support Wine

Porn Pink.

Porn Hub

Pee Pink.

0159 Pink Potty

Shop Pink.


Spritz Pink.

Promise Me Perfume

Debit Pink.

Drill Pink.


Live Pink.

Live-Laugh-Love Pink

Die Pink.

Die Pink

Women and men with, and at risk for, breast cancer deserve better. #rethinkpink

It’s different for women to collect tattoos than men. Back in the 1970s when tattooing was just starting to become an interesting, edgy way for people to express themselves, tattoo shops even had a special section of art dubbed, “for the ladies.” Little hearts and cute animals were something for women to hide away on a breast, hip, or shoulder.

Image Source:
Image Source: PCS Blog,

Janis Joplin popularized the small tattoo style for women after she got a  delicate Florentine bracelet tattoo on her wrist from famed tattoo artist, Lyle Tuttle at his shop in San Francisco. He went on to put the Joplin bracelet on hundreds of women. After awhile, having one or two “small, cute and hidden” tattoos became “gender appropriate,” and if the tattoos were visible, like the Joplin bracelet, small and mild was still the norm for years.

Over the last few decades, women’s ink started to creep out from under their shirts to cover their bodies in earnest, with images that are not so meek or mild. In fact, for the first time in recent U.S. history, women are beginning to outnumber men as tattoo collectors, and they are also becoming “heavily tattooed.” But if women are supposed to strive for beauty, then collecting large, visible, and not-so-cute imagery such as snakes or skulls crosses a socially appropriate gender line. It is not uncommon for heavily tattooed women to be sexually harassed with public comments, like: “You’re such a pretty girl, why would you do something like that to yourself?” In other words, why would you “make yourself ugly?” Women should be objects of beauty.

Kristen Wall
Kristen Wall, a student in Texas.

Embodied gender transgression is the topic of my recently published book, Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women, and the Politics of the Body (NYU Press, 2015). While other tattoo ethnographies study people with one or more tattoos, Covered in Ink exclusively focuses on “heavily tattooed” women or those who violated that traditional mandate to keep their ink small, cute, and hidden.

I started this research as a heavily tattooed woman who herself wondered if her experience was representative of other women who chose to cover their bodies in ink. Did other women hide their tattoos from their fathers, or carry around a sweater in their car for last minute tattoo hiding, as they went about their day? Did strangers approach them and to touch their skin without permission? Was it common for them to worry about losing their jobs, in the chance that a tattoo might pop out from under their sleeve?

Tampa Tattoo Fest 2007 hosted a tattooed women beauty contest.

From 2007 when I attended my first Marked for Life all-female tattoo convention held annually in Orlando in January until 2010, I traveled to tattoo studios, conventions, and the homes of seventy women tattoo artists and collectors.

Shorty and Kody Kushman are tattoo artists at Outer Limits Tattoo in California
Shorty and Kody Kushman are tattoo artists at Outer Limits Tattoo in California. They are sitting in font of a picture of Lyle Tuttle and Burt Grimm, famous tattoo artists who spoke out against women working in the profession in the early days. The women are giving the middle finger to these old timers views on women.

These beautifully tattooed women were an inspiration to me, and their stories did overlap with my own in many ways. I share their experiences in this book and also a documentary film, Covered. []

Each chapter of the book opens with a personal story of my own before sharing the similarities and differences across women’s experiences in the varied contexts of their lives — the family, the workplace, and the larger societal beauty culture within which women define themselves. It wasn’t surprising for me to learn for example that for other women, too, there is a world of difference between having a small, safe tattoo and sporting something like a large skull on your forearm, especially in terms of the negative social sanctions we receive.

“What does that say on your arm?” A man asked me as I sat in a coffee shop, deeply immersed in a textbook, studying for an exam, when I was eighteen years old.

“Feminist.” I replied, looking up at him, cringing as I awaited his response.

“Oh? Does that mean you hate men?” He asked with a frown, shaking his head.

“Something like that,” I replied.

The lettering this man was so interested in evaluating was my second tattoo, a stylistic, cursive script that stood alone on my arm until I collected more tattoos around it, making it harder to discern. It always leads to questions. And whenever I clarify that it says “feminist,” well, you might imagine the interactions that follow, with men attempting to define the word and me offering up sassy answers, growing more insolent depending on how bold I feel at the moment. The chapter “Tattoos Are Not for Touching” shares this story and the voices of other women who have been reprimanded for their tattoo collection, including the stares, comments, and touches that sociologist Erving Goffman demonstrated in his research on public self presentation.

Beverly Back ArtDuring my fieldwork I found an amazing artist who spent five years giving me a back piece tattoo, in her own beautiful style, that represented my academic journey.

Since Covered in Ink has been published I’ve been hearing more women’s stories of their artwork and the social struggles, both positive and negative, that accompany them.

What’s yours?

Listen to Beverly Yuen Thompson’s interview on KERA’s Think with host Krys Boyd.

Beverly with her book Covered in Ink

Beverly Yuen Thompson is an Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Siena College, Loudonville, New York. She earned a PhD and MA in Sociology from the New School for Social Research in New York, a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from San Diego State University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Eastern Washington University. Her first book, Covered in Ink: Women, Tattoos, and the Politics of the Body, was published by NYU Press in 2015. Her research interests include subcultures, visual culture, and gender.

I traveled to Winthrop University five months after my baby was born to talk to faculty and students about women’s unique needs during disaster. I was flying with my electric breast pump, which would both save me from the horrifying pain of engorgement and allow me to avoid dumping what women’s health practitioners call “liquid gold.” I am not a “breast is best” advocate; I’m a “whatever-the-mother-wants-to-do” advocate. Women, after all, already experience a lot of pressure around what it means to be a good mother, and research shows that the discrepancies between their expectations (like breastfeeding) and their experiences (finding breastfeeding difficult, impossible, painful, frustrating, and just plain not wanting to do it) causes stress, unhappiness, feelings of failure, and affects their overall experiences of motherhood.

Look how easy it is/
Look how easy it is/

Older women have oohed and ahhed over my pump, wishing they had something so efficient when their children were babies. Indeed, I came home from the hospital with a manual pump that was completely useless (the only pump my insurance covered), and I wondered how the generation before me didn’t chuck them in the fire just to watch them burn (yes, they are that bad). To these women, I was a “good” mother—a mother so dedicated to breastfeeding my child that I was able to bridge my work and my motherly duties. If I was going to insist on working outside of the home, they suggested, at least I was still putting my baby first. There is no short supply of family and friends who applaud mothers of infants for toting their pumps to work, and who tsk-tsk women for forgoing breastfeeding (or, ironically, for breastfeeding “too long”).

The portable electric breast pump symbolizes the supposed freedom of contemporary mothers and conjures up the image of the Supermom who juggles it all seamlessly: work, family, husband. Supermom’s repertoire notably does not include self-care, which reflects the cultural conflation of motherhood with martyrdom and ignores women’s experiences of postpartum depression, anxiety, and OCD. (see also, Trina’s post on maternal mental health). What these women didn’t see, though, was me anxiously looking for space to pump while I traveled. Considering that we as a society are so quick to demand women breastfeed, the lack of such space is both curious and telling.

In the United States, we promote conflicting and constraining ideas about women’s bodies as heterosexually titillating or maternal—and which never really belong to them. We show breasts when they are represented as for men, but mothers should hide their breasts by investing in shawls or nursing in dirty public restrooms. On the verge of tears, I stood in a dark humid bathroom stall of the Atlanta airport. My pump hung from a small hook on the stall door, drooped open while I stood there pumping into the toilet. There was no way I could get a clean catch in the bacteria filled lavatory. I snapped a blurry selfie with my iPhone and sent the photo along with an expletive filled text to my husband, expressing my frustration with living in an androcentric society built “by men, for men.” The absence of spaces dedicated to traveling families and nursing mothers does not make the airport gender neutral. On the contrary, by not accommodating nursing and pumping mothers, we push them into the recesses of public spaces and contain their bodies in the home. We imply that public spaces are not meant for them and consequently normalize and privilege adult male bodies. At the same time, demanding that women breastfeed marginalizes their physical, emotional, and psychological struggles with motherhood. It also ignores the multifaceted character of women’s lives, which creates pressure to succeed at both home and work.

Supermom/Christopher Boswell/PhotoSpin
Supermom/Christopher Boswell/PhotoSpin

During my layover returning home, I walked swiftly around the American Airline terminal, desperately looking for a place to pump. I would have just plugged into the nearest cellphone charge station but was sure that the site of me pumping, even if not showing my breasts, would offend someone. When I passed a room dedicated to smokers—with comfy couches and a flat screen cable television—I was tempted to incite protest. An airline representative looked surprised when I asked her, “Where do nursing mothers go?” She finally pointed me to a small family restroom, where I could lock the door. It was dirty and there was no place to sit or set up my pump, but at least it was private—that is until people started knocking at the door to get in and jiggling the handle to hurry me up. I hung my head as a woman yelled through the door, “Other people need to get in!”

Lactation Room Sign
Lactation Room Sign

Should airports have lactation rooms? Absolutely. So should universities, workplaces, and other public and private spaces. Sometimes all it takes is a clean room, a cozy chair, an electrical outlet, and a mini-fridge. Of course this requires shifting ideologies around women’s bodies and who has a right to be comfortable in social spaces. Lactation rooms don’t make Supermom an attainable ideal and do not excuse people who pressure women about breastfeeding. But they do signal to women and their families that this world is built for them, too. Of course, what might also help is conceptualizing women’s bodies beyond a binary in which they are either exposed heterosexual objects or hidden maternal nurturers. But that’s for another post.