Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the intervention of the birth control pill. There is no doubt that the pill has had a huge influence on sexual attitudes, sexual activity, and how much control women had over their own fertility. The pill, although it may not be the right choice for everyone, should be celebrated for these reasons. But there is something else to consider here: how did the invention of the pill shape the way that women (and the medical community for that matter) view periods?

When you think of the pill, the first image that comes to mind is that iconic little container of pink and white pills that represents one menstrual “cycle.”

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic article, John Rock’s Error, Gladwell explains how the invention of the pill was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. One of the creators of the pill, a devout Catholic, wanted it to be viewed as “natural” since it used chemicals that naturally occur in the body to prevent pregnancy. It was necessary, then, for women to continue to have their period regularly to show that the pill did not interfere with a woman’s menstrual rhythm.

But, speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, there is nothing natural about having a menstrual period every month because it is not natural to limit fertility. Our female ancestors spent a good portion of their reproductive years pregnant and not having a period. And, in fact, having a period every month can be dangerous. Every time a woman has a period, tissue lining sheds and new cells must grow to replace it. And every time there is cell regrowth there is a new chance for mutations to occur. This leads to an increased risk of cancer and cysts.

It may be healthier (and more natural), then, for women to suppress menstruation (the way pregnancy used to). But because the idea of a natural rhythm is now synonymous with monthly periods, introducing pills with alternative cycles has proven difficult. Pills that allow for four periods a year (like Seasonale, Seasonique, and Yaz) have come on the market. But instead of discussing the medical benefits of fewer periods, they are marketed in a woman-on-the-go sort of way, as a way for women to “take back” their lives by avoiding an inconvenience.

Marketing the pill in this fashion has created push back by women who think this method this pill is all about suppressing “natural” womanhood, but it is a falsely constructed version of womanhood to begin with.

Sources: NY Times, LA Times, Planned Parenthood, WebMD, No Period, and Annals of Medicine. Originally posted in 2010.

Lauren McGuire interned for Sociological Images in 2010. See more posts from Lauren on social psychology and policing by race and the evolution of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Flashback Friday.

A study published in 2001, to which I was alerted by Family Inequality, asked undergraduate college students their favorite color and presented the results by sex.  Men’s favorites are on the left, women’s on the right:

The article is a great example of the difference between research findings and the interpretation of those findings.  For example, this is how I would interpret it:

Today in the US, but not elsewhere and not always, blue is gendered male and pink gendered female.  We might expect, then, that men would internalize a preference for blue and women a preference for pink.  We live, however, in an androcentric society that values masculinity over femininity.  This rewards the embracing of masculinity by both men and women (making it essentially compulsory for men) and stigmatizes the embracing of femininity (especially for men).

We might expect, then, that men would comfortably embrace a love of blue (blue = masculinity = good), while many women will have a troubled relationship to pink (pink = femininity = devalued, but encouraged for women) and gravitate to blue and all of the good, masculine meaning it offers.

That’s how I’d interpret it.

Here’s how the authors of the study interpreted it:

…we are inclined to suspect the involvement of neurohormonal factors. Studies of rats have found average sex differences in the number of neurons comprising various parts of the visual cortex. Also, gender differences have been found in rat preferences for the amount of sweetness in drinking water. One experiment demonstrated that the sex differences in rat preferences for sweetness was eliminated by depriving males of male-typical testosterone levels in utero. Perhaps, prenatal exposure to testosterone and other sex hormones operates in a similar way to “bias” preferences for certain colors in humans.

Go figure.

Important lesson here: data never stands alone. It must always be interpreted.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

“Future research is needed to identify the process,” write the authors, but it appears that pregnant women have some control over when they give birth. A study of birth incidence on Halloween and Valentine’s Day, by public health scholar Becca Levy and colleagues, showed that spontaneous births dipped on the former and rose on the latter.

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The authors suggest that this contributes to growing evidence that culture influences birth timing. Women’s bodies resist giving birth on a day associated with fright and death, but give into birth on a day associated with love. The authors recommend extra staffing on obstetric wards on Valentine’s Day and sending a few more doctors and nurses into the streets on Halloween.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Back when I was in high school and college, I learned that one of the major things that separated humans from other species was culture. The ability to develop distinct ways of living that include an understanding of symbols, language, and customs unique to the group was a specifically human trait.

And, ok, so it turned out that other species had more complex communication systems than we thought they did, but still, other animals were assumed to behave according to instinct, not community-specific cultures.

But as with so many things humans have been convinced we alone possess, it’s turning out that other species have cultures, too. One of the clearest examples is the division of orcas into two groups with distinct customs and eating habits; one eats mammals while the other is pescetarian, eating only fish. Though the two groups regularly come in contact with each other in the wild, they do not choose to intermingle or mate with one another. Here’s a video:

 

Aside from the obvious implications for our understanding of culture, this brings up an issue in terms of conservation. Take the case of orcas. Some are suggesting that they should be on the endangered species list because the population has declined. What do we do if it turns out at some point that, while the overall orca population is not fully endangered, one of the distinct orca cultural groups is? Is it enough that killer whales still exist, or do we need to think of the cultures separately and try to preserve sufficient numbers of each? In addition to being culturally different, they are functionally non-interchangeable: each group has a different effect on food chains and ecosystems.

Should conservation efforts address not just keeping the overall population alive and functioning, but ensure that the range of cultural diversity within a species is protected? If this situation occurred, should we declare one orca culture as endangered but not the other? Are both ecological niches important?

I love these questions. If we recognize that creatures can have cultures, it challenges our sense of self, but also brings significantly more complexity to the idea of wildlife preservation.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

2A new study finds that people with high “justice sensitivity” are using logic, not emotions.  Subjects were put in a fMRI machine, one that measures ongoing brain activity and shown videos of people acting kindly or cruelly toward a homeless person.

Some respondents reacted more strongly than others — hence the high versus low justice sensitivity — and an analysis of the high sensitivity individuals’ brain activity showed that they were processing the images in the parts of the brain where logic and rationality live.   “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven,” explained one of the scientists, “Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

So, no:

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Activists aren’t angry, they reasonably object to unjust circumstances that they understand all too well.

Image borrowed from Jamie Keiles at Teenagerie, who is a high sensitivity individual.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Forgive me, because this is probably better left to Cyborgology, but something amazing is happening here. In the video below, nesting swallows become trapped in a building when they add doors. The birds soon learn, though, that they can get the doors to automatically open by triggering the motion sensors. This is a story, obviously, of how smart birds are, but here’s what struck me: we often think about human technology as for humans. In this case, however, birds adapted the technology for their own very similar needs (to get in and out).

If the workers had installed an older human technology — plain old doors — the birds would have been out of luck because they don’t have thumbs and the strength to manipulate an environment built for humans. But motion activated doors make both thumbs and strength irrelevant, so now birds are our functional equals.

This is fascinating, yeah? Our technology has advanced to the point where we’re potentially undermining our own evolutionary advantages. I’m not putting a moral judgment on it. I think morality is firmly on the side of non-fitness based decisions (eh em, social Darwinism). If one wants to theorize the relationship between animals, technology, and what it means to be human, however, this looks like gold to me.

Okay Cyborgology, your turn.

Thanks to Reuben S. for the tip! Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

This remarkable newspaper article illustrates how skin color (which is real) gets translated into categorical racial categories (which are not).  The children in the images below — Kian and Remee Hodgson — are fraternal twins born to two bi-racial parents:

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The story attempts to explain the biology:

Skin colour is believed to be determined by up to seven different genes working together. If a woman is of mixed race, her eggs will usually contain a mixture of genes coding for both black and white skin. Similarly, a man of mixed race will have a variety of different genes in his sperm. When these eggs and sperm come together, they will create a baby of mixed race.  But, very occasionally, the egg or sperm might contain genes coding for one skin colour. If both the egg and sperm contain all white genes, the baby will be white. And if both contain just the versions necessary for black skin, the baby will be black.

Fair enough.

But then the journalist makes a logical leap from biological determinants of skin color to racial categories. Referring now to genes for skin color as “black” and “white” genes, she writes: “Baby Kian must have inherited the black genes from both sides of the family, whilst Remee inherited the white ones.”  And, of course, while both children are, technically, mixed race*, the headline to the story, “Black and White Twins,” presents them as separate races.

We’re so committed to racial differences that the mother actually speaks about their similarities as if it is surprising that twins of different “races” could possibly have anything in common.  She says:

There are some similarities between them. They both love apples and grapes, and their favourite television programme is Teletubbies.”

This is also a nice example of a U.S.-specific racial logic. This might not have been a story in Brazil at all, where racial categories are determined more by color alone and less by who your parents are.  It is not uncommon there to have siblings of various racial designations.

The twins, by the way, are seven now.

* Of course, identifying them as mixed race also re-inscribes racial categories in that you must believe in two or more racial categories to believe that it is possible to mix them.

Originally posted in 2008.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Last year I was tickled to write about a cool study showing that, if a person grows up with a language that writes from left to right, then numerical estimates of things like weight or height will, on average, be smaller when a person is imperceptibly and unknowingly leaning to the left.  Seriously, it’s awesomely fun research and you can read about it here.

Today I have the equally fun pleasure of sharing a research study on weight and importance.  It turns out that, when people are holding something heavy, they will report an issue to be more serious, compared to when they are holding something lighter.

Some examples come from a set of studies by psychologist Nils Jostmann and colleagues.

  • In the first study, European participants were asked to guess the value of various foreign currency in euros.  Some were given a heavy clipboard on which to mark their estimates, and others a light clipboard.  Those who held the light clipboard estimated, on average, lesser values.
  • In a second study, subjects were asked to estimate the importance of college students having a voice in a decision-making process involving grants to study abroad.  Participants with the heavy clipboard felt that it was more important for students to have a voice.
  • In a third, subjects were asked to report whether they liked their city after reading a biography of the mayor and indicating how the felt about him.  If they carried the heavy clipboard, there was a relationship between their estimation of the mayor and that of the city, but not if they carried a light clipboard.  In this case, the importance of their feelings about the mayor weighed heavier on their evaluation of the city if the clipboard was heavy.

What is driving these findings?

In English, and several other languages as well, weight is used as metaphor to signify importance.  The authors hypothesized that this abstraction can be triggered by concrete experiences of weight, like holding something heavy.  They call this “embodied cognition.”  Our thinking is affected by the connection between our bodies, their relationship with objects, and metaphors in our minds.

Another nail in the Descartian mind-body dualism coffin.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.