bodies

In March, in an Instagram interview with Jameela Jamil, British pop star Sam Smith announced being non-binary in both gender and sexuality, stating “I’m not male or female. I think I float somewhere in between – it’s all on a spectrum” (timestamp 21:50 to 22.10). Smith had made a similar declaration to the Sunday Times in October, 2017, but did not suggest that the media use non-binary gender pronouns at the time. During the interview, Smith also revealed that “the basis of all my sadness” has been body shaming.

This instance of “biography and history” producing a non-binary person haunted by fat-shaming is important to the sociological understanding of gender. It reminds us that gender is lived in the body, not just as an idea but as a “looking-glass self” in which multiple kinds of stigma can simultaneously reduce a person to a “tainted, discounted one”. As culture shapes the way we see ourselves, it can produce an overpowering feeling of what Cooley called “mortification,” because “we always imagine, and in imagining share, the judgments of the other mind.” In Mead’s terms, culture produces this in the “generalized other”; how we imagine ourselves as an object in the eyes of the whole society. 

The intersection of body-shaming and transphobia shows us how bullying turns the body into an object. Jamil recounted in the interview that a photographer had called her a “fat c-word.” This can be compared with C.J. Pascoe’s famous study of how the word “fag” is used in bullying to police the gender of boys. Smith concludes the interview with a vow to promote self-forgiveness and the love of the body. This struggle against the gender binary fits within the mission of Jamil’s “I Weigh” instagram series seeking to resist all forms of cultural bullying and policing of bodies, gender expression and sexuality.

Jonathan Harrison, PhD, is an adjunct Professor in Sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida SouthWestern State College and Hodges University whose PhD was in the field of racism and antisemitism.

As a feminist sociologist, I couldn’t help but notice how reality competition shows like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s  The Titan Games and American Ninja Warrior can teach us a lot about how society understands physical strength in relation to gender. 

Each of these shows takes a different approach to including women in strength competitions. On The Titan Games, women compete against women, while men compete against men. For each round, there is a man and woman winner. Given this format, men and women get equal screen time throughout the show. We see pairs of women and men compete in the same competitions like the Herculean Pull—the most intense one-on-one game of tug-of-war you have ever seen. This same-gender competition can actually minimize gender differences to the audience. Even if the pairs of women are slower than the pairs of men on some events, competition times are not shown to the television audience, so this difference is not highlighted.

In contrast, in the original rules of Ninja Warrior, everyone competed and the highest ranked individuals moved on to the next round. This quickly resulted in few women being represented beyond the first round (although some women were advanced as “wildcards” at the producers’ discretion). On Ninja Warrior, the audience sees the ranks of all the competitors, so it is very clear how the women do in comparison to the men (not so well, for the most part).

Source: “Numbers of Ninja Warrior: Ladies Night in Philadelphia”

In 2017 (Season 9), the rules were modified to secure slots for women in later rounds. Interestingly, the rule change was in response to fan interest in seeing more women compete. Under the new rules, the top five women in qualifying rounds would advance and the top two women in the city finals would move on to national finals. This format results in some women moving forward based on performance in relation to all competitors and other women moving on based on their performance in relation to other women. For example, in Philadelphia qualifiers in Season 10, three women earned a spot in the city finals based on their overall rank in the competition and the next two highest-ranking women (although lower ranking than some men) also advanced to the City finals to attain the minimum of five women advancing.

From a feminist perspective, which approach is best for showing women’s strength in competition? Do you prioritize representation and visibility for women, giving equal time to men and women throughout the competition as in The Titan Games? Or do you prioritize eliminating gender as an organizing category, providing the opportunity for (some) women to be ranked higher than (some) men, and including the potential for participation of folks outside the gender binary as in the original Ninja Warrior rules? Or do you try to do both?

Five women moving on from American Ninja Warrior Philadelphia qualifiers to city finals in Season 10. (Click for Source)

This question matters because there are real stakes to the way we see strength in pop culture. The way we consider gender and physical strength affects many women, even those who are not elite athletes. For example, in my own research on the construction trades, many tradeswomen face assumptions and stereotypes about women’s physical ability that disadvantage them throughout their careers. It’s important to disrupt discourses about strength when they are leveraged to unnecessarily disadvantage women. Not all women (or men) have the physical ability to do construction work. But many do. 

Strength competitions like these might seem to support stereotypes, but our scientific understanding of strength raises some troubling ideas about perceived “natural” differences of the body. Biological differences between men and women are not a clear as some would like to believe, this had led to problems with determining athletes’ genders for competition. In the US, large and muscular bodies are seen as desirable for men and problematic for women; this shapes who trains to complete in these types of competitions. If more women trained for strength-based competitions, we can assume the gap between men and women in these competitions would shrink, but not fully disappear. Similar trends have occurred in long distance running.

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone who has seen the women competitors on these shows could believe that women are not strong enough to do construction. Especially if you watched the first episode of The Titan Games and saw Tina Rivas, a sheet metal installer. And as she said about her work, “I am the only woman. So obviously that’s a little bit hard. But I can handle it.” Indeed.

Maura Kelly is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Portland State University. Her research and teaching interests include gender, sexualities, social inequality, work and occupations, and popular culture. Her current research is primarily focused on the experiences of women and people of color in the construction trades as well as policy and programs intended to increase the diversity of the construction trades workforce. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming book Feminist Research in Practice (Rowman & Littlefield 2019).

In an era of body positivity, more people are noting the way American culture stigmatizes obesity and discriminates by weight. One challenge for studying this inequality is that a common measure for obesity—Body Mass Index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight—has been criticized for ignoring important variation in healthy bodies. Plus, the basis for weight discrimination is what other people see as “too fat,” and that’s a standard with a lot of variation.

Recent research in Sociological Science from Vida Maralani and Douglas McKee gives us a picture of how the relationship between obesity and inequality changes with social context. Using data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (NLSY), Maralani and McKee measure BMI in two cohorts, one in 1981 and one in 2003. They then look at social outcomes seven years later, including wages, the probability of a person being married, and total family income.

The figure below shows their findings for BMI and 2010 wages for each group in the study. The dotted lines show the same relationships from 1988 for comparison.

For White and Black men, wages actually go up as their BMI increases from the “Underweight” to “Normal” ranges, then levels off and slowly decline as they cross into the “Obese” range. This pattern is fairly similar to 1988, but check out the “White Women” graph in the lower left quadrant. In 1988, the authors find a sharp “obesity penalty” in which women over a BMI of 30 reported a steady decline in wages. By 2010, this has largely leveled off, but wage inequality didn’t go away. Instead, that spike near the beginning of the graph suggests people perceived as skinny started earning more. The authors write:

The results suggest that perceptions of body size may have changed across cohorts differently by race and gender in ways that are consistent with a normalizing of corpulence for black men and women, a reinforcement of thin beauty ideals for white women, and a status quo of a midrange body size that is neither too thin nor too large for white men (pgs. 305-306).

This research brings back an important lesson about what sociologists mean when they say something is “socially constructed”—patterns in inequality can change and adapt over time as people change the way they interpret the world around them.Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Both men and women face a lot of pressure to perform masculinity and femininity respectively. But, ironically, people who rigidly conform to rules about gender, those who enact perfect performances of masculinity or femininity, are often the butt of jokes. Many of us, for example, think the male body builder is kind of gross; we suspect that he may be compensating for something, dumb like a rock, or even narcissistic. Likewise, when we see a bleach blond teetering in stilettos and pulling up her strapless mini, many of us think she must be stupid and shallow, with nothing between her ears but fashion tips.

The fact that we live in a world where there are different expectations for men’s and women’s behavior, in other words, doesn’t mean that we’re just robots acting out those expectations. We actually tend to mock slavish adherence to those rules, even as we carefully negotiate them (breaking some rules, but not too many, and not the really important ones).

In any case, I thought of this when I saw this ad. The woman at the other end of the table is doing (at least some version of) femininity flawlessly.  The hair is perfect, her lips exactly the right shade of pink, her shoulders are bare. But… it isn’t enough.  The man behind the menu has “lost interest.”

It’s unfortunate that we spend so much time telling women that the most important thing about them is that they conform to expectations of feminine beauty when, in reality, living up to those expectations means performing an identity that we disdain.

We do it to men, too.  We expect guys to be strictly masculine, and when they turn out to be jocks and frat boys, we wonder why they can’t be nicer or more well-rounded.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday. 

In a society that objectifies women, women learn that, to many others, they are their bodies. Because our bodies are the means by which others judge us, we place our bodies under deep and critical scrutiny. In such a world, all bodies are always potentially problematic. Women are too much of this or not enough of that. Even when women like their bodies overall, there is always some part that some person would judge unacceptable. And, in any case, our bodies will inevitably (continue to) disappoint us if we lose the ability to invest time and money on them or, of course, dare to age.

Two postcards recently presented at Post Secret illustrate this idea. In one a woman expresses her discomfort with her small breasts:

In the other, a woman explains that her breasts make her feel insecure:


Large breasts are desirable? Right? At least that’s what the first woman believes. But large breasts can also be intimidating. Carrying around large breasts can bring attention one doesn’t want (“hey baby”) and judgments that are unfair (“she is flaunting her body”). Small breasts, however, may be de-sexualizing or, conversely, they may attract the attention of men who like to pretend that the women they sleep with are girls.

No matter what size and shape a woman’s breasts, the focus on her body that an objectifying culture makes others feel entitled to make them meaningful in ways that women can’t control. And that will be a problem for all women sometimes, no matter what her body looks like.

Originally posted in 2010; cross-posted at Jezebel.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Sociologists are lucky to have amongst them a colleague who is doing excellent work on the modeling industry and, in doing so, offering us all a rare sophisticated glimpse into its economic and cultural logics. We’ve featured Ashley Mears‘ work twice in posts discussing the commodification of models’ bodies and the different logics of high end and commercial fashion.

In a post at Jezebel, Mears exposes the Model Search. Purportedly an opportunity for model hopefuls to be discovered, Mears argues that it functions primarily as a networking opportunity for agents, who booze and schmooze it up with each other, while being alternatively bored and disgusted by the girls and women who pay to be there.

“Over a few days,” Mears explains:

…thousands arrived to impress representatives from over 100 international modeling and talent agencies. In the modeling showcase alone, over 500 people ages 13-25 strutted down an elevated runway constructed in the hotel’s ballroom, alongside which rows of agents sat and watched.

2013 International Model and Talent Search; photo by AJ Batac.

But the agents are not particularly interested in scouting.  In shadowing them during the event, Mears finds that they “actually find it all rather boring and tasteless.”  Pathetic, too.

Mears explains:

The saddest thing at a model search contest is not the sight of girls performing womanhood defined as display object. Nor is it their exceedingly slim chances to ever be the real deal. What’s really sad is the state of the agents: they sit with arms folded, yawning regularly, checking their BlackBerrys. After a solid two hours, Allie has seen over 300 contestants. She’s recorded just eight numbers for callbacks.

Meanwhile, agents ridicule the wannabe runway, from the “hooker heels” to the outfit choices. About their physiques, [one agent recounts,] “I’ve never seen so many out of shape bodies.”

While model hopefuls are trading sometimes thousands of dollars for a 30-second walk down the runway, the agents are biding their time until they can head to the hotel bar to “…gossip, network, and commence the delicate work of negotiating the global trade in models…” One agent explains:

To be honest it’s just a networking event. The girls, most of them don’t even have the right measurements. For most of them, today is going to be a wake-up call.

Indeed, networking is the real point of the event.  The girls and women who come with dreams of being a model are largely, and unwittingly, emptying their pockets to subsidize the schmooze.

To add insult to injury, what many of the aspiring models don’t know is that, for “…$5,000 cheaper, any hopeful can walk into an agency’s ‘Open Call’ for an evaluation.”

I encourage you to read Mears’ much longer exposé at Jezebel.

Originally posted in 2010.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Add to the list of new books to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine. Feeding my interest in the issue of sexual dimorphism in humans — which we work so hard to teach to children — the book is described like this:

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars.

Good reviews here and here report that Fine tackles an often-cited study of newborn infants’ sex difference in preferences for staring at things, by Jennifer Connellan and colleagues in 2000. They reported:

…we have demonstrated that at 1 day old, human neonates demonstrate sexual dimorphism in both social and mechanical perception. Male infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face.

And this led to the conclusion: “The results of this research clearly demonstrate that sex differences are in part biological in origin.” They reached this conclusion by alternately placing Connellan herself or a dangling mobile in front of tiny babies, and timing how long they stared. There is a very nice summary of problems with the study here, which seriously undermine its conclusion.

However, even if the methods were good, this is a powerful example of how a tendency toward difference between males and females is turned into a categorical opposition between the sexes — as in, the “real differences between boys and girls.”

To illustrate this, here’s a graphic look at the results in the article, which were reported in this table:

They didn’t report the whole distribution of boys’ and girls’ gaze-times, but it’s obvious that there is a huge overlap in the distributions, despite a difference in the means. In the mobile-gaze-time, for example, the difference in averages is 9.7 seconds, while the standard deviations are more than 20 seconds. If I turn to my handy normal curve spreadsheet template, and fit it with these numbers, you can see what the pattern might look like (I truncate these at 0 seconds and 70 seconds, as they did in the study):

Source: My simulation assuming normal distributions from the data in the table above.

All I’m trying to say is that the sexes aren’t opposites, even if they have some differences that precede socialization.

If you could show me that the 1-day-olds who stare at the mobiles for 52 seconds are more likely to be engineers when they grow up than the ones who stare at them for 41 seconds (regardless of their gender) then I would be impressed. But absent that, if you just want to use such amorphous differences at birth to explain actual segregation among real adults, then I would not be impressed.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

1Many hope that Misty Copeland is ushering in a new era for ballet. She is the first female African American ballet dancer to have the role of Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She has literally changed the face of the dance.

Race is a central and important part of her story, but in A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary featuring her career, she describes herself as defying not just one, but three ideas about what ballerinas are supposed to look like: “I’m black,” she says, and also: “I have a large chest, I’m muscular.”

In fact, asked to envision a prima ballerina, writes commentator Shane Jewel, what comes to most of our minds is probably a “perilously thin, desperately beautiful, gracefully elongated girl who is… pale as the driven snow.” White, yes, but also flat-chested and without obvious muscularity.

It feels like a timeless archetype — at least as timeless as ballet itself, which dates back to the 15th century — but it’s not. In fact, the idea that ballerinas should be painfully thin is a new development, absorbing only a fraction of ballet’s history, as can clearly be seen in this historical slideshow.

It started in the 1960s — barely more than 50 years ago — in response to the preferences of the influential choreographer George Balanchine. Elizabeth Kiem, the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, calls him “the most influential figure in 20th century dance,” ballet and beyond. He co-founded the first major ballet school in America, made dozens of dancers famous, and choreographed more than 400 performances. And he liked his ballerinas wispy: “Tall and slender,” Kiem writes, “to the point of alarm.” It is called, amongst those in that world, the “Balanchine body.”

 

We’re right to view Copeland’s rise with awe, gratitude, and hope, but it’s also interesting to note that two of the the ceilings she’s breaking (by being a ballerina with breasts and muscles) have only recently been installed. It reminds me how quickly a newly introduced expectation can feel timeless; how strongly it can ossify into something that seems inevitable; how easily we accept that what we see in front of us is universal.

In The Social Construction of Reality, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explain how rapidly social inventions “harden” and “thicken.” Whoever initiates can see it for what it is — something they created — but to whoever comes next it simply seems like reality. What to Balanchine was “I will do it this way” became to his successors “This is how things are done.” And “a world so regarded,” Berger and Luckmann write, “attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way, and it can no longer be changed so readily.”

Exactly because the social construction of reality can be so real, even though it was merely invented, Copeland’s three glass ceilings are all equally impressive, even if only one is truly historic.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.