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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 actualsegregation among real adults, then I would not be impressed.
Many 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.
In 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca) declared October “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” Their original campaign promoted mammography screenings and self-breast exams, as well as aided fundraising efforts for breast cancer related research. The month continues with the same goals, and is still supported by AstraZeneca, in addition to many other organizations, most notably the American Cancer Society.
The now ubiquitous pink ribbons were pinned onto the cause, when the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation distributed them at a New York City fundraising event in 1991. The following year, 1.5 million Estée Lauder cosmetic customers received the promotional reminder, along with an informational card about breast self-exams. Although now a well-known symbol, the ribbons elide a less well-known history of Breast Cancer Awareness co-opting grassroots’ organizing and activism targeting women’s health and breast cancer prevention.
The “awareness” campaign also opened the floodgates for other companies to capitalize on the disease. For example, Avon, New Balance, and Yoplait have sold jewelry, athletic shoes, and yogurt, respectively, using the pink ribbon as a logo, while KitchenAid still markets a product line called “Cook for the Cure” that includes pink stand mixers, food processors, and cooking accessories, items which the company first started selling in 2001. Not to be left out, Smith and Wesson, Taurus, Federal, and Bersa, among other companies, have sold firearms with pink grips and/or finishing, pink gun-cases, and even pink ammo with the pink ribbon symbol emblazoned on the packaging. Because breast cancer can be promoted in corporate-friendly ways and lacks the stigma associated with other diseases, like HIV/AIDS, these companies and others, have been willing to endorse Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, in some cases, donate proceeds from their merchandise to support research affiliated with the disease.
Yet companies’ willingness to profit from the cause has also served to commodify breast cancer, and to support what sociologist Gayle Sulik calls “pink ribbon culture.” As Sulik notes, marking breast cancer with the color pink not only feminizes the disease, but also reinforces gendered expectations about how women are “supposed” to react to and cope with the illness, claims also corroborated by my own research on breast cancer support groups.
Based on participant observation of four support groups and in-depth interviews with participants, I have documented how breast cancer patients are expected to present a feminine self, and to also be positive and upbeat, despite the pain and suffering they endure as a result of being ill. The women in the study, for example, spent considerable time and attention on their physical appearance, working to present a traditionally feminine self, even while recovering from surgical procedures and debilitating therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Similarly, members of the groups frequently joked about their bodies, especially in sexualized ways, making light of the physical disfigurement resulting from their disease. Like the compensatory femininity in which they engaged, laughing about their plight seemed to assuage some of the emotional pain that they experienced. However, the coping strategies reinforced traditional standards of beauty and also prevented members of the groups from expressing anger or bitterness, feelings that would have been justifiable, but seen as (largely) culturally inappropriate because they were women.
Even when they recovered physically from the disease, the women were not immune to the effects of the “pink ribbon culture,” as other work from the study demonstrates. Many group participants, for instance, reported that friends and family were often less than sympathetic when they expressed uncertainty about the future and/or discontent about what they had been through. As “survivors,” they were expected to be strong, positive, and upbeat, not fearful or anxious, or too willing to complain about the aftermath of their disease. The women thus learned to cover their uncomfortable emotions with a veneer of strength and courage. This too helps to illustrate how the “pink ribbon culture,” which celebrates survivors and survivorhood, limits the range of emotions that women who have had breast cancer are able to express. It also demonstrates how the myopic focus on survivors detracts attention from the over 40,000 women who die from breast cancer each year in the United States, as well as from the environmental causes of the disease.
Such findings should give pause. If October is truly a time to bring awareness to breast cancer and the women affected by it, we need to acknowledge the pain and suffering associated with the disease and resist the “pink ribbon culture” that contributes to it.
Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ripon College. Her research focuses on inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.
It turns out that the answer is: it does and it doesn’t. Ashley Mears, a model turned sociologist, found that high fashion models are overwhelmingly white, but that commercial modeling — the kind you see in catalogs for stores like Target, TJ Maxx, and JC Penney — is much more racially inclusive. Similarly, extreme thinness is more pronounced among high fashion models, whereas commercial models tend to have a few more inches around their waists.
Mears says that the difference has to do with the contrasting purposes of the different modeling worlds. High fashion is supposed to be, by definition, unattainable. The women used in high fashion, then, should be the most idealized, with bodies that are among the most difficult to attain and beauty that is the most rareified. In this context, whiteness is a marker of elite status because white femininity, thanks to white supremacy in U.S. culture, is the most purely feminine femininity of all.
In contrast, the commercial market is actually designed to sell clothes to everyday people. In this case, they want consumers to identify with their models. Their models aren’t supposed to signify social distance, they’re supposed to be just like us. Using more diverse models and models who are less waif-like helps accomplish those goals.
I heard stories this week about dung beetles and cuttlefish. Both made me think about the typical stories we hear in the media about evolved human mating strategies. First, the stories:
Story #1 :The Dung Beetle
A story on Quirks and Quarks discussed the mating strategies of the dung beetle. The picture above is of a male beetle; only the males have those giant horns. He uses it to defend the entrance to a tiny burrow in which he keeps a female. He’ll violently fight off other dung beetles who try to get access to the burrow.
So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?
There’s a twist: while only male dung beetles have horns, not all males have horns. Some are completely hornless. But if horns help you win the fight, how is hornlessness being passed down genetically?
Well, it turns out that when a big ol’ horned male is fighting with some other big ol’ horned male, little hornless males sneak into burrows and mate with the females. They get discovered and booted out, of course, and the horned male will re-mate with the female with the hopes of displacing his sperm.
Those little hornless males have giant testicles, way gianter than the horned males. While the horned males are putting all of their energy into growing horns, the hornless males are making sperm. So, even though they have limited access to females, they get as much mileage out of their access as they can.
The result: two distinct types of male dung beetles with two distinct mating strategies.
Story #2: The Giant Australian Cuttlefish
The Naked Scientists podcast featured a story about Giant Australian Cuttlefish. During mating season the male cuttlefish, much larger than the females, collect “harems” and spend their time mating and defending access. Other males try to “muscle in,” but the bigger cuttlefish “throws his weight around” to scare him off. The biggest cuttlefish wins.
So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?
Well, according The Naked Scientists story, researchers have discovered an alternative mating strategy. Small males, who are far too small to compete with large males, will pretend to be female, sneak into the defended territory, mate, and leave.
How do they do this? They change their color pattern and rearrange their tentacles in a more typical female arrangement (they didn’t specify what this was) and, well, pass. The large male thinks he’s another female. In the video below, the cuttlefish uses his ability to change the pattern on his body. He simultaneously displays a male pattern to the female and a female pattern to the large male on the other side.
So, can the crossdressing cuttlefish and dodge-y dung beetle tell us anything about evolved human mating strategies?
But I do think it tells us something about how we should think about evolution and the reproduction of genes. If you listen to the media cover evolutionary psychological explanations of human mating, you only hear one story about the strategies that males use to try to get sex. That story sounds a lot like the one told about the horned beetle and the large male cuttlefish.
But these species have demonstrated that there need not be only one mating strategy. In these cases, there are at least two. So, why in Darwin’s name would we assume that human beings, in all of their beautiful and incredible complexity, would only have one? Perhaps we see a diversity in types of human males (different body shapes and sizes, different intellectual gifts, etc) because there are many different ways to attract females. Maybe females see something valuable in many different kinds of males! Maybe not all females are the same!
Let’s set aside the stereotypes about men and women that media reporting on evolutionary psychology tends to reproduce and, instead, consider the possibility that human mating is at least as complex as that of dung beetles and cuttlefish.