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.
The barbershop holds a special place in American culture. With its red, white, and blue striped poles, dark Naugahyde chairs, and straight razor shaves, the barbershop has been a place where men congregate to shore up their stubble and get a handle on their hair. From a sociological perspective, the barbershop is an interesting place because of its historically homosocial character, where men spend time with other men. In the absence of women, men create close relationships with each other. Some might come daily to talk with their barbers, discuss the news, or play chess. Men create community in these places, and community is important to people’s health and well-being.
But is the barbershop disappearing? If so, is anything taking its place?
In my study of high-service men’s salons — dedicated to the primping and preening of an all male clientele — hair stylists described the “old school” barbershop as a vanishing place. They explained that men are seeking out a pampered grooming experience that the bare bones barbershop with its corner dusty tube television doesn’t offer. The licensed barbers I interviewed saw these newer men’s salons as a “resurgence” of “a men-only place” that provides more “care” to clients than the “dirty little barbershop.” And those barbershops that are sticking around, said Roxy, one barber, are “trying to be a little more upscale.” She encourages barbers to “repaint and add flat-screen TVs.”
When I asked clients of one men’s salon, The Executive, if they ever had their hair cut at a barbershop, they explained that they did not fit the demographic. Barbershops, they said, are for old men with little hair to worry about or young boys who don’t have anyone to impress. As professional white-collar men, they see themselves as having outgrown the barbershop. A salon, with its focus on detailed haircuts and various services, including manicures, pedicures, hair coloring, and body waxing, help these mostly white men to obtain what they consider to be a “professional” appearance. “Professional men… they know that if they look successful, that will create connotations to their clients or customers or others that they work with — that they are smart, that they know what they’re doing,” said Gill, a client of the salon and vice-president in software, who reasoned why men go to the salon.
Indeed the numbers support the claim that barbershops are dwindling, and it may indeed be due to white well-to-do men’s shifting attitudes about what a barbershop is, what it can offer, and who goes there. (In my earlier research on a small women’s salon, one male client told me the barbershop is a place for the mechanic, or “grease-monkey,” who doesn’t care how he looks, and for “machismo” men who prefer a pile of Playboy magazines rather than the finery of a salon). According to Census data, there is a fairly steady decline in the number of barbershops over twenty years. From 1992-2012, we saw a 23% decrease in barbershops in the United Stated, with a slight uptick in 2013.
But these attitudes about the barbershop as a place of ol’, as a fading institution that provides outdated fades, is both a classed and raced attitude. With all the nostalgia for the barbershop in American culture, there is surprisingly little academic writing about it. It is telling, though, that research considering the importance of the barbershop in men’s lives focuses on black barbershops. The corner barbershop is alive and well in black communities and it serves an important role in the lives of black men. In her book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, political scientist and TV host, Melissa Harris-Perry, wrote about everyday barbershop talk as important for understanding collective efforts to frame black political thought. Scholarsalsofind the black barbershop remains an important site for building communities and economies in black neighborhoods and for socializing young black boys.
And so asking if the barbershop is vanishing is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking: Where and for whom is the barbershop vanishing? And where barbershops continue as staples of a community, what purpose do they serve? Where they are disappearing, what is replacing them, and what are the social relations underpinning the emergence of these new places?
In some white hipster neighborhoods, the barbershop is actually making a comeback. In his article, What the Barbershop Renaissance Says about Men, journalist and popular masculinities commentator, Thomas Page McBee, writes that these places provide sensory pleasures whereby men can channel a masculinity that existed unfettered in the “good old days.” The smell of talcum powder and the presence of shaving mugs help men to grapple with what it means to be a man at a time when masculinity is up for debate. But in a barbershop that charges $45 for a haircut, some men are left out. And so, in a place that engages tensions between ideas of nostalgic masculinity and a new sort of progressive man, we may very well see opportunities for real change fall by the wayside. The hipster phenomenon, after all, is a largely white one that appropriates symbols of white working-class masculinity: think white tank tops with tattoos or the plaid shirts of lumbersexuals.
When we return to neighborhoods where barbershops are indeed disappearing, and being replaced with high-service men’s salons like those in my book, Styling Masculinity, it is important to put these shifts into context. They are not signs of a disintegrating by-gone culture of manhood. Rather, they are part of a transformation of white, well-to-do masculinity that reflects an enduring investment in distinguishing men along the lines of race and class according to where they have their hair cut. And these men are still creating intimate relationships; but instead of immersing themselves in communities of men, they are often building confidential relationships with women hair stylists.
Rose Eveleth’s piece for Fusion on gender and bodyhacking was something I didn’t know I needed in my life until it was there. You know how you’ve always known something or felt something, but it isn’t until someone else articulates it for you that you truly understand it, can explain it to yourself, think you might be able to explain it to others – or, even better, shove the articulation at them and be all THAT RIGHT THERE, THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. You know that kind of thing?
Eveleth’s overall thesis is that “bodyhacking” isn’t new at all, that it’s been around forever in how women – to get oversimplified and gender-essentialist in a way I try to avoid, so caveat there – alter and control and manage their bodies (not always to positive or uncoercive ends), but that it’s not recognized as such because we still gender the concept of “technology” as profoundly masculine:
Men invent Soylent, and it’s considered technology. Women have been drinking SlimFast and Ensure for decades but it was just considered a weight loss aid. Quantified self is an exciting technology sector that led tech giants such as Apple to make health tracking a part of the iPhone. But though women have been keeping records of their menstrual cycles for thousands of years, Apple belatedly added period tracking to its Health Kit. Women have been dieting for centuries, but when men do it and call it “intermittent fasting,” it gets news coverage as a tech trend. Men alter their bodies with implants and it’s considered extreme bodyhacking, and cutting edge technology. Women bound their feet for thousands of years, wore corsets that altered their rib cages, got breast implants, and that was all considered shallow narcissism.
As a central personal example, Eveleth uses her IUD, and this is what especially resonated with me, because I also have one. I’ve had one for about seven years. I love it. And getting it was moderately life-changing, not just because of its practical benefits but because it altered how I think about me.
The insertion process was not comfortable (not to scare off anyone thinking of getting one, TRUST ME IT IS GREAT TO HAVE) and more than a little anxiety-inducing ahead of time, but I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling kind of cool. I had an implant. I had a piece of technology in my uterus, that was enabling me to control my reproductive process. I don’t want children – at least not right now – and my reproductive organs have never been significantly important to me as far as my gender identity goes (probably not least because I don’t identify as a woman), but managing my bits and what they do and how they do it has naturally been a part of my life since I became sexually active.
And what matters for this conversation is that the constant task of managing them isn’t something I chose. Trying to find a method that worked best for me and (mildly) stressing about how well it was working was a part of my identity inasmuch as it took up space in my brain, and I wasn’t thrilled about that. I didn’t want it to be part of my identity – though I didn’t want to go as far as permanently foreclosing on the possibility of pregnancy – and it irked me that it had to be.
Then it didn’t have to be anymore.
And it wasn’t just about a little copper implant being cool on a pure nerd level. I felt cool because the power dynamic between my self and my body had changed. My relationship between me and this set of organs had become voluntary in a way entirely new to me.
I feel like I might not be explaining this very well.
Here: Over thirty years ago, Donna Haraway presented an image of a new form of self and its creation – not creation, in fact, but construction. Something pieced together with intentionality, the result of choices – something “encoded.” She offered a criticism of the woman-as-Earth-Mother vision that then-contemporary feminists were making use of, and pointed the way forward toward something far stranger and more wonderfully monstrous.
The power of an enmeshing between the organic and the technological lies not only in what it allows one to do but in what it allows one to be – and often there’s no real distinction to be made between the two. We can talk about identity in terms of smartphones, but when we come to things like technologies of reproductive control, I think the conversation often slips into the purely utilitarian – if these things are recognized as technologies at all.
Eveleth notes that “technology is a thing men do,” and I think the dismissal of female bodyhacking goes beyond dismissal of the utilitarian aspects of these technologies. It’s also the dismissal of many of the things that make it possible to construct a cyborg self, to weave a powerful connection to the body that’s about the emotional and psychological just as much as the physical.
I walked out of that doctor’s office with my little copper implant, and the fact that I no longer had to angst about accidental pregnancy was in many respects a minor component of what I was feeling. I was a little less of a goddess, and a little more of a cyborg.
Sunny Moraine is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland and a fiction author whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Nightmare, and Strange Horizons, as well as multiple Year’s Best anthologies; they are also responsible for both the Root Code and Casting the Bones novel trilogies. Their current dissertation work concerns narrative, temporality, and genocidal violence. They blog at Cyborgology, where this post originally appeared, and can be followed on Twitter at @dynamicsymmetry.
Russ Ruggles, who blogs for Online Dating Matchmaker, makes an argument for lying in your online dating profile. He notes, first, that lying is common and, second, that people lie in the direction that we would expect, given social desirability. Men, for example, tend to exaggerate their height; women tend to exaggerate their thinness:
Since people also tend to restrict their searches according to social desirability (looking for taller men and thinner women), these lies will result in your being included in a greater proportion of searches. So, if you lie, you are more likely to actually go on a date.
Provided your lie was small — small enough, that is, to not be too obvious upon first meeting — Ruggles explains that things are unlikely to fall to pieces on the first date. It turns out that people’s stated preferences have a weak relationship to who they actually like. Stated preferences, one study found, “seemed to vanish when it came time to choose a partner in physical space.”
“It turns out,” Ruggles writes, that “we have pretty much no clue what we actually want in a partner.”
So lie! A little! Lie away! And, also, don’t be so picky. You never know!
Originally posted in 2010. Crossposted at Jezebel.