bodies

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.

In 2015 I wrote an essay in which I speculated about why we don’t see men kicking each other in the balls more often. We leave no stones unturned here at SocImages, folks.

I argued that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it would reveal to everyone an inherent and undeniable biological weakness in every man, not just the man getting kicked.  In other words, it’s a secret pact to protect the myth of masculine superiority.

I expected a reaction, but I was genuinely surprised at what transpired. In public — in the comments — men debated strategy, arguing that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it’s actually a difficult blow to land or would escalate the fight. But in private — in my email inbox — men sent me hushed messages of you-are-so-right-though.

This is interesting because people rarely bother to go to the trouble of googling me, finding my email address, and writing me a note. The comments thread is right there and there’s a link to my twitter account at the end of the post. Most people criticize or compliment me publicly. Moreover, the emails have never stopped coming. I get one now every couple months — almost two years later — which I think means that ball kicking is something men (and it’s always men) are quietly seeking information about.

So, what do they say in private to me?

The one I received today was characteristic and the guy who wrote it gave me permission to share some of it. I’ll call him “Guy.”

First, Guy agreed that the vulnerability of having testicles is distressing to him specifically because he has been taught that boys and men are supposed to be stronger than girls and women.

Boys usually think of themselves as being tough and we want to be tough and tougher than girls especially. The idea that a girl could hurt a big strong boy like me is ridiculous right. But then I got older and learned about testicles and that girls didnt have them and i was embarrassed that I had a weak spot and they didn’t.

Second, he acknowledged that knowing that other people know about this vulnerability adds to the stress of having it.

I always hate in movies when a guy gets hit in the balls and drops especially if a woman did the kicking and if I am watching it with women. I don’t want anyone to know I have a weak spot or to acknowledge it. I still try to workout and be big and strong but I always feel vulnerable down there. My older sister and i used to play fight and i started getting bigger than her and winning. Then one time she faked a kick to my groin and i jumped back and covered myself. She had this self satisfied smurk on her face like ya dont mess with me and i never did again.

This vulnerability, Guy emphasizes, isn’t just a trivial thing; it’s everything. It affects how he feels about his whole body (“your only as strong as your weakest link”) and it’s psychologically consuming (“I hate knowing this”).

Your only as strong as your weakest link and guys have the weakest link on the body. I hate knowing this and I’m afraid women realize this and I think alot of guys feel the same even if they dont admit it.

“They dont admit it,” Guy writes, which means it’s a secret shame. And, like many of the men who’ve emailed me, he thanks me for putting it out there in public and says that it’s a relief to actually talk about it.

Anyway I think you really hit a nerve with this article and I think its kinda therapeutic to talk about it cause I usually keep it to myself. Keep up the good work and Take Care!

I think this is amazing.

I’m touched, first of all, by the emotional vulnerability that Guy and the other (mostly young) men who’ve emailed me have shown. Behind all of the pretending like they’re a “big strong boy,” these guys are nervous, worried that their front is going to be exposed and everyone is going to see them as a fraud and a failure. Not a Real Man at all.

In fact, they worry that everyone already sees them that way. The sister’s smirk tells Guy, in no uncertain terms, that his front is transparent. “I won’t expose you,” it says. “Not today. But I can and we both know it.” No matter how hard he tries — no matter how big his biceps or bank account, no matter how corner his office is or how hot his wife — he’s got those goddamn testicles and they’re right there.

Guy explains that it makes him want to compensate. He works out to be “big and strong.” But it’ll never be enough. He says, “I always feel vulnerable down there.” He feels vulnerable anyway. There’s really nothing he can do.

This is telling us something profound about what it feels like to be a man in America today. Told to live up to an impossible standard of invulnerability; they inevitably feel like failures. Told specifically to be more invulnerable than (and not vulnerable to) women, by biological accident, they’re not. What a cruel twist of the testicles. It hurts.

And I wonder how much of what men do in their lives is a response to this psychic injury. How many of Donald Trump’s shenanigans, for example, have to do with the fact that he knows, and he knows that everyone knows, that someone could just drop him with a kick to the balls at any time? It sounds absurd to blame the risk of nuclear war on Trump’s testicles, but these young men are telling me that, right around puberty — as they are graduating from boys to men, doubling down on their difference from girls and women, and being told that to earn others’ esteem they have to be bigger and stronger — they have a disturbing revelation that compels them to embark on a lifetime of proving they’re not weak.

Until we all agree to let men be human, they’re going to keep living lives of quiet desperation. And the rest of us have to keep fearing what they will do to avoid being exposed.

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.

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.

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.

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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.