bodies

Earlier this year I wrote about how truly disturbing it is that so many of our insults have sexual connotations.  “Fuck you,” is a choice example, but I give lots more in the original post (read at your own risk).  I concluded:

…it’s interesting, right, to notice how often attempts to hurt other people come in the language of sexuality.  This reveals why sex can be scary, especially for women who are so often positioned as the one who “gets fucked”…  It’s also part of how we demean and marginalize gay and bisexual men.

This post came to mind when I saw this confession at PostSecret:

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Let me put this in black and white: this person expressed “hate” by exposing another person to his penis.  So he considers his penis a thing that can defile.  This is the same penis that he puts (presumably) in his wife who he (presumably) doesn’t hate.  If I were his wife, I would wonder how exactly he decides when putting his penis in things is a loving thing to do and when it’s a way to harm or humiliate someone.

I don’t mean to pick on this individual.  The idea that it’s funny (“LOL”) to expose this woman to his genitalia without her consent is widespread.  This confession is just a manifestation of our cultural belief that men can hurt people with their penises.  And that it’s funny when they do.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Sociology represent!  Watch Kjerstin Gruys, UCLA sociology Ph.D. student, on The Colbert Report.  Her new book is called Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It.

See also a previous guest post where she answered the question, Can a Feminist Diet?

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In May we featured a block of cheese that inspired quite the response.  Riffing off the name “Monterey Jack,” a company was selling “Monterey Jill”: the same old cheese, but reduced fat.  It was an excellent example of the way dieting is feminized.

People — myself included — were pretty stunned to see gendered cheese; who knew this was going to be a thing.  In fact, Liam sent us an example of gendered string cheese with the exact same theme: there’s string cheese animated by a male character and reduced-fat string cheese animated by a female character.  Also, they’re surfing; aaaaaand I have no analysis of that.

Screenshot_1Thanks for reminding the ladies to be worried about their waistlines cheese people!  It’s not as if we don’t get that message absolutely every time we turn around!

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

If this PostSecret confession doesn’t break your heart, you are a bad person.

fatjudge

Last week I chatted with the Canadian Broadcasting Company for a segment they’re doing on humor and power.  I used hateful jokes about fat people as an example of how patterns in comedy reveal our biases: who it is okay to revile, whose feelings we can dismiss, who we see as less-than-human.

I was surprised when the host said that some argue that pointing out people’s weight isn’t offensive because it’s “just a fact.”  I responded, “Sociologists don’t believe in that kind of fact.”  Two hundreds years ago being called fat would have been a compliment: it represented power, success, wealth, and (yes) health.  Today the meaning of fat has changed.  The word is now a weapon.  For the person who wrote this secret, fatness is not a fact; it’s a “humiliat[ion].”  This is what dehumanization feels like.

Whoever you are, I wish I could give your warm, comfy body a big giant hug.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

The problem:

A Brazilian modeling agency, Star Models, recently released a new series of anti-anorexia PSA advertisements. They illustrate one of the ways ultra-thin body ideals characterizing women’s bodies in the fashion industry today are institutionalized, or made part of the way we “do” fashion. Fashion sketches — the way that people communicate designs to one another — idealize these bodies, with their exaggerated proportions, long slender limbs, and expressionless faces. The PSAs place real women alongside the sketches, graphically altered to similar proportions, in order to problematize the ideal.

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Sociology professors are constantly asking students to analyze what they might be taking for granted. One issue we take for granted is that the images on the left are what “fashion” looks like and ought to look like. That they are culturally recognizable as fashion sketches speaks to the ways in which hyper-thin feminine bodies are institutionalized at a fundamental level in the fashion industry today.

The Dove Evolution video — as a part of their “Campaign for Real Beauty” — vividly illustrates the work that goes into the production of advertisements. Using a time-lapse video depicting the diverse labor that goes into the production of an ad was a simple illustration of the impossibility of contemporary beauty ideals. Viewers are left thinking, “Of course we can’t look like that. She doesn’t even look like that.”

Star Models’ anti-anorexia ads promote a similar message, but also call our attention to the more dangerous aspects of adherence to industry ideals. Similar to depictions of what Barbie might look like as a real woman, altered images of dangerously thin models aside these sketches have a very different feel from the sketches they imitate.

What is being done about it?

In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) passed a Health Initiative in recognition of an increasingly global concern with the unhealthily thin bodies of models and whether/how to promote change in the industry. The CFDA is working to better educate those inside the industry to identify individuals at risk, to require models with eating disorders to seek help and acquire professional approval to continue working, to develop workshops promoting dialog on these issues, and more.

The CFDA’s Health Initiative, however, treats eating disorders as an individual rather than social problem. This allows the CFDA to obscure the role it might play in perpetuating cultural desires for the very bodies it purports to “help” with the Health Initiative.

Susan Bordo famously wrote about anorexia as what she termed “the crystallization of culture.” We like to draw firm boundaries between normality and pathology. But Bordo suggests that anorexia is more profitably analyzed as culturally normative than as abnormal. Similarly, Star Models’ PSAs play a role in framing the fashion industry as (at least partially) responsible for ultra-thin feminine body ideals. Yet, they arguably fall short of providing institutional-level solutions as the tagline — ”You are not a sketch. Say no to anorexia.” — concentrates on individuals.

The CFDA’s focus on health initiatives and support for individuals suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are critical aspects of recognizing issues that seem to plague the fashion industry. While this surely helps some individual women, the initiatives simultaneously avoid the cultural pressures (in which the fashion industry arguably plays a critical role) that work to systematically conflate feminine beauty with ultra-thin ideals. Similar to problems associated with focusing attention only on the survivors of sexual assaults (failing to recognize the ways that sexual violence is both institutionalized and embedded in our culture), these images simply illustrate that individual-level solutions are unlikely to produce change precisely because they fail to locate “the problem” and ignore the diverse social institutions and ideals that assist in its reproduction.

Thanks to a student in my Sociology of Gender course, Sandra Little, for bringing this campaign to my attention.

Tristan Bridges is a sociologist of gender and sexuality at the College at Brockport (SUNY).  Dr. Bridges blogs about some of this research and more at Inequality by (Interior) Design.  You can follow him on twitter @tristanbphd.

Dieting is for women.

I mean we all know that dieting and women go together like peas and carrots.  We know this — collectively and together, even if we don’t agree that it should be this way — not because it’s inevitable or natural, but because we constantly get reminded that women should be on diets and dieting is a feminine activity.

@msmely tweeted us a fabulous example of this type of reminder.  It’s a reduced fat block of Monterey Jack cheese, re-named “Monterey Jill.”  There’s curvy purple font and a cow in pearls with a flower, in case you missed the message.  And, oh, on the odd chance you thought that this was about health and not weight, there’s a little sign there with a message to keep you on track: “Meet Jack’s lighter companion.”

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So now we’ve gendered cheese and managed to affirm both the gender binary  (heavy vs. light), heterocentrism (Jack’s companion Jill), and the diet imperative for women.  And it’s just cheese people!  Cheese!

That is all.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In this Jell-O ad, a perfectly manicured woman’s hand is holding a tiiiiiiiiiiny ice cream cone, suggesting that women are better off eating sugar-free pudding as a dessert. Below, I argue that this ad, far from promoting “decadence,” is actually a form of social control.

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The words “60 Calories of Denial” imply that eating ice cream requires self-denial because a normal portion would be too high in calories.  In contrast, the large bowl of Jell-O pudding is labeled “60 Calories of Decadence.”  The fine print specifies that the pudding is “loved by lips and hips alike.”

To put it plainly, this ad for dessert tells women to be ashamed of wanting dessert.  It says, “You are a woman, so you are stressed about calories (and you should be). But we’re here to save the day. We can give you permission to have a little bit of dessert, but you will do so on our terms.”

So, while the ad suggests that Jell-O is offering women freedom, the converse of self-denial, in fact it is reminding women of the rule that they be calorie-conscious.  In other words, it reinforces the notion that every woman should be unhappy with or fearful of her body, always striving to attain or maintain thinness.

Camilla Bennett is a sophomore at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California where she is a Cognitive Science major with an emphasis in computation. 

The representation of sexuality and safer sex in public health campaigns is fascinating given our simultaneous cultural obsession with yet pathologization of sexual behavior.  Safer sex campaigns and materials not only seek to increase prevention behaviors but also produce a range of social meanings surrounding gender, bodies, and desire.  Most are produced by organizations that fall well within the mainstream; others are not.  This post is about one of the latter (warning: sexual explicitness).

The following resource, titled “Top 5 Reasons to Fuck a Transguy” was produced and distributed by a collaborative project of the San Francisco-based Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center.  tm4m is a group for transgender men whose goal is to “provide information, education and support to transmen who have sex with men (both other transguys and cisguys).”

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This material is interesting for two main reasons.  First, it combines traditional health education with an erotic, sex-positive context that is missing from most public health campaigns.  For the most part, public health approaches to HIV prevention and sexual health promotion utilize a “sex-negative” approach to sexual behavior; in other words, sex is represented as potentially dangerous or problematic and focus narrowly focused on its negative aspects, such as disease transmission.  Even more progressive “comprehensive” approaches to sexual health education (that is, approaches that do not focus solely on abstinence) tend to center on the potentially dangerous outcomes of sex and how to prevent them while ignoring the pleasurable and fun aspects of sexuality.

In contrast, “5 Reasons to Fuck a Transguy” depicts a naked transman with safer sex barriers (condom and a glove) and uses explicit language (“fuck” instead of “sex” and “cock” instead of “penis”) and imagery.  For example, in reason #2 we see two people about to engage in strap-on play and in #5 we see a guy that appears to be receiving oral sex or relaxing in a state of post-sex ecstasy.  This sort of language and imagery is absent from the vast majority of sexual health promotion materials aimed at a wide variety of populations.  Thus, in “5 Reasons to Fuck a Transguy,” safer sex is not presented as distinct and separate from sexual pleasure.

Second, the material uses an embodied approach to highlight differences between trans and cisgender men while at the same time eroticizing that difference.  Starting with reason #1 (“trans guys are hot”) we are invited to see the transmale body as the object of desire.  Reasons #2, #3, and #4 call attention to the physical differences between cisgender and transgender male bodies and eroticizes the latter by emphasizing interchangeable cock sizes, more holes to penetrate, and smaller hands for fisting (or using the whole hand for penetration).  Finally, reason #5 alludes to a fetishization of transmen: the transgender body incites curiosity that will ultimately pay off in enhanced pleasure.

Not everyone agrees this is good.  Some posts on Tumblr challenged the idea that transgender men are a sort of erotic “other” or that they will necessarily consent to the activities depicted in the pamphlet:

You better not assume I’m comfortable using the one that “other” guys don’t have and you better not assume that being a guy means I’d be up for being fucked in the ass, either. Go fuck yourself and make your own goddamn third hole.

The “your dick can be any size you want!” argument is like telling a female-identified survivor of breast cancer who’s had a mastectomy “your tits can be any size you want!”

Just because I don’t have my own natural cock doesn’t make me this insane sex toy thing that’s such an anomaly and such a fetish object and so very very strange and different.

So, despite the disclaimer that “every transguy is unique,” some viewers saw the material’s approach as a problemtic eroticization of their bodies and gender.

In sum, “5 Reasons to Fuck a Transguy” moves beyond typical sexual health promotion approaches to include desire and pleasure, but doesn’t avoid the problem of sending its own cultural messages about gender, bodies, and desire, ones that may be problematic from an entirely different point of view.

Christie Barcelos is a doctoral candidate in Public Health/Community Health Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.