TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.


“Tits,” by Matt Cornell

Of the many nicknames I’ve acquired over the years, there’s one I’m reminded of today. The name was given to me by a bully shortly after I entered the sixth grade. I had been a fat kid since elementary school, but as puberty began to kick in, parts of me started growing differently than expected. The doctors said I had gynecomastia. “Man boobs,” or “moobs” in the jeering parlance of our popular culture.

But my bully simply called them “tits.” And so this also became my name in the school hallways.

I was Tits.

He would pass me in the hall and catcall “Hey Tits!” and his buddies would laugh. Sometimes, if he was feeling extra bold, he might actually grab one of my breasts, and squeeze it in front of the other kids. Not everyone laughed. But many did.

As direct as this bullying was, growing up with gynecomastia was characterized by smaller insults. Most kids would just ask “Why don’t you wear a bra?” Even adults could be cruel. “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was often asked.

When wearing shirts, it was crucial that they be loose fitting. If a T-shirt had shrunk in the dryer, I would spend hours and days stretching it out, so that it didn’t cling to my body. You can see fat boys do this every day. Pulling at their shirts to hide the shape of their bodies, but particularly their breasts.

As a fat kid, and one who hated competition, I learned to loathe sports, and especially, physical education. The one form of exercise which I enjoyed from childhood was swimming. Unfortunately, as my breasts grew, so did my shame about removing my shirt. At summer camp, I never set foot in the swimming pool. I knew that taking off my shirt would bring ridicule, and that leaving it on while swimming would show that I felt ashamed of my body. So, I pretended that I was above swimming — that I was too cool for the pool.

By high school, I had developed remarkable powers of verbal self defense. I absorbed cruelty and learned how to mete it back out in sharp doses. There’s no doubt that this shaped the person I became, for better and for worse. In high school, I managed to carve out a social niche for myself. The bullying stopped. But the shirts stayed loose-fitting. I rarely went swimming.

The doctors thought that perhaps I suffered from low testosterone. I found this funny, since my sex drive had been in high gear since the time I was a sophomore. I assured them that this was not the case. Finally, the doctors said that my excess breast tissue was probably just a result of being fat. Lose the weight and the breasts will go away.

So I lost weight. I don’t remember how much. But by senior year, I was slender. Girls were starting to talk to me. I was more confident. And I still had breasts. After graduation, the doctors congratulated me on my thin body. Now it was time to get rid of my breasts.

In the first surgery, I was placed under general anesthesia. The doctor made a half moon incision under each nipple and cut out the excess breast tissue, finishing the job with some liposuction. Unfortunately the surgery wasn’t a complete success. My breasts were smaller, but lumpy, and my nipples were puckered. It took a second surgery to make everything look “normal.”

I was nineteen. On New Year’s Eve, I went to a party and got drunk for the first time in my life. There, I met a girl who took my virginity. She was too drunk to insist on taking my shirt off. This was a relief, because under my shirt was a sports bra, and under that layers of gauze. My chest was still healing from the second surgery. In many senses of the word, I was still becoming a man.

I’m reminded of this recently, oddly enough, after reading one of those “humorous” snarky news stories that pop up in the right column of The Huffington Post. Perhaps you’ve seen the photo making the rounds. It’s of Barney Frank’s “moobs.” The photo inspired similar stories at gay culture site Queerty, Gawker and Slate, which used the incident as the pretense for a scientific column.

While all of these nominally liberal sites pay lip service to the dignity of gay and transgender people, they miss one thing that is very clear to me. Aside from the obvious fat shaming in these stories, the fixation on “man boobs” reveals our culture’s obsession with binary gender. As I noted on The Huffington Post’s comment thread, before a moderator whisked my comment away, “the only breasts The Huffington Post approves of are those of thin, white female celebrities.”

Here’s one of the many comments Huffpo didn’t delete:

It’s culturally ubiquitous. PETA, for example, is a habitual offender:

Men are supposed to have flat chests, hairy bodies and big penises. Women are supposed to have large breasts, thin hairless bodies and tidy labias. (If a woman’s labia are too big, it just might remind us that, with a little testosterone, the same tissue would make a penis.)

We have all the evidence we need that biological sex and gender are not as rigid or fixed as we imagine. There are intersexed people. There are transgender people and genderqueer people. There are millions of men and boys like me, who also have large breasts, or gynecomastia, a medically harmless (though socially lethal) condition that your insurance just might pay to correct. The prevalence of gynecomastia in adolescent boys is estimated to be as low as 4% and as high as 69% . As one article notes: “These differences probably result from variations in what is perceived to be normal.” You think?

We’re so entrenched in that snips ‘n snails bullshit, that we can’t accept bodies which don’t fall on either extreme of the gender continuum. Transgender men and women encounter these attitudes in direct, and sometimes life-threatening ways. And, given the misogyny that pervades our society, these pressures are even harder for women and girls, whether they’re cisgender or transgender. Their bodies are hated and desired in equal measure. When my bully grabbed my breasts and called me “Tits,” he was taking what he wanted. He was also reminding me that I was no better than a girl. I was beneath him.

With the explosion of social media and the surveillance society, body policing has gotten much more intense. We live in an age of crowdsourced bullying. I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up as a boy with breasts in 2011. I suppose I’d spend hours in Photoshop digitally sculpting my body, to remove fat from my face, belly and chest before uploading my profile photos. If I were a fat girl, I might become very skilled at using light and angles to disguise my less than ideal body, to avoid being dubbed a “SIF” or “secret internet fatty,” by my tech-savvy peers. I would probably become vigilant about removing tags from unflattering photos and obsess over remarks people made about me on comment threads.

Twenty years have gone by, and I miss my breasts. As a chubby adult male, I still have a small set of breasts, but not the ones I was born with. The two surgeries also deprived my nipples of their sensitivity.

I’ve often joked that if I knew I was going to become a performance artist, I would have kept my breasts. The breasts I have now are smaller, but still capable of stoking the body police. I once scandalized a fancy pool party in Las Vegas simply by taking off my shirt. I realize that, as a man, it is my privilege to do so. In most parts of our society, it is either illegal or strongly frowned upon for a woman to go topless. (Female breasts are either for maternity or for male sexual pleasure, not for baring at polite parties.) Perhaps my breasts, which remind people of this prohibition, invite a similar kind of censure.

I’ve performed naked enough in my adult life to know that the body police can always find a new area to target. I was recently stunned to hear porn actress Dana DeArmond describe me during a podcast interview as a “fat lady” while her host Joe Rogan openly theorized that my small penis was somehow connected to my feminism. Rogan’s view of gender is so restrictive that he can only conceive of male feminism if it is in a feminized body. (This is probably also why men who support feminism are often dubbed “manginas” by misogynists.)

There might actually be tens of thousands of words devoted to describing my fat body and small penis on the internet. It’s almost a point of pride. Now, I don’t just use my sharp tongue for self defense. I also use my body itself, as an argument, and as a provocation.

I am Tits. Got a problem with that?

Originally posted at My Own Private Guantanamo. Posted at Sociological Images in 2012. Cross-posted at Adios Barbie and Jezebel

 Matt Cornell is an artist, performer and film programmer who lives and works in Los Angeles. You can follow him on twitter at @mattcornell.

Pregnancy wasn’t always something women did in public. In her new book, Pregnant with the Stars, Renée Ann Cramer puts public pregnancies under the sociological microscope, but she notes that it is only recently that being publicly pregnant became socially acceptable. Even as recently as the 1950s, pregnancy was supposed to be a private matter, hidden behind closed doors. That big round belly was, she argues, “an indicator that sex had taken place, [which] was simply considered too risqué for polite company.”

Lucille Ball was the first person on television to acknowledge a pregnancy, real or fictional. It was 1952, but it was considered lewd to actually say the word “pregnant,” so the episode used euphemisms like “blessed event” or simply referred to having a baby or becoming a father.

Almost 20 years later, in 1970, a junior high school teacher was forced out of the classroom in her third trimester on the argument that her visible pregnancy would, as Cramer puts it, “alternately disgust, concern, fascinate, and embarrass her students.” So, when Demi Moore posed naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair just 21 years after that, it was a truly groundbreaking thing to do.


Today being pregnant is public is unremarkable. Visibly pregnant women are free to run errands, go to restaurants, attend events, even dress up their “baby bump” to try to (make it) look cute. All of this is part of the entrance of women into the public sphere more generally and the pressing of men to accept female bodies in those spaces. The next frontier may be breast feeding, an activity related to female-embodied parenting that many still want to relegate to behind closed doors. We may look back in 20 years and be as surprised by intolerance of breastfeeding as we are today over the idea that pregnant women weren’t supposed to leave the house. Time will tell.

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.

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.

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.

Almost all of the representations of breasts we encounter in the mass media are filtered through the hypothetical heterosexual male gaze. Breasts are objects, things that people desire. Women’s personal, subjective experiences of having breasts is almost never discussed in pop culture. I mean, yes, occasionally two female characters might talk about their breasts, but usually in reference to whether and how they do or fail to attract male attention (e.g., “Is this too much cleavage?” and “I wish I had more cleavage!”). What it feels like to have breasts outside of the context of being a sex object isn’t talked about. There’s a void, a black hole of experience.

The only other common discourse about breasts that comes to mind centers around breastfeeding. In that discourse, the idea that breasts are for men is challenged, but only in favor of the idea that breasts are for babies. In neither discursive context does anyone make the case that breasts are primarily for the people who have them. That the pleasure (and pain) and comfort (and discomfort) that comes with breasts belongs — first and foremost — to female-bodied people.

Last week, I saw something different. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an odd little TV show with a couple musical numbers in each episode and one of the numbers last week was called “Heavy Boobs.” It’s safe for work but… maybe not safe for work.


Rachel Bloom‘s song names and describes one subjective experience of breasts. Breasts are “heavy boobs,” she sings, just “sacks of yellow fat” that can weigh on women. In the song, the breast-haver’s experience is centered to the exclusion of what men or babies might want or think or experience. I can’t ever remember seeing that on TV before.

And that’s plenty, but what she and her fellow dancers do with their bodies is even more extraordinary. They defy the rules of sexiness. Their movements are about embodying heavy boobs and that’s it. It’s as if they don’t care one iota about whether a hypothetical heterosexual male will see them. The dance is unapologetically unsexy. No, it’s more than unsexy; it’s asexy. It’s danced neither to repulse or attract men; instead, it’s danced as if sexiness is entirely and completely irrelevant. There’s no male gaze because, in that two minutes, there’s not a man in sight.

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.

Earlier this year Brandy Zadrozny interviewed me for a Daily Beast story about the new CDC guidelines for alcohol consumption by women. It caused an outcry because it advised all women who could potentially become pregnant to completely abstain from alcohol as a way to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Responses across the blogosphere included several objections, including the fact that research shows that alcohol alone is not sufficient to cause fetal harm (enter poverty as a major confounding factor) and paternal drinking prior to conception is believed to contribute to incidence of these disorders, too, despite no advice to men of fertile age to refrain from any alcoholic consumption.

Interesting points, but an argument made by Renée Ann Cramer in Pregnant with the Stars gave what I thought was some interesting historical perspective.

Until feminists fought to make it otherwise, she explains, it was perfectly legal in America to refuse to allow women access to certain jobs because they might get pregnant. If the working conditions were too challenging or involved exposure to dangerous chemicals, women were considered unfit for the work by virtue of their always-potentially-pregnant status. And if they did this work and harm did come to a child, it was considered a failure of the state to adequately protect her.

Feminists fought to make this “protectionism” illegal, demanding that women themselves have the right to decide, alongside men, if they wanted to take occupational risks. And they largely won this fight.

In turn, though, women themselves came under scrutiny. They were no longer excluded from certain jobs, but if they chose to do them, it was reasonable to judge them harshly for doing so. Cramer calls this the “responsibilization” of pregnancy. Now that women had the right to handle their pregnancy (or pre-pregnancy) however they wished, they (and not the state) would be held responsible for doing so in ways that society approved or disapproved.

This is what the CDC guidelines are doing. It’s not legal to “protect” women from harming her not-yet-existing fetus by refusing to serve her alcohol. Women have the same rights as men. But with rights comes responsibilization and if women don’t make the choices endorsed by their communities, the health industry, and even the federal government, they can expect to be surveilled, judged, and possibly bullied into doing so.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

At the history of sexuality blog Notches, Rachel Hope Cleves reminds us that this isn’t the first time the size of an American president’s penis has been politicized.

Thomas Jefferson defended the size of American men’s penises, including presumably his own, in Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785. He was countering a claim made by naturalist Comte de Buffon, who argued that the American climate shrunk men’s genitals and made them asexual and impotent.

“Poppycock!” wrote Jefferson (I’m paraphrasing), but literally, he said, the Native American, as well as transplants to the continent, was “neither more defective in ardor, nor impotent with his female.”

Jefferson’s penis would later become the subject of political scandal after America learned that a woman he enslaved, Sally Hemings, had given birth to several of his children. A cartoon portrayed him as a cock — and Hemings as a hen — this time suggesting that Jefferson was too virile to be president.

Cartoon from American Antiquarian:


Whether Trump is too virile, or not virile enough, is still up for debate.

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.

2 (1)In Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts, there is a rule that you never hit “below the belt.” The area of biggest concern is the testicles. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship rules specify, “groin attacks of any kind” are a foul. This is probably because groin attacks might make for short fights or ones where everyone just goes around protecting their balls. In any case, the skills being tested are of a different kind. But, even aside from that, this seems like a good idea and very civilized. I do not advocate for testicle kicking, not groin attacks of any kind, for what it’s worth.

I do think it’s somewhat odd, though, that men who fight each other outside of controlled conditions—men in street fights, bar brawls, and parking lot scuffles—also usually avoid hitting below the belt. These fights aren’t about training or skill, like those between professional athletes, they’re real attempts to do some damage out of anger or defensiveness. So, why no hits to the balls?

The question was posed by a woman on Yahoo! Answers: “If you dislike each other enough to want them to get hurt,” she asked, “why not do the worst?”

The answers, admittedly unscientific, were interesting. One of the common responses involved the idea that not hitting below the belt was “an unspoken rule.” Maybe it’s the Golden Rule—do onto others as you would have them do unto you—and some men mentioned that, but others suggested that it was a rule specific to manhood. It’s a “cheap shot,” said one. A “low blow,” said another.

But why? Why do men agree not to kick each other in the balls? Why is that part of the code?

I think it’s because it serves to protect men’s egos as well as men’s balls.

What would street fights between guys look like—or professional fights for that matter—if one could go below the belt? For one, there’d be a lot more collapsing. Two, a lot more writhing in pain. Three, a lot less getting up. All in all, it would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful. And it would send a clear message that men’s bodies are vulnerable.


Not hitting below the belt, then, protects the idea that men’s bodies are fighting machines. It protects masculinity, the very idea that men are big and strong, pain- and impact-resistant, impenetrable like an edifice. So not hitting below the belt doesn’t just protect individual men from pain, it protects our ideas about masculinity.

When a man hits below the belt, he is revealing to everyone present that masculinity is a fiction. That’s why one guy said: “For ‘alpha male’ fights, nut shots are just wrong.” Alpha male fights are about figuring out which male is alpha, while preserving the idea that the alpha male is a thing that matters.

This is why men are quick to criticize other men who break the code. One of the best ways to control men is to threaten to kick them out of the man club. “If a guy kicks another guy in the balls on purpose during a fight,” one replied to the question on Yahoo, “he will forever be banished from manhood.” Another said: “Winning like this means that you cannot beat up the other guy by ‘real’ fighting.” It’s a matter of one’s own reputation: “A man who kicks another man in the balls,” said a third, “immediately loses all manliness and respect.”

So, men generally agree to pretend that the balls just aren’t there. The effect is that we tend to forget just how vulnerable men are to the right attack and continue to think of women as naturally more fragile.

I still don’t want anyone to get kicked in the balls, though, just to be clear.

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.

2 (1)Sociologists Martin Weinberg and Colin Williams wanted to know. They and their team interviewed 172 college students about their habits and concerns about farting and pooping. They published their results in an article called Fecal Matters. They discovered that everybody farts and everybody cares, but not everyone cares all the time or equally.

They separated their results by gender and sexual orientation. When they asked people if they were worried that the hearer would “feel disgust,” heterosexual women were most likely to agree and heterosexual men the least, with non-heterosexual men and women in the middle, but flipped such that men were more worried than women.


Heterosexual men were the most likely to think it was funny and the most likely to engage in “intentional flatulence.” Almost a quarter said that they “often” did so, whereas only 7 percent of heterosexual women said the same. “Guys would say it’s raunchy and then say ‘Nice one,’” explained one heterosexual guy, “because if it’s strong it’s more manly. You know, because women would not try to clear a room with a fart.” Heterosexual women felt like they were violating gender norms if their farts were stinky: “The worse it stinks,” said one, “the nastier they think I am.”

Heterosexual women were the most concerned that it would affect their relationship with the hearer. They were also the most likely to do things to reduce the likelihood that others would detect their bathroom activities, like go into another room to pass gas or let their stool out slowly to avoid a kerplunk. Two thirds said they would wait until they were alone to poop and only women reported flushing repeatedly to ensure that the sights and smells of their defecation had disappeared.

As a counter example, one of the heterosexual men interviewed said that the only thing he was willing to do to protect others from his bathroom activities was close the door.

Non-heterosexual men were an interesting conundrum. They were as likely as heterosexual men to think that the hearer would think it was funny, but the least likely to engage in intentional flatulence and the most likely to make sure that when they poop, they do so alone.

Non-heterosexual women were also a conundrum. They were the least likely to think the hearer would laugh at a fart, but second only to heterosexual men in the practice of farting on purpose to get a reaction.

This study is a great example of what social scientists call doing gender, modifying our behavior to conform to gendered expectations. Generally, women are expected to have better control of their body, to be more polite, and to avoid offending others. All of these things are consistent with being more discreet with farts and poops.

The interesting data from non-heterosexual men and women may be explained by the conflation of sexual object choice and the performance of gender. It’s not universally this way, but in the U.S. today gay men are feminized and lesbians masculinized. This is a stereotype, but also gives non-heterosexual men and women some permission to deviate from gender rules. As one non-heterosexual man explained:

Only around people that I’m regularly naked with would I be comfortable with them knowing what I was doing in the bathroom. I’m on the self-prescribed “pretty pill”—where you don’t fart, sweat, burp, or use the bathroom… I learned it from my diva friends.

Similarly, some non-heterosexual women may feel a little less pressure to be as girly or girly all the time.

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.