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.
The photos capture a woman lying serenely on a pebble beach. She is unaware of the four men as they approach. They wear guns and bulletproof vests, and demand the woman remove her shirt. They watch as she complies. This scene was reported in recent weeks by news outlets across the globe. More than twenty coastal towns and cities in France imposed bans on the burkini, the full body swimsuit favored by religious Muslim women.
French politicians have falsely linked the burkini with religious fundamentalism. They have employed both blatant and subtly racist language to express indignation at the sight of a non-white, non-Western female body in a public space designated as “white.” Like many, I have been transfixed by the images of brazen discrimination and shaming. Although the woman in the photographs, identified only as Siam, was not wearing a burkini, her body was targeted by a racist institution, the State.
Olivier Majewicz, the Socialist mayor of Oye-Plage, a town on the northern coast of France, described a Muslim woman on the beach as appearing “a bit wild, close to nature.” Her attire, he said, was not “what one normally expects from a beachgoer… we are in a small town and the beach is a small, family friendly place.” France’s Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, utilized more direct language, stating that the burkini enslaved women and that the “nation must defend itself.” Similarly blunt, Thierry Migoule, an official with the municipal services in Cannes, said the burkini “conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.”
These quotes reflect the pernicious limitations of the white gaze. When I look at the photos of Siam, I see a woman, a mother, being forced to undress before a crowd of strangers. I can hear her children, terrified, crying nearby. Siam’s encounter was a scene of trauma, and as Henri Rossi, the vice president of the League of Human Rights in Cannes, said “this trauma has not been cured; the convalescence has not yet begun.”
Some sixty years ago, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, explored the relationships between the white gaze and the black body, specifically in France and its colonies. In the age of the burkini ban, Fanon’s observations ring poignant and true. He writes: “…we were given the occasion to confront the white gaze. An unusual weight descended on us. The real world robbed us of our share. In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema. The image of one’s body is solely negating. It’s an image in the third person. All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty.” Fanon’s words could serve as the soundtrack to Siam’s encounter with the police. She was robbed of her share, her body negated and deemed a public threat by the white gaze.
In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France, politicians have capitalized on the politics of fear in order to renegotiate the boundaries of institutional racism as expressed in the public sphere. In Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes quote Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard (Sexism, Racism and Oppression) about the ever-changing “terms of oppression.” Brittan and Maynard write:
the terms of oppression are not only dictated by history, culture, and the sexual and social division of labor. They are also profoundly shaped at the site of the oppression, and by the way in which oppressors and oppressed continuously have to renegotiate, reconstruct, and re-establish their relative positions in respect to benefits and power.
As the burkini affords Muslim women the benefit to participate in different arenas of public space, the state recalibrates its boundaries to create new or revive previous sites of oppression. In the case of the burkini, the sites of oppression are both public beaches and women’s bodies – common sites of attempted domination, not only in France, but also the US.
Fanon, Feagin and Sikes all point to institutional racism as an engine that fuels white supremacy and its policies of discrimination. As Feagin and Sikes observe, these:
recurring encounters with white racism can be viewed as a series of “life crises,” often similar to other serious life crises, such as the death of a loved one, that disturb an individual’s life trajectory.
The photos of Siam capture the unfolding of life crisis and illustrate the power of institutional racism to inflict both individual and collective traumas.
Julia Lipkins is an archivist and MA candidate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY.
In the U.S. men’s and women’s bikes are built differently, with women’s bikes lacking the bar that goes from the handlebar to just below the seat. The bar is a matter of tradition. According to Andrea at Bike City Recyclery, when women began riding bikes in the 1800s, they were required to wear heavy skirts. The low bar allowed them to mount the bikes “modestly” and was a space for their skirts to go. Back then, bikes also had “clothes-guards” that would keep women’s skirts from being caught up in the mechanics of the bike. This picture is from the 1890s:
Today most women riding a bike do not wear heavy skirts and clothes-guards are rare, but the low bar persists. This ad from 1971 assures parents that “girl bikes” can be converted to “boy bikes” and vice versa. The upper bar is purely “decorative,” but boys apparently must have it.
A popular 16-inch beginner’s bike. Top bar removes easily to convert it from a boy’s to a girl’s bike in minutes… The perfect first bike that’s built to last from child to child.
This goes to show how strongly we invest in purely symbolic gender differentiation. There is no need for a high bar and there is no need to differentiate bikes by gender in this way. We could do away with the bar distinction in the same way that we did away with the clothes-guard. But the bar is a highly visible signal that we are committed to a gender binary (men and women are “opposite” sexes). It is some men and the defenders of masculinity who are most opposed to this because collapsing the gender differentiation means collapsing a devalued category into a valued category. For individuals who embrace the valued category, this is a disaster. A male-coded bike frame is just one small way to preserve both the distinction and the hierarchy.
National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has come and gone, falling this year on Friday, December 18th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?
Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):
Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.
However, The Atlanticpoints to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.
We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.
But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.
Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.
Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.
The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a”safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.
Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.
Research on college student alcohol consumption shows that they drink significantly more when they link their drinking to a reason to celebrate. Halloween is one of the many “alcoholidays” that occur throughout the school year.
Psychologist Kent Glindemann and colleagues took measures of the blood alcohol concentration of college students on Halloween and a comparative non-holiday. As a measure of their investment in the celebration, the researchers also indicated whether the student was in costume on Halloween and asked the subject how much time and effort they spent putting it together.
They found that students on Halloween were significantly more intoxicated than they were on the non-holiday, significantly more intoxicated if they were in costume, and significantly more intoxicated if they had invested more versus less time in their appearance.
Glindemann and his colleagues theorize that the Halloween costume mediates the intent to celebrate, but costumes may also have an independent effect. Social work professor John D. Clapp and his colleagues studied non-holiday-related college parties. Such parties often have themes that encourage students to dress up. In theory, the themes apply to all students but in practice women dress up far more often than men.
Clapp and his colleagues found that women tested at themed parties had higher rates of intoxication than women at non-theme parties. Women may be de-inhibited by the costumes themselves or the costumes may make the party feel more like an alcoholiday.
Vintage Ads put up this advertisement in which a collection of “Chinese” bemoan the invention of the compact washer/dryer (text below):
If you know a little Chinese, you might sense these aren’t the kindest words you’ve seen.
Some of our Chinese laundrymen friends have decided to throw in the towel.
It seems this new intruder is quickly becoming a hit with quite a few apartment dwellers, mobile homers, bacherlors, and working girls–their usual clientele.
It’s the new compact Hoover Washer. That spin-drys too.
This stereotype–that Chinese men were professional launderers–is still around today (e.g., the U-Washee laundromat and the shoe company and restuarant called “Chinese Laundry”), but it may be unfamiliar to some.
Many Chinese men ran laundry businesses between the late 19th century and the end of World War II. They turned to laundry because they were shut out of other types of work (such as mining, fishing, farming, and manufacturing) and didn’t have the English skills or capital to make other choices. Washing and ironing was considered women’s work, so it was low status and also posed no threat to white, male workers.
Drawing of an 1881 Chinese laundry in San Francisco (source):
According to sources cited in Wikipedia, “Around 1900, one in four ethnic Chinese men in the U.S. worked in a laundry, typically working 10 to 16 hours a day.” John Jung, who grew up behind a Chinese laundry and wrote a book about the business, explains that “New York City [alone] had an estimated 3,550 Chinese laundries at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”
As the vintage ad suggests, the Chinese laundry disappeared into history not because discrimination disappeared, but because of technological innovation.
The ad depicts a little girl fantasizing about growing up, but growing up means (extremely) high patent leather pumps; growing up means sexualizing herself.
And the ad does sexualize the little girl who, from the top-scanning-down, looks like a sweet girl trying on mommy’s shoes, but from the bottom-scanning-up, looks like an adult woman who suddenly transforms into a child. The white cotton dress implies innocence and purity, but it’s a costume we regularly see adult women wear when we want to both sexualize and infantilize them. In other words, this ad nicely plays into the mythology endorsed by pedophiles that even little girls want to feel sexy, even little girls want men’s attention, even little girls want sex.
And, yet, we are supposed to think this is sweet. The text, “Harmonizing Beautifully with Life” is, of course, ostensibly about the counter tops. But aligned with the image, it naturalizes both the girl’s fantasy and the conflation of female sex with the performance of sexualized femininity (it’s just “life”; as if there’s a gene for Christian Louboutin shoes that activates in the presence of double X chromosomes). More than simply naturalizing the girl’s fantasy of self-objectification, it endorses it (it’s beautiful harmony).
Notice also the class story in the ad. Who exactly is class privileged enough to have the freedom to allow “the quiet moments” to “steal the show”? Well, apparently people who are rich enough to wear Louboutin shoes. Louboutin began putting red soles on all his shoes as a not-so-subtle way to advertise that the shoe was Louboutin and, therefore, a very expensive shoe. It worked. Fashion writers started pointing out the red soles with glee, as in this story about Angeline Jolie on a red carpet. The fact that the sole of this shoe is red is no accident, it’s meant to add class to the counter tops, in both senses of the word.
A final word on race: That the girl in the ad is white is no accident. And it’s not only because marketers expect the majority of their customers to be white, but because of what whiteness represents. Her white skin symbolizes the same thing that the white counter tops and white dress symbolize: purity, cleanliness, even innocence. It is only because all those symbolic elements are there that we can put a black patent leather heel with a red sole on her and still think “sweet.” Imagine the same ad with a black child. In the U.S., black women are often stereotyped as sexually loose, morally corrupt, irresponsible teen mothers on welfare. With that symbolic baggage, this ad would be a morality lesson on the hypersexuality of black girls and their propensity to “grow up too fast.” It wouldn’t look sweet, it’d look dangerous.
Many sociologists argue that gender, as we know it, is not innate, but put on and performed. Certain moments of our lives, like weddings and quinceañeras, are opportunities to really emphasize femininity and masculinity; but gender is also performed in mundane ways every day in the ways that we talk, move, dress, and adorn ourselves.
These photographs of child beauty pageant participants, taken by Susan Anderson and published in her book High Glitz, illustrate how much of feminine sexual allure is put on and performed. These kids are adultified with make-up and they also often wear false teeth and hair extensions. You can browse additional images at Powerhouse Books.
People often object to this sort of adornment on a child being unnatural, but when adult women use these same strategies — fake eyelashes, makeup, veneers, and hair extensions — it is no more natural. Adult women are, no less than those kids, performing femininity.
To take it one step further, as The Spinster Aunt does, if you react to the idea of child beauty pageants with horror, then than horror should be applied to the project of femininity itself, not just the fact that children are participants:
I submit that anyone who is uncomfortable with [the] Little Miss Perfect [pageant] is ethically obliged to be just as uncomfortable with femininity in general. Little Miss Perfect is merely one of a gazillion equally nauseating points on the Porno-Feminine Continuum within which all female citizens of the globe are confined by a culture of oppression.
So, if it’s troubling when girls do it (and, for that matter, also troubling to many when men do it), then why isn’t it troubling when women do it?