@hanhaiwen generously remembered the most popular SocImages post of all time when coming across this insightful observation at 9Gag.  Thanks Helga!

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 Speech Events.

Earlier this year President Obama described California attorney general Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Even though the crowd reportedly laughed at the comment, Obama was criticized for making sexist remarks and quickly apologized to Harris.

But some people claimed to be confused: why was Obama wrong to compliment a woman on her looks? From the Washington Times:

Please, give us a chance to learn the rules. Give us a minute to catch our breath

We were taught (most of us were) that girls and women were to be given flowers for their beauty of character and good looks.

Exactly what is wrong with this?

But one morning we were told that it is okay, even required, to tell a woman that she looks marvelous. Next morning, hey, we can go to jail for this!

This is not the first time a president has run into this sort of trouble. This picture of reporter Helen Thomas ran in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on August 7, 1973.*

Helen Thomas Standing in Front of White House with Note Pad

The accompanying story was titled “Nixon Turns Fashion Critic, ‘Turn Around…’”  It included the following:

President Nixon, a gentleman of the old school, teased a newspaper woman yesterday about wearing slacks to the White House and made it clear that he prefers dresses on women.

After a bill-signing ceremony in the Oval Office, the President stood up from his desk and in a teasing voice said to UPI’s Helen Thomas: “Helen, are you still wearing slacks? Do you prefer them actually? Every time I see girls in slacks it reminds me of China.”

Nixon went on, asking Thomas to present her rear:

“This is not said in an uncomplimentary way, but slacks can do something for some people and some it can’t.” He hastened to add, “but I think you do very well. Turn around.”

As Nixon, Attorney General Elliott L. Richardson, FBI Director Clarence Kelley and other high-ranking law enforcement officials smiling [sic], Miss Thomas did a pirouette for the President. She was wearing white pants, a navy blue jersey shirt, long white beads and navy blue patent leather shoes with red trim.

There are several parallels between this incident and the Obama one: they took place at the tail end of an official event, when the president apparently thought he could take some time for harmless jokes. The women involved were highly acclaimed professional women. In both events, we see a powerful man verbally change a woman from a respected professional to an attractive female.

We know how the public responded to Obama’s comment. What about reception in 1973?

First of all, Helen Thomas herself wrote the article about this incident; according to anthropologist Michael Silverstein, “this is what we call ‘payback’ time.” At first glance, it seems like a neutral report of a conversation, but take a closer look. From the very beginning, Nixon is set up as the bad guy – a “gentleman of the old school” who “teased a newspaper woman.”

The mocking, faux fashion report tone continues from the headline into the description of Thomas’s outfit. What seems like a harmless personal interest story tacked onto a news article was actually a protest against this treatment – and it required damage control by the president. Within the next week, Thomas’s fellow reporters went on the record as saying that they were on her side, and wished she had not played along with the president. Even the First Lady weighed in, saying that there was no rule against women wearing pants in the White House.

The rules haven’t changed: there’s nothing new about presidents talking about professional women’s appearance, and even in 1973 it was recognized as inappropriate.

* The image is from here; the article on google is text only.

Miranda Weinberg is a graduate student in Educational Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania studying multilingualism in schooling.

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.

1 2 3

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.

Fashion designer Vera Wang is known world-wide for her bridal gowns, costing from thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.  She opened her first store — in New York City — in 1990.  In 2011, her gowns started appearing at the discount David’s Bridal, for as little as $600.  Today she has a line at Kohl’s.

Why would someone who can sell a $25,000 wedding dress turn around and sell their name to a low-end department store?  The answer has to do with money, of course, but it also tells a story about class and distinction.  Typically trends start at “the top” with wealthy and high-profile elites.  Elites embrace an expensive new look, designer, or product (e.g., men and high heels) in order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population.  The rest then imitate the trend-setters, such that the trend diffuses down throughout the population one class strata at a time.  That’s why Wang’s David’s Bridal and Kohl’s collections are called “diffusion lines.”

Vera Wang is hanging in there, but lots of trends die when they diffuse down to the working class.  If the working class can take part in the trend, the rich can’t use it to show that they’re special (which is why they sometimes defend their exclusive rights).  So it gets dropped.  Once the elites move onto something new, the process begins again.

Interestingly, Whitney Erin Boesel, writing for Cyborgology, applies this process to cell phones, or what are better described as “mobile devices.”  It applies, of course, to the never-ending stream of newer, faster, shinier devices, but also to the very idea of a cell phone/mobile device.  As much as we make fun of the clunky cell phones of the 1980s and ’90s, very few people had them, so having one suggested that you were a Very Important Person. She writes:

When you picture someone using one of those cumbersome early cell phones, whom do you picture? Is it a white guy in a suit, maybe wearing a Rolex and 1980s sunglasses? Yeah, I thought so. When they first came out, cell phones — like pretty much every brand new, expensive technology — were status markers. A cell phone said, “I am wealthy, I am powerful, and I am so important that people must be able to reach me even when I am away from my home or office.”

1Today, of course, though certain models do a little to distinguish one user from another, the possession of a mobile device doesn’t signify elite status.  As Boesel points out, more people have cell phones than toilets.

Enter Google glass.

Slate reports that Google co-founder Sergey Brin is arguing that smart phones are “emasculating.”  Using masculinity is a metaphor for power, he is appealing to the elite to move on to the next technology.  A smart phone, in other words, “no longer signifies [that is a person is] a member of the power elite.”  It’s a pretty snappy — and downright Bourdieuian — way of marketing a new technology to the very people who will drive its success.

Brin starts his discussion about this at 4 minutes, 25 seconds:

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Scholars suggest that studying abroad in a previously-colonized country may increase people’s cultural sensitivity and awareness of global inequality.  I investigated this hypothesis by interviewing college students: one group had studied abroad for a semester or more, the other had only traveled out of the country for vacation.

I asked both groups to view and analyze fashion photography that contrasted models with more humble images of residents of less developed countries.  I hoped people would point to how, by contrasting glamorous, thin, conventionally-attractive White models with “average” people from less-privileged countries served to heighten the high status of the West and their representatives.  I saw this as a form of Western “slumming”: a practice of spending time in places or with people who are “below” you, out of curiosity or for fun or personal development.

My findings revealed that study abroad students think they’re more culturally competent but, in fact, they were no more likely than people who had never studied abroad to express concern about the exploitation of previously colonized people in ads like these.

The majority of students from both groups – those who’d studied abroad and those who hadn’t — demonstrated a distinct lack of concern.  They unreflexively “Othered” the people in these images; that is, they affirmed the locals’ marginalized group status and labeled them as being Other, belonging outside of our normative Western structure.

The majority also expressed approval of the aesthetics of the ads without irony. For example, one student said: “I think it works because it’s this edgy, culturally stimulating, and aesthetically pleasing ad.” When asked the art director’s intentions, another student commented: “I don’t know. Just like ordinary people next to someone who’s on top of their fashion game.”

Only select few students successfully observed the use of Othering in the images. When asked the art director’s intentions of one image, a student replied: “I think it’s to contrast the model with the everyday life of these people…  (it) feels more like an image of people of color being an accessory.” Noticing this theme, interestingly, did not correlate with having studied abroad, in contrast to my hypothesis.

My findings suggest, then, that living abroad for a semester or more in a previously colonized country does not necessarily contribute to the detection of global inequality in fashion photography.

Erica Ales is a senior Sociology major at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California.

Vogues photo-shoot titled “Storm Troopers: Celebrating Hurricane Sandy First Responders” features various images of models with workers of different organizations who combated the damage of Hurricane Sandy. Vogue praises the attributes of these workers in the caption: “when Hurricane Sandy hit, the city’s bravest and brightest punched back.”

Although the title and caption suggest that the photos are meant celebrate the hard work of the men and women who responded to the hurricane, they also serve as a foil against which the models stand out. In other words, this photo spread is at least as concerned with celebrating a look and lifestyle associated with money and beauty, as it is with celebrating the working class.  This is obvious for at least two reasons.

First – the weaker argument — the majority of the workers are dressed in baggy, loosely fitting uniforms; they are not wearing the make-up or striking the poses so cherished by magazines like Vogue.  The models, in literal contrast, embody high fashion.  Their expressionless faces and leisurely poses are the province of the elite.

The next image is particularly striking in this regard.  The glamorous model not only contrasts with the gritty workers, she is elevated above them; the eye is drawn to her ephemeral presence, not to the men and women below.  Their presence serves to make her allure all the more impressive.So, the class contrast elevates the models, figuratively and sometimes literally in these images.  We see race contrast used to do the same thing when Black men and women are used as props in fashion shoots as well as East Indian and Asian people.

Second – the stronger argument – if Vogue wanted to celebrate the men and women in working class occupations that helped after Hurricane Sandy, they could have left the models out altogether.  As it is, the implication is that the workers aren’t valuable in themselves, they’re only valuable as a setting for high fashion.

The photo shoot, then, instead of honoring the workers, affirms the class hierarchy in which they are embedded.  The photographs fall in line with the magazine’s message – a celebration of an elite lifestyle – one that is well out of the reach of blue collar men and women.

Eliza Connors is a first year student at Occidental College.  She hopes to pursue a degree in sociology.  

The fashion industry is not inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities. Many of the industry’s most celebrated and acclaimed fashion houses rarely cast models of color for their runway shows. Fall 2013 was one of the worst seasons in diversity for casting. Almost 83% of the models on the runway were white (source):

1The result is an incredibly homogeneous look on the runway.  Check out photos of the Fall 2013 Gucci show (source) and the Fall 2013 Calvin Klein show (source).

Faintly aware of this critique, some designers put a minority model on the runway every odd season. But while look-alike white models are hired en masse, designers often limit just how much color they’re willing to include.  Chanel Iman, an extremely successful multiracial model, told The Times: “Designers have told me, ‘We already found one black girl. We don’t need you anymore.’”

Leila Ananna, a casting director for Burberry, Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Saint Laurent, and more, thinks that this is okay.  Commenting on the lack of runway diversity, she said: “We think we need to keep in mind that these are shows. A show needs to make you dream, and it doesn’t necessarily need to represent reality.”

Ananna’s words pose many concerns. The idea that fashion shows are supposed to make you dream suggests that everyone is white in this idealized world. In contrast, I find the idealization of the homogeneous aesthetic to be a reflection of racism; this is a nightmare, not a dream.

Rebs (Wooyoung) Lim is currently a student attending Occidental College. She is interested in minoring in Sociology and majoring in Urban and Environmental Policy. She does not have a twitter account, sadly.

Here at SocImages, we typically use the phrase “cultural appropriation” to describe rather frivolous borrowing of cultural practices and objects for the purposes of fun and fashion.  We’ve posted on examples ranging from the appropriation of American Indian fashion,  the mocking of the Harlem Shake, and an Orthodox Jew-inspired fashion show.

A slideshow of members of the punk scene in Burma, however, offers another version of cultural appropriation.  Their fashion is clearly inspired by the punk scenes of Britain and the U.S., which started in the 1970s. Accordingly to an interview with Ko Gyi at Vice and an article at Spiegel Online, some members of the sub-culture believe themselves to be rebelling against an oppressive state, others are interested in “non-political anarchism.”  While their music has to pass through state censors, they are talented in pushing their lyrics right up to the limit and deft in using metaphor to get their point across.

This is a fully different kind of appropriation, the kind that is about fighting the establishment, not spicing it up with “colorful” bits of marginalized groups.  It is more akin to feminists and gay liberation activists borrowing the tactics of the civil rights movement.  Alexander Dluzak writes:

In Burma, punk is far more than just a superficial copy of its Western counterpart. Here, what is probably the most rebellious of all subcultures in the Southeast Asian country is going up against one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

Cultures can borrow from one another, then, in ways that both empower and disempower.  It will be fascinating to see if this particular appropriation can shape the future of Burma.

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.