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.

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“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.

Flashback Friday.

Labiaplasty, a plastic surgery in which the labia is reshaped, is on the rise in many Western countries. Usually this means trimming the labia so that it is less “obtrusive” and social pressure, especially from increased exposure to pornography, is blamed for the rise. For reference, see our post on the natural range of labia shapes and sizes (nsfw).

The report below is about the rise of labiaplasty in Australia. It offers some fascinating insight into why it is that porn stars have such “tidy” labia. It turns out that the aesthetic has nothing to do with the preferences of men, women, or porn producers. Instead, pornography features vulvas reduced to a simple “slit” because rating boards require that soft-core porn show “only discreet genital detail.”

Brad Boxall, Former Editor of Picture Magazine, explains:

The only acceptable vagina [sic: vulva] as far as the Classification Board is concerned is one that is ‘neat and tidy’ in their eyes. They basically consider the labia minora “too offensive” for soft core porn.

Accordingly, porn stars themselves sometimes have surgery and/or their vulvas are re-touched to make their labia minora disappear. This practice may have far-reaching consequences if non-porn stars all over the Western world are suddenly feeling like they have freakishly large labia… all because the ratings board has decided that the true range of bodies is unacceptably crass.

In the video you will see actual footage of labiaplasty and genital re-touching, so it’s not safe for work or the squeamish.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Medical professionals often have the final say in deciding what counts as a “defect.” Often, their decisions exceed the bounds of medicine, addressing bodies that may deviate from “normal” or “average,” but do not actually cause medical problems.

An alternative might be to allow the patient to decide if his or her body is acceptable, but in doing so they risk allowing people’s deeply subjective and often dysmorphic perceptions of their own bodies determine whether they undergo a risky procedure.

Is there another way?

Pediatric surgeon Norma Ruppen-Greeff and hers colleagues thought so. Pediatric physicians often correct hypospadias: a condition in which the meatus, or opening of the urethra, doesn’t quite make it to the top of the penis during fetal development, such that the urethra exits the penis somewhere along the shaft. This is generally corrected surgically, but physicians found that some men returned to them as adults with concerns that their penis still appeared abnormal.

Instead of dismissing men’s concerns or jumping with a knife, they decided to ask women if they noticed. They had 105 women fill out a questionnaire and rate which aspects of penile appearance were important to them. And, lo and behold, the shape and placement of the meatus was the least important. No need for surgery, plus they can reassure the guys that they’re okay. (Someone should follow up and ask gay and bisexual men; anyone for an awesome senior thesis?)

This is a great way to measure the sociocultural value of a surgery. Whereas we’re used to thinking about surgical issues as psychological (someone wants it) or medical (someone needs it), these physicians asked a distinctly sociological question. They measured how penises are widely perceived and which parts are socially constructed as important. That’s a pretty neat way to incorporate sociological realities into surgical practice.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

To many Americans, globalization may mean Americanization but, in China, globalization is Koreanization. This is the impact of Hallyu (the Korean word for “Korean wave”), which began in 1997. Hallyu began with Korean television dramas and today extends throughout Chinese life: k-drama, k-pop, movies, fashion, food, and beauty.  It is argued to be the only example of a cultural power “that threatens the dominance of American culture.”

Its influence is impressive. For example, when a star on a Korean soap opera ordered chicken and beer for dinner — Korea’s chi-mek (or chi-meak) – and claimed it as her favorite food, Chinese audiences went crazy for the combination. Korean beer exports rose by over 200%:

Even the standard of beauty in China has been altered due to Hallyu. During this year’s National Day holiday (10/1-10/7), about 166,000 Chinese visited Korea. They flocked to top shopping districts to purchase a wide range of Korean products like cosmetics, each spending an average of $2,500.  Some of these Chinese tourists visited the Gangnam district (Apgujeng-dong), the capital of plastic surgery in Korea. They want to look like k-drama stars. They want to have Korean actresses’ nose or eyes.

The obsession with Korea has caused Chinese leaders a great deal of angst. It was a major issue at the country’s National People’s Congress where, according to the Washington Post, one committee spent a whole morning pondering why China’s soap operas weren’t as good as those made by Korea. “It is more than just a Korean soap opera. It hurts our culture dignity,” one member of the committee said.

Their concern isn’t trivial; it’s about soft power. This is the kind of power states can exert simply by being popular and well-liked. This enables a country to inflluence transnational politics without force or coercion.

Indeed, the Korean government nurtured Hallyu. The President pushed to develop and export films, pop music, and video games. As The Economist reports:

Tax incentives and government funding for start-ups pepped up the video-game industry. It now accounts for 12 times the national revenue of Korean pop (K-pop). But music too has benefited from state help. In 2005 the government launched a $1 billion investment fund to support the pop industry. Record labels recruit teens who undergo years of grueling [sic] training before their public unveiling.

It’s working. According to the Korea Times, China has made a trade agreement with Korea allowing it an unprecedented degree of access to the Chinese people and its companies, an impressive win for soft power.

Sangyoub Park, PhD is a professor of sociology at Washburn University, where he teaches Social Demography, Generations in the U.S. and Sociology of East Asia. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.  Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Eyelid surgery is the third most common cosmetic procedure in the world.  Some are necessary for drooping eyelids that interfere with vision, others are undertaken in order to enable people to look younger, but many people choose these surgeries to make their eyes look more Western or whiter, a characteristic often conflated with attractiveness.

Recently Julie Chen — a TV personality and news anchor — revealed that she had undergone eyelid and other surgeries almost 20 years ago in order to comply with the standards of beauty and “relatability” demanded of her bosses.  She released these photos in tandem with the story:

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Chen said that she was torn about whether to get the surgeries.  Her entire family got involved in the conversation and they split, too, arguing about whether the surgeries represented a rejection of her Chinese ancestry.

Ultimately, though, Chen was under a lot of pressure from her bosses.  One told her “you will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese.” He went on:

Let’s face it, Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? ‘On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I’ve noticed when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested, you look bored.

Another man, a “big time agent,” told her: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.”

While cosmetic surgeries are often portrayed as vanity projects, Chen’s story reveals that they are also often about looking “right” in a competitive industry. Whether it’s erotic dancers getting breast implants, waitresses getting facelifts, or aspiring news anchors getting eyelid surgery, often economic pressures — mixed with racism and sexism — drive these decisions.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.

Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do.  It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”

Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.”  It was a bold and bizarre marketing move.  The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her.  It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.

But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project.  Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating.  We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women.  In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.

But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?

What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us?  This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project.  Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin.  What if  Barbie is a victim, too?

Excerpted with permission:

14 1a 53Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering.  Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection.  We’re all in this together.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and Adios Barbie.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists.  I’m really excited to see the rest.  The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.

The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically.  As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.”  The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.

Watch for yourself (subtitles available here):

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Last month I wrote about how the revival in the popularity of beards was hurting razor sales, causing companies like Proctor & Gamble to ramp up advertising encouraging “manscaping” below the neck.  Here’s another response to the trend: hair plugs for your face.

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According to a facial plastic surgeon interviewed for an article at DNAinfo New York, the rate at which he is asked to do facial hair transplants has skyrocketed from ” just a handful of beard transplants each year a decade ago” to about three a week.  The surgeons mention the hipster beard trend as one cause of the rise in interest, but also cite a wide array of people who might be interested in fuller facial hair:

…clients include men who have struggled since adolescence to grow a beard, those undergoing a gender transition from female to male, men with with facial scarring and Hasidic Jews who hope to achieve denser payot, or sidelocks.

Expense for the procedure ranges from $3,o00 for partial transplants to $7,000 for a full beard.

What a fascinating example of the intersection of race, gender, religion, technology, and capitalism.  Which men’s faces have more power to determine appearance norms for men?  Or, what does masculinity look like?  Men with Asian, American Indian, and African backgrounds are less likely to be able to grow full beards, but a society centered on whiteness can make their faces seem inadequate.  If the situation were reversed, would we see white men, disproportionately, going in for laser hair removal?  Would transmen feel less pressure to be able to grow a beard to feel fully masculine?  Would they feel more if they were part of a Hasidic Jewish community?

Also, is this really about hipsters?  How much power does a young, monied demographic have to set fashion trends?  To send a wide range of people to surgeons — for goodness sake — in the hopes of living up to a more or less fleeting trend?  How do such trends gain purchase across such a wide range of people?  What other forces are at work here?

What can we learn from this about other plastic surgeries that we are more likely to take for granted as the result of natural or universal beauty?  Breast implants for women, breast reductions for men, liposuction, facelifts, labiaplasty, or eyelid surgery?

Lots of interesting conversations to be had.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.