culture

In Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery, Kathy Davis upended the common sense view that people undergo plastic surgery because they want to be beautiful or handsome.  Instead, she found that most people sought cosmetic correction because they felt ugly or strange.  They didn’t want to be great-looking, or even good-looking, they wanted to be normal, unremarkable, to blend in with the crowd.

I thought of Davis’ book when I scrolled through Zed Nelson‘s photographic commentary on beauty, Love Me, sent in by zeynaparsel.  There’s a lot to see there, but here I’ve pulled out some of the pictures that I think resonate with Davis’ findings.

“I’m competing with men 20 years younger than me.”

“To be honest I never thought that I needed it [labiaplasty]. But I read about the procedure in a magazine.”

Men’s Health magazine (USA) hasn‘t had a hairy chest on it’s cover since 1995.”  

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.

When I was an undergrad, I remember being assigned the classic article “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” by Horace Miner. The piece, published in 1956 in American Anthropologist, applies an anthropological lens to an odd culture singularly devoted to intense ritualistic “improvement” of the human body, which its members seemed to find disgusting in its natural state.

I thought of that article when Matt Cornell, of My Own Private Guantanamo, tweeted a link to the 1994 film Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich, or Dark, Mysterious Austria (I’m not. The film, produced for Austria’s SBS-TV, pokes fun at the tone unfortunately common to many documentaries that attempt to explain the oh-so-bizarre customs and beliefs of non-Western societies. According to IMDb, “A team of the All African Television network wanders into the darkest regions of the Eastern Alps. They observe the habits and rituals of the natives and make not one, but two ethnological major break-through discoveries.”

At 5:40, we learn that the team has disproved the theory that Europeans are monogamous; starting at about 7:50, they describe the elaborate costumes and militaristic symbolism of clans of the Tyrol region of Austria; and at 15:00, there’s a great discussion of the curious obsession with “patently useless activities,” such as biking for no other purpose than biking itself:

Aside from the humorous commentary, it’s a great way of illustrating the sociological imagination,  which requires us to step out of our own culture and try to look at it through the eyes of an outsider — and, as C. Wright Mills put it, to recapture the ability to be astonished by what we normally take for granted.


This month thousands of sociologists met in Las Vegas for our annual meeting.  There were lots of opinions about the city and our accommodations at Caesar’s Palace.  In the two-minute clip below, a sociologist who studies cities, Sharon Zukin, offers her thoughts on Las Vegas:

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

In honor of the American Sociological Association’s annual conference kicking off at Caesar’s Palace today — and because of my tweet about a Baudrillard-inspired drinking game — I am reposting this hilarious mistake on the part of the U.S. Postal Service.

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A few years ago, my friend Brady introduced me to postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard’s arguments about hyperreality. Without getting into the details of semiotics or postmodernism, hyperreality refers to a situation where the signs (particularly media images) used to represent reality become more real to us than the original reality they were supposed to represent.

Soon after that, I was waiting to cross the street on the Strip here in Vegas and overheard a young woman remark to a friend that after visiting the New York-New York casino, she felt just like she’d actually been to New York. Her friend enthused, “I know! I don’t know why we’d ever even need to go there now! I feel like we’ve already seen it.”

I don’t know if Baudrillard discussed Las Vegas — Disneyland and L.A. were his favorite examples, from what I can tell — but you could certainly teach an entire class on hyperreality using Vegas as your case study.

Baudrillard came to mind when we read a BoingBoing article about a mistake from the U.S. Postal Service. The USPS recently released this stamp:

So, a stamp feature the Statue of Liberty. Nothing shocking there. Except…it turns out the image on the stamp isn’t based on the actual Statue of Liberty. A perceptive stamp collector realized that the image is actually of the replica of the Statue of Liberty that stands outside the New York-New York casino:

Flickr creative commons Gage Skidmore.

Close-ups reveal distinct differences between the original and the replica: the facial features are more defined on the replica, and the hair, the proportions of the arm, and folds of the clothing are different.

The U.S. Postal Service produced the stamp and released it along with information about the history of the actual Statue of Liberty. And thus we have a representation (the stamp) of a representation (the photo that served as the model for the stamp) of a representation (the replica statue in Las Vegas) of the original thing the Postal Service intended to portray…and no one there caught the slippage between the intended reality and the representation at any point in the production process.

I think Baudrillard would get a kick out of this.

For more on hyperreality, see Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulation. Also, for more on Vegas and simulation, you might check out Norman Denzin’s article “Rain Man in Las Vegas,” in Symbolic Interaction v. 16, p. 65-78 (1993).

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

In my Sociology of Gender course I talk about how gender conformity isn’t simply a matter of socialization, but often a response to active policing by others.  Single women usually avoid having too many cats, for example, not only because they’ve been taught that too many cats sends the wrong signal, but because they may be called a “cat lady” by their friends (a joke-y slur suggesting that she is or will be a batty old spinster).  Or her best friend, with her best interests in mind, may discourage her from adopting another cat because she knows what people think of “cat ladies.”

People who find community in subcultures that are seen as “alternative” to the “mainstream” often feel like they are freed of such rules.  But these subcultures often simply have different rules that turn out to be equally restrictive and are just as rigidly policed.

A recent submission to PostSecret, a site where people anonymously tell their secrets, reminded me of this.  In it a lesbian confesses that she hates cats.  Because of the stereotype that women love cats, the “cat lady” stigma may be lifted in lesbian communities.  This lesbian, however, doesn’t feel freed by the lifting of this rule, but instead burdened by its opposite: everyone has to like cats.  So she feels compelled to lie and say that she’s allergic.

Related, see our post on a confession, from another lesbian, about suppressing the fact that she’s really quite girly.

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 Scientopia.

A couple of days ago I posted a video about stereotypes of Native Americans in video games, including the Hot Indian Princess. Though the video discussed video games specifically, these tropes are common in other area of pop culture as well. Dolores R. sent in a great example. Over at Beyond Buckskin, Jessica Metcalfe posted about the 2011 Caribana Parade in Toronto. This year the parade theme was Native America, including various sections such as Amazon Warriors, Lost City of the Aztecs, Brazilian Amerindians…and Tribal Princesses. Here’s a Tribal Princess costume provided by one band, Callaloo (it’s now sold out).

A commenter on Metcalfe’s post takes exception with criticisms of these costumes and the parade theme, saying,

[This is a] celebration of historic alliances between African Diaspora peoples and Native peoples. In New Orleans, the tradition was a specific response to racist laws that placed Native and other POC communities in a common frame of reference. This tradition is almost 200 years old among Caribbean/Diaspora people in North America…you are making a tremendous mistake by attacking a part of Afro-Caribbean culture as if this was the same as an expression of White/Euro privilege.

So the argument is that this can’t be problematic cultural appropriation or propagation of the sexualized Indian Princess trope because it is part of an event meant to celebrate and recognize the histories and cultures of groups that have themselves been the target of discrimination and political/cultural exclusion. Certainly there is an important cultural and historical context there that, the commenter argues, distinguishes these costumes from, say, the current fad of “tribal” clothing in fashion.

And yet, that argument seems to discursively claim a right to represent Native Americans in any way without being subject to criticisms of stereotyping or cultural appropriation. For instance, the Apache were not a Caribbean tribe (though the Lipan Apache moved far into southeastern Texas by the late 1700s, coming into regular contact with Texas Gulf tribes). Does this sexualized “Apache” costume, as imagined by non-Apaches and sold to the general public, differ greatly from other appropriations and representations of Native American culture and identity as fashion statement?

This feels a little like a different version of the “But we’re honoring you!” argument used in efforts to defend Native American sports mascots — that any concern the viewer has is only due to their lack of understanding of the reason for the depiction of Native Americans, not because that depiction might be, in fact, problematic.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

An anonymous reader snapped a photo of this ad for Freelancers Insurance Company in the NYC subway.  The ad reads: “Maybe joining a group to buy insurance is communal.  Maybe it’s rational self-interest.  Either way, it’s cheaper.” With the phrase “either way,” the ad draws on a common juxtaposition: the idea that putting the group first is equivalent to sacrificing your own interests.

Certainly in some cases it’s true that privileging the collective hurts the individual, but this certainly isn’t always true.  Yet Americans consistently receive the message that it is rational (i.e., maximizes our personal well-being) to put ourselves first.  A University of Minnesota campaign to encourage students to get the flu shot — “Do it for the herd”— is a nice counter-example.  In some other societies the idea that one should sacrifice the self for others, and even the idea that doing for others is good for you, is a more common cultural theme.

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.

Dmitriy T.M. sent in a New York Times slideshow of the contents of “MREs” from different countries.   MREs stands for “Meals Ready to Eat”; they are combat rations for soldiers. The rations are each some combination of comfort food, nutrition, and necessity.  And the different contents across countries reveal some interesting similarities and differences.

All MREs include some sort of meat, but the type and form of the meat vary, from meatballs to paté.  Meanwhile, almost all of the MREs include candy; it’s probably cheap, in the big scheme of things, to throw a few skittles, m&ms, or squares of chocolate, but what a treat it must be.  Likewise, the fruit-flavored beverages and tea must be a taste of home.  As for practicality, countries vary in whether they provide moist towelettes, toothpicks, tooth brushes.   Most offer matches; the U.S. includes toilet paper.

That said, the content of rations are also strikingly consistent.  I’ve love to see a flow chart tracing the development of MREs.  Were the logics for these rations developed in isolation?  Or were some countries influential over others?

These are my uneducated observations.  Feel free to offer more informed thoughts in the comments.

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.