Haley Morris-Cafiero is an artist, a photographer, and a scorned body. Aware that her appearance attracts disgust and mockery from some, she decided to try to document people’s public disdain. The result is a series of photographs exposing the people who judge and laugh at her. She chose to publish several at Salon. Go take a look. I’ll wait.
Dmitriy T.C. was the last of many who’ve suggested I write about this. I’ve decided against it in the past because I anticipated a critique, one that dismissed the project on the argument that we can’t really know what is going through these people’s minds. Maybe the cop is just a jerk and he does that to everyone? Maybe the gawkers are looking at someone or something on the other side of her? Where’s the proof that these are actually instances of cruel, public anti-fat bias?
In some cases, Morris-Cafiero has a story to go along with the photo. The girl waiting to cross the street with her, she said, was slapping her stomach. In another instance, she overheard a man say “gorda,” fat woman. This type of context makes at least some of the photographs seem more “legit.”
But, as I’ve thought more about it, I actually think the project’s strength is in its ambiguity. The truth is that Morris-Cafiero often does not know what’s going on in the minds of her subjects. Yet, because she carries a body that she knows is disdained by many, it is perfectly reasonable for her to feel like every grimace, look of disgust, laugh, shared whisper, and instance of teasing is a negative reaction to her body. In fact, this is how many fat people experience being in public; whether they’re right about the intent 100% of the time is irrelevant to their lived experience.
And this is how people of color, people who speak English as a second language, disabled people and others who are marginalized live, too. Was that person rude because I speak with an accent? Did that person say there was no vacancies in the apartment because I’m black? Was I not chosen for the job because I’m in a wheelchair? Privilege is being able to assume that the person laughing behind you is laughing at something or someone else, that the scowl on someone’s face is because they’re having a bad day, and that there must have been a better qualified candidate.
For many members of stigmatized groups, it can be hard not to at least consider the possibility that negative reactions and rejections are related to who they are. Morris-Cafiero’s project does a great job of showing what that looks like.
In 2010 a scandal that erupted when designer Mark Fast decided to use four plus-size models (US sizes 8-10) in his catwalk show at London Fashion Week. Protesting his decision, his stylist and creative director quit, leaving him just three days to find replacements.
The incident is a great example of how even relatively powerful figures (e.g., designers with catwalk shows) often have to pay a price for deviating from cultural rules. Designers are often criticized for only hiring waif-like models, but this shows that they don’t get to do whatever they like without consequences.
While it’s easy to condemn Fast’s stylist and creative director for walking out on him, the truth is that even being associated with deviance can bring consequences. Sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the idea of the “courtesy stigma” to refer to the stigma that attaches to those who are merely associated with a stigmatized person. A recent Grey’s Anatomy episode dealt with exactly this idea in a story about the reaction to an attractive blonde married to an obese man. Her willingness to stay with such a person was a source of curiosity and disbelief. Similarly, siblings of the mentally ill or mothers of children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder might suffer courtesy stigma when people wonder if the mental illness is genetic or the parenting is bad, respectively.
So, while it’s tempting to say that Fast’s employees hold reprehensible ideological beliefs (a hatred or intolerance for “plus-size” women), it’s also possible that they thought being associated with the show could hurt their chances of success in a very competitive career. In an industry that stigmatizes fat so powerfully, I can imagine it might be terrifying indeed to be seen as endorsing it.
As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that… [b]oys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested… And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems.
Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?
I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.
If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.
Leontine G. sent in a troubling example of the framing of children’s deviance, and their own complicity in this framing. She included two links: one to a Today show story about a 7-year-old boy who took his family’s car on a joyride and got caught by police, and one to a CNN story about a 7-year-old boy who took his family’s car on a joyride and got caught by police. Different 7-year-olds. One white, one black.
The white boy, Preston, is interviewed with his family on the set of the Today show. Knowing his kid is safe, his Dad describes the event as “funny” and tells the audience that if this could happen to a “cotton candy all-American kid like Preston,” then “it could happen to anybody.”
When the host, Meredith Vieira, asks Preston why hid from the police, he says, “cause I wanted to,” and she says, “I don’t blame you actually.” With Preston not too forthcoming, his Mom steps in to say that he told her that “he just wanted to know what it felt like to drive a car.” When Vieira asks him why he fled from the police, he replies with a shrug. Vieira fills in the answer, “You wanted to get home?”
Vieira then comments on how they all then went to church. The punishment? Grounded for four days without TV or video games. Vieira asks the child, “Do you think that’s fair?” He says yes. And she continues, “Do you now understand what you did?” He nods and agrees. “And that maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing?” He nods and agrees. “You gonna get behind the wheel of a car again?” He says no. Then she teases him about trying out model toy cars.
They conclude that this incident just goes to show that “Any little kid, you never know what can happen…” and closes “I’ll be seeing you at church buddy boy!”
All in all, exactly what you’d expect from the Today show: a heartwarming, human interest story with a happy ending. The child is framed as a fundamentally good kid who was curious and perhaps a bit impetuous. When he has no answers for Vieira’s questions, she slots in innocent ones. And the mild punishment is seen as incidental to the more important idea that he learned something.
This story contrasts dramatically to the CNN story about Latarian Milton, a black 7-year-old who took his family’s car on a joy ride. I’ll put the video first, but be forewarned, it’s disturbing not only because of the different frame placed on the boys actions, but because of the boy’s embracing of the spoiled identity (apology for the commercial):
With an absolutely polar introduction of “Not your typical 7-year-old,” this story is filmed on the street. Whereas the Today show screened the chase footage in real time, this one is sped up, making it seem even more extreme.
The interviewer, off-camera, asks Latarian why he took the car. He replied: “I wanted to do it ’cause it’s fun, it’s fun to do bad things.” The interviewer asks further, “Did you know that you could perhaps kill somebody?” And he replies: “Yes, but I wanted to do hoodrat stuff with my friends.”
The interviewer asks him what punishment he should receive and Latarian offers a punishment very similar to Preston’s: “Just a little bit… no video games for a whole weekend.” In a longer version of this news story, now taken down, the camera focuses on a reporter who explains that the police plan to go forward with charges of grand theft against him. While he’s “too young to go into any type of juvenile facility,” he says, “police say they do want to get him into the system, so that they can get him some type of help.”
The implication here, of course, is that this child is not innocent or impetuous like Preston, he’s a pre-criminal who needs “some type of help.” The sooner they get Latarian into “the (prison?) system,” the better. No cotton candy kid this one.
Unfortunately, Latarian says all the right things to make the narrative fit. He says he likes to do “bad” things, calls himself a “hoodrat,” and seems unremorseful, even defiant, for at least part of the interview (he looks a bit sheepish in the end when he finds out his grandmother is going to have to pay for the damage he did to other cars).
One way to interpret this is to say that Latarian IS a pre-criminal. That he DOES need to get into the system because he’s clearly a bad kid. Someone inclined to believe that black people were, in fact, more prone to criminal behavior could watch these two videos and feel confirmed in their view.
Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men. Crossposted at Racialicious, the Huffington Post, and Love Isn’t Enough.
Teen pregnancy, like obesity, is often framed as an “epidemic.” As such, both the “epidemic” of teen pregnancy and the “epidemic” of obesity can be understood through the lens of what sociologist Stanley Cohen popularized as a “moral panic.” In Cohen’s words, moral panics are “condensed political struggles to control the means of cultural reproduction”; additionally “successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties.”
“The Real Cost of Teen Pregnancy” — a public health information campaign launched by the Mayor and Human Resources Administration of New York City in March 2013 — features babies and toddlers, primarily children of color, chastising their teenage mothers. Launched at a time when teen pregnancies have actually declined, primarily due to the availability of safe and affordable reproductive health care, the accusatory “shame and blame” narrative of these images is not only out of proportion to the “problem” it seeks to address, but is weighed down by its obvious cultural narratives about teens of color, poverty, gender and sexuality.
Having a pensive toddler of color next to the slogan “Honestly Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and a weeping boy of color next to the words “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” serves to re-stigmatize single teen mothers, encouraging wider social senses of moral outrage, hostility and volatility toward young, predominantly impoverished girls of color. Not unlike cultural narratives about “welfare queens,” the campaign plays into racist and classist fears about sexually active girls of color and teenage mothers who use social services. The message just under the surface here is about the need for social control of “unruly bodies.”
These 4,000 posters, put up in buses and subways, cost a reported $10,000 per year for the city, and have already drawn harsh critique from many. Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, for instance, has reportedly suggested the campaign has got it backward. In her words, “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy.”
According to Samantha Levine, a spokesperson for New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, “it’s well past the time when anyone can afford to be value neutral when it comes to teen pregnancy.” Public health campaigns are never value neutral. They communicate social beliefs about normalcy, productivity, desirability, and cultural worth.
An additional cost of the unexamined acceptance of this new teen pregnancy campaign is accepting yet another narrative about individual choice over systemic change. Placing responsibility on the shoulders of the individual, such campaigns silence more complex conversations about accessible and affordable reproductive health care, anti-poverty campaigns, and gender and social justice work. Instead of buying into the “moral panic” of teen pregnancy, perhaps the mayor’s office might look into more long lasting and less stigmatizing possibilities of structural change to improve the lives of young women in New York City.
“Shame and blame” has rarely gotten public health anywhere. In the words of researcher and speaker Brené Brown, “Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
Having written about sexually transmitted HPV (human papillomavirus) for 13 years, I’ve been waiting for the day when a celebrity would lend his or her fame to spotlight the realities of HPV infection, especially of HPV-related oral cancers. That day has come: this week Michael Douglas has announced that his cancer was caused by an HPV infection that was likely transmitted through oral sex. The mucus membrane tissue of mouth and throat are similar to those of genital skin, so researchers have known for some time that, like herpes, HPV could be transmitted oral to genital, as well as genital to oral.
My hopes are that big news can be a long-needed catalyst for change. Back in 2009, the research findings were already clear: oral transmission of cancer-causing HPV means that almost all of us are more likely at risk than we are safe from risk. For my 2010 feature article in Ms. Magazine, I focused on the importance of not only educating the public about HPV-related cancers in men but also about the HPV-oral cancer link. In addition, I advocated for the need to destigmatize all STDs: my research and book have shown that STD stigma makes it more likely for at-risk/infected individuals to put off getting tested and treated. STD stigma also makes it less likely for individuals to disclose their sexual health status to partners, placing those partners at greater risk for infection. In addition, negative stereotypes about the “types” of women and men likely to be infected distort our ideas of who is at risk.
This week Michael Douglas’ announced that his oral cancer was caused by a virus (human papillomavirus) likely transmitted through oral sex. Media coverage, however, has been conflating the virus and the sexual activity with headlines like this:
The day after the story broke, Douglas’ representatives clarified that his cancer wasn’t caused by cunnilingus, but by the virus itself.
This is an interesting example of the way that a practice can be falsely conflated with a disease. It brings back the fantastical stories of the 1800s that masturbation was the cause of liver, kidney, and lung disease; arthritis; headache, memory loss, epilepsy, and neurological problems; back pain; impotence; cancer; and death.
Like masturbation was (and maybe still is), cunnilingus is taboo enough that it can be made into the villain in a story about cancer. Imagine, as a counterfactual, a headline that said that syphilis was caused by sexual intercourse. This is clearly wrong. We all know that syphilis is transmitted by unprotected sexual intercourse. As Douglas’ confession reveals, and the data demands, it’s about time we were as comfortable talking about the risks and rewards of cunnilingus.
A guiding principle driving the sociological understanding and analysis of deviance is the recognition that behaviors themselves are not inherently deviant; rather it is the social perceptions and reactions to a behavior that makes a particular behavior deviant. This explains why opinions and attitudes towards different forms of supposedly deviant behaviors regularly change. A notable change in one type of deviance, using marijuana, is revealed in a report compiled by the Pew Research Center.
According to David F. Musto, a century ago marijuana was an obscure drug used almost exclusively by Hispanics in the Southwest. Its limited association with this ethnic group is largely why marijuana initially became illegal. With the onset of the Great Depression, both federal and state governments sought ways to expel nonwhites from the country as their cheap labor was no longer necessary. Making one of this group’s pastimes illegal was a way to stigmatize Hispanics and rally public support for a population transfer. With a populace stirred into a moral panic by racism, nativism and propaganda movies like Reefer Madness, there was little resistance to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which effectively made cannibas illegal.
In the 1960s marijuana experienced a cultural comeback when it became the drug of choice for baby-boomers who saw the drug as a safer alternative to the alcohol and methamphetamine that plagued their parents’ generation. Marijuana was even legal for a brief period after the Supreme Court found the 1937 marijuana act unconstitutional. However, because of widespread concern that drugs were corrupting the moral fabric of America’s youth, in 1970 marijuana was one of many drugs outlawed by President Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. Interestingly, marijuana was the only drug targeted by this act that did not include a medical exception. In the 1980s, President Reagan increased penalties for breaking drug laws, and subsequently the prison population in the United States swelled to a size seemingly unimaginable in a wealthy democracy.
The graph below from PEW’s report captures how federal action came during times of heightened public support to make marijuana illegal.
Yet, the graph also captures how in the early 1990s, support for the legalization of marijuana started to increase. According to the PEW report, around this time California pioneered using the drug for medicinal purposes; seventeen other states (including D.C.) have since followed California’s lead while six other states decriminalized possession of small amounts. In 2012, citizens in Colorado and Oregon voted to completely legalize marijuana despite federal law. This relaxing and even elimination of marijuana laws mirrors favorable opinions of marijuana and growing support for its legalization.
It is difficult to tell if legalization, medical or otherwise, drives public opinion or vice-versa. Regardless, an especially noteworthy finding of the PEW report is that right now, more than half of the United States’ citizens think marijuana should be legal. Sociologists always take interest when trend lines cross in public opinion polls because the threshold is especially important in a majority-rule democracy; and the PEW report finds for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority of U.S. citizens support marijuana legalization.
This historical research data on opinions about marijuana reveals how definitions of deviance, and in many cases the ways those definitions are incorporated into the legal system, grow out of shared social perceptions. Although there have been some notable genetic and cultivation advances, marijuana has changed relatively little in the last forty years; yet our perceptions of this drug (and therefore its definitions of use as deviant) regularly evolve and we can expect opinions, and therefore our laws, to further change in the future.
Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.
About Sociological Images
Sociological Images encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry. Read more…