This is the fourth part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. See also, parts One, Two, and Three. Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

This post details some daily rituals that help interrupt damaging beauty culture scripts.

1) Start enjoying your body as a physical instrument.

Girls are raised to view their bodies as an thing-to-be-looked-at that they have to constantly work on and perfect for the adoration of others, while boys are raised to think of their bodies as tools to use to master their surroundings. We need to flip the script and enjoy our bodies as the physical marvels they are. We should be thinking of our bodies, as bodies! As a vehicle that moves us through the world; as a site of physical power; as the physical extension of our being in the world. We should be climbing things, leaping over things, pushing and pulling things, shaking things, dancing frantically, even if people are looking. Daily rituals of spontaneous physical activity and thanks for movement are the surest way to bring about a personal paradigm shift from viewing our bodies as objects to viewing our bodies as tools to enact our subjectivity.

Fun Related Activity: Parkour,”the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one’s path by adapting one’s movements to the environment,” is an activity that one can do anytime, anywhere. I especially enjoy jumping off bike racks between classes while I’m dressed in a suit.

2) Do at least one “embarrassing” action a day.

Another healthy daily ritual that reinforces the idea that we don’t exist to be pleasing to others is to purposefully do at least one action that violates “ladylike” social norms. Discuss your period in public. Eat sloppily in public, then lounge on your chair and pat your protruding belly. Swing your arms a little too much when you walk. Open doors for everyone. Offer to help men carry things. Skip a lot. Galloping also works. Get comfortable with making others uncomfortable.

3) Focus on personal development that isn’t related to beauty culture.

According to research, women spend over 45 minutes to an hour on body maintenance every day. That’s about 15 more minutes than men each day and about 275 hours a year.

But, since you’ve read Part 3 of this series and given up habitual body monitoring, body hatred, and meaningless beauty rituals, you’ll have more time to develop yourself in meaningful ways. This means more time for education, reading, working out to build muscle and agility, dancing, etc. You’ll become a much more interesting person on the inside if you spend less time worrying about the outside.  The study featured above showed that time spent grooming was inversely related to income for women.

4) Actively forgive yourself.

A lifetime of body hatred and self-objectification is difficult to let go of, and if you find yourself falling into old habits of playing self-hating tapes, seeking male attention, or beating yourself up for not being pleasing, forgive yourself. It’s impossible to fully transcend the beauty culture game since it’s so pervasive. It’s a constant struggle. When we fall into old traps, it’s important to recognize that, but quickly move on through self forgiveness. We need all the cognitive space we can get for the next beauty culture assault on our mental health.

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

I’ve been watching the response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Why Women Still Can’t Have It All roll out across the web.  Commentators are making excellent points, but E.J. Graff at The American Prospect sums it up nicely:

Being both a good parent and an all-out professional cannot be done the way we currently run our educational and work systems… Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible. It can’t be done right… You’ll always be failing at something — as a spouse, as a parent, as a worker. Just get used to that feeling.

In other words, the cards are stacked against you and it’s gonna suck.

And it’s true, trust me, as someone who’s currently knee-deep in the literature on parenting and gender, I’m pleased to see the structural contradictions between work and parenting being discussed.

But I’m frustrated about an invisibility, an erasure, a taboo that goes unnamed.  It seems like it should at least get a nod in this discussion.  I’m talking about the one really excellent solution to the clusterf@ck that is parenting in America.

Don’t. Have. Kids.

No really — just don’t have them.

Think about it.  The idea that women will feel unfulfilled without children and die from regret is one of the most widely-endorsed beliefs in America.  It’s downright offensive to some that a woman would choose not to have children.  Accusations of “selfishness” abound.  It’s a given that women will have children, and many women will accept it as a given.

But we don’t have to.  The U.S. government fails to support our childrearing efforts with sufficient programs (framing it as a “choice” or “hobby”), the market is expensive (child care costs more than college in most states), and we’re crammed into nuclear family households (making it difficult to rely on extended kin, real or chosen).  And the results are clear: raising children changes the quality of your life.  In good ways, sure, but in bad ways too.

Here are findings from the epic data collection engine that is the World Values Survey, published in Population and Development Review. If you live in the U.S., look at the blue line representing “liberal” democracies (that’s what we are).  The top graph shows that, among 20-39 year olds, having one child is correlated with a decrease in happiness, having two a larger decreases, and so on up to four or more.  If you’re 40 or older, having one child is correlated with a decrease in happiness and having more children a smaller one.  But even the happiest people, with four or more children, are slightly less happy than those with none at all.

Don’t shoot the messenger.

Long before Slaughter wrote her article for The Atlantic, when she floated the idea of writing it to a female colleague, she was told that it would be a “terrible signal to younger generations of women.”  Presumably, this is because having children is compulsory, so it’s best not to demoralize them.  Well, I’ll take on that Black Badge of Dishonor.  I’m here to tell still-childless women (and men, too) that they can say NO if they want to.  They can reject a lifetime of feeling like they’re “always… failing at something.”

I wish it were different. I wish that men and women could choose children and know that the conditions under which they parent will be conducive to happiness.  But they’re not.  As individuals, there’s little we can do to change this, especially in the short term.  We can, however, try to wrest some autonomy from the relentless warnings that we’ll be pathetically-sad-forever-and-ever if we don’t have babies.  And, once we do that, we can make a more informed measurement of the costs and benefits.

Some of us will choose to spend our lives doing something else instead.  We’ll learn to play the guitar, dance the Flamenco (why not?), get more education, travel to far away places, write a book, or start a welcome tumblr.  We can help raise our nieces and nephews, easing the burden on our loved ones, or focus on nurturing our relationships with other adults.  We can live in the cool neighborhoods with bad school districts and pay less in rent because two bedrooms are plenty.  We can eat out, sleep in, and go running.  We can have extraordinary careers, beautiful relationships, healthy lives, and lovely homes.  My point is: there are lots of great things to do in life… having children is only one of them.

Just… think about it.  Maybe you can spend your extra time working to change the system for the better.  Goodness knows parents will be too tired to do it.

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 May of this year the baseball team at Our Lady of Sorrows, a high school charter in Arizona, was scheduled to play a championship game against Mesa Preparatory Academy.  Claiming a religious tenet forbidding co-ed sports, they forfeited the final game of the season.  Mesa’s second baseman, you see, was a 15-year-old named Paige Sultzbach.

This was not an isolated incident.  In 2011 a high school threatened to forfeit a junior varsity football game unless a girl on the opposing team, Mina Johnson, sat out.  Johnson, a five-foot-two-inch 172-pound linebacker on the opposing team, had “gain[ed] a reputation in the league as a standout junior varsity player”; she sacked a six-foot quarterback in her very first game. Nevertheless, not wanting to be the cause of a lost opportunity for her team to play, Johnson sat out.  The opposing team still lost to hers 60 to zero, but apparently that was less humiliating than losing to a girl.

In my sociology of gender textbook I discuss the practice of segregating sports by gender.  Both those on the political left and political right tend to think this is a good idea.  Conservatives tend to think that women are more fragile than men, while liberals want women to have the same opportunities.

Ensuring that men never compete alongside or with women, however, also ensures that the belief that men would always win goes unchallenged.  In other words, because we already assume that men would win any competition with women, it is men, not women, who have the most to lose from de-segregating sports.  If women lose, the status quo — believing women are physically inferior to men — simply remains in place.  But if men lose, the assumption of male superiority is undermined.

Women’s participation in non-team sports, of course, potentially challenges these assumptions in a different way.  While some of these sports try to write rules that ensure that women never measure up to men (e.g., body building has a cap on how muscular women can be), others lay these comparisons bare, which brings us to Sarah Robles.  Robles, a weightlifter, out-lifted all Americans of both sexes at last year’s world championships.  “On her best day,” writes Buzzfeed, “she can lift more than 568 pounds — that’s roughly five IKEA couches, 65 gallons of milk, or one large adult male lion.” Here she is lifting 278 pounds.

The Buzzfeed article focuses on how a main source of revenue — corporate sponsorship — is likely out of reach for Robles.  Companies don’t like to support athletes who challenge our beliefs about men and women.  And Robles certainly does.  She’s proof that women can compete with men, at their own games even, and win.

Thanks to Kari for the tip!

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.

A crazy character named Andrew Hales, a student at Utah Valley University, has put up a series of You Tube videos in which he — knowingly or not — does a classic Sociology 101 experiment called “norm breaching”: break a simple social rule and see how people react to you.  I’ll put my favorite first, but they’re all worth a chuckle:

Holding the door open for people that are (too) far away:

Walk (too) close to people and get in their way:

Staring at people:

Some of his transgressions are more out there than others, but these experiments show how uncomfortable others can be made by even mild norm breaking.

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.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011. Originally cross-posted at Ms.


The cover of this month’s Dossier Journal magazine has caused a great stir.  In a matter of a few hours, five readers — Andrew, Jessica B., anthropology professor Kristina Kilgroveartist Thomas Gokey, and my brilliant colleague, music professor David Kasunic — all sent in a link.  Here’s what all the fuss is about:


The model is a man named Andrej Pejic, with hair and make-up usually seen only on women, sliding his shirt off his back.  Some might say that he is gender-ambiguous and the image deliberately blurs gender; are we seeing a chest or small breasts?  It is not immediately apparent.

Both Barnes & Noble and Borders “bagged” the magazine, like they do pornographic ones, such that one can see the title of the magazine but the rest of the cover is hidden.  Barnes and Noble said that the magazine came that way, representatives for Dossier say that the bookstore “chains” required them to do it (source).  Non-ambiguously-male chests pepper most magazine racks, but this man’s chest hints at boobs.  And so he goes under.

What’s going on?

Explaining why it is legal for men to be shirtless in public but illegal for women to do the same, most Americans would probably refer to the fact that women have breasts and men have chests.  Breasts, after all, are… these things. They incite us, disgust us, send us into grabby fits.  They’re just so there.  They force us to contend with them; they’re bouncy or flat or pointy or pendulous and sometimes they’re plain missing!  They demand their individuality!  Why won’t they obey some sort of law and order!

Much better to contain those babies.

Chests… well they do have those haunting nipples… but they’re just less unruly, right? Not a threat to public order at all.

So, there you have it.  Men have chests and women have breasts and that’s why topless women are indecent.

Of course it’s not that straightforward.

It’s not true that women have breasts and men have chests. Many men have chests that look a bit or even a lot like breasts (there is a thriving cosmetic surgery industry around this fact).  Meanwhile, many women are essentially “flat chested,” while the bustiness of others is an illusion created by silicone or salt water.  Is it really breasts that must be covered?  Clearly not. All women’s bodies are targeted by the law, and men’s bodies are given a pass, breasty or chesty as they may be.


Unless that man’s gender is ambiguous; unless he does just enough femininity to make his body suspect.  Indeed, the treatment of the Dossier coverreveals that the social and legislative ban on public breasts rests on a jiggly foundation.  It’s not simply that breasts are considered pornographic.  It’s that we’re afraid of women and femininity and female bodies and, if a man looks feminine enough, he becomes, by default, obscene.

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.

Adoption is a complicated system that both builds and separates families, frequently across lines of social privilege.  It involves ideas about who society believes should be parents and under what conditions we believe children should be raised.  And, as adoption becomes more open, it also becomes a lifelong process of constantly redefining family.  Unsurprisingly, most television representations fall short of representing adoption with the nuance it deserves. Many, such as Glee, Parenthood, 16 and Pregnant, and Teen Mom, present problematic portrayals of adoption.

ABC’s Once Upon a Time involves dual plotlines: one story evolving in fairytale-land, the other taking place in Storybrooke, Maine, where fairytale characters are trapped and unaware of their past identities.  While the series’ story arc is extremely complicated, suffice it to say that the main character is a birth mother, Emma, whose son was adopted by Regina.  Regina, is — quite literally — the Evil Queen, poised to do epic battle with Emma.  Regina actively threatens and insults Emma in her attempt to exclude her from their shared son’s life; Emma, who is presented as the hero, blatantly ignores Regina’s wishes and develops a secretive relationship with Henry:

The message is clear: birth and adoptive parents are opposing parties, with a child’s attachment to one serving as a threat to the other.  Representations such as these make open adoption, or any type of cooperative and supportive relationship between the parents, seem like such an oddity, even as it becomes more of the norm within adoption communities.

In the video, Regina presents Emma as an unfit mother who cavalierly “tossed him away,” leaving her to do the hard work of parenting. Her remark, “who knows what you’ve been doing,” further presents Emma as unfit, presumably living a lifestyle that precludes her from any claim as a loving mother.

However, on a more recent episode, Once Upon a Time delved into explored adoption from a bit of a different angle. Emma assisted a character who was being coerced into giving her child up for adoption. Despite the many layers and plot devices, this example is one of very few mainstream media representations of a manipulative adoption.  Ashley is told she can’t parent, that she shouldn’t parent, that her daughter would have a better life if someone else parented her; ultimately, she’s subjected to financial coercion. It’s left up to Emma — herself a birth mother — to convince Ashley that if she wants to parent, she should take control of her own life and do so.

So often adoption is represented purely as a joyful resolution, with a focus on a family being formed.  But the complex realities behind adoption can’t be ignored in favor of only considering the happy ending.  Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade, shows how, before abortion was legal and single motherhood was visible, young, unmarried, pregnant women were subjected to the same manipulation and coercion that Ashley deals with on Once Upon a Time.  And these abuses aren’t just things of the past; even today many young women end up placing children for adoption because they simple can’t navigate through barriers like classism and sexism that set up adoption as a fundamental way to “redeem” herself for the “sin” of being unmarried and pregnant.

More nuanced portrayals of adoption could make viewers questions their presumptions about who birth mothers are, why they make the choices they do, and what their lives look like afterward, as well as how adoption can work.  Once Upon a Time, then, both gives and takes: it allows viewers to more carefully consider the power dynamics behind adoption, while at the same time clinging to old ideas of birth and adoptive parents in opposition.  These are challenges first mothers deal with every day: how do they do the work of openness in a world where their relationship with their child’s adoptive family is still viewed as suspect?  Forming a lifelong relationship with strangers and finding a balance of contact that meets everyone’s needs is complicated enough, without images everywhere portraying openness as, at best, an unnecessary oddity, and, at worst, a threat to the child or adoptive family.

How can birth and adoptive parents form beneficial relationships if we frame their interests as mutually exclusive, and consistently portray them as alternately undermining and being threatened by each other? While Once Upon a Time is far from the careful discussion adoption deserves, it does perhaps move us closer to a world where more productive dialogues around the issue are not a fairytale.


Gretchen Sisson recently completed her doctorate at Boston College, and is currently working as an independent researcher and freelance writer. Her work focuses on the “right” to parenthood: who has it, why some don’t, and how society enforces its ideal of an acceptable pursuit of parenthood. To examine these questions, her qualitative research has examined couples pursuing infertility treatments, teen parents and teen pregnancy prevention frameworks, and parents who have placed (voluntarily or otherwise) infants for adoption.  For December and January, she’ll be writing on social class and inequality in popular culture for Bitch Magazine’s blog.  You can find her on Twitter @gesisson.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

As part of my research into the popularization of tattooing, I have accumulated quite a few interesting links on tattoo toys for children. I don’t mean those temporary tattoos we all used to get from the vending machines at popular chain restaurants. This toys I am talking about have drawn flack from parents as being “inappropriate” for kids, creating an example of a burgeoning “moral panic”. Some examples include: tattoo inspired toddler weartattoo machines for kids, and of course, tattooed Barbie dolls.

The most recent children’s tattoo toy to come under attack is the collector’s edition “Tokidoki Barbie,” which features prominent arm, chest, and neck tattoos. This is the first Barbie to come out of its packaging with tattoos already applied. The first tattooed Barbie called “Totally Stylin’ Tattoo Barbie” was interactive and designed for children, allowing them to paste the temporary tattoos (actually stickers) on themselves or the doll. This new “Tokidoki Barbie” is not a toy so much as a collector’s item, meant to capture a particular historical moment in time and to be exchanged between collectors (the doll is now auctioning for roughly $500 each). With a hefty $500 price tag, I do not see many children playing with this doll. It is also not sold in stores, and is only available online.

Tokidoki Barbie:

Toys like these have been released every few years since the 1990s, when tattooing was ranked as the 6th fastest growing industry in the country (Vail 1999). But we are now seeing more children’s tattoo toys spring up, dovetailing with the increasing popular interest in the craft. We may very well be observing a second Tattoo Renaissance (Rubin 1988), especially given the expansion of the industry and the artistic flowering that has occurred since the tattoo reality TV shows first emerged in summer 2005. 

I believe we are we observing a cultural paradigm shift (Kuhn 1962) regarding tattooing.  Cultural trends are slowly reshaping popular conceptions of tattooing, turning them from “marks of mischief” (Sanders 1988) into an “ironic fad” (Kosut 2006) of consumer capitalism. Whereas tattooing was once largely reserved for working-class men, sailors, carnival performers, and exotic dancers, we have since seen the practice become widely popular amongst all races, genders, and classes.

G8 Tat2 Maker by Spin Master Toys:

Beginning with the Tattoo Renaissance of the 1960s (Rubin 1988) and more recently with the expansion into reality television (Lodder 2010), we have seen the cultural cache of tattooing shift in favor of middle-class notions of identity work (Atkinson 2003); that is, towards seeing the body as a vehicle for expressing oneself, towards actively controlling and crafting the body as a form of empowerment, and towards the development of “distinctive individualism” through appearance (Muggleton 2002). The highly narrative focus of tattooing contained in popular reality TV shows like “LA Ink” or “NY Ink” only bolster these trends, as new tattoo enthusiasts invest deeply-held meanings into each tattoo.

But these trends do not mean that tattoo toys aimed at children are any less offensive to some. Largely, it appears to be a generational divide: youth are much more supportive (in fact, largely celebratory) towards body art like tattoos and piercings, but the baby boomers continue to view tattoos through the lens of deviance.

For people of my parents generation, tattoos continue to be a symbol of deviant proclivities. Some have even called it a “disease” plaguing the youth of today. I have taken issue with such an interpretation of tattooing, especially by social scientists who continue to conceptualize the practice as an indicator of mental pathology or emotional instability, and have proposed a “pro-social” conception of contemporary body modifications like tattooing and piercing [you can read my work here]. In my opinion it is just a matter of time before prominent and visible tattoos become commonplace in professional and public settings, tattooed Barbie notwithstanding.


David Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW) is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. He studies issues of intersectionality, consumption, and popular culture. In addition to his work on the popularization of tattooing, a project on the revolutionary pedagogy of public sociology, and more theoretical work on zombie films as a vehicle for expressing social and cultural anxieties. He previously wrote for the blog Racism Review and currently blogs at Cyborgology.

For more from Strohecker, see his posts on facial tattoos, the origins of zombies, QR codes and the digital divide, and laughing at disability.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

I like this post. And it’s the two-year anniversary of Bruce Snowdon’s death. So, here’s my toast to the last sideshow fat man.

He’s so big and so fat it takes four girls to hug him and a box car to lug him.  When he dances you’ll swear he must be full of jelly, cause jam don’t shake that way.  And you know girls!  He is single and lookin’ for a wife, he’ll make some lucky girl a fine husband, why he’s so big and fat, he’ll provide you with a lot of shade in the summertime, keep you nice and warm in the winter time and give you lots of good heavy lovin’ all of the time!

— Carnival Spiel by Ward Hall

On Nov. 9th 2009, Harold Huge, a man billed as the very last sideshow fat man, died.  He weighed 607 pounds or so.

Harold’s real name was Bruce Snowdon.  He had degrees in paleontology, anthropology and chemistry. In 1977, he found himself bored with his work and stumbled across the idea of being a Fat Man:

I had put on a lot of weight between the time I was 20 and 25. I was up to about 450 in those days. I went to the local library, and I was poking through some old circus books and I see this one picture about a sideshow, maybe circa 1905, and I’m looking at this fat man and I’m saying to myself, “He can’t weigh more than 350 pounds.”

Now, I ask myself, how the hell would I go about getting into a sideshow? I’d never even seen a sideshow in my lifetime. In the late ’70s the industry was a very pale ghost of its former self. Instead of thousands, there were maybe dozens left then. So I figured, logically, there’s got to be some sort of trade journal for the carnival industry. It’s Amusement Business. And I’m looking through the AB. Taking a lucky stab, I wrote the editor, Tom Powell. And Tom Powell happens to be a very good friend of Ward Hall. Bingo. I had the job.


In an interview with James Taylor (from which the above quote is also taken), Snowden explained:

I don’t mind being enormously fat… I come from a long line of fat people. My old man tortured himself for 40 years going from 200 to 300 [pounds] and back again. He eventually lost the weight, but he also lost his mind.

Snowdon played Harold Huge for 26 years.  The year of his retirement, in 2003, he played himself in the movie, Big Fish:

So the sociological question I would like to pose is: Why is Snowdon the last fat man?

Marc Hartzman suggests that fat men and woman became less of a curiosity because “waistlines expanded and obesity became less of a laughing matter.  As the years went by, spotting a man who weighed more than quarter of a ton was not that unusual…”  So there’s two  hypotheses: (1) we see fat people everywhere and so it’s no longer a curiosity and (2) obesity has become a very serious matter, not to be played with at sideshows or elsewhere.

Another hypothesis might involve (3) a growing distaste for objectifying and dehumanizing those who are unusual.   As the human rights era evolves, we increasingly embrace difference and promote tolerance.

(4) Perhaps sideshows themselves are simply out-of-fashion, a drab alternative to Avatar in 3D or a Wii.  Or, (5) maybe the internet has made all curiosity easier to quench.  With a click of the button, we can see DD breasts, thalidomide babies, and cats playing the piano… who needs a sideshow?

I can think of reasons to endorse and reject all of these hypotheses.

So, in honor of Snowdon’s 26 years of service and delightful sense of humor (“If there’s a bitchy type of human being, it’s somebody on a diet”), let’s speculate.

Sources: Sideshow World, AOL News, Shocked and Amazed, Randall Levenson photography, and Shapely Prose.

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.