When I really want to procrastinate doing my work, I like to visit some of my favorite websites and catch up on the latest trends and news. Recently, on one my favorite sites, I have noticed an increase in “Fitspiration Porn” right next to messages of pro-fat, pro- everybody type of images saying “Everyone is beautiful in their own way.” These also speak to the increase in celebrities with curvier bodies (e.g. Beyoncé, Iggy Azalea, Jennifer Lawrence, Nikki Minaj, and even Lena Dunham) and body-loving anthems such as Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” At first, all of this seems to be great- finally to see healthy, body loving, not-your-garden-variety, and real images and messages of real women celebrating the diversity of bodies.
One way that capitalism creates consumers is by convincing us that our identity is developed and demonstrated through the items we purchase. Your new clothes, shoes, house, car, and jewelry tell the world who you are and what you are worth. Most importantly, these products can fix our flaws (which, we are told, are many). With each new purchase, we think we are improving ourselves. But if we ever felt complete, fixed, perfect, we might stop buying, so capitalists must continue to create new problems in need of solutions (Gwen Sharp has a great, related post at SocImages).
The body has long been a site of capitalist pathologization. We are taught that our bodies, often women’s bodies, require manipulation or control, and that medicines and hygiene products are our best options. This is readily evident in a recent ad campaign for Secret’s “stress sweat” line (view here). According to Secret, all sweating is embarrassing; it is a problem requiring a solution. It is especially embarrassing for girls and women, Secret’s target consumer base. The site links to WebMD, where girls can rate their symptoms to determine whether their sweat is “abnormal,” and ultimately, how mortified they ought to be when sweat happens. But stress sweat is the worst smelling sweat of all, Secret tells us. According to their website, there is a scientific explanation for its extremely foul odor: it emerges from different glands than exercise/activity induced sweat, with different bacteria to cause more odors (you can watch a “cute” video on the “science” of stress sweat, produced by Secret’s parent company, Proctor & Gamble, here). In stressful situations, girls and women are told, “Don’t focus on your speech/date/test/presentation/etc. Worry about your armpits and B.O.” Thanks a lot, Secret.
So, Secret begins by telling us that we have a problem—we are stinky, wet beasts. We must buy Secret deodorant/antiperspirant and keep our natural scent “secret.” According to their site, a sweaty daughter “may isolate herself, avoiding activities she previously enjoyed, in an effort to prevent embarrassment and teasing, so it’s really important to give her emotional support.” Rather than encouraging your daughter to find self-confidence internally, mothers are told that the best course of action is to take her shopping. Secret goes further; not only will the new deodorant give her confidence, it will allow her to express her true self: “With 10 unique scents to choose from, she’ll have fun picking the sparkly one that fits her personality.”
So we see that Secret uses the tried-and-true capitalist tactic of selling insecurity; but is this gendered? Secret is a producer of products for women. They wrap their deodorants in pastel pinks and purples, fill them with flowery or fruity scents and name them Ohlala Lavender and Cocoa Butter Kiss. Secret teaches women that their natural smells and bodily processes are so gross that they require the daily application of carcinogenic chemicals (see also Lisa Wade’s post on similar issues with douching). Part of what makes the new Secret campaign so insidious, in my opinion, is that it masquerades as empowerment. For example, one variety of Secret Clinical Strength deodorant is called “Mean Stinks”—when consumers purchase this deodorant stick, Secret donates a bit of money to organizations fighting girl-on-girl bullying. And yet, the ads themselves encourage girls to compete with and compare themselves to one another. A teen girl is now pushed to ask herself, “Do I smell worse than her? What about her?” This particular line of products pressures women to conform to the social expectation that women be soft, pretty, sweet-smelling creatures regardless of activity or context—we’re supposed to glow, remember? Even female athletes are encouraged to worry about sweating during practices and games but don’t worry, their cure is Secret’s Clinical Strength Sport stick. (One could also look at the gendered pressures conveyed in deodorant/hygiene ads for men. My guess is you’d find a lot of normative expectations about heterosexuality and muscularity.)
As I finish writing this post, I feel I must admit something—I’m sweating. It’s a bit humid in here, the AC could be on higher, I could have chosen an iced coffee. And as I read about “normal” vs. “abnormal” sweating, a small part of my mind whispers, “Is my sweating normal? Can everyone tell?” None of us is exempt from the pressure. But neither are we powerless.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released a revised policy statement regarding male circumcision. Unlike previous policies on the issue, this one got a lot of media attention, probably because male circumcision itself has been in the news more than usual. The past few years have seen increasing mobilization against male circumcision (for example, intactivists (the term activists fighting for genital integrity have given themselves) tried to ban the practice in the city of San Francisco last year, though the attempt was unsuccessful). And the surgery gained some global attention this year after a German court ruled that it constituted grievous bodily harm against a minor. Many national governments and religious groups/leaders spoke out against the court ruling, the court’s decision has caused many to think a bit more about neonatal circumcision.
Last week, media sources reported that Rosie O’Donnell had a heart attack. Though Rosie explained that she did “google” her symptoms, she did not believe she was having a heart attack and never called 911. Like many women, Rosie explained that she did not know enough about female heart issues, specifically identifying the problem and getting immediate medical attention. Rosie hopes she can use her fame and platform to raise awareness about heart attacks and issues in women.
While Rosie lived to tell her story, many women don’t. Researchers estimate that 1 in 4 women in the United States die of heart diseases every year. And, like Rosie mentions, many women don’t know their suffering from a heart attack until it is too late. Many of us know the ways in which heart attacks appear in men: pain in the left arm, pains in the chest. But studies suggest that women may not have the benefit of these tell-tale signs. Notably, women are less likely to present with chest pains when suffering a heart attack. If heart diseases are common in women, why do so many women lack potentially lifesaving knowledge about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack?
At least part of the answer is historical. There was a time when women’s cardiovascular health was understudied and even ignored by some in the medical community. In the late 1980s, feminists in and around the field of medicine demonstrated that our knowledge about certain health issues emerged from research on the male body. For example, several studies on blood pressure, heart issues, and the “normal” functions of human aging were based almost exclusively on findings from the male population. Now, medical researchers recognize the importance of studying these same issues in the female population, but still, the research for women is years behind that of men.
Though the medical community now recognizes the importance of studying a broader spectrum of diseases in women, it seems that when we think of “women’s health,” we think about issues specific to the female anatomy. Though women may be afflicted with other major medical concerns, a huge amount of money and time is devoted to maintaining the healthy development and stability of the distinctively “female” parts of the body. Organizations, like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, draw substantial resources to find a cure for breast cancer. Pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines, like Gardasil, targeted at preventing cervical cancer. Physicians and gynecologists recommend that women have their breasts and reproductive organs examined every year (though some have loosened up on this recommended frequency). Yet, heart disease, one of the largest “killers” of women, gets one day of awareness, Wear Red Day.
Don’t get me wrong. All of these developments are good for women. The emphasis on reproductive and breast issues has surely helped many women, who may have died from a disease of these organs or who wish to expand their reproductive options. But this obsession may have left other common problems unexamined and women without the resources or knowledge to combat them. The fact that many women do not know about the signs of a heart attack is evidence of this.
I don’t think that this should mean a decrease in research and outreach for women specific health issues. This needs to continue. Instead, we need an equal amount of research on other issues, as well as public health campaigns informing women of other risks to their health.
Moore, Sarah E. H.2008. “Gender and the ‘New Paradigm’ of Health.” Sociology Compass 2(1): 268-280.
Bryder, L. 2008. “Debates about Cervical Screening: An Historical Overview.” Journal of Epidemiology Community Health 62: 284-287.
Morgen, Sandra. 2002. Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1960-1990. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
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Sociology Lens aims to offer a lively and informative venue for faculty, graduate students and the wider public to discuss current issues in sociology. The site is a companion to the online review journal, Sociology Compass.