Author Archives: Matthew Hall

Breast augmentation and female sexuality

The Daily Star and Daily Mail recently ran articles speculating whether Coleen Rooney had had a ‘boob job’. According to the Daily Star, apparently ‘Wayne splashed out £10,000 for his wife to have a breast enlargement as a present in the wake of allegations about him sleeping with prostitutes’. Whether Mrs Rooney has had cosmetic surgery on her breasts or not, breast augmentation tells us something about contemporary gender relations and specifically notions of femininity and female sexuality.

According to Bordo (1999: 283) the pornographisation of culture and changing media representations of girls’ and women’s bodies, since the 1950s, has meant that both girls/boys and wo/men have become socialized to expect to see female breasts as ‘glorious globes standing at attention even when supine’. She goes on to point out that ‘real breasts are the anomaly in visual culture today; it’s rather a shock when a naked actress lies down and her breasts flop off to the side. It doesn’t look right anymore’. What Bordo is arguing, is that the contemporary ‘idealised’ and ‘sexualised’ female body is one that doesn’t have ‘natural’ breasts, and as such, results in many girls and women being dissatisfied with their bodies. For some women at least, such dissatisfaction leads to breast augmentation. Indeed, statistics on plastic surgery in the UK (see link below) show many more women than men undergoing the surgeon’s knife, especially for breast enlargement.

Coleen’s £10k Boob Job

Plastic surgery in the UK

Cosmetic surgery

Are we free to ink?

Apparently 1 in every 5 British adults has been ‘inked’ (Guardian 2010). But is the evident popularity of tattooing a result of multiple individual expressions of free will and agency devoid of cultural influence?

According to Woody, the tattoo artist interviewed by the Guardian, this form of body modification is much more than mere fashion ‘A tattoo gives you something to live for…Why do you get up in the morning? To wear grey, to have your life ruled by train timetables? A tattoo offers you something personal and fun and exciting in a world that can be drab and grey.’

Academics such as Pitts (2000) and Sullivan (2004) would agree that the decision to ‘ink’, along with other forms of body modification (e.g. piercing) is an act by an empowered individual making his/her own intentional and uninfluenced choice. Sullivan (2004) goes as far as to argue that the search for meaning in tattooing is pointless because it is more than an intentional act. It is ‘an integral aspect of the inter-subjective and/or inter-textual character of what we might call existence and existences’ (2004: 3).

One of the issue with arguing that people make autonomous/uninfluenced choices is that it is complicit with neoliberal discourses which position individuals as rational, calculating and self-regulating; ascribing them full responsibility for their life biography regardless of the constraints upon their actions (Walkerdine et al., 2001).

Gill (2007: 73) argues that if tattooing, or any other fashion item, ‘were simply a freedom of choice and not cultural influence then why is the ‘look’ so similar? If it were the outcome of peoples’ individual idiosyncratic preferences, then surely there would be greater diversity?’ She argues that the choice to body modify or consume any other fashion item, is arrived at anything but autonomously because choices have everything to do with the person’s daily exposure to cultural images that shape their tastes, desires and what they perceive as a beautiful body.

CNN on Long and ParrisThe rise and rise of the tattoo

CNN on Long and ParrisSocialization: Insights from Social Cognition

Gendering responsibility for child obesity

The Daily Mail’s recent article ‘Has feminism killed the art of home cooking?’ serves as an example of the mediated discourses which hold feminist values and therefore women, as responsible for the so-called child obesity epidemic (WHO, 2010). The argument centers on three discourses – morality, science and gender.

In contemporary societies the responsibility for health is increasingly that of the individual (Petersen 1997). That is, we are held morally responsible for the quality and quantity of food that passes our lips, the amount of exercise we take and so on. So weight gain is presumed to be a result of health-defeating practices. However unlike adults, children are clearly not able to self-regulate and manage their own health because children cannot be responsible for food production and consumption themselves. That responsibility, it is argued, resides with parents and specifically with mothers. Drawing on natural science discourses, advocates of this position argue that due to biology ‘women possess a greater nurturing instinct than men’. Therefore mothers are presumed to have primary responsibility for their children’s health. If children are overweight it is mothers and not fathers who are held accountable.

Maher, Fraser and Wright’s (2010) research on media representations of mothers has identified two ways in which they are held accountable. The first, like the Daily Mail, points to the increasing absence of the family meal. It suggests that if women didn’t follow feminist values and work so long or so hard, then they would have more time to spend at home creating nutritious meals. It is their absence from the home that is blamed as the reason children eat at junk food outlets far too often, survive on processed meals and eat too many snack foods. The second way mothers are held accountable is through pregnancy. Scientists argue that ‘diet, exercise and women’s attentiveness before and during pregnancy are linked to specific disabilities, to childhood health generally and, more recently, to childhood obesity’ (Maher, Fraser and Wright, 2010).

It is these mediated discourses that hold mothers specifically responsible for the battle of the bulge, but more generally they argue ‘it’s feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity.’

Has feminism killed the art of home cooking?

Is it really women’s fault our kids are fat?

WHO – Obesity and overweight

Obesity

Are we what we eat?

Having read the previous post ‘Dining with death’ I thought I’d offer a short gendered perspective on vegetarianism.

It is no accident that in Western cultures the vast majority of vegetarians are women – only about 30% are men. One of the key reasons for this is that there is a strong link between the eating of animal flesh and maleness (Potts and Parry, 2010). So entrenched is this connection that men’s consumption of meat is seen as an exemplar of normative masculinity (Sobal, 2005). Indeed it is widely considered to be an essential sustenance for the healthy male body. Red meat in particular is seen as important for men because it consists of muscle (much like the prototypical image of the male body), which provides for strength, energy and virility. Red meat is frequently eaten in a semi-cooked or near raw state with signs of blood thereby symbolising vitality and strength (Potts and Parry, 2010).

Eating red meat in a more or less raw state also enables a power relationship to be formed between the slaughtered animal and the consumer that links to masculine power and domination over nature (Fiddes, 1991). A refusal to consume meat thereby signals the opposite of red-blooded masculinity – femininity. Such gendered notions are often expressed in the media by ‘hunter-gatherer’ metaphors (Gough, 2007). Not surprisingly then, fewer men than women are vegetarian. Vegetarian men typically come under more scrutiny than women and often bear the brunt of ridicule for their choice of food.

Vegetarianism

Masculinity

Women must be slim?


Alice Dogruyol’s article ‘Big girl in a skinny world: Killer heels are fine for tiny girls, but I’m carrying 90 kilos on spikes’ (Daily Mail, 8 June 2010) lends itself well to feminist psychology, and specifically the ways in which the female body is socially constructed and the implications this can have for women’s psychological (and physical) health. For example, Dogruyol describes herself, after having caught sight of her own reflection in a shop window, as ‘shapeless’ and ‘huge’, or as the title suggests ‘Big girl in a skinny world’. Her self-perception mirrors the strongly entrenched view that in order to be considered attractive and of value in Western culture women must be slim (Bordo 1993). Dogruyol’s self-perception of her body is part of a medium of culture in which the physical body becomes a reflection of the social body, such that, the central rules and hierarchies of Western culture determine how the body is seen (Bordo, 1993). Therefore, the body becomes a direct form of social control, in which greater restrictions and less tolerance is imposed on girls and women than on boys and men (Lee, 1998). The significance of physical attractiveness means that ideals such as ‘women must be slim’ have psychological implications for women in that they experience some degree of dissatisfaction with their bodies and that this may lead to a sense of alienation from the body, a fragmented self and a lack of autonomy. In order to regain a sense of autonomy and self, Dogruyol opts to make her body appear ‘slimmer’ by purchasing new clothes that will produce ‘a stylish, confidence-boosting new look.’

Big girl in a skinny world: Killer heels are fine for tiny girls, but I’m carrying 90 kilos on spikes

Ideological dilemmas and depression


Tim Lott’s recent article ‘Men are suffering a depression epidemic…’ in the Daily Mail argues that one of the causes of men’s depression is the fluidity of the roles they are ‘expected to play in modern life, both professionally and emotionally, and as fathers and husbands’, which ‘can lead to a lot of painful doubt about what the role of a man actually is’. That is, men are ‘expected to be strong yet sensitive, successful but not materialistic, caring yet masculine’. Whether it is fair, as he does, to blame women for this is a moot point. However, the article does provide an interesting example of how ideological dilemmas may affect mental health.

Billig et al (1988) first introduced the concept of ideological dilemmas in a book with the same name. Their aim was to make a contribution to the debate surrounding the nature of ideology by questioning the notion that ideologies are always constituted by integrated and coherent sets of ideas. Although they did not deny that ideologies could conform to this classical Marxist definition, they argued that a different kind of ideology existed. These ‘lived’ ideologies are the beliefs, values and practices of a given society. In other words, these ideologies are a society’s ‘common sense’ ways of doing things. Unlike their Marxist counter-parts, these ideologies are often characterized by inconsistency, fragmentation and contradiction, which do not provide clear and concise ways for people to think and act. Billig et al (1988) provide numerous examples, such as the dilemma between ‘many hands make light work’ and ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, or, ‘look before we leap’ and ‘he who hesitates is lost’.

Edley (2001) argues that the concept of ideological dilemmas can also inform our understanding of gender and gender relations. One such example is the dilemma of work versus family. That is, how do mothers and fathers fulfill their career aspirations as well as their parental obligations, and also find time to develop their own relationship by having quality time together away from the demands of children and work? In addition, men are today, confronted as never before with mediated messages that invite them to openly confront their emotions, be sensitive, caring and feel comfortable seeking help, whilst at the same time they are expected to be appear powerful, strong and self-reliant (Gough, 2009). It is these ideological dilemmas that Lott and MIND identify as often leading to men suffering depression.

Men are suffering a depression epidemic too… and some of it is caused by women

MIND – Men’s mental health

Ideological Dilemmas: A Social Psychology of Everyday Thinking

Gender fatigue: The ideological dilemma of gender neutrality and discrimination in organisations