Category Archives: Politics

The Perfect “Body”


What are we to make of a campaign image like this one? Victoria’s Secret is of course well aware of the politics around terms like “perfect body,” and I am sure it is at least as well versed in the intricacies of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign as the people who created it. (VS might be reading too much into negative media and critical responses to Dove’s campaign this year and last, too, though.)

I don’t even have the energy to be outraged by this kind of advertising. It seems self-evidently prescriptive, unkind, and elitist. It would be a great jumping-off point for a university seminar on advertising or internalized sexism — beauty standards seems too obvious.

But it is very hard to see this kind of imagery as anything other than a deliberate taunt. Apparently “the perfect body” (by Victoria) comes in several color ways (as any well-developed product line does) but, judging by the different types of bras listed beneath the models, is one that varies primarily in a woman’s preference for displaying her breasts.

Then again, what else should we expect from the promoter of the world’s most expensive bra?

UPDATE, November 10: Tagline changed to “A Body for Every Body,” but the art is exactly the same. So now instead of saying their waifish models are “perfect,” they are actually claiming they represent “every body.” This is worse, a truly remarkable display of tone deafness.


Men’s Health and the Foam Finger

So this happened.


The article is short:

The Secret to Talking Sports with Any Woman

The things that interest you are unlikely to interest her, but you can still make a connection; here’s how

Not all women share your passion for sports, in case you hadn’t noticed. The reason? They need story lines.

“Most women don’t care about stats,” says Andrei Markovits, Ph.D., coauthor of Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States. So while you’re enthusing about Dominic Moore’s scoring record, she’d rather hear about how he supported his wife’s battle with cancer—and even took a season off from the NHL at the height of his career. Treat your heroes as people and not just players on a field, and you’ll suck her in.

Just don’t expect her to wear the foam finger.

My gut response is “why are you trying to sell me something I don’t care about? Why are you trying to talk to me if we don’t share any interests?”

I guess the real question is, “Why do we think it’s normal and OK that men and women who are intimate can somehow fail to share interests?” In fact, why do we even think it’s true?

But the worst part of this whole thing is that the advice about bringing a story into it is actually pretty good — the writer just chose an awful story.

Humans love stories.

Male humans. Female humans. Juvenile humans. Adult humans. Story has been a defining passion of humans for as long as we could record … anything.

And that applies to the most passionate statistics-collecting baseball fan. I don’t know a single one who’d claim it was just a bunch of numbers — for them the numbers tell a rich tapestry of stories over generations, stories about struggles and careers and disappointments and triumphs. And that’s no mere asterisk in that table! THAT’s a whole other story!

So tell her a story! Don’t try to dig up some trivia YOU don’t care about but are second-guessing she will. Tell her the story YOU see unfolding. Tell her how you fell in love with the game, how many happy memories you have going to see it played. Tell her about career-high and career-low events you witnessed or followed.

Maybe she’ll even want to know more! She may ask how a game progresses — pretty much no one cares about a sport they can’t follow. Use that opportunity to challenge yourself to think about the big picture instead of getting bogged down in a rabbit warren of little rules. At least at first.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up having something in common after all.

When You See Someone You Find Unattractive

[Fat|scrawny|ugly|whatever] people shouldn’t be allowed to wear [bikinis|spandex|yoga pants|whatever].

If you find yourself thinking this, you can solve this problem once and for all:

Don’t like someone’s body? Stop looking at it.

So easy! One simple step that anyone can take. Try it today!

But I’m entitled to my opinion!

Yes, absolutely. So take responsibility for it. Own it. Say “I don’t like the way bikinis look on that body type.”

But that makes it sound like it’s just about me, like no one has to care.

Right again! No one has to care about your opinion of their body.

But it’s not just personal — it’s about standards. People should have some pride in their appearance, and not look like that.

Nope. Wrong. Nobody has an obligation to please you with their appearance. (Unless you are a Drill Instructor doing an inspection, I guess. Are you?)

This isn’t just about appearance! It’s about health. Those people aren’t healthy.

Ah yes, the “just trying to help fat people” defense. That may be true, but you don’t know, you don’t know whether they’re working to change that, and you don’t know what obstacles they’ve faced.

You’re probably [fat|ugly|scrawny|whatever], too!

Yeah, probably. There’s a lot of people in the world, and I’m sure there’s plenty I don’t appeal to. Plus, all those terms are moving targets — they don’t have consistent uses among different people.

Anyway, now you know what to do about it!

Like a Girl

Always has released this ad (by Leo Burnett):

Girls know the difference between “like a girl” and “the way I (a girl) do it.” Boys know they are insulting girls, and are fine with it, but they don’t like insulting their sisters.

Let’s close those gaps.

Related: Verizon ad that calls attention to the ways we tell girls to stop what they’re doing, be pretty, and let the boys do it. Let’s stop doing that.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Perspective can be tough to get, especially on our own behavior. We know that “seeing the big picture” or “getting an aerial view” is important to deep understanding, that we need to get some distance. It’s much easier to give someone else good advice than to follow it ourselves (even when our ability to give good advice comes directly from needing it).

It’s true for group behavior, too. The conventions, the little in-jokes, the “way we’ve always done it” – these can be harmful to individuals, but if the group is homogeneous enough, the pressure to refrain from pointing it out can be just as strong as the negative experiences themselves.

From a booklet intended to help wartime supervisors bring women into the workplace, from the Records of the War Manpower Commission.

When women went to work to support the war effort, they entered an environment few of them had ever seen, supervised by people who barely recognized where they were coming from. These pages, along with 2 other spreads at the National Archives, Southeast Region, give us a look into a booklet to help those supervisors get the best work out of these mysterious new employees.

This is good advice for all managers of any employees.

The presentation has all the hallmarks of a startlingly condescending piece, but the words tell a different story. Women are cooperative, patient, teachable. It may seem ridiculous that any of those things needed to be said, especially at a time when women were expected to be agreeable, long-suffering, and obedient, but the language is certainly more respectful than those cultural expectations. And the guidelines themselves are remarkable for what they really are: just plain good advice about welcoming new employees and managing them effectively.

This IS people management.

As minority interests of all kinds receive more attention, we see over and over again that familiarity goes a long way, that seeing the old, established ways through the lens of the people who had no say in them brings harmful behavior into focus and creates the potential for a better experience for all. Men benefit just as much as women from respectful treatment in the workplace, arguably more because they still have advantages there as well!

People don’t like change, and they often can’t stand the idea that someone ‘has it easier’ because of a classification difference. Fostering the understanding that they don’t have it easier – quite the contrary – is probably a lost cause, but we don’t really need a “who has it worst” contest at work, anyway. Workplace practices that proactively and supportively resolve issues that get in the way of actually getting the work done put the emphasis where it belongs: on the work getting done.

We can do it!


So Meta

We tend to think of many things as modern, as if previous generations never wrestled with them, or considered them. Just as the good ol’ days really weren’t, there is nothing new under the sun.

Take this ad from the mid 1970s. (Please!) It’s easy to dismiss it immediately with a “Jeez, aim high, kiddo – and by the way, doc, you’re a jerk.” (That was the reaction at the time, too – this ad ran in New Zealand, where it was called out by a local feminist publication, Broadsheet, as among the most sexist print ads on offer.)

But there is something else going on here, something we love to congratulate ourselves for today, and that’s an implicit critique of advertising in the first place. That guy’s a random dentist, apparently doing a well-child exam. He wants to harness this girl’s good genetics and responsible dental care, which there is no reason to believe he has any responsibility for (the ad is for a consumer product bought at the drugstore), as if it represents something about his practice. (Besides hiring cheerful, attractive receptionists, as I am sure most businesses like to do.)

I love/hate this kind of advertising. I worked in advertising long enough to gravitate happily toward almost anything that subverts its premises, but sexism aside this kind of in joke makes me weary, underscoring the vacuous manipulation of the industry.

Thing-a-day 25: Looking Like a Man

A Facebook friend of mine liked a post from Dana Linn Bailey tonight. Bailey is a bodybuilder, and she posted a full-length photo of herself in the gym. As always when a woman shares a photograph of herself, the post attracted lots of comments passing judgment on her appearance. Bailey has lots of loving fans, but the Internet really seems to encourage the kind of guy who has to tell the world that some arbitrary woman does not appeal to him, as if it matters. And some of those men favored Bailey with comments along the lines of her looking like a man.

This is a hot-button issue wherever women touch weights. There persists a Victorian fantasy of women as fragile creatures, perpetuated by increasingly confused claims about what’s ladylike, and idiot celebrity trainers who insist no woman should lift weights heavier than 3 lb. Never mind that a gallon of milk is over 8 lb, potatoes comes in 10-lb sacks, and children – and handbags – often weigh much more, and no one seems to think women should be exempt from handling them. If a woman has the temerity to do exactly the kind of conditioning that will enable her to handle all those womanly duties with greater efficiency, a better energy level, and less risk of injury – watch out! Who knows what horrors might lie around the corner!

Cartoons about women exercising, and similar cartoons about woman suffrage, played on the assumption that the mere possibility of women narrowing the gap between what men and women could do would necessarily lead to abusive behavior. Pretty interesting statement about what being “manly” really means. (Larger)

If a woman lifts weights or develops her body for personal reasons, she’s especially threatening. I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I remember how much more competent and independent I felt after I started doing some lifting. And those feelings can lead to confidence, and to abandoning wide-eyed gratitude for offers of help – possibly even not hearing them, because you are too busy just going ahead and lifting that box or carrying that whatever-it-is.

It’s tempting to ascribe the negative responses to women’s strength as simple misogyny tinged with a fear that strong women can treat men the way men have been treating women. But there’s a kinder, gentler fear in there somewhere, too: in a society in which we’ve defined women as needing the help of men, what happens when they don’t need that help anymore? Will they not need men? Both of those fears are as hostile to men – painting them as essentially brutal or basically worthless – as they are to women. We all deserve better than that.

In the fitness world, some people spend a lot of time dismissing women’s concerns about looking like men because they lift, and I’d love to see this stop for two reasons:

  • It’s a moving target. You don’t know what a woman is thinking of when she expresses that worry, and women do get told they are mannish, almost no matter what they look like. I suspect much of it has to do with confidence and independence – that a woman just having a can-do attitude, and dropping the slack-jawed, tentative stuff, rubs a lot of people the wrong way. So you can never reliably promise a woman that she “won’t look mannish” – the genuine concern (and negative attention she gets) might not even be about looks in the first place.
  • Who cares if they do? Seriously, who cares about this? Women may seek a particular look, and I’m all for that, whatever it is, as long as they don’t feel ashamed or coerced into seeking it – and that goes triple for “feminine” looks. And then there’s women like Dana Linn Bailey. She knows what she’s doing! She’s built a successful professional life with that look, carefully and deliberately. If you act like there is something wrong with that, it is entirely on you – it has less than nothing to do with her.

We don’t need to worry about women looking mannish (or men looking womanly). We need to worry about why we think it’s a problem if they do. Men and women have a lot of differences, and sometimes it does seem like we are from different planets, but we’re not. We’re both from Earth, and we are both part of the same species. We are more alike than we are different, and the idea that one of us resembling the other can be taken as an insult is an absurdity that has meaning only if you think that one of those things is necessarily inferior.

Thing-a-day 15: Pin-ups

In an online community I’m part of, there has been a slight trend of men posting pictures in stereotypically “feminine” selfie poses. The examples I’ve seen recall the “male super heroes posed like female super heroes” images that have become popular recently. I don’t love this imagery. It can be done with good production values, as in this Ducati shoot (interestingly, the various men wear – with differing degrees of success – the same pair of shoes in all 13 shots):

It can also be done very deliberately and with apparently good intentions, as in this project by photographer Rion Sabean, called “Men-Ups”:

From Men-Ups!

But does anyone believe this kind of project makes progress “reversing the stereotypes created by society, begging the questions; why is it sexual for a female to pose one way, and not sexual for a male?” Worse, does anyone truly not already know “Why is it considered more comical or unsettling for males to act the more socially defined feminine?” (Quotes from Sabean’s project statement.)

The reason these are treated as “comical” or “unsettling” instead of hostile or contemptuous is that the makers tell us they are completely in on it from the beginning – they aren’t just telling one of their classmates on the schoolyard that he “throws like a girl!” and then sneering at him for it. The photos still show parodies of feminine poses, and derive their “comical” or “unsettling” power from the ridiculousness of seeing men in them, especially when they appear to be in drag. They invite us to make fun of femininity but don’t sincerely ask us to question the validity of feminine prescriptions when the object is female. When women are in those poses, it is just as ridiculous, but does anyone come away thinking that? I mean, anyone who didn’t arrive already thinking that?

I can’t help feeling like we’re going about this the wrong way with these “mash-up” photos. If our desire is to question the prescriptions, why not simply do that — step up and produce images that set aside the window-dressing of those stereotyped images and take aim squarely at their goal: typically showing women as sexy and sexually available (vs typically showing men as subjects, actors, takers of control — and of course of women).

For example, take this sexy librarian:

From Men of the Stacks, a calendar featuring male librarians.

The power of the Men of the Stacks calendar lies in the simple fact that while the images have sexual appeal, they are not parodies of feminine styling or poses, nor are they especially stereotypically masculine, for that matter (yet without the smooth, “small” styling that makes even bearded men look slight and child-like in the Men-Ups!, adding another, troubling dimension to their ambivalence). Zack, above, features in the sexiest photo, the most overtly sexual, and it’s just plain gorgeous. It helps that he has a fairly pretty face, but his body is thoroughly masculine, and his pose, while not the typical stilted, symmetrical stance that men often adopt in candid photos, isn’t the demeaning, “presenting” angle that invites the viewer to laugh at Manigale and Men-Ups!

In discussions about this subject within fandom, I see women make comments praising what I’ve described as parody treatments as “cathartic,” welcome after “dealing with this shit” — referring to the way female characters are often treated, particularly in “fan service” (using deliberately sexual objectification to titillate [male] fans). I understand, and I find these images interesting and link-worthy myself, but women also participate directly in perpetuating the stereotypes that support sexist, prescriptive representation. How could we not, raised as we are in a society in which it is utterly endemic and often provides the shape of what constitutes “attractive” to the people among whom we seek our romantic partners? I completely understand the “turnabout is fair play” desire here, and I hope it is but one small step in a larger journey for women of meaningfully rejecting the prescriptions for feminine posing.

We may have a lot of ideas about “what [straight] boys like,” and boys may say a lot of things, but at the end of the day, a lot of boys mainly just like girls. We have power to create opportunities for ourselves — with our phones and social media accounts — to shift the representation of women, while staying in touch with what makes us feel attractive. I would love to see a different mix of poses diffuse out among the countless self-portraits that flood the social networks. Not women posing in stereotypically masculine ways (although that has cathartic value as well), but women posing more naturally, more simply, less apologetically, less tentatively. Women just dropping the “wide-eyed, slack-jawed” softcore porn faces that decades of unironic pin-ups have left us with, and looking like they are at home as the subjects of their photos, instead of a little baffled by the props that surround them.

Thing-a-day 7: Languages That Didn’t Make the Cut

How would that controversial Coke ad have sounded with a line in Klingon? Or dolphin?

Coke’s ad was nice. The company has famously expressed its wish to buy the world a Coke, and many people have a bottle or can of Coke labeled in a foreign language, that they kept after a trip abroad. You can even buy them on eBay. Appearing throughout popular culture in movies, books, and music, it has had remarkable, multichannel success in Coca-Colanization of more or less the entire planet. Coke does business (in a friend’s words) “in every country that isn’t actually on fire” — and probably in a few that are.

The United States population is composed primarily of people who came from other places in the world, or whose fairly recent relatives did. Over the last 400 years, North America has drawn speakers of almost every language with the promise of a new life, of new opportunity. It has refined the idea of the melting pot, with whole generations of immigrants refusing to teach their children their native languages, not wanting to hold them back from assimilation. America the Beautiful is almost necessarily an idea in foreign languages — when they got here, many immigrants found a day-to-day life of backbreaking work, with the best hope of opportunity resting on that of their children to have a better standard of living than they did. It’s an essential aspect of the American experience, the essence of the American dream.

A lot of people didn’t like this ad, calling the foreign languages un-American. I saw some particularly vociferous critiques of it from people whose family names made it clear that their own great-grandparents, give or take a generation or two, might never have been able to form a full sentence in English without difficulty. I think about stories from my own family, about the native tongue being forbidden — mostly with sadness now that we understand more about the cognitive advantages of being bilingual. Well-meaning but short-sighted, rejecting the languages of our forefathers is a powerful signal of affiliation but at a steep cost of isolation, which can rob us of compassion. The language issue was such a powerful flashpoint for many people that they didn’t even notice the gay couple. Maybe that’s progress.