The literature on sex equality is shot through with accounts of this predicament, variously described as a “double bind,” a “Catch-22,” or a “tightrope.” In many workplaces, women are pressured to be “masculine” enough to be respected as workers, but also to be “feminine” enough to be respected as women. (I put the adjectives “masculine” and “feminine” in quotation marks when otherwise unmodified because I use them to describe perceptions rather than realities about traits held by men and women.) The sheer mass of evidence further persuades me that demands for conformity made of women are not generic, but target them as women. I also become convinced these contradictory demands mean the story of contemporary sex discrimination is more complex than a single narrative of forced conformity to the dominant group.
To see how distinctive this Catch-22 is to women, consider the absence of a gay equivalent. If gays were in the same position as women, straights would constantly ask me not only to cover but to reverse cover. If I dressed conservatively, I would be asked to wear edgier attire. If I “acted straight,” I would be urged to be more flamboyant. But I do not think gays occupy this position. With significant exceptions of the “queer eye for the straight guy” variety, straights generally only ask me to cover. In my experience, the reverse-covering demand is more likely to be made by gays themselves.
Racial minorities are more like gays than women in this regard. If I, as an Asian-American, “dress white” and speak “perfect unaccented English,” I will find safe harbor. Whites make occasional reverse-covering demands – “Speak Japanese so we can hear what it sounds like,” or, “No, tell us where you’re really from.” But again, I have fielded reverse-covering demands more often from other Asian Americans, who tell me to get as politicized about Asian American issues as I am about gay issues.
When gays or racial minorities are caught in the crossfire of covering and reverse-covering demands, it is often because we are caught between two communities. The majority community (straights or whites) makes the covering demand, and the minority community (gays or racial minorities) makes the reverse-covering demand. Recent literature on African-American “oppositional culture” illustrates this dynamic. In response to white demands that African-Americans “act white,” some African-Americans have developed a culture of “acting black.” An African-American could easily be caught in a Catch-22, but not one generated by whites alone. More generally, negative epithets for racial minorities who cover – such as “oreo,” “banana,” “coconut,” or “apple” – seem to come from minority groups rather than from whites.
What makes women distinctive is that the dominant group – men – regularly imposes both covering and reverse-covering demands on them. Women are uniquely situated in this way because their subordination has more generally taken a unique form. Unlike gays and racial minorities, women have been cherished by their oppressors. Men have long valued the “feminine” traits women are supposed to hold, such as warmth, empathy, and nurture. Continue reading
by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
Continued from “Bela or Bust: Part 1: On Gender” . . .
Author’s note: My apologies for the delay between part one and part two! I have recently moved back to the United States and in between re-adjusting and job hunting, I had not had the chance or the mental clarity to sit down and actually write!
The popular anecdote goes “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” If I were to rephrase this expression to fit Brazil, I’d say “Beauty is next to Wealth.” Though Brazil has grown considerably with tourism, natural resources, and factory-based goods as its largest sectors of revenue, on the ground, the class divide is evident and going strong. One ironic way to overcome class and bridge the class divide, at least superficially, is through a well-kept appearance. I say ironic here because in order to appear a social or economic equal, one must continue to consume, thus depleting one’s income, even if it is far from disposable.
Luckily for many Brazilian women, maintaining one’s physical appearance is not so heavy a financial task. Even in large cities, one can get an amazing manicure/pedicure for less than $20 reais ($10 USD), a facial for $50 reais ($25 USD), a “Brazilian” wax for $15 reais (known there as “depilação de virilha”; $7 USD) and multiple sessions of lymphatic massage for $100 reais a month ($50 USD). In comparison to the cost of aesthetic maintenance in the United States, Brazilian women are the fortunate ones. In some ways, the cheap costs, even for the average Brazilian, allow for a democratization of access to beauty, whereas in the U.S., this is not so much the case. And when one can find cheap beauty related services in the U.S., the question of service, quality, and even employee rights follows the far too reasonable price tag.
With relatively equal access to stellar services, many women have access to maintaining an image that puts them physically on par with their wealthier counterparts. In other words, she may not be rich, but at least her looks are equal to if not superior to someone with greater material wealth. In the United States, this “phenomenon” of sorts, democratization and equality by way of the physical, can be witnessed in the purchase of clothing and vehicles by those of a lower income. As quality attire is not nearly as expensive in the States as it is in Brazil (due mainly to import taxation and trade issues) and the intellectual property rights of high end designers are often violated by chain stores like H&M and Forever 21, people of the working and lower middle classes have greater access to some of the same clothing styles worn by the rich. As wealth, at least in the past, seemed less of a precarious state in the U.S., the preoccupation with “looking rich” was not evident. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that in many cases, the wealthy in the States can be indistinguishable from the general public (look at stores like Urban Outfitters, which peddles the image of tattered, vintage, and reconstructed clothing at a high price). This is not the case in Brazil, where the wealthy can be spotted from miles away. Continue reading
by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
Continued from “Bela or Bust (Introduction)” . . .
I recognize that to say that the preoccupation with being beautiful for women in Brazil boils down to three separate entities is oversimplifying. Gender, class, and race obviously intersect constantly and are difficult to consider beyond their Venn diagram-like existence. Yet for the sake of clarity and hopefully accessibility, I have decided to discuss this topic in three parts: 1) gender, 2) class, and 3) race.
Despite Brazil being one of the most powerful countries in Latin America, it is still working to develop an image that coincides with the nations with which it frequently interacts for diplomatic purposes and international recognition. While issues surrounding class are certainly a cause for shame to the Brazilian national identity, one of the other issues on its pulse for change is gender. Brazil has undergone rapid change in the last few decades in terms of women’s equality, with women moving from predominately domestic roles to working beyond the home and holding positions of power. Yet even with these achievements, the obsession with physical perfection has not dwindled, though in Brazil’s case, advances in women’s rights and an extensive beauty regimen are not necessarily at odds. In fact, in an ironic twist, what some women in the United States may find as a sign of oppression has become a mark of power and success.
Having grown up in the South, I’m accustomed to seeing women spend hundreds of dollars a month on their appearance and hours on maintaining it, but when I moved to Brazil, I was sincerely shocked to see that in both small towns and big cities, full-service beauty salons were everywhere, including people’s homes. Many Brazilians know someone who knows someone who does waxing, hair straightening, and nails in the back of her house. As Brazil has one of the largest informal labor sectors in the world, beauty certainly makes up a large part of this statistic, mean that many women have additional job opportunities even when they remain in the home. From Avon, Racco, and Mary Kay sales to nail care and lymphatic massage, the opportunities for a supplemental income are endless and easily accessible for women of all walks of life.
An intense focus on beauty has also been a mark of pride for women, especially as they climb socially. With more women each year entering the workforce in Brazil, peer recognition and respect are contingent on appearance. As more women hold positions of power, the pressure to remain beautiful only grows, as it can sometimes guarantee a better position and internal advancement within a company. However, this is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to Brazil, as this situation is often repeated in the United States, yet to a less obvious degree.
At this point, some of you may be asking what exactly I am implying when I say things like “intense focus on beauty” or “extensive beauty regiment.” When I say this, I am talking about what we would consider “high maintenance” in the United States as the accepted norm for women’s appearance. A woman must always be “bem arrumada.” This means that even when one goes grocery shopping, heels, nice clothes, and styled hair is the norm. One of my students once told me that she felt absolutely dirty when her nails were not done, and another informed me she would never leave the house with wet hair because that was super “pobre” (“ghetto”). Sure, some of the beauty norms make total sense, particularly those related to hygiene and personal maintenance (i.e. frequent waxing) considering the heat and beach cultures of some regions of Brazil. There is also a cultural connection in that just as many Americans obsess over cleanliness, Brazilians often obsess about neatness. This desire to be neat and clean goes beyond the household and can be easily observed in people’s overall appearance. But in terms of the daily need to be basically perfect, a pressure that is placed disproportionately on women, there is certainly room for questioning and criticism.
by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
“So, are the girls hot?”
This is the most common question I receive from American men when I explain that I have been living in Brazil. These men come from all walks of life, are of various racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, and of varying levels of education, exposure to other countries, etc. Long story short, this question seems to be on the minds of many men. It is, for better or for worse, a universal curiosity.
But in my response, I quickly put things in perspective.
“Well, for one, Ugly travels. I see just as many unattractive people in Brazil as I do in the States, and equally as many beautiful people on both sides as well. But I can safely say that the majority of women in Brazil work really hard to be beautiful, more so than the majority of American women.”
There are usually follow-up questions about body types (butts being the primary focus, of course) and clothing styles (are the clothes all skimpy?) and I handle those accordingly. The preoccupation with appearance in Brazil-related questions is to be expected considering that one of the primary portrayals of Brazil in the United States relates to beach culture, scantily-clad women, and sex. But when one takes the time to consider the reasons behind the high standards of beauty in Brazil, it is obvious that there is more to being beautiful and participating in the process of achieving that than just a bikini wax or the perfect nails. Beauty in Brazil is a complex matter involving gender, race and, most certainly, class. Continue reading
by Guest Contributor Mimi, originally published at Threadbared
Because this is a fashion plus politics blog, I want to post some very brief thoughts about the protests rocking Iran after what some observers are calling a fraudulent election, reinstalling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against his main opposition, moderate reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi. (For news about the election and protests, The New York Times’ The Lede News Blog is frequently updated. For more analysis, check out Juan Cole.)
A glance at the Western media coverage from before and after the election reveals an overwhelming visual trope — the color photograph of a young and often beautiful Iranian woman wearing a colorful headscarf, usually pinned far back from her forehead to frame a sweep of dark hair. Such an image condenses a wealth of historical references, political struggles, and aesthetic judgments, because the hijab does. As Minoo Moallem argues in her book Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, both pre- and postrevolutionary discourses commemorate specific bodies –whose clothing practices play a large part— to create forms and norms of gendered citizenship, both national and transnational. What Moallem calls the civic body becomes the site of political performances in the particular contexts of modern nationalist and fundamentalist movements.
This particular image being disseminated throughout the Western press right now is no exception — we are meant to understand the looseness of the scarf, the amount of hair she shows, as political acts, manifesting a desire for Western-style democracy. But this shorthand is too simplistic, too easy. As Moallem argues, Islamic nationalism and fundamentalism are not premodern remnants but themselves “by-products of modernity.” As such, the image of the Iranian woman in her loose headscarf is not a straightforward arrow from Islamic backwardness to liberal progress, but a nuanced and multi-dimensional map of political discourse and struggle. Continue reading
by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger
A couple of weeks ago I had the Toronto launch of my novel, Shine, Coconut Moon. I prepared myself in the usual way, going over what I would read, how I would introduce myself and the book to the guests, and anticipating audience questions during the Q&A. This Q&A, however, threw me off. I should have known better than to expect the usual, “So, when did you know you wanted to be a writer?” line of questioning from my Canadian peeps.
The questions they wanted answers to were more along the lines of: So, what would you say is the difference between Canadian racism and American racism? And, Would you say South Asians in the U.S. are more assimilated than South Asians in Canada?
Maybe I brought it on myself with the intro.
Before reading an excerpt, I talked a bit about how, while living in Canada, I never thought of myself as Canadian – I was always Indian or Punjabi or Sikh and then later, South Asian. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. and lived through eight years of the Bush administration, that I felt the most Canadian I’d ever felt in my life. That was when I realized that things I’d always taken for granted (free universal health care being only one of many) were values that formed and shaped who I was. They were the underpinnings of what I thought was right and just. And I was clearly not in Canada anymore.
But having to answer those tough questions for fellow Canadians was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do yet. So much of the experience sits as half-formed thoughts that I had to somehow mold into coherent responses.
Things like the fact that when I lived in Canada, I reveled in my “ethnicity,” wore my Indian-ness with unapologetic joy. But the minute I crossed the border I shrunk from everything that made me appear “too” ethnic. I was hassled at the border several times when I visited home and tried to return. My partner at the time begged me to remove my nose ring and to dress more “corporate” so that I would get across. And the time that I followed that advice, the crossing was smooth and uneventful. I understood, then, on a much deeper level, why that push for assimilation was so strong south of the border. Continue reading
by Guest Contributor Lisa, originally published at Sociological Images
Frankie is a lindy hop legend. He choreographed the first clip below and is the dancer in the overalls.
In the 1980s, there was a lindy hop revival. Lindy hop is a partner dance invented by African American youth in Harlem dancing to swing music in the early 1930s. Named after the “hopping” of the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh Jr., it became wildly popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, traveling from the East to the West Coast and from black to white youth. Since its resurgence, Lindy Hoppers have enjoyed a national scene with websites, workshops, competitions, and city-wide social events that draw national and international crowds.
Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.
So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverance, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people. Let’s look at how this plays out.
This clip, from the movie Hellzapoppin’ (1941) is perhaps the most inspirational clip in the contemporary lindy hopper’s arsenal:
By the way, the dancers are in “service” outfits because of the way lindy hop scenes featuring black dancers were included in movies. Typically they would have no relationship to the plot; they would occur out of nowhere and then disappear. This was so that the movie studios could edit out the scene when the movie was going to be shown to those white audiences that were hostile to seeing any positive representation of black people at all. Continue reading
by Latoya Peterson
*Note – Spoilers and lengthy.*
My mother would never win any awards, believe me. You could call her an absentee parent: if she wasn’t at work she was sleeping and when she was around it seemed all she did was scream and hit. As kids, me and Oscar were more scared of our mother than we were of the dark or el cuco. She would hit us anywhere, in front of anyone, always free with the chanclas and the correa, but now with her cancer there’s not much she can do anymore. The last time she tried to whale on me it was because of my hair, but instead of cringing or running I punched her hand. It was a reflex more than anything, but once it happened, I knew I couldn’t take it back, not ever, and so I just kept my fist clenched, waiting for whatever came next, for her to attack me with her teeth like she did to this one lady in the Pathmark. But she just stood there shaking, in her stupid wig and her stupid bata, with two large foam prostheses in her bra, the smell of burning wig all around us. I almost felt sorry for her. This is how you treat your mother? she cried.
And if I could have I would have broken the entire length of my life across her face, but instead I screamed back, And this is how you treat your daughter?
Things had been bad between us all year. How could they not have been? She was my Old World Dominican mother and I was her only daughter, the one she had raised up herself with the help of nobody, which meant it was her duty to keep me crushed under her heel. I was fourteen and desperate for my own patch of world that had nothing to do with her. I wanted the life that I used to see when I watched Big Blue Marble as a kid, the life that drove me to make pen pals and to take atlases home from school. The life that existed beyond Paterson, beyond my family, beyond Spanish. As soon as she became sick I saw my chance, and I’m not going to pretend or apologize; I saw my chance and eventually, I took it.
If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know then it’s probably better you don’t judge.
You don’t know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around – especially the ones that are never around. What it’s like to be the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican slave. You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters, she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course, I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I believed her. I was a fea, and I was worthless, I was an idiota.
—The Wildwood, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
My eyes drank in every word of Wildwood, the second chapter in Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the plane from Baltimore to Austin, the narrative gripped me solidly by the throat, turning a casual curiosity about Oscar into a desperate longing to hear more from his sister Lola.
When the plane touched down, my sweatshirt was crunchy with the salt from shed tears and I had run through six napkins while the story unfolded. I grabbed my bags, and called my boyfriend who had been badgering me about reading the novel for some months now.
“Why didn’t you mention Lola?” I asked.
“Who? Oscar’s sister? Why is that…oh.” His voice suddenly bloomed with recognition and we sat in silence for a few seconds. Continue reading