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Keep’em Covered: Gender Policing Baby Nipples

Is your baby girl a slut? A new Gerber “Beautiful Baby Contest” rules that baby girl nipples cannot be shown. In this piece, Bridget Welch explores what this reveals about gender norms and how we construct and police bodily displays.

Most parents think their child is this most beautiful child to ever have been born. It’s pretty much the rule. Those parents are wrong. You know how I know? My son (we’ll call him by his nickname “Bug”) is actually the most beautiful child to have ever drawn breath. Sorry other parents. I’m sure your kids are very cute. It’s just a sad fact that they can’t compete with this:

Cutest. Baby. Ever.

Take a minute. Glory in the cuteness. You know you want to.

So sure am I of Bug’s superior looks that I entered him into a Gerber baby competition where first prize is a $50,000 scholarship. I am confident that his smarts will match his looks and one day we will be using that scholarship to help pay his way through Harvard (or Stanford or Yale … I mean, I don’t want to force him into anything – he can choose any Ivy league he wants).

Evidently, boys can rock it with a diaper and a jaunty hat. But baby girls need to have their nipples covered.

Okay. Being a professor of sociology does not prohibit me from having the same delusions as everyone else. What it does do, however, is make me look at the submission requirements a little bit differently than other people may. The rules include a prohibition against images that show children who are “not appropriately dressed.” Which made me wonder…

…What exactly is “appropriately dressed” for an infant? A diaper to cover the naughty bits? An artistically draped and carefully placed washcloth to keep PG a baby in the buff? Neither of these is the case. Turns out that “appropriately dressed,” according to Gerber, varies based on the sex of the baby:

“No child, male or female, over the age of 2 years can be wearing just underwear/diaper. Female children, regardless of age, must be clothed on top and bottom.”

Evidently, boys can rock it with a diaper and a jaunty hat. But baby girls need to have their girls covered.

Even my assumptions about what would be “appropriately dressed” (i.e. cover thy genitals) reveals something about American society. Underlying the idea that nudity needs to be covered is a social norm (rules for behavior) about how the human body is understood.

There are certain areas of the body that are sexualized and, as such, need to be hidden from site. These areas differ throughout time (e.g. the belief that women’s ankles needed to be covered in Victorian times) and between different cultures (e.g. men wearing nothing but a penis gourd as they do in New Guinea would not fly in the U.S.).

Inside the U.S., social norms about what can be shown and what is too sexualized (so needs to be hidden) varies by a lot of factors. How would you react if your mom showed up to a family dinner out dressed like Snooki? What if it was Halloween? Would you be surprised to see a girlfriend flashing her breasts at a school assembly? What if you were in New Orleans for Mardi Gras? Your reaction to a man walking down the street in assless chaps? Would you be surprised to see this at a gay pride parade? What kind of nudity is acceptable depends on the social situation – where you are nude and the occasion. It also depends on who is doing it in terms of age, race, and (most important here) sex. Appropriateness is something we socially define.

Women who dress in ways to show off too much cleavage, midrift, and/or leg are frequently labeled “sluts.”

If you take pretty much any introduction to sociology class you will learn that there is a difference between sex and gender. Most frequently, sex is defined as the biological categorization of a body as male or female [1. Of course this is WAY oversimplifying reality. Bodies are NOT just male or female. The rate of a person being born as not just male or female – intersexed— is much higher than you would think (over 1 in 1000). But, that is a whole ‘nother post.]. Gender on the other hand is a set of rules (or norms!) that govern the behaviors, dress, attitudes, and expectations we assign to men and women. These norms include how you should display your body. As with any norm, your behavior is sanctioned or policed. If a person breaks the norm – dresses inappropriately – he/she will be negatively sanctioned. Sanctions and gender policing work to encourage people to follow social norms and, in so doing, maintain order. For example, a man who wears a deep v-neck shirt maybe called “fag” as a way to police his behavior to let him know that is NOT how a “real man” dresses.

Female bodies are policed to the extreme. As this video shows (go watch it!), women who dress in ways to show off too much cleavage, midrift, and/or leg are frequently labeled “sluts.” Even more ominously, women are frequently blamed for their own rapes based on what they were wearing. While also destructive to men (who get the wrap of not being able to control themselves around a scantily clad woman), the result for women is that it is their behavior that is often placed on trial and questioned when a rape is reported.

Women’s bodies and sexual behavior is so tightly policed that Gerber cowers at the thought of a stray nipple landing in its Beautiful Baby Contest. This is despite the fact that it is not until puberty that the chests of males and females begin to look different at all! It seems that simply knowing that those nipples belong to a female is enough to sexualize the image. We got to nip (‘ahem’) that type of behavior in the bud before it’s too late. Before we know it, those babies would be staring in their own “[Baby] Girls Gone Wild” videos. Kissing other baby girls… Flashing the camera… Really, Gerber is doing us all a favor.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is gender policing and how does it relate to the concept of social norms?
  2. As discussed in the post, norms of body display vary depending on the social situation. Do you think that men and women take advantage of situations that allow more nudity to show more of themselves? Why or why not?
  3. Can you think of a time when you have experienced gender policing over how you displayed your body (what you were showing, not showing, etc.)? What happened? How did you feel? Did you change how you dressed after this instance?
  4. Sociological Images explores the policing of male and female bodies in this post about the Anthony Weiner scandal. In what ways does that scandal help us understand why Gerber may be cautious about allowing naked images of baby girls?