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Waist Training and Body Modification Norms

In this piece April Schueths looks at waist trainers, people who work to shrink their waists with corsets, to invite us to think about how we all modify our bodies in one way or another.

It happened again. I was on Facebook and got sucked into reading something I am not proud of: Twelve Times the Kardashians Made Us Cringe by Wearing Waist Trainers. Apparently the Kardashians have been a part of the waist training corset craze. Kim Kardashian first posted a picture of herself on Instagram in a tight corset, touting that this device can help make your waist smaller and into a feminine hourglass figure. There’s even a group of people, called tightlacers, some who wear their corsets nearly 24 hours a day. My first thoughts were pretty judgmental.

I found myself thinking that waist training seemed incredibly painful and probably dangerous. Then, I began to look at this practice with more nuance.

Body Modification

We all make changes to our bodies, depending on what we can afford. Do you have a body piercing? Have you ever gotten a haircut, shaved, or colored your hair? Do you or anyone you know, have a tattoo? You likely answered yes to at least one of those questions. You might not have even considered that these are all forms of body modification.

“But these are not the same as extreme forms of changing your body, like waist training or surgery,” you might be thinking. Isn’t there a difference between getting your hair colored and getting major surgery? Surgery has many risks, including infection and even death.

As I’ve discussed in a previous Sociology In Focus post, people in the U.S. spend billions of dollars on plastic surgery each year. In 2015, there were nearly 16 million elective plastic surgery procedures in the U.S. Of those, 1.7 million were surgeries, with breast augmentation, being the most common. Labiaplasty, a surgical procedure to decrease the labia, has become quite popular in recent years. Labiaplasty went from 5070 in 2013 to 8075 in 2015, a 72% increase.

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Posing the Dead & Other Death Rituals

In this essay, April Schueths discusses how death rituals, and every other type of ritual, can change over time.

“Have you seen those pictures on the internet of dead people posing? Like, that guy on a motorcycle?” asked someone I know recently. I hadn’t, but of course, I rushed home to do some googling. If you haven’t seen the pictures (and feel comfortable viewing them), click here and here.

This trend is said to have started in 2008 at the Puerto Rican funeral of Angel Luis Pantojas, conducted by the Marín Funeral Home.  The young man had earlier told his family that he wanted to be displayed on his feet rather than in a casket. During the viewing, he was fastened to a wall in his family’s home, and his funeral was referred to as “El Muerto Parao” or dead man standing. Since “El Muerto Parao,” similar funerals have taken place in Puerto Rico and the United States.

But How Can People Make Light of Such an Important Ritual?

People around the world use different rituals, that is, “scripted collective activity that employs certain cherished symbols” (Marwell and Murphree 2013: 391). Rituals, whether sacred or secular, delineate important transitions and provide meaning to the people involved. Rituals include things like graduation ceremonies, holiday traditions, and even interaction patterns, such as the way we greet one another. Check out this webpage for more on the sociological roots of rituals.

Death rituals, such as funerals, offer the grieving a structured and culturally appropriate way to part with their loved ones. Taking part in ritual may:

“Assist in acknowledging the reality of death, provides social support, encourages the expression of emotions, and helps in converting the relationship with the deceased from presence to memory. Ritual also draws the bereaved back into the presence of family and friends; this reconnection with community decreases the social isolation that may develop as a result of the death and facilitates healing” (Kobler, Limbo, and Kavanaugh 2007: 290).

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The Riskiness of Disclosing Stigmatizing Conditions

In the Disney movie Frozen, were Elsa’s parents right to hide her ability to freeze the world? Were their concerns that she would be stigmatized correct? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the real-world risk involved with disclosing stigmatizing conditions. 

The popular song “Let It Go” from the hit film Frozen is a lot of things: an earworm, a parody, a feminist anthem, an LGBT coming out song

I want to focus on a portion of the song, however, and how it relates to the sociological concept of stigma. In case you are unfamiliar with the song, here is the verse that lends itself to a focus on stigma:

“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!”

For Elsa, her secret was that she could freeze everything. An accident where her powers accidentally hurt her sister Anna, led her parents to keep her secret powers concealed from everyone, including her sister. Once her secret became known, she went into exile. The disclosure of her condition was enough of a reason for others to attempt to kill her in an effort to take her kingdom from her.

Elsa’s ability to freeze things was a stigmatizing condition (and also a potential source of power). She was taught to hide her condition. Her’s was a condition that could be kept hidden and controlled as long as she wore her gloves. She always wore her gloves except she had to remove them during her coronation. The lack of gloves made it very difficult for her to keep her condition hidden. She was forced to disclose her ability in a very public way and with immediate risk to her life and threat to her kingdom. She had reason to keep her secret hidden….

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Matching Men: Tinder & The Presentation of Masculinity

On Tinder, you are given very basic information and have to make a decision to swipe left (reject) or swipe right (accept) the person on your phone screen. In this essay, Amanda Fehlbaum investigates how men perform their masculinity on this notorious dating app.

Last weekend, I went on a date. I did not meet this person while browsing at the grocery store or partying at the club. My friends did not set me up on a blind date, nor was he a friend of friends. I did not even connect with this man on a dating site like Match or eHarmony. We connected on Tinder.

Tinder is described in the Apple App Store as “a fun way to discover new and interesting people nearby,” noting that over 10 billion matches have been made using the app. The way it works is this: You sign up using your Facebook profile and your Tinder profile is populated with some photos, your name, age, location. You have the option of including where you went to school and your occupation as well as the option to write a 500 character-length description about yourself.

You are then presented with the photo, name, age, and information of people within a set radius of your location. Because the app is covertly linked to your Facebook, you can also see if you have any friends in common with that person. You do not get to filter matches beyond sex, age, and location. In other words, you see every person who fits just those three criteria….

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Social Construction of Cosmetically Challenged Food

Have you ever bought a potato that looked like Abraham Lincoln’s face, an eggplant that had arms to hug you with, or an orange with a strange growth? Why is it that in America, we pass over “ugly” produce that is nutritionally sound in favor of pretty produce? In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the designation of our fruit and vegetables as edible or non-edible has been socially constructed.

In America, a quarter to a third of all food grown is simply never eaten. In fact, much of it is discarded before it even has the chance to reach the grocery store shelves. When organic “trash” is added to a landfill, dangerous methane gas is produced, which is a significant contributor to the greenhouse effect. Not only is trashing organic matter dangerous, it is a moral and ethical issue as well. According to Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, twenty-five percent of the food that Americans waste would provide three daily meals to over 40 million people. We are a culture that celebrates throwing things away as a symbol of high status. American sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote about our consumer culture in the late 1800’s, arguing that the higher one’s social standing, the more one should consume, discard, and consume again.

Our throw-away culture replaces phones not when they wear out but when a new one is introduced, and also re-creates this behavior with food. Because we live in an environment of excess, we are free to be wasteful. Food waste is an issue at all levels, from individual families to mega-corporations. The average family throws out food that costs them $1,365 to $2,275 per year. The food waste that restaurants discard is now equal to approximately 15% of the average landfill waste. A full 20% of crops grown are turned away by grocery stores based on the cosmetic appearance of the fruits and vegetables.

The Ugly Fruit Movement

Grocery stores insist on a certain “perfect” look for their produce. Skin discolorations and other unsightly blemishes, shapes, or textures are deemed not fit for the fruit and vegetable aisle. Many good-looking tomatoes make it all the way to the grocery store loading dock only to be rejected due to bumping and bruising from the long trip. Because this practice leads to so much waste, food activists have begun raising awareness about the waste of perfectly good, unattractive food. Let’s call it the ugly fruit movement….

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Mom, Dad, & Uncle Sam Want YOU To Be An Engineer

The push for students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics is growing rapidly. In this piece, Mediha Din describes what this nation-wide educational focus means for our society and students. 

If you are a student or teacher, you have undoubtedly come across the acronym STEM during your educational experience. Over the past four years, President Obama has been discussing an academic emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics for our nation’s students. High schools and even elementary schools with a STEM focus are developing in neighborhoods throughout the country at a quick pace. Funding for these programs is receiving strong government support at all academic levels.

When I was in college, one of my close friends majored in English. His parents worked tirelessly to persuade him to major in Computer Science instead. They were worried about spending money on an education that would not result in a high-paying career. It’s a common dilemma for students majoring in the Liberal Arts. In today’s world, students may find that it’s not just their parents that want to sway their educational pursuits, their state officials and governing bodies may also have a desire to influence their paths.

Why STEM?

The emphasis on STEM education is based on the desire to guide students towards degrees that have plenty of job opportunities and train American students for jobs that will earn the highest incomes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Projections for 2018, the current demand for STEM-capable workers greatly surpasses the supply of American applicants trained for those careers. Earlier this year, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin suggested promoting STEM education and cutting Liberal Arts funding in colleges “There will be more incentives for electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will. All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will.” Currently 15 states offer a financial bonus or incentive for “high-demand” degrees in the science, math, engineering, and technology fields, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will.”
– Kentucky governor Matt Bevin

The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that STEM graduates are expected to command the highest overall average salaries in 2016. Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown University professor and director of the Center on Education and the Workforce, explains that most of the top earners in liberal arts will make only as much money as the bottom earners in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Some will even earn less than high school graduates with technical skills in vocations such as welding and mechanics….

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Your Spring Break Location is Often Determined by
Your Social Location

In this piece, April Schueths challenges the stereotype of spring break debauchery and asks us to consider how our spring break plans reflect the social stratification/inequality in the United States.

“What are you doing for spring break?” We all know the spring break stereotype of unruly beachfront debauchery; watch Jon Stewart break down Fox News’s “Exposing Spring Break” to see the stereotype in action. A stereotype is “a simplified and often negative generalization about a group (i.e., college students) that is often false or exaggerated” (Manza, Arum, and Haney 2013: A–11). Clearly, some students will head to the beach, and some will even engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking, unprotected sex, law violations, etc. Yet, it’s simply not true that all college students will do so.

It turns out that many students spend their time productively, volunteering or visiting family while others will take the time to work or catch up on coursework. It is interesting that students’ perception of what their peers are doing on spring break do not match their own self-reported plans.

Spring Break & Social Stratification

We also have to acknowledge that for many students, spending a crazy week at Daytona beach isn’t something they can afford. Some students have fewer spring break options than others. Low-income and working-class students often have difficulty even paying for the basic costs of higher education (i.e., books, housing, food, etc.) and thus work more than their higher income counterparts. Soria, Weiner, and Lu (2014: 14) point out:

“Low-income and working-class students face continued financial challenges while enrolled in college and are more likely to make decisions based on financial needs, rather than educational ones.” In addition, he majority of college students raising children and caring for family members work full-time while attending school.

The point is that the spring break stereotype is built on top of another stereotype; the false idea that all college students are 18–24 year olds without jobs or kids who have family money and student loans to pay for everything. If you fit that stereotype, then cheers to you, but there are many of your peers who don’t. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2013 over a third of all full-time students aged 16–24 were employed and for part-time students the percentage jumped to over two-thirds (See chart below)….

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What Does it Mean to “Get Ahead” in Life?

In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to think about what we really mean when we ask, “what are my chances of getting ahead in life?”

What are my chances of getting ahead? That’s a question we all ask ourselves at some point. But before you get that answer, you have to tell me what you mean by “get ahead”; ahead of whom? Or maybe a better question is, get ahead in what?

If you stop and think about it, the social world is a divided one. Families are broken up into children, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on. Your school is comprised of administrators, teachers, and students (who we further break down into freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors). Businesses have boards of directors, CEOs, vice presidents of this and that, managers, and entry level employees.

But the social world isn’t just divided, it’s hierarchical. Meaning that we rank order these social positions with those at the top commanding the most power, opportunities, and resources compared to those below them. Teachers have the power to grade students. Graduating seniors, who typically get to register first, have a greater opportunity to get into the classes they want. And CEOs have the greatest access to a company’s resources.

Social Hierarchies All Around Us

Social stratification is a field of sociological research that identifies social hierarchies and studies how power, opportunities, and resources are distributed within that hierarchy. Social hierarchies are rank ordered networks of relationships. Families, schools, and corporations are all social hierarchies. Your rank within a social hierarchy is based on the social assets you possess.

A social asset can be anything that allows an individual to lay claim to a particular spot within a social hierarchy. I am a parent and that status is a social asset that places me above my daughter within my family’s social hierarchy. The number of completed credit hours is the social asset that allows students to claim their status as a freshmen, sophomore, junior, or senior. Within a company, the job title of middle manager is a social asset that affords its owner the ability to give orders to those below him or her, but not to those above. Some social assets must be earned (e.g. a bachelor’s degree), while others are obtained at birth (e.g. your age, gender, race, citizenship, etc.).

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In The U.S. We Live Long, But Die Hard

In this essay, April Schueths examines how death is treated in American culture and asks us to consider how we could make death and dying easier in the U.S.

“Don’t touch that body, it’s disrespectful,” my grandfather, a mortician, shouted at me from across the funeral home. He found me, a curious nine year old at the time, standing in front of an open shiny, blue casket, about to touch the face of an older woman I had seen at our local nursing home. It wasn’t uncommon for me and my brothers to stop by the funeral home, where my grandparents also lived, and find a deceased person in a casket in preparation for a viewing.

Death was a part of our day-to-day lives, so talking about death was common for my family. However I’ve found many people work hard to avoid this topic. It can be scary and frightening. It’s almost as if we forget about our mortality and that we will all die someday. Death is a natural part of life, but can create intense anxiety when it’s sanitized and hidden.

Our Death-Denying Society

Western societies have been described as death denying (Kellehear 1984). Zimmermann and Rodin (2004) provide three examples used to support this thesis: 1) We remove death from our lives by avoiding thoughts or conversations about death. For example, the majority of Americans do not have their end of life plans, or advance directives, in writing; 2) We use technological advances to delay death (i.e., the medicalization of death). Even adults with advance directives have no guarantee that physicians will follow through on their wishes. Death, after all, is seen as failure. And, 3) We separate the dying from society in medical facilities. Even though most Americans would prefer to die at home, eighty percent of Americans die in medical facilities, including hospitals or nursing homes.

Lee (2009: 55) argues, denial about death doesn’t make it less painful:

Modern Americans die hard. We live longer thanks to new advances in modern medicine, but we die with less equanimity than our grandparents did. We meet our own death with fear and despair because of anticipated pain and the helpless depression of hopelessness of any afterlife.

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Can President Obama Appoint the Next Supreme Court Justice?

Can President Obama appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court if it is last year in office? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains that Obama does have authority, specifically, legal-rational authority to make this appointment.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died February 13, 2016. Republicans began arguing that President Obama should not appoint a new Supreme Court justice because it is his last year in office. They argue that the appointment decision should go to the next president. This would mean that the vacancy would be open for over a year. Their argument is that though the current president has the authority to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, there is a long-standing tradition that the president does not make such an appointment during his (and it has always been a him) last year in office. Republicans are making an appeal to alleged traditionto make their case–a tradition that does not hold up under scrutiny.[1] This whole debate over whether President Obama should nominate the next Supreme Court justice when he has the authority to do so, provides us with a nice illustration of the possible types of authority an individual could hold.

Authority is the power exercised over others that is viewed as just or legitimate. This type of power is understood to be legitimate by those exercising the power and having the power exercised over them. The President of the United States has authority over the citizens of the United States. But where does a president’s authority come from? Is this authority complete? Can this authority be challenged? The sociologist Max Weber conceptualized three distinct types of authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational. Which type or types of authority does a US president have?…

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