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COLUMN: Spring break is the time to resist gender stereotypes

Monday, April 18, 2011 | 12:28 p.m. CDT; updated 11:52 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 21, 2011
The Social Justice League column-writing team includes Tracy Pfeiffer, Kaitlin Motley, Amanda Doty and Megan Davis

Editor's note: This team-written column is one in a series of five on spring break, all written from a different life perspective.

For all intents and purposes, spring break is the beginning of what is fondly known as swimsuit season. It's a time when the weather is (knock on wood) getting warmer, the Vitamin D is putting people in a better mood and everyone gets the itch to get his or her body ready.

Meet the Social Justice League

The Social Justice League fight the powers of bigotry and misogyny wherever they appear. Megan Thomas Davis, Amanda Doty and Kaitlin Motley are all magazine journalism majors who have written for both the Columbia Missourian and Vox. Kaitlin is a department editor for Vox Magazine. Tracy Pfeiffer is a convergence journalism major who has worked for Newsy.com.



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And as temperatures climb, so do hemlines. Anyone who's been to MizzouRec or any tanning salon within walking distance of campus knows that people get serious about their bodies' "unveiling." And while it's definitely great to see people getting in shape, warm weather can also bring out very real, very damaging anxiety about bodies.

For women, the "perfect" body is envisioned as skinny (but not too skinny), with a tan and large (but not too large) breasts. For men, the "perfect" body is muscular (but not too muscular) and wide-framed, also with a tan.

The expectation of perfection goes beyond preferring a certain aesthetic or body type; this is gender policing, a social tool of controlling people's bodies. It can be subtle, such as an offhanded comment about weight gain, but it can also be aggressive and hostile, such as beating up a man for being too "feminine."

When it comes to women, gender policing works to make them as small as possible. Young women are supposed to be slight and take up very little room. Their clothing and bathing suits are supposed to be skin-tight, not because it's hot in Panama City, but because we, as a culture, expect their bodies to be on full display, exposed to the highest scrutiny. Society is all too willing to pass judgment. This might not seem like a big deal, but ultimately this sends the message that a woman's body is not her own, or at least not for herself. It's a message that dehumanizes women, making violence against them easier and less condemnable.

Women who choose to challenge these stereotypes and expectations are called names, socially ostracized and (if one doesn't mind a little generalization and heteronormativity) rejected by the opposite sex.

Men are not excluded from cultural expectations and perceptions, either. But for males, gender policing works in an opposite, but still problematic, way. Men are expected to be big, loud and aggressive. MTV's "Jersey Shore" is a great example. Because the show is set in a seemingly never-ending spring break, it's applicable to this discussion. There are four men on "Jersey Shore": Mike, Ronnie, Pauly and Vinny. The last of these, Vinny, came into the series as a kind of underdog. He wasn't super muscular or even super masculine. But as the series has continued, it's clear that Vinny has beefed up, learned to posture himself alongside his "manlier" roommates and gotten a couple tattoos.

In essence, Vinny, the "nice guy" of the bunch, illustrates what gender policing does to men. It makes them bigger, louder and less kind.

It's important to note that just because both men and women are victims of gender policing, that doesn't mean men are objectified to the same extent as women. Men enjoy privilege in the United States; they are the main components of the power structure that keeps women subordinate. In addition, the objectification of men does not occur as often as women's objectification does.

Therefore, objectification is usually minimally damaging to men as a whole, whereas objectification of women (through the dehumanizing processes discussed above) has very real consequences, such as sexual assault, rape and other forms of violence. Objectification, as its name implies, reduces women to less than human, and therefore subject to inhumane behavior.

Objectification is one result of gender policing, but gender policing is also a clear indicator of how society views men and women. Why are men expected to be big and muscular? Why are women expected to be slender and delicate?

Although the implications might seem obvious, it's important to really conceptualize the big picture. Women are expected to physically take up less space because the world doesn't welcome women. It isn't designed for them. Think, for example, of the stereotypical ways men and women sit. Men sit legs apart, arms apart, shoulders forward. Women sit legs crossed, hands folded in the lap. It is a subtle yet effective method of cultural communication.

And by encouraging men to be like "Jersey Shore" resident Ronnie Magro (who, by the way, is a textbook abusive partner, but that's for a different post), the U.S. forces its sons into an aggressive, emotionless mold that only augments the problem of violence against women. If men are not given the tools necessary to deal with their emotions in a healthy, productive manner, then culture has failed them.

All these messages are highly visible in the narrative of spring break, and the overabundance of alcohol doesn't help, either. As the year marches on, it's important to reflect on such issues and try to do better in the future. After all, spring break marks the beginning of something, and what better time for change?


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