Every so often, a new inane study comes along that makes a scientist simultaneously chuckle and want to cry. That’s been especially true in the last few years, with gender theory slowly invading all branches of academia like a virulent weed. More recently, it has increasingly breached topics relevant to sex research and science.
Case in point: a recent paper on selfies in Gender and Education, authored by a professor of feminist theory at the University of Georgia. The study criticizes Instagram selfies taken by “white, college women” for reinforcing the “performances” of “traditional gender roles” informed by a “patriarchal system.”
Disclaimer: As a sexual neuroscientist, I rarely make it past the first sentence of qualitative academic papers, which are often long-winded, nonsensical word salads that could just as well have been written by iOS’s auto-complete. One example of just how unreliable academic journals have become as of late: Last year, two researchers, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, authored a fake paper about the so-called “conceptual penis” and actually got it published. (“We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct,” they wrote in the piece.) Such offers a telling perspective on the quality of “research” being published by gender studies departments.
Based on the abstract of the Gender and Education paper alone, I knew it was going to be a stellar read as it promised to explain how “performances of traditional femininity are legitimated…through photo-posting practices.” Unironic references to Everyday Feminism and Judith Butler in the body of the article were other telling clues.
As for the study itself, it was part of a larger project examining the way women dress at University of Georgia football games. The authors took to Instagram to analyze photos posted within 24 hours of the first home game of the 2013 season. After reviewing 233 selfies of female attendees, they found a trend of red lipstick, straight, white teeth, good skin, curve-hugging dresses and the use of filters and photo editing. The authors called these women collectively the “Southern lady,” a “cult” which upholds “white, upper-middle class standards of feminine beauty” while reinforcing the “male/female binary.”
Because these selfies were likely seen by people outside of the university community, the authors saw them as “normalizing” femininity. Specifically, by presenting themselves in a feminine manner, the women in the photos “[contributed] to notions of traditional gender roles and physical attractiveness that reinforce classed and raced norms of beauty.”
It’s not correct or helpful to blame men or “power structures” for how women dress and photograph themselves.
Where to begin? Firstly, the paper makes reference to femininity being a “performance” of gender 42 times, which is 41 times too many, and more than enough to elicit migraines in anyone with a cursory understanding of human biology. Beauty standards are not arbitrary; they serve an important purpose, signaling reproductive success. Contrary to what the study would have you believe, femininity isn’t “produced” by the South but rather a result of natural selection over thousands of generations, as well as our exposure to hormonal factors before birth.
Our “cultural obsession with appearance” has biological roots, being that a woman’s health and fertility is typically reflected in her looks. For example, a low waist-to-hip ratio, which is traditionally viewed as attractive in women, is associated with healthy reproductive status and youthfulness. Men’s prioritization of these traits when selecting a mate is a universal finding cross-culturally.
Scholars subscribing to the idea that femininity and female gender roles are learned should ask themselves why the trends are so consistent around the world. The answer is quite simple: there is a greater force at play besides omniscient patriarchy.
Another key is the fact that women are in competition with other women for sexual partners, what is known in scientific circles as female intrasexual competition. Tactics that increase the likelihood of a female’s success in attaining a desired mate include everything from self-promotion to putting down your rivals, including indirect aggression toward other women.
Instead of having some insight into why they’ve taken it upon themselves to critique the way women look, some gender theorists default to blaming “the patriarchy,” presumably because, with no real physical form, it can’t hold them accountable for spreading nonsense.
It isn’t psychologically healthy to obsess over photos of yourself or be dependent on social media validation. I wholeheartedly agree that as women, our self-worth should be based in something other than our appearances. But this thinking has nothing to do with patriarchal systems. Instead, it relates to self-esteem. Only the individual has control over that.
It’s not correct or helpful to blame men or “power structures” for how women dress and photograph themselves. Doing so is counterproductive. Women aren’t helpless, and we deserve the dignity of owning the choices we make, whatever the motive. It’s not an academic’s place to disparage a woman’s appearance as harmful or dangerous to other women, especially under the guise of advancing women’s rights.
In this regard, it shows how something as good and pure as self-acceptance can now get mowed over within an “intersectional” framework that feels oppressive in its own right. Though in the midst of a body positivity movement, we still seem to take issue with women who meet society’s standards of attractiveness.
As for our obsession with social media, previous research has shown that excessive selfie-taking can have detrimental effects on relationships, including inducing jealousy in our partners and skewing the way we view our own lives. But that’s an issue not exclusive with expressing one’s “traditional femininity” or wanting to look conventionally attractive. True acceptance isn’t reliant on the denigration of others.
Debra W. Soh writes about the science and politics of sex and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.