The Weaker Sex?

Mary Beth Griggs

The headline of Michelle Robert’s article on the BBCWhy men are the weaker sex” was definitely enough to grab my attention.

The article points out that men apparently are more likely to die sooner, be overweight, get cancer, have a heart attack or commit suicide.  It continues by saying that almost all of these things could be prevented if men were less likely to over-smoke, over-drink, over-eat, and were more likely to actually go to the doctor or ask for help.

It’s the classic “men never stop to ask for directions” cliché, except the consequences have the potential to be deadly.

Poor men. I was really starting to feel bad for them, until I got halfway down the page and found out that the onus was not on men to do a better job of taking care of themselves, and consult with medical experts, but it was society’s fault for being too feminized.

Yes… it turns out that the Health care system is just geared towards women, leaving men helpless to do anything about it. And why? If you watch the video at the top of the article you will see one man, acting as an expert, talking about how health care was geared towards women because it was open during business hours, and women don’t work like men do. “One issue is that the health system is not working for them. Services are not very male friendly.” Said Peter Baker of the Men’s Health Forum.

Hm. Let that float around in your head for a while.

It then had a quote from another ‘expert’ from a suicide-prevention group that said that it was women’s fault again. Ms. Nicola Peckett dominated the last 170 words of the story, saying things like; “It’s not simply just that men are not seeking help. We need to look deeper than this.” “Could it be because our society favours girls or that we expect too much of our men?” and “There is anecdotal evidence that traditional male jobs are disappearing and more feminine skill roles are taking their place.

“We also know that men who lose their employment can feel emasculated.

“And because they tend to bottle up their feelings and don’t like to talk about things, problems can spiral out of control.”

So essentially, women are able to access health services because they are staying at home, BUT, they are also stealing men’s jobs and emasculating them, and society is favoring women, but expecting too much of men, who just can’t talk about it.

While it may be true that there are societal pressures on men to be all manly and not show pain- (see Dana Jennings great Op-Ed on the subject) blaming women for the poor health of men is beyond belief. There are no studies to back up the assertion, though apparently people at Peckett’s organization are gathering researchers to look into the subject.

It is not women’s fault that men are being idiots about their health. Just because women tend to bother exercising, eating well, and going to the doctor, doesn’t mean that men can’t do the same thing. There’s no reason for any of those things to have a gender bias, and ZERO reason for men to blame women for what is essentially their health problem.


A Comic, a Website and a Press Release Walk Into a Bar…

Rose Eveleth

This is a comic about how the internet can ruin discussions about feminism. Artist Gabby explains how it started:

“The comic below is a compulsive response to a recent, entirely unremarkable little dust-up over on Twitter concerning the excruciatingly polite, brief comments of a certain cartoonist concerning the way dudes talk about women cartoonists — and the shitstorm of whiny nonsensical defensive outrage that inevitably followed, just like any other time anyone on the internet has ever hinted at the possibility that perhaps, maybe, women could be treated a little more like, you know, humans.”

Pink Stinks is dedicated to building role models for young girls – offering them an alternative to Paris Hilton.  I cannot express more support for their cause (including the name, I always hated pink).

A funny press release that, among other things, says “Men, women equally concerned about higher tuition, lower salaries.”  Huh, it’s funny how men and women can both be concerned about things like how they’ll pay off student loans when the jobs out there aren’t paying well.  I wonder if they have similar concerns about other basic problems too, like trying to open a chip bag in a quiet library or totally forgetting the person you just met’s name.  Gosh, maybe men and women aren’t so different after all!  Thanks Margaret Allen!

In which my nagging voice is taught about science

Rose Eveleth

Oh hey, Psychology Today, this is a cool cover.  I mean, it’s not a big deal that the woman in a bikini next to the words “the battle over beauty” doesn’t even have a face.  That’s fine.

It’s also really not a big deal that this is the dek to your cover story:

“It would be so nice if inner beauty triumphed over outer appearance. But men are designed to care about packaging over content. The only way to get ahead in life and love is to accept the not-so-pretty facts about looks.”  Huh.  I had no idea I had to just accept misogyny.  Thanks Amy!  I’ll make that one of my New Years Resolutions!

What’s that you say, nagging voice in the back of my head?   Why is it that women just have to “accept the not-so-pretty facts about looks” while men get to play the “we’re designed that way” card?  Well, nagging voice, let me explain something to you.  It is silly to think that we might question the value society places on looks.  It would just simply be a waste of time to suggest that perhaps maybe instead of just “dealing with it,” women might actually want to question the idea that they are simply objects where men deposit sperm who are judged based on their physical appearance alone.  It would be ever sillier to suggest that maybe some men don’t want to think of themselves as simply sperm depositors who only consider sexy abs and a nice butt when picking a mate.  Gosh, nagging voice, don’t you know anything about science?

Go ahead and read the article.  No, I really want you to, go on now, read it, I’ll wait.

Ok, so you’ve read it now.  Let’s talk.  Amy Alkon is a smart lady.  She disagrees with Naomi Wolf, so she has decided to write an article that describes the exact opposite argument.  The problem is, they’re both wrong.

Wolf is an extremist on one side, arguing that western standards of beauty are a plot to subjugate women socially, politically and economically.  Alkon disagrees.  But instead of positing a rational middle ground, she careens the opposite direction into an argument that’s just as extreme: any woman who doesn’t abide by Western beauty standards is (unknowingly or not) shooting herself in the foot and destroying her chances at any kind of satisfaction in life.

Of course, they’re both wrong.  Feeling completely bound by beauty standards is bad.  Women who may look all dolled up on the outside, may in fact have hidden self esteem issues, eating disorders or inferiority complexes.  Women who reject makeup and the razor may wind up coming on too strong and alienating potential friends, bosses and partners.  Women who dress up can be confident.  Women who dress down can be confident too.

Sex positive is a powerful thing.  But not every woman should be forced to be sexy because it reinforces her power as a woman.  Nor should every woman be forced to put away the skirt because it reinforces beauty stereotypes.  The point is, that women are women.  Every woman is different.  Painting these gigantic pictures like Wolf and Alkon are doing is doing a disservice to everyone.

You would never read something like this about men. (“Attention men, ties are a feminist plot to make us spend extra time getting ready in the morning.  Men, all women care about are chiseled abs, so get some and show them off as much as you can.”)

Feminism should be about women being able to do whatever they want, just like men are able to do whatever they want.  The point of feminism is that women get to be women.  They can wear what they want, whether that’s a little black dress of a giant denim sheet without constantly worrying about finding a mate or getting a job.  That’s the truth about beauty, it’s all your own.

p.s. where the naked pictures of the size zero model really necessary?

p.p.s. from a science perspective, this is all very vague.  She continuously mentions “studies” but never really says what they are.  I’m not saying she’s making it up, I am genuinely interested to know what these studies are, who did them and where they were published so I can read them myself.

Round Up

Rose Eveleth

So, I’m already shirking my blogging duties, but here’s a roundup of interesting, sad, and exciting posts from the past week or so.

Wired decided to sell magazines by putting some boobs on their cover… cool.

Scientific American reminds us that “women have smaller brains, it’s science” is actually not based on good science at all.

Women with Aspergers (called Aspergirls, apparently) represent a very small – and very rarely discussed – proportion of the Aspergers community.  Are their challenges different than men with the same condition?  Yes, Silberman says, because “all women are taught to minimize their eccentricities by mimicking and echoing their peers.”

At Yale, fraternity brothers who joke about rape get to play the “Ivy League boys will be boys” card.

Men vote for the “hotter female candidate.”  In men, we look for “approachability” while in women we look for “hottness.”  Both really key skills for being the leader of a country of over 300,000,000 people.


Erin Brodwin

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Attention Women: your skin is AGING! Panic now.

Rose Eveleth

My friend Amber sent me this video, and I think it’s awesome!

Women Don’t Sweat, They Mist

Rose Eveleth

(please note the Statue of Liberty raising her hand, presumably because she’s sure – possibly about denying “feeble minded” minorities?  How many sticks of Sure does that require?)

My television tells me that as a dainty and delicate lady, I sweat differently than men.  (It also tells me that I care more about my deodorant leaving white marks on my beautiful, expensive black dress than I do about it actually deodorizing).

Today’s New York Times has a story on a study that proves it (the sweat part, not the dress part).  This story brings up a really great example of how science journalism and feminism interact.

Scientists study the differences between men and women in almost everything – sex, sweat, language, height, disease risk, response to medication, addiction, the list could go on for a very long time.  These differences are really important.  Men and women (and the whole spectrum between the two) have different genes, different bodies, different levels of chemicals circulating in their blood.  It’s important to understand these differences.

So what Gretchen Reynolds does here is important.  She reports on a finding from Osaka International University and Kobe University in Japan on the differences between men and women’s perspiration.  Specifically, on the difference between fit men and women and unfit men and women.  The results are interesting:

Fit men perspired more than fit women without using any more sweat glands.  Unfit women perspired the least.  There is a clear difference in how men and women sweat – and women tend to sweat less.

Ok, that’s interesting.  Then, Reynolds dabbles in some shady areas.  She has two physiologists start talking about social archaeology (a field often on shaky ground to begin with).  She reinforces the gender stereotype that women sat and men hunted (something that we actually haven’t proven)

“But does this difference in sweating rates, whatever its cause, have practical implications? “It appears,” said Yoshimitsu Inoue, Ph.D., a professor of physiology at Osaka International University and one of the authors of the study, “that women are at a disadvantage when they need to sweat a lot during exercise in hot conditions.” On the other hand, it may be that women, during evolution, had the good sense to get out of the hot sun, and their bodies adapted accordingly. The “lower sweat loss in women may be an adaptation strategy that attaches great importance” to preserving body fluids “for survival,” he wrote in an e-mail, while “the higher sweat rate of men may be an adaptation strategy for greater efficiency of action or labor.”

Dr. Cable agreed. “Prehistoric men followed the herds,” he said, whatever the temperature, while the women, cleverly, sought out the shade. “It’s not a bad survival strategy,” he said, even today.”

Hm, so women are clever, but weak and less “adept” (her word, not mine) at physical activity while men are strong brutes who must be out in the sun all day to provide for the family.  Interesting.

But, but, but, you say, you’re just being nit-picky, you’re just looking for things that you can get all huffy about, you’re being unfair, I’m sure the author didn’t mean that, you say.  I’m sure Reynolds didn’t mean that, but that’s almost as bad.  She didn’t even think that this would raise a red flag.

It also brings up the question – how can science writers address studies that involve gender without people like me crying foul?  How are we supposed to report on things that are inherently tied into sex differences, that cannot be reported without describing the differences between males and females?  It’s a tough question*.

What I think happened here is this.  Reynolds had a study that has an interesting result.  Women and men sweat differently.  This is interesting because, as she explains, we don’t really know how sweating works and why it does what it does.  She got to the end of her piece, explaining the research relatively well (I’ll even forgive the “adept” part, and the grammar issue and chalk that up to indoctrination, next time though…).  Then she probably thought, “so what?”

It’s a common problem.  How will I end this article?  Why will readers be interested.  It’s a natural inclination to ask, “why?”  Why do women sweat differently?  The answer is, we don’t know.  That should have been her answer.  Instead, she dabbled in “evolutionarily defined” sex roles that scientists actually don’t know much about.  And, probably because she didn’t have time, she didn’t even get those ideas from an social archaeologist or an evolutionary biologist.

Reporting on sex differences isn’t easy.  Studying it isn’t easy either.  But reporters should report what the study found.  This is where Reynolds goes wrong.  She doesn’t just report what the study found, she reports speculation about what it might mean about gender roles.  The study didn’t find that.  In fact, no study has found that men stayed out in the sun too long and women stayed in the shade.  Reynolds wandered into speculationland – one that’s heavily informed by a male dominated lens.

Obviously Reynolds isn’t intentionally being sexist – but that’s the problem.  She thought this was a simple “so what” addition to her story that would make it relevant to readers.  Unfortunately, in trying to make it relevant to readers she’s also made it relevant to women who might say “hey, wait a minute.”  Next time, maybe she’ll think twice about jumping into gender roles when they’re not part of the study.

*Some feminists theorists will take a harder line on this than I do.  They will say that gender is simply a social construct, that the medicalization of gender has caused this kind of sexism and division.  If you’re interested in learning more about gender as a social construct, please visit here and here.