Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Introducing..... "Dear KJ"

Hi Everyone, 
I'm very excited to announce that I'm partnering with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and Proud2BMe with a Q&A advice column called "Dear KJ," for teens (and the adults who care about them) who have questions about body image, beauty politics, media literacy, eating disorder recovery, self-care, etc..

I've just finished my first month of answering weekly questions, which I've re-posted below in separate blog entries. (I'll be posting weekly from this point forward.) Sometimes writing about these issues from an academic perspective can feel a bit distant from the "real" world, so it feels great to be interacting with teens (and the adults who care about them!) more directly through this format. 

Please submit any questions you'd like me to answer in the comments below!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dear KJ: My Weight Fluctuates – Help!

Suzanne asks: What advice would you give to someone whose weight fluctuates? (First published HERE)
It’s hard to know exactly what advice to give someone who is experiencing weight fluctuations without knowing more details, but here are some thoughts. First of all, our weight can fluctuate several pounds in just ONE DAY, simply due to how hydrated we are, how much salt we’ve had in our meals and how much food we have in our digestive system, among other things. Many women also experience weight fluctuations due to hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle.
In all of these cases the weight gained or lost is mostly water and waste products that our body produces in its normal functions. These changes on the scale can happen pretty quickly, and they are totally normal. Sure, it might feel physically uncomfortable to wear tighter clothing when at the higher end of this natural weight range, but the solution here is simply to wear your “comfy pants” and get on with your day. I promise that no one except you can tell much of a difference between the highs and the lows.
Alternatively, some people experience weight fluctuations due to increasing or decreasing muscle mass and/or to changes in how much fat tissue we hold in our bodies. Sometimes these changes are simply due to healthy physical maturation, as we have growth spurts and move through puberty and into adulthood. For girls, puberty brings with it increased fat tissue in certain areas of the body, including breast tissue, hips, thighs and stomach area.
This, again, is usually normal, though it can feel alarming to find that your body has changed, seemingly overnight. Finally, weight can also fluctuate due to changes in diet and exercise, whether intentional or not. It’s a good idea to visit the doctor to check in about physical changes during adolescence, especially if you have questions about weight fluctuations.
Our body generally lets us know when we’re at a healthy weight, because our weight will stabilize at a point in which we eat when hungry, stop when full and stay active (though you will still experience some of the ups and downs as I described in the first paragraph!). Sometimes our weight fluctuates because we are trying to weigh less than our bodies want us to weigh. Dieting and extreme exercise regimes can often lead to “yo-yo” dieting, in which we lose and gain weight again and again, in a nasty cycle of under-eating and over-eating. This is the type of weight cycling that is not normal, and is certainly not healthy. Whether it’s 5 pounds or 50, when we push our bodies outside of their healthy range of weights, our bodies don’t like it and fight to get back to where they belong.
So how do we deal with this? First, accept that your body is supposed to fluctuate a bit, across the day and across months. Make sure to have clothes that fit you comfortably during your lower and higher weight days, and try to avoid getting too caught up in being a certain clothing size. I’ve developed the strategy of having 80% of my clothes fit me at my “average” weight, with 10% a size up and 10% a size down. This way I’m covered (literally!) across my whole size spectrum!
If you are losing or gaining weight in greater extremes or if you find yourself trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting, it’s time to meet with your doctor and/or a therapist, who can help assess the situation more fully. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Dear KJ: How Can I Talk to Kids About Body Image?

Kristal asks: What would you say to a young child who compares herself to what she sees in media? (First published HERE)
Dear Kristal, You are right to be concerned about this! Research has shown that when young and teen girls are exposed to media celebrating the “thin ideal” for women’s bodies—such as mainstream magazines, TV shows, and advertising—they experience increased body dissatisfaction, greater negative mood, higher levels of depression and lowered self-esteem. And these negative experiences aren’t limited to girls. Thanks to images of hyper-buff men in both media images and in “action figure” toys, 33-35% of boys aged 6-8 indicate their ideal body is thinner than their current body, and research further shows that boys exposed to hyper-sexual images of women may develop unrealistic expectations for romantic relationships with women. In other words, media matters. 
But what can we actually do to counteract the negative effects of exposure to unrealistic media images? After all, it’s practically impossible to prevent kids from seeing these images, and even if we could lock our kids in the house watching only re-runs of Free to Be You and Me until they’re 18, they’d enter the adult world ill-equipped to deal with the social world. It’s a tricky situation, but here are my suggestions.
1) When kids start talking about media and comparing themselves to what they see, rather than simply disagreeing with them (e.g., “well that’s just not true!”) I encourage you to ask questions about what they’re seeing and how they’re thinking about what they see. What media are they viewing? Do they think the media is trying to send a particular message? What do they think of that message? Rather than being told what to think, asking questions encourages reflection and critical thinking. Also, try to avoid reinforcing unhealthy beliefs when talking about beauty. When a child comes to you distraught about not looking like what they see on TV, it’s tempting to say “well I think you’re beautiful!” or “don’t worry, you’re not fat!” but these types of statements, while soothing in the short term, ultimately reinforce the idea that it’s important to be beautiful and thin. I encourage you to instead celebrate the natural diversity of bodies in the world, of different shapes, sizes, colors, ages, etc.! Ask the child to think about all of the “real” people he or she knows and loves, and how different they all look. Reality is, after all, the best “reality check!”
2) Find alternative media. Avoid media that perpetuates gendered stereotypes or unrealistic body image, and seek out alternatives. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a fantastic book about the “pinkification” of girlhood, points out that when searching for media alternatives we will be most successful if we “fight fun with fun,” and includes a great list of toys, clothes and media designed for girls aged 3-9 on her website. There also great alternative resources for boys. For example, a good friend of mine wanted to share his lifelong adoration of comic books with his 3-year-old son, Owen, but wanted to avoid violence, sexism and unrealistic images of hyper-muscular men and hyper-sexual women. It took some online research, but he found some promising options and went to the comic book store ahead of time to scout out the situation before bringing Owen along for comic-book bonding time. Oh, and let’s not forget that designating toys and media as “just for girls” or “just for boys” reinforces gender stereotypes, so by all means, mix it up!
3) Talk to your child’s school about including media literacy in their curriculum, whether through curriculum changes, by starting after-school clubs, or by bringing in workshops. A few great resources to learn more about this are about-face.orgcommonsensemedia.org and therepresentationproject.com, which are organizations focused on media literacy. Finally, encourage your child to make his or her OWN media, by writing stories, drawing pictures, directing and starring in their own plays and (for older kids) using age-appropriate social media to share their media with the world. When kids create their own media they not only enjoy the power of writing (or rewriting) their own stories, but they also develop a more intuitive understanding of media as created rather than just appearing as some sort of "truth" about how things are or should be.
Check out our Digital Media Literacy Toolkit for specific ways to challenge problematic media campaigns and advertisements!   

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Beyond “Bossy” or “Brilliant”?: Gender Bias in Student Evaluations

By: Tristan Bridges, Kjerstin Gruys, Christin Munsch and C.J. Pascoe

Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen!

Not surprisingly, the new interactive chart Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews, drawn from RateMyProfessor.com (produced by Ben Schmidt—a history professor at Northeastern), has been the subject of a lot of conversation among sociologists, especially those of us who study gender. For example, it reminded C.J. of an ongoing conversation she and a former Colorado College colleague repeatedly had about teaching evaluations. Comparing his evaluations to C.J.’s, he noted that students would criticize C.J. for the same teaching practices and behaviors that seemed to earn him praise: being tough, while caring about learning.

We’ve long known that student evaluations of teaching are biased. A recent experiment made headlines when Adam Driscoll and Andrea Hunt found that professors teaching online received dramatically different evaluation scores depending upon whether students thought the professor was a man or a woman; students rated male-identified instructors significantly higher than female identified instructors, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart provides a bit more information about exactly whatstudents are saying when evaluating their professors in gendered ways. Thus far, most commentaries have focused on the fact that men are more likely to be seen as “geniuses,” “brilliant,” and “funny,” while women, as C.J. discovered, are more likely to be seen as “bossy,” “mean,” “pushy.” These discrepancies are important, but in this post, we’ve used the tool to shed light on some forms of gendered workplace inequality that have received less attention: (1) comments concerning physical appearance, (2) comments related to messiness and organization, and (3) comments related to emotional (as opposed to intellectual) work performed by professors.
Physical Appearance
The results from Schmidt’s chart are not universally “bad” or “worse” for women. For instance, the results for students referring to professors as “hot” and “attractive” are actually mixed. Further, in some fields of study, women are more likely to receive “positive” appearance-based evaluations while, in other fields, men are more likely to receive these evaluations. A closer examination, however, reveals an interesting pattern. Here is a list of the fields in which womenare more likely to be referred to as “hot” or “attractive”: Criminal Justice, Engineering, Political Science, Business, Computer Science, Physics, Economics, and Accounting. And here is a list of fields in which men are more likely to receive these evaluations: Philosophy, English, Anthropology, Fine Arts, Languages, and Sociology.
Notice anything suspicious? Men are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “femininity” and women are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “masculinity.” Part of this is certainly due to gender segregation in fields of study. There are simply more men in engineering and physics courses. Assuming most students are heterosexual, women teaching in these fields might be more likely to be objectified. Similarly, men teaching in female-dominated fields have a higher likelihood of being evaluated as “hot” because there are more women there to evaluate them. (For more on this, see Philip Cohen’s breakdown of gender segregation in college majors.)
Nonetheless, it is important to note that sexual objectification works differently when it’s aimed at men versus women. Women, but not men, are systematically sexualized in ways that work to symbolically undermine their authority. (This is why “mothers,” “mature,” “boss,” and “teacher” are among men’s top category searches on many online pornography sites.) And, women are more harshly criticized for failing to meet normative appearance expectations. Schmidt’s chart lends support to this interpretation as women professors are also almost universally more likely to be referred to as “ugly,” “hideous,” and “nasty.”
Level of (Dis)Organization
Christin and Kjerstin are beginning a new research project designed to evaluate whether students assess disorganized or “absent-minded” professors (e.g., messy offices, chalk on their clothing, disheveled appearances) differently depending on gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart foreshadows what they might find. Consider the following: women are more likely to be described as “unprepared,” “late,” and “scattered.” These are characteristics we teach little girls to avoid, while urging them to be prepared, organized, and neat. (Case in point: Karin Martin’s research on gender and bodies in preschool shows that boys’ bodies are less disciplined than girls’.) In short, we hold men and women to different organizational and self-presentation standards. Consequently, women, but not men, are held accountable when they are perceived to be unprepared or messy. Emphasizing this greater scrutiny of women’s organization and professionalism is the finding that women are more likely than men to be described as eitherprofessional” or “unprofessional,” and either “organized” or “disorganized.”
Emotional Labor
Finally, emotional (rather than intellectual) terms are used more often in women’s evaluations than men’s. Whether meankindcaring or rude, students are more likely to comment on these qualities when women are the ones doing the teaching. When women professors receive praise for being “caring,” “compassionate,” “nice,” and “understanding,” this is also a not-so-subtle way of telling them that they should exhibit these qualities. Thus, men may receive fewer comments related to this type of emotion work because students do not expect them to be doing it in the first place. But this emotional work isn’t just “more” work, it’s impossible work because of the competence/likeability tradeoff women face.
There are all sorts of things that are left out of this quick and dirty analysis (race, class, course topic, type of institution, etc.), but it does suggest we begin to question the ways teaching evaluations may systematically advantage some over others. Moreover, if certain groups—for instance, women and scholars of color (and female scholars of color)—are more likely to be in jobs at which teaching evaluations matter more for tenure and promotion, then unfair and biased evaluations may exacerbate inequality within the academy.