The Common Frustration of Finding Clothes that Fit – and Why it Matters

By Katelynn Bishop and Kjerstin Gruys

Feminist scholars have long been critical of how the fashion industry harms women’s body image through media images of ultra-thin models.

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A clothes rack containing women’s shirts or dresses in bright colors and bold patterns*

However, catwalks and advertisements are not the only way the fashion industry influences women’s body perceptions. Clothing size standards are a means through which fashion retailers label and categorize women’s bodies.

These unstable and shifting standards have received little sustained scholarly attention, despite their omnipresence in women’s everyday lives.

In our Gender & Society article, co-authored with Maddie Evans, we delve into women’s everyday experiences with clothing size(s). We examine how retail spaces organize women’s access to clothing in particular sizes, how diverse women navigate these categories, and how these experiences reinforce or challenge inequalities.

Methods

Our article combines three qualitative studies, which we conducted individually before meeting at a conference.

Katelynn Bishop interviewed five owners of specialty bra boutiques, conducted participant observation at one of these stores, “Intimate Fit,” and interviewed 65 women about their bra shopping experiences. Kjerstin Gruys performed participant observation at a plus-size clothing store, “Real Style,” where she was an employee. Maddie Evans conducted an ethnography at a high-end bridal boutique, “Elegant Bride,” and also interviewed brides and shop employees.

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Elegant Bride. Photo by Maddie Evans. Photo depicts a bridal shop with dark brown walls and racks of white wedding dresses. An elaborate chandelier hangs overhead. In the foreground is a seating area with a couch, cushioned chairs and coffee table.  

Integrating data from three studies was uncharted—and fruitful—methodological territory for us. Bringing together our separate studies allowed us to examine the clothing shopping experiences of women with a range of body types, and women’s experiences shopping for both day-to-day clothing and clothing for special occasions.

What We Found

We found that women performed what sociologists call “identity work” and “body work” in relation to size categories. They did “identity work” by using these categories to make claims about themselves. For instance, women disputed employees’ assessments of their size when these assessments were unexpected or undesirable, insisting upon their “true” size. Such disputes were common in the bridal shop (where sizes ran smaller than most everyday brands) and the specialty bra shops (where employees used “alternative” sizing practices). Women on the edge of Real Style’s size range sometimes chose to shop elsewhere in order to avoid being categorized as plus-size. The inconsistency of size categories made such identity work possible. That is, because size 14, for instance, has no absolute meaning, women (particularly those near the plus-size/standard-size boundary) could use size categories to define themselves in desired ways.

In other cases, women altered their bodies to fit into particular size categories. Several brides lost weight to avoid wearing “plus-size” dresses; no longer needing to shop at Real Style was often interpreted as a positive outcome of dieting; and wearing larger bra sizes contributed to women’s decisions to pursue breast reduction.

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Popular comedian, Amy Schumer, who jokes about Hollywood’s narrow standards, sparked public debate when she objected to her own inclusion in  Glamour magazine’s plus-size edition. Photo depicts Amy Schumer, a white-appearing woman with long, wavy blonde hair. She is pictured from the waist up, wearing a shiny black dress, and poses in profile-view with a slight, toothless smile. Photo by Mario Santor.

We grappled with the counterintuitive fact that women cared deeply about clothing size categories, even when they knew these categories were inconsistent. Because women’s worth is conflated with their body size and shape, we theorize that women desire external markers that their bodies conform to cultural norms, however tenuous these markers.

The organization of retail spaces is one everyday means through which women are confronted with the hierarchical divisions between body sizes and shapes. For instance, plus-size stores are labeled as such, implying that other, unlabeled stores carry more “normal” sizes—even though most American women wear plus sizes. Conventional bra retailers, as opposed to specialty shops, offer limited size ranges, implying that sizes beyond these ranges are “abnormal.” The bridal shop penalized larger brides through charging a fee for plus-size gowns, and stocking sample sizes only in smaller sizes.

What We Would Like to Change

As body-positive feminist scholars, we seek not only to understand women’s experiences with clothing size, but to foster body positivity. We believe that clothing retailers could help to mitigate some of the inequalities reproduced through clothing size categories by heeding activists’ calls to eliminate labels such as “plus-size,” and by making clothing of varied styles available in a wider range of sizes, and readily accessible, economically and otherwise. We acknowledge, however, that consumer-oriented solutions present limitations, and we support broader efforts to create a culture that values bodies of all sizes and shapes, and in which women’s worth is not reduced to their bodies.

*Captions are intended to provide access for the visually impaired.

Katelynn Bishop recently earned a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include gender, embodiment, and consumerism. Her dissertation and current book project, Imperfect Fit: Bras, Embodied Difference, and the Limits of Consumerism, focuses in part on the social constraints generated by expanded consumer choice. She has been published in Body & Society.

Kjerstin Gruys is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on how intersections of gender, race, class, and embodiment affect social inequality. She is writing a book tentatively titled True to Size?: A Social History of Women’s Clothing Size Standards in the U.S. Ready-to-Wear Fashion Industry.

Maddie Evans holds an MA in sociology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is currently pursuing a career in medicine.

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Men and Population Control in Postwar India: The Role of Gendered Knowledge

 

By Savina Balasubramanian

Population control efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have typically focused on managing women’s fertility. This is largely the result of longstanding cultural, political, and scientific associations of reproduction with women. Unsurprisingly, when the Indian state instituted population control as a national policy priority in 1952, it centered its initial efforts on women and the promotion of female contraceptive techniques.

A new focus on men

 Yet, from the 1960s through the mid-1970s, the Indian state expanded its efforts to incorporate men and male contraception. This shift was accompanied by efforts to promote the economic benefits of contraception through mass media targeted at men and interpersonal communication campaigns among government fieldworkers and lay male citizens. During this period, vasectomies accounted for the vast majority of recorded sterilizations in the country. Many occurred in government-authorized “mass sterilization camps”—makeshift events in which thousands of men were persuaded to undergo surgery, often under coercive conditions. These camps were highly theatrical and public affairs, involving poster and media exhibits, song-and-drama routines, and interpersonal exchanges among men and government-appointed “motivators” that touted the economic advantages of planned childbearing. Likewise, the Indian government invested in a heavily marketed, government-manufactured condom brand called “Nirodh.” Together, these communication campaigns were termed the “extension” approach: they attempted to use persuasive information to convince audiences of the relationship between planned conception and economic uplift. How and why did the Indian state come to target men’s reproductive decisions and fertility in these particular ways?

Framing men as “decision-makers”

Through qualitative analyses of primary archival materials, my article in Gender & Society argues that this focus on men was linked to the political influence of social scientific expertise on the Indian program and the gendered aspects of this expertise. Unlike their medical and biomedical contemporaries, social scientists in the field of “family planning communications” framed reproduction as a “cognitive” and not merely biological phenomenon—one that involved beliefs, attitudes, and decision-making. In doing so, they argued that population control was a matter of (1) increasing people’s psychological motivation to use contraception, (2) convincing people that childbearing could be manipulated to achieve economic uplift, and (3) using persuasive mass communications to attain these two goals. However, these arguments reinforced prevailing gendered ideologies that associated rational calculation, social motivation and leadership, and economic participation with masculinity. Working under these gendered assumptions, communication scientists maintained that it would behoove the Indian state to target its nascent communications campaigns on the economic virtues of planned conception at men.

Unfortunately, this understanding of men as primary “decision-makers” in the Indian context obscured Indian women’s influential roles in the family, community, and economy. It also reinforced the notion that Indian women were less concerned with rational calculation and economic decision-making than their husbands, which historians of women in modern India have shown was rarely the case. Intriguingly, the sterilization abuses inflicted on men during Indian Emergency Period of 1975-1977 made the promotion of vasectomies politically “unviable” thereafter, which led to a refocusing of the program on women despite their status as parallel targets of state coercion.

Future research on masculinity, science, and reproductive control

My research undercuts assumptions that men are generally precluded from state-led reproductive control. In postwar India, social scientific knowledge—however myopic—about who contributed to decision-making in the family, economy, and community significantly influenced the Indian state’s attempts to shape men’s reproductive practices. Relatedly, it encourages sociologists of reproduction to analyze the role of social scientific expertise in reproductive control. Doing so means expanding the definition of reproductive control beyond medicalized interventions into the reproductive body to include social and behavioral interventions into reproductive practices and ideologies. Examples of such interventions include sex education for adolescents and young adults, male contraceptive marketing, and even “responsible fatherhood” programs in the contemporary welfare state. As in the Indian case, it is worth exploring whether attempts to govern men’s roles in reproduction might in part be driven by enduring cultural and political associations of men and masculinity with calculative decision-making, rational thought, and economic participation.

Savina Balasubramanian is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. Her research examines the global politics of gender and reproduction, science and technology, race, and law and society. Her previous work has appeared in Political Power and Social Theory and the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

Entrepreneurialism or exploitation? Home-based workers in India.

By Natascia Boeri

In 2006, Muhammad Yunus and his organization the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering microcredit programs to the poor in Bangladesh. This was the culmination of nearly two decades of the international development field’s confidence in microfinance to bring social and economic development. The rise of the microfinance movement reflects what the former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz calls the social turn in international development, characterized by the inclusion of social dimensions, such as gender and inequality, in development practices.

Critical social science scholars offer different interpretations of this social turn, including the appropriation of gender equality for neoliberal goals, the reliance on private solutions to poverty, and the mischaracterization of precarious and exploitative work as entrepreneurialism.

Home-based workers repurposed as entrepreneurs

Considering the hype around microfinance, entrepreneurialism, and the belief in the empowering potential of work, I was interested in comparing these ideas to the lives of women actually working in the informal economy. I spent a year in Ahmedabad, a large city in northwest India, conducting research with women home-based garment workers. Because of the work setting and an ambiguous employee-employer relationship, home-based workers are often mistakenly refashioned as self-employed micro-entrepreneurs.

Similar to current debates over the gig economy (such as Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit), there are two interpretations of the informal economy: entrepreneurship or exploitation. In my research I found that women home-based workers reflected both sides but with caveats. Their experience with work was due to labor market forces that create low-wage, irregular work, but also to their social positions as poor women belonging to lower-caste or religious minority groups. Because of social and cultural customs, including household and caregiving responsibilities, these women could not work outside. Yet, they had to work because of their household’s economic position. As one participant, Biliksha, admitted, her family allows her to work because “our household needs money, otherwise, I would only do household work.”

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Home-based work allowed women to be economically active while not conflicting with their gender roles in the family and community. However, home-based work is very irregular, low paid, and highly exploitative. Home-based work offers an opportunity to work, but the industry takes advantage of women’s limited social and spatial mobility to create a cheap and expendable labor force.

Challenging the self-reliant and autonomous worker

According to micro-finance proponents, women invest in their work and so gain confidence as they learn to provide for themselves. Furthermore, the autonomy of entrepreneurialism reflects their independence. Both ideals support the impression that women do not need to rely on others (a veiled neoliberal critique of the welfare state). The home-based workers I spoke with did not frame work in terms of investment, self-reliance, and autonomy, rather they described alternative narratives of work.

Mohsina, for example, protested the conditions of her work that required her to cover production costs, “We have to spend so much and we get nothing! The cost of going and coming [to pick up orders], we have to use our own threads, even the electricity bill. I cannot afford to do that work, so for now, the work has ended.”

Another, Shilpa, previously worked in a factory. While preferring home-based work, she did not gain the independence reflected in the autonomous worker; she still faces restraints from both her work and family roles. Comparing home-based work to working at a factory, she notes, “At five, I am free to [leave work]. But here in the home, we have the constant tension of this paid work and of taking care of the home.” The amount she earns depends on how much she is willing to work, resulting in the “tension” of having to choose between work and her family.

A performance to hide inequalities

Participants did not begin home-based work to achieve independence and empowerment, but because they lacked other options. Rather than gaining confidence from investing in their work or increased independence due to flexible work schedules, women continued to have limited choices on how to provide for their family. In an economic system of low-wage, irregular work and with limited social welfare support, workers face conflicting desires to support their families in economic and noneconomic ways. After speaking with these women, what I found was that the praise over micro-finance and micro-enterprise programs is merely an economic performance that hides inequality in the institutions of the economy and family.

Natascia Boeri is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Her research interests include gender, social reproduction, and the political economy.

Watch what you say! How the language we speak affects our gender attitudes

By Sarah Shair-Rosenfield & Amy H. Liu

On October 14, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled Harvey Weinstein given the mounting accusations of sexual harassment and assault against him. Yet coverage of this ongoing story has only further highlighted the latent sexism even among those who may not explicitly hold such views. Interestingly, the language we use to describe sexual assault and harassment directly – albeit subconsciously – contributes to a gendered worldview. This perspective places women and men into different categories and subjects them to different expectations. Take, for example, a discussion of “a predator” who harasses or assaults “a victim.” In the English language, neither the word “predator” nor the word “victim” takes a specific gender in linguistic terms. But in Spanish, the words for “predator” and “victim” are gendered: un depredador is masculine, and una victim is feminine. We see the same pattern in French, Italian, and Portuguese. These linguistic structures can perpetuate gender-based distinctions between who does what and to whom.

But these linguistically-driven gender-based power differentials happen not only when we talk about sexual harassment. Instead, everyday language use can easily support how people view gender equality. The word for “worker” – again un-gendered in English – is masculine in Spanish (un trabajador). Admittedly, these references can be modified to reflect women’s occupation of such roles – e.g., una trabajadora in Spanish. However, the reality is that the everyday use of language requires speakers to make such distinctions. Even if individuals choose not to identify female workers as “female workers” but rather as just “workers,” in Spanish women who work are referenced with a masculine term. And this is by no means a Spanish – or any Romance language – phenomenon. We see these distinctions in the Germanic languages (e.g., de arbeider versus de arbeiderin in Dutch; der Arbeiter versus die Arbeiterin in German) and the Slavic languages (e.g., radnik versus radnica in Croatian; pracovník versus pracovnička in Czech).

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This type of constant gender-based distinction implicitly affects how people see the world. When someone’s language is based on a linguistic structure that requires them to always describe the world in a gender-distinct way, it continuously makes them aware of gender differences. This awareness can render it difficult for that that person to think about people in a non-gendered (or un-gendered) way. In our Gender & Society article, we argue that people are less likely to be supportive of gender equality and women’s rights when the language they speak constantly reinforces gender-based differences.

At first glance, our work shows just that. People who speak languages that constantly require them to reference gender – of things, people, etc. – are less supportive of gender equality in political, economic, and social contexts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries where the official language (or the most commonly spoken one in the absence of an official language) is one that requires people to speak – and therefore think – in gendered terms are also the countries where women’s rights tend to be lower. In contrast, people who speak languages that rarely or never require them to reference gender tend to be more supportive of gender equality, and countries where such languages are official are inclined to have higher levels of women’s rights.

Yet, we also demonstrate that people can be linguistically primed to deemphasize the salience of gender. We run an experiment on bilingual Romanian (a Romance language with a lot of gender) and Hungarian (a gender-less non-Indo-European language) students. We show that when speakers are asked to engage in a series of questions about gender equality using Hungarian, they are more likely to support gender equality than when the same questions are in Romanian. This tells us that – while the everyday use of a language can reinforce people’s existing gender attitudes – these effects can be muted if the gendered features of the language can be altered to deemphasize gender differences.

Amy H. Liu is an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book Standardizing Diversity (2015: Pennsylvania) examines the politics of language regimes in Asia. She is currently working on a second book manuscript focusing on linguistic repertories among Chinese migrants in Central-Eastern Europe.

Sarah Shair-Rosenfield is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. Her current research focuses on representation and elections, decentralization, executive-legislative relations, and gender and conflict studies, with special interest in the politics of Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Lindsey Vance holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Colorado Boulder. She is Director of Data and Strategy at Teach for America and has worked as a consultant for multiple NGOs developing metrics to assess women’s empowerment and social change.

Zsombor Csata is a sociologist at Babeș-Bolyai University and the director of the Research Center on Inter-Ethnic Relations in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He has conducted several research projects on ethnicity, entrepreneurship and regional development in Central and Eastern Europe. His recent research focuses on the economic aspects of diversity and the economics of language.

Do No Harm: Confining Young People

By Ann-Karina Henriksen

Confinement of children and young people is a contested issue, because confinement can have detrimental effects on their mental and physical development. However, sometimes confinement can be the only way to keep young people from harming themselves or others. Thus, providing for troubled and troublesome young people is a difficult task imbued with dilemmas and contradictions between safeguarding, caring for and disciplining young people placed in state care.

Confinement is punishment

The research I conducted took place in secure institutions in Denmark, where young people are placed on either legal grounds for serious offending, or on social grounds due to serious concerns about their safety or well-being. There are only 10 percent girls and all the units are gender integrated. This made me curious about how girls experienced everyday life in secure institutions and how the staff handled girls in this setting. These institutions are difficult to access for outsiders and I felt grateful for being allowed inside to study how young people experience confinement and how gender comes to matter in these institutional spaces. I wanted to understand the institutional practices in the nexus between criminal justice and child protection, while also giving voice to the experiences of young people embedded in the punitive materiality of secure institutions. I became committed to relay their frustrations about being confined, uncertainties about the length of their stay, and struggles to comply with the rules and minute regulation of everyday life.

Marginalized girls in units “for boys”

The large majority of young people are placed in secure institutions as a form of surrogate imprisonment, to comply with UN Convention of the child, stating that minors should not be imprisoned with adults. However, the girls I interviewed and interacted with during my research were mostly placed in secure institutions on social grounds due to serious concerns about their safety or wellbeing. Their troubles entailed exposure to violence as victims and witnesses, drug abuse, truancy and socio-psychiatric disorders such as personality disorders, anxiety, self-harm or risk of suicide. Most of the girls in my study lived in units where the remaining residents were boys. The discrepancies in gender and grounds for placement were concerning and became a key issue in my research.

The girls become ‘doubly deviant’ in the institutional context, as a gender minority and a minority being placed on social grounds rather than legal grounds. While the staff were committed to providing gender-neutral treatment, I found that everyday activities largely served the needs and interests of the boys placed on grounds of serious offending. This was evident in sports activities such as soccer, basketball or lifting weights, the priority given to the wood and metal workshops, the selection of films and games in the units. Changes in everyday practices to include the girls or protect the girls from sexualized interaction with the boys often resulted in the marginalization of the girls in the units. The girls were always observed by staff and could not be alone with the boys. Thus, living in a unit with boys effectively denied the girls a space for unsupervised peer interaction, and girls were marginalized because the boys often chose to interact with other boys to avoid adult supervision.

Misplaced in institutions for offenders

My research published in Gender & Society demonstrates how institutional practices produce a range of gendered vulnerabilities that potentially harm girls placed in secure institutions. A secure institution is not a treatment facility and not all the staff are trained to deal with trauma, anxiety or self-harm. The young people placed on social grounds, and the girls in particular, were referred to by staff as a demanding task, requiring not only more but also different skills and resources in the staff, such as relational and communicative skills and insights into psychiatric treatment. I found that a range of gendered needs were omitted, such as those caused by gender based violence, that the voices of girls were obscured by viewing them though a lens of pathology, and that providing special treatment often resulted in peer group marginalization. While secure care may be a lenient measure, compared to prison, for young people with records of offending, it is a punitive form of treatment and protection for the young people placed on social grounds.

Ann-Karina Henriksen is a postdoctoral researcher in criminology and social work at Aalborg University, Denmark. Her research focuses on gender, youth and crime using qualitative methods. She has previously published particularly on issues related to girls’ violent conflicts and currently explores gendered practices and experiences of young people in secure institutions. Her research has been funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.

“The Gray Divorce Penalty: Why Divorcing Over Age 50 Shortchanges Women”

 By Jocelyn Elise Crowley

The “gray divorce” rate, or the marital dissolution rate among Americans age 50 and older, has recently skyrocketed.  Now, 1 out of every 4 divorces is “gray.”  While liberating for many mid-life women as a chance to start over, such new beginnings also come with a substantial financial price tag that should cause us all to worry.

Several years ago, researchers Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin at Bowling Green State University were the first to document the rising gray divorce rate.  One direct cause has been the aging of the Baby Boomer generation.  The Census Bureau reports that while in 2010, there were over 99 million Americans age 50 and older, by 2050, there will be over 161 million.

Rising life expectancy has also driven this trend.  Men now live to 76.1 years and women to 81.1 years, an increase over time which has exposed both sexes to a greater chance of becoming divorced.

The problem for women facing a gray divorce is that it hits them extremely hard in the pocketbook.  During their prime earning years of their 20s and 30s, many women take time off from the workforce to raise their children.  When they return to work, they immediately find themselves earning less than the men who remained steadily employed in the same jobs.

Wage discrimination and occupational segregation into low paying “pink collar” jobs also depress women’s earnings.  All of these factors mean that women deposit fewer dollars into their savings accounts, put less money into their retirement plans, and make smaller contributions into the Social Security system.

The cumulative effects of these disadvantages are backed up by the stories of the 40 women I interviewed about their own gray divorces in 2014 and 2015 in my recently published book, Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits (2018; Oakland: The University of California Press).  The 40 men I also spoke to—who were unrelated to the women—had very few concerns about their own financial health after their gray divorces.  The women, in contrast, were facing much more difficult circumstances.

Some of these mid-life women, like Theresa, relied on their parents to help them pay their bills after their gray divorces.  At 51-years-old and previously married for 21 years, Theresa recently returned to work as an administrative assistant after years of raising the couple’s daughter.  As she thought about going into her retirement years, she worried, “There’s probably no possible way that I could keep a roof over my head with just Social Security.”

More disturbing were the women with no family safety nets in place.  Janice, 61-years-old, divorced her husband after 36 years.  She had stayed at home many years to take care of their two daughters, and when she returned to work, she made very little money and had no long-term health care insurance policy in place.  She agonized about her health and this made her “panic because I don’t have the money now to get insurance.”

Connie, also 61-years-old, was married to her husband for nine years.  Throughout her career, she had worked as a Head Start teacher and then as a home health aide, both of which were low-paying.  After her gray divorce, she had no savings and qualified for Medicaid.  Connie noted that if she took her “retirement this summer at 62, I get a whopping $695 a month [in Social Security], which means that I will have to continue to work until I can’t, obviously.”

A gray divorce should not spell financial ruin for American women.  Stabilizing women’s economic futures involves a series of protections that should immediately be put into place by policymakers.  First, instructing girls in high school about financial planning for all of life’s contingencies should be a mandatory part of public education.

Second, implementing paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, and increased funding for child care would help ensure that women do not fall far behind men in the workforce due to their disproportionate caregiving responsibilities.

Third, Social Security reform desperately needs our attention.  Overall benefits remain too low, and women do not receive any Social Security credits for the years when they take time off from employment to care for their children.  Raising benefit levels and providing caregiver credits for those “time off” years into the Social Security benefit formula would help raise their standard of living once they retire.  These changes would help guarantee that mid-life women not only survive, but also thrive in the new, post-gray divorce chapter of their lives.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D., is a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  She is the author of Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits. (2018; University of California Press).

Emerging Adult Sons and their Fathers: Race and the Construction of Masculinity

By Michael Enku Ide

Is the United States facing a crisis of fatherlessness, or are men increasingly involved with their children?  The “traditional father” – an emotionally distant disciplinarian and sole breadwinner – has been undermined by economic and cultural trends.  Most nuclear families are dual-earner, and roughly 70% of mothers with dependent children are employed (Waldman et al 1979; Department of Labor Women’s Bureau).   Americans also increasingly endorse gender equity in parenting responsibilities, even though women continue to do more.

“New Fatherhood” – In life and on screen

These changes have unfolded among American families- both real and fictional.  Many of our most popular and highly-awarded sitcoms explore cultural change through intergenerational tensions.  In Modern Family (2009 to present), a “tough,” economically successful family patriarch with “trouble expressing his love for his children” (Jay), is often confounded by his son-in-law Phil’s alleged gender transgressions. Phil rejects masculine norms of stoicism (Phil: “Showing emotion is part of being a modern, sexy man.”), which is reflected in his parenting style.  A self-described “cool dad,” and “peerent,” Phil explicitly blends the roles of parent and peer to his children, undermining traditional paternal authority.

While over-the-top, Phil’s approach personifies newly-popular masculine values and a model of fatherhood now widely-endorsed in popular media, by government and nonprofit organizations.  The Manifesto of the New Fatherhood, published in a recent Esquire magazine, advises men to reject “the old patriarchy” of “his grandfather’s way of life,” asking: “who would want to go back…to be financially responsible for a family and then never see them?” Rather, men should “be there, physically and mentally” for their children (Marche 2014).  Similarly, since 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services has reminded fathers, in 30-second clips, to “take time to be a dad today.”  Stereotypically masculine men – including WWE wrestlers – play card games, practice cheerleading, or sing “I’m a little teapot” with their children. To “be a dad” prioritizes active engagement with children over strict adherence to masculinity. This messaging resonates with many young fathers who are questioning traditional gender roles and say they prioritize close and emotionally available relationships with children over breadwinning (Harrington, Van Deusen and Humberd 2011).

The “Crisis of Fatherlessness”

Many calls for newly-engaged fatherhood simultaneously warn of a “crisis” of fatherlessness (Sanders 2013) or “father deficit” (Kruk 2012) responsible for personal, community, and societal ills.  The Manifesto described above decries a “crisis of fatherhood… reshaping contemporary life,” which is “more of a disaster than anybody could have imagined,” especially for sons (2014).   Are we “rapidly becoming…an absentee father society” as suggested in Psychology Today (Williams 2014)?

While yesteryear’s “deadbeat dads” failed economically, today’s devalued “absentee fathers” adhere to traditional breadwinning norms which deprive their children of attention and emotional support.  In this re-framing of fatherhood success, some men blame personal and interpersonal difficulties on their “traditional” fathers’ distance (Kilmartin 2009).

Emerging Adult Men and their Fathers

Although discussions of “the college experience” often center students’ self-development and autonomy, our data show that family relations remain important.  Parents often play crucial yet overlooked roles in emerging adults’ identity explorations, part of which may entail “gender intensification” (Silva 2012; Kimmel and Messner 2010).

Scholars disagree on fathers’ engagement during this stage: Do fathers “fade out of the picture” (Kimmel and Messner 2010, 132), or do paternal relations “reach new levels of responsive interaction” (Roy 2014, 326)?  Further, how do sons understand their fathers, masculinity, and themselves? These questions carry important implications for intergenerational changes within masculinity, as emerging adult men evaluate their fathers as potential role models of fatherhood and masculinity (Steinmetz 2015).

Our study: Race and the Construction of Masculinity

My research team (Blair Harrington, Yolanda Wiggins, Tanya Whitworth, Dr. Naomi Gerstel, and I) addressed these questions in our recent paper, “Emerging Adult Sons and their Fathers: Race and the Construction of Masculinity.”  In interviews with 76 college men (Asian American, Black, and white) and a national survey (n=1,576) from 24 institutions, we found striking racial variation.  Most sons within each racial group used similar language and evaluations of their fathers, illustrating distinct cultural conceptions of fatherhood and masculinity that complicate the dichotomy of “involved” versus “absentee” fathers (Ide et al. 2018).

Most Asian American sons criticized their dads as distant, authoritarian breadwinners.  These sons, many of whose fathers were born in Asia, attributed distance to cultural divides, fathers’ long work hours, or geographic distance.  In contrast, Black sons valorized their dads, describing them as “cool” and “laid-back.” For these sons, fathers’ distance fostered positive masculine values of self-reliance and independence.   White sons similarly said their fathers fostered independence, but paradoxically, this came through close relationships based in frequent interactions and shared hobbies, interests, and activities – at least in college. Unlike others, for many white sons, paternal relationships vastly improved in college, and described adolescent father/son relationships as strained.  Both Black and white sons, but not Asian Americans, identified with their fathers, often highlighting traits they shared with them.

Sons frame their personal experiences with racialized accounts; these inform strategies for responding to dominant cultural ideals – ideals we found most closely associated with whites’ experiences. This caused or exacerbated strain in father son relationships, especially among Asian Americans who saw few pathways to empathize or identify with their fathers.  Among Black sons, distance sometimes was framed as a benefit and political strategy which they used to contradict or rebut the “father as friend” model.

Judgments of fathers’ involvement, or lack of involvement, are often blind to the values and cultural frames both fathers and their sons bring to their relationship. Dominant narratives may alienate men whose cultural experiences and values diverge from these ideals. Fatherhood initiatives and popular portrayals of engaged fatherhood, then, can be more powerful and avoid negative unintended consequences by valuing the kinds of differences our research uncovered.

Author: Michael Enku Ide is a PhD Student in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Department of Sociology. He received a sociology MA (2012) from the University of Kentucky, where he studied graduate student-employee unionization. His research focuses on class, gender, sexuality, family, social identity and social movements. Published work has appeared in Labor Notes and Against the Current Magazine. 

Blair Harrington is a PhD student in the University of Massachusetts– Amherst Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on educational and racial inequality, especially among Asian Americans. Her published work includes a teaching activity for the ASA TRAILS.

Yolanda Wiggins is a PhD student in the University of Massachusetts– Amherst Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on inequalities among college students, particularly how financially disadvantaged Black students balance academics with family obligations. Her published work includes an article in the Journal of Black Studies investigating Black students’ experiences at a predominantly white institution.

Tanya Rouleau Whitworth is a PhD student in the University of Massachusetts–Amherst Department of Sociology. Her research explores mental health, well-being, sexuality, gender, family, and education among adolescents and emerging adults. Her published work includes an article in the Journal of Marriage and Family evaluating the link between teen childbearing and depression.

Naomi Gerstel is a Distinguished University Professor and professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Her recent papers and coauthored book Unequal Time (2014, Russell Sage Foundation) explore how gender and class shape control over work schedules. Additional current research focuses on extended families and organizational compliance with family policies.