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.

Bishop-2
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.

Bishop-1
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.

Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump - Arrivals
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.

Advertisements

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.”

Boeri_2

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).

Sarah_s_2

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).

Millennials, Gender, and a More Open Society

By Barbara J. Risman

Cross-posted with permission from Families as they Really Are on The Society Pages

We know quite a lot, statistically, about Millennials, the up and coming young adult generation. Those who are employed are more likely than any previous generation to have a college degree. And yet, they are also more likely to live with their parents for longer stretches as adults.  The Pew Research Center Fact Tank  shows that 15 percent of Millennials live at home between the ages of 25 and 35, far more than generations before them. Their moving home continued even as the unemployment rate decreased, although those without a college degree are far more likely to boomerang home to their parents than are their college educated peers. Millennials appear to be less likely to move around the country to follow job opportunities, perhaps because so many jobs no longer carry the wages and benefits that would justify relocation. One trend very clear is that Millennials are far more likely to lean Democratic than any other generation. These left-leaning college educated young adults, some slow to fly away from the nest, are now the largest generation in America. And among women, Millennials are most likely to see the advantages men have over women, over half of them think men have it easier, far more than any previous generation. And twice as many women than men report having been sexually harassed at work, making this younger generation as aware of women’s victimization as any other.   Their mothers’ feminism hardly ended women’s problems in the workforce.

This is what we know from nationally representative statistics. But I wanted to know more, particularly about how college educated Millennials, our future leaders, felt about gender politics, not only in the workforce but how they experienced sex-based opportunities and constraints in their own lives. My colleagues and students and I interviewed 116 Millennials. Our sample was minority majority, with most of the respondents having been raised in working class, many in immigrant households. Most were now in college or recent college graduates.  In addition to recruiting a sample with much race and ethnic diversity, we also recruited a gender diverse sample, including those who rejected the gender binary entirely (some of whom identify as genderqueer) and some transgender young people. We asked these people to tell us their life history, with a specific focus on their experiences where gender was particularly salient. In the process, we sought to explore whether this new generation will change the face of gender politics at home or at work.

The answer is both yes, and no.  We could identify no one-size-fits-all generational experience.  What we did find was a complicated gender structure that some Millennials endorsed, some resisted, others rebelled against, and that left many simply confused. America continues to be a society with incredible religious diversity, and in my interviews, I quickly noticed that the men and women who were proud of their being girly girls and tough guys, wanted others in their social networks to follow sex-based traditions, and endorsed world views where men and women should have different opportunities and constraints were often raised in literalist faiths where the religious text was taken as gospel, and not metaphorical.  These true believers in a traditional gender structure came from many faiths, Evangelical Christian, orthodox Jew, Greek Orthodox, and Muslim. What they shared was a belief that god intended men and women to be complementary, not with equal opportunities to all social roles. These were young adults following in their parents’ footsteps, conserving the past for the future. In our sample, we talked to many of these young traditionalists, but in a national sample, they would be a small minority.  Still, they exist and complicate any picture of Millennials as movers and shakers of tradition.

But then, of course, many Millennials are also critical of sexual inequality. In our research, we identified two different patterns among young people with these attitudes. Some are innovators who simply ignore and reject any rules that apply only to women or men. They are proud to integrate aspects of masculinity and femininity, toughness and caring, into their own identities, reject expectations that force them into sex-specific roles, and want women and men’s lives converge so that everyone has the rights and opportunity to share the work of caring for others, and earning a living. What seems new in this generation is that this feminism isn’t a women’s only movement. These innovators are men as well as women. But some of those we interviewed went far beyond simply rejecting sexism, they rejected gender categories themselves, particularly the way social norms require us to present our bodies. These rebels reject the need for the category of woman or man. Some use the language of genderqueer, others simply say they are between the binary. A few are comfortable with remaining women but present themselves so androgynously as to be commonly presumed to be male. All reject the notion that women and men need to carry their bodies differently, or dress distinctly. These rebels have a tough time in everyday life. If you do not fit easily into a gender binary, you find yourself an outsider everywhere you turn, with no obvious restroom, no clothing designed for your anatomy, and no box to check on many surveys. While people with these problems are no doubt a very small proportion of American Millennials, they are having a tremendous cultural and political impact, with both California and Oregon now allowing people to choose a gender category other than woman or man.  These new laws provide more accurate identifications for genderqueer Millennials, as well as for intersex people. Rebels may be small in number but are clearly re-shaping cultural ideas about gender identity.

Of course, many of the young adults we interviewed were not so easily categorized. I call them straddlers because they have one foot in traditionalism and one in gender criticism.  It’s hard to know if this inconsistency is a moment in the lifecycle or will characterize their adult lives. After all, being a young adult today is confusing, and psychologists have labeled this stage of life emerging adulthood.  It is indeed a long and winding road, according to Jeffrey Arnett, from the late teens through the twenties to arrive at an adult identity and lifestyle. Many of the young people we interviewed held inconsistent  their ideas about themselves, their expectations for others, and how society should operate. They are as confused, and as in transition, as is the gender structure itself.

Millennials are a diverse group. When it comes to the gender structure, I identified four categories, traditionals, innovators, rebels, and straddlers, of Millennials with very different orientations. Does nothing, then, make this generation distinctive? Yes, some patterns do indeed provide a generational marker that transcends their differences. All these Millennials talked of women as employed workers whether they were mothers or not. The belief that the world of work and politics is for men, and the hearth and home the sole province of women is a 20th Century memory that now sits in the dustbin of history. Even women that endorse more freedom for men than women expect and desire to spend most of their adult lives in the labor force. But beyond the changing expectations for women’s lives, my research suggests the most defining feature of Millennials is their gender and sexual libertarianism.  Whatever they choose for themselves, they have no desire to impose their choices on anyone else.  What this means for America is that as the Millennials become the largest voting block, they are unlikely to cast their ballots for laws that require anyone to become just like them when it comes to gender or sexuality. And in that way, the Millennials may just take us to a more open and society.

Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University in the UK.   She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.

(UN)BECOMING A MAN: LEGAL CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE THIRD GENDER CATEGORY IN PAKISTAN

 

By Muhammad Azfar Nisar

Legal recognition of gender non-conforming individuals remains an important unresolved policy issue of our times as no singular approach exists to legally accommodate the unique identity of such individuals. While some countries allow change in legal gender, generally contingent on proving surgical modification of the body through medical procedures, such policies have been criticized for trying to subsume the unique identities of gender non-conforming individuals within the binary gender system. In the last decade, some countries (like Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) have opted to create a third legal gender category to recognize the unique identity of gender non-conforming and/or intersex individuals. This recent trend represents a marked policy shift towards the legal recognition of gender non-conforming individuals. While this seems a positive step on paper, we still know relatively little how gender non-conforming individuals respond to the legal third gender category.

Research Context

In an attempt to expand our knowledge about legal identity and consciousness of gender non-conforming individuals, I carried out ethnographic fieldwork with the Khawaja Sira community in Pakistan for about 9 months in 2015-16. The Khawaja Sira community of Pakistan is a heterogenous group largely consisting of gender non-conforming individuals. While most members of the Khawaja Sira community are biological males with a preference for the feminine gender, many male-to-female transsexual, intersex, impotent individuals and victims of childhood sexual abuse also self-identify as Khawaja Sira. However, almost all members, regardless of their reasons for joining, adopt the feminine gender after joining the Khawaja Sira community. Most members of the Khawaja Sira community are expelled from their homes in adolescence generally after repeated verbal and physical abuse. Living in extreme poverty, most members of the Khawaja Sira community resort to begging, dancing at private parties, and sex work to make their ends meet. Overall, the Khawaja Sira community has a pariah status in Pakistani society and until recently had no formal protection of their legal rights.

However, during the proceedings of a landmark case from 2009 to 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the creation of a third gender category to legally recognize the unique identity of the Khawaja Sira community. While the decision to create the legal third gender was accompanied with much fanfare, the response of the Khawaja Sira community to this new gender category has been underwhelming. A large majority of the Khawaja Sira community continues to legally register as men. This seemingly paradoxical choice problematizes the instrumental and symbolic value of the legal third gender.

Research Findings

My research indicates that this paradoxical choice of the Khawaja Sira community about their legal gender is primarily motivated by practical concerns. A Khawaja Sira registering as a third gendered individual faces family pressure, religious stigma and high administrative burden. On the other hand, there are hardly any material benefits associated with the legal third gender category to offset these significant personal and social costs. Hence, for the Khawaja Sira community—most of whom live in extreme poverty—their practical (material and religious) interests are served better by choosing the masculine gender legally.

On the other hand, there is no guarantee—at least in the short-term—that their strategic gender interests (like social acceptance and material inclusion) will be served by choosing the legal third gender. Importantly, the Khawaja Sira do not see law as the ultimate arbiter of their identity even though most outsiders consider this choice of the Khawaja Sira as an indication that most of them are in fact men pretending to be men.  The Khawaja Sira community, therefore, make a purposeful patriarchal bargain by choosing the masculine legal gender to take advantage of the privileges associated with the masculine identity in a patriarchal socio-legal order while foregoing the symbolic benefits associated with the legal third gender.

My findings, therefore, point to the limitations of a legal third gender category within a patriarchal socio-legal order where important benefits associated with the masculine identity are forfeited by registering. In doing so, my research cautions against over emphasizing the symbolic value of legal recognition for gender non-conforming groups. Moreover, my results suggest that unless accompanied by tangible benefits to offset the institutional biases against it, the legal third gender is not likely to be a viable strategy for social inclusion of gender non-conforming individuals, at least in regions like South Asia where such individuals often live in extreme poverty.

Muhammad Azfar Nisar is assistant professor at the Suleman Dawood School of Business at Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He is interested in understanding the dynamics of the citizen–state relationship with a particular focus on legal categorization, identity formation, social marginalization and policy implementation.