Fashioning Masculinity in Confinement

Image from Pixel

Clothing matters when we’re out in the world. The fabrics and silhouettes we wear each day help us establish our personal and professional identities. Wearing clothing that is deemed “appropriate” in distinct spaces provides access to jobs, networks and, for many of us, respect and dignity.

In my research published in Gender and Society, I interviewed men of all types, across a range of ages, races, sexualities, occupations. I wanted to understand how their clothes challenged or reinforced cultural ideas about masculinity. My interviews took place in men’s homes where they showed me their clothes and described their memories of them.

When my participants opened up their closets each morning, they asked themselves a series of questions: Who were they going to meet? What activities were they going to do? What spaces did they plan on visiting?  All of these men picked clothing that best allowed them to display their understanding of dominant masculine norms. They believed the clothes they wore would help them get the rewards they sought at the events and outings they attended, or protect them from being harassed and attacked.

All these interviews were conducted before COVID-19.  Many of us now do not go to different physical spaces each day but are primarily confined to our homes. Our social interactions are limited to Zoom. In this new social world, how might my participants decide what to wear each day? And what might be the impact of their decisions on the ways in which they trouble and reinforce masculine ideals?

Photo from Pixels

Our digital interactions present all of us with a new set of considerations when we open up our closets each morning. Our colleagues and friends will no longer observe our fully dressed bodies but instead primarily view our shoulders and faces. This narrowed frame poses two major consequences. Given my research focuses on men and masculinity, I will speculate about men specifically.

First, clothing that adorns the top halves of men’s bodies might take on greater importance.

Some men might still opt to wear a shirt and tie to establish their class position, but as the pandemic rages on, they might loosen up their workwear. As men work from home, they are likely to be multitasking. They work but also cook meals, homeschool kids, cope with anxiety. Perhaps wearing a suite becomes impractical while multi-taking, even if that includes video meetings.

Second, hair and skin might take on a heightened role.

Kirsten Barber charts professional white-collar men’s consumption of high-end salon services—from hair colouring to brow tweezing. Barber finds that these men engage in beauty work to construct their “professional” identity. For them, keeping their hair coiffed, browsshaped and skin smooth establishes masculine power. A virtual world might mean that these services become more important for the construction of middle-class masculinity, as stylists now offer virtual appointments to guide patrons through hair coloring and brow tweezing.

Beauty work might become even more important because participants now see their faces during each and every digital meeting. It becomes easy to focus on how their cheek bones, complexions and eyebrows appear on the screen. For many men, observations about their faces might be a new discovery because beauty work unlike body work is traditionally gendered feminine and avoided by men.      

Make-up might take on a new role for establishing a professional masculine identity in a Zoom-centered world, but men of color and Black men in particular will have limited options. Men who are balding might become more susceptible to hair growth pill subscription boxes designed to reduce hair loss and older men to anti-aging potions. Even Zoom now offers digital filters to instantly reduce the appearance of winkles.

Yet the loosening up of workwear could provide benefits. Mainstream menswear is designed for thin and non-disabled bodies. Clothing patterns are scaled up for larger sizes or adapted for physically disabled wearers. As a result, clothing often fails to comfortably fit fat and disabled men, if it’s available at all. They are often forced to spend hundreds of dollars on custom clothes for office jobs and other formal events. But in a digital world where clothes matter less, these men might no longer need formal and fashionable clothes to shore up masculine power in certain social spaces.

Perhaps some femme and queer men will feel less pressure to code switch. If they are no longer commuting around the city, they face less risk of violence. They might just feel freer and safer to wear whatever they want, including heels all day long.

While this pandemic has shifted how men dress each day, it is unlikely that the role of appearance has changed. The difference between this moment and before COVID-19 is that the contents of men’s bathroom vanities might become more important than the contents of their bedroom closets when it comes to displaying a masculine identity.

What I find intriguing is this shift from the full body to the face in our self-presentation.  This may reduce ableism, fat phobia and other oppressions based on visible cues because others only see one’s shoulders and face. Clothes don’t matter as much now. But the deep assumptions and attitudes that keep inequities structurally alive are not being challenged. They remain in place, just outside the purview of the Zoom frame. Some men might benefit in the short-term, but when they meet in-person once again, dominant masculine ideals could become even more entrenched because digital spaces have masked, not transformed, existing forms of discrimination.

Ben Barry is Chair and Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada). His research explores masculinities and fashion at the intersections of fat and disability.

Revolution Unstalled?: The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Domestic Division of Labor in Hungary

Photo credit: Balogh Zoltan/ MTI

Parents of small children all over the globe must be extremely exhausted by now.  Since the COVID-19 pandemic induced closure of schools and childcare facilities in mid-March, parents have had to shoulder a vast amount of domestic and care work alone: without the contribution of state institutions, private child care providers, and kindly grandparents. 

Whether for wages or for free, childcare and domestic work are primarily organized and done by women.  The domestic gender division of labor has shifted slightly in the past thirty years as women on average reduced their workload and some men have started to pitch in some of the time.  But the changes have been small and uneven across social groups and countries.  Still, women in most countries spend at least twice as much time as men doing unpaid care work.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic change this or will it imprint existing inequalities in the domestic division of labor even more deeply onto the social fabric?  On the one hand, during the lockdown men are spending a great deal more time at home.  This could allow those who haven’t had the chance yet to develop a more intimate familiarity with the contents of the diaper bag or the operation of the washing machine.  At the same time, early projections of both the International Labour Organization  and the European Commission suggest that women are more likely to lose their paid jobs during the crisis, so perhaps they will take up the domestic slack instead?  Will then the crisis exacerbate the unequal division of care work or could it alleviate it?

In order to shed light on these old-new patterns of the gender division of labor, we conducted an online survey in Hungary between 6 and 14 April, 2020. Since Hungary closed schools and childcare facilities on March 13, 2020 and instituted serious lockdown measures soon thereafter, by the time of our survey our respondents had been coping with their new circumstances for 3 weeks. Our sample is representative of high school and college educated Hungarian internet users who raise children under 14 years of age in their households. 

In recent years Hungary introduced a great number of pronatalist measures along with an ideology which depicts women as mothers and wives first and as useful but strictly complementary participants in the labor market second. Hungary is thus the last country where we would expect to see a shift in the gender division of labor during the crisis- yet this is exactly what we found.


We focused our research on couples. They typically had 2 children at home and almost half were raising at least one child under the age of 6.  Most parents were working for wages at the time they answered the questionnaire, and 47% of women and 31% of men were doing so from home.

We asked respondents to tell us whether or not their share of various domestic and childcare tasks has increased since the closure of schools and childcare institutions.  Respondents typically overestimate their contributions to such questions, especially when the overall work burden has clearly increased.  But we were interested in differences among men and women in how they perceive this change.

Among at least high school educated heterosexual parents, men were significantly more likely to say that their share of domestic, child and elderly care work has increased since the closure of schools, while women claimed that their share remained stable or even decreased.  In terms of childcare, for example, 45% of men felt that they were doing a bigger share of the work during the crisis than they did earlier and only 38% of women claimed that they did.  This was true for domestic work and elderly care as well. The findings remained when we compared men and women who were similar in a number of important ways:  education level, working for wages, age, urban or rural residence and the number of children.

The picture is less rosy when we consider the fact that despite men’s increased share of household labor, they were twice as likely as women to feel no tension between their paid and their care work responsibilities, while many more women than men reported that they had to multitask in their home office.  Five times more women than men claimed that it would be helpful if their partner did a greater share of the household and child care work.

Take away

Contrary to expectations about women’s disproportionately increased care burden in academic and popular media, men seem to be stepping in, even in a country where neither the state nor employers are especially supportive of a more gender balanced domestic division of labor.  The majority of the unpaid care work is still done by women and this work burden has increased sharply.   But the inequality of the distribution of family work – at least among people with at least high school education – has decreased, according to both men and women in our sample.

Men’s participation in domestic duties is influenced not only by their social class, gender role attitudes and the national-institutional context but also by immediate circumstances. The sheer physical presence, opportunity, and possibly the emotional experience of emergency and need also matter.

We do not know if these small steps towards gender equality are long-lasting or will end as soon as societies return to some semblance of normalcy, especially if women have more trouble finding paid work in the aftermath of the crisis.  Yet these results at least represent a glimmer of hope on an otherwise rather bleak social and economic horizon.

Eva Fodor is a sociologist teaching in the Department of Gender Studies at the Central European University.  CEU funded this project.

Aniko Gregor works as a sociologist at ELTE University, Budapest, Faculty of Social Sciences. Currently, she is a research fellow at Freie Universität, Berlin.

Julia Koltai is a researcher at the Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence and Assistant Professor of Sociology at ELTE University. Currently she serves as a visiting professor at the Central European University.

Eszter Kováts is a PhD student in Political Science, ELTE University, Budapest.

Taking Risk, Taking Care During COVID-19

Early research on the social impacts of COVID-19 reveals that men and women are experiencing the same pandemic very differently.

Women’s jobs, for instance, may be disproportionately impacted by the impending recession. This, along with daycare and school closures that have demanded more of women’s time, suggests that the pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing gender inequalities in both the domestic and public spheres.

Our ongoing qualitative, longitudinal research with college students and their families sheds light on the gender differences in attitudes toward risk and experiences of isolation. Since April 1st, we have interviewed forty participants (26 identify as women, 13 as men, and 1 as non-binary) between the ages of 18-68 (median age of 23-years-old) to capture their changing experiences at three points in time over several weeks.

Preliminary Findings

Preliminary findings from our research indicate that men are not experiencing the same levels of stress and anxiety that have come to characterize the daily lives of women in our sample. Further, women are bearing an alarming share of the additional household labor and unpaid care work generated by this pandemic.

These findings tell a troubling tale of how COVID-19 is reinforcing existing systems and patterns of gender inequality by pushing women deeper into traditionally feminine roles. Simultaneously, men’s disavowal of the risks associated with COVID-19 reflects masculine ideals premised on confidence, power, and strength.

One of the most striking features of the COVID-19 pandemic is the rapidly shifting backdrop against which individuals are receiving information and assessing their personal risk of exposure to the virus.

As the U.S. struggles to control and manage COVID-19, new data on transmission, vulnerability, and mortality are updated almost in real-time. Although men and women assess similar risks of personally contracting COVID-19, they substantively diverge in their interpretation of—and corresponding response to—perceived risk.

Many women in our sample recounted narratives of intense anxiety, responsibility, and uncertainty. Filene, for example, lives with her mother and has stopped working as a market cashier as a cautionary measure. She expressed enormous distress about the future, stating,

“I don’t know if it’s going to end. I don’t know what to expect next. Will it destroy the earth? Will I get to see another year? Will I even get to see my mom through this thing? Where is it going? What is going to happen?”

In contrast, the majority of men reported personal efforts to follow public health recommendations but otherwise seem unperturbed by COVID-19, even when they evaluate their personal risk to be high. Our findings suggest that the current crisis is reinforcing gender norms that position men as confident, unfazed, and stoic.

Percy, for instance, works in a hospital, where he is responsible for sanitizing rooms. Percy said that he strictly follows safety protocols at the hospital, but outside of work, he inconsistently wears a mask in public because he thinks “it’s just a little outlandish” and that it “looks funny sometimes.”

The men in our sample recognize the risks associated with COVID-19, but their awareness of these risks does not translate into the deep-seated distress that women are experiencing. The tension between the men’s simultaneous awareness and disavowal of the risk is captured well in Arnold’s interview, during which he described the numerous hygiene practices he has adopted during the pandemic, but then emphatically noted that he feels the media have amplified the dangers of COVID-19, which he likened to the flu. 

Women’s experiences of fear and anxiety are partly driven by their relentless commitment to care work. For example, Valencia is responsible for cooking and shopping for her fiancé and mother, and she reported being on the brink of panic attacks when she contemplates the loss of her loved ones to COVID-19. Her narrative stands in stark contrast to Cameron’s, in which he expressed worry about his elderly parents’ refusal to stay home, but at the same time, reported being in a place of acceptance about their eventual positive diagnoses. He calmly stated that their contraction of COVID-19 was a matter of “when” and not “if.”

The salience of unpaid care work in the women’s lives is all the more marked because our sample consists of mostly young adults. Even though most are not wives or mothers, the women in our sample have become deeply affected by conventional gendered expectations centered on domestic labor and caregiving.

For example, Megan is tasked with helping her father file for unemployment during the pandemic. In addition, while her mother is at work, Megan must “cook and clean and still try and fit homework in.”  Similarly, Liniksha noted that she is entirely responsible for her younger brother’s care, even though they both live with their parents, an uncle, and an older sister. Although she was his primary caregiver even before the pandemic, Liniksha explained that she is now solely responsible for his homeschooling as well, which has been challenging. These narratives underscore the extent to which the pandemic has pushed women deeper into caregiving roles, even while other demands on their time and energy have not relented.

Our ongoing research is revealing a clear pattern of gender differences in attitudes toward and responses to risk and care work that have significant short- and long-term impacts. More immediately, men’s relaxed attitudes toward contracting COVID-19 may encourage behavior that increases their own—and effectively, their families’—risk of disease. In the long term, as the U.S. confronts the possibility that COVID-19 may permanently alter our social landscape, our findings highlight the need to examine critically the novel (and troubling) ways in which women are becoming entrenched in traditional domestic responsibilities.

Dr. Catherine Tan is an incoming (Fall 2020) Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Vassar College. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Brandeis University. Her research has been published in Social Science & Medicine, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Genetics in Medicine. You can find her online at and follow her on Twitter @catherineoscopy.
Dr. Janani Umamaheswar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the Pennsylvania State University and her research has been published in journals such as Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, Civic Sociology, Women & Criminal Justice, and Punishment & Society. You can find her online at and follow her on Twitter @JananiU.

The current pandemic: what does gender have to do with it?

Photo by Managing Editor Mary Ann Vega

The current pandemic: what does gender have to do with it?

This is a call for insightful pieces for the Gender & Society blog.

Arundhati Roy has written that ‘the pandemic is a portal” and social scientists need to be documenting what is happening now and also envisioning a future beyond “getting back to normal” since normal was already riddled with inequality.

Do you have empirical evidence about how the gender structure is being impacted by, or impacting, the current global health crises?

Do you have a theoretically informed or evidence based proposal for a better future, one that embodies more equality?

If so, submit a blog post to Gender & Society. Blog posts should be 900 words or less and written for a non-academic audience.

Please send your blog posts to ATTN: Blog Post Series