Tag Archives: children

Girls braced for beauty

Sociologists like to say that gender identities are socially constructed. That just means that what it is, and what it means, to be male or female is at least partly the outcome of social interaction between people – visible through the rules, attitudes, media, or ideals in the social world.

And that process sometimes involves constructing people’s bodies physically as well. And in today’s high-intensity parenting, in which gender plays a big part, this includes constructing – or at least tinkering with – the bodies of children.

Today’s example: braces. In my Google image search for “child with braces,” the first 100 images yielded about 75 girls.

google-braces

Why so many girls braced for beauty? More girls than boys want braces, and more parents of girls want their kids to have them, even though girls’ teeth are no more crooked or misplaced than boys’. This is just one manifestation of the greater tendency to value appearance for girls and women more than for boys and men. But because braces are expensive, this is also tied up with social class, so that richer people are more likely to get their kids’ teeth straightened, and as a result richer girls are more likely to meet (and set) beauty standards.

Hard numbers on how many kids get braces are surprisingly hard to come by. However, the government’s medical expenditure survey shows that 17 percent of children ages 11-17 saw an orthodontist in the last year, which means the number getting braces at some point in their lives is higher than that. The numbers are rising, and girls are wearing most of hardware.

A study of Michigan public school students showed that although boys and girls had equal treatment needs (orthodontists have developed sophisticated tools for measuring this need, which everyone agrees is usually aesthetic), girls’ attitudes about their own teeth were quite different:

michigan-braces

Clearly, braces are popular among American kids, with about half in this study saying they want them, but that sentiment is more common among girls, who are twice as likely as boys to say they don’t like their teeth.

This lines up with other studies that have shown girls want braces more at a given level of need, and they are more likely than boys to get orthodontic treatment after being referred to a specialist. Among those getting braces, there are more girls whose need is low or borderline. A study of 12-19 year-olds getting braces at a university clinic found 56 percent of the girls, compared with 47 percent of the boys, had “little need” for them on the aesthetic scale.

The same pattern is found in Germany, where 38 percent of girls versus 30 percent of boys ages 11-14 have braces, and in Britain – both countries where braces are covered by state health insurance if they are needed, but parents can pay for them if they aren’t.

Among American adults, women are also more likely to get braces, leading the way in the adult orthodontic trend. (Google “mother daughter braces” and you get mothers and daughters getting braces together; “father son braces” brings you to orthodontic practices run by father-son teams.)

anchors-braces

Caption: The teeth of TV anchors Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Robin Roberts, Suzanne Malveaux, Don Lemon, George Stephanopolous, David Gregory, Ashley Banfield, and Diane Sawyer.

Teeth and consequences

Today’s rich and famous people – at least the one whose faces we see a lot – usually have straight white teeth, and most people don’t get that way without some intervention. And lots of people get that.

Girls are held to a higher beauty standard and feel the pressure – from media, peers or parents – to get their teeth straightened. They want braces, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this subjects them to needless medical procedures and reinforces the over-valuing of appearance. However, it also shows one way that parents invest more in their girls, perhaps thinking they need to prepare them for successful careers and relationships by spending more on their looks.

When they’re grown up, of course, women get a lot more cosmetic surgery than men do – 87 percent of all surgical procedures, and 94% of Botox-type procedures – and that gap is growing over time.

As is the case with lots of cosmetic procedures, people from wealthier families generally are less likely to need braces but more likely to get them. But add this to the gender pattern, and what emerges is a system in which richer girls (voluntarily or not) and their parents set the standard for beauty – and then reap the rewards (as well as harms) of reaching it.

Note: I didn’t find any sociological studies of this. Why don’t you do one?

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Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

Kay Hymowitz, who sometimes works out of a PO Box rented by Brad Wilcox, writes in the LA Times (excerpting heavily):

As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. …  Boys … “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”… Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. … And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. … If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide.

Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?

In this graph I show the scales down to zero so you can see the proportional change in each trend: father-not-present boys ages 10-14 and male juvenile violent-crime arrest rates.

fatherless-juvenile-arrests

I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.

If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.

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Parents live in the gendered world of their children, too

I did a little research hinting at the way gendered childhood might affect parents – by looking at how the gender of their children affected their favorite colors.

Because gendering – especially around consumption – is so fierce, I figure that’s got to be the tip of the iceberg. I thought of that walking to the kids’ school the other day:

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Maybe the mothers dressed to match the kids because it was the first day of school. Or maybe they have more matching clothes so that coincidences like this happen more often at random. Who knows?

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Time with young children

On weekdays, women in households with young children spend twice as much time caring for the children as men do. On weekends the ratio is only 1.5-to-1. Details on the chart, which has grid-lines at 6-minute intervals (click to enlarge):

atustimewithchildren

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These are averages per day calculated from time diaries recording the “primary activity” at each point in the day. Note that this does not do anything with marital status or household composition, so a lot more of these women are single mothers. That’s not a flaw in the presentation, though. Part of having a lot of single mothers means they spend more time with children, as these data show.

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The banal, insidious sexism of Smurfette

Originally published by TheAtlantic.com. An update to my old post on the first Smurf movie (which keeps getting traffic from people Googling for Smurf names).
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Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Animation

The Smurfs, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people – with their unique qualities and abilities – while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The sequel doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.

In the original graphic novels, Smurfette (or La Schtroumpfette in French) was the creation of the evil Gargamel, who made her to sow chaos among the all-male Smurf society. His recipe for femininity included coquetry, crocodile tears, lies, gluttony, pride, envy, sentimentality, and cunning.

In the Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette–because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.

These characters, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people–with their unique qualities and abilities–while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The Smurfs 2, which premiered last weekend and came in third at the box office, doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.

Here are the Smurf characters McDonald’s is using for their Happy Meals:

mickeydsmurf.jpg

When you buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, the cashier asks if it’s for a boy or a girl. In my experience, which is admittedly limited to my daughters, girls get Smurfette. I guess boys get any of the others.

The Way It’s Never Been

Identifying male characters by their non-gender qualities and females by their femininity is just one part of the broader pattern of gender differentiation, or what you might call gendering.

There are two common misconceptions about gendering children. One is that it has always been this way – with boys and girls so different naturally that all products and parenting practices have always differentiated them. This is easily disproved in the history of clothing, which shows that American parents mostly dressed their boys and girls the same a century ago. In fact, boys and girls were often indistinguishable, as evident in this 1905 Ladies’ Home Journal contest in which readers were asked to guess the sex of the babies (no one got them all right):

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Source: Jo Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

The other common perception is that our culture is actually eliminating gender distinctions, as feminism tears down the natural differences that make gender work. In the anti-feminist dystopian mind, this amounts to feminizing boys and men. This perspective gained momentum during the three decades after 1960, when women entered previously male-dominated occupations in large numbers (a movement that has largely stalled).

However, despite some barrier-crossing, we do more to gender-differentiate now than we did during the heyday of the 1970s unisex fashion craze (the subject of Jo Paoletti’s forthcoming book, Sex and Unisex). On her Tumblr, Paoletti has a great collection of unisex advertising, such as this 1975 Garanimals clothing ad, which would be unthinkable for a major clothier today:

unisexclothes1.pngAnd these clothing catalog images from 1972 (left) and 1974 (right):

unisex_MERGED.jpgToday, the genders are not so easily interchangeable. Quick check: Google image search for “girls clothes” (left) vs. “boys clothes”:

googleboysgirlsclothes.pngToday, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash. In fact, even the words “sexism” and “sexist,” which rose to prominence in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, have once again become less common than, say, the word “bacon”:

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Source: Google Books ngrams

And the gender differentiation of childhood is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. Not all differences are bad, of course. But what Katha Pollitt called “the Smurfette principle“–in which “boys are the norm, girls the variation”–is not a difference between equals.

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Father care: The more things don’t change, the more they stay the same

The U.S. Census Bureau has released its new report on childcare. This provides a good followup treatment for the hyperventilation induced by fear of fathers taking over (or being relegated to) childcare.*

First, the trend that fits my story of stalled gender progress. Among married fathers with employed wives, how many are providing the “primary care” for their children? That is, among the various childcare arrangements the children are in while their mother is at work, how many are in their fathers’ care more than in any other arrangement? Answer: 10%, which is virtually unchanged from a quarter-century ago:

father-primary-careSource:  U.S. Census Bureau, Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011. (There was a methodology change in 1997, before which Census asked parents to name their primary arrangement, which they now calculate from the hours in each arrangement.)

Not a lot of change for a quarter century in which we’re told everything has changed.

However, in fairness to the change-is-happening community, here is the trend for the percentage of fathers who say they are providing ANY care to their children while their mothers were at work.

father-any-care

Source: As above.

I don’t give this much weight since it might reflect greater sensitivity to the importance of saying fathers provide care, but there you have it: it’s higher, and it shows some increases up until the early 1990s, which is when gender equality in general stalled on many indicators. Since the mid-1990s: Nothing.

Please note these figures don’t show the total contribution of fathers, but only reflects those married with children, whose wives are employed.

One interesting source of father care is mothers’ shiftwork. As Harriet Presser reported two decades ago, the 24/7 economy stimulates some task sharing among couples. In the current report, the Laughlin writes:

Preschoolers whose mothers worked nights or evenings were more likely to have their father as a child care provider than those with mothers who worked a day shift (42 percent and 23 percent, respectively)

* The report was written by Lynda Laughlin — have you credited a government bureaucrat by name for something valuable they did today?

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Pediatrics essay on child wellbeing in the homogamy debate

The medical journal Pediatrics has a nice, short essay on the child wellbeing argument over homogamous (same-sex) marriage.

The authors, Jeremy R. Garrett and John D. Lantos, write:

Our primary goal in this article has been to provoke or reinforce skepticism about the conceptual, empirical, and normative adequacy of opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis of claims that such marriages are detrimental to the well-being of children.

And they suggest three principles for the state’s role in family structure regulation or support. In my paraphrase:

  1. Provide necessary support to ensure parents have the resources they need to raise children.
  2. For family living arrangements, set a minimum threshold rather than a maximal ideal, because family structure categories are not reasonable or effective means of identifying good or bad situations for children.
  3. After setting a low bar for family structure, be vigilant in protecting or supporting children if things are not working out.

Just as we don’t (or rather shouldn’t) punish criminals based on the social category they belong to but rather by the nature of their crime and individual qualities, so we shouldn’t legislate family categories but rather child wellbeing itself.

As we approach the Supreme Court decisions on homogamous marriage rights, this essay might be a good resource for the child wellbeing aspect of the debate.

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Incarceration’s contribution to infant mortality

A recent study in the journal Social Problems by sociologist Chistopher Wildeman shows that America’s practice of mass incarceration may be exacerbating both infant mortality in general and stubborn racial inequality in infant mortality in particular.

Drawing on recent literature by himself and others, Wildeman spells out the case for incarceration’s negative effect on family economies, including: lost earnings and financial contributions from fathers, the expensive burden of maintaining the relationship with an incarcerated parent, and the lost value of the incarcerated parent’s unpaid labor. All of those costs may take a toll on mothers’ health, which is the primary cause of infant mortality.

In addition, family members of incarcerated parents may contract infectious diseases, experience significant stress, and lose support networks — all taking an additional health toll.

Sure enough, his analysis of data from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System confirms that children born into families in which a parent has been incarcerated are more likely to die in the first year of life. The association may not be causal, but it holds with a lot of important control variables.

Does this increase racial inequality? Probably, because parental incarceration is so concentrated among Black families, as Wildeman and Bruce Western reported previously (my graph of their numbers):

To make the connection to racial inequality explicit, Wildeman moves to compare states over time, on the suspicion that incarceration could increase infant mortality rates, and racial inequality in infant mortality rates. That could be because concentrated incarceration undermines community support and income, people with felony records often are disenfranchised (so the political system can ignore their needs), and the costs of incarceration crowd out more beneficial spending that could improve community health.

The results of a lot of fancy statistical models comparing states show that:

the imprisonment rate is positively and significantly associated with the total infant mortality rate, the black infant mortality rate, and the black-white gap in the infant mortality rate.

It’s an impressive article on an important subject, one that thankfully is attracting more attention from good scholars.

I previously reported on Wildeman’s work on how the drug war affect families, here.

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The disparate lives of fifth graders

A new study of about 5,000 fifth-grade students in the three public school districts shows wide disparities by race/ethnicity in a number of important health practices and outcome measures. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed unadjusted disparities and then attempted to account for them statistically with common control variables, such as family socioeconomic status and school characteristics.

Here is a breakdown of some of the indicators (my graph):

On all but alcohol consumption (remember these are fifth graders), the white students showed advantages over Black and Latino students. In the subsequent analysis, the authors showed what amount of the disparity was accounted for by the different control variables. Here is their graph illustrating the findings:

It shows, for example, that about 10 points out of the 20-point difference between Latinos and Whites on the frequency of reporting fair or poor health is accounted for by their control variables. For Black children, about four points out of the eight point difference is accounted for. (These gaps would likely be larger if private school students were included.)

Determining the causal story behind these disparities is interesting and important, however it is most important to realize that at the descriptive level these represent major disparities in the lived experience of young children who are blameless.

It is interesting to note that some of these practices and outcomes speak to parenting practices, which has been the subject of a growing literature in recent years. However, after Annette Lareau reported that parenting practices in her study differed more by social class than they did by race, class has been the focus of much of this research. For example, although I did not see it, a study by Jessica McCrory Calarco at Indiana University, presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association last week, looks very interesting. She used observation and interviews and found stark differences between middle-class and working-class parent-child interactions. From the press release:

Working-class parents, she found, coached their children on how to avoid problems, often through finding a solution on their own and by being polite and deferential to authority figures. Middle-class parents, on the other hand, were more likely to encourage their kids to ask questions or ask for help.

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LGBT teens made homeless

From the Williams Institute at UCLA, a report for the No Family For You file: “Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Services Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth Who Are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless.”

The report is cautious in its write-up, which is appropriate, because a survey of service providers only gets you a view through one window into the problem of homeless youth who are LGBT. But in terms of orders of magnitude, I think it’s fair to conclude that LGBT youth make up a very disproportionate share of homeless youth, and that rejection by their families is the leading precursor to their homelessness.

Here is the relevant figure, based on the responses of service providers:

It’s a good reminder that families are only a source of care and support for those who are cared for and supported by their families.

As this report hit the wires last week, ThinkProgress generated one of those graphic Facebook memes, which looked like this:

I wouldn’t use this survey of agencies – representing an unknown proportion of all agencies serving an unknown proportion of all homeless people – to try to nail down a number like “40% of homeless youth are LGBT.” (One question: what about homeless youth who are with their homeless families?) Anyway, let’s just agree it’s a serious problem and they are probably very over-represented in the homeless population.

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