The dual nature of gender bias

I wasn’t intending to write this blog. Not at all. I’d rather write about science–in fact I have two or three drafts that I have been thinking about for some time, and would much prefer to write. But like a moth drawn to a candle’s flame, here I go.

I am a father. I am a husband. There are two very close females in my life. And I am a human (although there is some dissent on this issue from my various foes and detractors). For these reason, when I read about gender bias, my blood pressure skyrockets.

Imagine the mercury as I read the following article, in the Israeli newspaper “Yediot Achronot” (translated loosely as “latest news”):

RELIGIOUS SCHOOL EXPELS BEAUTY QUEEN
Outstanding student from central Israel pays heavy price for taking part in local beauty pageant. ‘All the dresses I wore were modest,’ she tells Ynet. Education Ministry: Student chose to ignore school’s instructions

Tomer Velmer
Published: 04.13.11

A principal of a state religious school in central Israel has expelled a student for taking part in a local beauty pageant and winning the contest.

Maayan Mader, an outstanding student and a representative of the school’s student council, decided to sign up for a beauty pageant in the city of Gedera about two months ago, after ensuring that the contest did not include swimsuits or provocative clothing.

“At the end of the event, when I was declared the winner, I felt like the happiest person on earth. I never believed I would win,” she recounted in a conversation with Ynet. “We’re a small community and everyone supported and applauded me, and there was no doubt that this was the greatest experience in my life.”

Mader’s euphoria was interrupted two days later, when she was summoned to the principal’s office and expelled from school for taking part in the beauty pageant. According to the principal, the contest’s participants wore sleeveless dresses – violating the school’s rules, which require modest clothing.

‘School cannot intervene in private life’

“I was in shock and didn’t know what to say,” Mader told Ynet. “Even in my worst nightmares I never thought that a beauty pageant would cause such a mess, especially as I was strict about wearing modest and unrevealing dresses.

“I have a lot of respect for the school’s rules and procedures, but the principal cannot intervene in my private life and tell me what to do. This is my last year in school and I want to graduate in the best way possible. I feel helpless, but I believe everything will be
okay,” she added.

Mader’s furious parents turned to the local council head, who promised to help.
“It hurts me to see my daughter like this,” her mother said. “She went to the pageant for fun, and when she was announced the winner I felt very proud and happy. We must not forget that she is about to take her matriculation exams and the school must not destroy her future like this.”

The Education Ministry said in response, “When the school learned of the student’s participation in the beauty pageant, her parents were summoned and informed that such a contest contradicts the values of religious education.

“The student chose to ignore the instructions, and the case is currently being looked into by the department for state religious education.”

Religious residents protest decision

Many of Gedera’s religious residents slammed the decision to expel Mader.
“I am a religious woman, but with all due respect, this is not Iran,” said a woman named Ester. “The contest was very respectable and the girls were charming. It’s a shame that the Education Ministry has decided to spoil this experience for them.”

Meir, another resident, added that “it was a beautiful event which brought Gedera’s religious and secular residents closer.
Unfortunately, instead of using this event to initiate joint activities between the sectors, the Education Ministry is sparking feelings of polarization and alienation.”

The event’s producer, Guy Harari, said he had reached an agreement with the council head that the pageant would not includeswimsuits and revealing clothes due to Gedera’s large religious community.
“I come from a traditional home, and I’m aware of the sensitivity among the religious community, so I made sure to make this promise to council head Yoel Gamliel, who is a religious man himself.

“We must remember that these are not haredi (ultraorthodox-S.C.) girls, but observant girls whose bodies were not revealed during the event,” Harari added.

“It’s a shame that instead of supporting the community, the education system is doing the exact opposite. Instead of appreciating the contest’s huge contribution to the community and to the girls, they are only looking at the negative aspects.”

So as a male who considers himself a feminist, how am I supposed to react to this story? The situation is so awful, and so anti-female, that I don’t even know where to start.

Beauty contests are an insult to the human race. The whole idea is simply degrading, and every cell in my body is crying out that we MUST teach children from an early age that people should be judged by their actions, and not their appearances. I truly see the IDEA of beauty contests not only as repulsive, but as a serious threat to ever achieving gender equality.

However, it is a two way street.

The young lady notes “At the end of the event, when I was declared the winner, I felt like the happiest person on earth. I never believed I would win. We’re a small community and everyone supported and applauded me, and there was no doubt that this was the greatest experience in my life.”

As long as mothers and fathers support the participation of their daughters in these so-called competitions, they are basically legitimizing the treatment of women as objects. And yet, one reads only encouragement of this practice by families, friends and neighbors.

How ironic that the caption over the picture of the young woman in question said “Iran in Gedera?” (the town in Israel where this occurred). The amazing thing is that the article is written mostly from the standpoint of how unfair the religious school is for expelling the young woman for participation in an event that is unbecoming to a religious young lady.

So we are faced with a double insult–religious discrimination against the freedom of the girl to do as she pleases outside the school, and to dress as she sees fit. Yet at the same time–what an IRONIC situation, no one is paying the slightest notice to the fact that beauty contests are immoral (except, perhaps–again ironically, the religious school principal).

With a mess like this, how does one even begin to fight gender bias?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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25 Responses to The dual nature of gender bias

  1. I think part of equality is the right to participate in a beauty contest if one desires. There are some careers a woman might choose that are facilitated by winning such events – for example, acting, modeling and presenting the news on TV. One may not approve of such careers, but they are legitimate and if a girl wants to go that route, why should anyone else be able to stand in her way?

  2. cromercrox says:

    When I last looked down at myself without the intervention of a middle-aged spread, I identified myself as a male. My life is immediately enriched by the presence of many females of diverse species (Mrs Crox, Crox Minor, Crox Minima, Canis croxorum, a rabbit, a snake, an axolotl, two guinea pigs and a number of chickens).

    I do not consider myself a feminist, because men and women are different, biologically, for perfectly good reasons. I do, however, believe in equality of opportunity and free expression. If a girl wants to take part in a beauty contest, that’s her right and privilege in a free society, whatever you might think of it. To disapprove of such things might be seen as the obverse of the girl’s undoubted ill-treatment by the religiously-motivated authorities in Israel.

    I’m with the bystander who said “I am a religious woman, but with all due respect, this is not Iran.”

  3. rpg says:

    Out of curiosity Steve, how do you feel about this?

  4. steve caplan says:

    Well, it looks as if the entire OT Tenure Committee, chaired by RPG with high-ranking members, is in disagreement with me. Are my days at OT numbered? I need tenure so I can say what I want!

    Seriously, in response to Jenny and Henry, I certainly side with the rights of people (women/girls, in this case) to do as they please. As Eric Idle argues with John Cleese in the Life of Brian, Stan/Loretta had every right to have a right to have babies–even if he/she didn’t have a womb.

    So, from a rights/privilege standpoint, you have no argument from me. However, I will take up the issue and say (despite agreed upon biological differences between men and women) that a society that puts value on these events, trumpets them, flaunts them as worthy and significant–has serious flaws that need to be addressed. I think this really highlights the way society perceives women as sexual objects (as opposed to sexual beings).

    As to Jenny’s comment about a career in acting or news broadcasting; I believe that truly good actors who are not considered classical beauties (male and female), but have the necessary talent and charisma, are getting roles. For example, I see that more and more male newscasters in the US are bald/balding (something that one didn’t see some years ago), and women on CNN (for example) continue to be reporters well into their 60s, as long as they are respected. So I am somewhat encouraged by this.

    With regards to modeling–that is a harder point for me to address. My personal view is that this is not very different from the beauty contests, although you make a point. I know this would never happen, but it would be wonderful if all women involved in these “careers” said ENOUGH, and no longer agreed to stand half naked and be photographed beside a car for a television commercial. Unfortunately, this is the reality, but it doesn’t impact my desire to change things.

    As an aside, you would be surprised by how many job/graduate student applications include a reference to participation in beauty contests on the CV.

    With regard to RPGs link. I am equally opposed to male contests, for the same reasons, although truthfully, this issue is pretty much a one-way street with males drooling over female bodies, and too many females willing to acquiesce.

    • chall says:

      People put their participation in beauty contests on their CV when applying for grad school? ….

      huh. Well, I guess that sort of means that they have their nerves in check in front of people, and talking in front of people? [Said since I’m not sure I could pull off a talk in a bathing suit in front of lots of people. Not feeling my most self confident in that so to speak ^^]

  5. chall says:

    In general I’m areeing with “true equality is when everyone can choose what they want to do and not get judged by it”, reality however is slightly different.

    When I read the story I only wondered if she/students in the school had to sign an agreement when starting that “they promise to adhere to the rules of conduct and dressing even when not in school”? I know that certain private schools/universities/[work places] make students[workers] sign that and if you are in violation of that even outside of the place you have forfeited the right to attend.

    I’m not a fan of objectifying women (or men) but tbh, beauty contests are imho so obviously objectifying so I don’t feel as upset about it as when the weather presenter on TV has a neglige or only a bra which gets lost in the end of the presentation (which happens in some countries….)

    • Steve Caplan says:

      “When I read the story I only wondered if she/students in the school had to sign an agreement when starting that “they promise to adhere to the rules of conduct and dressing even when not in school”?”

      This school is part of the public system in Israel: there are 2 components–he regular secular system, and the religious system. While there is tremendous religious coercion in Israel, which is a major problem, to the best of my knowledge there is no law decreeing what people can or cannot do outside the school in their own free time.

      Perhaps Nebraska is a conservative state, but I have not witnessed weather forecasters, female or male, who are indecently or provocatively dressed–or for that matter, even attract any specific attention. So as far as my experience goes, such positions seem completely competency-driven–as opposed to “beauty contests”. The name says it all as far as objectifying.

      • chall says:

        In reference to the weather forecasters…. no, not US but Italy/Greece were the ones I was referring to.

        although, I don’t agree with your assumption that the TV people are chosen not partly based on looks. After all, they are there to look at so I would think there is a bias towards “more attractive” people., just the nature of the TV media imho.

  6. Beauty and brains are both physical manifestations of the human body. Why is it ok to live off your smarts but not off the way you look, if those are the genes you got in the big meiotic lottery? If you enjoy being in front of a crowd looking good and can get paid for it, why not? I’m sure some of these people get paid a lot more than I do. Also, careers like modeling, acting and broadcast presenting are open to both men and women, so I’m not sure it’s really a sexist thing at all. It’s whether you are happy doing it that should matter. Your phrase “competency-driven” betrays a sort of a value judgment. If beauty sells clothes, and models are needed to drive that commerce, then surely what’s “competent” in that context is having the right physical appearance – just as how being strong makes you competent to be a builder and being smart makes you competent to be a starving scientist with crap career prospects (which sort of begs the definition of ‘smart” ;-)).

    About not needing to be pretty to be on TV anymore, perhaps things are different in the UK. Aside from older men (who I suspect started off when things were a lot less appearance-driven in TV journalism than they are today), it’s almost all pretty young girls and boys making up the ranks. And in TV and Hollywood, there are a few “character” or “comic” (i.e. not pretty) actors, but the majority are beautiful. I think it’s human nature to appreciate beauty, and it’s not surprising that that’s what people want to stare at while they eat popcorn for two hours.

    As a side point, beauty contests are quite old-fashioned, but I think there is a modern successor, talent shows and reality TV shows, and these are populated by both genders.

  7. rpg says:

    I think it’s human nature to appreciate beauty, and it’s not surprising that that’s what people want to stare at while they eat popcorn for two hours.

    Hell yeah. I don’t want to watch a movie with ugly people in it (unless that’s the subject of course). Just as I have pretty flowers in my garden.

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    @jenny

    I suppose that we will have to agree to disagree. However, I do want to respond to your last comments, as I think that while they have some validity, there is a difference between “utilizing one’s brain as opposed to one’s beauty”.

    You note: “Beauty and brains are both physical manifestations of the human body. Why is it ok to live off your smarts but not off the way you look, if those are the genes you got in the big meiotic lottery?”

    Yes, people are blessed with various attributes–some of them are in rational thinking, others are in creative thinking, others are in social or emotional intelligence. At the same time, there are gifted athletes, dancers, musicians and so on. And of course, many people have combinations of these skills from the genetic lottery, as you call it. All agreed upon. All valid.

    The difference between utilizing any of these talents/abilities and the one defined most simply as “beauty” (particularly for women), is that only the beauty category leads to women being treated as sexual objects on display. Every other category, be it acting, broadcasting on television, dancing, gymnastics–whatever–does not tell the world at large “Look at me, men–I am a sexual object designed to make you drool and dribble over my body”. This is really what I am opposed to.

    The fact that models sell clothes does not make it right or moral, in the same way that Mattel selling Barbie dolls (as pointed out recently by Athene) with impossible body ratios is moral. Going to the extreme, pornography sells, and this is certainly a way women can utilize their beautiful bodies to make money.

    Now I am not comparing beauty contest or modeling to pornography, except for the purpose of extending this argument. I also realize that my disdain for beauty pageants and modeling is an idealistic one–that these events and careers are not going to disappear shortly–but I am still all in favor of emphasizing (particularly to children and young people) that people should be judged by their actions and not how they look.

    @Rpg

    How do you define “beauty” and “ugly”? Although research shows that there is a significant universal component of symmetry in ‘beauty’, it is also clear that much of what men see as beauty in women is driven by fashion modes in society. Razor-thin women who border on anorexia have become a new mode of beauty in the last 20 years, mostly as a result of men deciding what types of model body types are ‘sexiest’ to other men.

    I enjoy films very much, but am not a Hollywood fan, and I watch a lot of international movies. I seldom find that my enjoyment has anything to do with (my own perception of) the physical beauty (or lack thereof) in the actors.

    I may not have convinced you, but enjoy the popcorn…

    • rpg says:

      Um, I think (on the other hand) that it’s quite clear that most men don’t agree with the fashion industry’s model of beauty. (And this makes sense. The fashion industry is generally selling clothes to women, not to men.)

      I’m pretty sure that what I find attractive is not influenced by fashion. The issue of size zero models is, additionally, completely separate from objectification of women, or indeed pornography (which, I’m told, can be empowering to women).

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Show me the stats! The fashion industry is selling to women who want to impress men.

        Don’t you think that if you had lived 200 years ago your own perception of beauty would have been colored by the then-current perception? In Renaissance times, when women of larger proportions were considered ‘ideal’, and paintings of beautiful women showed a certain type of figure, do you not think that influenced and shaped society’s perception of beauty?

        I could take a hundred different examples–including how African women with extended necks, or Japanese women with small feet are/were considered beautiful–and I am certain that the all-pervasive atmosphere surrounding a person slowly but surely works its way into a man’s conscious view of what is beautiful.

        • rpg says:

          Still failing to see your point. Are you saying that beauty is a social construct?

          I’d rather argue it’s a biological one.

          • Steve Caplan says:

            I agree that there is an element of ‘hard-wired’ biology in beauty–the golden ratio and all. However, I think there is a tremendous amount of evidence that each society sets its goals on beauty in a different manner, and this is clearly something that changes over time.

            So yes, I would agree with your statement that “beauty is a social construct”–at least to a certain degree.

            In support of this, here is a link to a PDF paper discussing differences in the perception of beauty in the Renaissance and in different geographical areas:

          • rpg says:

            ‘What is beauty?’ is still, I think, a bit of a sideshow to your main thesis. We talk about classical beauty, we talk about Rubens chicks, we can talk about size zero models if you like (and despite what the fashion industry tells us I still know which I find more attractive)–but it all distracts from the irony that some bloke calling himself a feminist is vehemently opposed to something that women find empowering.

  9. Grant says:

    “The student chose to ignore the instructions, […]”

    I’m confused by this bit. THe wording seems to suggest that the school’s advice came after her attending the pageant, yet this implies is was issued before she attended it – ??

    I’m reminded of a series of video shorts of scientist’s lives outside of work that I featured in a blog post where one of the scientists was a beauty pageant queen. While that won’t compete with the religious aspects, it might be worth showing as an example that good scholarship and beauty queens can mix. (I’m not taking any sides on whether ‘beauty’ careers promote exploitation, etc., just saying it might be a useful example that beauty pageant participation doesn’t imply poor scholarship.)

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I agree–the article (perhaps due to the translation) is not clear on that point.

      I’ve never implied that participants (or winners) of such events are less intelligent or poorer students. My only point is that the entire concept–despite the fact that I agree with the right of women to choose to participate–is demeaning and objectifies women as sexual objects.

  10. cromercrox says:

    Steve – there are some biological and social pointers here. Virtually all the advertising you see that features beautiful women with their clothes on is designed to appeal to other women, not men. There is an aspirational component here, I guess, but also a competitive one, and this could have a biological dimension.

    Consider, for example, this recent paper in your favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with N (here it is: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v462/n7274/full/nature08614.html). In species that breed cooperatively (that is, family members hang around to help raise the young), one would expect sexual dimorphism, with males being more showy than females. However, sexual dimorphism in a cooperatively breeding starling is very much less than expected, suggesting that females are competing with other females for access to males, not just signaling to males directly.

    This is rather a nice problem, because males and females might be looking for different things, leading to a kind of conflict. Extrapolating wildly to human societies, I’d suggest that the modern, western standard of beauty is a compromise between what women see as beautiful in other women, and what men see as beautiful in women. I’d suggest that stick-thin fashion models are meant to appeal to women, whereas more curvaceous individuals are likely to be more appealing to men.

    But, as I say, messages can be mixed. Another study in your favourite and so on and so forth (reported here http://www.nature.com/news/1998/981203/full/news981203-2.html) showed that indigenous Peruvian males preferred more Rubenesque women, presumably because flesh means better baby-making – and because in such societies, a thin figure tends to mean poverty or ill-health. Fat-bottomed girls, you done made a fat boy of me. But the Peruvian ideal of beauty tended towards thinner women once the men were exposed to western advertising.

    What about beautiful women with their clothes off? When pornography was all about magazines, it was controlled by men. But Science Has Proved (OK, I once saw a documentary on TV) that much if not all pornography on teh interwebz is controlled by women. In which case, who is exploiting whom?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Henry,

      For some reason I couldn’t approve your comment (why do you need to be censored, anyway?). But it’s now up.

      I agree with the idea that there are both biological and certainly social components of the issue of beauty, as supported by those studies and many more. Thanks for the links.

      With regard to “who is exploiting whom”, I don’t know who runs internet pornography, but the point is that it doesn’t matter. Women exploiting other women is just as bad as men exploiting women. In fact, it furthers my argument that society pressures women into be objectified and that–unfortunately–this is so predominant that many women themselves do not understand the problem. This is exactly my point with the beauty contests and modeling–the fact that women themselves see this as valid is awful.

  11. KristiV says:

    The other American blogger at OT supports Steve’s opinions on this one. Realizing fully that nothing I type or quote will change any minds on the subject, I’ll simply provide a few links to a blogger who states my objections to the pornography and beauty pageant industrial complexes far more eloquently than I ever could.

    I have a friend who was a top international male model for a number of years, and he and I have discussed the modeling industry on several occasions. More accurately, I’ve asked questions and listened, while he’s related his experiences, because obviously I have no direct experience with the modeling industry. In addition to the need to maintain a perfect body (which he achieved by swimming 4+ hours every day) and the physical discomfort of many photo shoots (How would you like to stand for hours bare-chested outdoors in near-freezing temperatures, and have a bucket of water repeatedly dumped over your head and torso, so it looks as if you just emerged from the ocean?), there’s rampant substance abuse, eating disorders, excessive exercise obsession, financial exploitation, and sexual abuse. Many models are quite young, chronologically and emotionally. Toxic environment for both women and men, IMHO, but then my definition of “empowerment” may be quite different.

  12. Steve Caplan says:

    @RPG

    “but it all distracts from the irony that some bloke calling himself a feminist is vehemently opposed to something that women find empowering.”

    The issue is of beauty may be distracting, but addressing it was necessary to respond to your comments. With regard to “something that women find empowering”–I had so many things to say, but Kristi’s comment and powerful (if not exactly eloquent) links so aptly sum up this “bloke who calls himself a feminist’s” views, that I shall not even try to add to that.

    @Kristi

    Thank you for the comments and links. They are “spot on”.

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