Constructing the Female Body


These essays, written by undergraduate medical anthropology students at University of Washington are the second in the MASA blog’s series of excellent undergraduate writing. Medical anthropology professors interested in submitting the best work of their students should contact Jonathan Stillo ( the MASA Chair for more information.


Professor’s Introduction:

The essays presented here were written by undergraduate students in an upper level anthropology course at the University of Washington entitled “Anthropology of the Body.” This course was offered without pre-requisites, which attracted not only anthropology majors but also students majoring in biology, public health, political science, international studies, entrepreneurship, and communications.  The following works are included here:

Lady on the Streets, Freak in the Sheets: The Obsession with Controlling Feminine Sexuality, by Emily Muirhead

Hip-Hop Influences on Female Bodies, by Julie Do

Going Topless: A Look at the Ways Topless Laws are Harmful, by Shannon Bereiter

In each of these papers, the student authors chose to interrogate a discursive moment in which the female body is socially constructed and culturally articulated. These papers were selected for the unique window they provide into women’s lived experiences and the modes that anthropological writing offers for externalizing those experiences. These essays are particularly valuable for how they reveal the tensions and harmonies that arise when students (especially female students) harness the language of anthropology for analyzing their own bodily experiences and underscore the value of the medical anthropology classroom for teaching and expanding feminist thought.

–Jennifer Carroll, Ph.C. (University of Washington)

Lady on the Streets, Freak in the Sheets: The Obsession with Controlling Feminine Sexuality

By: Emily Muirhead

Emily Muirhead is a junior at the University of Washington majoring in Journalism and minoring in Anthropology. She freelances in the Seattle area and is a reporter at the UW’s The Daily.  She hopes to someday combine her curiosity of exploring human nature and environmental preservation into nonprofit humanitarian work. In her spare time she enjoys photography, hiking, reading, and traveling.

Women’s sexual autonomy has long been a heated topic in the public realm, with activists, scholars and politicians frequently weighing in on this issue. But why is female sexuality up for debate in the first place? American society can be described as hypersexual—exhibiting excessive concern with sexual activity —largely due to normalized heavy scrutiny in the political realm, and excessive sensationalization of sexuality in the media. To take it a step further, society holds a particularly invasive interest in female sexuality over that of males; the both of which are positioned as opposites on a spectrum of gender and therefore sexual performance. Matters of sexuality have become so deeply embedded in society and politics that a sexual obsession with regulating, criticizing, and labeling has been born.

A central reason for the fixation on specifically females as sexual bodies is due to the widely accepted assumption that men and women are inherently different, and therefore are expected to behave according to their gender. Social narratives based on perceived biological and therefore “natural” differences have been constructed and used to dictate what is deemed sexually appropriate for each gender. This problematic dichotomy has largely resulted in an unbalanced power distribution on both large and small scales, along with institutionalized and socialized sexism.

Hypersexualization of females in American society is most exemplified in its gross over-exaggeration in the media. Most advertisements display scantily clad models striking sexually promiscuous poses that are often unrelated to the object they are attempting to market. Consider the widely critiqued 2005 Carl’s Jr commercial that features Paris Hilton in a bikini, seductively washing a car while simultaneously eating a burger, marketing her body rather than the food this restaurant chain provides. These women instead becomes an embodiment of society’s fixation with women as symbols for sexual availability and seduction, even in nonsensical topics. The majority of advertising—both in still shots and on television—almost exclusively portrays women as thin, tall, and classically ‘beautiful.’  This type of representation creates not only a dominant discourse about what it means to have a socially ideal and attractive female body, but it often reduces women to simply be seen as sexualized objects lacking depth or personality, best suited for viewing pleasure. In contrast, men are almost never portrayed as nearly naked or in vulnerable positions meant to elicit sexual arousal in advertising. Instead they are shown in dominant stances: fully facing the camera, feet firmly planted, and frequently looming over submissively posed female models, often touching them in sexually suggestive ways. This dominant narrative of sexually subordinate and objectified women as juxtaposed next to their machismo counterparts is a dangerously problematic narrative to reproduce time and time again.

This display of a clear-cut behavioral gender divide in the media is reflective of the social norm that women should be passive and eager to please men. Judith Butler argues that gendered differences in behavior are socially constructed and perpetuated, with roundabout justifications for the basis of such a divide. “We may seek to return to matter as prior to discourse to ground our claims about sexual difference only to discover that matter is fully sedimented with discourses on sex and sexuality that prefigure and constrain the uses to which the term can be put,” (Butler 1993, 165). Butler explains that when attempting to find basis for differences between the sexes, one must realize that those differences are not biologically rooted, nor a function of a priori knowledge. Gender is performative. For instance, it is not written into female’s DNA that they like the color pink or that boys must favor blue, it is instead a personal preference or socially conditioned ideal. This is mostly a function of nurture not nature, the same way most gendered differences arise. The downfall to this phenomenon is how society has mapped gendered values onto bodies, which are then used to justify prejudices and treatment of genders as inherently different and therefore ranging in value.

In this way, people find justification for their sexist behavior. Women are most often held to a higher standard of morality and purity when it comes to sex and sexual expression than their male counterparts. Women are both personally and publicly hounded for being promiscuous, engaging with multiple partners, or for generally being open about liking or defending sex. This type of behavior called ‘slut shaming’ is prominent in many patriarchal societies, such as the United States. This behavior is made even more sexist by looking at the the frequency of praise given to men for their male sexual prowess. The encouragement of young men to “play the field” or aim for the highest number of women to have sex with before settling down is a well-known discourse that validates “sleeping around,” the very behavior women are chastised for. As Gayle Rubin states, “The cultural fusion of gender with sexuality has given rise to the idea that a theory of sexuality may be derived directly out of a theory of gender,” (2011, 169). By this logic, the social construction of such gendered differences is used for justification in creating sexual social stratification that reaps benefits for only one segment of the population.

Furthermore, slut shaming is hypocritical by nature; it holds women to a double standard that is impossible to achieve. A woman typically cannot be both sexually promiscuous while also avoiding being perceived as a probable “slut.” This shaming goes hand in hand with another form of social sexual policing: the promotion of rape culture. Rape culture is a supportive discourse or social and political measure which tells mostly women, often times actual rape victims, they are deserving of or asking to be raped if they dress or act provocatively (i.e. like a “whore”). This terminology is also hypocritical. “Whore” is a direct synonym for a prostitute, turning a profession that some men utilize into a derogatory term for women who sexually behave like the “ideal” man. It is well known that there is no direct equivalent to the term “slut” when it comes to men, the closest being the rarely serious label of  “man-whore,” that when utilized by men directed at their male peers, is often even seen as a compliment. Rape culture stigmatizes and blames the victim as if to say rape should be expected, and women should simply deal with this as a repercussion of being a woman, i.e. a sexual object that lacks autonomy.

Hypocrisy in standards of female sexuality again is found in the booming porn industry, worth billions of dollars a year, and used on a daily basis by countless individuals. An interesting dichotomy exists when comparing prostitution with pornography. One professional is generally considered lowly and dirty, getting paid to perform sex is illegal, while the latter gets legally-paid-for sex on film and is widely utilized by some of the very same people who would rebuke the former. In this way, “The sex industry is hardly a feminist utopia. It reflects the sexism that exists in the society as a whole,” (Rubin 2011, 166). Many men view strippers and prostitutes as inferior members of society, yet if their sexual desire calls they will partake in the services these women offer while facing little to no social backlash. Pornography is notoriously geared towards men’s sexual desires and fantasies, with a vast majority of porn being derogatory and abusive to the women involved. The colloquial phrase, “Be a lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets,” implies that the idea woman should be a refined “lady” in public, but try her hardest to match porn star level fantasies to please their assumed heterosexual male partner. This mythical yet expected image of the perfect female puts massive pressure on women to comply to the demanding sexual narrative that has been formed, putting all women in a position to be critiqued no matter how they behave.

It is not just social discussion and media portrayals that have prompted these types of misogynistic and oppressive ideas; it has crossed over into the political realm with republican politicians, mostly male, taking a rape culture supportive stance on this issue. Senator Todd Aiken from Missouri was quoted as saying, “Legitimate rape rarely causes pregnancy,” (Lachman 2014) and Senator Lawrence Lockman from Maine was quoted saying, “If a woman has [the right to an abortion], why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman?” (Lachman 2014). These blatantly biased and extremely offensive statements made by people of great power demonstrate just a small fraction of the dominant ideas about women being susceptible beings open to the sexual prowess of men. Women walk a fine line between appropriate modest behavior that still is attractive enough to society’s standards and becoming a deserving “slut.” A woman’s sexual identity is turned against her in order to dehumanize her being, and to justify the actions of male perpetrators.

Whether it be one of the aforementioned politicians making a sexist public comment, or the regulation of strict school dress code predominantly geared toward girls that teaches them to cover up their inherently sexual bodies so as to not distract their male peers, it all boils down the same issue. Women in this nation and others across the globe are taught to behave in a manner that is highly gendered and sexist. Society as a whole socializes women to feel they are insufficiently woman enough unless they embody the perfect image, the perfect balance in their sexual behavior, and the perfect level of submissiveness. If a woman does not live up to these ludacris expectations, she is socialized to internalize shame and feelings of inferiority. This obsession with female sexuality strives to revoke women’s ability of creating their own narrative about their sexual preferences, behavior, and body as a whole, forcing submission to dominant double standard discourse. This behavior skews the attitudes of how females are perceived and treated, and reinforces archaic notions of gendered behavior as acceptable and inherently natural.

Works Cited:

Judith Butler. 1993. Bodies That Matter, 27-36, 47-55. New York: Routledge.

Lachman, Samantha. 2014. “Republican Lawmaker Apologizes For Saying Men Should Be Able To Rape Women If Abortion Is Legal.” Huff Post Politics. Huffington Post, 2 Feb.. Web.

Rubin, Gayle. 2011. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, 137-181.


Hip-Hop Influences on Female Bodies

By: Julie Do

Julie Do is a recent graduate of University of Washington majoring in Medical Anthropology and Global Health. Her passion in healthcare has lead her to Seattle Children’s Hospital where she works as a Family Services Coordinator holding a firm belief that everyone is allowed to receive the same medical treatment regardless of their race, background, or social class. With her beliefs in mind, Julie plans on attending Graduate school to earn a Masters in Health Administration so she can continue to improve the ways by which people are able to receive healthcare.

Societies often sexually objectify female bodies while equating a woman’s worth by her body’s appearance and sexual functions as a form of measurement. When a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person, she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desires. Mainstream hip-hop videos in American societies promote sexual objectification of female bodies as acceptable. Hip-hop music videos are so present in American societies that these distinct portrayals of gender roles often go unrecognized.  In turn, the promotion of sexually suggestive behavior that reflects female bodies in this way shapes the way we as Americans view female gender roles. Thus, popular hip-hop culture in American society reconstructs societal norms in order to reinforce the subjection of women bodies as being sexual objects.

Terrance Turner argues that the surface of the body is treated “not only as the boundary of the individual as a biological and psychological entity but as the frontier of the social self as well” (Turner 2007, 83). By definition, social self when explained by Turner is the adornment and public presentation of the body that represents a culturally constructed idea of the individual’s outward identity. Turner explains that the social self is “the symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialization is enacted” and where “bodily adornment becomes the language through which it is expressed” (Turner 2007, 83). His ideas suggest that women’s behavior regarding their sexuality is a reflection of the socially constructed ideas of gender taught through socialization. Therefore, socialization becomes a way “of integrating people into the societies to which they belong, not only as children but throughout their entire lives” (Turner 2007, 83).

Using this method of socializing people into their roles, popular hip-hop media in American societies are able to encourage women to accept the sexual objectification of their bodies by singling out and separating their body parts through their lyrical content and music videos. The normative behavior of women as sexual objects in h