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 hip-hop videos shapes the way we view female bodies and creates the expectations that we use in our understanding of female bodies. Through hip-hop videos, the audience is encouraged to gaze at female bodies and judge her worth by her bodily appearance. By doing so, female images in hip-hop videos condition the sexual objectification of women bodies into the normative views of females in American society.

Furthermore, Turner describes bodily adornments as a medium through which “we communicate our social status, attitudes, desires, beliefs, and ideas to others” (Turner 2007, 84). The importance of using bodily adornments as a medium to maintain an appearance that is compatible with society is that it helps to define and represent an individual’s understanding of their given societal role. Thus, bodily adornments constitute our identities in ways “with which we are compelled to conform regardless of our self-consciousness or even our contempt” (Turner 2007, 84) because we are constantly being socially conditioned into the societies to which we belong. For this reason, we use these socially constructed ideas by which we are exposed to as a standard for governing our behavior by allowing them to manifest themselves into our social self and thus compelling us to conform to our outward identities.

In accordance to this, bodily adornments displayed on women in music videos are used to convey the expectations of female roles through symbolic meanings that are attributed to that specific gender. The female role in hip-hop is reinforced into our understanding of the body through the sexualized public presentations of women in hip-hop videos. In order to create the female role, mainstream hip-hop videos are constantly being produced with women dressed in highly sexually suggestive clothing that continues to serve as a way of reducing women to their bodies. Therefore, due to the exposure of mainstream hip-hop, the female role created in this society is used to construct the behavior of those involved.

The constant production of female roles as sexual objects in mainstream hip-hop videos has contributed to the objectification of female bodies—something that we have accepted as a normal behavior in hip-hop videos. Behavior that is normalized in hip-hop culture, especially by mainstream male hip-hop artists involves women dancing sexually while displaying themselves in a seductive manner. These behaviors are heavy suggestions that in order to fulfill their role, women should be sexually submissive to men’s sexual wants and desires by subjecting them to the male gaze. For example, all the women in popular hip-hop artist Tyga’s music video, “Rack City”, are filmed with masks covering their faces as he throws money at them while they dance around him wearing sexual outfits that expose their body parts. By covering their faces with masks, hip-hop producers are able to focus the video entirely on their sexual body parts and thus, are able to lead the viewers into the male gaze. Therefore, by normalizing sexual behavior through the representation of women in hip-hop videos, the viewers are socialized to believe that the objectification of female bodies is inherent to women in hip-hop roles.

In doing so, female hip-hop artists, especially mainstream ones, are forced to reproduce this image in order to appeal to viewers and gain popularity because of viewers’ pre-conceived notions about female bodies in hip-hop. For this reason, the majority of popular mainstream female hip-hop artists are ones who have accepted these behaviors as being a part of their role; the ones who allow themselves to be reduced down to their sexual body parts. Thus, the socialization of mainstream hip-hop can be viewed as a culture where images of women as sexual objects are persistently foregrounded and where desire, consumption and bodily beauty are primary indicators of human value.

One female artist who is recognized as a popular hip-hop artist by successfully imitating the female hip-hop role is Nicki Minaj. For example, in her video, “Anaconda”, Nicki is seen crawling on the floor and dancing seductively on Drake while he sits on a chair caressing her. The lyrical message of her song emphasizes the idea of being sexually appealing to men by having large sexual body parts. Therefore, in order to portray this message, the video concentrates on her shaking her butt as she stares into the camera inviting the viewers to into the male gaze. Nicki’s behavior and actions in this video only perpetuates the idea that women are sexual objects for men and are only there for their pleasure, which encourages the normalization of sexualizing female bodies in hip-hop.  Therefore, through their representation of female bodies, producers are frequently shaping the ideas and thoughts of viewers into accepting this behavior that may subconsciously affect our views of the norms of today’s society.

Being a woman in an American society with an increasing popularity in media, specifically in hip-hop videos, I can clearly perceive the social pressure produced from these videos that encourage the sexual objectification of my body. I consistently experience the societal pressure to conform to these ideals every time I attend a hip-hop music event. Due to the strong association of female bodies produced in hip-hop videos with an emphasis on exposing sexual body parts as being a part of the role, many women in American society feel the need to conform to this idea when placed into the hip-hop culture. Hip-hop influences on society is most evident at hip-hop concerts where it is an expectation for a woman to dress in tighter clothes, shorter skirts, and lower cut shirts due to the pressure of conforming into the female role created by hip-hop. Thus, through the reinforcement of sexually suggestive behaviors, women in American societies are ultimately accepting the sexual objectification of their bodies as a societal norm due to the normalization of female bodies portraying in popular media.


Going Topless: A Look at the Ways Topless Laws are Harmful

By: Shannon Bereiter

Shannon Bereiter recently graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in Anthropology and Psychology. She currently volunteers at the Crisis Clinic in Seattle, and is an advocate for women’s rights and equality. She is also preparing to apply for her Masters in Social Work this upcoming Fall.

In the United States, laws still exist that prohibit women from being topless in public. These laws vary from state to state. In some states, like New York, women have the same rights to be topless as men do. In other states, like Washington, the laws determining whether or not women have the right to expose their breasts in public are ambiguous. Then there are some states, like Utah, in which the laws are unambiguous – it is illegal to be a woman and be topless in public. Laws prohibiting women from being topless in public not only reinforce gender inequality, they also reinforce the idea that there are only two genders, male and female. These laws sexualize bodies categorized as female, making the statement that breasts need to be covered in public because they are sexual. This means a person who is categorized as female does not have control over when and where they can be topless, giving them less control over their own bodies than men. By having laws that make it illegal for bodies categorized as female to be topless in public in place, we take away a person’s autonomy over her own body.
Having laws that prohibit women from going topless brings up the issue of what we use to define males versus females in the first place. Are we speaking of biological sex, or how someone identifies? If the laws were based on how someone self identifies, that should mean that if a woman was topless in a place where it is illegal she could then argue that she identifies as male, and thus not be considered to be breaking the law. Things do not change much if we say it depends on the biological sex of the individual. How do we identify a person’s sex? By their chromosomes? Even if we look at sex this way, it gets messy. This leaves out intersex individuals, some of which may have chromosomes that say they are one “gender” or “sex”, but hormones that lead them to resemble something different physically.
We can’t have different laws for men versus women, or males versus females, because these categories are not real and there is no definitive way to distinguish between them. As Judith Butler states in Bodies That Matter (2007), distinguishing between these categories is so difficult because sex and gender are culturally constructed ideas. Butler argues that the categories of male and female are not biological. She calls the tendency to reinforce the connection between biological sex with a particular gender as a recourse to the material. She explains, “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 that term can be put” (Butler 2007, 165). Even if we try to categorize people by the appearance of their genitals or by their DNA, we still end up with more than two categories of male and female. This is evidence that we have created these categories. This is the first flaw in our logic that certain people (male vs. female) should have different laws governing appropriate ways to show their bodies.
Topless laws which make it illegal for women[1] to expose their breasts in public are also harmful in that they further sexualize women’s bodies. By not allowing women to be in public with their breasts showing, it furthers the idea that women’s breasts need to be hidden, as showing them would be sexually suggestive or inappropriate. However, it does not seem logical that a person’s chest, breasts, or nipples are considered sexual when they belong to someone we decide is a woman, but not when they belong to someone we perceive to be a man. From a biological view, female breasts are used to feed children, not for reproductive sex. This association between sex and breasts is another cultural construct that has been created. In this sense, there should be no reason that a topless woman should be seen as any more sexual than a topless man. Because this sexual view of breasts is not an a priori fact, it can be changed.
Further sexualizing women’s breasts means further sexualizing not only their bodies, but also sexualizing women as a whole. By not allowing women to be topless in public, we are suggesting that women’s breasts are sexual in nature. When we suggest that women’s breasts are sexual in nature, and men’s are not, we further reinforce the cultural attitude that women’s bodies are sexual overall. There are countless ways in which we sexualize women’s bodies, including making it illegal for women to expose their breasts outside of the privacy of their homes. I do not mean to suggest that women’s breasts cannot be sexual, but instead that a women should be able to decide when she is being sexual. By requiring by law that women must cover their breasts in public, the view that women’s bodies are purely sexual is further perpetuated, giving women less autonomy over their own bodies.
Even if and when we consider a woman’s breasts to be sexual, should this be enough reason for them to be required by law to be covered? As Gayle Rubin discusses in “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1984), we in Western societies tend to view sex as an inherently bad and negative thing. Sex is something we seem especially afraid of, without much reason. I have argued that women’s breasts are not always sexual, but when they are, why is that so bad? We are clearly so uncomfortable with female breasts that we have made it illegal to expose them in public. A man who is topless could evoke sexual thoughts and feelings in another person; however, that does not mean they are required by law to cover their chest. If this is part of the argument for topless laws, its logic is also flawed.
Laws requiring women to cover their breasts in public in the United States are illogical and harmful. The application of these laws is inconsistent. When they are applied to some people but not others, they reinforce potentially harmful views of bodies, such as the view of women’s bodies as being purely sexual. The individual should be able to decide when and where which parts of their bodies are sexual, and when they are not. If we were to legally allow all people, regardless of how they identify or are identified by others, to be topless whenever and wherever they pleased, we would be giving all people more autonomy over their own bodies.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. “Bodies that matter.” In Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of   Material Life, edited by Margaret Lock and Judith Farquhar. 164-175. Durham andLondon: Duke University Press, 2007.

Gayle, Rubin. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” InPleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carol Vance. London:        Pandora. 1992. 267-293.


[1] From now on, when I refer to a person’s sex or gender I will be referring to the way in which we generally define male versus female within our culture, so generally by someone’s outward appearance. Because we cannot concretely understand what topless laws are referring to when they prohibit women from going topless in public, I will refer to the following issues making the same assumption about what consists of a man and a woman that the persons making this rule might. By looking at sex and gender from this perspective, it will allow me to discuss what is wrong with these laws other than just the fact that sex and gender are cultural constructs. When I refer to men versus women, or females versus males, it means the way in which we generally categorize a person’s body within our culture.



About Jonathan Stillo

Jonathan Stillo is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the student representative on the Society for Medical Anthropology executive board and the chair of the Medical Anthropology Students Association (MASA) His research focuses on tuberculosis, citizenship and entitlements in Romania. More of his blog posts can be found here:
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