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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shrinking and Pinking: Skirts, Skorts, and Shorts

I must admit that as a child I was known to wear skorts. I've never been a big shorts person, so skorts were a good compromise.  Seems like they work well for some athletes as well.

Not for most female badminton players though. May brought more attention than usual to the sport of badminton after the governing body declared that all female players must wear skirts or dresses in competition.  The rule change happened in advance of the 2012 Olympics in the hopes of increasing the sports popularity (In any event, the proposed rule change certainly increased the sport's notoriety...).  I first read about the Badminton World Federation's decision in early May, in stories like this very interesting one published on May 4th; but the decision didn't get broader attention until The New York Times ran this story on May 26th (Incidentally, people ask me why I use Twitter and this is a perfect example-- you just get a lot of news faster than you do through the mainstream media).  After intense pressure from players, sports journalists, and leadership within the Federation, the rule was reversed in advance of the June 1 deadline.  It seems likely that the women's dress code will still be undergoing revision, but not all players will be forced to wear skirts-- a key victory for Muslim players who would have to wear a skirt over long pants.  Who knows what will happen to the men's dress code, but I love the sentiment expressed in this article: "'What I would really wish is to see male players in skirts,' SertaƧ Sehlikoglu, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and author of the blog Muslim Women in Sports told HuffPost. 'That would most certainly promote badminton much more than any woman's skirt can ever do.'"

But skirts--or at least skorts-- do work very well for another group of female athletes.  The talented women of Dunbar High School's Track and Field team, in Washington, D.C., have excelled at meets this year wearing new uniforms that consist of skorts.  They report that the skorts make them feel more confident as they don't worry about any wardrobe malfunctions.  It doesn't hurt that they feel "cute" in them as well. This appears to be the first high school team to use skorts and it sounds like they might just be trendsetters.

Another trendsetter (not related to skirts, skorts, or shorts though) is Kari Sickles. I came across her story today: Sickles is the first female wrestler to be recruited to wrestle at Davidson College. On the men's team. The Florida wrestler will compete in the 125-pound weight division in the NCAA. I've been fascinated by female wrestlers before, so it will be interesting to see how her collegiate career develops. I'm guessing she won't be wrestling in either skirts or skorts. Clearly shrinking and pinking continues...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Two weeks ago today...

My husband and I moved into our first home. Very exciting, but moving is such a drag-- and it kept me away from blogging. But I'm back now, with lots to say!

Also two weeks ago today, on May 24th, Australian child beauty pageant opponents, and some supporters, held rallies across the country.  These protests were organized in response to Texas-based Universal Royalty organizing an "American-style" child beauty pageant to be held in Melbourne next month (I've written more about this here).  Although several protests were held in capitol cities, and the press covered the events, my sense is that they were not received as well as organizers had hoped.

The goal of the opposition is to actually get child beauty pageants deemed illegal in Australia.  Or to at least institute a minimum age requirement (like 6-years-old instead of 6-weeks-old). Without an overwhelming turnout at the rallies, and for other legal reasons like the privacy of the family, Australian lawmakers have offered a lukewarm reaction.  It seems unlikely that such legislation will pass, at least at the moment.

Another issue is that the story has somewhat morphed-- if not into a pro-pageants stance, then into a sympathetic angle for some pageant mums. Why? All the opposition and press coverage led to some mothers receiving death threats. For example, this story details the hate mail one mother received.

At the same time, as has happened with child beauty pageants before, all the attention actually helps the business end of the enterprise. Now, not only will pageants be organized in Australia, but now events will also take place in New Zealand. All press is good press, right?  Increased media coverage of the UK pageant circuit also seems to be heating up-- and at least one contestant entered due to all the press interest (I have some thoughts on a journalist mother entering her daughter in a child beauty pageant for research purposes-- none of which are positive).

While the press has eaten the story up, and lawmakers have seemingly ignored it, another group of professionals has weighed in-- the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. On the day of the rallies the professional organization released a statement saying child beauty pageants are detrimental to children's mental health. I don't necessarily disagree with many of their sentiments, but as I've explained before we simply don't have the data to back-up statements like, "The mental health and developmental consequences of this are significant and impact on identity, self esteem, and body perception." To be considered medical research, and worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals, more work must be done.

That said, comments made by Dr. Phillip Brock, Chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, in this newspaper article deserve further thought and clarification.  Dr. Brock states his opinion on child beauty pageant headshots, like those I show below: "That is a photograph that can be interpreted as alluring and appealing to the sexual instincts of the observer, and if that observer is an adult then it's voyeuristic."
Pageant photographers use a technique known as "airbrushing" to achieve the glassy, wide-eyed look in the eyes, the perfect lips, and the flawless skin.  You can see a proof before airbrushing, and then the final product, at this website: 

What is the purpose of airbrushing? Besides trying to create a particular "pageant look," I have to agree with Dr. Brock that these changes are ones that are purely sexual.  When I say sexual I mean that certain biological triggers cue a response that is hardwired into our brains. As I've mentioned before, The Survival of the Prettiest by Dr. Nancy Etcoff has a good explanation of some of these, as do books by historians Lois Banner and Kathy Peiss on the history and development of make-up and beauty culture in the US.

What are these sexual triggers? First, the eyes. Wide eyes, with long lashes, are a sign of sexual arousal, which signals a healthy partner for mating.  Some have called retouched eyes in pageant pictures "spider eyes," which doesn't sound very sexy to me, but they are. Similarly, darkened lips and cheeks are signs of arousal as well-- and the lips and cheeks are always colored in these retouched images.

As a sociologist I don't think all things at child beauty pageants are sexually hardwired (for example, many criticize girls blowing kisses as sexual, and I believe such an action totally needs to be interpreted in its social context-- which is NOT sexual, but rather seen as cute and precocious at child beauty pageants).  However, when it comes to these pictures, it's hard to disagree with the science.

In any case, the child beauty pageants steam ahead in Australia, and in the US, as Toddlers & Tiaras returns to TLC on June 15th. Believe me, my DVR is set. Is yours?