While it may seem hyperbolic to say gender roles rule most facets of our lives, it simply takes looking at the world around us to realize how true that statement is. Societal expectations of what we should and shouldn’t do based on gender affect the way we act, the activities we engage in and the way we look.
Dr. Breanne Fahs, associate professor of gender and women studies at ASU, is teaching students at the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences that gender-based norms affect us in a personal matter most think they have complete control over: body hair.
To shed light on the pervasiveness of gender norms and their effects, Fahs has been challenging students since 2008 to switch them up.
“Women grow out their body hair for their legs and their armpits,” says Fahs. “And men shave their legs and armpits for the course of the ten weeks, and then they keep a weekly journal to sort of talk about what happens along the way.”
Fahs’ assignment is in the vein of sociological experiments that deal with breaking invisible social norms and how people react in the face of the rules being challenged.
“This is a spin off from the classic sociology assignments that [are]really focused on gender nonconformity and gender norms,” she says. “So it’s designed for students to see norms that may otherwise feel or seem invisible.”
Fahs says the experiment opens students’ eyes about society’s notions of femininity, masculinity and power relations.
“Who has a stake in what we do with our bodies? That is a very important question for me in my work and also my teaching,” she says.
The assignment has received such acclaim that Fahs received the Mary Roth Walsh Teaching the Psychology of Women Award, given through Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, in 2012.
According to a news release by ASU, faculty members from other universities are thinking of using the exercise in their classes, and academic journals, like Psychology of Women Quarterly and Feminism & Psychology, have published papers about the project.
Fahs says feedback from students has also been positive.
“The feedback has always been very good,” she says of her students’ reactions. “It really helps that there is kind of a collective energy around it in the classroom. It’s not just one person doing this as one person. It’s a group of people doing it.”
Student feedback is also received via the journals they write, which narrate their experiences throughout the semester. She says the journals are so rich and vivid that they’ve become part of the reason she keeps assigning the exercise.
“The students confront such a range of people,” Fahs says. “But also the specific techniques of how people control their bodies, or have a stake in what they do with their bodies, even if they’re not directly controlling them.”
While Fahs uses romantic partners as an example—women in the class have discussed their boyfriends’ reactions to the experiment—other less expected sources of conflict have been recorded.
“A lot of people have intense encounters with coworkers,” she says. “A woman who was a server in a restaurant, her boss was like ‘you cannot serve food and have people seeing your armpit hair.’”
Fahs’ exercise boils down to the notion of choice, which many believe they have over their bodies and actions.
“That doesn’t always translate in reality,” she says. “What I see, both in doing this assignment but also in looking at literature about these topics, [is that]women really struggle with far less sense of choice about their bodies, so that the range of acceptable choices is much smaller than it is for men.”
Fahs thinks of this assignment as a “gateway drug” to thinking about more serious and complicated topics, such as racism, homophobia and living as an obese person.
“This assignment helps students get a taste in thinking about what happens when your body is marked as ‘other,’ and how does that actually affect you and how it affects others,” Fahs says.
“It sounds kind of silly to some people. I notice people think it’s sort of trivial, but I think it’s amazingly profound. People think about much deeper things as a result of it.”