Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Attempts to Accentuate Sexual Dimorphism



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When individuals become adults, men and women differentiate themselves from each other. Males and females are about 10% dimorphic. In other words, there are only slight differences between then, other than (of course) the genitalia. Some of these differences include the distribution of fat pads and hair and the girth of the ribcage. Because human beings as a species are not particularly dimorphic, there are several ways that cultures accentuate differences in behavior and appearance between the sexes as children become adults.

One of the ways that we differentiate between each other is through clothing. We wear clothing to tell other people that we are civilized and so that we can tell other people what we are either male or female. We wear clothing that is appropriate to the role we are assuming. In many cases, we are not just projecting differences in sex. We also project age categories, marital status categories, and sexual availability categories. The more complex the society, the more clothes people wear, and the more social roles there are to possibly assume. For example, even in our society, men's and women's jeans are different. Women's jeans, for example, are typically tighter, which may mark marital status or sexual availability as well as signaling the fact that they are women.

Accessories, like shoes, are also a way to differentiate between the sexes. Only women wear high heels. In the past, only men wore high heeled shoes, perhaps to accentuate differences in height between males and females. However, today, women wear high heels for several reasons. First of all, they make women more helpless and appear to be weaker. It is certainly not easy to walk or run long distances, this could definitely be a disadvantage in certain situations, like running away from men. Another important reason that women wear high heels is because of Lordosis. When they are about to mate, female mammals tend to stand on their tiptoes and look at males from over their shoulders. This is a common mating posture with mammals. High heels throw women into a perpetual state of lordosis, making them appear to want to mate whether they are interested in it or not.

Hair is another way to differentiate between the sexes. Even though the main difference in hair between men and women is length, even when the length is similar there are different "men's styles" and "women's styles." Body hair is included in this category. Women (in our culture at least) shave their legs and armpits. Men do not. There is no reason for this other than to accentuate dimorphism. Males shave because their facial hair is a part of their threat display. When men tighten up the muscles of the jaw, their beards puff up. So, males have to shave in order to avoid demonstrating dominance displays to their bosses, for example.

Body modification is also a common method of accentuating sexual dimorphism. In our culture, women may get breast implants to accentuate the fact that they are female by enlarging their breasts. Ear piercing is another form of bodily modification, although in our culture it has become more common for men to wear earrings, certainly there are differences between "appropriate" male earrings and appropriate female earrings.

Foot bindings occurred in China before the revolution. This was done as a mark of femininity, and of status. Women with bound feet could not do physical work; therefore these women were rich, with servants. Neck elongation, another body modification, is also a symbol of status and femininity. The more necklaces a woman wears, the more wealth she has. This forces the shoulders down, deforming the collarbone and ribcage. This also reduces lung capacity, thereby reducing a woman's ability to do work, marking her higher social or economic status.

Makeup is another way to differentiate between the sexes. In our culture, it is women who wear the makeup. However, this leads us to pose an interesting question: if women are meant to wear makeup, but look like they aren't wearing makeup, what is the point? Women are pressured to do this because it takes up your time. It holds you back so that you can't be doing other things. The fact that women are under pressure to maintain appearances has a lot to do with who has control of the resources. Fortunately, there have been some recent changes in our culture where men are also beginning to spend time beautifying and grooming themselves.

In terms of behavior, there are also ways that males and females accentuate their differences. Kinesics is the way that people move. Men and women walk differently. This has nothing to do with the structure of the pelvis, but is instead a result of cultural definitions about what constitutes the way men and women should move. Women tend to walk with shorter strides, moving their hands more, rounding their shoulders, and slouching. Women also have a tendency to put their heads to one side. Men, on the other hand, talk with their hands less and keep their heads straightforward. Men and women are simply taught to move differently.

Proxemics, or the use of space, is also a factor in differentiating between the sexes. Men take up more space than women. They sit differently, spreading their legs and arms out. They also tend to spread their possessions around them. Men also interact with each other differently than women do when they are interacting with other women. Men are not "allowed" to touch each other in quite the same way women are. This is not cross-culturally, however. European men kiss each other and in Arab countries men will walk down the street holding hands. Two of the things that Fraser picks up from proxemics are sleeping arrangements and eating arrangements.

Adolescent boys are more likely to sleep in different place. Adolescent girls are more likely to stay in the natal home, with their mothers and sometimes their fathers as well. Fraser suggests that this may have something to do with protecting the girls from intercourse. The pattern that we have in our culture where adolescents of both sexes sleep together with their parents is the most unusual. In cultures with puberty ceremonies, boys are more likely to sleep in a separate place, especially after going through these ceremonies.

One of the things that makes humans different from other primates is food sharing. The ways cultures regulate the sharing of food between males and females is very interesting. Surprisingly 70% of cultures define or regulate when men and women can eat together. Our culture's idea of men and women sitting together at the same table and eating is not universal. Eating in public is also not a universal. Much eating often occurs in private so that sharing of food is actually an intimate activity, within the family. The most common form of eating arrangement is for men to eat together and women and children to eat in separate location and later after men have eaten. In many cases, the best dishes go to men working in the fields because they need the nutrients to continue working. Women and children are fed later. Women are secondary because they also need nutrition to continue reproducing. Babies are fed last because they are expendable. If a baby dies from lack of nutrition he or she is easily replaced within nine months.

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