Wednesday, September 09, 2009

More on Body-Swapping and Gender

In Body-Swapping and Gender, I discussed a scenario I presented to my classes, where they were each asked to suppose it was possible to swap bodies (while preserving one's whole mind intact), and whether they themselves would want to to swap. We saw there that about 35% of males and 10% of females said that they would want to swap.

Today, I asked the students to predict what percent of males, and what percent of females, said that they would want to swap. Here are the results and some thoughts about them.

76% of the class predicted that the percentage of women who would want to swap bodies would be higher than the percentage of men. There was little variance by sex here. So, 76% of the class was wrong about how the survey would turn out at this basic level.

The mean prediction for how many women would want to swap was 47% (median 50%); for men, 29% (Median 25%). When we break this down by sex we get:

Women: Predict that 44% of women would want to swap (median 50%); predict that 24% of men would want to swap (median 20%).

Men: Predict that 51% of women would want to swap (median 55%); predict that 34% of men would want to swap (median 32.5%).

Interestingly, both sexes are about equally wrong in their predictions about women, although they are roughly correct in their predictions about men, although men were more spot-on. In the case of men, perhaps that's not surprising, since more of them did say they'd be willing to swap. But it's not clear how much we can trust these predictions, since they were probably in part based on comparison to their other prediction.

Nevertheless, while men were more spot-on about men, why were women just as inclined as men to grossly overestimate how many women would want to swap bodies?

Eve Browning Cole, like other feminists, suggests that in Western thought, women are more identified with the body, (the earthy, Mother Nature), and so perhaps when women were asked to reflect on their own desires here, they were more inclined the swapping of bodies as a real loss of something intrinsic to the self. But then why don't they extrapolate that to their prediction? Is it because we see women doing more things to modify their bodies (from makeup to plastic surgery), and so body-swapping would just be an instance of that?

There's a weird double-standard (or perhaps a tension) lurking here: men are not their bodies (or less likely to think that, given Western ideology about mind, body, and gender), but the body is an important "tool". Thus, if you can get a better tool, trade up. Women, on the other hand, are--or are more closely identified with--their bodies, so it's not simply an object for trade. At the same time, women, it seems, can feel intense pressure to make their bodies fit an idealized (and for most, impossible) physical standard. It seems likely, however, that this is changing, as young men feel pressure to work out and to get "buff", etc.

Nevertheless, there's a difficulty here for women: you are your body (is the implicit message of Western culture), but you need to change it, make it fit an ideal. The double-standard is that for men, this is just an extrinsic modification--not a deep change of the self. But for women, the change demanded poses as an intrinsic change: it's not that you need to make your body more, say, beautiful; you need to make yourself more beautiful (i.e. you are your body).

So, while the results of the study seem surprising, they might just go to show that the difference in the way the sexes conceive of themselves (and their relation to their body) DO fall along the lines put forth by feminist thinkers, and because of the emphasis on beauty in the West, women are in an uncomfortable double-bind.

That is, of course, rather speculative. For one thing, I asked the women in one class whether they felt a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and many said no. But at the same time, they agreed that women complain a lot more about their appearance. (So there could well be dissatisfaction with body, but an unwillingness to "swap" because of the stronger identification with one's body than men, for better or worse.)


  1. Very interesting results! Did the class members themselves have theories about why they guessed wrong or why the results turned out the way they did? Your class sounds fantastic. (from Eve Browning)

  2. Hi Eve! The students themselves were a little stumped. (And overheated; there's some cooling problem in our classroom!)

    I did divide the room into men and women, and had each side try to come up with a consensus prediction about the other sex. The women seemed less inclined to come to a consensus; the men in one class guessed 75% (!) of women would trade bodies, 50% in the other class.

    The women in the first class did, however, figure out pretty quickly that something was fishy about their initial expectations. The men were, as a group, clueless.

  3. That is, the guys didn't seem to indicate any sense that the results wouldn't be what they expected.