Adolescent Peer Relationships and Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Sophia Garbarino, Clare Beatty & Brady Nelson, May 25, 2021

See Sophia’s poster for the URECA 2021 Symposium here.

Abstract

In adolescence, females are more likely than males to experience an episode of depression (Hyde et al., 2008). Having a strong social network has been shown to protect against the development of depression and anxiety symptoms (Santini et al., 2015). In the U.S., adolescent social circles were largely disrupted during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it has been suggested that higher perceived social support protects against poorer mental health (Magson et al., 2021), few studies have examined the potential association between relationship quality and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a sample of 104 12 to 18 year-old girls, the present study examined peer relationship quality prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in depression and anxiety symptoms during March to April 2020. Relationship quality was measured with the self-report Network of Relationships Inventory – Relationship Qualities Version (NRI-RQV). Depression was measured with the Child’s Depression Inventory (CDI), and anxiety was measured with the Screener for Child Anxiety Related Disorders (SCARED). Across the entire sample, there was an increase in both depression (t = -4.88, p < 0.001) and anxiety (t = -3.07, p = 0.003) symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, pre-COVID-19 perceived closeness of friendships predicted changes in depression and anxiety symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, greater same-sex (r = -0.29, p = 0.003) and opposite-sex (r = -0.21, p = 0.04) friendship closeness were inversely correlated with generalized anxiety symptoms. Opposite-sex friendship closeness was inversely correlated with depression symptoms (r = -0.26, p = 0.008). Parent-child relationships were also examined but were not associated with changes in mental health. Findings suggest that healthier peer friendships may serve as protective factors against depression and anxiety in adolescents. As vaccine distribution increases and social distancing policies become more relaxed, adolescents may be able to strengthen relationships that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to improved mental health.

Keywords: COVID-19, adolescents, relationships, friendships, depression, anxiety


Introduction

Background

Adolescence is a critical developmental period for the emergence of sex differences in depression. By ages 13 to 15 girls are approximately twice as likely as boys to experience an episode of depression (Hyde et al., 2008). Prior research has taken a particular interest in the psychological mechanisms responsible for this shift, focusing specifically on girls.

For both sexes, strong social support networks have been shown to protect against the development of depressive and anxiety symptoms (Santini et al., 2015). In early 2020, when the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic began, these social networks were largely disrupted, especially for children and teenagers. The daily routine of interacting with classmates and peers at school was abruptly interrupted due to the shift to remote learning. During this time, research suggests that females in particular experienced a notable increase in depressive and anxiety symptoms (Hawes et al., 2021).

While some studies suggest that higher perceived social support protects against poorer mental health (Magson et al., 2021), few studies have examined the potential association between relationship quality and mental health during COVID-19. The present study examined pre-pandemic peer relationship quality and its potential for predicting depressive and anxiety symptoms during the early COVID-19 pandemic.

Hypotheses

The present study tested two hypotheses: 1) Individuals would display an increase in depressive and anxiety symptoms during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as compared to pre-pandemic symptoms, and 2) Both parent and peer relationships would inversely correlate with depressive and anxiety symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, healthier and closer relationships would be associated with fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19.

Methods

Participants

The sample consisted of 104 girls from an ongoing longitudinal study at Stony Brook University, the Impact of Puberty on Affect and Neural Development across Adolescence (iPANDA) project. This project is currently investigating the relationship between neural reward sensitivity and the development of depression. Eligibility included being assigned female at birth, aged 8 to 14, being literate in English, having no known medical or developmental disabilities, and living within 30 miles of Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY. One of the child’s biological parents also had to be willing to participate. The baseline sample consisted of 317 girls along with one of their biological parents. Baseline data collection was followed by two additional waves, each spaced approximately two years apart. The third wave was still in progress when the COVID-19 pandemic began in late March 2020, therefore not all of the participants had completed the data collection.

Measures

The iPANDA participants (N = 104) were included in the present study if they completed the included measures within the appropriate timeframes. One measure was completed prior to the pandemic (before March 18, 2020), and two measures were completed before and during (March 18, 2020 and after) the pandemic. The average time between the pre-COVID and during-COVID assessments was 55 weeks.

Network of Relationships Inventory – Relationship Quality Version (NRI-RQV)

The NRI-RQV questionnaire is a self-report measure that assesses participants’ relationships with their 1) mother or mother figure, 2) father or father figure, 3) boyfriend or girlfriend, 4) sibling, 5) best same-sex friend, and 6) best opposite-sex friend. The questions had Likert-style responses (1 to 6: 1 = low occurrence, 5 = high occurrence, 6 = not applicable) and were presented in matrix format with each relationship type. Questions were classified into one of ten scales; the five positive scales measured companionship, intimate disclosure, emotional support, approval, and satisfaction, while the five negative scales measured conflict, criticism, pressure, dominance, and exclusion. Each scale contained three items and was scored by averaging the item responses (Furman & Buhrmester, 2010). The present study focused on the Closeness score, which is the mean of the five positive scale scores, for the mother, father, best same-sex friend, and best opposite-sex friend relationships. Participants completed the NRI-RQV assessment pre-COVID.

Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI)

The CDI questionnaire is a self-report measure that assesses participants’ depressive symptoms (Kovacs, 1992). Scores were calculated by summing the item responses, which were Likert style (not often/doesn’t apply to me, sometimes/somewhat applies to me, very often/strongly applies to me). Participants completed the CDI assessment pre-COVID and during COVID.

Screen for Child Related Anxiety Disorders (SCARED)

The SCARED questionnaire is a self-report measure that assesses participants’ anxiety symptoms. Each item had Likert-style responses (0 to 2: 0 = not true, 2 = very true) and was categorized into one of five subscales: panic disorder or significant somatic symptoms, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and significant school avoidance. A total sum score of 25 or above (out of 82) indicated the possible presence of an anxiety disorder (Birmaher et al., 1997). The present study focused only on the GAD subscale, where a sum score over 9 indicated the possible presence of GAD. Participants completed the SCARED assessment pre-COVID and during COVID.

Data Analysis

Using IBM®️ SPSS®️ Statistics (v.27) software, we conducted two paired samples t-tests to examine whether depressive and anxiety symptoms increased during the pandemic as compared to pre-pandemic. Further, we conducted follow-up partial correlations (controlling for pre-pandemic symptoms) to investigate the relationship between relationship quality and depressive/anxiety symptoms during the pandemic.

Results & Discussion

Figure 1. Pre-COVID-19 vs. COVID-19 SCARED GAD Subscale t-test

t = -4.88, p < .001

Figure 2. Pre-COVID-19 vs. COVID-19 CDI Total t-test

t = -3.07, p < .01

Table 1. Correlations between SCARED GAD (COVID-19), CDI (COVID-19), and peer relationships

COVID-19 SCARED GAD SubscaleCOVID-19 CDI Total
NRI-RQV Best Same-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-0.287**-0.080
NRI-RQV Best Opposite-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-0.205*-0.259**
Controls: pre-COVID SCARED or pre-COVID CDI
p < .05*   p < .01**  p < .001***

Table 2. Friendship closeness vs. COVID-19 symptoms regressions

COVID-19 SCARED GAD Subscale (β)COVID-19 CDI Total (β)
NRI-RQV Best Same-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-.168**.074
NRI-RQV Best Opposite-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-.018-.124****
Controls: pre-COVID-19 SCARED and CDI; COVID-19 SCARED or CDI
p < .05*   p < .01**  p < .001*** trending****

Results indicated support for the first hypothesis. Across the sample, participants had greater depressive (t = -4.88, p <.001) and anxiety (t = -3.07, p < .01)symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to pre-pandemic. However, results indicated only partial support for the second hypothesis. Pre-pandemic friendship closeness was associated with changes in anxiety and depressive symptoms; specifically, stronger pre-COVID same-sex friendship closeness uniquely correlated with smaller increases in anxiety symptoms during COVID (r = -.29, p < .01), while stronger pre-COVID opposite-sex friendship closeness uniquely correlated with smaller increases in depressive symptoms during COVID (r = -.26, p < .01). When controlling for pre-pandemic symptoms, pre-COVID same-sex friendship closeness still predicted changes in COVID anxiety symptoms (r = -.17, p < .01). Mother and father relationships were not found to be significantly predictive of changes in mental health during COVID.

Conclusion

Interpretations

It is possible that participants were more comfortable expressing worry to same-sex friends (girls), buffering against increased anxiety symptoms. Perhaps they shared feelings about missing friends or romantic interests at school. Findings also suggest that opposite-sex friends (boys) may have helped improve participants’ moods, buffering against increased depressive symptoms. The girls may have had a crush or two and were happier interacting with them, even if only virtually, while following stay-at-home orders.

Limitations

The sample was predominantly Caucasian and middle class, and from the Long Island, New York area. As such, the sample is certainly not representative of the entire United States, as the U.S. is much more racially and socioeconomically diverse. It is unclear whether or not these results would be similar for individuals of different backgrounds, since a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, sex, and economic class, impact the degree to which people have been affected, either positively or negatively, by the pandemic (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). For example, Black and Indigenous Americans had the highest COVID-related death rates, while Asians and Whites had much lower rates (APM Research Lab Staff). According to the Pew Research Center, lower-income individuals were also more likely to report lost income and jobs due to the pandemic (Parker et al., 2020). As such, the present study’s sample may not have been affected by COVID-19 as much as other groups.

Further, all measures were self-reported, so participants may have been reluctant to share the full extent of their relationships and COVID-19 experiences. Another important consideration is that there was over a year, on average, between the pre-COVID and during-COVID assessments, meaning we could not account for potential significant life changes, such the death of a parent, losing touch with a friend, moving to a new place, and changes in relationship nature itself. Therefore, the present study’s results regarding pre-pandemic relationship quality may not be fully applicable to pandemic-era relationship health.

Future Directions

Overall, the results were largely what we hypothesized. Increased anxiety and depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic were evident across the sample and peer relationships predicted changes in mental health. Future studies should investigate these findings further and consider potential gender, race, and socioeconomic class differences that were not found in the present sample. Social factors like gender norms, double sex standards, race/ethnicity, and wealth may further influence the nature of adolescents’ social support networks and how they experienced the COVID-19 pandemic.


References

APM Research Lab Staff. (2021, March 5). The color of coronavirus: COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity in the U.S. APM Research Lab. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race

Birmaher, B., Khetarpal, S., Brent, D., Cully, M., Balach, L., & Kaufman, J. (1997, April). The screen for child anxiety related emotional disorders (SCARED): Scale construction and psychometric characteristics. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 36: 545–553. https://doi.org/10.1097/00004583-199704000-00018

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 19). Health equity considerations and racial and ethnic minority groups. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html

Furman, W., & Buhrmester, D. (2010). Network of relationships questionnaire manual. Unpublished manuscript, University of Denver, Denver, CO, and the University of Texas at Dallas.

Hawes, M.T., Szenczy, A.K., Klein, D.N., Hajcak, G., & Nelson, B.D. (2021, January 13). Increases in depression and anxiety symptoms in adolescents and young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Medicine, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0033291720005358

Hyde, J.H., Mezuklis, A.H., & Abramson, L.Y. (2008). The ABCs of depression: Integrating affective, biological and cognitive models to explain the emergence of the gender difference in depression. Psychological Review, 115, 291-313. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.115.2.291

Magson, N.R., Freeman, J.Y., Rapee, R.M, Richardson, C.E., Oar, E.L., & Fardouly, J. (2021). Risk and protective factors for prospective changes in adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 50, 44-57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-020-01332-9

Kovacs, M. (1992). Children’s depression inventory. Multi-Health Systems, Inc.

Parker, K., Horowitz, J.M., & Brown, A. (2020, April 21). About half of lower-income Americans report household job or wage loss due to COVID-19. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/04/21/about-half-of-lower-income-americans-report-household-job-or-wage-loss-due-to-covid-19/

Santini, Z.I., Koyanagi, A., Tyrovolas, S., Mason, C., & Haro, J.M. (2015, April 1). The association between social relationships and depression: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 175, 53–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2014.12.049

Saving for a Home Birth: How COVID-19 Will Change Fertility in the United States

by Sophia Garbarino, February 25, 2021

The novel coronavirus pandemic has significantly changed life in the United States, both temporarily and probably permanently in many ways. Not only has it impacted or directly caused the death of over 200,000 Americans, but it also rapidly changed the social norms of relationships and birth (CDC). Quarantining, social distancing, and working from home are all essential to the new normal American life. COVID-19 and the policies it has produced will ultimately accelerate the U.S. population decline by delaying marriage while pushing more parents away from medicalized births and into the comfort of their own homes.

Financially, the pandemic will decrease the fertility rate via unemployment. According to a July 2020 report by the National Women’s Law Center, “women have disproportionately suffered pandemic-related job losses: since February 2020, women have lost over 8 million net jobs, accounting for 55% of overall net job loss since the start of the pandemic” (Ewing-Nelson). On top of rising “levels of student loan and credit card debt,” unemployment and social distancing measures have forced many couples to delay marriage and pregnancy (Mather). Before the pandemic, the U.S. had already seen a “historically low birthrate” due to women’s increased participation in the workforce, meaning “women are having their first child at a later age. And when that happens, the total number of kids they have is fewer” (Belluz). Now that unemployment numbers are skyrocketing, the nation can expect to see older parents with up to “300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year” (Kearney and Levine). For many, COVID-19 is simply not the ideal, welcoming baby climate.

While financial hardship is turning parents away from expensive hospital births, the pandemic will also change the fertility experience via fear and COVID healthcare policies. As more patients become afraid to seek or are denied direct hospital care, more expecting parents are turning to alternative, natural birthing plans, like delivering at home with a midwife and/or doula (de Freytas-Tamura). Even before the pandemic, the “rise of surgical births with other medical interventions has meant a set of concerns over the high costs of births, as well as of the safety of maternal and neonatal patients” (Curreli and Marrone 29). Hospital birth is expensive and more risky now that coronavirus poses a potentially fatal threat, making home births seem much more appealing. In fact, the U.S. may see a drive towards European birth culture, “where more than 75 percent of all births are assisted by trained midwives… midwives [are] safer, less expensive, and more likely to facilitate a satisfying experience for the mother and family” (Wagner 37-40). Currently, “only three-quarters of the states allow licenses for midwives to practice out-of-hospital deliveries,” meaning many women will still have to give birth in a hospital or a birthing center (de Freytas-Tamura). As such, several expecting mothers are switching from hospital to birthing center deliveries, a trend that will likely continue to increase past the pandemic.

It’s difficult to say exactly how the pandemic will affect U.S. fertility in the long-term, but there are several short-term responses that suggest what the American birth experience may look like years from now. Unemployment, delayed marriage and birth, and home births are just a few responses indicating a future decrease in fertility and reduced medicalization of birth.


1Based on the U.S. COVID-19 mortality rate reported on October 1, 2020.


Works Cited

Belluz, Julia. “The historically low birthrate, explained in 3 charts.” Vox, 22 May 2018, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/5/22/17376536/fertility-rate-united-states-births-women.

“CDC COVID Data Tracker.” CDC, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesinlast7days. Accessed 1 October 2020.

Curreli, Misty, and Catherine Marrone. “Professional Certification and Doula Work: Measuring the Significance of Credentialing in the Field of Birth Companionship.” Marrone, pp. 29-34.

De Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko. “Pregnant and Scared of ‘Covid Hospitals,’ They’re Giving Birth at Home.” The New York Times, 21 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/nyregion/coronavirus-home-births.html.

Ewing-Nelson, Claire. “June Brings 2.9 Million Women’s Jobs Back, Many of Which Are At Risk of Being Lost Again.” National Women’s Law Center, July 2020, https://nwlc-ciw49tixgw5lbab.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/june-jobs-fs-1.pdf.

Kearney, Melissa S., and Phillip B. Levine. “Half a million fewer children? The coming COVID baby bust.” The Brookings Institution, 15 June 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/research/half-a-million-fewer-children-the-coming-covid-baby-bust/.

Marrone, Catherine, editor. Deeply Private, Incredibly Public: Readings on the Sociology of Human Reproduction. Cognella, 2019.

Mather, Mark. “Life on Hold: How the Coronavirus Is Affecting Young People’s Major Life Decisions.” Population Reference Bureau, 23 July 2020, https://www.prb.org/how-the-coronavirus-is-affecting-major-life-decisions/.

Wagner, Marsden. “Maternity Care in Crisis: Where are the Doctors?” Marrone, pp. 35-41.

Mapplethorpe’s Riveting “Rosie”: Exposing America’s Naked Truths and Prejudices

by Sophia Garbarino, February 9, 2021

The following article is a revised version of the original piece and does not include all photos. The full original article with all accompanying photographs can be viewed by downloading the PDF below (recommended, but viewer discretion advised).


Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, gelatin silver print, 1980, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe shocked the international art community in 1988 with The Perfect Moment exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Against politicians’ desires, the CAC decided to display Mapplethorpe’s work even though the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. cancelled the same exhibit only a few months earlier (Tannenbaum). The majority of Mapplethorpe’s photos were labeled obscene and pornographic, leading to criminal charges pressed against the CAC and its director at the time, Dennis Barrie. One of the most shocking was Rosie (1976), a photograph featuring a friend’s three year-old daughter sitting with her legs open, revealing her nude body beneath her dress. The trial took over a year, ending in acquittal and the public display of Mapplethorpe’s work at the CAC in 1990, just over one year after his death in 1989 (Mezibov).

Nude photography was one of Mapplethorpe’s specialties. Several of his portfolios featured the S&M and LGBTQ* communities in New York City, particularly in nude portraits (“Biography”). Many believe his intense focus on the nude body was an expression of his homosexuality. Rosie however, was one of only two photographs of nude children—the other, Jesse McBride (1976), featured a fully nude five year-old boy sitting on a chair. Both photos were taken with the children’s mothers’ permission but still received heavy backlash and criticism for being “pornographic” (Mezibov).

Ultimately, Mapplethorpe’s Rosie (1976) was not meant to be pedophilic, but rather a response to increasing radical American conservatism during the 1970s and 1980s. Its showcasing in The Perfect Moment exhibition (1988) challenged the limits of censorship and artistic freedom, reflecting the growing social phenomenon of hypersexualization that continues to define American media today.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Embrace, gelatin silver print, 1982, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Senator Jesse Helms and Homosexuality

Mapplethorpe lived in the heart of LGBTQ* activism in New New York in the 1970s. It was during this decade that the gay community began seeing representation in mainstream media, including movies that featured gay characters and the establishment of Gay Pride week. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stopped recognizing homosexuality as a mental illness, and the corporate world started prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination (Rosen). The LGBTQ* community saw tremendous strides in equality and justice advocacy.

Diana Davies, Men holding Christopher Street Liberation Day banner, 1970, © New York Public Library Digital Collections.

It was during this time that Mapplethorpe became an icon for LGBTQ* folks. According to his friend and writer Ingrid Sischy, Mapplethorpe’s works purposefully focused on homosexuality in order to draw attention. His unapologetically direct photographs helped turn homosexuality from a shameful secret into a proud identity (Sischy).

Senator Jesse Helms, n.d., © United States Senate Historical Office. 

However, the AIDS epidemic soon heightened homophobia in the 1980s. Mapplethorpe heavily focused on black male nudes, a clear expression of his homosexuality, making him a prime target for censorship. Republican Senator Jesse Helms was especially offended by Rosie and hyperfocused on Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality, AIDS-related death, and interracial photographic subjects (Adler, Meyer). In 1989, Helms convinced the deciding congressional committee to pass a bill prohibiting the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) from funding the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), which organized the original Perfect Moment exhibit, for five years (Adler, Tannenbaum). He did so by lying about the photographs he saw firsthand at The Perfect Moment and distributing copies of four of them to the other committee members (Meyer).

Robert Mapplethorpe, Derrick Cross, gelatin silver print, 1982, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

At the time, Senator Helms’ arguments reflected those of a growing conservative movement. His outrage about Rosie was less about the photograph itself and more about the artist. Furthermore, his push for censorship was less about Rosie’s exposed body and more about silencing the LGBTQ* community, including proudly gay folks such as Mapplethorpe. In his attempts to “cordon off the visual and symbolic force of homosexuality, to keep it as far as possible from [himself] and the morally upstanding citizens he claim[ed] to represent,” Helms ironically brought even more attention to it (Meyer 134).

Some supported censoring Mapplethorpe’s work by claiming he was a pedophile and child abuser, but neither Jesse nor Rosie recall him as such. As adults, both reflected on their portraits proudly (Adler). As censorship lawyer Edward de Grazia wrote regarding the Mapplethorpe case, “art and child pornography are mutually exclusive… no challenged picture of children having artistic value can constitutionally be branded ‘child pornography’ or ‘obscene’” (de Grazia 50). Though it was ultimately deemed non-pornographic after the Mapplethorpe trial, Rosie was only the beginning of a political push to seize funding from the arts, particularly the radical works such as Mapplethorpe’s, following several rising liberal and conservative movements in the previous decades.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, gelatin silver print, 1979, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Historical Context: Radical Conservatism and the Sexual Revolution

During the 1970s, the LGBTQ* community became more vocal, allowing gay men such as Mapplethorpe to be more openly accepted in the art world. In response, movements such as the New Right and the Christian Right emerged, led largely by American evangelicals claiming that homosexuality was morally sinful (“The New Right”). Mapplethorpe’s very existence contradicted traditional conservative values, and he could never align with socially-accepted heteronormative culture.

In fact, the Rosie controversy emerged during a new wave of conservative outrage that began a few years earlier in 1987, when Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was awarded $15,000 by the partially NEA-funded Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (Meyer). Along with many other Republican Christians, Senator Helms was deeply offended and embraced the opportunity to denounce another artist who defied traditional conservative values when The Perfect Moment debuted in 1988. At that point, Helms’ focus shifted from Serrano’s critique of religion to Mapplethorpe’s expressions of homosexuality, repeatedly calling his photographs “sick” (Meyer 137). In doing so, Helms used the art as a larger metaphor for homosexuality and AIDS, which he believed were plaguing and contaminating Christian-American society.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, Cibachrome print, 1987.

As a gay man, Mapplethorpe was not sexually attracted to females at all, so it would have been much easier for Helms to use Jesse McBride rather than Rosie in his rhetoric. It was the ongoing sexual revolution, which also contributed to the rise of far-right conservatism, that put Rosie in the spotlight instead. Rosie, then, can be interpreted as Mapplethorpe’s way of challenging traditional ideologies and aligning with the sexual liberation movement. Where he saw an innocent child, many conservatives such as Senator Helms saw the bare sexuality of a young girl. Movements such as the New Right could not view her as anything other than sexual with her genitalia exposed. Therefore, it was not Mapplethorpe who sexualized the child but the audience who saw her, revealing a culture deeply rooted in traditional domestic roles and gender spheres.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a rapid increase in women’s and sexual liberation. Nonheterosexual sex was brought to national attention as well, especially after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (Kohn). Much of Mapplethorpe’s work reflected this new spotlight. Rosie, though, was unlike his trademark photographs of an interracial S&M community, yet it still gained significantly more attention. Despite the portrait subject being a White child, Rosie was one of the four photographs that Senator Helms distributed to his fellow Congressmen and Senators. The others were Mark Stevens (Mr. 10½) (1976), Man in Polyester Suit (1980), and Jesse McBride (Meyer). There were several other photos of naked men in The Perfect Moment, many considered far more pornographic than Rosie and Jesse McBride could ever be, but Rosie was not chosen by mistake. She reflected a different, but not unrelated, threat to Christian-American tradition: women’s liberation.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, platinum-palladium print, 1984, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

After the birth control pill hit the market in 1960, sexuality and sexual expression were no longer taboo subjects. Rates of premarital sex increased significantly while books such as Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex normalized conversation about sex (Kohn). For many, Rosie represented a new generation of sexually-liberated women. For conservatives like Senator Helms, this was an intolerable break from traditional gender roles, where men and women had defined, separate roles in society. The New Right movement believed the sexual revolution was destroying the American family structure, leading little girls like Rosie from domesticity to radicalism (“The New Right”). Rosie, then, was the epitome of everything wrong with women’s liberation for Helms. In distributing her photograph, he attempted to defy the new wave of feminism.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, gelatin silver print, 1980, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Censorship and Artistic Freedom

However, despite its many controversies, the Mapplethorpe censorship case was most defiant of artistic freedom. Following the case, American art critic Robert Storr wrote that “there are no ‘laws of decency’; certainly none that have any juridical standing with respect to art” (Storr 13). He further argued that censorship itself is the manifestation of widespread mistrust of the public’s ability to draw their own conclusions. In a nation founded on freedom of speech and expression, art essayists like Hilton Kramer, who deeply criticized Mapplethorpe’s work, and politicians like Helms ironically believed that common people should not and could not discern what was acceptable, particularly regarding art (Storr). Helms and Kramer used censorship to impose their own beliefs onto the general public, serving as a microcosm of strong conservative attempts to minimize the voices of non-traditional values.

Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, 2018, Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 424th Street, New York, NY 10011

 When such defiances of conservatism emerged, they were immortalized in the form of art through Mapplethorpe and other “radical” artists like Serrano. In the heat of America’s changing society, Rosie became a monumental representation of true freedom: freedom of artistic expression, freedom of sexual expression, and the freedom of perspective. Politicians, however, disagreed over what freedoms should receive public funding. Helms and his fellow White Christian American conservatives believed that the NEA should not fund art that offended them based on “their assault on social constructions of sexuality, race, and spirituality” (Atkins 33). Once again, the majority group was attempting to impose their beliefs on the rest of society, a perfect example of censorship at its core.

Diego Rivera, Proletarian Unity from Portraits of America, mural panel, 1933, © Nagoya City Art Museum.

Mapplethorpe’s case was significant but not the first. Works by LGBTQ* folks, people of color, and those with “dangerous” political views have been consistently marginalized. For example, Diego Rivera’s Portrait of America mural at Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1933 because its center featured Vladimir “Lenin” Ulyanov, former leader of the communist Soviet Union (Atkins). In 1934, Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In was removed from the Corcoran Gallery of Art—the same gallery that cancelled The Perfect Moment in 1988—because the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration requested it (Atkins). This was only a small part of FDR’s anti-gay legacy: during his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR helped run a sting operation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1919, resulting in the arrest of over 20 Navy sailors for homosexual activity (Loughery). In 1981, after strong advocacy from Hilton Kramer and other conservative critics, the NEA stopped funding individual art critics because many of them were leftist (Atkins). Clearly, the Mapplethorpe case followed decades of conservative attacks on art.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In!, tempera on canvas, 1934, © United States Navy.

Hypersexualization

Some believe the most pressing issues surrounding Rosie were Rosie’s age and exposed body. There were certainly multiple other artists photographing naked women at the time, like Don Herron and his Tub Shots series, who received little criticism for the nudity. In fact, nudity itself has never been an issue in art; some of the most famous and public classical works portray naked Romans, Greek gods, and biblical figures, like Michelangelo’s David and Sistine Chapel ceiling. In fact, nude boys were not an issue either, as seen in works like Thomas Eakins’s Boy nude at edge of river (c. 1882) and John Singer Sargent’s A Nude Boy on a Beach (1925).

John Singer Sargent, A Nude Boy on a Beach, oil paint on wood, 1925, © Tate.

The fact that Rosie was a girl was not the most significant factor either. During the 1970s, when the Rosie photograph was taken, the United States saw a rapid increase in explicit advertisements, particularly those with women only partially dressed or in full nude. One 1993 study revealed that the number of purely decorative female roles in ads increased from 54 percent to 73 percent from 1959 to 1989 (Busby and Leichty). A 1997 study found that over a 40-year period, 1.5 percent of popular magazine ads portrayed children in a sexual way, and of those ads, 85 percent depicted sexualized girls, with the number increasing over time (O’Donohue et. al). Even in the 1970s and 1980s, the sexualization of young girls was certainly nothing new. Advertising industries had been doing this for decades before the Rosie controversy started in 1988. In fact, they still do.

“Love’s Baby Soft. Because innocence is sexier than you think,” magazine advertisement, 1974–1975.

The hypersexualization of both women and children in the media is quite common now. As National Women’s Hall of Fame activist Dr. Jean Kilbourne reveals in So Sexy So Soon, corporations use sex and sexiness to advertise to children at increasingly younger ages—and they are alarmingly successful. Dangerously unhealthy standards of beauty define sexiness as the most important aspect of a woman’s identity and value. The sexual liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s has turned into a hypersexualized culture, where children as young as Rosie are exposed to sex in songs, TV shows, advertisements, and social media (Kilbourne and Levin). Like the conservatives’ reaction to Rosie in 1988, young girls are now seen in a sexual way before they are seen as simply children.

Original Cuties film poster, 2020, © Netflix, Inc.

Therefore, like the basis of Helms’ original arguments, the outrage and controversy surrounding Rosie was less about the photograph itself and more about the artist and what the artist represented. Mapplethorpe’s identity and lifestyle contradicted many traditional conservative values: he was homosexual, engaged in S&M, photographed interracial couples, and eventually died of AIDS. Rosie herself said she did not view her portrait as pornographic and could not understand why others thought it was. In fact, in a 1996 interview with The Independent, Rosie recalled her mother making her put on a dress just before the photo was taken, and immediately after, she took the dress off. Ironically, she noted that “if it had been a small [nude] boy, maybe this furore would be justified; Robert [Mapplethorpe] wasn’t interested in girls anyway” (Rickey). Jesse McBride, which is exactly that, received even less backlash than Rosie.

Helms, then, used Rosie against Mapplethorpe not because he thought it was pornographic, but because of all Mapplethorpe’s works, Rosie garnered the most conservative support for censorship. He could easily use the classic damsel in distress situation by painting Rosie as a helpless little White girl in need of protection from a dangerous gay man, with emphasis on Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality. It wasn’t Rosie’s age, nor her exposed body, that angered Helms: it was Mapplethorpe.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, platinum-palladium print, 1988, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Final Notes

The Rosie controversy was just as relevant in 1988 as it is now. It continues to pose crucial questions, challenging the boundaries of art and the limits of censorship while highlighting the marginalization of LGBTQ* art, societal resistance to change, and hypersexualization of women and children. Ultimately, Rosie was not the creator of such outrage and conservative criticism, but the vessel exploited by powerful politicians to further their own agendas against Mapplethorpe and other LGBTQ* folks. The Mapplethorpe trial surrounding Rosie was the culmination of decades of liberal movements—including women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and increasing attention to LGBTQ* voices—and the conservative responses to them. Despite the continuous controversy, critics consider Mapplethorpe, rightfully so, as one of the most influential American artists in the twentieth century. Rosie was last on public display in 2017 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.


Works Cited

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Capps, Kriston. “Jesse Helms: The Intimidation of Art and the Art of Intimidation.” Huffington Post, 15 July 2008, www.huffpost.com/entry/jesse-helms-the-intimidat_b_112874. Accessed 26 Jan. 2021.

“Cuties.” Wikipedia, 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuties. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Davies, Diana. “Men holding Christopher Street Liberation Day banner.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1970, digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/91433901-5e24-aece-e040-e00a18066e82. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

de Grazia, Deward. “The Big Chill: Censorship and the Law.” Aperture, 5 May 1990, pp. 50–51. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24472936. Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.

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Herron, Don. “Paula Sequeira.” Swann Galleries, 1978, catalogue.swanngalleries.com/Lots/auction-lot/DON-HERRON-(1941-2012)–Suite-of-11-photographs-from-Tub-Sho?saleno=2514&lotNo=184&refNo=756720. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

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Kilbourne, Jean, and Diane Levin. So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood, and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. Ballantine, 2008.

Kohn, Sally. “The sex freak-out of the 1970s.” CNN, 21 July 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/07/21/opinions/kohn-seventies-sexual-revolution/index.html. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Ajitto. 1981. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City. Guggenheim, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/2701. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter. 1979. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. LACMA Collections, collections.lacma.org/node/2155762. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Dan. S. 1980. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/255901/robert-mapplethorpe-dan-s-american-negative-1980-print-2011/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Derrick Cross. 1982. Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, www.mapplethorpe.org/portfolios/male-nudes/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Embrace. 1982. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/256224/robert-mapplethorpe-embrace-american-negative-1982-print-1996/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Honey. 1976. Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/robert-honey-ar00157. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Honey and Rosie. 1976. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. LACMA Collections, collections.lacma.org/node/2233535. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Jesse McBride. 1976. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. LACMA Collections, collections.lacma.org/node/2233522. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Ken Moody and Robert Sherman. 1984. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/2740. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Man in Polyester Suit. 1980. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/254454/robert-mapplethorpe-man-in-polyester-suit-american-negative-1980-print-1981/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Mark Stevens (Mr. 10½). 1976. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/254447/robert-mapplethorpe-mark-stevens-mr-10-12-american-1976/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Patti Smith. 1976. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Met Museum, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/266975. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

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Mapplethorpe, Robert. Phillip Prioleau. 1979. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/255738/robert-mapplethorpe-phillip-prioleau-american-1979/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Rosie. 1976. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. LACMA Collections, collections.lacma.org/node/2233440. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Self Portrait. 1980. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/255800/robert-mapplethorpe-self-portrait-american-negative-1980-print-1999/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Self Portrait. 1980. Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/robert-self-portrait-al00388. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Self Portrait. 1988. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/5354. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Tennant Twins. 1975. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/255477/robert-mapplethorpe-tennant-twins-american-1975/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Thomas. 1987. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty, www.guggenheim.org/artwork/5353. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Meyer, Richard. “The Jesse Helms Theory of Art.” October, vol. 104, 2003, pp. 131–148. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3397585. Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.

Mezibov, Marc. “The Mapplethorpe Obscenity Trial.” Litigation, vol. 18, no. 4, 1992, pp. 12–15, 71. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29759554. Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.

“The New Right.” ushistory.org, www.ushistory.org/us/58e.asp. Accessed 26 Jan. 2021.

O’Donohue, William, et al. “Children as Sexual Objects: Historial and Gender Trends in Magazines.” Sexual Abuse, vol. 9, no. 4, 1997, pp. 291–301. SAGE Journals, doi.org/10.1177%2F107906329700900403. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.

Rickey, Melanie. “Revealed (again): Mapplethorpe’s model.” The Independent, 14 Sept. 1996, www.independent.co.uk/news/revealed-again-mapplethorpe-s-model-1363318.html. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.

Rivera, Diego. Proletarian Unity from Portrait of America. 1933. Nagoya City Art Museum, Nagoya. Google Arts & Culture, artsandculture.google.com/asset/proletarian-unity-diego-rivera/1QGr_VcJ142Tpw?hl=en. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

“Robert Mapplethorpe.” Gladstone Gallery, 2018, www.gladstonegallery.com/exhibition/296/robert-mapplethorpe/installation-views. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Rosen, Rebecca. “A Glimpse Into 1970s Gay Activism.” The Atlantic, 26 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/a-glimpse-into-1970s-gay-activism/284077/.

Sargent, John Singer. A Nude Boy on a Beach. 1925. Tate. Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sargent-a-nude-boy-on-a-beach-t03927. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

Serrano, Andres. “Immersion (Piss Christ).” TIME 100 Photos, 1987, 100photos.time.com/photos/andres-serrano-piss-christ. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

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Sischy, Ingrid. “White and Black.” The New Yorker, 6 Nov. 1989, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1989/11/13/white-and-black. Accessed 26 Jan. 2021.

Storr, Robert. “Art, Censorship, and the First Amendment: This Is Not a Test.” Art Journal, vol. 50, no. 3, 1991, pp. 12–28. JSTOR, doi.org/10.2307/777210. Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.

Tannenbaum, Judith. “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Philadelphia Story.” Art Journal, vol. 50, no. 4, 1991, pp. 71–76. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/777326. Accessed 26 Jan. 2021.

There are good reasons to put pronouns in your profiles (Op-Ed)

by Sophia Garbarino, December 5, 2020

See Sophia’s opinion editorial published in the Connecticut Post (and several other local CT newspapers) here.

(Originally published online. Published in print on December 6, 2020.)


Dying Without Dignity: An Intersectional Analysis of Lhamo’s Death and Domestic Violence in China

by Sophia Garbarino, December 22, 2020

Originally written for WST 291: Introduction to Feminist Theory (Fall 2020)

“More than 900 women have died at the hands of their husbands or partners since China’s law against domestic violence was enacted in 2016”

(CHEN, 2020).

Lhamo, a Tibetan woman and popular social media star living in southwestern China, was one of them. Two weeks after her ex-husband set her on fire, Ms. Lhamo died in the hospital, leaving her two sons and a rekindled wave of women’s rights protests behind. Her story, according to The New York Times reporter Elsie Chen (2020), reflects the Chinese government and law enforcement’s inability, and perhaps lack of desire, to protect its women. However, there are several underlying factors influencing feminist politics in China that went unaddressed in Chen’s report, along with the few other news reports covering the same story. Ms. Lhamo’s tragic death is also a product of brutal, complex relationships between ethnicity, sexuality, and socioeconomic status, revealing minimal progress towards equality and justice despite written law.

Ms. Lhamo’s family was well aware of her husband’s abuse, as she frequently fled her home with bruises and injuries over the course of their marriage. When she divorced him for the first time, he threatened to kill their children, forcing Ms. Lhamo to remarry him.

The local police further ignored her abuse complaints after this, allegedly telling her that because it was a “personal family matter… there was nothing they could do”

(Chen, 2020).

While it may seem like a feminist issue on the surface, the authorities’ ignorance actually reflects a much larger, deeper ethnic prejudice. As a Tibetan, Ms. Lhamo was a minority, and according to Human Rights Watch, her case “illustrate[s] the Chinese government’s long-running mistreatment of Tibetans,” stemming from tense relations after the failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese occupation in 1959 (2020). Since 2006, the government has forcibly relocated and created “near complete restriction on the freedom of movement” of over 2 million Tibetans (Minority Rights Group International, 2017). Even before any domestic abuse occurred, Ms. Lhamo was already a victim of injustice because of her national origin. However, Chen’s report does not mention this, reflecting a broader lack of attention to ethnic individualities within the global feminist context.

As Syracuse University professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Chandra Talpade Mohanty writes in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (2003), “systems of racial, class, and gender domination do not have identical effects on women in Third World contexts” (p. 55). As such, a Tibetan woman such as Ms. Lhamo would not receive the same treatment as a Han Chinese woman would because of her ethnicity (the Han ethnic group is the largest in China). Furthermore, she had lower socioeconomic status, producing additional challenges. For poor minority women like Ms. Lhamo, human rights have “always been mediated by a coercive, racist state” (Mohanty, 2003, p. 54). According to Chen’s report,

“in the countryside, where Ms. Lhamo was from, victims often lack social support networks and are less educated about their rights”

(2020).

Even after “she sought help from All-China Women’s Federation, the government agency in charge of protecting women’s rights,” Ms. Lhamo was denied justice “when an official dismissed her injuries, saying other women were worse off” (Chen, 2020). This prompted her to file for divorce a second time, after which the police did bare minimal investigation and let her husband escape any consequences yet again.

Ms. Lhamo’s experiences and tragic death went unaddressed by the Chinese government, with the Communist body going as far as censoring social media hashtags like #LhamoAct (Chen, 2020). As Mohanty writes in Feminism Without Borders, “Chinese women ‘disappear’ in popular and academic discourses on China, only to reappear in ‘case studies’ or in the ‘culture garden’” (2003, p. 76). Ms. Lhamo is a clear example of this. Chinese feminist issues have gone largely unaddressed in Western media and academia, only resurfacing when case studies such as Ms. Lhamo’s occur. Western feminisms often fail to incorporate the “diverse struggles and histories” of women from other countries, more commonly lumping them together to further their own agendas (Mohanty, 2003, p. 46). Like Mohanty, professor Amrita Basu of Amherst College recognizes the necessity of diversity inclusion, arguing that when feminist discourses fail to identify and consider cultural influences on women’s experiences, particularly regarding gender violence, women’s “identities as Bosnian, African American, or poor women may be muted” (2000, p. 76). These are only a few examples of the several aspects that comprise one’s identity.

To make any progress towards true gender equality in China, the diverse population and cultures must be considered. This includes diversity in sexuality, which Chen also does not address in her report. Like the United States, China’s political and social structures are based on heterosexism and homophobia. As feminist scholar Audre Lorde writes, heterosexism is the “belief in the inherent superiority of one form of loving over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (1985, p. 3). Currently, China’s Domestic Violence Law “does not protect gay couples,” and though it does protect cohabitating couples, Chinese government official Guo Linmao noted at a press conference that

“for homosexuals in our country, we have not yet discovered this form of violence… it can be said that people who cohabit does not include homosexuals”

(Reuters Staff, 2015).

Essentially, he meant gay couples do not encounter domestic violence, which is untrue.

Chen’s report echoes this false assertion, though perhaps not intentionally, quoting Chinese women’s rights lawyer Wan Miaoyan, “But why does it take a tragedy and a victim to sacrifice herself in such a bloody way before we make progress on law enforcement?” (Chen, 2020). This statement assumes all domestic violence victims are women. However, according to the United States National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010), members of the LGBTQ+ community “have an equal or higher prevalence of experiencing IPV [intimate partner violence], SV [sexual violence], and stalking as compared to self-identified heterosexuals” (CDC, p. 1). China is certainly not exempt from this pattern. In fact, a 2009 survey conducted by the Chinese organization Common Language found that of the 900 participating lesbian and bisexual women, “42.2 percent reported intimate partner violence with same sex partners” (UNDP, 2014, p. 28). In every aspect of injustice, LGBTQ+ folks continue to fight for recognition and support, especially when the government refuses to protect them. As a member of the heterosexual hegemony, this is one battle that Ms. Lhamo did not have to fight, which some may consider a privilege despite her tragic situation.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, instances of domestic and intimate partner violence have significantly increased due to lockdown and quarantine policies. According to another domestic violence report from The New York Times (2020), Chinese “activists, citing interviews with abused women, estimate the numbers are far higher, especially after millions were placed under lockdown during the pandemic” (Wee). As Basu writes, “Women’s movement activists have employed the term violence against women in describing diverse practices cross nationally… in order to assert the global dimensions of a single problem” (2000, p. 78). Unfortunately, partner violence is not a single problem. It is stuck in a web of complex, intersectional relationships between sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, and more. However, despite the multitude of experiential and cultural differences, women like Ms. Lhamo still share many similarities and often unite on these common grounds. China’s women are not alone, and like every country around the world, China has a long road ahead to achieving gender justice.


References

Basu, A. (2000). Globalization of the local/localization of the global mapping transnational women’s movements. Meridians, 1(1), p. 68–84. https://doi.org/10.1215/15366936-1.1.68

CDC. (2010). NISVS: An overview of 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_victimization_final-a.pdf

Chen, E. (2020, November 15). Her abuse was a ‘family matter,’ until it went live. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/world/asia/china-women-domestic-abuse.html

China: Tibetan woman dies in custody. (2020, October 29). Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/29/china-tibetan-woman-dies-custody#

Lorde, A. (1985). I am your sister: Black women organizing across sexualities. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Mohanty, C.T. (2003). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Duke University Press.

Reuters Staff. (2015, December 27). China passes first domestic violence law, gay couples excluded. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-lawmaking-family/china-passes-first-domestic-violence-law-gay-couples-excluded-idINKBN0UA08A20151227

Tibetans. (2017, November). Minority Rights Group International. Retrieved December 8, 2020, from https://minorityrights.org/minorities/tibetans/

Two spirit. (2020). Indian Health Service. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://www.ihs.gov/lgbt/health/twospirit/

UNDP. (2014). Being LGBT in Asia: China country report. https://www.asia-pacific.undp.org/content/dam/rbap/docs/Research%20&%20Publications/hiv_aids/rbap-hhd-2014-blia-china-country-report.pdf

Wee, S. (2020, September 16). Her husband abused her. But getting a divorce was an ordeal. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/asia/china-domestic-abuse.html

Yang, H. (2020, April 1). China’s domestic violence law turns four. The Asia Foundation. https://asiafoundation.org/2020/04/01/chinas-domestic-violence-law-turns-four/


Breathing in Discrimination: Asthma and Vulnerable Populations in the United States

by Sophia Garbarino, October 14, 2020

This short essay was written for SOC 200, Fall 2020.

Asthma is a quite common diagnosis in children, and cases have risen significantly in the past few decades. From 1980 to 1996, “the number of individuals with asthma in the United States grew to 73.9%,” roughly equivalent to 14.6 million (Brown et al. 125). Scientific evidence has found correlation between asthma and air pollution, while sociological evidence has linked the condition to socioeconomic status (SES) and racial minorities (Brown et al.). Furthermore, SES influences not only who is diagnosed with asthma, but also who has a better health outcome.

According to “The Health Politics of Asthma: Environmental Justice and Collective Illness Experience in the United States,” a 2003 article co-authored by several sociologists and published in Social Science & Medicine, “asthma has become, for many poor and minority neighborhoods, one of the most visible and pressing problems” (Brown et al. 128). These neighborhoods are most commonly urban, with the past three U.S. Censuses revealing that “well over half of America’s largest cities are now majority non-white” (Frey). The increase in asthma has been attributed to the rise in air pollution, which is typically worst in cities. Public transportation, such as diesel buses, has been criticized for discriminatory budgeting in states including Massachusetts, where the Alternatives for Communities and Environment group (ACE) “successfully framed an issue of transit spending priorities into one of health, justice, and racism” in 2000 (Brown et al. 131). At the time, over half of Boston’s population was non-white, and the folks who relied on the buses to get to work and school were forced to use “dirty” buses that “trigger asthma attacks” on a daily basis (Jimenez; Brown et al. 132-133).

In addition to living in the most polluted and asthma-vulnerable areas, minority populations typically have lower SES than their White counterparts. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the average household income on non-Hispanic Whites was $45,904, while the averages for Hispanics and Blacks were roughly 30% lower at “$33,447 and $30,439, respectively” (Denavas-Walt et al.). Not only do minorities have higher asthma rates, but they are also less likely to be able to afford quality health care. With limited access to quality education and everyday treatments such as albuterol inhalers, “frequent trips to the emergency room are the norm for impoverished families seeking asthma treatment, resulting in both poor management and the loss of control” (Brown et al. 135). Thus, the cycle of poor health continues.

As medical sociologist Irving Kenneth Zola wrote in his 1972 article “Medicine as an Institution of Social Control,” “man’s power over Nature is really the power of some men over other men, with Nature as their instrument” (Zola 599). Asthma is just one example of how SES and race interact, and we have yet to consider other factors such as gender, ability, and ethnicity. Our social structures perpetuate each other and are certainly reflected in our health care system.


Works Cited

Brown, Phil, et al. “The Health Politics of Asthma: Environmental Justice and Collective Illness Experience in the United States.” The Sociology of Health & Illness, edited by Peter Conrad and Valerie Leiter, SAGE Publications, 2019, pp. 125-138.

Denavas-Walt, Carmen, et al. “Money Income in the United States: 2000.” U.S. Census Bureau, 1 Sept. 2001, https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2001/demo/p60-213.html.

Frey, William. “Melting Pot Cities and Suburbs: Racial and Ethnic Change in Metro America in the 2000s.” Brookings Institution, May 2011, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/0504_census_ethnicity_frey.pdf.

Jimenez, Carmen Rixely. “New Bostonians Demographic Report.” The Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, https://www.cityofboston.gov/newbostonians/pdfs/dem_report.pdf.

Zola, Irving Kenenth. “Medicine as an Institution of Social Control.” The Sociology of Health & Illness, edited by Peter Conrad and Valerie Leiter, SAGE Publications, 2019, pp. 591-603.


COVID-19 Disproportionately Affects Blacks and Indigenous Americans

by Sophia Garbarino, August 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected every American in some way. We’ve had to quarantine, socially distance, and make the difficult decision to avoid seeing those we care about, all to stop the spread of the virus. We’ve seen restaurants close, schools go completely online, and unemployment skyrocket. Most importantly, we’ve seen sickness and death at an insurmountable rate. Both the sick and healthy have died, and as of August 20th this year, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States is 172,416 (CDC).

Beyond the six-figure number, we’ve also witnessed weeks of unrest across the country, with people rallying in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On May 25, 2020, the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, MN, triggered waves of protest both in the streets and online. While being arrested for paying with a counterfeit bill, Mr. Floyd “was killed by police” after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept “his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck… for a total of nine minutes and 30 seconds” (Willis et al.). Police brutality has long plagued our country, and it is only now being recognized, thanks to body camera technology.

While these deaths may appear mutually exclusive at first, we cannot ignore the alarming extent to which systemic racism affects our people. Not only are Black folx subject to over-policing and constant fear, but they are also more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. According to a recent COVID-19 study by the APM (American Public Media) Research Lab, “the heaviest losses [are] among Black and Indigenous Americans” (APM Research Lab Staff). In the last five months, Blacks and Indigenous Americans have seen the highest death rates (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Cumulative actual COVID-19 mortality rates per 100,000, by race and ethnicity, April 13-Aug. 18, 2020 from APM Research Lab,  http://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.

The study found that “Black Americans continue to experience the highest actual COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide—more than twice as high as the rate for Whites and Asians, who have the lowest actual rates” (APM). Though COVID-19 arrived in the United States from China, Asian-Americans ironically have the second-lowest rate of contracting the virus. Yet as another reflection of racism, President Donald Trump previously referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” and defended himself on multiple occasions (Chiu). Furthermore, Washington Post photojournalist Jabin Botsford posted proof of the president’s stance on Twitter, as shown below:

While the American president fuels racist agendas, Blacks and Indigenous Americans are being, perhaps avoidably, killed by the novel coronavirus. Individually, “Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander and Latino Americans all have a COVID-19 death rate of triple or more White Americans (age-adjusted)” (APM). It’s important to note that while adjusting for age “remove[s] the role of age differences,” it also “increases the COVID-19 mortality rate for all racial and ethnic groups except for Whites” (APM). However, even without age adjustments, the death rates are still higher than those of Whites (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Actual versus Age-adjusted mortality rates by race/ethnicity through Aug. 18, 2020 (Blacks are on the far left in green, and Whites are on the far right in dark blue) from APM Research Lab, http://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.

The biggest question to answer is, why? Why are so many more Blacks dying from COVID-19 than other ethnicities? The answer is not as complex as you may think, and it has almost nothing to do with genetics.

According to Our World in Data, risk factors for contracting the coronavirus include:

  • Age,
  • Smoking and other lung compromises,
  • Obesity, and
  • Access to handwashing facilities and healthy hygiene practices (Roser et al.).

Black communities are more at risk for high COVID-19 rates thanks to systemic racism. Its influence on our policies and structures is deeply rooted in American history, dating back to colonization, slavery, and the White Man’s Burden. These practices and beliefs are still affecting us today, much more than most of us may realize.

Dr. Leonard Egede and Dr. Rebekah Walker of the Medical College of Wisconsin Center for Advancing Population Science (CAPS) recently published an article about the way systemic racism affects COVID-19 death rates in the New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Structural Racism, Social Risk Factors, and Covid-19 — A Dangerous Convergence for Black Americans.” Here, they provide a detailed explanation of how racial structures in the United States

“affect health through a variety of pathways, including social deprivation from reduced access to employment, housing, and education; increased environmental exposures and targeted marketing of unhealthy substances; inadequate access to health care; physical injury and psychological trauma resulting from state-sanctioned violence such as police brutality and chronic exposure to discrimination; and diminished participation in healthy behaviors or increased participation in unhealthy behaviors as coping mechanisms.”

Egede and Walker

After generations of being oppressed by the systems that are supposed to protect their rights and liberties, Black Americans are still facing racism and the powerful White agenda to keep them controlled and confined to lower economic classes (keep in mind that many Whites do not support this agenda; it derives from centuries of international racial divides, especially between Whites and Blacks). The coronavirus was just an unpredicted catalyst for exposing this agenda to the mass media and general population. Blacks continue to face death and discrimination from every side, from job opportunities to police brutality to medical care, and it now seems only more inescapable.

We must also be aware of the effects of COVID-19 on the Indigenous American population. We all know that frequently washing your hands with soap and water helps prevent contracting the coronavirus, but many indigenous populations do not have running water. This is nothing new, either; about 90% of the Navajo Nation (located at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) lives without running water. They also have “one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates per capita in the U.S.” (Baek). This is no coincidence, and we must be aware of these issues in order to make progress towards a solution.

The Navajo Water Project, a non-profit organization focused on providing clean, running water to Navajo folx, reports that 1 in 3 Navajo families have to haul water home every day (Navajo Water Project). As the Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez stated earlier this year,

“We are United States citizens but we’re not treated like that… we once again have been forgotten by our own government.”

Navajo Water Project

The astonishingly low access to basic hygiene resources like running water can be sourced back to the colonization period, when Indigenous Americans were massacred and terrorized by the White colonizers. Only a few tribes were able to secure their rightful territory. When the government signed the Navajo Nation Treaty of 1868, the tribe was finally able to return home after being “forcefully and permanently removed from their ancestral territory” (Ault).

Even though they live on their own land, the Navajo nation is still unable to access the same basic resources as all other U.S. citizens. The majority live below the poverty line, have no running water, toilets, or sinks, and lack adequate funds for education. This is why there are such high rates of coronavirus in these reservations; even before the pandemic hit, they had no defenses. After age-adjustment, “Indigenous people are 3.4 times more likely to have died than Whites,” and in Mississippi, over 1000 indigenous people have died from coronavirus compared to the 44 Whites as of August 18, 2020 (APM). This astounding disparity is undoubtedly race-related.

“The racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality—due to these compounding, elevated risks from our systems of housing, labor force, health care, and policy responses—are what is termed systemic racism

APM Research Lab

Our nation is not only experiencing a public health crisis, but also a crisis in justice. Our Constitution states that all men (and women) are created equal, but we are not, at least in the eyes of our racially-influenced institution. Our own citizens are being mistreated, discriminated against, abused, and ultimately killed. COVID-19 isn’t just a health concern—it’s a race concern. An ethnic concern. A justice concern. It’s your concern.

So what can you do to help? First and foremost, you can help spread awareness. Post on your social media accounts, talk about these issues with your friends and family, and of course, practice preventative measures against COVID-19, like frequently washing your hands with soap and water and social distancing. Listed below are resources to help you learn more about what was discussed in this article.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The Navajo Water Project


Works Cited

APM Research Lab Staff. “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.” APM Research Lab, 18 Aug. 2020, www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.

Baek, Grace. “Navajo Nation residents face coronavirus without running water.” CBS News, 8 May 2020, www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-navajo-nation-running-water-cbsn-originals/.

“Cases in the U.S.” CDC, 20 Aug. 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html.

Chiu, Allyson. “Trump has no qualms about calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus.’ That’s a dangerous attitude, experts say.” Washington Post, 20 Mar. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/20/coronavirus-trump-chinese-virus/.

Egede, Leonard, and Walker, Rebekah. “Structural Racism, Social Risk Factors, and Covid-19 — A Dangerous Convergence for Black Americans.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 383, 2020, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2023616.

@jabinbotsford. “Close up of President @realDonaldTrump notes is seen where he crossed out “Corona” and replaced it with “Chinese” Virus as he speaks with his coronavirus task force today at the White House. #trump #trumpnotes.” Twitter, 19 Mar. 2020, 2:06 p.m., twitter.com/jabinbotsford/status/1240701140141879298.

The Navajo Water Project. The DigDeep Right to Water Project, 2014, www.navajowaterproject.org.

Ritchie, Hannah, et al. “Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19). Our World in Data, 21 Aug. 2020, ourworldindata.org/coronavirus#risk-factors-for-the-coronavirus-disease.Willis, Haley, et al. “New Footage Shows Delayed Medical Response to George Floyd.” New York Times, 11 Aug. 2020, /www.nytimes.com/2020/08/11/us/george-floyd-body-cam-full-video.html?searchResultPosition=1


“The Woman’s Advocate:” The Vicious Consequences of Beauty Standards

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

The Woman’s Advocate

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

The number drops, but never satisfied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

Striking lights and shooting cameras blind me

As I walk, stop, and turn, my head held high

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

I loved you til the time I turned thirteen

When you pushed pain down my throat; I complied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

Deafening silence, struggling to breathe

But my knees are so weak, shaking mid-stride.

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

You killed my dream, slithering from the tree

I resisted; you persuaded and lied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

I pose for you and the paparazzi

Later, you knock, but it says occupied;

All gone; you are disappointed in me.

But I look so pretty; don’t you agree?


“The Woman’s Advocate:” The Vicious Consequences of Beauty Standards

Society has never been kind to women, and although women have more civil and political rights today than ever before, society has never been more unkind to them. The modern advertising and modeling industry has set impossible expectations for the female appearance, only valuing an hourglass figure, a slim waist, a large bust, and curvy hips. Without these things, a woman, according to beauty standards, is not beautiful, but ugly, worthless and fat, and therefore, she is worthless to society.

“The Woman’s Advocate” is based entirely on this idea of unrealistic beauty standards, as well as their destructive consequences. It is a villanelle composed entirely in iambic pentameter, with variation in metrics, and is formatted into five tercets with a concluding quatrain. The title, “The Woman’s Advocate,” is an ironic reference to the industry itself, with the “woman’s advocate” being not an advocate at all, but a powerful critic that is impossible to please. The title also establishes the ambiguous symbolism of the speaker’s audience, “you.”

Before discussing the smaller literary techniques used in this villanelle, I must first explain the meaning of “you,” which is purposefully left to have ambiguous meaning throughout the poem. There are four “you” meanings, and they are as follows: the first “you” is the physical scale upon which the speaker stands, measuring her weight; the second “you” is society as a whole, along with its beauty standards; the third “you” is the speaker herself, both in the past and in the present; and the fourth “you” is her eating disorder, bulimia. These meanings may appear together or may be difficult to distinguish from one another. This was done purposefully in order to emphasize how interwoven a woman’s sense of self-worth and societal expectations can become, eventually unifying as one. A woman’s own identity and self-esteem may become sp lost in her search for the “perfect body” that she can no longer distinguish society’s criticisms from her own.

This emphasis on appearance is depicted in the two refrain lines. The first line has different literal meanings in the poem, but the words remain exactly the same (except in the concluding quatrain): “I step; you are disappointed, I see.” The phrase “I see” continues to emphasize the value of appearance and the inability to be satisfied with one’s self-image. The second refrain line again emphasizes this inability to be satisfied with diction and a rhetorical question: “I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?” The word “failed” indicates that the speaker tried to be “beautiful” and was unsuccessful, and the rhetorical question emphasizes her need for society’s approval as well as her insecurity.

The first tercet introduces the speaker’s present situation, a situation which she has experienced several times in the past: weighing herself on a scale. The first metrical foot, “I step,” is a spondee, emphasizing the importance of weight. Weight is the only thing left that the speaker has control over, as suggested by the use of the spondee. For the remainder of the line, the speaker retreats into her insecurities and addresses the audience, valuing the audience’s opinion more than her own. This is portrayed through syntax, where the phrase “you are disappointed” is placed before “I see.” The second line of the first tercet, “The number drops, but never satisfied,” is still referring to the physical scale upon which the speaker stands. However, the second phrase, “but never satisfied,” as well as the words “disappointed” and “failed” in the other lines, utilizes diction to emphasize the negative consequences on her mental health. 

The first tercet introduces the topic by combining the past and the present, where the speaker stands on the scale yet again, still unsatisfied with her weight. The second tercet brings the reader to the speaker’s present career: modeling. She is physically walking on a runway, where “striking lights and shooting cameras blind” her as she “walk[s], stop[s], and turn[s], [her] head held high.” The words “striking” and “shooting” use diction to compare the runway to a war scene, also comparing the lethal effects of war to the harmful effects of modeling. The use of alliteration in the second line, “head held high,” emphasizes the irony in this statement. Holding one’s head high typically indicates pride, but the speaker has lost all of her dignity and self-worth, instead holding her head high because she is being paid to, because she must; because she has no choice. She must look pretty and dignified despite having no self-esteem left. The third line of this tercet, the first refrain line, has changed meaning, where instead of stepping on a scale, the speaker is now stepping and walking on a runway stage. Her insecurities have been brought into the open world, for all of society to see, no longer confined to a bathroom. The “you” is not only society and its expectations, but the highest fashion executives, the most critical critics, and the speaker herself. They have melded into one “you,” marking the first instance of identity loss. Their opinion is her opinion.

The third tercet brings the reader into the past, where the speaker reflects on how her insecurities began when she “turned thirteen.” The use of slant rhyme here emphasizes her desire for perfection but being unable to achieve it. The speaker addresses “you” again in the second line of this tercet, saying she stopped loving “you…/When you pushed pain down my throat.” This phrase is an allusion to bulimia, an eating disorder where a person often binge eats and guiltily purges herself after. The alliteration in “pushed pain” emphasizes how harmful and devastating modern beauty standards can be. 

The fourth tercet brings the reader from the past back to the present runway, where the speaker cannot breathe. The oxymoron in the phrase “deafening silence” emphasizes the inner conflicts that the speaker faces, and the en dash at the end of the first line creates a dramatic pause, like she is literally unable to breathe at this moment. This suspenseful effect works in tandem with the synecdoche in the second line, where her weak knees are used to represent her whole body, including her physical and mental state.

The reader is brought to the past once again in the fifth tercet. The speaker accuses “you” of killing her “dream,” a metonymy for her identity, as careers and aspirations are typically closely associated with one’s identity and sense of self. This tercet also employs an allusion to Genesis, where the serpent, “slithering from the tree,” persuades Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, causing her and Adam to be banished from the Garden of Eden. The second line, where the speaker “resisted,” refers to Eve’s initial distrust of the evil serpent but “failed” to resist and succumbed to temptation. The speaker has lost her innocence, just like Adam and Eve. The “you” in this tercet again has double meaning: society’s beauty expectations and the speaker’s personified eating disorder. The en dash at the end of the first line indicates the continuing effects of this evil serpent (to which society and her eating disorder are compared) into the present time.

The concluding quatrain brings together the past and the present, which were broken apart after the first tercet. The speaker is in the present for the first line, “pos[ing] for you and the paparazzi,” and this imagery emphasizes the importance of appearance. She is in both the past and present when she forces herself to vomit in the second and third lines: “Later, you knock, but it says occupied;/All gone; you are disappointed in me.” Here is another allusion to the eating disorder, except now the speaker has nothing left in her stomach. In addition to this literal meaning of the phrase “all gone,” the speaker has figuratively lost all of her own identity. This is further emphasized by the second variation in this refrain line: “I see” has been changed to “in me.” Appearance no longer describes her: it defines her. The last line of the villanelle concludes the poem with the haunting rhetorical question, “But I look so pretty; don’t you agree?” This line again emphasizes the speaker’s insecure need for approval and the high price of appearance.

The concluding quatrain can also be read with a different, more dramatic interpretation. In this second interpretation, “posing” refers to the placement of the speaker’s body in her coffin, and the “paparazzi” refers to the attendees of her funeral. The “knocking” on the “occupied” door is an allusion to her coffin, which is occupied by her body, and the phrase “all gone” indicates that she has died. The disappointment in the third line ironically refers to the glorifying effect after a historical figure dies, where the public has a natural tendency to only remember the good things that person did despite the moral sins or illegal acts they may have committed. In the final line, the speaker’s question, “But I look so pretty, don’t you agree?” is in reference to a dead person’s outfit is typically strategically chosen in order to make the person look better and to send them into the afterlife with good standing. This question is also the most haunting line in the entire poem, where the speaker carries the insecurities about her appearance to her grave, emphasizing how society’s impossible beauty expectations never end, even beyond death.


Less School, More Education: Religious Holidays in American Public Schools

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

This essay was written for WRT 102, Fall 2019.

America was founded by immigrants seeking religious freedom, but the majority of America’s public schools avoid religion in the classroom. With America continuing to become more religiously diverse, religiously-motivated attacks are an unfortunate but frequent topic in the media. Common stories include mass shootings at schools and religious establishments, such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in Pittsburgh, PA in 2018, where a man killed 11 people while “shouting anti-Semitic slurs” (Robertson). But while the media is covering religion on a daily basis, American schools aren’t necessarily opening the discussion to promote an informed and understanding attitude towards religious diversity. It’s impossible to avoid religion altogether with its current representation in the media, making it even more critical for schools to demonstrate tolerance, defined as the “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them,” for all religions (“Tolerance”). Therefore, all American public schools should promote religious diversity and tolerance by having no school on all major religious holidays.

A major component of supporting religious diversity is treating people equally regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. With the majority of current education administrations this is not the case. Most, if not all, American public schools have Easter and Christmas off because they’re both considered major Chirstian holidays (“School Holiday Law and Legal Definition”). However, other religions also have very important holidays, and these religions are not currently being represented in the academic calendar. For example, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha are the most celebrated Muslim holidays, and celebrations often last the entire day (Hill). Very few districts in the United States recognize these holidays despite the growing Muslim population in America (Hill). As Debbie Truong of The Washington Post reported in her 2017 article “In schools, a growing push to recognize Muslim and Jewish holidays,” deciding between school and celebrating holidays is “a struggle diverse communities throughout the country have encountered as they seek to accommodate students from different religious backgrounds” (Truong). As Muslim mother Khadija Athman from Virginia describes, “Eid is like our Christmas… You should be able to practice your religion without having to compete with school” (Truong). In Athman’s district, only Christian and Jewish holidays are recognized (Truong). While it may seem irregular and even inappropriate to have no school on these holidays, it is essentially the same as having no school on Christmas and Easter. Therefore, having days like the Eid holidays off would be progressing towards equality.

Currently, some districts are starting to give more holidays off, and it’s these districts that the rest of American educators need to follow. Due to a local increase in religious diversity, students attending Howard County Public Schools in Maryland have no school on “Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year, and the Hindu holiday of Diwali” (Truong). In highly diverse areas, such as New York City, where Nora Rivera-Larkin, a Stony Brook University creative writing major, attended school, public schools have several major non-Christian holidays off, including Eid, Lunar New Year, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah (Rivera-Larkin). In fact, New York City students “have been given Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah off since the 1960s” (Truong). According to Ms. Rivera-Larkin, “students need these days off for religious and cultural reasons. There’s so much diversity that it would be impossible not to include these holidays without a lot of students missing school on these days” (Rivera-Larkin). Not only does having no school on these days recognize the religious diversity in the student population, but it also reduces absences for both students and teachers.

As many of these major holidays involve elaborate and long celebrations, it’s impossible for students to go to school and observe the holiday at the same time. Ms. Athman’s daughters have to miss school every year to celebrate the Eid holidays, which often means missing a test or other important assignments (Truong). Many students face this same situation every year, such as Hanan Seid of Arlignton, VA, who “would be seized by a familiar anxiety as she approached teachers each year for permission to make up assignments or tests that fell on Eid” (Truong). Students of various religions also face these same issues during their respective holidays, including Yom Kippur and Diwali. Schools often don’t have these days off, either, meaning absences are typically unavoidable. Having these days off would reduce absences for non-Christian students, who would also no longer have to miss tests to observe their holidays.

While more holidays also means extending the school year, adding one holiday for each major religion wouldn’t actually extend the year significantly. For instance, a calendar could realistically have only 8 holidays off in total (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas, Easter, the two Eid holidays, the Eve of Lunar New Year, and Diwali) and still recognize the major religions in the American community. While there are certainly more major holidays (Diwali and Lunar New Year celebrations last up to two weeks), school districts would have to decide individually what holidays to have off.

Making these calendar changes can be expensive, but it’s not as expensive as paying substitutes to cover teachers who have to take a personal day to observe a holiday. According to the “Closing school for the holidays – whose holidays?” article from the 2011 edition of the Phi Delta Kappan education policy journal, “closing schools and adding to the end of the school calendar doesn’t necessarily cost extra money” (Gunther and Purinton). In comparison to paying for substitutes, who cover for teachers who may take personal days to celebrate a holiday, “keeping schools open during a religious holiday can cost significantly, depending on the number of substitutes needed” (Gunther and Purinton). Also, districts may not even have enough substitutes to cover all of the absent teachers, causing loss in learning time for students (Gunther and Purinton). For many schools, it would actually be more financially beneficial to have more holidays off. Furthermore, adding days to the calendar isn’t the only possible solution. In his 2011 Scholastic article “Extending the School Day,” Ron Schachter reports that several American schools are already adding an extra 30-60 minutes to each school day to increase learning time or to make up for snow days (Schachter). In fact, “districts largely prefer the extended day rather than the more expensive extended-year approach” (Schachter). Schools could also take days off from Spring break or reduce the number of early dismissal days. These are just a few possible solutions to the budget increase. 

In addition to the possible financial benefits, promoting religious diversity in schools also helps progress towards a more tolerant community. In Herricks, NY, where Vineeta Abraham, a Stony Brook psychology major, went to high school, the community was very diverse. In her final years there, “students began advocating for more recognition, and [they] ended up having days off for less common holidays such as Diwali and Lunar New Year” (Abraham). While this can be seen as a victory, it also means that the students who celebrate these holidays were not being recognized before and had to fight for equal treatment. In many other districts, according to the director of the Religious Freedom Education project, Charles Haynes, “many minority families and community groups won’t speak up about districts that do not acknowledge their religious holidays. They often assume that they have no right to complain” (Haynes). The lack of equality in both of these situations contradicts major American laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX, which illegalize education and job discrimination based on race, religion, and sex (“Types of Educational Opportunities Discrimination”). American public schools are certainly not exceptions to this rule.

On the opposite side of the equality spectrum, we have the “naked public school,” where all religious references are eliminated in schools entirely. Montgomery County, MD, decided to “strip all religious references from the school calendar” in 2014 after their Muslim community asked for no school on the Eid holidays (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). This is a possible solution, but it’s not the best one because it ignores the issue of student absences on these two major Muslim holidays. Montgomery still has major Jewish and Christian holidays off; the only difference is now, there’s no mention of these holidays by name in the calendar (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). According to Zainab Chaudry, co-chair of the Coalition for Eid in Montgomery, by asking for the Eid holidays off, Muslim students were “not seeking special rights,” but “seeking equal rights” (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). The district’s education administration made no progress towards equal treatment by becoming a “naked public school.” A truly equal “naked public school” would have no religious holidays off, including Christmas and Easter.

Ignoring religion completely is not the best solution. However, districts like Montgomery are still transitioning into naked public schools, which have gained popularity in the last half century due to Engel v. Vitale, a landmark Supreme Court case in 1962 where the Supreme Court ruled that religion cannot be promoted by public schools (Darko). This may be the preferred solution for atheists and agnostics, who do not practice religion at all and may even criticize it. However, the ultimate goal is tolerance of religion, especially to the point where a calm, open discussion doesn’t evolve into a heated argument. This cannot be achieved in a naked public school if there’s no discussion at all. According to education experts Steven Brookfield and Steven Preskill, authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching, conversation stimulates education, especially when it comes to controversial topics like religion (Brookfield and Preskill 21-22). Many American educators agreed, releasing a set of guidelines titled, “Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers” in the 1990 edition of the Journal of Law and Religion, stating that “recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings… this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”). If these guidelines are followed, education can promote religious tolerance without offending someone or promoting worship.

Currently, American public schools don’t educate their students about religion enough. The American high school curriculum includes global studies classes where students are taught the foundations of different religions, and these foundations are certainly part of a well-rounded education. The most recent AP World History: Modern curriculum includes a unit that focuses on how “the development of ideas, beliefs, and religions illustrates how groups in society view themselves,” but the “religion” part only extends to the foundations and does not discuss modern religious practices (“AP World History: Modern Course Exam and Description”). Yet while it’s important to understand the foundational concepts of religions, it’s equally as important to know how those foundations influence modern-day practices.

While American educators have agreed that “schools may neither promote nor denigrate any religion, they also agreed that religion is “an important part of a complete education ” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”; Haynes). To achieve this complete education, schools must also include modern religious practices, not just outdated ones. Modern religion is not currently taught in American public schools because doing so would likely pose several challenges, including how to deal with atheists, agnostics, students’ criticism, and those offended by certain aspects of different religions; how to avoid sugar-coating the heavily-criticized practices; and how teachers can maintain their own personal beliefs while abstaining from projecting those beliefs onto their students. These challenges are significant reasons why modern religion is not currently taught in schools, and there may be no singular solution for all of them. However, having more religious holidays off would, at minimum, contribute to resolving these issues because all students would be treated equally regardless of their religion.

Like any other sizable achievement, turning America into a country whose tolerance level reflects its large diversity will take time, and the first step must come from the education system. Nearly two decades after the September 11th attacks, America still suffers from religiously-motivated attacks such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in 2018. More and more religious disputes are happening every day, and they will not go away until students are taught to view religious diversity not as something negative and scary, but as something welcomed and accepted. This can only happen if American school districts start promoting religious tolerance instead of treating it as a social barrier. More religious holidays on the academic calendar are critical to this transformation. When America achieves this, perhaps the younger generations of Americans can then start repairing the gaping wound that religious intolerance has created.


Works Cited

Abraham, Vineeta. Personal Interview. 16 October 2019.

“AP World History: Modern Course Exam and Description.” College Board, 2019. https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/ap-world-history-modern-course-and-exam-description_0.pdf. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Brookfield, Steven, and Steven Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching. 2nd ed., John Wiley and Sons, 2005. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Darko, Jeffrey. “Engel v. Vitale.” American Experience, PBS, 22 June 2017, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/engel-v-vitale/. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Gunther, Vicki, and Ted Purinton. “Closing School for the Holidays — Whose Holidays?” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 93, no. 4, 2011, pp. 33–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23056881. Accessed 7 October 2019.

Haynes, Charles C. “Religious Liberty in Public Schools.” Freedom Forum Institute, First Amendment Center, 8 Nov. 2002, http://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-religion/religious-liberty-in-public-schools/. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Hill, Margaret. “Holidays in the Public Schools: Ramadan.” The California Three R’s Project, 2016, http://ca3rsproject.org/pdfs/RamadanResources.pdf. Accessed 12 November 2019.

“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar.” The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, 14 Nov. 2014, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/when-religious-observances-become-school-holidays. Accessed 9 October 2019.

“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 8, no. 1/2, 1990, pp. 313–317. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1051288. Accessed 7 October 2019.

Rivera-Larkin, Nora. Personal Interview. 16 October 2019.

Roberston, Campbell. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged with 29 Counts.” The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html. Accessed 9 November 2019.

Schachter, Ron. “Extending the School Day.” Scholastic Administrator, 2011, http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3755837. Accessed 20 November 2019.

“School Holiday Law and Legal Definition.” US Legal, https://definitions.uslegal.com/s/school-holiday/. Accessed 30 October 2019.

“Tolerance.” Cambridge Dictionary, 2019, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/tolerance. Accessed 20 November 2019.

Truong, Debbie. “In Schools, a Growing Push to Recognize Muslim and Jewish Holidays.” The Washington Post, 4 Dec. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/in-schools-a-growing-push-to-recognize-muslim-and-jewish-holidays/2017/12/04/0674f9fe-d393-11e7-95bf-df7c19270879_story.html. Accessed 9 October 2019.

“Types of Educational Opportunities Discrimination.” Justice.gov, The United States Department of Justice, 15 Oct. 2019, https://www.justice.gov/crt/types-educational-opportunities-discrimination. Accessed 30 October 2019.


Where WGSS Stands Right Now

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

This short essay was written for WST 103, Spring 2020.

At first, WGSS (Women’s and Gender Studies) may seem like an irrelevant waste of time and resources. But it’s actually one of the few fields out there that can truly help us solve the numerous complex social, political, and economic issues that plague all modern societies. Because it challenges traditional ways of thinking and stereotypes ingrained in our ways of life, WGSS is now more relevant than ever, and it must continue to be available so that our students can learn the crucial critical thinking skills needed to succeed in today’s work environment.

Modern technology has certainly made it more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, and even fact from fact. We so often immediately believe what we see to be true that we fail to recognize the underlying factors that complicate what is actually factual. For instance, the epistemologies in America are quite Euro-centric; even our World History classes involve an American activity or perspective in some way. We accept this because we are raised with it. But there are countless other frameworks at play, such as socially constructed gender norms, institutionalized racism and xenophobia, and even traditionally unnoticed ableism. 

Studying the intersectionality of these issues is essential to understanding how to solve them. For example, as Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues in “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation,” one simply cannot analyze race and gender as entirely separate categories. They continuously influence each other, especially in the United States, which has a high degree of national diversity. They also affect social and economic structures, as Angela Davis points out in “Population Control and Reproductive Rights:” “Inside the United States today, enormous numbers of people of color—and especially racially oppressed youth—have become part of a pool of permanently unemployed workers” (Davis). To fight issues such as poverty, homelessness, workplace sexual harassment and abuse, immigration rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, we must study and analyze these fields together.


Works Cited

Davis, Angela. “Reproductive Rights.” An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World, edited by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006, pp. 103-107.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 52-72.