BBH146 Human Healthy and Sexuality Project

Does This Ad Make Me Look Sexy?

Gender vs. sex. Masculine vs. feminine. Can we always identify these in the media? Students from BBH146: Intro to Human Health & Sexuality were asked to do just that; critically, reflectively, and creatively investigate and analyze the media rather than simply absorb it at face value.
By: Rachel Olszewski

“Sex is a system of classification based on a combination of biological and physiological factors, generally male or female. Gender refers to the cultural meaning that is ascribed to a person's sex, generally masculine or feminine,” explained Biobehavioral Health Lecturer, Sarah Luvender. “Masculinity and femininity are the terms that are often used to identify a set of characteristics, values, and meanings related to gender. In our society, the values tied to masculinity have been generally seen as superior to those associated with femininity.”

Students in Luvender’s BBH146 class, Introduction to Human Health & Sexuality were given the task of working, with Luvender and Student Engagement and Outreach Librarian, Megan Mac Gregor, to deconstruct, analyze, and reflect upon the media images and messages that they are bombarded by on a daily basis.

“From an early age, children are socialized and encouraged to perform specific gender roles and conform to gender roles,” said Luvender. “The repetition of gendered narratives and images in media has helped to shape these cultural norms around what it means to be a man or a woman, masculine or feminine.”

Luvender and Mac Gregor had six goals for the students: understand the difference between sex and gender, understand gender as a social construct, learn to view the media through critical lenses, make connections between sexism and homophobia, think critically about penalties for defying gender norms, and consider the impact of advertising on self-esteem, development and decision making.

“I've always loved the interesting power play between what advertisements say you must be or have, and what the reality looks like,” described Mac Gregor. “So if you're a cisgender man who doesn't like cars, tobacco and wrist watches, are you still a "man?" Originally, I was thinking of doing a display with advertisements for October since its LGBTQ month and gender as performance vs sex is a big part of that discussion. When I heard that Sarah was going to be teaching a class on sex and gender, I thought it would be a great opportunity for students to get involved and to participate in the discussion, learning about how advertising has shaped our ideas about gender.”

The class was divided into four groups: Team He-Man (highly masculine driven), Team High-Femme (highly feminine driven) and Team Every Woman & Man (this was initially two separate groups but combined as they begin to see parallels in their research).

Students in BBH146 present their findings on reality vs. media portrayals

Credit: Penn State

“I was on Team He-Man, and I found it interesting to hear the concerns from the males in my group,” stated Communication Sciences & Disorders major, Mary Wychock. “I feel as though women’s mental health and body image problems are always prioritized in society as opposed to men's mental health and body image problems. I'm very into making sure that everyone is comfortable with themselves, because in order to love yourself you need to be comfortable with who you are. This assignment taught me that I want to fight more for equal advocacy for body image for all types of people; males, females, transgender.”

During a presentation of their findings, Luvender asked students to think about activities they do that may not be associated with their gender. Male students gave answers such as facials, sewing and cooking. Female students’ examples included weight lifting and working on cars.

“When we first started the assignment, I felt like it was just another project about how men and women are sexualized in the media,” said Business major, Jesse Macko. “As the project progressed however, I learned that the project was more about how media stereotypes men and women in the media as well as the benefits and consequences of not following the standards created by advertisements.”