Links Across Topics

Laurie and Debbie say:

This link selection covers intersexuality, clothes sizes, and neuroscience. We couldn’t resist long quotations from all three of the articles.


This excellent article is from the New York Times, so registration may be required. It details the history of Cheryl Chase, intersexuality activist. In telling her personal story, it also gives the history of intersexuality activism in our time, and makes it surpassingly clear that a single person can make an extraordinary difference in how the world sees an issue.

Chase, an extremely ambitious, focused and analytical individual, decided it was time to heal herself, and she gave herself a year. As part of that project, she moved to San Francisco and started calling and writing to doctors, academics and gender activists — anybody who might have something concrete to say about the predicament of being born part male, part female, or who might be able to tell her why it had been necessary to have her clitoris removed and if she’d be able to get any sexual function back.

Thirteen years later, Chase … is known throughout the urology and endocrinology establishment as a passionate advocate for the rights of those born with ambiguous genitals, and she has succeeded in stirring a contentious debate among those doctors over how intersex babies should be treated.

When Chase began her activism, more than a decade ago, few doctors were open to her ideas about the way intersex babies should be treated. … She organized a picket of a pediatric convention; she sneaked into medical conferences and buttonholed attendees. In 2000, however, the esteemed Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society finally invited her to speak, and [Chase] now receives and solicits speaking engagements from groups of all kinds. She addresses nurses’ associations, doctors, medical students, anybody who will listen.

Chase paused, struggling to empathize with a mother unable to raise a child because of the size of that child’s clitoris. Chase has spent her adult life explaining why such a position is unethical. The logic she has constructed is nearly unassailable. Yet for most of us, Chase’s thinking is emotionally difficult to embrace. For starters, we tend not to be very rational when it comes to our children and to our genitals. Complicating matters, in treating intersex, as opposed to, say, a heart condition, what feels best for the parent in the short term may not turn out to be what is best for the child over time. Finally, parents feel entitled to make decisions based on the (sometimes false) sense that they know what’s right for their families, and the reality is that in the case of intersex children, the right treatment for one child, or even the majority of children, will not be the right treatment for all.


Jennifer Ouellette at 3 Quarks Daily takes on the fashion industry, specifically how it manages clothes sizes.

Apparently, it’s true: women’s clothing sizes in the US are being progressively “down-sized,” so that what was a size 8 in 1990 is now a size 6, and so on. One assumes the strategy works — unless you happen to work in the fashion industry and are hip to the Big Lie. However, I doubt there’s a broad master conspiracy afoot in fashion circles, with a secret cabal of sadistic, fat-loathing-yet-greedy designers reaching a consensus on what the new sizes will be and then foisting them on an unsuspecting public. I think it’s far more complicated than that.

My closet contains items ranging from extra small to large, and from size 4 to 8. … No doubt some larger people out there read “size 4 jeans” and immediately thought, “Shut up, skinny bitch! Stop complaining! What do you know about our pain?” I deliberately mentioned my specific sizes to elicit just such a reaction, in order to make my next point: I do feel that same kind of pain. The deeper, underlying issue at work here is our society’s unrealistic expectations regarding what a woman’s body “should” look like.

At least a solution to the practical issues concerning clothing sizes might be within reach, with the emergence of 3D full-body scanners that can take very precise body measurements. … Apparel product development specialist Lenda Jo Connell of Auburn University is part of a collaboration that uses 3D body scanners to study the shapes of American women. (The research is sponsored in part by JC Penney, Target and Jockey.) Over the last two years, she has scanned more than 6000 women, and found that only 8.4% of them had the standard hourglass shape. In fact, it’s the shape women are least likely to have. We are far more likely to have bodies in the shape of a rectangle, spoon, or inverted triangle (yours truly). It’s hardly shocking to be told that the fashion industry is out of touch with what “real” woman look like, but now we have some solid scientific data to back us up.

There’s lots more here, and it’s all this good.


If you happen to believe in the “differences” between male and female brains, we recommend Mark Liberman’s spectacular dissection of one aspect of a recent book on the subject on the blog Language Log.

So let’s sum up. Of the five references that Brizendine provides for this passage, two … have no connection whatever to its content; one … is vaguely relevant but does not directly address anything that she says, and is a small study with very complex and hard-to-interpret results; and two … directly contradict either the letter or the spirit of her assertions.

Coming at it from the other side, let’s list the seven assertions in this short passage that are susceptible to empirical test:

1. Some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men
2. Women, on average, talk and listen a lot more than men
3. On average girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys
4. Young girls speak earlier and by the age of twenty months have double or triple the number of words in their vocabularies than do boys
5. Boys eventually catch up in their vocabulary
6. But not in speed.
7. Girls speak faster on average — 250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males.

Point #1 is contradicted by one of the references she cites, and none of the other assertions are addressed one way or the other. I’m quite certain, based on results from other studies discussed here, that point #7 is spectacularly false, and point #6 as well; and I’m also fairly certain that points #2 and #3 are false.

Overall, none of the seven factual assertions in this passage is supported by the references that she provides for it. One of the assertions is contradicted by a reference she gives, and four seem to be contradicted by studies she doesn’t cite. Two of the seven assertions seem to be true, based on research that she doesn’t cite (at least not in support of this passage).

This pattern of disconnection between assertions and cited science is not what I expect from a book with “80 pages of notes and references supporting 190 pages of text”, written by a professor at UCSF, one of the world’s foremost biomedical research institutions. But I’m afraid it seems to be all too common in what Leonard Sax calls “the emerging science of sex differences.

Liberman provides lots of very specific data to back up his analysis. Read the whole thing … and give it to anyone who tells you that brains are gendered.

Pointers in order from Stef, Alan Bostick, and Lori S.

intersexuality, Cheryl Chase, fashion, women’s clothes, body scan, size acceptance, neuroscience, brain, The Female Brain, junk science, gender, Body Impolitic