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What Your Yearbook Photo Says About Your Gender

My students looked a little funny this morning. Nails were brighter, curls were bouncier, rumples were sparser and a few young men even sported ties. Today was senior portrait day, and some of my 17 and 18-year-olds had primped a bit to optimize the images that would immortalize them in the high school yearbook.

But not everyone had primped, and the girls’ outfits were just as casual as usual. Why so? “They tell us we have to wear tank tops,” one young woman reported. “They give us a thing to put over our heads that makes it look like we’re wearing a shoulder-baring dress.”                           

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years of how gender identity is instilled in young children and how to avoid passing down gender stereotypes to your pre-schoolers. But you don’t read a lot about the creation and policing of gender among adolescents at the cusp of adulthood. So I was amazed and chagrined this morning when I caught wind of the instructions my students had for how to prepare for their senior portraits.

Here are the directions for the womenpardon me, “ladies”:

Ladies: Please prepare yourself as if you were going to your senior prom. This means that your hair (do not try a new hairstyle, i.e. if you rarely straighten your hair, don’t do it for the photo), nails, makeup, eyebrows, etc. should all be done. Remember, the photo will only look as good as you do. Please dress professionally (this means a nice blouse or button down as you will have additional photos taken at no cost if you do so). Please wear a tank top beneath your attire as the yearbook photo will require you to have bare shoulders. (if for religious purposes, you cannot show your shoulders, please wear black attire including any head covering).”

Notice of a couple of things off the bat:

1. Assumptions. The photographer assumes that his female subjects wear makeup and “do” their nails and eyebrows. He then instructs them to make sure they are “done” for the photo shoot. He also assumes that there is an uncomplicated norm for how ladies should prepare themselves for attending a senior prom.

2. Bare shoulders are a must. They are “required.” No deviation from this rule is allowed unless, for religious reasons, modesty precludes your assent. This means that a girl without religious scruples but who prefers to wear something else, or doesn’t want to expose her shoulders to the world, is out of luck. It also requires that every young woman appearing in the yearbook with covered shoulders is, literally, forced to wear her religion on her sleeve.   

3. Black is the new black. 

So what about the young men? Standards of beauty are latent in their instruction card as well, but the straitjacket permits more wiggle room:

Gentlemen: A haircut & shave is highly recommended the evening before your photo session. Your hands will show in some of the photos, so please trim your nails. Please wear a fitted & ironed shirt & tie on the date of your appointment. A jacket is optional but highly recommended.”

No stubble, gentleboys, and no cultivated facial hair. No loose or rumpled shirts. Keep your look clean-shaven and scrub behind your ears. But notice how much freer the boys are in their choice of outfits. The color of the shirt and tie are up to them, and they can even choose whether to wear a jacket or not.

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It is hard to believe these photographic norms fly in an elite liberal New York City high school in the second decade of the 21st century. Some students thought the instructions were annoyingly conformist, but no official protests were voiced, no op-eds penned in the student newspaper.

This brings us back to the gender performance theory of feminist scholar Judith Butler, who gave an interview to Big Think a couple of years ago:

It’s one thing to say that gender is performed and that is a little different from saying gender is performative.  When we say gender is performed we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role or we’re acting in some way and that our acting or our role playing is crucial to the gender that we are and the gender that we present to the world.  To say that gender is performative is a little different because for something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.

I was walking down the street in Berkeley when I first arrived several years ago and a young woman who was I think in high school leaned out of her window and she yelled, “Are you a lesbian?”, and she was looking to harass me or maybe she was just freaked out or she thought I looked like I probably was one or wanted to know and I thought to myself well I could feel harassed or stigmatized, but instead I just turned around and I said yes I am and that really shocked her.

We act as if that being of a man or that being of a women is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us, a fact about us, but actually it’s a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time, so to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.

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