I am Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at UCLA. I am the author of What's Wrong with Fat? (2013, Oxford University Press) and What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (2003, University of California Press). My teaching and research interests include gender, culture, the body, politics, law and public health.
I have a longstanding interest in how cultural schemas shape power relations and how subordinate groups are sometimes able to create new cultural meaning to increase their control. I have pursued these interests through my comparative research on sexual harassment definitions and on framing contests over fatness. In these “hot” or highly contested topics, social actors make their cultural assumptions explicit, making them ideally suited to cultural analysis. In my work, I use multiple methods and cross-national, cross-issue, and cross-institutional comparisons.
In recent years, the “obesity epidemic” has emerged as a top public health concern in the United States and abroad. Scholars, journalists, and politicians alike are scrambling to find answers. What or who is responsible for this crisis and what can be done to stop it? In contrast, in What's Wrong with Fat? (WWwF?) I argue that these fraught debates obscure more important sociological questions: How has fatness come to be understood as a public health crisis at all? Why has the view of fatness as a medical problem and public health crisis come to dominate more positive framings of weight – as consistent with health, beauty, or a legitimate rights claim—in public discourse? Why are heavy individuals singled out for blame? And what are the consequences of understanding weight in these ways?
Building on WWwF?, I have conducted a series of ongoing experments with David Frederick (Psychology, Chapman University) that examine the effect of reading different news articles about body weight have on attitudes about health, health policy, and weight-based prejudice.
In a collaboration with French sociologists Henri Bergeron and Patrick Castell, I am investigating the extent to which frames shape policy, focusing specifically on the case of French obesity policy.
In What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne, I point to dissimilarities between key institutions in each country and the ways in which these institutions interact. I show that, while feminists in both the U.S. and France struggled for sexual harassment laws, they encountered distinct legal resources. American feminists inherited civil rights laws and jurisprudence, which enabled (and constrained) them to argue that sexual harassment was a form of workplace discrimination, punishable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In contrast, French feminists could not build on a similar legal tradition, as discrimination laws there were weak, but could and did build on existing sexual violence laws to define sexual harassment as a misdemeanor in the Penal Code. Once sexual harassment was inscribed in law, legal definitions shaped corporate responses, individual understandings, and mass media representations of sexual harassment, although often in surprising ways.
I have recently extended my work on sexual harassment in a collaboration with Amy Denissen (CSUN), which examined how straight women and lesbians in male-dominated trades resist and respond to sexism and harassment on the part of their male coworkers. I am also currently exploring how European law has changed legal approaches to sexual harassment in France since 2002.
Another ongoing project examines how the narrative of “coming out” has travelled beyond U.S. gay rights politics and diffused to France (with Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer) and used by various other groups in the U.S., including fat women (with Anna Ward), fat admirers, people with gay parents (with Rebecca DiBennardo), women in polygamous marriages (with Nicole Iturriaga), and undocumented students (with Laura Enriquez, UCIrvine).
Finally, in my newest research project, with Juliet Williams (UCLA Gender Studies), I am examining how the meaning of the term "gender neutrality" has changed since it was first coined in the 1970s to promote gender equality to its current mobilization in support of transgender rights.