***** Copyright 1994 by Becky Mulvaney *****
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Gender Differences in Communication: An Intercultural Experience
Becky Michele Mulvaney
Department of Communication
Florida Atlantic University
A catalog which recently arrived at my house advertises T-
shirts and bumperstickers popularizing the words of feminist
scholars Cheris Kramarae & Paula Treichler: "Feminism is the
radical notion that women are people."(1) Indeed, sometimes I
think we've spent the last two millennia making that notion
acceptable. Now, as the 20th century ends, we may be at the
point of completing a first step for women--that first step has
been a difficult, long-term struggle toward acceptance of women
Yet history demonstrates that legal personhood does not
necessarily result in comparable/equal treatment. That is,
women, like so many other groups, have gained legal rights only
to face less institutional, perhaps more subtle but insidious
forms of discrimination. In this time when political,
educational, and social discussions center on issues of diversity
and of creating a constructive, multi-cultural society, it may
be helpful to examine problems in communication between the
genders as a cultural issue. This is not the only, the right,
or the best way of examining gender and communication, but it
does offer an alternative framework for analysis, one that
perhaps defuses the potential for offensive and/or defensive
posturing when discussing gender.
Hence, in this presentation I argue that it is both useful
and appropriate to view gender communication as a form of
intercultural communication. First, I offer a brief primer on
gender differences in communication with primary emphasis on
examples that illustrate how gender is both an influence on and a
product of communication. In short, this discussion highlights
the primary role played by communication in gender issues.
Second, I offer descriptions of some salient elements of
intercultural communication and I illustrate how gender
communication is a form of intercultural communication. Finally,
I will apply advice on how to develop effective intercultural
communication skills to the situation of gender communication.
During our discussion period, I hope that you, the audience (the
true experts on gender communication issues and the librarian)
will provide examples of problems and/or possible solutions
related directly to the practicing librarian.
Overview on Gender and Communication
Two assumptions from communication theory (both classical
and contemporary theories) help situate my overview on gender and
communication. First, communication is epistemic. That is,
communication is the medium by which we come to know things
(Protagoras argued that absolute truth was inaccessible to
humans; hence, truth had to be established by human standards
[doxa]. Similarly, contemporary rhetorical theorists argue that
truth is socially constructed through language and other symbol
systems).(2) For example, it was through scientific discourse
(rhetoric) that people came to view the universe as earth-
centered. Human acceptance of this narrative was so strong that
Galileo, in positing that the universe is sun-centered, was
placed under house arrest.
My second assumption about communication is that it is
axiological. That is, communication is value-laden. Virtually
all communication theorists agree that language is subjective.
All communication makes claims and takes stances. And some
theorists, such as Weaver, Eubanks, and Winterowd would argue
that no language is neutral.(3) Indeed, any use of
communication exhibits an attitude, and an attitude implies an
act, and all human actions have moral consequences. Hence,
communication entails moral repsonsibility.
The significance of communication practices in shaping our
lives is no less important in the arena of gender and
communication. In fact, Laurie Arliss argues that "communication
is thought to be, at once, the process by which we learn to be
male or female, and the product of our attempts to behave sex
appropriately."(4) In describing feminist criticism,
rhetorical critic Sonja Foss posits that "Its focus is on a
fundamental element of human life--gender--and it is dramatically
changing the form and content of knowledge about rhetoric."(5)
That is, gender is both an influence on and a product of
communication. Let me provide a few illustrations.
From a very early age, males and females are taught
different linguistic practices. Communicative behaviors that are
acceptable for boys, for example, may be considered completely
inappropriate for girls. Hence, the body of research on women
and language reveals that women experience linguistic
discrimination in two ways: in the way they are taught to use
language, and in the way general language usage treats them.(6)
So, for example, women reflect their role in the social order by
adopting linguistic practices such as using tag questions,
qualifiers, and fillers to soften their messages. Likewise,
traditionally women were identified by their association with
men, and we know that occupational titles indicated which jobs
were "for men" and which were "for women." While much
has changed today, our society retains a tendency to imply that
maleness, after all, is the standard for normalcy (a female
physician may still be referred to as a "woman doctor," and
a female committee chair may be called the "chair" or the
"chairperson," a male in that role will more likely be called
"chairman").(7) What we are taught about gender, then, is
reflected in our language usage.
Communicative practices not only reflect notions about
gender, but they also create cultural concepts of gender.
Message sources privileged by society as legitimate knowledge
generators create a web of socially compelling discourses. Thus,
religious, mythic, philosophic, and scientific discourses teach
us, among other things, about society's values and rules related
to gender. It is no accident, then, that American myths focus on
the active male and the supporting female, or that Plato defined
women as "lesser men," or that Aristotle described women as
deformity, a misbegotten male," or that St. Thomas Aquinas argued
that god should not have created women, or that craniologists of
the nineteenth century argued that women's smaller heads
justified their subordinate position in society (thus initiating
all the "pretty little head" rhetoric about women), or that
believed women had "little sense of justice," and so on.(8)
The rhetorical force of myths in constructing powerful
worldviews is, frankly, awesome. As Eward Said explained:
There are no innocent, no unideological myths, just as there
are no "natural" myths. Every myth is a manufactured
object, and it is the inherent bad faith of a myth to seem,
or rather to pretend, to be a fact.(9)
Similarly, religious myths seem to be especially potent narrative
forms of rhetoric. Religion "legitimates so effectively because
it relates the precarious reality constructions of empirical
societies with ultimate reality."(10) All these privileged
discourses, I would argue, create a web of meaning, a socially
constructed worldview that historically has excluded or made
secondary the experience of certain groups of people.
In addition, mass mediated messages offer the most
contemporary, powerful, technologically and rhetorically
sophisticated strategies for shaping cultural reality.
The beauty, diet, and advertising industries are the most
obvious, best researched examples of contemporary, self-conscious
myth-makers who control cultural concepts (and acceptable images)
of gender (of what it takes and means to be male or female,
masculine or feminine).(11) Consider the myriad of mass
mediated communication forms available now, as we enter the
twenty-first century--from the now simplistic printing press to
the information superhighway and beyond. The opportunities for
generating (and receiving) mass mediated messages is staggering.
So too is the opportunity for abuse.
Communication, then, is of central concern when addressing
gender issues. Rhetorical messages in large part determine what
we consider knowledge, what knowledge we privilege, and what
values we espouse. Furthermore, the role of culture in
communication practices directs us to an intercultural
perspective on gender and communication.
Intercultural communication, defined by Richard Porter and
Larry Samovar as occurring "whenever a message producer is a
member of one culture and a message receiver is a member of
another," has been of interest to communication scholars since
the 1960s.(12) Literature on intercultural communication
often includes discussion of subcultures ("a racial, ethnic,
regional, economic, or social community exhibiting characteristic
patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others
within an embracing culture or society") or cocultures (an
alternative term for subcultures adopted by Judy Pearson so as
not to imply inferiority in relation to the dominant
society).(13) Pearson defines co-cultures as "groups of persons
united by a common element who live in a culture operating within
a dominant culture."(14) Communication practices by and about
women clearly fit definitions of both subcultures and co-
cultures. Furthermore, communication between the sub or co-
culture and the dominant culture represents a form of
intercultural communication. Scholars in this area often
begin their discussions by identifying the main characteristics
of intercultural communication. For example, Samovar and Porter
identify what they call the "constituent parts of intercultural
communication." (15) Dorothy Penington calls such elements
"significant cultural components."(16) For the purposes of
illustration, I will describe three elements of intercultural
communication common to most discussions. Then, I will provide
examples from gender communication to demonstrate how the
intercultural communication framework is useful to us.
Worldview, language, and nonverbal communication
(particularly the use of space and/or time) are often identified
as important elements of intercultural communication. Worldview
refers to a "culture's orientation toward such things as God,
humanity, nature, the universe, and the other philosophical
issues that are concerned with the concept of being."(17) An
example often used is a comparison between Euro-American and
Native American relationships to nature. While the Native
American views the human relationship to nature as one of unity
(being at one with nature), the Euro-American views the world as
human-centered. Rhetorical forms such as religious,
philosophical, and scientific discourses work to create a
coherent world view for a culture.
Language is another significant element of intercultural
Language is the medium through which a culture expresses its
world view. . . . Like culture in general, language is learned
and it serves to convey thoughts; in additionit transmits values,
beliefs, perceptions, norms, and so on.(18)
The importance of language to intercultural communication is most
obvious when cultures speak different languages. Yet,
differences in meaning across culture can be just as significant
when each culture uses the same language. If a British native
tells her American friend to put the bags in the boot, the
American may not know to place them in the trunk of the car.
While this is an obvious example, Porter and Samovar point out
Objects, events, experiences, and feelings have a particular
label or name solely because a community of people have
arbitrarily decided to so name them.
Language serves both as a mechanism for communication and as
a guide to social reality.(19)
Finally, nonverbal communicative behavior, such as concepts
of time or the use of space, differ widely from culture to
culture. For example, proxemics, the study of "the way in which
people use space as a part of interpersonal communication,"
recognizes that "people of different cultures do have different
ways in which they relate to one another spatially."(20)
Furthermore, the use of space helps define social relationships
and social hierarchies.(21) A father traditionally sits at the
head of the table in Western cultures, thus signifying his
primary role in patriarchal societies. Similarly, we all know
that a supervisor will exhibit a more relaxed posture than a
subordinate, or that Arabs stand very close when conversing.
Worldview, language usage, and proxemics are three
constituents of intercultural communication which we can easily
apply to communication between the genders (I believe other
constituents could easily be applied as well, but I will focus on
three typical elements due to time constraints).
Gender Communication as Intercultural Communication
The constituents of intercultural communication as
identified by scholars such as Porter, Samovar, and Penington are
points at which significant differences may occur in
communication patterns, habits, and traditions across cultures.
Occurrences of differences at these points suggest we are dealing
with intercultural communication. Differences in worldview,
language usage, and proxemics between the genders are three
points of difference which suggest that gender communication is a
form of intercultural communication.
Although explanations vary widely, many feminist scholars
have described the female worldview as significantly different
from the male worldview. Carol Gilligan, arguing from a
psychological perspective, states that "female identity revolves
around interconnectedness and relationship." Conversely, she
argues that male identity "stresses separation and
independence."(22) And many feminist scholars, in examining
the current and historical roles of women in religion, have
resurrected religious practices which predate Judeo-Christian
traditions and which better speak to notions of spirituality that
reflect female experiences. Hence, in describing ancient goddess
religions as well as contemporary practices of them, scholars
note that in goddess mythology the goddess is the world (instead
of a mythology which places god above or apart from the
world).(23) Goddess metaphysics, if you will, creates a
worldview in which the earth and nature are respected, not
dominated. So, differences between female and male worldviews,
like differences between Asian and American worldviews or
European and Native American worldviews, may significantly affect
In fact, it is difficult to discuss differences in
worldviews without talking about language, since our view of the
world is expressed through language and other symbol systems.
Deborah Tannen, in her book You Just Don't Understand: Women and
Men in Communication, argues that "communication between men and
women can be like cross cultural communication, prey to a clash
of conversational styles."(24) This is due, at least in part, to
differences in the way men and women generally look at the world.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that women see talk as the
essence of a relationship while men use talk to exert
control, preserve independence, and enhance status.(25) The
ways in which concepts of social relationships (and their
accompanying communication patterns) differ between genders are
parallel to gender differences in worldview.
Language also reflects differences in social status between
genders. Research on gender and language reveals that female
language strategies invariably emulate the subordinate,
nonaggressive role of women in Western society. And, language
about women does no better, as suggested earlier in this paper.
Differences in language usage and worldview are woven
together and difficult to separate. And, nonverbal behavior is
another form of "language" which demonstrates differences between
men and women. Our earlier example of proxemics offers
considerable evidence that gender communication is a form of
"Space is a primary means by which a culture designates who
is important, who has privilege."(26) Differences in the amount
of space given to and taken by women and men reflect societal
gender roles. So, women are less likely than men to have their
own private space within the family home. And, in the workplace,
employees in the traditionally female role, secretary, generally
have a smaller space than the employee in the traditionally male
role, executive.(27) Responses to invasion of space also differ
between men and women. While men may respond aggressively, women
tend to yield space rather than challenge the intruder.(28)
These are but a few examples of the ways in which
differences in communication between the genders fit categories
of primary elements in intercultural communication. The point is
that these differences can create problems in communication.
Julia Wood devotes a whole chapter of her book Gendered Lives to
the ways in which these problems are manifest in the educational
system. We might assume too that the same problems are likely to
visit the university library as well. An abridged list of the
concerns Woods discusses includes issues familiar to us all:
lack of female role models, curricular content which
misrepresents white men as standard and renders women invisible,
biased communication in the classroom (in both student-faculty
and student-counselor communication women are not taken
Woods, at the end of her chapter on gender and communication
in the school setting, calls for programs which would increase
sensitivity to gender.(30) But she fails to provide specific
advice. By looking at these problems via the intercultural
communication perspective, we can outline specific behaviors
which may improve communication between genders.
Guidelines for Improving Communication Between the Genders
In intercultural communication, identifying problem areas
can also help us learn to avoid them. These problem areas can be
applied to gender communication as well. Laray Barna identifies
six stumbling blocks in intercultural communication: (1) assumed
similarity, (2) language, (3) nonverbal misinterpretations, (4)
preconceptions and stereotypes, (5) tendency to evaluate, and (6)
This last stumbling block, high anxiety, occurs when people
are completely separated from their own culture, and usually does
not apply to gender communication (except, perhaps, in overtly
abusive situations or highly sex-segregated societies).
Awareness of the other five stumbling blocks, however, can be
useful in improving our gender communication.
By learning not to assume that men and women are the same,
we can become more sensitive to the fact that men and women's
values and goals may differ, and generally their verbal and
nonverbal language will vary as well. Conversely, awareness of
societal preconceptions and stereotypes which portray the other
sex as "different," or "opposite," can help us avoid
stereotypes. That is, although there may be cultural differences
between the sexes, it is not productive to assume that all men
love sports anymore than it is contructive to assume that all
Irish consume extraordinary amounts of alcohol.
The tendency to evaluate another's culture as inferior to
our own is perhaps the most difficult stumbling block to avoid,
especially when applying it to gender communication. So, instead
of becoming annoyed by a male's aggressive communication style,
we should recognize that it is a style which is as much a part of
his identity as an ethnic cuisine or a religious tradition is
part of a culture. The task in improving intercultural
communication is awareness and respect rather than evaluation.
In this presentation, I hope to have offered an overview of
the signicant role communication plays in contemporary gender
issues. Furthermore, the communication perspective allows us to
examine gender communication as a form of intercultural
communication. Guidelines from the discipline of intercultural
communication, I believe, may be useful in improving gender
communication in the library setting. I hope that in our
discussion period we may explore some of the ways in which the
librarian may apply these guidelines.
(1) _Northern Sun Merchandising: Products For The Progressive_
(Minneapolis, Minn., Spring/Summer, 1994). Kramarae and
Treichler are communication scholars best known for writing _A
Feminist Dictionary_ (London: Pandora Press, 1985).
(2) See Ann Gill, _Rhetoric and Human Understanding_ (Prospect
Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1994), pp. 45, 95-99; 109-201.
(3) Gill, pp. 51-52; Ross W. Winterowd, _Rhetoric: A Synthesis_
(New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1968), p. 1; Richard
Weaver, "Language is Sermonic," in _The Rhetoric of Western
Thought_, eds. James Golden, et al (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt,
1976), pp. 147-154.
(4) Laurie P. Arliss, _Gender Communication_ (Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 10.
(5) Sonja K. Foss, _Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and
Practice_ (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1989), p. 151.
(6) See Robin Lakoff's groundbreaking book _Language and Women's
Place_ (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). See also a review of more
recent research in Arliss, pp. 12-26.
(7) Arliss, pp. 32-33.
(8) Plato, _Republic_, Book V, quoted in Martha Lee Osborne, ed.,
_Women in Western Thought_ (New York: Random House, 1979), pp.
15-16. Aristotle, _Metaphysics_, quoted in Rosalind Miles, _The
Women's History of the World_ (Topsfield, MA: Salem House, 1989),
p. 57. Aquinas, _Summa Theologica_, quoted in Osborne, p. 68.
Carol Tavris and Carol Wade, _The Longest War: Sex Differences in
Perspective_ (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 14.
Excerpt from Freud's letter to Martha Bernays, quoted in Miles,
(9) Edward Said, "Orientalism and The October War: The Shattered
Myths," in _Arabs in America, Myths and Realities_, eds. Baha
abu-Laban & Faith T. Zeadey (Illinois: The Medina University
Press, 1986), p. 83.
(10) Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner, _Sociology
Reinterpreted: An Essay on Method and Vocation_ (New York: Anchor
Books, 1981), pp. 84-90.
(11) See, for example, Naomi Wolf, _The Beauty Myth_ (New York:
William Morrow, 1991), and Jean Kilbourne, _Killing Us Softly:
Advertising's Image of Women_ (Cambridge Documentary Films, Inc.,
(12) Richard Porter and Larry Samovar, "Approaching
Intercultural Communication," in _Intercultural Communication: A
Reader_, 4th ed., eds. Samovar and Porter (Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth, 1985), p. 15.
(13) Porter and Samovar, p. 20.
(14) Judy Cornelia Pearson and Paul Edward Nelson _Understanding
and Sharing: An Introduction to Speech Communication_, 6th ed.
(WCB Brown & Benchmark, 1994), p. 192.
(15) Porter and Samovar (p. 24) identify the following
"constituent parts": perception (including beliefs, values,
attitudes, worldview, and social organization), verbal processes
(including verbal language and patterns of thought), and
nonverbal processes (including nonverbal behavior in general as
well as concepts of time and use of space).
(16) Dorothy L. Penington, "Intercultural Communication," in
Larry A. Samovar and Richard E. Porter, eds., _Intercultural
Communication: A Reader_, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985),
pp. 31-36. Penington includes in her list of components the
following: existential worldview, cosmology, ontology, language,
symbol systems, schemas, beliefs, attitudes, values, temporality,
space (proxemics), religion, myths, expressive forms, social
relationships, communication networks, and interpolative
(17) Porter and Samovar, p. 26.
(18) Penington, p. 33.
(19) Porter and Samovar, p. 27.
(20) Porter and Samovar, p. 29.
(21) Porter and Samovar, p. 29.
(22) Diana K. Ivy and Phil Backlund, _Exploring GenderSpeak:
Personal Effectiveness in Gender Communication_ (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1994), p. 57.
(23) Starhawk, _The Spiral Dance: The Rebirth of the Ancient
Religion of the Great Goddess_ (San Francisco: Harper & Row,
1979), pp. 1-16. See also, Carol P. Christ, "Why Women Need the
Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political
Reflections," in _Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist
Philosophy_, ed. Marilyn Pearsall (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986),
(24) Deborah Tannen, _You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men
in Communication_ (New York: William Morrow, 1990), p. 42.
(25) Julia T. Wood, _Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and
Culture_ (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994), pp. 141-143.
(26) Wood, p. 160.
(27) Wood, p. 161.
(28) Wood, p. 162.
(29) Wood, pp. 206-229.
(30) Wood, pp. 227-228.
(31) Laray M. Barna, "Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural
Communication," in _Intercultural Communication: A Reader_, 4th
ed., eds. Larry A. Samovar & Richard E. Porter (Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth, 1985), pp. 330-338.
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Prentice Hall, 1991.
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Berger, Peter, and Hansfried Kellner. _Sociology Reinterpreted:
An Essay on Method and Vocation_. New York: Anchor Books, 1981.
Christ, Carol P. "Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological,
Psychological, and Political Reflections." In _Women and Values:
Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy_. Ed. Marilyn Pearsall.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986, pp. 211-219.
Daly, Mary. _Beyond God The Father: Toward a Philosophy of
Women's Liberation_. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.
Eakins, Barbara, and Gene Eakins. _Sex Differences in Human
Communication_. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Foss, Sonja K. _Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice_.
Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1989.
Gill, Ann. _Rhetoric and Human Understanding_. Prospect
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Gilligan, Carol. _In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and
Women's Development_. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982.
Hall, Edward T. _Beyond Culture_. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Ivy, Diana K., and Phil Backlund. _Exploring GenderSpeak:
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Key, Mary Ritchie. _Male/Female Language_. Metuchen, NJ:
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Kilbourne, Jean. _Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of
Women_. Cambridge Documentary Films, Inc., 1979.
Kim, Y.Y., and W.B. Gudykunst, eds. _Theories in Intercultural
Communication_. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1988.
Lakoff, Robin. _Language and Woman's Place_. New York: Harper &
Miles, Rosalind. _The Women's History of The World_.
Topsfield,MA: Salem House, 1989.
_Northern Sun Merchandising: Products For Progressives_.
Minneapolis, MN., Spring/Summer, 1994.
Osborne, Martha Lee, ed. _Women in Western Thought_. New York:
Random House, 1979.
Pearson, Judy Cornelia. _Gender and Communication_. Dubuque,
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Pearson, Judy Cornelia, and Paul Edward Nelson. _Understanding &
Sharing: An Introduction to Speech Communication_. 6th Ed.
Madison, WS: WCB Brown & Benchmark, 1994.
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Samovar & Richard E. Porter. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985, pp.
Porter, Richard E., and Larry A. Samovar. "Approaching
Intercultural Communication." In _Intercultural Communication: A
Reader_. 4th ed. Eds. Larry A. Samovar & Richard E. Porter.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985, pp. 15-30.
Said, Edward W. "Orientalism and The October War: The Shattered
Myths." In _Arabs in America, Myths and Realities_. Eds. Baha
abu-Laban & Faith T. Zeadey. Illinois: Medina University Press,
1986, pp. 83-112.
Samovar, Larry A., and Richard E. Porter. _Intercultural
Communication: A Reader_. 4th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985.
Spender, Dale. _Man Made Language_. Boston: Routledge & Kegan
Starhawk. _The Spiral Dance: The Rebirth of the Ancient Religion
of the Great Goddess_. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
Tannen, Deborah. _You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in
Conversation_. New York: William Morrow, 1990.
Tavris, Carol, and Carol Wade. _The Longest War: Sex Differences
in Perspective_. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Thorne, Barrie, and Nancy Henley, eds. _Language and Sex:
Difference and Dominance_. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House, 1975.
Weaver, Richard. "Language is Sermonic." In The Rhetoric of
Western Thought_. Eds. James Golden, et al. Dubuque, IA:
Kendall/Hunt, 1976, pp. 147-154.
Winterowd, Ross W. _Rhetoric: A Synthesis_. New York: Holt,
Rinehart, & Winston, 1968.
Wolf, Naomi. _The Beauty Myth_. New York: William Morrow, 1991.
Wood, Julia T. _Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and
Culture_. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994.