Cultural Construction of Gender

Gender defines and is defined by the social, communicative, economic, and political roles of 'Enana (discussed in other sections). However, one of the most obvious functions of gender in this culture is that of signaling one's availability for and skill at sexual activity. Thus, the terms for the two major gender categories, vahana "men" and vehine "women," refer both to the man or woman one noho "rests" with (whether for a night or for life) as well as to all other men or women (i.e., all others one might have sex with).

Some of the features associated with sexual attraction are applied regardless of gender (physical beauty— understood as firm fat bodies and fair supple skin—and olfactory appeal derived from washing frequently and wearing perfumes and flowers). Nonetheless, a variety of visual and performative clues were and continue to be used to construct gender contrast (see Ferdon, 1993; Handy, 1923; Suggs, 1966).

Prior to contact, men wore a hami "loin cloth" and women a ka'eu "waist cloth," both made of tapa "beaten bark cloth." Additionally, both sexes, but especially women, draped themselves in a kahu "robe." At present, women wear a cotton cloth wrapped around the waist (referred to now by its Tahitian reflex pareu) for informal wear around the village, and they cover their breasts with a brassiere, T-shirt, or fold of the pareu. Some men also wear pareu around the house or for cultural events, but most men prefer shorts with or without T-shirts. For more formal occasions, men wear pants and button-down shirts, and women wear Western dresses (either old-fashioned missionary frocks or modern fitted dresses). Pareu, dresses, and shirts all sport bright Polynesian floral patterns.

Both women and men used to shave and tie portions of their hair into ornate patterns, with "horns" being specific to males. Present styles are Western: long hair for women (often worn in a bun), and short hair for men (though beards and pony tails worn high on the head have come into vogue). Prior to contact, men and women were also tattooed—men sometimes from head to foot, and women more sparsely on the limbs and genitalia—with a large number of motifs reflecting issues of status and lineage. Owing to the recent revival in tattooing, many men are once again covering their bodies and faces with densely interwoven patterns, whereas women have so far restricted themselves to ornamentation (e.g., anklets).

Other features distinguishing vahana and vehine, though hidden, have served as signals of sexual preparedness. Girls' genitalia were manipulated and treated with an astringent as early as infancy in order to tighten the vagina and inhibit excretions and odors. Boys underwent supercision—a long cut in the foreskin on the dorsal side of the penis—before being considered ready for sexual intercourse. Despite missionary pressure, both of these practices have been retained into the present.

Finally, gender contrast is encoded in a variety of linguistic forms; for example, male and female beauty are termedpo'ea andpo'otu, respectively. Although gender pronouns do not distinguish between male, female, and neuter, many other kin terms and roles do (e.g., haka'iki "chief" vs. ha'atepeiu "chiefess").

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