Lesson 5: The Body
Many girls and women are acutely conscious of how their bodies are judged beginning at a very early age.
Just recently, a Canadian news report indicated that girls as young as four years old are worried about the
size of their bodies!As sad as this news item is, it is not all that surprising considering the microscopic lens
through which women judge their own bodies, men judge women’s bodies and women judge other women’s
bodies. Then, we have popular culture that regularly represents the female body in ways that set women up
for comparing their bodies to ideals that are simply not attainable.
The female body is used to sell just about everything. The next time you pick up a magazine just count the
different products women’s bodies are selling. Here is another way to look at it – do an analysis of the
number of times women’s bodies appear in ads against the number of men. What kinds of products use male
and female bodies to sell their wares (I recently saw an ad for men’s neckties -- on a woman’s body!). If you
include not only fashion magazines, but sports, cooking, and business magazines you might be surprised by
the results. If you peruse even some of our more “respectable” women’s magazines like “O” notice the
message these magazines are sending out about what women should do about aging.
The Objectified Body:
In ads, music videos, commercials and even sitcoms, the female body is objectified. Objectification occurs
when a human is made into a thing with no value aside from its ability to be bought and sold. When our
bodies or parts of our bodies become things, the objectified body is no longer being treated as fully human.
Ads have transformed the female body into tables, beer cans, perfume bottles -- literally the body is made
into a "thing" The scary part about objectification is how humans, when objectified, are targets of violence.
Ads are often laughed at or dismissed as a joke. The problem is that the ad conveys a meaning or a value that
is played out in real relationships. Women are only beginning to see the connection between popular culture's
depiction of the female body to their own poor self esteem and their overall status in society.This lecture
looks at how the female body is interpreted depending on sexuality, race and age. We look at how women
compete for beauty as though this were the only means to achieve social, political and economic success. We
also talk about how striving for beauty, as defined by popular culture, and how the meaning associated with
this beauty ideal denies women their full humanity.
We need to return briefly to the ideas ofAristotle. Remember women and their bodies have long been framed
in the negative.Aristotle believed that husband and wife binary were much like the master/slave binary. In
this binary, he believed the male body is designed by nature to rule while the female body is created to serve
or be ruled. Embedded in this equation, is the belief that the female is "naturally" inferior to the male with
the primary function being one of reproduction. The only purpose of women is to reproduce the species. The
female body is simply a passive receptacle whereas the male body is active. (See Moira Gatens, Feminism
and Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
I imagine most us would recognize how archaicAristotle's ideas are, but the way in women are often
represented in popular culture makes me question if a residue of these ideas continue permeate the ways in
which we think about the genders.
Do we continue to think of women's bodies as simply vessels for men — a vessel to carry a baby, a vessel for
men's sexual satisfaction? How often do we talk about women being overly emotional and therefore not
astute at making reasoned decisions? How often have women apologized for their "PMS", as though they
were in an irrational state when angry at some injustice in their lives? Whenever women claim PMS as an
excuse for behaviour, or when men accuse of women of being irrational/PMS, we inadvertently reaffirm
women's "need" of men's of protection. When we claim that emotions rule women's identity, we undercut
women's ability to be rational, critical thinkers.
The Dividing of Virtues and Roles:
According to Aristotle, the male held the highest of virtues and the female the lower ones. The male semen,
according toAristotle, provided the developing foetus with a soul. He argued that because political justice
was possible only among equals, only free males (non slaves) could hold citizenship. Women were never included in the equation as though it would be foolish to imagine women being able to make valid
contributions at a political level. Power in the polis and in the home was entirely in the hands of the men.
Why this discrepancy?Aristotle based his exclusion on how he viewed the function of nature. He claimed,
that nature would not be so imprudent as to assign females full rationality when their function as bearers of
children and as housekeepers would not require thinking capacities.
Even today, the work of women is often viewed of lesser value than that of men’s. Men’s work outside the
home is real work whereas women’s work inside the home is given moral value but no real actual legitimacy.
When we look at women’s place in the paid work force we see a similar division.
Aristotle’s ideas on men and women and their roles have taken on a variety of guises. In the 1950s, Man the
Hunter theory became a popular tool for explaining the “naturalness” of women’s place in the home. The
theory attempted to justify women’s seclusion in the household and their role in raising children by looking
to prehistoric times. The “caveman” period, according to this theory, was organized around men hunting
large animals while the women waited around the fire with the children for their “providers” to return. What
are the implications of such a theory? This theory effectively “proved” that men must be the providers and
women the recipient of men’s work.
Our knowledge into prehistoric communities now contests many of these ideas, although they continue to
permeate our own interpretation of ourselves. First, women were among the first agriculturalists and small
animal raisers. The study of modern day hunter and gatherer societies tell us that women raise the animals
and the crops needed for the survival of the community and not the men. Often women and children travel
with men as the larger animals are hunted but that these large animal hunts do not sustain the community in
itself. Historically, women have prepared the soil, seeded and harvested the crops for the family.
When we look at male/female binaries remember to question why we believe men are more rational or
stronger, more aggressive, or more courageous. Look for those places where control over women is exerted
and how power is exercised. As Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir did, test the “truth value” of
statements and theories.
Images of Women:
Young women are often highly sexualized in ads where often one part of their body is emphasized; it could
be their breasts, their legs, their buttocks. In subtle and not too subtle ways, young girls are told to be
beautiful, not to take up too much space and not to be nuisances by expressing their ideas or opinions. (Jean
Kilbourne's video,Killing Us Softly.)
As women age, the images or visual standards of them often change. Once past their youth, women are no
longer represented as sexual beings. The good woman is the mother who keeps the household clean, washes
the clothes so that the whites are sparkling, and colours are vibrant. The older the woman is perceived to be
losing her beauty against the male who, as he ages, is thought to be more dignified. Because girls grow up in
a culture knowing at some level that their value is in how attractive they are; they fear the aging process. In
Oprah Winfrey's "O" magazine it is not unusual to see a slew of ads for products and surgeries for women
who want to defy the aging process. Women have learned their real power is in being youthful and beautiful.
The older women get the more difficult it becomes to sustain this particular standard or to create a new one.
Instead of allowing women to move into full adulthood, the language often associated with women keeps
them defined as childlike and less than competent. Consider what the words, "girls, babes, chicks" indicate.
This language rejects the possibility that women are fully competent humans. But remember not all female
bodies are judged the same way. There are all kinds of bodies that do not measure up to the standards
contained in the image for example: the poor single mom, the woman of colour, the larger sized woman, the
lesbian body, the old woman. How might women be affected negatively by the advertising industry when
they see their bodies fall short of the ideal? The beauty myth sets up women to compete against one another but for what purposes? In the end, the
message women receive is to be beautiful to warrant their capture of the successful male partner. So, the
beauty myth is also about recreating a specific heterosexist culture. With gay marriage now legal in Ontario,
it will be interesting to see how the advertising and wedding industries respond (there are more same sex ads
and magazines completely devoted to gay marriage).
Young women are notorious for competing against one another all for the ultimate purpose of being able to
get the "guy". They evaluate their bodies in minute detail in the persistent search for flaws. Young women
also discount other young women, who because of their "body flaws," render them less suitable as friends
and acquaintances. How many stories are their about the cruelty of young women to one another?
The reality however, is that all women are bound eventually to fall short of the "ideal". The standards are so
impossible to achieve.
Definitions of femininity shift from one era to the next. Standards in beauty are in constant flux. Today's
style in eyebrows or in breast size will quickly become passé. This instability in standards makes it very
difficult to know how to be successful at attaining them. More significantly the "ideal" images are almost
always exclusively applied to white women. The representations of women of colour are attached to their
own set of meanings. For African Canadian women, the images are often accompanied with ideas of their so-
called hyper-sexuality. (See Janet Price and Margrit Shildrik editors, Feminist Theory and the Body: A
Reader. New York: Routledge, 1999).
Do you happen to know what the most popular cosmetic surgery is forAsian women? Currently the trend is
to create a double flap for the eyelid to resemble Caucasian women's eyes! The second most popular surgery
is one aimed at lengthening their legs.
Why do you suppose diet/cosmetic industries are a multimillion dollar enterprise and why are younger and
younger women submitting themselves to surgery, extreme exercising and dieting? In some parts of North
America, companies are setting up loan programs so that women can "buy" cosmetic surgery on credit.
Reality T.V. now has a number of programs extolling the virtues of transforming a female body from an
"ugly duckling" into a "swan". There are more and more industries hooking on to women's insecurity about
their bodies and profiting from it.
Girls learn from a young age to place their focus on improving their looks as though this is the only way to
assert some control over their lives, or guarantee a good future. Girls get the message that their only real
power is in their looks. As women focus on beauty, the status quo that divides attributes is kept firmly in
place as men continue to epitomize physical and intellectual power.
Just look at how women are depicted in sports. If the sport is feminized like synchronized swimming or
gymnastics — their bodies are either "childlike" (undeveloped) or very feminine. If the sport is one where
men have traditionally dominated (basketball, volleyball, hockey, tennis), women get the message that they
must feminize their bodies to avoid "accusations" that they might be lesbians. The message women receive is
that they must avoid treading on men's ground (their masculinity) and above all they must not be too
powerful. (See Canadian Woman Studies "Women and Sports". Volume 21, Number 3, 2003).
Women's bodies are analysed in great detail in our culture.And because the beauty myth really applies only
to young women, as women age, they may find themselves struggling to discover their value. Being gazed at
is received as either an affirmation that a woman is "acceptable," or that she has somehow failed. The
problem is, of course, that the standard shifts constantly thereby requiring more work, more money, and
more awareness in terms of reaching those ideals. Since the ideals are completely artificially constructed but
still compel women to achieve them — who ultimately profits? Diet and cosmetic industries, the medical
profession, fitness centres, retail stores, perfume companies, popular culture magazines. Some of these
industries even appropriate feminism by feigning empowerment principles -- women are led to believe that
they are taking control of their lives if they buy literally into a complex process of self improvement. Examine this quotation by John Berger, ï¿½"en look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.
This determines not only the relation of men to women but the relation of women to themselves." How
true do you think this statement is?And if you think it accurately reflects how many women and men live
their lives, what does it say about women's value?
Take this questioning a step further and look at a quote by Germaine Greer: "If the woman-made woman is
never good enough, the man-made woman is no better than a toy, built to be played with, knocked about
and ultimately thrown away."
Greer's statement leads us back to what to the question of who women are decorating themselves for— is it
men?And if the goal is about getting a man, why is this process of beautifying oneself so important? The
beauty myth is about more than just "getting a guy"; it is about solidifying a future provider.Agood woman
can only be "complete" if she is paired with a man. This makes her acceptable.Asingle woman, a woman
who is divorced, a lesbian are all threats to the stability of the status quo which happens to be heterosexist
Have you ever heard women say that they must, "put their face on" before leaving the house? How many
women feel comfortable going out in public without make-up? How strange that women feel as though they
are naked or less attractive without make-up when the vast majority of men would never imagine having to
"put their faces on" before seeing their partner or going out in public.
The Measure of Women:
Women measure themselves against each other, against what men are telling them, what fashion magazines
say, what popular culture suggests and every time they come away feeling a failure. The result is women
engage complicated technologies to get the right look. How many types of mascaras are there to lengthen,
thicken, darken and separate? Women pluck, shave, undergo laser treatments, straighten and curl hair,
undergo electrolysis, submit to dangerous ultraviolet rays or sprays in order to tan (even women of colour
will do this) ... to what end? (see Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman. London:Anchor Books, 2000).
Do women like themselves any better for having undergone such procedures? No they do not and as they age
self-esteem plummets unless women have found other footing on which to secure their identity that is
outside the beauty struggle. (See Jean Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion. New York: The Free Press, 1999).
Are you familiar with BDD? This stands for Body Dysmorphic Disorder. While it means an unhealthy
preoccupation with one's body— the diagnosis is usually only applied to men. The message is that women
are naturally expected to go to excessive effort to "right" their bodies but such excessiveness is apparently
not normal for men.Again, we see another example that feeds into definitions of femininity and masculinity.
It will be interesting to see if men get lured into the cosmetic industry's new emphasis on products for men or
into surgeries in the future. The current vogue being promoted by fashion magazines is "metrosexual". This
is a new, fashionable term for men usually in large urban centres, who are now paying attention to their looks
with cosmetic products and fashion conscious clothes. The rhetoric from the fashion and cosmetic industries
is that this is a new braver heterosexual masculinity. Time will tell us if the metrosexual can break the
barriers on traditional notions of masculinity.
Women's bodies are often a source of despair. Women are told that they are more loving than men, more able
to nurture and yet women often hate their bodies. The reality is that as long as women despair over their
bodies they are no more adept at loving than others. (See bell hooks, Communion).
When we speak about beauty we are not really talking about women but more about patriarichal institutions,
male desire and the exercise of power. In very detailed forms, the beauty myth actually prescribes behaviour
so tends not to be just about appearance but about the required behaviours attached to those images; for
example, how certain skirts, or pants, or footwear suggest particular movements of the body. How long
painted nails inhibit the working