Body and Mind: A Tale of Women’s Oppression

This article was first published on the Young Feminist Wire

I find writing about women’s body image, self-esteem and their relationship to their bodies extremely complex and risky. Complex, because so many factors, both internal and external, play a role in how women view their bodies and themselves, and risky, because falling into clichés is as easy as judging women for their choices.

I’ll try, however, if only to reclaim with words what societies take for granted as theirs: women’s bodies.

I’ll start with the postulate that most phenomena and behaviours are both the result of an individual personal path and a social product stemming from values, prejudices and norms present in any given society. It is important to underline the social components that interfere with women’s relationships to their bodies and how women perceive their bodies as we need to put this question back in the public and political spheres.

Women’s relationships with their bodies don’t only refer to issues of body image and food disorders but also to the degree of freedom women enjoy in their sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as the weight of values and the general societal context they live in. For example, if a woman feels judged for her sexual choices for example, she is most likely to become to despise the instrument of her pleasure that has been labeled ‘shameful’ or ‘sinful’ by her family, friends or society at large.

The wonderful campaign The Uprising of Women in the Arab World is currently collecting testimonies of women whose bodies and integrity have been violated in some way or another, be it with words or in actions, or both.  Issues of honour, commodification of one’s body, oppression and decisions constrained by family and society’s choices, along with men sense of entitlement to women’s bodies can be cited as reasons behind women’s tortuous relationships to their bodies and how they can come to self-harm, indifference, food disorders and even hatred.

The factors that shape women’s perception of their bodies (and by extension, of themselves) are many-fold and are usually difficult to deconstruct and break apart to examine individually as they fit into one another. First of all, commodification of women’s bodies happens worldwide, at various degrees and can stem from different social products at various levels.

In highly patriarchal and traditional societies where patriarchal values (and gender stereotypes) shape society’s actions and practices, the perception that a woman’s body carries the honour of the family puts a ‘price’ on a woman’s virginity, to the point where some gynecologists offer women ‘virginity certificates’ so as to increase said women’s desirability and value on the marriage market.  A woman’s worth is thus measured by her general behavior (is she demure enough? Modest and obedient enough?) and her virginal  status, whereas all bold attitudes and signs of freedom of spirit, in a word, of knowing one’s mind and asserting it, are frowned upon as women are expected to be meek and obedient. The more a woman conforms to this ever unattainable ideal, the more she is valued and praised, and the more her worth increases. Commodification of women’s bodies is also a product of capitalism that tends to merchandise everything. The realm of advertising gives us an excellent insight on how women’s bodies are used: first of all, many items that have nothing to do with sexuality are being sold to people via the medium of women’s bodies. For example, why are cars being sold by a woman wearing a see-through white dress under the rain? What does it have to do with the quality of this car? Besides, many ads show only body parts of women without showing the face, which is, the human being attached to this body, thus reinforcing the impression of reification of women’s bodies. Furthermore, the very image carried out by advertisement in the era of aggressive capitalism tends to present women’s bodies as things, things that should not sweat, have hair, smell, or be human in any way possible, setting again unattainable standards of what is perceived and aggressively set as ‘beauty’. Again, conformity is the key to social acceptance: a woman’s worth increases by societies standards as her conformity with these patriarchal standards increases. Given the current neo-liberal economic world order, patriarchal values, gender stereotypes and capitalism team up to apply pressure on women, thus shaping their relation to their bodies.

These continuous attacks on women’s bodies can have dire consequences on women’s perception of themselves: stress induced by non-conforming to these ideals, body image issues, anxiety, and dispossession of one’s body which becomes public property. Besides, these aggressions also have corollaries that affect women’s lives in general: patriarchal values give men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, as if women’s bodies were things they could help themselves to, creating generations of men for whom sexual harassment is perfectly ok, just as rape is blamed on the victim, and women’s bodies become the living expression of walking instruments that are ‘asking for it’, whose fault is merely to exist and go out in public. Moreover, patriarchy has recuperated feminist demands of sexual and bodily liberation and put a mercantile spin on it: while activists were asking for women’s freedom to enjoy and embrace their sexuality, patriarchy has transformed this legitimate claim into an obligation to be sexually very active and to be sexy, according to the patriarchal definition of the word.

This situation should not be read as men versus women tug of war: patriarchal values affect and oppress all people who are not gender-conform and who challenge mainstream patriarchal values.

AWID’s motto is: “Change doesn’t just happen: we collectively make it happen”, which is exactly what should be done. By taking it upon ourselves to relentlessly question patriarchal values, mainstream figuration of women’s bodies, using our power to shift mentalities and practices, we can hope to achieve positive significant change. However, to me, this isn’t the hard part. Cheesy as it may sound, the hard part is to look within ourselves and silence once and for all the fabricated judgmental voice that keeps whispering we’re too fat, too hairy, that we’re not the right shape, and that we should pluck, wax, suffer, straighten ourselves to extreme sleekness, all the while nodding obediently to whatever harassment is thrown into our face. The hard part is not realizing how our external environment constraints our bodies. The hard part is not to speak out about it. The hard part is to apply to ourselves what we know to be true and to prevent the toxic messages from invading our minds.

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