Editor’s Note: This month, that is July 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism And Body Image, where we invite various articles about the diverse range of experiences which we often confront, with respect to our bodies in private or public spaces, or both. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our relationship with our bodies is a difficult one. It takes time to understand how they operate in the public and private spaces. They become an even more contested space when it comes to women. Women’s bodies are constantly under surveillance, both in public and private spheres and are monitored per the male gaze. Among the thousand issues that threaten women’s bodily autonomy, is the constant perpetuation of the idea and myth of an ‘ideal, beautiful and desirable’ woman. The ideas of beauty are Euro-centric, a ‘beautiful’ woman is ‘fair, thin-bodied, with long hair, and without any scars or marks’ and this idea is continuously reinforced.
Women are depreciated for their appearances and are made to strive for a ‘perfect’ body and appearance, leading them to monitor their bodies, to low-self esteem which even cause mental health issues and eating disorders. Constant surveillance of their bodies and pressures to look a certain way strips women of their bodily autonomy and shapes their bodies under a patriarchal image of a woman.
Many forms of media, particularly movies and advertisements, play a very important role in representing certain kinds of women—women who fit into the definition of being ‘attractive’. Constant exposure to the idea of a ‘beautiful’ woman leads to a woman striving to become that ‘picture-perfect’ image reinforced by the media. What happens in the process is that women start hating their bodies because it is not similar to what they see in popular culture.
A counter to this idea of a ‘perfect’ woman was presented on social media, with the body-positivity movement. The motto behind the movement being that all bodies are beautiful, fat is not ‘ugly’ and being healthy is not necessarily associated with body weight. Thus, it aims to put forward a natural and a real idea of how women look like and promote a culture of self-love and healthy body image through the medium of social media. It is through this movement, that the notion of ‘loving your body’ was introduced, aimed to encourage women to love their bodies, no matter what society tells them about the same. While this was a welcome change and gave women a safe space to express and love their bodies, loving our bodies isn’t a solution to body image issues.
Other than the body positive movement being completely hijacked by capitalistic ventures to sell their products, loving your body is an aspect of discourse around body positivity which puts the pressure of dealing with body image issues on the woman itself. It loses focus of the fact that body image issues in women (and men) are deeply entrenched in systems of patriarchy and capitalism working together. While patriarchy keeps women under constant pressure and insecurities of looking ‘desirable’, capitalism profits off those insecurities.
Michel Foucault described bodies as ‘docile’, which are shaped by power and act as surfaces upon which hierarchies and cultural norms are inscribed. A feminist understanding of the subject explores how women’s bodies are forced to comply with certain norms about sexuality and appearances. The power here transforms into the aesthetic ideas—thin body, fair skin, long hair, no body hair—which produces desire for the male gaze and transforms into a norm for what is considered attractive and desirable. Other than being ‘sites for male desire’, women’s bodies are constantly subjected to comply with the myth of being ‘beautiful’ as means to control them and constantly exercise power over their bodies.
Widespread notion of westernised standards of beauty is a result of global capitalism, that sold women the idea of a ‘perfect woman’, which is unattainable, and thus leaves women with even more issues with their bodies. Then capitalism and patriarchy again profit off those same insecurities. It’s a vicious cycle. Media facilitates through advertisements, movies, TV Shows, ramp walks, and even social media. This cycle survives on body image issues which stem from constant dissatisfaction and dejection from not being ‘perfect’. Beauty and diet products are some of the biggest examples of a capitalist and patriarchal system that directly benefits from women’s insecurities. The perpetuation of a certain body type as the ‘norm’, becomes a part of the family and social life.
Body image issues do not just affect the mental health of women, but also have very far-fetching impacts on their economic and social life. Fat women are much less likely to get employment, especially in careers related to performing arts and acting, because they are considered ‘unhealthy’. Fat women also experience a lot of medical bias as most of the time they are told to just ‘lose weight’ to treat health issues, which leads them to not getting proper treatment.
In a country like India, skin colour is an important marker of ‘caste’ and becomes the basis for a lot of discrimination and caste-based violence. Being ‘fair’ is related to being ‘successful’ because it is a marker of ‘upper caste’ and colonial standards of beauty. Women are constantly mocked for their appearances, as what they look like becomes a significant marker of their identity, and not their work, career or achievements. The discrimination becomes even more acute when it comes to transgender bodies and/or disabled bodies.
Herein lies another problem of body positive movement’s emphasis on ‘self-love’ and ‘loving your body’. Body image issues are not just about hating your body; it is about a deeply entrenched system that benefits off of women’s insecurities and is a part of all aspects of our lives. This is not to say there is anything wrong with loving your body, and it does to some level break the vicious cycle of capitalistic profit, based on women’s body image issues. If you love your body, who won’t think you are imperfect and thus won’t buy the products they are trying to sell. However, one cannot love their body all the time, which can also often turn emotionally exhaustive. Sometimes you do not like your body, and that should not mean that capitalism and patriarchy have the right to benefit from it.
Response to body positive movement and its exhaustive pressure on self-love was countered by ‘body-neutrality’, which is an extremely refreshing movement looking at women’s achievements that has nothing to do with their appearance. It completely lifts the focus off of a woman’s body. It focuses on the idea that the body doesn’t define a person and gives space to people who exist on the margins, without the pressure of loving one’s body.
It is an important movement, but there is a need to constantly check where the movement is going and who does it benefit. It becomes difficult to be ‘neutral’ towards one’s body when it is constantly being put under surveillance and being discriminated against. It is easier for thin bodies to be neutral than fat bodies because being ‘fat’ becomes a constant aspect of life that they have to live with. Moreover, a lot of these movements get appropriated by corporate companies that participate in performative activism to sell their products, rather than making changes in the system. The recent news around ‘Fair and Lovely’ changing its name to ‘Glow and Lovely’ is an example of the same.
Both body positive and body neutrality movements have brought substantial changes in providing people with a space to talk about body image issues and representing a diverse set of women, even in mainstream media outlets. We have come a long way, and we have a long way to go and it requires us to understand the root causes of body image issues.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India