“The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”
Every time I read this quote by Virginia Woolf, I am reminded of all the times we have viewed ourselves as others do and accepted the categorisations that were carefully constructed to further the objectives of social control. A substantial quantity of discourse about women hinges upon what is expected of them and how well they are able to live without crossing the limitations these expectations set. Often the assumptions and viewpoints of others are ingrained in our mind and influence our understanding of societal ideals.
The frameworks through which these assumptions and viewpoints pass are predominantly equipped with lenses of subtle strategies of normalisation of oppression. This repressive molding of the system around us convinces us that the standards employed through years to quantify and categorise intelligence, weight, body types, beauty and success and the degree of their separation are not deliberate decisions in order to maintain status quo but conscious decisions that we, who are subjected to it, ourselves make.
These deliberate decisions contribute to reducing the power women feel over their body and choices. Loss of autonomy translates into them being sidelined in decision-making processes that impact their own bodies. It is a vicious cycle of power dynamics. Eventually, women internalise these standards and male gaze and start holding their bodies accountable to the standards that the gaze sets, which are many times not clearly spoken but told every day.
Women’s bodies have been trained to take up less space, impress others and focus on self-regulation. All these are outcomes of years of conditioning of how women perceive their own self. Practices like body shaming, setting of unrealistic beauty standards, appreciation and idolisation of bodies that are achieved through continuous struggles with an eating disorder, make body a medium of reproduction of power relations and inability to achieve these standards leads to dissatisfaction.
Dissatisfaction and disempowerment are very closely linked and both capitalism and patriarchy benefit from them. Institutions and practices become a conveyer of values that alter women’s perceptions of themselves and manifest their disempowerment. Meenakshi Thapan writes in her paper, “The body is, clearly, a medium of culture, in the sense in which we take care of it and maintain it, eat, dress and adorn ourselves, communicate with others and so on. However, the body as Susan Bordo points out is also more directly, a ‘practical… locus of social control’ so that we are in a sense not what we want to be but are made through culture.”
Violence and oppression that women face are the ways through which body is regulated and controlled and its internalisation is how women unconsciously allow themselves to become party to their own coercion. This is not to imply that women are the reason or responsible for their oppression. Many times the one who faces oppression is not able to distinguish experiences of oppression from oppression itself and even after the oppressor is gone; person holds idea of oppression close and sustains modes of oppression of own and others. In this chain of regression fueled by inequity lies the idea of hiding in plain sight the oppressive values that one could defy if one knew that they are more of cultural and social constructs than conscious choices of those being subjected to it. Women’s objectification and normalisation of bodies that are other-oriented deprives women of their voluntariness. Loss of agency assimilates with the realisation of lack of fulfillment and results in resentment and this resentment sometimes transforms into internalised misogyny and it tries to turn women against themselves. These perceptions are passed on through generations and reveal themselves in the form of institutional violence. The ways keep changing but the underpinnings remain the permission for expression of arrangements of dominance and subordination and it is done through making women enabler of encouragement of their own constraints.
All this is not to reject the idea of caring for yourself but our choices should not be rooted in others’ perception of us. Susan Bordo writes in her essay, “This is not to deny the benefits of diet, exercise and other forms of body management. Rather I view our bodies as sites of struggles, where we must work to keep our daily practices in the service of resistance to gender domination, not in the service of docility and gender normalisation. This work requires, I believe, a determinedly skeptical attitude towards the routes of seeming liberation and pleasure offered by our culture. It also demands our awareness of the often contradictory relations between image and practice, between rhetoric and reality.”
Whenever you see a problem in how things are, it is crucial to ask yourselves, what its origin story is and who benefits from its sustenance. Usually both can be found in the vicinity of concepts of power and greed. In order to find solutions, it is inevitable that we ask questions about it and challenge the assumptions. We have to be mindful of the role we play in creation of narratives and that will involve a lot of unlearning. As Gloria Steinem rightly said, “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but to unlearn.
Prakruti Mishra has recently completed her Masters in Political Science from Delhi University. She is interested in International Relations, Public Policy and finding answers to questions that intrigue her through reading and writing. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter.
Featured Image Source: psychologyofpower.org