There is a lot of complaints about radical feminism from liberal types who believe that radfems are concerned with telling other women how to live. I’ve written about this phenomenon in this entry, and I explained why radfem, which is a form of systemic criticism, has nothing to do with criticizing women’s personal actions. Or to say it more simply, “it’s the institutions, stupid.” We cannot blame any woman for how she deals with the gender hierarchy or the patriarchy in general. What we should attack are the ideas, the institutions that spread those ideas, and the worldview underlying them all.
The way liberals talk about it, they seem to assume that both using makeup and not using makeup, shaving and not shaving, having long hair and having short hair, are equal “choices” (a nonsense word), that a woman may “choose” one or the other at a whim, and that the only thing wrong with the situation is that there are some “angry feminists” trying to make other women feel guilty. But this is clearly not true: the patriarchy wants women to police themselves.
The support and promotion of femininity is a backlash against a totally preconceived set of social beliefs and attitudes that doesn’t exist. Gender non-conforming women do not dominate the feminist movement nor the world at large, they are not widely praised and rewarded for their nonconformity, and their voices and experiences are routinely ignored. There is no similar amount of support for unfeminine girls and women, especially butch lesbians, who go through their lives being told that “real women” are thin, attractive, feminine, and pleasing to men. In fact femininity is so often conflated with womanhood that gender non-conforming women are frequently accused of misogyny (or even of being men!) for rejecting femininity and beauty standards.
The problem is not individual women not wearing makeup or not shaving, the problem is systemic. Generally speaking, the problem is the male gaze. More specifically, the problem lies in the premise, usually unquestioned, that certain body parts of women are, and must be, erotic: her hair, her face, her belly, her breasts, her vulva, her butt, her legs, her feet. Actually, there’s nothing innately erotic about them, and there is nothing in nature that says those body parts must always be erotic. The fact that we think a naked human body is sexual and scandalous is cultural, and is not, by far, universal.
We consider these body parts erotic because eroticism is constructed by society, and in the case of Western societies, that mainly means Western gender roles and pornography (as well as the extension of pornography into mainstream media). The body may grow hairs, stretch with fat, and grow old, but an erotic body cannot do any of those things. The ideal erotic body, as shown by pornography and mainstream photo shoots, is a body free from hair, slim and trim, free of blemishes, wrinkles and marks, flexible and pliable. If it becomes in any way blemished, it is no longer erotic (unless it can be heavily Photoshopped), and therefore no longer valuable as a female body.
And this comes with the assumption that each individual woman will “work” on herself in order to keep her body parts up to the erotic standards. It is assumed that a respectable woman will shave her legs, pluck her face, keep her hair professional (i.e. not “black”), wear makeup, and if she wants to be sexually active, shave the rest of her body hair (including her pubic hair), have her labia trimmed if necessary, and not be menstruating. It is contradictory to claim that the eroticization of women’s bodies is empowering, when it really limits women in how they’re allowed to move into the world if they want to get the credibility that men already get by default.
Men are not subjected to the same scrutiny, and their body parts are not illuminated by the spotlight of eroticism (except, to some extent, the penis, which is a staple of what is ostensibly “heterosexual pornography”). A man can refuse to shave, not wear any makeup, be old and fat, and this is (except in some specific settings) not counted as a demerit against him. There is an ideal male body occasionally put on display, but it is not assumed to be relevant to any other man.
No individual woman, or even women as a class, can wake up and decide that their legs (for example) are not erotic. Men will still judge them on whether their legs are shaved or not, what footwear they’re wearing, how they’re showing their legs off, no matter how much women complain. Women are judged primarily on their bodies, not on their accomplishments or the power they wield (while men will still bow to that power, they privately resent it). Neither women who shave their legs, nor women who do not shave their legs, can change the fact that they are not in control of the framework (the male gaze) through which other people perceive them.
The eroticization of women’s bodies also has social consequences at the level of specific body parts. For example, the eroticization of breasts, which is particularly important to heterosexual men, is a great hinderance to support of breast feeding, and warps the debate around breast feeding. The fact that breasts themselves are classified as erotic (and nipples, as downright pornographic and degraded) means that women are blamed for showing them in public, even though breast feeding in itself is not eroticized. The eroticization of the vulva, I think, has a lot to do with men’s revulsion of menstruation. And many people have already commented that the demand for women to shave their faces and legs derives from the infantilizing nature of femininity.
A lot is written about body image problems in women, but not much is written about their source. Body image issues are not only the fault of the mainstream media, as the mainstream media has been pornified. Pornography presents the female body as a sexual object which conforms on all points to the requirements of eroticization. Nowadays, it is through pornography that most people get their first experience of the erotic female body, and how women come to internalize the male gaze, not through magazines or advertisements, although criticism is only focused at the latter. This ensures that the problem itself will never be eradicated, which is convenient for those institutions that depend on female servility.
Incidentally, there’s been a great deal of research done on the effects of watching pornography on men, but I have never seen any research on the effects of watching pornography on women. I think there’s a lot of misogyny in that approach: we care about the effects of pornography if men are hurt psychologically, but we apparently don’t give a shit about women getting hurt psychologically. Ho-hum. Of course pornsick men who gain power and can make rulings about laws, or change the laws, are very dangerous to women, and should be monitored, but the effect of pornography on women’s self-image needs to be studied as well.