Wednesday, 11 April 2007

To Starve or Not to Starve?

To Starve or Not to Starve? That is the question. It is also a matter of sexual politics. For as Naomi Wolf says, "A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty. It is an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history". It doesn't just make women fret continually about how they appear to the opposite sex. But - as any anorexic will tell you - leads to low self-esteem, passivity, anxiety and emotionality: all the characteristics, indeed, of Freud's hysterical, unreasonable female psyche.

Is it true that supposedly free Western women are in fact locked into a spiral of submission as strong, if not stronger, than that exhibited by other, more explicitly misogynist cultures? Fatema Mernissi - a Moroccan feminist and sociologist - gives an interesting exposition of this thesis in her book 'Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems', in which she compares the differening tactics employed in the West and the East to ensure female obedience to male standards.

Now Mernissi is rather controversial, in so far as she views the hijab as a symbol of masculine control of women, rather than a religious duty per se. However, setting that issue aside, she may be right in observing that '"size 6 is a more violent restriction imposed on women" than the segregation (and potential anonymisation) of women in the public sphere imposed by the veil.

At this point most 'women of the free world' would probably throw up their hands and accuse her of talking nonsense. Yet she makes quite a convincing case that most Westerners are caught in a system of 'magic entrancement' where we spontaneously accept subservient positions in relation to men. This is manifested not through rhetoric (which tends towards an empty feminism) but in our subsconscious assumptions which are shaped by a tacit acceptance of 'woman' as the object, rather than subject.

This is evidenced, she notes, by our choice of fashion (determined for, and by, the male gaze), partner (who, in order to be conventionally attractive, should be older, physically stronger, and better paid or educated than we are), or reluctance to age which we combat with cosmetic surgery or increasingly costly cosmetics.

If what women strive to be (thin, beautiful, desired, and yet independent and successful) is the product of the male imagination then there is little intellectual space left to argue for alternatives. The fact that feminism itself is seen by many women today as a dirty word (despite evidence that we continue to be discriminated against, in everything from pay to promotion structures) is surely significant in this regard.

By contrast, she argues that male domination in the East has traditionally taken a physical rather than mental form. Rather than constructing women in their own image, she argues that the act of imprisoning women in a harem or forcing veiled anonymity onto them is less psychologically damaging and offers more hope for revolution, than its Western counterpart - despite the fact that women's rights in much of the Muslim world are so frequently violated.

That is because, in her opinion, Eastern men based their domination on a fear of women and their potential - whereas Western men need not fear a creature of their own creation. Indeed, she says, it is precisely because spiritual equality is underlined in the Qu'ran that men have needed to find ways of forcibly repressing women.

I don't know how true this all is. But I certainly feel that many Western women believe what men fundamentally want is a partner who will 'Soit Belle et Tais Toi', as the saying goes. An intelligent, healthy and successful woman in our society is seen as a threat, and therefore, as ugly - because she is violating male norms of femininity. Just think - Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Cheri Blair. All vilified and mocked in the press for their 'manly' ways. It's as if, when a woman no longer ressembles a fourteen year old virgin she must become invisible - or suffer the consequences.

Something to think about at least.


Peter said...

I like the theory that in cultures with a surplus of food, thin bodies are preferred (since it indicates self control), whereas in cultures with a shortage of food, large bodies are preferred (since it indicates thriving in adversity).

It's an interesting idea to extend this and say that the cheaper that food is, the more control men have over the female psyche.

I assume that, by this thesis, those Muslim women in the West forced by their husbands or culture to wear the veil get the worst of both worlds.
After a barrage of media in the daytime about weight and dieting etc. they go home and remove their veil and have the same insecurities about their body as a non-Muslim westerner.

Anyway, what are you doing reading this feminism malarkey. I hope you're not getting ideas above your station ;)

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