Encagement of beauty and rise of two feminisms

Kaberi Gayen's picture

This is the fifth installment of a six-part series, orignally posted at e-BangladeshThe next episode will be posted tomorrow.

Episode - Five

While on one hand this free market economy is prescribing national governments for cutting the provision of education, housing, healthcare and childcare that lessen the economic burden on women and assist their economic independence, on the other hand they are maximising their capital by exploiting women in entertainment and beauty industries.

Women’s Body Esteem is a big business worldwide. Billions of dollars are spent on the “weight loss industry” yearly. That industry is solely dependent on women’s self-hatred. Women are reduced to size, told to be less, told to shed big chunks of themselves for acceptance. Likewise, the “beauty industry” has convinced millions of women that chemical crap on their faces, and plucked eyebrows that are drawn back on, is “beauty.”

The modelling industry, as Ann Simonton (www.mediawatch.com), a former cover model for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, Cosmo, Covergirl, etc., observed is promoting an unattainable standard of beauty for women.  In a quest for thinness, women starve themselves, vomit, have their stomach stapled, their jaws wired shut and fat sucked out. Not only are women told that they are too fat, but they are also told that everything else about their bodies needs improvement. Media images teach women that they need to inject collagen into their lips because they are too thin. They are told to inject botox into their faces to freeze nerve endings and iron out wrinkles. Their teeth are not white enough, nor are their skin, their eyes are not blue enough, their hair is not shiny or straight enough, nothing they do is ever enough. This trend is ever increasing.  Just for an example, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, 8.5 million U.S. cosmetic procedures were performed in 2001, increased by 48 percent since 2000. Growth is not confined to America, with cosmetic procedures in Asia estimated to be growing 20 percent a year. The German annual growth rate is 15 percent, according to the European Society of Plastic Surgeons, and in Britain there was a 30 percent rise just over 2000.

To sustain and increase this trend, an ideological warfare is always employed against women through mass media, not only in advertisements but also in drama, soap opera, film, magazine and of course in pornography to manufacture their consent. Virtually any mainstream magazine or television commercial shows women’s bodies being used not only to sell products like cosmetics and clothing, but also to sell products that bear no connection to women’s bodies, like cars, food and electronics. The images of women that are used to sell, well, virtually anything, are sexualized, commodified and objectified.

There is a clear link between the pressure on women to appear a certain way and the pressure on women to act a certain way. The qualities that are considered beautiful in women act as symbols for ‘desirable’ female behaviour. In contexts where prescribed gender roles are attached to material realities that undermine women, the flood of media images that link women to these roles serve only to reinforce, never challenge, them. Few advertisements show women engaged in action unless they are cleaning their homes. Women’s mouths are either slightly open or suggestive, or simply covered. Mouths, apparently, are not for speaking. Only women’s bodies and cleaning jobs are what is important.

Even women who are shown in actions that demonstrate physical power and strength are undermined by overt reference to their sexuality and appearance. For example, shortly after the second Iraq war began, Glamour, one of the top selling women’s beauty magazines in the US and Canada, published an article on makeovers for female US soldiers in combat. The spread included such handy tips as how to keep the desert sand out of your lipstick, and how to keep the sweat from ruining your makeup (waterproof mascara is apparently a must). Even as soldiers, one of the most powerfully violent masculine images possible, women are reduced to objects of beauty and desire. Sheila Rowbatham observed perfectly that in order to sell commodities, women are reduced to commodities.

Striving for unattainable beauty ensures that women lack self confidence and a belief in their own value. Many argue that beauty products, dieting and other body image consumerisms are diverting our attention from important things, like the economy, as much as any war does!

Just as a little note, the media are performing for both the maximisation of capital by selling female bodies and helping the flourishing of the beauty industry on one hand and on the other, sustaining the gendered traditional roles that satisfy and strengthen both capitalist and religious fundamentalist desires and thus ensure consumers from both sides.

Feminists’ Combat towards Fundamentalisms and Free-market Economy : scholarship and activism

Religious fundamentalisms are in most of the cases supported by right-wing political parties either in power or waiting to be in power. Not only men but also considerable sizes of women are involved in these fundamentalist groups. Thus we get a new concept of “Two Feminisms” (Afray, 1999). Whatever might be the sect, as the term feminism itself stands for a position that is anti-patriarchal, the ‘new feminism’ stands for the patriarchal model of gender relations. Gottlieb (2002:31) observes, “In practice, right-wing women regularly play the part of both “victims” and “conspirators” to various forms of patriarchy.” However, often we find that the fundamentalist groups name their activisms as “the struggle against colonialism and imperialism” and threats against “beauty industry” or “western cultural produce” often labelled as threat against “free thinking, free economy or democratisation” by “fundamentalists”. The question is how firm is feminists’ voice to combat this complex battle? How influential is their struggle so far to make any positive change? How loud is their voice in public spheres?

Feminism has been somewhat successful in integrating the issues of class, race, sexuality, and nationalism into the feminist critique. Generally, feminist scholarship agrees, that what have been termed right-wing movements construct an ideological apparatus that champions cultural revivalism, religious “fundamentalism” and sexual and gendered affirmation. (Moghadam, 1994). Feminist scholarship also agrees that these cultural and religious revivalist movements with their discursive reification of motherhood and the affirmation of women’s repression in an un-contestable divine domain have posed a general threat to the secular liberal politics that feminism has historically aligned itself with (Bedi, 2006).

On this basic understanding, feminists of diverse sects are fighting against religious fundamentalisms in diverse ways. According to Kissling and Sippel (2002), there is a rich feminist history within the world’s religions. Theologians and religious and biblical scholars have recovered sacred texts and traditions that lift up women’s rights. Catholic feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has edited a two-volume feminist biblical commentary, Searching the Scriptures, in which she provides a forum where the different voices and discourses on feminist biblical interpretation can be heard. After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions is a collection of works by Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Native American feminist theologians, who explore core texts and teachings that promote women’s equality. Sisters in Islam (SIS), a group of Muslim women in Malaysia, has returned to the Qur’an to study Allah’s actual words. As a result of their research and studies, they have published women-centred interpretations of the Qur’an.

There is a basic difference in feminist activism between Islamic societies and the rest of the world. Muslim women have learnt to adopt various strategies in coping with or confronting discriminatory practices and negotiating their rights in their respective countries. Women’s groups in all Muslim countries face major challenges in reforming laws to promote their rights or eradicate any discrimination or bias in the law. For any action of advocating for change or reform, Muslim women have to seriously reflect on the role of Islam and the use of Islamic knowledge in their project of reclaiming the space for substantive democracy and justice regardless of gender.

In Iran, a new and democratic discourse on Shi’ite Islam is gradually taking shape within the opposition. A more democratic and tolerant interpretation of Muslim jurisprudence is at the core of this discourse. Iranian women’s journal Zanan performs the difficult task of developing a new feminist interpretation of Shi’ite Islamic laws and is aided in this by a group of progressive educators, lawyers, and theologians, both women and men. Zanan publishes translations of classic feminist essays in which feminist perspectives and politics are defined and explicitly defended with regular features that would appear in a popular women’s magazine on topics like food, diet, health and exercise, fashion, family psychology, science and medicine. But, more importantly, the journal has embarked upon a meticulous re-examination of the shariat in light of feminist issues.

Progressive feminists in India do not have to fight fundamentalism with the reinterpretation of religious texts, rather they have to fight fundamentalism pressurising for the utilisation of secular laws that are already prevailing. Their fight against religious fundamentalism is a part of their democratic struggle – the struggle for executing the civil law, struggle against inter-religious riots, cast system, dowry, poverty, reproductive health, violence, trafficking, and various social customs that undermine women’s rights and status.        

To be continued

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