well, it has been one month of Feminism Fridays, and I'm feeling really good about it. I wanted to write each week about a topic relating to women's issues in order to highlight some problems that some people might not be aware of, and also to build solidarity with other women. I thought this week I'd talk a bit about something all women can relate to: femininity and the constraints it places on women. This is also something I'm going to be writing a paper about, and I thought I'd warm up a bit here!I've written here before about the theory that gender (among other things) is a social construct. Briefly, the idea is that "woman" and "man" are based on biological differences between male and female of the human species. Because male and female are different, society expects man and woman to behave differently: in ways that are masculine or feminine. These ways are proscribed by society, not by biology, and so constrain people (including people who do not identify with their biological sex, or who are intersexed, such as hermaphrodites) into one of two dichotomous or opposite gender roles. Along with these roles come physical and psychological behaviours and beliefs, and men and women are expected to play these roles throughout their entire lives. We are expected to display to others what gender role we have been assigned, through outward appearance, personal pronouns, manner of speech, physical movement, etc. We are also expected to show others that we recognize what gender role other people play by treating men and women differently based on our own gender role. This behaviour begins at birth, when the doctor/midwife announces the sex of the newborn and wraps the baby in either a blue or pink blanket, and the parents give the baby a name. There are, of course, entire groups of people who do not play by the gender rules, and either display themselves as members of the opposite sex, or refuse to play either role and display themselves as simply people. It should be noted that androgynous people often feel comfortable using identifiers of both genders, such as wearing men's clothing with women's underclothes and makeup.
These practices of sex-marking and sex-identification are elaborate and pervasive, but are particularly constraining for women. Men are also constrained by these practices, but as I will outline, this is much more so for women.
I'll begin with outward appearance and adornment. Women are expected to have a specific body type: noticeable breasts, hips, and a slender waist. In the West – I've not looked at other parts of the world in-depth, so I'll restrict this discussion to western culture – the expectation is for women to be slim through the legs, arms, and stomach. Hips mustn't be too round, but breasts should be. This is the accepted and endorsed cultural body image for women. Women, in order to be as accepted as possible within these guidelines, must diet and exercise in order to display a feminine physique (the women who are held up as examples of femininity are 1% of the population). Diet and exercise can lead to wonderful healthy bodies, but can also lead to disorders surrounding food that affect both mind and body. Of course, diet and exercise are not always sufficient for achieving a feminine physique. Plastic surgery is the other way to do this. A woman can get fuller breasts, breasts that sit higher on her frame, excess fat removed, excess skin removed from her stomach, arms, and even labia, and now implants are available for the buttocks and calves. Surgery comes with risks, as does any surgery that requires general anesthesia, and additional risks such as infection, internal bleeding, and for breast implants, capsular contracture, where the muslces surrounding the implant contract and harden, which is quite painful and requires further surgery to repair. Also, most implants are only good for 10-15 years, and must then be replaced, requiring additional surgery. Surgery requires recovery time during which the patient heals incisions, swelling and bruises.
Aside from achieving and maintaining a feminine physique, women are expected to adorn their bodies with identifying clothing. Women's clothing is usually more expensive than men's clothing, and usually not as well-made. Women's clothing is traditionally impractical and made from flimsy material, and so women are restricted by their clothing. This is most true of evening wear such as dresses or gowns, and high heel shoes. If a woman wears a skirt or dress, she is not able to do certain things, such as climb a fence, or stand over a subway grate, and if high heels are part of the ensemble, she cannot run very fast or walk very far, and certainly cannot hike or trample through the wilderness. Because we spend much of our time protecting our sex organs from injury and exposure, there are many things women cannot do in skirts or dresses. Additionally, women must wear supportive undergarments that men are not required to wear. Men's clothing is more sturdy, and is not typically restrictive; the most restrictive thing a man could wear would be a suit and tie. While it may not be comfortable, men can still run, climb, etc. in this outfit. The implication is that women's clothing is easy-access and could fall apart easily to expose her sex organs. This perpetuates the idea that women are perpetually sexually available for men to "take".
Jewellery is another form of bodily adornment that is much more elaborate for women than for men. While men and women both wear rings, watches, pendants, earrings, etc., usually the style for women is more elaborate, larger, flashier, and more expensive.
Additionally, personal grooming is a major part of femininity. Men can prepare for a special occasion very easily by showering, shaving, trimming, brushing their hair and teeth, and dressing. Women on the other hand have all of these things to do plus more. Women are expected to remove hair from approximately 90% of their bodies, either by shaving, dissolving it with harsh chemicals, or pulling it out by the root through tweezing or waxing. This particular feminine ritual, of hair removal, is largely based in homophobia: a heterosexual man who touches another person wants to be sure that person is not a man before reaching the sex organs. (Of course, this is quite simple for a man to do as well, which negates this theory, but primarily still in our culture, men wear more body hair than do women.)The most recent innovation in hair removal is performed with lasers, which dissolves the hair below the surface of the skin. The sensation is like a rubber band being snapped against the skin, and is extremely expensive – to remove hair from the entire body (except for eyebrows, eyelashes, and the top of the head) would cost tens of thousands of dollars. The trend in hair removal has become a bit unsettling in regards to pubic hair: the "brazilian bikini wax" removes all hair from the labia, vulva, buttocks, and around the rectum, leaving only a small strip of hair at the mound of venus. I find this particularly unsettling as it is quite painful, but also because it leaves the woman looking like a pre-pubescant child rather than a mature woman. This is particularly distasteful considering the rampant use of child pornography and child sexual abuse.
In addition to removing hair, women also wear more elaborate hair styles that require more time, money, and energy to perfect. Of course, men can wear their hair long as well, although those who do seldom take the care that women do with their long hair. And, women may also wear their hair short, but usually still take better care of it than men with short hair do. There are hot rollers, curling irons, straighening irons, chemical dyes, curl relaxers, perms, hair dryers, sprays, shampoos, conditioners, gels, mousses, serums, etc. Keeping one's hair looking and feeling smooth and healthy is time consuming and expensive.
On top of all this, women must prepare their skin. In addition to sunscreen, which everyone should wear to protect against skin cancer, there are cleansers, toners, moisturizers, serums, masks, and exfoliants to help make the skin clear and radiant. Women are expected to perform these steps, men are not (although some do). Also, women more than men go to aestheticians and dermatologists who preform elaborate skin treatments such as facials and chemical peels, which remove several layers of skin and are far from comfortable. These treatments and products are not cheap. Some men do undergo these treatments, but generally only to treat acne, a medical condition. Women typically undergo these treatments to prevent and treat ageing. Our culture is terrified of death, and in particular women who can no longer bear children are devalued and made invisible. Because of the inequalities between men and women economically, the best chance for a woman to improve her socio-economic situation is still to marry. In this patriarchal society, competition between women to secure a mate is fierce, and a young woman who is fertile has a much better chance of securing a mate than an older woman whose fertility is questionable. Because of this, older women – who find themselves victims of divorce more and more – undergo all sorts of procedures (plastic surgery again) to prevent ageing. How sad that a woman's primary value in this culture is tied to bearing a perfect (male) child.
Women also adorn their fingernails and toenails with nail polish, and wear makeup. Makeup is extremely elaborate, and many women do not bother because of the time and effort involved in not just applying makeup, but learning how to apply it with skill. Makeup is also extremely expensive. Foundation, powder, concealer, blush, highlighter, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, eyelash curlers, lip sticks and glosses, false eyelashes… the list goes on.
Women are expected to act in certain ways according with the ideal of femininity. Women must not be too loud, nor take up too much space. Women typically sit compactly, with knees together or legs crossed and hands sitting in their laps. Men typically sit and take up a good deal of room, spreading their legs apart and resting their arms on the backs of chairs or loose by their sides. I can attest to this myself – I once found myself in a middle seat on an airplane, flanked on either side by men who both spread their legs wide and took both armrests. I actually had to tell them both that they were taking up too much of my room for me to be comfortable, and had to make a point to physically take up more room in order to maintain my personal comfort zone. Women must be graceful and move in a certain way, with fluid gestures and a particular way of walking, with hips swinging just so – too much sway is liable to be seen as sexually suggestive, and too little is seen as rigidity. Women must also speak in a certain way, with a lilt to the voice, not too low, not too roughly, sort of in a sing-song way, and with language that is not too direct. This ensures that women are not heard. Often, when a woman is direct in her speech, men and even other women find it intimidating and uncomfortable.
Finally, women are ridiculed for these behaviours – both for participating, and for not participating. Women who conform to these behaviours are seen as frivolous, silly, air-headed, subjects of laughter and joking for taking too much stock in their appearance and not enough in world events or intellectual pursuits. Women who do not conform are seen as intimidating, mannish, of "questionable" (read: lesbian) sexuality, asexual, butch, not interesting, etc. Both women and men make these judgements, making femininity a prison by which its subjects internalize the restrictions placed on them and self-correct accordingly.
I hope this gives an idea of the ways in which feminine norms of behaviour are restrictive to women. Many men never think of these sorts of things, and take for granted their own relative freedom of movement and speech. Many women also never realize the extent to which society requires them to perform in these ways, and for some women, it is all they can think about.
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