If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen people, both men and women, call issues such as shaving “petty” or otherwise mock them when someone brings up the double standard as an example of why we aren’t equal, I would be a rich, rich woman. But why is something that, on the surface, seems so minor and so tied-in with personal choice a continual talking-point within discussions of equality?
The easy answer is that it’s not about the act of shaving or not shaving, but rather what those personal experiences mean when they are put into the greater context of socialization and gender roles. What does it mean to learn womanhood? What impact does it have on how we view women’s personhood?
I. Body politics and self-esteem
It is a generally accepted fact in our society that young girls have some of the lowest self-esteem around. Books have been written and studies have been done, but no woman needs any of that to understand this. After all, we were all little girls once.
We grew up seeing images that symbolized Women and deep down inside we knew that we needed to become like those women in order to be A Woman. Men, of course, face the same pressure to become A Man. But, while there are hardships inherent in that journey, too, the image of Man is not a self-loathing one, but rather of a person who is secure in the knowledge that he is strong and powerful by nature.
We live in a completely toxic environment where our media bombards us with the message: To be a woman is to never be perfect, or even okay, just the way we are. Even the companies that pay lip-service to celebrating women, like Dove, are invested in destroying women’s self esteem to sell products. On top of that, they are often part of larger corporations that are, in essence, murmuring sweet nothings about empowerment in our ears and then turning right around to brag to their buddies about how we women are all huge sluts.
In other words, there are a myriad of traditions, products, messages, and even individual people who are interested in influencing and/or directing the way that women view ourselves.
II. Connecting the personal and the political
While decisions like shaving or wearing makeup do have a personal component, they aren’t simply a personal matter. They don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather are part of a much greater tapestry of messages from society, the media, our peers, and our family that tie in those issues to things like our self-esteem.
It’s easier to believe that it’s a simple matter of choice: “I choose to shave or not,” “I choose to wear makeup, or not,” but the truth is more messy. The truth is that these “choices” aren’t just personal, aren’t just frivolous and petty issues; they’re highly personal expressions of a much deeper issue that places being a “woman” in opposition with simply being a “human”. And, while it is obviously important to recognize individual women’s rights over their own body, it is just as important to recognize that none of us make those choices 100% on our own, but rather are influenced by the messages we’ve received, and continue to receive, about what it means to be a woman.
It is, perhaps, precisely because body politics are so wrapped up in personal choice that they are important. Because women are the sex class and are judged first and foremost by their appearance and secondly by everything else, choices that should be firmly in the personal arena are instead dictated by traditions, corporations, and peer pressure.
Until we live in a world where a woman’s appearance won’t affect whether or not she gets a job, or a promotion, or is treated like an intelligent human being, or just a human being period, body politics will continue to be an issue worth talking about. As long as women aren’t free to make informed decisions about their own bodies without social repercussions then it won’t be fair to label issues such as shaving and makeup-wearing as ‘frivolous’ or shrug it off as a matter only affecting the individual making the decision.
And all that is why body politics are important.