Why are body politics important? [Loving Our Bodies, Part 4]

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.

III. Conclusion

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.

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16 thoughts on “Why are body politics important? [Loving Our Bodies, Part 4]

  1. I see your point … However

    This is becoming less of a problem with modern technology allowing social contact without visual connection. It is theoretically possible to earn a living now without allowing anyone into your personal space.

    The question, will more embracce this trend or will an effort be made to prevent self physical isolation

  2. I disagree that it is becoming less of a problem overall. Technology may be such that you can gain some jobs without visual contact but these are far and few between and many jobs and industries will never move from a visual medium for communication. Also many of these web based jobs still are using video conferencing technology so the visual medium is still there. Plus the solution isn’t taking seeing each other out of the equation it is taking the fact that what we see impacts things not related.

    Although I think that the career portion of this is important I think it is important to remember how deep running and destructive it all is.

    I’d rather my sister or partner be able to look in a mirror and be truly happy with themselves as opposed to seeing what they don’t have that some celebrity or model does. I wish they could see their beauty. I also wish that all we were dealing with when we talk about body image was just that but it isn’t. We live in a world that views and treats traditionally pretty women differently. We live in a world where body image has a huge impact on self esteem. Where how we look impacts how we feel about ourselves as a person.

    These situations are getting worse for the same reasons that we can have web based jobs. The media is able to reach more people with more images due to technology and that means that they can do more damage faster. It means that they can keep that damage up by makeing sure no long period of time goes by with out us seeing some under weight over toned model that most people could never look like no matter what they do. It allows us to photoshop and edit so that even with the “magic” of botox and silicone we can never achieve.

    My question for everyone here is how do we fight it on a personal level? Are there books or mags that I can read and pass on to my friends and family that will help fight the personal damage and reverse that which is already done? I’ve been pushing blogs like this one and mags like Bitch but I feel like the body image and body politics issue is one I would like to zero in on in my personal life.

    My other question is a product one… are all major personal hygiene products own by mega corporations that are doing this damage or is there a line of products out there for men and women that is owned by a company that isn’t feeding this problem?

  3. This is not an attempt to be cantankerous….

    Counter point is that Physical isolation can also with technology filter media. Block channels that don’t advance your chosen path, or if you wish, do without TV all together. The Net is much more ameanable to filtering and pre massaging incoming data streams to eliminate all traces of manipulative propaganda of any stripe.

    Earn your living producing mail order catlogue products and you will never have to see those you do not pre approve. Make a living as a free lance programmer and you can self isloate among a community of like minded individuals. Becoming a Writer is also a choice. Most important you can raise children that reflect your ideals. The Amish have suceeded at this goal. Why should the Amish be the only success story of filtering the greater society. Combine the rejection of whatever in society offends you with modern technology and some business sense and you will create a semi sealed self sufficient culture. The Mormon influence in Utah is another example. Make freedom of religion work for you, the church of feminist self government and sufficiency would not be too great a leap.

  4. “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.”

    As I wrote here, I realize that women have very unreal expectations placed on them. But I don’t think men have it any easier in terms of expectations. I think is just as hard for men to arrive at a point of inner security as it is for women.

  5. (Disclaimer: I know, my English is a little bit messy, it’s my second language)

    Hey, Valcoris, a book I find very interesting about “beauty” and woman is The beauty myth by Naomie Woolf. It gives a lot of food for thought about how the concept of “beauty” is a powerful way of controlling women. I repectfully challenge anyone who read that book to tell me that body politics is a petty issue (or that it toutchs men and women equaly).

    I agree with you Andrea, I don’t think women freely choose to follow the rules of “beauty”. Yes, someone can say, “I decided to get breast implants. Really, I’m doing it for myself.”, but what I hear is “Since institutionalized standards of beauty punish me for having not large enough breast, I decided to get breast implants. I’m really doing it for myself since transforming my body to answer expectations of society will give me access to a better social status”

    Do I think women shouldn’t shave/wear make-up/get breast implants? Not at all. I don’t want to ask a person living oppression to not do an action that will make her less oppresed, even if it give strenght to rules like “only shaved women can get some kind of respect/job/lover/sex/respect/etc.” I wish however that people would be aware of why they are doing it: “I know my body hair isn’t ugly, but I shave it anyway because it’s easier than being stared at all day long. I know those who stare are stupid/ignorant/brainwashed and that I’m in my right not to shave, but I don’t have the strength today to face the consequences of being disentfull of a stupid law.”

    I invite every one to think/talk about/act on body politics every time they can.

  6. Sam,

    Thank you for the recommendation of the book. I will be picking it up just as soon as I can. I have to say it looks really good. Also your English is outstanding. Had you not said it I never would have guessed it as your second language.

    How do you think we as individuals make the movement from “I am doing this for myself” to “I am doing this because of how society is and I don’t have the energy to fight it.”?

    Also, do you think that distinction in thought is important?

  7. Good questions Valcoris.
    I don’t really know.

    I think distinction in thought is important at an individual level. Knowing there is rules coming from outside of oneself and influencing ones decision is important to know if an individual want to have real freedom to choose. But it’s also true that as long as this distinction in thought stay only in our head, it doesn’t have a big impact on others, at a sociological level. I would definitely like to see a water-cooler conversation going like this “Wow! you look stunning today!” “Thanks I just got a boob-job last week.” “Really? You should feel so much better in your skin now!” “No, in fact it was quite painful, but I really wanted a raise and all the other opportunities that come with a C cup.” Then, a change in the way one think would have an impact on others.

    But I don’t want to say that all the women who comply with the “beauty rules” yield to the pressure of the oppressor. Or worst, are individualistic shallow people. No.

    Yes, as a butch, I see femininity as stigma and constraints imposed on girls and women. I do not feel good following the rules of femininity mostly because of that. I’m also sad to see that so many girls and women are forced to follow those rules, and don’t even realize they are forced too. Most girls and women think they are exercising there free will when in fact a lot of implicit rules punished them when they don’t follow those rules.

    On the other hand, I realize that even though when something is forced on us, it might still be the choice we would have made anyway. Just like heterosexuality. It is forced on all of us since birth, but some people are genuinely heterosexuals (as I presume I would still be gay, even if it was forced on all of us since birth). That’s why I think being feminine (or “beautiful”) does not automatically mean being compliant or weak.

    Some of my friends are femmes and I have a lot of respect for them. I don’t think the problem is to follow the rule (being feminine or shave your legs). The problem is following the rule while not knowing there is a rule.

    So, to try to answer your question, I think the best thing we can do is becoming aware of the rules about our body in the society we live in. Being aware of what we can really do with (and how we can present) our body without loosing any opportunity, without having to face negative consequences. Then, we can freely decide how we want to present our body. We can break the rule to fight it (even though if it wasn’t imposed on us we would have follow it), we can break the rule because we do not feel good following it, we can follow the rule because it’s what we would do even if the rule wasn’t there, or we can follow the rule, even if we don’t like it, because it makes our life easier.

    Does that make sense?

  8. Andrea,
    If I’m hijacking the comments here or getting to far off your intended topic please let me know. Just really enjoying the discussion. If it is the case I’d love for you to give Sam my e-mail but I like having the discussion out in the open for everyone to contribute. So thank you for this space.


    Makes a ton of sense and having this discussion is helping me a ton at understand and applying a lot of this.

    A few more questions I know I am full of them but it is so exciting to me to feel like I am learning so much and perhaps even starting to make progress at fighting something that bothers me so much.

    My largest concern is on a personal level. The societal implications of body politics are very important and I think finding ways to speak truth to power is always a good thing. But for me often the larger societal issues feel like we can only make a dent in them (a dent worth making though). On an individual personal level though my hope is that we can make more than a dent.

    I don’t know a whole lot about it but one of the things is it seems that the image and rules do more than just force a certain impossible standard on women. It seems to me that there is also an implicit requirement that women hate the way their bodies look. Sometimes this I don’t like the way I look runs a deeper vein to I don’t like who I am. The belief pushed is if you lose a little weight or look a little better by society’s standard you will be happier with yourself.

    How do we fight the self loathing portion? I thought by telling my partner about the things I see in her that are beautiful I might make a dent but it seems it only cues further self loathing. It also seems that by pointing out things I find beautiful (physical and not) it cues her pointing out negative things about herself. Is there something I can do to help build her personal body image, self esteem? Are there directions I could point her in that might help?

    I guess that’s the part that I’m trying to figure out right now. What can I do to help the women in my life fight the negative effects of such a vicious campaign? My partner and I share books a lot. She reads something so I read it so we can talk about it. I read something so she reads it so we can talk about it. So the book recommendations are great for me. I’m just curious if there is anything else I can do to fight the negative effects of this. I keep pointing out beautiful things I see. I also try fighting little things. For example she puts up images of people she wants to look like for “motivation”. I can understand how these motivate her to watch what she eats and work out more (though she really does look good and is perfectly healthy as is) but my worry is that the further saturation of these sort of images does damage to her body image and self esteem. It’s not going well the “motivation” health guise is one I can’t seem to crack.

    I know the reality is I can’t undo all the damage. I also know that a lot of fighting and undoing is something she has to do on her own but I want to help.

    My last question and please be as honest as you can be. What are things I as a het male might do that make these things worse for women around me? What are things I can do to make these things have less impact or at least what can I do to not add to this problem?

  9. Thank you a ton Andrea you don’t know how much this means to me and I hope everyone else is enjoying it as well.

  10. Valcoris,

    sorry for the delay of reply… I was busy and only read your last comment today.

    The beauty standards we “have to” live up too are tricky. Before I understood they exist, I didn’t understood they had an impact on me. And now that I see all of them so loud and clear, it is so evident to me, I don’t really understand how others don’t see it. It’s a little bit like galanterie (holding the door for the ladies and all that). The day before I understood why it was sexist, I thought it was a good thing. Now that I try to explain to others why it is sexist, they just think I’m an angry feminist seeing misogyny where ever I look. So I totally believe you when you say you don’t know how to “make your point” to your girlfriend.

    I do think an other tricky thing is knowing when to get involved and knowing when to shut-up! Especially when you want to help someone of the non-privileged group and you are yourself from the privileged group. I struggle with that often when I’m in a position of power (as a white able-body person). I think a key word is “empowerment”. I try not to do something *for* someone, but instead invite the person to do it hirself. So, I think unless your girlfriend is in immediate danger (like with severe anorexia) it’s not a good thing to strongly encourage her to take your perspective. Even if you are convinced it’s for her own sake. Other might disagree with my position, but I think putting to much pressure on her (but I’m not saying that’s what your doing) may make her feel that she’s a bad person. And neither would you want her to say “I freed myself from the beauty standards because my boyfriend thought it was the right thing to do.” I think that what you want at the end is her to make her own choices about her life and having a sense of ownership over her decision. And that’s the most tricky part. If I want someone to take a decision for hirself, I need to accept that maybe, once ze considered all the facts that I had to present hir, and once I explained hir my point of view, this person may still decide not to make the change I think would be best. It they are not free to (if I don’t let them) make the choice I don’t agree with, then it’s not their choice.

    There’s an other thing I’m struggling with when I want to spread the gospel of feminism around me. You know, in the movie The Matrix, when Neo face the choice of taking the blue pill or the red pill, and one will offer him the truth that he will have to live with for the rest of his life and the other one will erase from his memory the very fact that he had that chance to know the truth and let him live an easy life? Well, sometime, my activist friends and I hurt a lot for knowing that we live in this shitty world. And we look at the people who think feminism is really important… only in Afganistan, and we envy them. At the end of the day, I do prefer to be in the know, even if it’s a very uncomfortable chair, then not. But how can I take this decision for someone else? Unlike in The Matrix, I can not ask people if they want to know or not. And once I make them realize we live in an misogynist, racist, homophobic world, I won’t be able to unring the bell… If anyone can help me with this one, I still haven’t find the answer.

    But back to most precisely the body politics (before tekanji or other people think we are way off topic!). About the picture of the semi naked lady with a plastic skin and frozen expression on her face (just like a doll), I’ve seen it many time used as a “motivator”. I see those “incentives” as a good way of feeling guilty more than “motivated”. But, once again, it might just be my personal bias here.

    And about the fact that “beauty” is an incentive to hate one’s own body and own self, I agree with you, I think that it make sens too. Naomie Woolf in her book (The beauty myth) talk a lot about how “beauty” is a way of controlling the time and the attention of a women (just try to keep the count of your calories intake for a day and see how focus you are for the rest!). She says it’s also a good way to keep women fighting between them, because they are ask to be the most pretty to get the most privileges. So yes, I think that when women always have the feeling their body have failed them to reach the standard of beauty (witch is always the case, since no organic cell can compete with photoshop!) they can’t help but not liking their body or feel guilty to not have make the most of it (the most being reaching the photoshoped goal.)

    Finally, I think a good way to differentiate what is our own desires and what is the agenda of others is to analyze publicity and pop-culture. I do believe it’s two of the most important channel from where we receive the command of being beautiful (and what people see on TV, people believe and people repeat as fact!). Beauty is a big industry. They will find plenty of subtle (and sometime not so subtle) ways to tell women they stink, their skin is gross, their ass is fat, their hair is dull or their skin is too hairy. And since those huge industries are the one who fund magazines, no magazine can take a clear and strong feminist stance and say “stop paying hundreds of dollars every wear on anti-wrinkle cream, you are great just like you are”. And I’m not even talking about all the time the women body is use to sell something else (In Canada, we have those boots add with a naked lady (well, teenager) wearing winter boots!). So I think it’s an other thing you can do with your girlfriend, trying to analyze what the publicity is really saying. I found this website: http://www.genderads.com/ witch seem to be a good tool (but I haven’t read it completely yet). If any one have good tools to share, please do. Bitch magazine can also be quite useful to get to know more about feminism and pop-culture.

    Tell me what works and what does not…

  11. Sam,
    Compliments can be a good way to fight, well, fascist beauty standards and the outposts they have in your girlfriend’s head, but not always. Sometimes compliments from someone you know sexually desires you can actually be worth less (not necessarily for rational reasons). Another thing to do would be to never ever ever criticize another woman’s looks in front of her. You may think it’s helpful to say that someone else is much too skinny, or whatever, to be attractive (if your girlfriend is fat), but that just reinforces the importance of looks and reminds her that you’re looking at women with a critical, judging eye. It’s a good question, and I’ll keep thinking about it. Look, there may not be too much you can do, on an individual level, the indoctrination is SO strong.

  12. I agree with you Tara, if compliments were enough, the problem would be easily fix. I think that compliments can even be a double edge blade too. We are raised to genuinely hate our look/body and we are encourage to voice that hatred (you know, being humble about our feature we think are beautiful and critical of our features that can be considered as flaws). I rarely hear anyone say “ho, I feel so beautiful and sexy today” or “I considered myself being quite attractive”. And I think that we also learn that if we criticize and hate our body, we will be rewarded for that. And one of the “reward” is the reassurance other give us when we put ourself down. “Of course you are beautiful! What are you saying…”

    I have friends who think they are not pretty enough. And I know that every time I try to tell them how beautiful I think they are, a part of my comment just fuel them to answer me “yes, but…” and keep denigrated them self. So at best, my compliment will reward them to put them self down, and at worst, will fuel them to hate them self more. If I don’t say “Stop that, you are not fat, I think you are beautiful.” then they might think I agree with what they just said. So, how to get away from this catch 22? No easy answer I guess… But next time one of my friend tells me “I don’t like the way I look, I’m too fat” I’ll try this: “what make you think that?” “And if you are right and you are fat, why being fat is a bad thing?”. In other words, I’ll try to make them think about how they perceived them self, wishing they come to realize this way of thinking/seeing oneself is not the best way that exist. (does it show that I’m a psych student?) I’ll tell you all how it works when I have the opportunity to try it (or stop me right now if you tried it and it failed!)

    PS: I think your comment was to Valcoris, I don’t have a girlfriend (witch I don’t understand why, since I’m such a NiceButch TM 😉

  13. Sam,
    I am slowly makeing my way through The Beauty Myth and I have to say it is a shocking and well written book. I’m taking it slow on reading the book because it doesn’t take very long before I feel really angry and really sad learning more and more about an ideal and industry that already made me feel that way. I’m pretty sure when I am done with it my partner will read it so maybe that will be a good thing. I know it has been hard for me but it has rekindled a fire to fight in me that I haven’t felt in years so thank you so much for rekindling that flame. I’ve already noticed me stepping up and tolerating less from other men and putting myself in check when I step out of line.

    I took your ad idea and ran with it and we’ve talked about ads we’ve seen on tv and in magazines.

    Your right I want it to be her choice whatever that choice is. In the same note I want to help her feel more comfortable and beautiful. The other thing that I’ve come to learn is that for her, and it sounds/seems like for a decent handful of women, how they feel about how they look has direct impact on how they feel about themselves as a person. I may look in the mirror and think “god am I fat” but that doesn’t translate to “and being fat makes me a bad person”. It seems that translation to some extent happens for her. Even haveing that translation not happen I think would be a wonderful thing.

    Let me know how your idea for dealing with the negative self comments goes. I don’t know how well it will work for me with my partner but with my friends I think it is an approach worth trying.

    I definitely noticed that my complements seem to have less effect the more she feels I love and desire her. I am struggling to understand that part but I don’t think I will ever get it. One of the things I’ve noticed seems to help impact wise is being more specific about the complement itself. It’s one thing to tell her she looks beautiful but something entirely different to pick out a detail and explain and mention that. It seems like when it is general it is brushed off as something that I am required to say. When the things I say are specific it seems like there is a pause and I am hoping that pause is a good thing.

    I hadn’t thought about the critical, judging eye stuff. I think I may be a little bit too late on that end but maybe I can be careful with it going forward.

    I want to thank everyone for their help with ideas and getting me to understand the whole thing a little better. I’ll keep checking back from time to time but this has been an absolutely incredible experience for me. I’m going to keep trying but it sounds like the patterns are pretty well ingrained by society and it sounds like it’s a really hard fight for the individual fighting the constant barrage of beauty images and standards.

    I was curious what everyone thought of Adbusters? I know body politics nor feminism is the major focus of the magazine but they take some pretty solid shots at advertising and politics. I was wondering if anyone had any thoughts on it with regards to how they handle feminism or body politics. I haven’t ever looked at it from that perspective but I know I will with every magazine I pick up from now on.

  14. Wow, what a powerful discussion. Hard to believe it took a few months to have it. I can’t help but be in disbelief that just a few people have commented. Is this body image issue such a taboo to discuss? I know how difficult it can be growing up seeing oneself as inadequate by most standards. Luckily, at twelve I picked up a book about feminism and have been distrusting of the medias images of women since. However, I haven’t met too many people who are this enlightened or as enthusiastic as I am to discuss this widespread disease. We all know someone who has issues with their self image. I struggle with this too but several years ago I made a conscious decision to stop thinking “fat cow” and “I’m disgusting” every time I looked in the mirror. I began retraining my mind to love what it saw in the mirror. Now I have two daughters and a son and I am really worried for them. I don’t want them being brainwashed into the false belief that beauty will make them happy. We need to start teaching our children from a young age to see beauty in a totally different light. Sounds cliche, but the whole “beauty comes from within” is ironically true. I say ironic because it seems like those that don’t meet todays beauty standards are more likely to see through the whole facade and look inside themselves to find beauty rather than at the mirror. We need to educate young minds on the dangers of self-hatred. We teach them about the dangers of strangers, drugs, the internet, etc. etc. However, if we recognize that the media itself is a threat, we should actively discuss this with our children and/or any children we may have the chance to influence positively. Young women as well as young men need to know that there is a whole other reality other than the one they know. It feels that not many people are aware of this, or is it just me?

  15. Virginia:

    I can’t help but be in disbelief that just a few people have commented.

    Well, truth be told, for this blog this is a pretty happening discussion. 😛

    It feels that not many people are aware of this, or is it just me?

    It’s not just you. In fact, the continuation of hierarchy/oppression depends on people remaining unaware/skeptical of the power imbalances, such as those that relate to body politics.

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