Today, women are better off than they were a couple of decades back when their roles and rights were limited. Before women could not vote, could not participate in the corporate world, and could not own property. Although a few countries like Saudi Arabia are lagging behind on women's rights, women are better off now than they were before. Today women rule states, lead the corporate world, and excel in their chosen professional fields. However, we still have a long way to go as acts of violence such as rape, child marriage, and domestic abuse persist in our society. These are overt acts of violence that must be resisted and fought off by all means necessary. Still there is a silent type of oppression that women face in the form of modern patriarchy. This blog post is inspired by a reading from one of my classes: Focault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power by Sandra Bartky. Any italicized words in this article are direct quotations from her article.
We are born male and female, not masculine and feminine. Femininity is an artifice, an achievement, "a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms. There are certain things that have been systematically enforced as being feminine, and for a female to achieve femininity she must check these boxes.
Let's explore each of these points in reference to the world that we live in today.
Configuration of the body
Women are expected by society to have a certain body shape. If you disagree with that statement check your Instagram feed. Big buts, big boobs, small waist is the look that is in right now. It wasn't always like this, I remember watching American shows when I was younger, and a lady would ask her man, "Does my but look big?", and the appropriate answer would be, "No honey!" These trends differ across cultures; in African society a fuller figure has always been in fashion. However, whether a certain body type is in fashion is not the point, the point is that there exists this standard of body goals that is imposed upon women. Have men ever had a certain standard imposed on them on how their bodies should like? Are they ostracized by society based on their looks? Men with ripped body's are deemed better looking, but is there as much pressure placed on a man's body to look a certain way as there is for a female's body? Definitely not! There is an unhealthy obsession of the female's body. More women than men go into diets, more women suffer from eating disorders, the plastic surgery industry is thriving because of women, and if you can't afford plastic surgery, don't stress because bust and butt enhancers are there for you. Women have gone to extreme measures to ‘enhance’ their body even to the point of consuming chicken feed! A woman must maintain a balance of being thick but not too thick or else she is deemed "fat,” she must have a small waist but not ripped like a body builder, because power in a woman's body is met with resistance. She must have a great bust; big but not saggy, perky but not small. Come on! These standards are ridiculous! Yet they persist.
Configuration of body gestures, movement, and expression
Women are far more restricted than men in their manner of movement and in their spatiality. Feminine movements must exhibit a certain delicateness and fragility. Women have been socialized to cross their legs while men spread them out as an implicit show of dominance of the space. Women, isn't it annoying when God-forbid you have to seat in the back seats of a matatu sandwiched between two guys who have spread their legs, having forgotten that you too need to sit comfortably. Women are trained to smile more, even when they don’t feel like it. By training I don't mean women go to class to be taught how to smile; we are all socialized in the roles we are supposed to play based on our identity. Women are socialized to be gracious, accommodating, and polite. This is why female leaders are described as unapproachable, bossy, and bitchy when they exercise their authority as leaders whereas men who do the same exact thing are called authoritative, firm, and decisive. How a woman walks is even an issue. A woman must walk in the confined fashion appropriate to women, at the same time be confined by a subtle but provocative hip roll. For the longest time I was made fun of my walking style apparently I had a “stiff walk,” and I had to swing my hips a bit. Why do I have to swing my hips though?
Women, how many times have you found yourself apologizing for nothing. A stranger bumps into you, and YOU are the one apologizing! Often female students ask questions in class by starting off with that vile word ‘sorry’. Ladies, I challenge you to note how many times you say sorry, and of those times, how many had legitimate reasons? Then ban the word 'sorry' from your mouth till you can use it appropriately. Under male scrutiny, women will avert their eyes or cast them downward; the female gaze is trained to abandon its claim to the sovereign status of steer. These small things add up to form a sense of inferiority. The “loose woman” violates these norms: her looseness is manifest not only in her morals, but in the manner of speech and quite literally in the free and easy way she moves. I dare you to go ahead and be a ‘loose woman’.
A woman's body as an ornamented surface
A woman's skin must be soft, supple, hairless, and smooth; ideally it should betray no sign of wear, experience, age or deep thought. The beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Shelves upon shelves are stocked with beauty products that promise you they contain the secret ingredient to eternal beauty and youth. For man soap, water and Vaseline is enough. However, a woman “needs” a cleanser, toner, masks, moisturizer, night cream, day cream, anti wrinkle cream, and don’t forget the makeup; foundation, concealer, bronzer, the list goes on and on. I am personally not against makeup or having a specialized skin routine. However, I am against the consuming nature that these practices can develop into. When one feels the constant need to apply makeup, and cannot step outside her door without it, makeup stops being a tool to enhance beauty and transforms into the woman's master. There also exists this double standard when one wears a lot of make-up they are deemed “fake,” and ostracized for caring too much on such “trivial” things as clothes and makeup. If you were no makeup you are told that “you look like a kid.” There is no way of winning!
These practices described above are part of the process by which the ideal body of femininity is achieved. These practices are structured by the invisible hands of patriarchy. Before, patriarchy was centralized; a father, a husband, or a religious figure could tell a woman what she could or could not do. Now, power has now become anonymous. No one is telling women to act or dress a certain way. Now disciplinary power that is increasingly charged with the production of a properly embodied femininity is dispersed and anonymous. This is not a feminist rant blaming men for everything. This is a call for women to analyze how much of their being is influenced by the existence of the man. Resist anything that makes you think and feel like you are not good enough as you are; skinny, plus size, makeup, no makeup, small boobs, saggy boobs; you are good enough. Resist anything that makes you think and feel that you have to dress a certain way, or act a certain way for you to be desired or respected. You are a full human being. That is enough. RESIST.
Shannon Makenna is a brilliant young Kenyan studying Computer Science at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. She is a feminist and an Afro-optimist. Her dream is to live in a world in which all persons, regardless of their gender, race or nationality, have equal opportunity to succeed.