It is often argued that women don’t need feminism anymore – in the Western society, men and women now have equal rights and opportunities and feminism serves no purpose other than to tout women as victims. Aisling Marks argues otherwise, highlighting the damaging pressure on modern women to conform to modern day ideals of femininity.
This article has been published as part of a series to mark Women’s History Month.
Here is one inescapable fact: postmodern society bombards us with sex. Our streets, our television programmes, our adverts and our magazines are awash with images of a sexualised nature, fuelling a capitalist media machine that causes a damaging obsession with our bodies and the way we represent ourselves to others.
It is also a fact that women, in particular, continue to be marketed as products in the forefront of a culture industry obsessed with sex, sustaining their social marginalisation. True, women can now benefit largely from the ‘liberties’ of an embracing society: we can choose what to wear, whether to have children, to pursue a career, the list is endless. Indeed, western society-at-large has opened up opportunities for women that would have seemed interminably out of reach to those in the suffragette movement and even the second-wave feminists of the 1970s. It is true, much has been achieved; to many modern women, ‘feminism’ is a void concept, which perpetuates the image of ‘victimisation’, fixing its locus on its struggle rather than its success.
So why, then, amid all this ‘choice’, is the government launching a ‘Body Confidence Campaign’? Why, also, do the anorexia statistics among girls and women aged 15-35 continue to dominate social studies? Why, then, are women still suffering from verbal harassment, domestic abuse and rape?
The answer is simple: women are pressurised from all directions. What Baudrillard perceptively coined as the ‘myth of emancipation’ emanates from the advertising of beauty products to catwalk models thrust into mainstream acceptance – utilised to perpetuate the semblance of women ‘liberating’ themselves from the manacles of Victorian-style restrictions and repressions. This ‘freedom’ that women entertain is actually no freedom at all. The Foucauldian-termed ‘male gaze’ continues force women into a position of subordination; patriarchal society determines a woman’s worth, value and empowerment by her sexuality.
These, I argue, are the perils and the pitfalls of postfeminism. By extensive contrast, there should certainly be credence and respect directed towards the women who pioneered the second-wave radical feminist movement: refusing to shave and refusing to wear cosmetics, although to an extent falling prey to the reinforcement of biological essentialism, rejected the heteronormative ideals perpetuated by a male-dominated society. This was a powerful move: it symbolically refuted the binary categories into which male and female are positioned and become, as a result, confined to. These women destabilised the patriarchal structures to which women today are still subordinate.
To clarify, I am not proposing the boycott of beauty products, services or similarly aesthetic endeavours. As a mark of routine, women (and even men) will always, to an extent, want to ‘experiment’ with their appearances. What needs revision is the way we construct our culture based around these harmful ideals. I emphasise harmful because this is exactly what it is.
As Sheila Jeffreys contends in her fascinating detailed study Beauty and Misogyny (2005), women continue to endanger their own striving towards emancipation when cosmetic procedures become culturally accepted norms, something she provocatively terms ‘socially approved self-injury’. For example, procedures such as breast implants, she argues, are ‘a severe form of mutilation of women’s bodies’.
It is troubling to note that the recent media coverage of the medically suspect PIP implants (of which, according to the NHS, 40,000 women in Britain have received) revolved around the corresponding health issues and the costs of removing them. The real issue at hand is why women feel the need to subject themselves to such harrowing procedures. As Haiken has argued, ‘it was always about fitting women into the beauty norms of a sexist and racist society.’ Correspondingly, Haiken’s research brings to light that ‘with 80 per cent of the patients being women and the vast majority of surgeons being men…cosmetic surgery can be seen as an indication of the failure of feminist attempts to dismantle male domination’.
Feminism is still relevant, desperately needed and has a long way to go. One need only look at websites such as http://lasertreatments.com/ to discover the vast and dangerous lengths women are willing travel in order to fit their bodies into a model of culturally constructed beauty. The media perpetuates an environment in which young girls, in particular, receive a distorted self-perception through televised images of women who pander towards exacerbating this aura of empowerment through looking a particular way, through flaunting their looks. Fashion-industry models, high-profile A-list celebrities and the media that fuels their underserving prominence into mainstream society embody postmodern anxieties about physical inadequacy that keeps the prospect of women’s equality buried underground.
The crucial point that Jeffrey’s makes in her argument is one of drawing a line: when certain forms of body modification cross into the realms of normativity, does society then stop questioning it? The recent breast implant scandal, as discussed above, is a perfect example of how an act of mutilation has been glossed over and trivialised, consequently devaluing women’s bodies and maintaining their struggle to liberate themselves from a society obsessed with appearances.
Women continue to buy into the ruthless propaganda that necessitates a culture based on narcissism. The promise of an unattainable image of femininity keeps the consumer in a constant state of suffering. This emphasises Jeffrey’s assertion that ‘western culture is not “progressive” in comparison with non-western cultures’. Indeed, women have many more rights than in previous decades, ‘but they must show their deference through their discomfort and pain’ – beauty is shown as a categorical imperative for women, and thus necessarily hinders any sought-for equality between the sexes.
So how can we combat this? Jeffreys suggests a ‘culture of resistance’ – that we recognise the harm entailed from beauty practices and that we ‘abandon them’. Again, this harks back to the activism of the radical second-wave feminists, something that the majority of women find contentious.
I propose that the system that dictates what makes a woman beautiful needs to be attacked from its foundations. Women need to be encouraged towards empowerment beyond the level of the body. We need to teach our children that beauty is diversity. And most importantly, we need to stop investing in products that are advertised not just by men, but by women. And it is on this note that Baudrillard’s pithy advocacy, ‘Women are given Woman to consume and…in this…narcissistic emancipation, their real liberation is successfully averted’, rings with hard-hitting overtones.
Aisling Marks is a final year student of English at the University of Brimingham and contributes to Women’s Views on News.