Feminism and the Focus on Bodies

So, today I’m focusing on an issue that many people may not want to hear, and that’s okay. We don’t have to like everything everybody says all of the time. That would be exhausting. Seriously, could you imagine caring about what people say every minute of your life?

Anyway, back to the point. Lately, I see feminist campaign videos that focus on one goal: accepting all body types of women in the name of equality for women. These could be Buzzfeed videos that go through various ideal body types of women throughout history to show the arbitrary nature of beauty standards, such as the one linked here. This type of awareness isn’t a bad thing. I’m totally for redefining what a “stereotypical” body type is, but my concern is we care too much about that particular topic. And I’m not talking caring too much about redefining definitions of beauty, nor am I talking about the campaign for acceptance of bodies and presence of women’s bodies in public spaces. My concern is that women’s bodies seem to be both a method and a singular focus in the most recent installment of this great, never-ending ride known as feminism.

One recent example of this focus is a particular twitter fight between two celebrities about the merits of Video Music Award politics and female bodies. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the twitter fight between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, but to sum it up: Nicki Minaj’s artpiece “Anaconda” wasn’t nominated for a Video Music Award. After the fact, she rightfully pointed out that many of the nominated artists had white, normative bodies, meaning they were, well, white and celebrated female artists with a particular, skinnier frame. Anyway, our award-winning lyricist Tay-Tay said something like: “Don’t attack other women, focus on the men who nominated us for this, united under feminism,” and so on. While Taylor has a small, small point, the initial issue between them is due to the racial impact of over-representation of white, slender bodies. In addition to the racial implications of this exchange, this is a great example of the inherent focus on the female body as a stage and conduit for the missions of current feminist groups.

One of my main concerns with this approach in feminism is reestablishing an inward focus on female bodies. There is a term called “self-objectification.” Youtuber and sex-ed badass Laci Green does a great job defining this term, but it’s a simple concept. It is the idea that, because society defines women solely by their physical value, then individual women define themselves that way as well. This term is useful in understanding why certain types of critical media exist, such as E!’s Fashion Police. For those not familiar, this is a show primarily hosted by women, including the recently deceased Joan Rivers, tearing down other female and sometimes male celebrities for what they wear to red carpet events. The concept of self-objectification is also why teen girls are likely to start a diet or have been dieting since they were ten years old. Girls and women monitor their physical appearance themselves because society has ingrained within them what is or isn’t ideally beautiful, and by self-objectification, women then police and regulate themselves to that certain standard.

While “self-objectification” is relatively new term, women’s value has always been intrinsically linked to our bodies. Generally, you’re not supposed to do the historical analysis thing with absolutes like always, but I feel that this case is a massive exception to that rule. During the Middle Ages, women fasted and self-mutilated in order to experience the level of spirituality men could access both bodily and intellectually. Because women were responsible for life via motherhood, their bodies were revered for that ability, which is cool, but the downside that we’re still playing out today is women’s sole value was placed in her physical self, not her intellectual self. Also during the Middle Ages, all women were considered hypersexual “creatures,” and often compared to mythological entities like wood nymphs or angels or some shit like that.

The almost-reverse of the Middle Ages, women’s bodies during the Victorian era was a repressed and under discussed topic. The ideology was that women were entirely asexual, and sex was something that women just do not engage. Essentially, the ideal woman didn’t participate in sex, so her relationship to her body was negative. She was supposed to ignore the existence of her body entirely, and if she refused these expectations, she would be labeled “hysteric,” which is the disease of a roaming uterus. Yeah. If you didn’t already know that, let it sink in for a second. People actually believed that women were unsatisfied with a life as second-class citizens because their uteri were roaming about inside of them. The best part was that if women were diagnosed with hysteria, the solution would be anything from institutionalization to forced hysterectomies.

Many decades later, the switch flipped again in defining the sexuality of women’s bodies. During the 1970s, the sexual revolution occurred alongside the Women’s Rights Movement. During this time, women were encouraged to explore their sexuality and love their bodies, which sounds great. Unfortunately, many gender historians argue that the sexual revolution inherently benefited men because the idea of consent, especially sexual consent, wasn’t considered in terms of access to women’s bodies. It’s also important to note that I mean the broad sexual revolution, not the split in feminist ideology in the 1980s between traditional second-wave feminism and sex-positive feminism.

So, what’s the point of my history lesson? The point is the most recent wave of feminism, the one we’re currently in, focuses on the body and the relationship women have with their bodies. What I’m suggesting is that the focus on women’s bodies seems to stem from the relationship between a woman and her value based in her body, and it seems that this relationship does not only come from the purpose of changing what is “stereotypical.” While we can’t ignore the importance of body issues, and we can’t ignore the racial implications of the whole Nicki/Tay-tay thing, using feminism to focus on the politics of bodies exclusively ignores another crucial element of this hundred-years’ fight: women’s intellect and capability.

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