The Female Body: How Do We See It (Her?)

History has shown time and again that a woman’s body has been sexualised, objectified and commoditised. It so happens that her body is everybody else’s and by that I mean, everybody else dictates how she positions her body, what she feeds it, how she takes care of it and what she does with it. 

To get a better perspective on what I’m trying to allude, let’s look at the work of Iris Marion Young, a political theorist and social feminist. In her study titled, ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality’ she talks about how differently boys and girls throw a ball and why so. A five-year-old girl will not throw the ball with proper force, speed or aim. Whereas when a five-year-old boy throws a ball he will throw it with full preparation. Girls are not taught to use their bodies to their full capacities. Young also mentions Simone de Beauvoir in her work.”She (de Beauvoir) discusses how women experience the body as a burden, how the hormonal and physiological changes the body undergoes at puberty, during menstruation and pregnancy, are felt to be fearful and mysterious and claims that these phenomena weigh down the woman’s existence by tying her to nature, immanence, and the requirements of the species at the expense of her own individuality.” (Young 1980:139)

A prime example of how women are taught to be timid and demure with their bodies and men are taught the opposite, is the common act of ‘manspreading’. What is manspreading? It is the practice of some men sitting in public transport with legs wide apart, thereby covering more than one seat. But why is it such a big deal? What does this manspreading implicate in the larger scheme of things? Well, manspreading symbolises power, more specifically, the power men possess over spaces that are meant for women and men. And why is this term referred to as ‘man’-spreading? Well, that’s because women are not taught to spread their legs. They must keep their legs together and when elders are around, they shouldn’t even cross them. As bizarre as this may seem, this represents how women are supposed to behave and what they’re expected to give. They’re required to be shy, tender, and gentle and also, give their space to somebody else. 

A really interesting thing to be highlighted is how differently men and women eat. Food and eating habits are integral parts of one’s socialization and help in forming ideas of male and female bodies. Eating has various social meanings. It is gendered and the practice of eating plays an important role in constructing the female body. Women play a significant role in cooking and cleaning. But when it comes to eating, she is not expected to prioritize herself. Ideas of womanhood and femininity are linked to the non-desire for food. Even when they are eating, women are not supposed to ‘gorge’ on food. They are expected to be restrained while eating. 

In most families, it is customary for a woman to serve everybody else in the family and then eat. But why? These are all linked with the ideals of womanhood. In ancient times, it was the role of women to cook, clean and serve at home, and well, these ideas have continued to stay on for aeons. So after they serve, they usually wait for everyone else to be done with their meal, and then they eat. In many households, there are restrictions on how much they should eat even. 

It is imperative to note a lot of times, women themselves put various standards for what they should eat and what their bodies should look like. Where do these standards arise from? One straightforward answer would be the media. We see photos of women models on Instagram and female actors on screen, and they seem to have a certain figure that’s desired by society. Who invented these standards? I don’t know. Some women want an hourglass-shaped body, some want thigh gaps, some want bigger breasts and others want abs. Pop culture has not only idealized and idolised women that fulfil these unrealistic criteria, to put it quite frankly, but have also enforced these rules on every woman. One cannot be an actor or singer if she isn’t between a size 0 to 5. Her talent as an actor or a singer seems to be deemed lower than her looks. Yes, there are a few women slowly being represented who don’t meet all of these “needs” but they’re only exceptions.  And they mostly play side characters or roles of being a plus-size woman or something, never just a woman. There is always a story about her body. 

Furthermore, with so many rules about how a woman’s body should look, there is so much attention towards her body, that there is a level of sexualisation. She hasn’t asked for it but it happens. But, within this sexualisation of her body, it is only okay if society does it. Well, if she feels sexy or wears something to be sexy, it is wrong and calls for unsolicited attention. This is some twisted notion!

Most of us have tried to stay in good health by following meal plans, or/and by downloading apps or watching Youtube videos to help us work out. But, what are our motivations? Are we working out because we want to be fit or because we want to lose weight? Do we eat only three meals a day to stay healthy or to become thin?  Are we clicking pictures for memories or likes? If the answers to these questions are the former, then we see a healthy pattern (pun intended) but if your answers lean toward standards, ideals, and expectations, that’s when it becomes problematic. It is key to emphasise to ourselves and to those around to let these notions go because size does not matter, it is not our story!

– By Vibushita Bhat

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