The Female Body Police: Reinforcing patriarchy with body-shaming

By Ntombenhle Shezi (@NtombenhleShezi) and Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

Indeed, body-shaming is entirely keeping within the normative behaviour of our patriarchal society. And as Mazibuko points out, what is perhaps more hurtful and harmful, is that it is also the normative behaviour of women. Image is something is sensitive to all women regardless of size or stature and yet in many cases, it is women who have taken it upon themselves to be the judge of what is and isn’t acceptable to see of another woman’s body.

A woman in a skintight, flesh-colored outfit, complete with African beads and ostrich feathers is thrust onto the stage in Piccadilly, London. Her semi-naked display leaves little to the imagination.

After seeing a naked woman in public two women comment: “She had a flat ass for a African woman”. Whilst another says, “She didn’t have a nice body, everything was saggy and she had hair. Afroman was better.”

A woman is praised for not hiding her ‘post-baby belly’ in the ten-minute walk from the hospital entrance to the car.

Someone says to a fellow colleague: “You should have a burger…no wonder you’re so grumpy. You aren’t eating”. This is the same colleague who a year ago asked if the person in question was “Okay “and not “pregnant or anything”.

During a parliamentary debate, a male MP rises and says a certain female MP: “ “may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable.”

The first scene is the experience of the so-called ‘Hottentot Venus’, Saartjie Baartman, paraded as a freak-show in Europe for her ‘oversized’ bottom and genitals.

The second scene is commentary from two women on the woman, popularly referred to as ‘Braveheart’ on social media, who embraced Madiba statue while naked.

The third is from tabloids commenting on Kate Middleton’s ’brave’ walk after the birth of her son. The same set of tabloids that in less than 48 hours after Prince George’s birth went on to have cover stories such as that of OK Magazine, which read “Kate’s Post-Baby Weight Loss Regime”.

Kate Middleton baby bump

The fourth scene is a personal experience. After a series of lifestyle changes, within a year I went from being viewed as unhealthily skinny, to too fat to unhealthily skinny again. The colleague was a woman.

In the last scene, the comments were made during a parliamentary debate last year and were aimed at former DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. She responded to this saying: “I’ve experienced sexism of every different kind, from comments about my hair and my clothes to my body, to my age, to my stature…But it’s depressing to be in a parliament that has so many female members willing to condone their male counterparts resorting to sexism and ageism and all kinds of other divisive tactics simply to score political points. It’s a real feature of the patriarchal nature of South African society mirrored in our parliamentary debate.”

lindiwe

Indeed, body-shaming is entirely keeping within the normative behaviour of our patriarchal society. And as Mazibuko points out, what is perhaps more hurtful and harmful, is that it is also the normative behaviour of women. Image is something is sensitive to all women regardless of size or stature, yet in many cases, it is women who have taken it upon themselves to be the judge of what is and isn’t acceptable to see of another woman’s body.

Media plays a significant role and this does not escape outlets that are female-driven and/or female-target media. In her article titled “Women’s Magazines: Reinforcing the Patriarchy Using Women to Police Women”, feminist writer Louise Pennington (@LaStewPot) speaks to the patriarchal ‘Fuckability Test’ prevalent in women’s magazines, saying: “Women buy magazines that tell them that they can only be one of two things: fuckable or invisible.”

While more progressive women’s magazines have moved away from depicting beauty encapsulated as a size zero towards more body-positive messaging , curvier figures are still over-cropped and airbrushed.

the good, the bad

Earlier this year, Elle USA’s had four covers for their Women in Television issue. They featured Zooey Deschanel , Amy Poelher, Allison Williams and Mindy Kaling. Out of all four covers, Kaling’s image was the only one in which her body was not shown in full (and the image was also black and white). This caused outcry on social media networks from fans of The Mindy Project, who questioned whether the star would have had a different cover if she wasn’t considerably curvier than the others. Despite this, the star came to the magazines defense stating, ““I love my @ELLEmagazine cover. It made me feel glamour & cool. And if anyone wants to see more of my body, go on thirteen days with me.”

Women in TV elle


gaborey elle image

This was similar to their 25th Anniversary issue in 2010 in which, once again, there were four cover stars. The curviest of the four, Gabourey Ridley Sidibe’s image was cropped down to show only her face and shoulders.

While it is encouraging that the magazine are featuring women you would not usually see on the cover of fashion magazines, it is uncomforting to see a menacing sense of the censure and erasure of the fuller female figure.

To be fair on the media, as Pennington points out, feminist and collaborative blogs like Jezebel, F-Word, Hoodfeminism, RealColoredGirls, For Harriet and Vagenda are replacing the old guard of women’s magazines that reinforce those stereotypes. As she notes, “the Internet might be responsible for the explosion in violent pornography but it’s also the place of a deeply subversive underground of brilliant women writers who are fighting back; refusing to police the behaviour of other women in order to receive some crumbs from the Patriarchy’s Table of Plenty.”

As this happens, black women’s bodies in particular remain a target for ridicule and caricature. In ‘Big butts and blackface: Why we need more naked women in Sandton’, Sisonke Msimang wrote: “This week, when two young white women students at the University of Pretoria popped up on Facebook, smiling crazily from underneath brown painted faces, their shirts stuffed with pillows and their butts padded to the extreme, I felt as though they were reasserting the dominant image of black women that is all-pervasive in the media.”

Pretoria students black face

It felt like Sarah Baartman all over again.

On the flipside, ‘traditionally black female bodies’ are celebrated for being much curvier and voluptuous in body-positive messaging. Unfortunately, it is the same traditional system that has shunned black women who have more ‘European’ bodies. Traditionally, being plumper was a sign of prosperity, whilst being thin was a sign of poverty and, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, of ill-health.

As cultures have become more Westernised and skinniness has became the ideal, slimmer women face the onslaught of slogans such as ‘real women have curves’ and ‘only dogs want bones’ that are often bandied about as a way of reclaiming a sense of body positivity.

Body Shaming

There is nonetheless, what might be termed a thin or skinny privilege. Being skinny in Western cultures is seen as being something that speaks to competence, discipline and hard work. This while being bigger can be seen as a sign of laziness, greed and incompetence. These harmful stereotypes have real world consequences both in our social and professional lives, particularly for women.

That a woman is often evaluated based on her appearance, even where it is irrelevant, is symptomatic of an increasingly materialistic and patriarchal society. Shaming each other to make ourselves good and to gain favour with other women and with patriarchy is part of a game which needs to stop.

As media consumers, we need to stop financially supporting media built on body-shaming and humiliating other women, whether they are ‘big’ or ‘small’. Importantly, before we ask anything of men, we as women we also need to stop with the comments and evaluations made in our social and professional settings.

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