Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Caricature-izing Femininity

My sister is visiting me here in Brum, UK, with her girl friend. This past weekend we took off on a long road-trip since it was bank holiday weekend. On Sunday afternoon as we sat in a rickety booth in Maggie Dickson's in Edinburgh eating veg haggis (for the uninitiated- YUMMY), sis says that she was finding the city to be quite gender-normative. Now granted we cannot talk about the whole city here since we were mostly in the theatre/ arts quarter where the Fringe festival was happening and I am sure we were floating in a lot of tourists. That said, she had put into words something I had been sort of feeling since I moved to the UK last year.

There isn't enough variation in dressing, attitude, hair, looks...within gender while at the same time there is quite a distinct divide between the genders. So for instance, I see women who are all following the same fashion trend (say WIDE belts slung low over the hips), long-er hair, and high heels tottering around on cobbles in all weather. Everytime I look around, I see women scurrying to keep up with male partners. Their stille-toes however, won't allow them to stride so they end up taking these fast mincing little steps which looks ridiculous rather than sexy. And they always end up walking behind the man (talk about allegorical positioning of the sexes) who can stride and lead the way. Even in the coldest weather, you can see these women wearing hardly anything. They are supposed to look sexy- but goose bumps and a funny walk don't do it for me- but of course, they aren't doing it for me anyway- so hey, WIN-WIN!

Gray on a man – distinguished and even sexy. Gray on a woman – past shelf-life. Admittedly, more and more men are also facing the pressures to conform but nowhere close to what women have to deal with. The hair color industry is reaping the rewards of our conformity to vain ideals. Meantime, studies telling how toxic hair color really is can find hardly any readers. Who cares about health if you can look young and sexy?

We are being shown a caricature of the perfect, sexy and feminine woman with constant images over all media of women like Paris Hilton (blonde, thin, lanky, baby voice, and no substantive messages to detract from her femininity – that would probably spoil it all), Jessica Simpson (same with added bonus of boobs and I’m not talking about the guy she recently divorced), Sienna Miller (umm, I really don’t know what this woman is famous for other than what is called her “Boho” style and the boob that she hangs around), Britney Spears (formerly sexy, now that she is pregnant again, she is losing her spot as a sex bomb while Christina Aguilera continues to retain hers)… This could go on ad infinitum if we looked at all the latest film starlets who are getting the roles, the “super” models, etc. It is as if they are the ultimate in feminine ideal and the last word in sexiness and we can only ever hope to aspire to it.

While I began noticing these trends in the UK, they are definitely not limited to this part of the world by any means. In terms of the ubiquitous “ideal” of the feminine, your personal take on it and how diligently you want to go about tracing it back to its roots- you could say Hollywood was to blame, or the cosmetic industry, or the multinationals, or male-dominated cultures or what-have-you. I want to argue that the supply chain is not where the focus should be if any real change is to be affected in our thinking on this subject. We, as women, need to educate ourselves and think for ourselves.

Why is what is feminine and sexy being defined into a narrower and narrower range? And why are we letting it dictate our own sense of our worth and how we should appear? On the one hand, facial and body hair on women is considered gross (ok perhaps not by you particularly, but you know many people do) and unsexy. On the other hand, as any woman who has been with a partner knows, that whether or not they have passionate sex and how often has nothing to do with whether she shaved her legs and armpits today or at all.

We are told that it is the biological imperative that impels us to be as feminine and sexy as possible. However, feminine and sexy used to encompass a wide range. Well, really it still does except we refuse to acknowledge how much variation there can be in the feminine and how lovely and rich that diversity can be. Women and curves used to be synonymous. Now, curvy is a euphemism for large or fat!!

We don't all have to look like we came from the same mold. Healthy women can come in all kinds of sexy shapes, sizes, colors, hairdos and attitudes. Most pictures you see in magazines are airbrushed so don't go b(u)y those. Aim for feeling at peace with yourself and healthy. You do not have to work on being feminine by buying products or coloring your hair or talking softly or dieting or whatever. You are by definition the epitome of femininity! Don't let the caricature of womanhood being projected all around you pigeonhole your lifestyle, outlook, demeanor, philosophy and attitude. Be You!


April said...

So, to follow up Radhika’s commentary, are mothers “sexy”? Of all people, they ought to be able to embody the feminine, characterize one fragment in the prism of womenhood.

But, as Rad alluded to, they are, it seems, the antithesis of today’s woman. Because you cannot have hips and be today’s choice. Your belly cannot be round or soft if you are to exude sexy appeal. And today, Society encourages women to alter breasts – this one stuns me – so they look just like your breasts look at about 2-3 days postpartum, just as your milk comes in. BUT – and this is so important – you aren’t supposed to actually use them. (God, though not goddess, forbid someone actually see you nursing in public!)

And it seems once someone is pregnant – and gotten past the “cute” stage – membership into that once deliciously fun sector of society where men actually flirt with you is automatically rescinded. It’s almost like when we are becoming mothers we are suddenly becoming THEIR mothers. Why is that?

And, physicality aside, to be a good mother, you have to be unabashedly smart. Clever. Ingenious, even. It is exhausting work keeping up with small brilliant whirlwinds. And, by today’s standards, not very feminine.

I often find myself saddened by how much so many are missing out on. We mothers ARE sexy, at least the ones I know.

Radhika said...

Exactly! But as you point out April- women who are mothers and consider themselves sexy and use their breasts for the purposes intended and have beautiful feminine rounded curves are very few and far between. Most get insecure from hearing that all these celebrities need breast augmentation after breast-feeding; that childbirth loosens the birth canal and leads to unexciting sex (so let's have a c-section(!) they think); that to be sexy, one must fit into some mould rather than be healthy, happy and confident.

Intelligence and motherhood- very nice combo. Let's talk more about this one too. I think a lot of women think of having children as one more item to be checked in a list of "done-that"s in life.