August 5, 2011

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Although they may not seem like immediate bedfellows, body fat and body hair are surprisingly compatible issues — at least when it comes to talking about female bodies. But that’s not always how they’ve always been seen.

Culturally, body weight is often seen (as least in the world of feminist scholarship) as an issue which (quoting Karin Lesnik-Oberstein) “regulates and controls, or produces (the terminology will depend on theoretical orientation), the female body.”

But where there has been lots of writing, analysis and critical discourse about weight, body hair has mostly been seen as a non-issue by feminist scholars.

Though normalized hair removal for women is one of the most fundamental means of body control we’ve got in this culture, it simply hasn’t garnered the same kind of attention that body fat has.

If it’s mentioned at all, as Lesnik-Oberstein points out in her fascinating book ‘The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair’, it is often seen as the issue solely of concern to a certain kind of feminist:

“In fact, it is one of the ways in which (popular or academic) feminists may define, and distinguish themselves from,‘extremist’ feminists: ‘extremists’, then, are, apparently (there are several versions) man-haters and/or separatists, lesbians (seen negatively), bra-burners, women who wear no make-up, do not shave and see themselves as ‘victims’ of the patriarchy, and – often presented as the most damning charge of all, especially by popular writers on feminism – are not ‘fun’.

But as she points out, feminists exploring issues around body weight (and there are LOTS of them) aren’t forced to align themselves along the same kinds of lines. Instead, body weight activism is “accepted as both an area of serious concern for feminism, and by the same measure it is used as a legitimisation of the continued seriousness and relevance of feminism itself in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: as long as women can so visibly be seen still to be controlled, damaged or even killed by their attempts to comply with a patriarchal ideal, feminism cannot quite so easily been seen as superfluous or superficial by those who would wish to claim it as such.”

In other words, freeing women from the demands of constant body control – at least when it comes to weight – is a legitimate concern in feminist scholarship. Body hair barely ever comes in those conversations, even though women may hate their natural (unshaved, unwaxed) legs and armpits as much as they abhor their fleshy bellies or thighs. In each case, the body in question doesn’t measure up to the (culturally created) ‘ideal’.

But here’s where it gets interesting. As Lesnik-Oberstein explains, culturally ‘fat’ women are seen as ugly and unattractive (because the goal is thinness, right?) — but they’re still undeniably seen as female. “Hairy women, on the other hand, are monstrous in being like men, or masculine,” she writes, meaning people are less sympathetic to the cause, because they’re harder to categorize. They “transgress the boundaries of gender.”

Now, nobody is saying everyone should rush to grow out their body hair in order to put the issue back on the feminist map. But it’s definitely interesting to consider the common issues at play when considering body fat and body hair: they’re both used to control and regulate female bodies.

At the end of the day, fat culture keeps women preoccupied with (and disgusted by) their bodies in the same way that body hair does. It keeps women hating themselves and buying things to try and fix what they perceive as ‘problems’.

In other words: it all counts.

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