The Fight Over Women’s Bodies


Reading the news today I encountered yet another story from Pakistan about a young woman having had acid thrown in her face leading to disfigurement. In this instance the attack was by an older brother who had been making advances which were consistently spurned.

Meanwhile in France there is an ongoing legal struggle over a ridiculous attempt by the state to ban the burkini (a full body bathing suit favoured by some Muslim women not unlike bathing suits of the 1920’s era). This, of course, is being done in the name of “freeing” women from the shackles of a patriarchal culture and faith.

It is interesting that whenever women are spoken about the dialogue seems to revolve around their bodies and their faces. This points to a not-so-subtle reality that a woman’s physical beauty is being treated as her only value. In a culture’s overt physical attacks on women like throwing acid or in their attempts to defend women, again by focusing on her body, all that is done is a reinforcing of the idea that a woman is only valuable in so much as she is desirable and beautiful.

When a state like France focuses its liberation efforts on women by banning what they can do with their bodies (in this instance covering them too much) they betray that age-old patriarchal bias that says “your body and what you do with it is our business” thus again reinforcing the idea that a woman’s only asset is her body which leads to all kinds of social and cultural repressions – “your worth is in your bodyif you do not appear to be beautiful to us (generally men) then you have diminished or little value“.

The idea that women’s physical beauty is valuable means that, like gold, it has been and continues to be treated like a commodity – a raw material that can bought and sold (or treated as such) to the benefit of the buyer and seller – no one is generally concerned about the commodity. There are still many places where women can be literally bought and sold. The sex trade is a perfect example.

Now what do we do with our gold and valuables? Why we hide them of course. We lock them away and keeping them well covered from coveting eyes unless it serves our purpose and then we blatantly show them off like so much jewelry at a society function.

Society, in its attempts to offer greater freedoms to women, still ends up speaking in a language that revolves suspiciously and primarily around her body. There are constant pressures toward weight loss, fitness, fashion and make-up etc. which all centre on how a woman looks and the mantra that “looking good can lead to feeling good“.

The most insidious thing about these pressures is that, in and of themselves there’s nothing wrong with burkinis, bikinis, toplessness, nakedness or head-to-toe covering, make-up, working out, losing weight, etc. – the real issue is the root motivator behind the pressures – “be beautiful” because therein lies your value when it should be “you are beautiful with or without any of these things because your primary value (and thus your equality) is not in your beauty (inside or out) but in your humanity.”

I have a teenage daughter and I am constantly fighting the kinds of societal pressures that make me want to lock her up – the same kind of pressures I never felt with my sons.

Ultimately what I hope for her is that she decides who she wants to be and how she wants to be based solely on who she is and not due to external pressures to dress a certain way and look a certain way. You know – the things I take for granted for myself and my sons.


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