THE CULTURAL BURDENS OF THE FEMALE FORM
The absurdity of the Great Burkini Debate of 2016 has captured my attention if only to provide a non-satirical satire of the burden society places on women’s bodies. Somehow, the French have managed to add a whole new layer to the traditional imbecility of our western schizophrenia attached to the female form. This is pretty impressive. As I hope to capture in this post, the many facets symptomatic of what I refer to as social schizophrenia¹ is especially multidimensional when it comes to the female body.
Many French coastal cities have banned “burkinis” a form of swimwear designed by a Lebanese-Australian woman named Aheda Zanetti, ostensibly to free Muslim women to enjoy swimming while protecting their modesty in accord with Islamic customs. Well, that doesn’t sound too problematic. Beaches to the western mind are relatively safe places to be immodest, which is pretty liberating when you stop and think about it. We may not understand the point of going to the beach only to cover oneself up, but protecting one’s modesty is not entirely outside of our understanding and appreciation. I mean, not everyone wears string bikinis to the beach. We all choose levels of dress and exposure that makes us comfortable in any situation. Overall, preserving one’s modesty, even at traditionally immodest places, is still a laudable goal…
Apparently not. According to many French officials, the burkini is an offense to “good morals and secularism.” An ordinance written by Cannes’ Mayor David Lisnard states, “Beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order.” So, in other words, if Muslim women don’t strip the terrorists win!
Does that sound like a bad come-on to you?
So in France, Muslim women preserving their modesty by covering their bodies is such a profound threat to secularism that they must be forced to doff their attire and/or pay a fine. Fortunately, these rules were overturned by a higher court. The fact remains, however, that the defense of secularism was placed squarely on women’s bodies, in this case Muslim women. After all, going to the beach in jeans and a hoodie is certainly not considered a threat to secularism.
This convoluted thinking is an innovation on the typical schizophrenia associated with women’s bodies throughout the western world. Usually, a very different dynamic is involved. On one hand, few things in the western world are as aesthetically admired than feminine physical beauty. Women’s bodies have been the subject of art and literature–and for good reason. There are few images more perfect, more subject to adoration, adulation and desire than the female form.
The above statement is not intended to be lascivious. Yet the fact that I have to be explicit about that is the biggest part of our cultural schizophrenia. My intent is to make an aesthetic statement. That being said, aesthetics is an interaction between the sensual impact of the object, in this case the human form, and the emotional response of the audience. In my case, I must admit, that interaction is influenced by a personal sense of sexual identity.
As much as I can appreciate the male form for its beauty, for me, such an object lacks the erotic impact. My personal aesthetic evaluation of the female form, however, is not divorced from my sexuality, that is, from my desire. An aesthetic interaction with bodies, therefore, is in some part and expression of the erotic. What’s more, it is unclear why it’s expected that the aesthetic and the erotic have to be divorced. After all, if aesthetics is about the overlap between the emotional and the sensual is there anything more emotional or sensual than sexual desire and eros? Does that diminish the nature of the aesthetics…or of sexuality for that matter? It’s certainly not an affront to secularism as is the dreaded burkini.
An ideal understanding of the human aesthetic recognizes and accepts the subjective overlap between aesthetics and erotics in the human form. However, our understanding of the human form is distorted. Social constructs of body aesthetics and sexuality are largely defined by oppressive patriarchal standards that filter our understanding of human beauty, let alone gendered beauty. If we are to liberate this very central component of our body experience, for those who wear the burkini to those who bare all, we need new body paradigms. If we hope to truly benefit from a genuine, mutual joy and admiration of and for each other as men and women, as erotic and aesthetic beings, we must contend with our base standards of masculinity and sexuality.
Let’s start with the expressed focus of this blog, that it is about women’s bodies, and the underlying perceptions of the female bodily aestheticism as sexual. After all, this is not a post about “bodies” in general. It is specifically about women’s bodies. Why not men’s bodies? The male form as a medium of artistic expression is just as aesthetically pleasing as the female. There is no valid artistic distinction between the male and the female form as a mode of expression. Nor is the male form any more divorced from sexual desire for the audience so inclined than is the female. How is the female body in form and effect different from that of the male?
We can answer this last question with another. Is there an equivalent male analogue to the burkini debate? Of course not. Let’s face it, the burkini is designed to protect sexual modesty on the part of the woman. Male Muslims wear what they want without regard to perceptions of their bodies as a sexual objects. This is true throughout the Eurasian tradition. The male body can be evaluated based on a wider range of independent aesthetic criteria, strength, symmetry, grace, militarism, robustness and, yes, the excitation of sexual desire. But no one standard is definitive.
The female form, on the other hand, is definitively bound to sexuality in a manner that is simply not true for the male. Any evaluation of grace, strength, or symmetry in the female form is bound to its sexual appeal. This is largely true because the default observer, the understood generalized gaze judging the aesthetics, is that of the hetero-normative male. Muslim women must protect their modesty in the presence of the male gaze. Bikini clad women, on the other hand, are presenting themselves to the male gaze, to male observation and judgement. Furthermore, this male gaze is infused with sexual desire.
Ideally, the pairing of sexual desire and body aesthetics should not be an issue. Sexuality is a part, but only a part, of body expression. A heterosexual male may appreciate the “sexiness” of the female form in a manner that is simply not true for his aesthetic appreciation of male bodies, the latter of which, at least in the United States, he must repress. Also, we must accept that body aesthetics can inspire sexual desire from a diversity of gendered perspectives. Hetero-normative women may appreciate the sexual appeal of the male form, as certainly holds true for all variations of erotic desire. Sexuality and desire are bound, in part, to the human form–and thank the gods for that. Recognizing the erotic in the human form should not be considered shameful or lascivious in and of itself unless one can only recognize the erotic, is fixated on the sexual. That is lasciviousness, a dehumanization of the body.²
Yet again, we must contend with the fact that the way the female body is bound to sexuality and to the scrutiny of male desire is qualitatively different from that of other expressions and perceptions of aesthetic eroticism. Lasciviousness is integral to how men are socialized to respond to the female form. That difference emerges from the long reified construction of male domination–of patriarchy.
The artistic expressions of the ancients show little difference in the aesthetics of the human form overall. From what has survived, masculine beauty was respected as much, if not more so than the feminine. That is no longer true. What happened?
Over time, a paradigm of body aesthetic and sexuality evolved in terms of patriarchal patterns of dominance. The erotic, which by all virtues should be a personal expression of aesthetics and sexual identity, instead became something to be possessed by powerful men. Male sexuality became a subject of domination, a process of dehumanization, while female sexuality was subsumed into an object to be dominated. Sex, as distinct from eroticism, became a means and an end of male dominance. Consequently, the female form was transformed from an aesthetic pleasure into a singular locus for the sex act. Appreciation for the body aesthetic was lost and replaced by the prurient gaze, a tool for domination, a possessive expression. This woman’s body is mine to gaze upon, to scrutinize, to possess.
Consumerism has only inflamed this construct. Everywhere we look the female form is not only a singular locus for male desire, but is further degraded as a tool for inciting desire in conjunction with consumer products. This creates a peculiarly schizophrenic link. The female body is the object of male possession. The female body is associated with a hamburger. The male must possess the hamburger. Consequently, our consumerist culture not only demeans the aesthetic beauty of the female form, but degrades sexuality for both men and for women. By degrading human beauty with consumerism the entire mission of the artistic and personally expressive enterprise is diminished. All in one fell swoop.
A woman protecting her modesty, suddenly, doesn’t seem so unreasonable any more. That doing so should be considered an affront to secularism should only give us pause about the kind of secularism we’ve created. And yet the very fact that modesty is seen as something that needs to be protected from the male gaze is just as constraining as is the degradation of sexuality and its associated body aesthetic.
Whether covered by the burkini, or a bikini, or fully exposed for all to see, the female body in the contemporary era has become a schizophrenic battleground in which power paradigms are reinforced and, in the last fifty years or so, resisted. In the modern era, women’s bodies are, at the same time, more acutely objectified and defined in terms of patriarchy and sexuality as well as a locus of resistance on the part of women trying to break free from objectification.
One latent casualty of this resistance, however, is the emotional legitimacy of male desire. Men are induced to feel shame for their own erotic desires. They don’t know where to look, how to act. There is no paradigm for men to express aesthetic appreciation for feminine beauty that is not also bound to patriarchal expectations of power and dominance. The language does not exist. As one of my older male students once exclaimed in frustration, “what do you want us to do? We think you’re beautiful; we want to look at you; we want to have sex with you; we want to get to know you. How are we supposed to do that?” The simple answer, “just treat us with respect,” was unsatisfactory. The linguistic and interpretive norms of respectful male expression simply do not exist. Male sexuality is so completely structured around paradigms of dominance. Five thousand years of patriarchal discursive formations have blotted out any alternatives that may have existed.
Evan a man who wants to be respectful, who embraces feminism, who recognizes the subjective worth of the women around him, finds it almost impossible to express this level of appreciation in which the male gaze and masculine desire is understood absent of patriarchy and dominance. He recognizes his female peers as being equal in human worth; he sees and appreciates their “personhood.” But he still gazes, he still desires, and that is indistinguishable from patriarchy.
In the meantime, women want to be desired. Understandably, they want to be desired as subjects, as individuals, independent and liberated selves. Yet the only available means of expressing the erotic is through traditional patterns of sexuality defined by patriarchy. She must present herself to the male gaze, and that male gaze is congruent with power and dominance. So any presentation of an erotic aesthetic is also premised with a patriarchal dynamic.
And here we have the multidimensional nature of this schizophrenia. Men and women, both at the same time subjects and objects, both desiring and wanting to be desired, both appreciating the aesthetic beauty of the other in terms of a sexuality and eroticism defined by patriarchy, are trapped. Men must either abandon any expression of desire out of some confused sense of respect for female personhood, which they really are incapable of doing, or they must turn their backs on the effort. In the latter case, embracing traditional, exploitative masculinity is, at the very least, familiar and comforting. It’s also empowering, and power is a strong drug. At the same time, women are caught between the satisfaction of being desired and the resentment of being objectified.
The Burkini is looking more and more like a good idea.
But it isn’t.
You see, the point of this jargon laced screed is to point out that the problem isn’t the objectification, the sexualization of the female form. All human beings are, at the same time, subjects and objects in themselves and in their relations to others. There is no other alternative. We are all going to be objectified to greater or lesser extent. The problem isn’t the association of eros to the body aesthetic. We are sexual, we are erotic, we desire and we derive great joy from this fact.
The problem is twofold. First, and most critically, is the association of sexuality with historical patterns of male dominance. Second, is the divorce of the feminine body erotic from the body aesthetic. Women’s bodies, in such a context, are defined in terms of a sexual desire that is, in turn, defined by male dominance. When patriarchal mechanisms of sexual domination define how women express, or repress their own body aesthetic, be it in burkinis or bikinis, that is a manifestation of oppression. And oppression will be resisted. But so long as we are focusing on unrealistic expectations of erotic self denial in the interests of sexual liberation, we are swatting at gnats, leaving no one satisfied.
A true sexual revolution must take the body aesthetic and the body erotic into account and create the language and the norms for expressing both that recognizes the basic human dignity of women and men, of hetero-normative or gendered/sexually diverse. This can only be done in the following context.
The formation of a body ethic that emphasizes and prioritizes health and personal satisfaction–health and satisfaction in which the erotic is a recognized and respected part.
We are all, to a certain extent, objects to those around us. There is no escaping that fact. How we dress, how we shape our physical appearance, even shape our bodies, is an attempt to influence that objectification. We are trying to manifest an outward, objective, expression of our subjective selves. So we may dress “professionally” in order to objectively present our professional subjectivity. We may design work-out regimens that shape our bodies and help us project an impression of strength, vitality, vigor. All of these are examples of a body aesthetic.
Yes, we also present our physical appearance in ways that suggest an erotic self. This may be done as a part of our everyday presentation of self. There may be times when we want to emphasize the erotic over other dimensions of our self-hood. Regardless, how we shape our objective selves should be an aesthetic expression of self-hood, an individual work of art. Evaluating such expression should emphasize a healthy relationship between the self and the outside world.
The recognition of a body aesthetic, a laudatory presentation of the physical as an expression of self and of autonomy that is not prescribed by any dominant group or performed for the benefit of any such power dynamic. This body aesthetic must be divorced by norms of body ‘type.’
This should stand in marked contrast to the often self-destructive relationship many of us have in presenting our bodily selves, which manifests in the form of eating disorders and the use of hormones and other drugs for shaping our body image at the expense of our physiological and psychological well-being. Objective presentation becomes a problem, a fetish, when instead of expressing ourselves, our self-hood, we conform our personal appearance to the expectations of others, we submit to regimes of power and dominance. Furthermore, especially among men in a patriarchal society, we expect such submission on the part of the objects of our desires.
Changing the focus from conformity to expectations to presentation of a personal aesthetic must be the first step of liberating men, women and all gender variations from patriarchal domination. Presenting one’s self in terms of personal aesthetics means attracting those who appreciate that form, much like some are moved by French Impressionism while others prefer German Romanticism, some are carried away by Mozart while others, like myself, get lost in a B. B. King blues lick. No more self injurious attempts to conform to a prescribed, patriarchal “body image.”
The complete divorce of norms for sexual desire and expression from patterns of dominance.
A healthy appreciation for the erotic, for expression of one’s sexual self-hood is impossible when emphasis on one’s sexuality becomes a singular fetish. This has been the effect of associating sex with male dominance, as an expression of power. We are all, to greater or lesser extents, sexual beings. We may all present an erotic self, shaped by our desires. We also project our desires, our sense of sexual self on an erotic understanding of others. That is true even if it is not the intent of the person who is presenting their selves to others. Sexuality, desire, eroticism, are integral to our human identities.
As human beings, we are also involved in a daily project of presenting ourselves to others. In doing so we shape an image that is, in part, an objective expression of self. It is also, in too many ways, a constraint in which we shape our selves to the expectation of others. This latter may be an unavoidable component of human interaction, but it does not have to be a mechanism for oppression.
What is not integral to our human identities, what has been constructed and reified over time, is patterns of human dominance. In the contemporary era, this is shaped by patterns of patriarchal dominance as well as cultural norms of consumerism, of “marketing oneself.” In our society there is a gossamer distinction between presentation of self and commodification of self. This is especially true for women whose bodies of been conscripted for marketing and advertising purposes.
Sexuality, in its ideal form, should be part of the presentation of self as an expression of an individual aesthetic, not as an expectation of the culture. Certainly not as an expectation of the market. For that to happen, all forms of patriarchal dominance must be confronted until dropped. Wearing a burkini as an expression of personal modesty, even piety, in such an aesthetic is fine. Doing so out of a sense of obligation to an institution, or to the satisfaction of others, or in deference to the male gaze, is a response to dominance and to oppression. Wearing a bikini out of a sense of personal pride in one’s physicality, or even because it’s hot and you would rather not be burdened with so much fabric. If these are free decisions and manifestations of self then that is in concert with respect for human dignity. If we are wearing the bikini out of a sense of obligation, of marketing our bodies, we are submitting to the patriarchal foot on our necks.
In the case of those who may be the audience to their presentation, we will attract those who appreciate the particular presentation we offer. Every culture has ideals of beauty. These ideals are often achievable by a diminishing number of the population. We all, however, can present ourselves as an aesthetic project, regardless of how closely we approximate the ideal. We can all express qualities that will be attractive to others. Whereas ideal physical beauty may be exclusive to a small number of people, personal, aesthetic beauty is a universal trait. It is in this approach to human potential, to human expression, that we are liberated from patterns of dominance and demands for commodification of the self.
The formation of new paradigms of the erotic to replace paradigms of patriarchal sexuality.
How do we, as men, interact with others outside of given paradigms of male dominance and privilege. Really, we are hard pressed to do so. If we are going to undertake a project of the human aesthetic, then there must be corresponding norms and discursive formations for expressing appreciation for this aesthetic project. This post was very difficult to write because we are lacking norms and linguistic arrangements that are not bound by patterns of dominance. This fact serves to reinforce patriarchal standards.
This involves establishing norms that recognize the legitimacy of male desire while also allowing men the ability to express that desire without mindlessly reinforcing male privilege and dominance. The men I’ve talked to on the topic, comprising a variety of ages, want to be able to express appreciation for feminine beauty and are not necessarily interested in dominance. Many, however, are at a loss as to how to do that. When I say, “you have a pretty smile,” am I offering a sincere appreciation for the aesthetic quality of her smile, or am I reinforcing the my own dominance as one who presumes the authority to judge? Where is that line drawn? How do I make myself clear?
The recognition that human sexuality, in all of its diverse forms, is an integral part, but only a part, of the dynamics of a body erotic and a body aesthetic.
In the last few years we have seen an great expansion of discursive forms and social movements challenging the established dichotomy of masculine and feminine gender norms. Terms like “transgender” and “cisgender” have made their way into the mainstream consciousness. This is a liberating project, but it is also a challenging one. Any free aesthetic of the self must contend with the fact that many different variations of human sexual identity and erotic expression will be presented. Each may well challenge our values and our understanding of human nature.
Overall, this is a healthy aspect of human growth and awareness. A liberating project must correspond with an ethics of tolerance and acceptance. Imagine the beautiful tapestry of humanity that can result from millions of people all involved in an aesthetic of self, artists of the body.
The above may sound daunting, unrealistic, flying in the face of human nature. Our schizophrenic understanding associated with women’s bodies is the result of as much as five thousand years of reified masculine structures than can no longer be sustained by culture emphasizing equality. So many millennia of constructs cannot be turned around over night. This liberating project may take generations to fulfill, but that should not stop us from taking the first initial steps…
..even if those first initial steps means confronting the dual absurdity of the Burkini-Bikini debate.
- To my knowledge, I’m the only one who uses the term social schizophrenia as a mode of analysis. So what do I mean by this term? Social Schizophrenia is the condition in which existing social constructs no longer coincide, or even conflict with, the realities of everyday lived experience. This is especially true with regard to sexual expression in the United States. On the one hand, we are imbued with sexual and sexualized imagery. On the other hand, we still hold to puritanical discourses when it comes to actually addressing sex and sexuality as a real component of our lives.
- This posts was one of the most difficult that I’ve ever written. You may have noticed that it has been a while since I last posted and, this particular post is rather lengthy. I endeavor to write posts that can be appreciated by the non-sociologist, the lay student of society. In most cases this is not difficult. When it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, however, the language for elaborating a liberated understanding of the topic simply does not exist outside of the academic fields of gender studies (and gender studies is not my specialty). So I find myself using terms in such a way that may not be familiar to the lay audience.
- Aesthetics: Has to do with artistic expression and the evaluation of art. In this case, I’m proposing the formation of a body aesthetic over the already existing concept of a “body image.”
- Sexual vs. Erotic: Our society understands these terms as mostly synonymous. This is characteristic of patriarchal social dynamics that identifies the sexual with the sex act as a means of dominance and an ends of status. For purposes of this analysis, however, sexual refers to internalized sexual identity and desire. Erotic refers to expression of desire to and with others. In this case, I’m suggesting that the sex act should not be understood as an ends in and of itself, but as an erotic act, an expression of personal and inter-personal desire.
- Subjective vs. Objective: These are standard sociological terms that may be confusing to lay readers. Subjectivity refers to one’s ability to consciously act toward one’s own ends and in one’s own interests. We all, more or less, possess a certain amount of subjectivity. Objectivity is the state in which one is acted upon, even if we are acting upon ourselves. In micro-sociology, we understand that human beings are uniquely capable of understanding ourselves as an object. We can see ourselves through our own eyes. We are also, in part, objects to others.