Patriarchal entitlements and Western society’s two cents on female bodies

Charlotte Godziewski

I was recently harassed on the street. A few weeks ago, some French cities tried to impose a ban on burkinis. My sister shared her annoyance about feeling judged for having stopped breastfeeding after 2 months. These events are completely unrelated, yet all three are symptomatic – and demonstrate the omnipresence – of an important patriarchal characteristic of Western societies: the entitlement to exert control over women’s bodies.

 Part 1:

Policing motherhood – pregnant bodies as public goods

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“Fertility is a common good” Poster produced by the Italian Health Ministry released on the occasion of Fertility Day.

As the Italian Ministry of Health reminded us with its uncalled-for fertility campaign, women’s fertile bodies are often, albeit not always consciously, considered a public good. Society thus tends to feel comfortable to comment on it, criticise, give advice, congratulate and what not. Several studies and testimonies stress the feeling of pregnant women being constantly judged, some also reported having received unsolicited lectures and critiques by strangers (Meneses-Sheets, 2013 ; Longhurst, 2005). How is it that everyone seems to have an opinion on what a pregnant woman should and should not do?

You eat raw vegetables? That is irresponsible!

You don’t eat raw vegetables? Aren’t you a little paranoid?

Why does society feel entitled to shame a pregnant woman for having a glass of alcohol or smoking cigarettes? Don’t get me wrong – I am not denying the risks of alcohol and tobacco consumption during pregnancy. Information, prevention, advice and help from a gynaecologist or other relevant (para-)medical staff is crucial, it’s often welcome and sought by the women themselves.

What I find disturbing is this widely accepted notion that anyone, including random acquaintances or complete strangers, can feel free to advise and judge pregnant women. As if a healthy pregnant body was “everyone’s responsibility”. This strikes me as odd, particularly in a Western cultural context which usually emphasises individual responsibility.

As Longhurst (2005) explains, pregnancy is a phenomenon conceptualised within a socio-economic, cultural, political and sexual paradigm. In that sense, it is much more than the mere biological process and relates to practices, social norms, believes, emotions, rules, laws and so on. In the Western context, it seems like society is placing itself in a supervising position over the pregnant women and expects to have agency over their body. Pregnant women can sometimes experience the feeling of being under surveillance, or even being objectified as a vessel for a foetus (Longhurst, 2005).

Besides the bulk of unsolicited advice and opinions, a striking example of how pregnant bodies are considered “public” is the classic touching of the belly. Many pregnant women experience people touching their bellies, which is of course not always a problem. However, people that have a relationship with the woman in which physical contact is normally not included (for example: Lecturer/student, Employee/boss or shopkeeper/customer) sometimes still take the liberty to touch the pregnant abdomen without the woman’s permission (Longhurst, 2005).

And after pregnancy, comes infant feeding. Breastfeeding is a case of culture and public health clash, as well as a complex ideological dilemma. With breasts being over-sexualised, breastfeeding in public is sometimes strongly stigmatised, from people insulting the mothers to others ridiculing them for trying to pump milk at work (Feministe, 2012). There is thus a very strong case for promoting breastfeeding, from a health as well as from a feminist perspective.

But this can be a double-edged sword. Nowadays breastfeeding promotion has become very powerful… with the unfortunate consequence of bottle-feeder shaming.

“Oh, so Mummy couldn’t be bothered to continue breastfeeding?” [comment to my sister]

A simplistic but dangerous dichotomy has crystallised from an initially well-intentioned public health message:

  • Breast is best, so breastfeeding mothers are good mothers
  • Formula feeding is “poison”, so non-breastfeeding mothers are bad mothers. (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)

Of course medical professionals such as gynaecologists, who have a nuanced and comprehensive knowledge on the topic do not usually think in terms of such binaries, but very often society at large does. In turn, women who do not breastfeed tend to feel judged, stigmatised, ashamed of being seen as “a bad mother” (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)

The female body ends up being subjectified as a battlefield for societal issues: Public health promotion, the fight against over-sexualisation of breasts, the de-stigmatisation of breastfeeding in public, the fight against “profit-driven pharma industries” …

I do not doubt the evidence that breast milk has many advantages over formula milk, and providing support for women who want to breastfeed, transforming the public sphere into a safe space for breastfeeding is paramount. However, good quality formula feeding with clean water is not poison, nor does it “merely keep the baby alive”; it is actually healthy, too. The advantages of breast milk are real, but they are given proportionally too much weight compared to the importance of mother’s mental and physical wellbeing (British Pregnancy Advisory Service, 2015).

The combination of stigmatising breastfeeding in public and condemning formula feeding as a moral failure implies that women should not expect to enjoy the same access to the public sphere as men. People expect a woman to breastfeed, but it goes without saying that this should be hidden. It is a patriarchal reminder that at least some parts of a woman’s life are socially expected to be confined in the private sphere, at home.

It is unfair of Western society to turn deaf ear to all the reasons why a woman might choose not to breastfeed, and to make any normative judgments on her choice (Dailey, 2012). Society is prompt to declaim its lectures on the benefits of breastfeeding, but few people, other than healthcare professionals and mothers themselves, are much aware of the prevalence and symptoms of plugged ducts, breast engorgement, mastitis, fungal infections, soar or inverted nipples, low milk supply, oversupply of milk, or breastfeeding-induced pain more generally. There are a variety of valid reasons to choose not to breastfeed (work-related, health and pain related, negative lived experience…) (Schmied and Lupton, 2001).

But most importantly, women shouldn’t have to give an account of their reasons to society at large.

 

References:

Longhurst R (2005) Pregnant Bodies, Public Scrutiny. In: Embodied Geographies – spaces, bodies and rites of passage. (2005 Edition) Edited by: Kenworthy Teather E. Routeledge Taylor and Francis Group. London

British Pregnancy Advisory Service (2015). Breastfeeding and formula feeding. Retrieved from: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/advocacy/briefings/breastfeeding-and-formula-feeding/

Feministe Blog, Guest “Blue Milk” (2012) Why Breastfeeding Is A Feminist Issue. Retrieved from: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/08/26/why-breastfeeding-is-a-feminist-issue/

Dailey K (2012) Formula v breastfeeding: Should the state step in? BBC News Magazine, Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19054045

Meneses-Sheets M (2013) Pregnancy, Politics and the Policing of Women’s Bodies. Truthout Op-Ed Retrieved from: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16243-pregnancy-politics-and-the-policing-of-womens-bodies

Schmied V, Lupton D (2001) Blurring the boundaries: Breastfeeding and maternal subjectivity. Sociology of Health and Illness Vol. 23 p.234 – 250

Williams K, Kutz T, Summers M et al (2012) Discursive constructions of infant feeding:
The dilemma of mothers’ ‘guilt’. Feminism & Psychology 0(0) 1–20

 

Acknowledgements: 

Thank you to my sister for sharing her experiences and allowing me to mention her.

 

 

“The new me!” Weight-loss, re-birth and the immorality of fat.

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by Milly Morris

The young woman leans over, sobbing and shaking, begging Jillian to make it stop. Jillian only gets closer to her face and screams: “UNLESS YOU FAINT, PUKE OR DIE…KEEP WALKING!” The woman continues to walk, tears and sweat dripping down her face as Jillian shouts directly into her ears. (The Official Biggest Loser Season 6 Channel, 2008).

Another man is bent over wheezing as Jillian tells him that she will “break every bone in his body” unless he continues to run. A look of contempt and disgust crosses her face as the man begins to vomit, she tells him to “do it in front of her” so that she knows that he isn’t faking it (Jillian Michaels is god, 2008).

No, these are not clips from a bad prison drama. They are scenes that fans will recognize as normal to the prime-time reality show, The Biggest Loser. The premise of the show is that a group of “morbidly obese” individuals are sent to a ranch where they will compete to lose weight with the help of Jillian and Bob, the show’s personal trainers. Viewers of the show will recognise the “scale” scenes in which the contestants are stripped, weighed and forced to look at “what they have done to their bodies.” Likewise, on YouTube, fans of the show can be treated to an array of clips from past shows showing the contestants “first workout”, which usually involved the group crying and vomiting to the sound of Jillian’s “motivational” screams. At the end of each season, contestants are brought out in front of a live studio audience to show-off their achievement of re-shaping their bodies.

The Biggest Loser sets the standard outline for weight-loss TV; shows such as You Are What You Eat, Secret Eaters and Fat Families all follow this narrative of an “inspirational journey” where contestants can “better themselves.” Along the way on this journey, the audience relishes in the public belittling of bodies that have strayed from the norm. In scenes that are reminiscent of spectators at a Victorian circus, we gasp from our sofas at the up-close shots of their naked flesh, crying: “how could you let yourself get like that?!” and “why don’t they just stop eating?!”

Yes, fat is unhealthy. But why is it that we allow the humiliation and dehumanisation of people because it is “good for their health?” Can it be good for an individual’s health to have “entertainment” shows repeatedly insinuate that someone of your body type is lazy, gluttonous, out of control and – that all important catchphrase – a “drain on the NHS”? Why is it that we prioritize the physical over the mental, ignoring the fact that self-hatred and body-shame are not good for one’s health either? For example, Secret Eaters supports the notion that fat people are not to be trusted, claiming to show individuals “what they think they eat and what they really eat” for the benefit of a smug audience who can rest assured that the fat woman in the office who eats a salad at lunch “isn’t just eating that.” Likewise, Fat Families – a UK reality show based around Steve Miller’s attempt to “wipe out the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the UK” – shows Miller travelling around the country raiding fat people’s fridges as “proof” that being overweight is the responsibility of the individual. As Miller states, they need to “get off their wobbly bums and melt that lard”, implying that fat people need a stern hand to guide them towards the right way of living (Kaibigan, 2015). Once they have completed their weight loss, the “new” individual is subsequently cast off into the sunset to live their more-fulfilled lives “re-born” as a hetero-normatively attractive citizen, reminding the audience that they too can escape the “threat of obesity” and lead a “cleaner” life.

Since the rise of social media, individual’s “weight-loss journey” has been easier to document. One only needs to type in the hashtag “#beforeandafter” or “#weightloss” to find an array of images documenting an individual’s “journey” to a new and shiny body. Whilst these posts can act as a connector to a community struggling with body-shame, they can also obsessively document an individual’s “journey” to a more socially acceptable body and their “re-birth” as a health-conscious citizen that will no longer be a “drain upon society.” Alongside these images, the “clean-eating” movement has become a prevalent part of Instagram; kale and chia seed smoothies, avocado on toast and no-sugar diets all represent individual’s documentation of their “pure” existence. Whilst it must be stated that there is nothing wrong with enjoying a healthy lifestyle, the posts all possess religious undertones that allude to the moral superiority of the “clean eater.” For example, the notion of “clean” foods – vegetables, fruit and grains – compared to dishonest or “sinful” junk-foods play into the concept that those who possess a slimmer body are living a more virtuous life.This can be seen in posts by “clean-eating” Insta-famous individuals, such as Clean-Eating-Alice. Her book, “The Body Bible”, aims to support dieters on their journey to a “cleaner” life and her Instagram feed is decorated with an array of colourful foods to “cleanse” the soul (clean_eating_alice, 2016).

Thus, it is no wonder that we feel it is acceptable to shame fat bodies into “cleansing themselves” of their sins. We have given meaning to each morsel of food that we eat; a chocolate bar is laden with gluttony, shame and weakness whereas a piece of kale represents truth, confidence and will-power. Yet, why is it that the person that relentlessly documents their salads and smoothies online is considered to be any healthier than the person who secretly eats chocolate late at night? The glorification of thinness that pervades our culture has allowed us to view the former as acceptable, as a trait to be praised as inspiring. Social media is based upon the presentation of the “best” version of ourselves, a “highlights reel” in which we gloss over the tarnished aspects of our characters with a pretty filter. The documentation of a “clean-life” or a “journey” to thin body simply reflects the sentiment of what shows like The Biggest Loser – as well as the wider media’s obsession with the “obesity crisis” – have drummed into us about how we are supposed to be happy. However, perhaps the time has come to reconsider our stance on health and happiness with self-acceptance being prioritised over what clothes we can fit into. Likewise, in 2016, compassion and empathy shouldn’t be determined by one’s body size and so rather than pointing and gasping at the fat people trying to run on TV or struggling in the street, maybe it is time for us to look inwards and ask why we are tuning in to watch in the first place?

clean_eating_alice. (2016). clean_eating_alice. Date accessed: 6th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.instagram.com: https://www.instagram.com/clean_eating_alice/?hl=en.

Jillian Michaels is god. (2008). “…I’m proud that I made him vomit”. Date accessed: 5th August 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V19C6ohkZPU

Kaibigan, K. (2015). Fat Families S01 E03 Season One. Date accessed: 5th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPxWiJPTEYk

The Official Biggest Loser Season 6 Channel. (2008). Biggest Loser 6 – Jillian’s Hell & the Yellow Team. Date accessed: 5th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAAPKdQg9hk