Feminists spend a lot of time thinking about female bodies, the ideal female body, and how society constructs and approaches that body. However there is one element of the ideal female body that seems to be somewhat neglected, and that is the fact that it is often treated as a body that should be immortal. It’s common to hear that the female body should be without blemishes, but this goes beyond things that people simply find unattractive, and moves into the realm of a body that does not show that it could be injured or die. As a clear example, on a man, a scar is considered sexy, whereas women are expected to cover scars. We can see this in a variety of media, for example Bend it Like Beckham, in which Jess feels deeply ashamed of the scars on her legs, or many episodes of Say Yes to the Dress in which women with scars find the process of finding a wedding dress difficult and upsetting.
How else do we see the ideal female body constructed as something that should be immortal and outside the realm of the animal? A phenomenon that has been largely documented is the fear and disgust aimed towards women’s bodies as they age. The plethora of products and procedures aimed at keeping women looking young is overwhelming, and illustrates that something is driving us to prioritize female youth. The older we get, the closer we appear to be to death and the more fear we elicit. Another illustration of this is that women with cuts, bruises, or other injuries are often viewed as disgusting or embarrassing. As an individual with prominent cuts, I have become highly aware of the judgmental looks I get for having a body which is not smooth and unblemished. When a boy shows up with a broken leg he gets “boys will be boys”. Girls get looks of pity. Finally, female bodies are expected not to show any signs of being truly animal: women are supposed to hide that they pee, poo, fart, belch, sneeze, vomit, or do anything else that’s a sign they might do basic animal things like have a digestive tract or get sick. If you think that women aren’t policed on these fronts, watch a women the next time she belches in public and you’ll see what I mean.
But why is it that women are policed in all of these ways that signal mortality? What is it about women’s bodies in particular that make us anxious about our own death? While men are subject to some of these same stigmas, they are much more active when applied to women: why? All I can provide is a few theories as to why this might be.
In much feminist theory, people posit that women’s bodies are considered closer to nature. Male/female is often mapped onto other dichotomies such as culture/nature, rational/emotional, and good/bad. Some people posit that the fact that women give birth reminds others of the fact that we are born and thus we will die, and because of that it elicits anxiety over our animal nature. In previous posts, I’ve discussed how we often feel disgust towards things that remind us that we are animal and mortal. Taken together these two theories could give some insight into the idea that women’s bodies are viewed as disgusting unless they are heavily policed. If women’s bodies are a constant reminder that we are animals, whereas men’s are viewed as inherently more cultured, it makes sense that culture would try to “fix” women’s bodies by pulling them further and further from signs of mortality.
In addition, men are often viewed more as autonomous beings than females are. Women are viewed in relation to men: as wives or mothers, as daughters, or simply as vessels or objects. Because women are often viewed as a man’s other half or as a man’s property, the knowledge that a woman is fallible may reflect back to a man that he also is fallible.
The framework of mortality may be a useful way to bring together a number of the ways that women are policed, particularly women’s bodies, and it may be a useful front on which to challenge some of the inappropriate expectations of women. If anyone has further research on this topic or wants to flesh out some of these ideas, I would love more insight.