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Be a Doll, Babe (part 3)

The feminine beauty ideal in a male-dominated cultureThe female body and hence the feminine essence, has traditionally existed as putty in the hands of society's male-dominated outlook.

Throughout human history, that putty has been prodded, kneaded, refashioned, repressed and adapted to fit the shifting perceptions and requirements of masculine culture. Such cultural manipulation by the arbiters of public opinion has spared the male body, while extending long, prying fingers to reorganize and, mainly, to repress, the female body. Culture has always striven to prove that women's brainpower is inferior to men's, but that their bodies merit proactive attention.And attention has, in fact, been lavished upon woman's body, from every possible angle.

Public opinion-shapers (principally the media) have expropriated the female body from its natural owners, transforming it into a symbol that society has shaped as it pleased.The American writer Bram Dicastra, author of The Idols of Distortion, says we are mistaken if we think that toward the end of the second millennium we have liberated the female body from its shackles. The female body, says Dicastra, is just as oppressed and shackled as it was in the nineteenth century, with just one difference: the shackles, no longer external to the woman, are now within her. In the nineteenth century, the female body was suffocatingly trapped inside a tight (man-designed) corset.

Constricted and hobbled by their corset strings, and thus unable to move freely, women became disabled and passive. And the more passive they became, the greater the purity ascribed to them by men's warped perception. To be active means to become a part of what is basically a man's world. The corset, therefore, was a means of sending women a stop signal : "so far and no further! you are incapacitated and passive, and therefore not free to play any role in the world of action- like us men".

The Victorian era even went so far as to instruct young girls in the fine art of fainting. The weaker and the more passive they became and the more skillfully they cultivated the appearance of indisposition, the more exalted and pure women were considered. The cult of female infirmity conferred on upper-class women the license to "fall off their feet" (as the saying went), spending the remainder of their days in the half-life of the mistress of a Victorian drawing room, truly a miserable fate. No wonder so many of them fell insane; female lunacy as an operatic theme was quite ב-la-mode at that time; and whether the woman jumped to her death off a building, or simply poisoned herself - the cause (madness) and the result (death) were invariably identical.

Contemporary notions of beauty also lauded the sick look in a woman: the desired white complexion and red lips were actually signs of tuberculosis - a disease to which operatic heroines frequently succumbed.The medical literature of the Victorian era determined that such female characteristics as menses, birth and even menopause at a later age, were also critical phases that could and would undermine women's health. Women engaging in sport were warned that they were endangering the future of mankind, no less, since their uterus was liable to be ejected.The medical profession prospered by aspiring to control female reproductive capacity.

Physicians (of the masculine sex, naturally) replaced the traditional midwives, ensuring that birth would take place under medical supervision. The masculine establishment ousted women from the midwifery role, claiming that their knowledge was inadequate, and that they had no understanding of the birthing process or of their own bodies that would qualify them to make important decisions. In masculine eyes, the female body appeared to harbor innumerable hazards.Having adopted that stance, it was a short step to deeming all aspects of female sexuality to be menacing or negative, to the point where any woman capable of arousing masculine concupiscence was held to be a temptress, in league with Satan.

Women's sexuality was a force that somehow threatened the male, undermining his confidence, and hence the masculine need to gain control of femininity, and suppress female sexuality by means of social norms. A man of strong passions was seen as healthy and positive, while a female with a healthy sexual appetite was a scarlet woman, an abandoned slut, from whom delicately nurtured youths must be protected. In order to bolster these warped perceptions and beliefs, the masculine establishment surrounded woman's image with darks myths, whose hold still persists even as the third millennium begins. There was, for example, the myth of femininity as an avid engulfing force, a consuming voraciousness.

This myth owed its genesis to the fact that masculinity felt itself threatened by female power, by femininity as represented by the ancient fertility goddess, the goddess of life and renewal, she who is found in almost all archeological excavations in most ancient civilizations.Just slightly farther along the same road lay fertile ground for giving growth to repressive standards of womanly beauty: a thin, half-starved body, a flat abdomen, narrow hips. Appetite for food, symbolizing the appetite for sex, became a negative concept, and the full, rounded female form was deemed unattractive, since it attested to woman's inability to control her passions. The "good" woman (she who could be relied on to do the right thing) controlled her appetite, her lean body proving that she was also capable of controlling her sex drive.

Underlying this "thin is beautiful " motif there evidently lurks a masculine fear of sensuous, passionate, exuberant femininity, the kind that Runs With Wolves (book by Clarissa Pincola Estes). This femininity, with its natural vitality and healthy (sexual) appetite, causes masculinity to feel threatened. If this appetite of woman's can be suppressed, man need no longer fear his inability to satisfy her, and will feel less threatened by her possible infidelity. Hence the message to women: control your passions and your appetite (and remain thin, as a result) and society will reward you appropriately.

So powerful is this message that it does, indeed, manage to curb not only women's appetite for food, but also, to a certain extent, their sexual appetite. The fear of growing fat, and the sense of inferiority regarding their physical proportions that most women entertain, inhibit many of them in bed, since they are uncomfortable with their bodies. They shift position in bed to prevent their partner from touching their thighs, which they consider too heavy; or they refuse to lie on top of him, for fear their breasts won't look good hanging down. They are more preoccupied with their appearance than with their sensations (during the sex act) or their enjoyment.

Some women may therefore be sexually non-responsive, since they are paying much more attention to what their partner supposedly thinks of them than to their own physical pleasure.Any attempt to discover how all this came about, and what place women occupied throughout the history of human civilization, will soon run into difficulties. Inasmuch as men were the authors of all history books, practically nothing can be learned about women other than through the masculine prism. Most nineteenth-century male historians presented women's history as though women had only just begun to evolve and make themselves felt, as they though they had no previous history.

This is an ancient theme, rife with distortions, battles and the silencing of protesting voices.Western woman today enjoys an astounding improvement in both health and life expectancy. Women occupy positions in the entire educational system, in athletics and in the military. While impressive progress seems indicated, these improvements are still not so much essential as cosmetic.

Society is still masculine by definition, is still controlled by men and still serves masculine needs and perceptions.Nili Raam is a renown expert in her field in Israel, as a Comunication Consultant for business, professional and executive improvement. She is authour of a few published books and many articles. niliraam@netvision.

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