Why Do Women "Body Shame" Themselves?
KOLKATA: Notions of patriarchy have so deeply embedded themselves within the mindset of Asian women that in their desperation to keep “in the good books” of those who control their lives and who, they believe love them dearly, inflict terrible torture on themselves. This torture is not because they are masochistic. Even if they are, they have become so because of the tremendous sense of guilt they are brought up in from the moment of their birth.
Asian and African societies have conditioned women to inflict violence on themselves through practices whitewashed as religious or social rituals necessary to the very definition of being a complete woman. The practice of female circumcision among several African communities is a case in point. Fasting without a drop of water on certain auspicious days, for the welfare of the husband and children means remaining deprived of the basic necessity of existence -- food. Women who commit suicide as a result of dowry harassment or domestic violence or as victims of rape are actually inflicting violence on themselves for being the ‘wrong’ sex.
Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research, says “female sexuality has always been seen as a threat to male-dominated society. But a woman’s sexuality is controlled by several rituals and regulations.” The physical destruction of a widow’s beauty by having her shave off her hair or crew it close to her head, which she herself sometimes wilfully complies with, is a part of this patriarchal conspiracy. When her husband dies, she is forced to change her entire lifestyle, her food habits, her dress, her body language. Curbs are placed on her geographical and social mobility. As if she is guilty of living when she has no moral right to! Says Kumari, “the idea is to strip her of any sexual sense of a self.” Exiling widows to Mathura, Vrindavan and Varanasi is to confine them to isolation and alienation from the mainstream, which automatically includes the male gaze. It deprives these women from the other two basic necessities of human existence - clothing and shelter. Their lives are caught in a time warp, in a vacuum from where there is no exit.
My parents were extremely fair-skinned while I was dark and extended family members did not spare a moment to mark me as ‘the dark one’ worried sick about how on earth would my parents marry me in that skin colour? I got married without an ‘articulated” dowry but the scarring continued in my in-law’s place where every member was fair-skinned. I inflicted torture upon myself by wearing very thick make-up whenever I had to go out with my husband without realising that it made me look like a masked terror from a horror film. It took me some time to come out of it.
Mythology spells out legendary tales of violence inflicted by women on themselves for wrongs done unto them by others. Famous feminist writer and activist C. S. Lakshmi mentions one Adirai from ancient texts, noted for her chastity and devotion to her husband. Her husband leaves her for a dancing girl on who he loses all his money. Then he decides to earn some money and takes a ship along with some traders. When news arrives that the ship has sunk, Adirai decides to burn herself as a form of self-punishment. Divine intervention rescues her at the last moment.
Visagai, another legendary woman, chooses to punish herself by entering a nunnery and remaining a spinster all her life because aspersions are cast on her character, linking her to a secret marriage to her cousin Dharmadattan who she was in love with. She was not married to him. To prove this to the world, she becomes a nun.
Avvaiyar, the wandering bard, turns her young body into that of an old woman to make it easier for her to move about and live as a spinster. Her entire youth has to be miraculously taken away from her body just so that she can go on living!
In Nattrinai, a collection of classical poems, there is a reference to one Thirumavunni who was forsaken by her lover. Just to let him know how much she was tortured by this separation, she stood under a tree and cut off one of her breasts. Kannagi pluck out one of her breasts and swears to burn the city of Madurai in anger against the injustice meted out to her husband in the epic Silappadhikaram Punithavati, a devotee of Lord Shiva, takes on the skeletal form because her husband feels that she has divine characteristics and that he cannot lead a normal conjugal life with her. Since her husband no longer needs her body for sex, she gives it up and takes on a skeletal form.
“Blaming one’s own self - one’s body - for the other’s feelings and actions, and considering one’s body merely an agent of provocation, is a way of looking at the body as worthy of punishment. In fact, dealing with the body is such a difficult task that some women in the ancient period have not only to transcend, but literally step out of their bodies, and they need the help of miracles to do that” says Lakshmi.
I have been surrounded by ‘supportive’ men all my life. My late father-in-law insisted that I do not draw the sari over my head and live like a daughter. But he did not forget to add that I should keep my head covered when guests came or I went out. He insisted that I do not stand in the balcony and I did not have the guts to ask him why.
My late father was a self-proclaimed Marxist on the one hand and a Tagorean on the other, a common trait in most Bengali intellectuals then and now. But he bequeathed his entire assets, dispensary, money and the rest to our only brother and did not leave even his precious books to us though he knew reading was our first love inculcated by him and imbibed by his two daughters -me and my kid sister.
The women’s liberation movement has gone through three stages, says Mariella Righini in Ecoute ma difference (1978): femininity experienced as a handicap - in the name of its inferiority; femininity disabled in the world of virility - in the name of equality; womanhood vaunted like negritude - in the name of difference. These immediately bring up three conventional images of women - the docile woman crushed by an inferiority complex; the frustrated woman wanting to be more of a man than the men; and the suspicious woman, vaunting her difference. Every single one of these three images has violence - covert and overt, direct and indirect, third-party or self-inflicted, written into them.
The roots of violence against women are deeply embedded within the patriarchal social structure. That structure which compels the woman to subordination, subservience, and dependence on men; which traps her within the wife-mother-daughter-sister role without offering her access to socially acceptable alternatives as an independent individual.