by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Star Magazine, July 4, 2008]
“What’s better than a hot girl?”
“Her twin sister!”
This was the obnoxious tag line that ran for an international beauty pageant for twins recently televised live all across the world. ‘Stunning pairs’ walked down the ramp, while judges and spectators scrutinised every nook and cranny of their bodies to find that ‘perfect’ pair of twins.
Such objectification of women’s physical beauty in a public space is neither new, nor unique. The various waves of feminist movements brought strong role models for women’s economic emancipation and independence from social conformity. This feminist revolution has brought many advances, but a backlash through open objectification of a woman’s physical appearance and representation in media is also underway.
From fairy tales like ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, where the happy ending requires falling into the arms of a handsome prince, to such popular television shows as ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Ally Macbeal’, and ‘Desperate Housewives’, the main character[s], besides being smart and successful, are required to have the perfect bodies. In the case of Ally Macbeal, a bright lawyer, her only insecurity in life is that she will lose her perfect body and so she always wears the shortest of skirts to enhance that image. Global societies, with all the positive role models (it is generally established that Hillary Clinton lost her candidacy because of her links to ‘old politics’ and not her gender), still makes women’s physical beauty the ultimate consumer product.
In a conservative society like ours, sexual objectification of women is all-pervasive. In a recently published directory of women journalists in Bangladesh, there were the names of some very accomplished women working as reporters and editors. But there were also names of newscasters who were students at universities, introduced as serious journalists. They did not come from journalism backgrounds. What they did have were picture-perfect faces. To hear news of how monga is affecting the North, or how price of rice is affecting a struggling middle-income family, from such dolled-up faces make for strange contrasts. Is it that viewers will decide which news programmes to watch based on the appearance of the newscaster? Sad news if so.
The media does tremendous damage when it comes to shaping the mindset of society. If companies are not trying to sell their beauty products using a social stigma (in the case of fairness lotions), they are using gender stereotypes (the poor girl told off by her husband for not knowing how to cook) to sell their cooking spices. The woman in the spice commercial still manages to look ‘perfect’ while crying her heart out in the kitchen. If it wasn’t bad enough that perfectly made-up dancing girls, rescued from a falling mountain or told to go into the kitchen, are role models for today’s teenagers, a new arrival has made the scene even worse. It seems that our media is bent on starting this objectification even earlier in the life cycle. Take Dighi, a child actress and model. If her perfectly phorsha skin wasn’t enough, she is made to wear full-fledged make-up in all the TV commercials and billboards she appears in. While in the west parents are increasingly aware of what toys their daughters play with (hence the growing unpopularity of 36-18-33 Barbie), parents of little girls in Bangladesh have something new to worry about — the artificially made-up child models like Dighi.
So what impact does living in a culture that treats the female body as a consumer object have on impressionable young women? Research from various sources suggests that girls and women are negatively impacted by the constant onslaught of cultural messages of female body as a public domain for all to evaluate and ‘consume’ (Bordo, 1993; Cusumano & Thompson, 1997). When girls are socialised to self-objectify, they begin to internalise an observer’s view of one’s own body (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). That is, the constant barrage of comments on women’s bodies in general and in some cases, their own bodies in particular, make them look at their own bodies as objects that need to be perfected. The repercussions? Depression, appearance anxiety, body shame, sexual dysfunction, concentration problems and eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia) are only a few among a growing list of crises gripping young Bangladeshi urban women and girls.
In our society, an added social ill is sexual harassment in the streets, ironically termed ‘eve teasing’. According to a study by BNWLA (Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association), more than 80 percent of girls and young women have been victims of ‘eve teasing’ at some point in their lives (following a study conducted on 1000 girls and women in Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Khulna and Cox’s Bazar). We can safely assume that the 20 percent who said that they were not victims either do not go out of home much, or are always accompanied by someone. ‘Eve teasing’ after all is a favourite pastime of many men of the country. Seventy-four percent of the respondents said that delinquent teenage boys, local hoodlums, rickshaw pullers, bus drivers, street vendors, traffic police and often bosses, supervisors, or colleagues of working women harass them by uttering indecent comments. According to the study, in the last two years a total of 12 girls committed suicide where eve teasing worked ‘as a factor either directly or indirectly behind the incidents’.
But such behaviour is expected as a consequence of a puritanical and sexually repressive society, especially one in which women traditionally have no voice in their families, either as mothers, wives or daughters. This behaviour can also be attributed generally to an idea originally coined by Sigmund Freud ‘castration anxiety’, which refers to a deep-seated fear or anxiety in boys and men said to originate during the phallic stage (ages three to six) of sexual development. It asserts that small boys assume that the girl had her penis chopped off as punishment for some misbehaviour. When they see that the man of the family is in charge and the woman is submissive (as is the case in our society), they also assume that it is this part of their body that gives them ‘the upper hand’ or power. The boy then becomes anxious that he too will lose his ‘power’ if his testicles were chopped off and would become a woman (the powerless family member).
Most films and TV shows (from Bollywood to Dhaliwood) play to this stereotype where men are seen as either committing violence against women or saving them. Women play the stereotypes of those who are to be looked at by the spectators, always men. A new Hollywood film Kit Kittredge: An American Girl promises to break some former stereotypes. Abigail Breslin, or Kit Kittredge, the lead actor in the movie is said to be an indomitable character who promises “to create girls of strong character”. The more prevalent media role-models come in the form of Tulsi and Kumkum in Hindi serials, and Preity Zinta and Kareena Kapoor in Bollywood blockbusters — who take over most of the TV time of average middle and upper-middle-class homes.
After it was bombarded by feminists in India and Bangladesh, Fair & Lovely quickly changed its PR tone. The company is intensively trying to redeem itself by setting up the ‘Fair & Lovely Foundation’, which “encourages economic empowerment of Bangladeshi women through information and resources in the areas of Education, Career and Enterprise”. But the mindset of Bangladeshi men (and women) is not going to change overnight. Patriarchal dynamics continue to assert themselves to strengthen our repressive society, but women have to fight back and many are starting to do so. There are many more feminist role models in our society than ever before — photographer Farjana Khan Godhuly, anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed, journalist Munni Saha, rights activist Priscilla Raj, researcher Kabita Chakma, lawyer Faustina Pereira, and garments owner Monjulika Khisha are examples of women who have fought against the odds and succeeded in setting examples in our exploitive society. Through their work, they are not only making their voices heard but are also showing the way for other women that they too can break social barriers and think independently and not be trapped in objectification of their bodies.