Abstract :As an instrument of heteronormativity, body politics plays to these stereotypes to produce and reproduce an ideal image of femininity, exposing female bodies to marginalization and the ‘male gaze.’ In the evolution of feminism, where gender as an institution of ‘power’ is adopted, some light is shed on the precarity of women who are victims of body politics and the growing body dissatisfaction and negative body image that stems from it. This article, through the concept of systemic heteronormativity, explores the production of women’s body image as a site of commercialization in popular media, its collusion with gendered medical science and how it extrapolates the incessant struggle to locate their sexual identity within the mainstream heteronormative society.
We are in the third decade of the 21st century, where the understanding of feminism has evolved beyond women’s rights and has become more nuanced, recognizing how contemporary discourses of gender reinforce the creation of binaries and exploring the interplay between gender and other social institutions of domination. This recognition by the feminists of how modern gender discourse exclusively produces human beings as ‘men’ and ‘women’ unwinds the understanding of gender as a mechanism by which notions of masculine and feminine are produced and naturalized. This systemic heteronormativity and notions of masculinity and femininity have manifold manifestations, the politics of the body being one of the potent instruments. Michel Foucault bolsters that “the body is produced through power rather than what it is called ‘naturally formed’ and that bodies are controlled and subjugated through specific techniques in society.” This phenomenon of societal control over the bodies translates as ‘politics of the body.’ This fixation of modernity on heteronormativity has exacerbated the role of the politics of the body in producing ideal body images for ‘men’ and ‘women’ as a static affair, with almost no room to manoeuvre. Simultaneously it also underpins heteropatriarchy as a ‘gendered mode of power’ being an offshoot of heteronormativity, perpetuating the marginalization of ‘female bodies’ by producing and reproducing the sociocultural standards of feminine beauty. Over two decades ago, author Rosalind Coward poignantly stated that this emphasis on ideal physical appearance becomes a crucial way society exercises control over women’s sexuality, rendering women a stable and homogenous gender. At this juncture, ‘gender performativity,’ as introduced by Judith Butler, comes to play. Gender is a property that society attributes a gendering meaning to in behaviours rather than in people themselves. Being a woman necessitates appropriating gendered behaviours as natural and not viewing them as performative. Similarly, the stereotyped body standards and their portrayal globally act as an imposition that needs to be internalized by females to exhibit their ‘beauty’ in a manner appealing to the dominant perception of the larger heteronormative community. This essay explores the social dynamics of the female body and the anxieties surrounding the reconstruction of femaleness by the sociocultural process of production and reproduction of an ideal body image through different lenses.
How Popular Media exacerbates Body Dissatisfaction-
As women, we are conditioned to adhere to social norms and the set structure of society. Being born into a heteronormative society that fixates extensively on body politics, body dissatisfaction, and the issue of negative body image becomes integral to our personalities. The pervasiveness of an entrenched image of an ideal female that women are expected to appropriate and internalise makes it infeasible to avoid evaluating ourselves against the reckoned sociocultural standards of a ‘beautiful body.’ Our bodies are sites of subjugation by cultural and social expectations of our ‘assigned gender.’ These sociocultural models extrapolate that the contemporary ideal of a slender, tall, and fit body is pervasive and practically unattainable for the average woman without resorting to extreme measures.
This consequently leads to the internalisation of the stereotypical body standards as normative. At this juncture, the role of media needs to be acknowledged. The popular media plays this internalisation to translate as a perpetuating factor of female body dissatisfaction. Thereby, escaping beauty standards being externally imposed by commodification and commercialization of women through media representation becomes inconceivable. A sense of vulnerability follows it to the detrimental effect of the media; being trapped in its projection and giving into the ‘trendy demand’ of an ideal female becomes ‘natural.’ Women gradually tend to locate themselves at the behest of this media-fostered social comparison, juxtaposing their ‘imperfect,’ ‘flawed’ bodies with that of ‘ideal women’ as produced in the media. This phenomenon of capitalising on the physical impression of women’s bodies through a consistent representation of a specific body image constructs an alternative reality, compelling women to resonate with it. Consequently, women become more prone to purchasing products where a woman’s body serves as the site for commodification. Unfortunately, they do not realise the underlying inherent gendering of media and market structures that prey on the vulnerabilities of women through socially constructed notions and ideals of femininity.
In this context, the role of social media, specifically the avant-garde platforms such as TikTok and Instagram needs to be scrutinised as well. The popularity of social media has also significantly altered how people view their bodies and themselves. People are exposed to an increasing amount of curated content that promotes unattainable beauty standards as a consequence of the emergence of new trends and challenges on social media platforms, particularly TikTok, which can result in body dissatisfaction. 70% of social media users claimed that their negative body image was exacerbated by the platform, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Body dissatisfaction in young adults has been intensified by new TikTok trends and challenges. For instance, in the “hourglass challenge,” ladies showcase their hourglass shapes by dancing suggestively and donning tight attire. This fashion trend has come under fire for encouraging irrational beauty standards and stigmatising particular body shapes. Similar to the “thigh gap” challenge, which is frequently difficult for many body types, young ladies participate in it by trying to achieve a gap between their thighs. These difficulties might cause body dissatisfaction and support unfavourable prejudices about particular body shapes.
Moreover, According to existing research exposure to social media, especially among women, can cause body dissatisfaction. It is also discovered that participants were more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies the more time they spend on social media. Social media sites promote comparisons between users, which frequently results in unfavourable self-comparisons. Constant exposure to photos of others’ “perfect” bodies can leave people feeling inadequate and giving them the impression that their own body is somehow ‘flawed’. Furthermore,cyberbullying, which may have a catastrophic effect on a person’s body image and self-esteem, can also be facilitated through social media. When made public on social media sites, insulting remarks regarding someone’s appearance can be particularly harmful.Users of social networking networks can frequently modify and filter their images, which distorts reality. This can exacerbate feelings of body dissatisfaction by creating inaccurate expectations of what a person’s body should be like.
The veered representation of this ideal femininity exacerbates anxieties surrounding body image, intensifying the dissatisfaction with the body and an unparalleled yearning to adopt extreme measures to fit into the socially demanded body type manifested through myriad shades and forms of media.
The Impact of Gendering of Medical Science on Body Image:
The media representation colludes with the gendering of medical science to produce and reproduce the idea of ideal femininity. Hollywood celebrities, from Marilyn Monroe to Kim Kardashian, as the epitome of femininity and socially desired beauty, popularized the phenomenon of body modifications along the way. The phenomenon of body modification and cosmetic surgery are manifestations of the gendering of medical science, which makes the ‘unattainable’ seemingly ‘achievable’ and feeds into the stereotypes of ideal femininity. Medical science in the form of body modification surgeries appears to be the holy grail for women who long to escape this unceasing power struggle to locate their identity through an idealized image of their bodies in the mainstream heteronormative society.
The notion of what is “healthy” for women has been constrained as a result of gendering medical science. This definition frequently calls for unattainable aesthetic ideals including a slender body form, youth, and beautiful skin. Media and advertising frequently uphold these beauty standards, reinforcing the notion that women must adhere to them in order to be deemed attractive and healthy. The emergence of weight bias, which can result in unfavourable attitudes and views about people who do not meet certain beauty criteria, has also been influenced by medical science. Women who do not fulfil these norms may experience feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame as a result, which can increase body dissatisfaction.
Furthermore, the gendering of medical knowledge has resulted in a lack of comprehension of the health issues facing women. Many illnesses that are more common in women, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), have previously received insufficient attention from researchers. Women might thus go longer between diagnosis and treatment, which could lead to worse health outcomes and more body dissatisfaction.
The medical field is crucial in addressing how gender bias in medical science affects women’s body dissatisfaction. Medical practitioners can endeavour to promote body positivity, challenge artificial beauty standards, and patient-centred care that is specific to women’s needs. They can also educate themselves about the particular health issues that affect women. Medical practitioners should also try to lessen weight stigma and to encourage body diversity and acceptance, which can benefit women and make them more comfortable in their bodies.
Therefore, this extrinsic gendering disguised as inexplicable advancements in medical science in the context of body modifications or alterations to adhere to social standards is baffling.
The Paradox of Sexual Identity-
The gendering of medical science in consonance with the media representation of female bodies has a captivating effect on women, who are lured into accepting unrealistic beauty standards as realistic. The anxiety around being labelled as ‘deviant’ or ‘abnormal’ heightens the sense of displacement and the hustle to find themselves in mainstream society concerning their bodies. This constant fixation on body image also produces an underlying, constant feeling of being insufficient or not ‘good enough,’ which dominates how women conduct themselves and has far-reaching repercussions on how they perceive their sexuality. They often discover themselves at the intersection of constant negotiation with power as patriarchy and an ongoing struggle to explore their sexual identity. Many feminist theorists have attempted to recover the subject and subjectivity to address this issue of body image and identity. Weedon theorises ‘subjectivity’ as an individual’s thoughts, a sense of self, and a quest to locate her identity in relation to the world; Lacan and Mulvey interpret it in terms of the heteropatriarchal male gaze. According to this theory, “femininity” is defined as a social construct,” and the feminine object, the object of desire, is what the male perceives about the female body. The concept of subjectivity and how cultural norms and dominant social processes call women into being emphasizes them ostensibly as subjects.Thus, body image and identity quest result in a false identity and an acceptance of an unrealistic reality that legitimises and perpetuates the male gaze and manipulation of female bodies into seeking validation from male peers. This confinement to the heteronormative expectation of gender has influenced their sexuality. Their sexual agency remains confined to the binaries as a part of an extended struggle to fit into the socially constructed norms and discourses of gender, sex, and sexualities.
In conclusion, heteronormativity, as a broader phenomenon, caters essentially to the male psyche that manifests itself by inducing an ideal image of women. The politics of bodies interplay with gendered institutions of power like patriarchy to control women’s sexuality by fixating on idealised notions of femininity and masculinity. Adherence to these notions translates as gender performativity or a process of internalization that legitimizes and further perpetuates the creation of binaries underpinning the politics of body image as black and white, with no leeway for deviation. Modern-day feminism recognizes this internalisation and aims to disorder established patterns and denaturalize what has come to be presented as eternal and unchanging. Nivedita Menon, in her book “Seeing Like A Feminist”, equates patriarchy with nude makeup, conveying how ‘natural’ is ‘controlling’ and how women as the ‘second gender’ are always located at the receiving end of it. Thus, the need of the hour is for feminism to function across different power spectrums to liberate human bodies of this gendering which produces ideal body types and anxieties around body image and identities.
About the Author
Meghna is in her second year at Jindal Global Law School, pursuing BA LLB. Her interests include international relations, criminology and analysing gender discourse in modern society.