There is a popular trend in American media and even policy to point out the struggle of women in different cultures around the world. No doubt the burden women carry globally is enormous and they often bear the brunt of oppression and injustice in both the developed and developing world. That being said, the struggles of women around the world pointed out by many in America are struggles defined specifically in accordance to American norms and values.
As an example, many in the west in recent months have pointed out the struggles for liberation and equality being fought by women in Iran through a campaign to “take off the veil” (See article in Vogue, The Guardian). Let me be clear, I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on the veil. It is not a piece of my culture and tradition. I also oppose the standards of many Islamic cultures that oppress women through policing their modesty or lack thereof by use of the burka and other instruments to literally hide women from society. (See image below) The burka and the veil and the entrenched cultural oppression behind both are not the same thing.
Defining femininity as well as freedom and liberty along strictly western (American) standards raises issues. Using the example above, why is the veil seen as inherently oppressive to women. For American pundits to preach and describe what it looks like when a woman is free and liberated smacks of a terrible cultural blindness brought on by the proverbial focus of removing the speck from our neighbors’ eye while not noticing the plank in our own eye.
In spite of our talk of freedom, liberty and feminism, the United States is a society in which women live under the constant and increasing bondage of sexual objectification and relentless demands of impossible image expectations and standards. At a very early age young girls are taught to express themselves sexually to gain attention and hide insecurities in this manner. Take a walk through the local mall and we find image after image dictating what an appealing woman looks like fashioned in the advertisements and artificial displays. In 2011 retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was selling a push up bikini bra top for girls as young as seven. Nine years earlier they were advertising little girls’ thong underwear. A study out of Kenyon College found after an analysis of the teenage girl magazine Seventeen that the amount of sexualized characteristics almost tripled in the last three decades. A 2008 Wesleyan College study of 50 well known magazines and 1,988 advertisements identified women being depicted as sex objects in half of them.
A 2011 study out of the University of Buffalo found the portrayal of women in the media has become “pornified” over the past several decades. The study analyzed more than 1,000 images of men and women on the cover the Rolling Stone Magazine for the prior 43 years. Their findings showed that both men and women are more sexualized in recent years and women much more intensely sexualized than men. This same study also reported that in the 1960s 11% of men and 44% of women on the covers of Rolling Stone were sexualized. In the 2000s, 17% of men were sexualized and 83% of women were sexualized. Further, “In the 2000s there were ten times more hyper-sexualized images of women than men and eleven times more non-sexualized images of men than women.”
But perhaps I am being a prude. Sex sells and if women can be more empowered by use of their sexuality then some value systems might argue that is just fine.
Last year, almost 300,000 women and teenagers underwent surgery to have their breasts enlarged with silicone or saline implants. The popularity of breast augmentation has tripled since 1997 when there were just over 100,000 of these procedures. Studies show that women who have these procedures are four times more likely to commit suicide, experience a lower self esteem and are at higher risk for numerous conditions from cancer to joint pain and memory loss. Women who undergo breast augmentation surgery experience significant pain after the procedure which includes the cutting open of their body, stretching and adjusting skin and musculature internally, inserting implants and then reclosing the incisions. Narcotics and pain management usually, and obviously, must follow this procedure. (Source)
While there are legitimate reasons and occasions for some women to undergo breast augmentation (a mastectomy for example), the vast bulk of those who undergo this procedure do so for cosmetic purposes only. Thus, in a futile effort to hit the impossibly ridiculous standards and expectations of female beauty in our society, hundreds of thousands of women every year are literally having their bodies cut open and altered, experiencing terrible physical pain, and positioning themselves for greater emotional and physical risks.
And this is just one of the many popular surgical alterations that women can choose from in their effort to be free and empowered in our society. We could also look at liposuction, rhinoplasty, eyelid surgery, tummy tuck, face lift, lip augmentation and more.
This is progress?
The issue here is not as much whether this sexualization and objectification of women in our culture is right or wrong (although it is wrong). The issue is how do we justify the arrogance to dictate terms and standards for what freedom, liberty and femininity look like around the world while these realities are in our midst. A woman in Ireland is limited in her access to an abortion and so our standards define her as trapped in a societal structure that oppresses women and their right to choose. A woman in Iran wears a veil and we determine she is subordinated to a male dominated social hierarchy.
Once again, women are oppressed around the world today. Something must be done. But when legitimate issues of concern such as female genital mutilation are attacked by pundits in America how does such hypocrisy portray us as anything besides a bunch of jackasses?
In the 1960s and 70s a massive social transformation took shape known as the sexual revolution and gave way to the rise of feminist values and norms in our culture. It was at this point the definitions of womanhood and femininity were given over to this cultural phenomenon and its figureheads. There was a need for this. Western and American culture in particular were historically backwards and limiting in its treatment of women. The movement shifted however into a hybrid of liberalized political correctness and marketing to bring us to the standards embraced today.
Thus modern feminists will often be seen denouncing women and the ideology of traditional roles (wife, mother, homemaker) and yet shrink back from proportionally addressing the rising levels of objectification of women in the media and entertainment industries. The feminist voice and value system is incredibly influential in our culture to shape expectations of what a woman is to be insofar as negating traditional roles. Why do they not apply the same influence and political pressure toward the pornography industry whose entire basis is the subjection and objectification of women? A stay at home mom is considered backward but an industry that thrives on what amounts to little more than virtualized slavery of women is somehow ignored!
I hope the women of Iran grow in their ability to be free and have full access to the benefits that men enjoy in their nation. I hope for this freedom and access for women throughout the world. But before we begin describing and ascribing what freedom and liberation look like for the rest of the world, perhaps we should consider the oppressed environment the modern American woman lives within. Let us find focus and perspective by removing the plank from our own eye.