I just about flipped when I found this:

Fatima Mernissi and the Size 6 Harem

It was during my unsuccessful attempt to buy a cotton skirt in an American department store that I was told my hips were too large to fit into a size 6. That distressing experience made me realize how the image of beauty in the West can hurt and humiliate a woman as much as the veil does when enforced by the state police in extremist nations such as Iran, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia. Yes, that day I stumbled onto one of the keys to the enigma of passive beauty in Western harem fantasies. The elegant saleslady in the American store looked at me without moving from her desk and said that she had no skirt my size. “In this whole big store, there is no skirt for me?” I said. “You are joking.” I felt very suspicious and thought that she just might be too tired to help me. I could understand that. But then the saleswoman added a condescending judgment, which sounded to me like Imam fatwa. It left no room for discussion:

“You are too big!” she said.

“I am too big compared to what?” I asked, looking at her intently, because I realized that I was facing a critical cultural gap here.

“Compared to a size 6,” came the saleslady’s reply.

[…]

“And who says that everyone must be a size 6?” I joked to the saleslady that day, deliberately neglecting to mention size 4, which is the size of my 12-year-old niece.

At that point, the saleslady suddenly gave me and anxious look. “The norm is everywhere, my dear,” she said. “It’s all over, in the magazines, on television, in the ads. You can’t escape it. There is Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Gianna Versace, Giorgio Armani, Mario Valentino, Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, Christian Lacroix, and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Big department stores go by the norm.” She paused and then concluded, “If they sold size 14 or 16, which is probably what you need, they would go bankrupt.” [Kameron note: Like Old Navy and Eddie Bauer??]

[…]

Yes, I thought as I wandered off, I have finally found the answer to my harem enigma. Unlike the Muslim man, who uses space to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light. He declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look fourteen years old. If she dares to look fifty, or worse, sixty, she is beyond the pale. By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility. In fact, the modern Western man enforces Immanuel Kant’s nineteenth-century theories: To be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless. When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.

These Western attitudes, I thought, are even more dangerous and cunning than the Muslim ones because the weapon used against women is time. Time is less visible, more fluid than space. The Western man uses images and spotlights to freeze female beauty within an idealized childhood, and forces women to perceive aging—that normal unfolding of years—as a shameful devaluation. “Here I am, transformed into a dinosaur,” I caught myself saying aloud as I went up and down the rows of skirt in the store, hoping to prove the saleslady wrong—to no avail. This Western time-defined veil is even crazier than the space-defined one enforced by the Ayatollahs.

[…]

Women enter power games with so much of their energy deflected to their physical appearance that one hesitates to say that the playing field is level. “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty,” explains Wolf. It is “an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

Research, she contends, “confirmed what most women know too well—that concern with weight leads to a ‘virtual collapse of self-esteem and sense of effectiveness’ and that . . . ‘prolonged and periodic caloric restriction’ resulted in a distinctive personality whose traits are passivity, anxiety, and emotionality.”

Similarly, Bourdieu, who focuses more on how this myth hammers its inscriptions onto the flesh itself, recognizes that constantly reminding women of their physical appearances destabilizes them emotionally because it reduces them to exhibited objects. “By confining women to the status of symbolical objects to be seen and perceives by the other, masculine domination . . . puts women in a state of constant physical insecurity. . . . They have to strive ceaselessly to be engaging, attractive, and available.” Being frozen into the passive position of an object whose very existence depends on the eyes of its beholder turns the educated modern Western women into a harem slave.

Read the whole thing here .

There’s also a fantastic book called The Body Project that looks at the history of women’s obsession with their bodies. Essentially, she argues, we’ve merely gone from using external devices to control women’s shapes (corsets, elaborate skirting and hooping), to using external devices (the 1920s saw the corset going out of fashion, and dieting or “reducing” really coming into its own): you can chalk up plastic surgery here, too. Many women who get breast implants don’t “have” to wear a bra anymore. Their breasts are now hard and high enough that they don’t jiggle much at all. Same goes for obsessions over flat abs – we used to wear corsets for tummy control and the illusion of a bust. Not having corsets doesn’t neccessarily make women any more liberated in regards to their bodies. Sure, you’ve got less restricted movement, but if you’re starving yourself to look thinner, you’ve hardly got more energy to move around.

And, perhaps more importantly, as Fatima says, “To deprive me of food is definitely to deprive me of my thinking capabilities.”

Fascinating stuff.

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