by Kelsey Sizemore
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Being a woman in the United States affords the opportunity to undergo a constant awareness of inferiority. Access any sort of mass media and within seconds you’re presented with depictions of women that are highly altered or entirely fabricated. These images feature women in poses and situations that demonstrate helplessness and a lack of intellect. The women featured are overly sexualized and objectified; often nude or seminude and faceless, these images reinforce the concept of woman-as-thing, that women are unworthy of respect and incapable of handling tasks that require her mind. As Susan Griffin put it in her 1971 essay on the subject, a woman in the United States is made to feel vulnerable, unable to say that she is “…free of the fear of rape.” Her advantageous male counterpart may walk down the street dressed however he likes without being leered at or subjected to as many dehumanizing images of his sex, whereas she must chose her routes and clothing carefully.
Media outlets didn’t create this view of women single handedly, although, thanks to the super-consumer mindset of America’s modern day capitalist society, it amplifies and perpetuates it. Despite and perhaps because of corporate America’s fickle standards of beauty, women are bombarded with reminders that they don’t reach these ideals. That’s ok, though, because the so desperately needed help to alter their beauty habits, bodies, and styles is readily available, for a fee. At one time, a thin woman was viewed as unattractive, undesirable. Fat was a symbol of status and success, and therefore highly desirable, seen as a mark of beauty. Today, those ideals have been reversed. A woman who possesses any “extra” weight isn’t considered to have mass appeal, and, as such, is underrepresented in media. Never mind that the average dimensions of the American woman are approximately 5’4” tall and 160 pounds, which leaves a majority of women feeling inadequate when the only thing that they see are long-legged, 5’10”, 110 pound models and actresses. On top of the models and actresses already being very thin naturally, post shoot editing processes buffer out any remaining flaws, leaving unattainable examples for the public to consume.
The impact that these images have on the public are often subtle. Comments around the belief that one needs makeup, or the exaggerated fear of aging provide a glimpse into the psyche of a woman who will likely say that advertising doesn’t directly affect her. Other things, like the perception of one’s own body and its relative value in society are more easily linked. When it comes to the pursuit of weight loss, the market and the medicine behind a quick fix are set up to build a repeat customer base; the women who turn to doctors and pills to lose a few extra pounds are doomed to fail because the drugs don’t work in a lasting way. Men, on the other hand, are generally deemed acceptable to look at in most levels of physical fitness and attractiveness, and regardless of style, so long as they appear to be free from obvious deterrents such as blood or excessive dirt.
In the workplace, women must face the fact that they may never advance as far as the men who they work with, solely because they are women. “The Gender Gap in Income,” by Steven E. Barkan states that only 16 percent of the national corporate hierarchy is made up of women. When women do make it through the promotional glass ceiling, the financial glass ceiling is still in place. The chance of getting equal pay is nearly out of question – being paid more than a man, virtually, unthinkable.
In the political realm, as with any role in the public eye, to be taken seriously, people must present themselves in a professional manner in speech, dress, appearance, and movement. For women, this becomes a razor sharp edge to balance on. Put too much or too little effort into your appearance and either you are mocked for spending too much attention and money, like Sarah Palin for her $150,000 wardrobe, or receive insult for not trying hard enough, like Hillary Clinton for her “frumpy” dress as First Lady. Speak too forcefully, or too meekly, and you become a bitch or a pushover. There is little to no grace given to the woman who seeks a political position. Male politicians are subject to this sort of critique as well, but not to such a high degree. As with men in other aspects of society, male politicians are judged for their opinions. When President Obama gives a speech, the focus is on what he has said, not on his choice of tie or the way that he wears his suit.
In the home, women dedicate two to three times the amount of hours to things related to the upkeep of the home as men despite increased hours present in the workforce. This leaves women precious few moments to pursue happiness on their terms.
This relationship between sex and social status, money, housework and the attitude concerning gender roles finds its roots in American culture, where the definition of femininity revolves around passivity, physical and emotional weakness, superficiality, and dependence, masculinity being defined in opposite terms. These beliefs about gender are not universally accepted, however. In other, typically non-Westernized, areas of the world, these roles are sometimes completely reversed, but more often, simply, equalized.
Women in the United States have a constant awareness of perceived inferiority and the threat of physical harm, mental beratement, and the knowledge that, for the most part, men don’t have to struggle in this way. There likely will be continued discrimination against femininity and anatomical womanhood, reinforced by the attitudes reflected in American mass media culture, which is then regurgitated in interpersonal interaction, and by the functioning systems of operation in the workplace, legal system, government, and so on. Although it seems like an impenetrable force and an overwhelmingly complicated task to overcome, this is not a reality that women must accept lying down. Awareness is always the first step to recovery.