Women’s Bodies: Taking Up Space and Femininity

Guest contribution by Aisha Mansaray – I grew up as a brown-skinned kiddo with a huge bush of brown, curly hair and freckles on my nose. If you mix Dutch and African, you get a fairly tall girl, with naturally firm hips, legs, and arms. This is not something to be ashamed about at all, but still I was by the time I hit puberty.

Puberty’s usual hormonal problems, in combination with a lot of teenage angst, caused me to become increasingly self-conscious about my appearance — to the point where I’d rather stay in my room and discover new music or books than go out and have fun. I wanted to disappear in the crowd, but I felt I couldn’t because I stood out. This is, of course, not really true. I grew up in a city with a very diverse population. I didn’t look that weird, but that’s something you don’t realise as a 16-year-old girl. Even though I had always been bubbly and talkative, I became very quiet in public, too afraid to speak up. My appearance made me feel uncomfortable, because I didn’t know what to do with my limbs, I couldn’t control my big hair, or my build. I covered my body with wide skater clothes so I didn’t really look feminine. I gave up on looking pretty, and felt I’d always have to stomp around like a wild, gigantic cavewoman, which wasn’t very feminine in my book.

Women’s spatial issues

For the last couple of months I have been thinking about women’s bodies in western society. Why are women, sometimes obsessively, trying to contain themselves? After reading philosopher Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight (a brilliant read by the way), I realised that western culture has taught women to occupy as little space as possible. By ‘space’ I mean three-dimensional space, but also attitude, mannerisms, and words. Media and society have been telling women that we have to try our best to be feminine, and femininity, I think, is measured in beauty, petite-ness (unless you’re a super-tall supermodel) and — according to Bordo — ‘muteness.’ It seems as if our culture, which is still very patriarchical, somehow etches its rules and values (self-control, determination, emotional discipline) on women’s bodies. And it’s not just society; women do that to themselves too.

The funny thing is, I’ve noticed that other cultures — like the African culture on my father’s side but also other ethnic cultures I’ve come across — often don’t have this standard of ‘feminine virtues.’ Many Latin American and African women aren’t trying to make themselves disappear, as thinness isn’t necessarily perceived as sexually attractive. I’ve also seen African, Caribbean and Latin American women who often appear confident and aren’t afraid to use their voice, more so than European women. I’m not sure why, but it could have something to do with the fact that in those cultures, virtues such as moral strength and purity are seen as the feminine ideal, instead of sexuality. The Latin American concept of Marianismo, for example, teaches women that they’re morally superior to and spiritually stronger than men. This means there is no need to make oneself smaller, as those curvy hips are (for me) a symbol for the internal strength these women have.

I’m not saying that there is this great divide between western and ‘ethnic’ women when it comes to confidence, but I think there is a difference in beauty standards; there are cultures that allow women to be much less strict about their appearance. Confidently walking on the street with your head up high would feel so much better than looking at the ground because you feel too big, or not feminine enough. Looking back, it seems like my 16-year-old me fell into the Western “ideal woman” trap, which made me obsessive about my looks and personality and, above all, very unhappy.

Changes in Western media

At the age of 25, I’ve seen countless media images of other women in glossy magazines, on TV, in films and the internet. It occurs to me that all glam magazines feature articles on dieting and makeovers in every damn edition. Websites with the sole purpose of discussing and comparing celebrities’ bodies are very popular. These sites compare women’s bodies and attack them as soon as they have gained weight, whether it is from pregnancy or just living a normal life.

I think, however, there are an increasing number of positive female role models in media. Young, famous women like actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Lena Dunham are more than just their broad shoulders, soft bellies, and curvy figures. They’re talented, intelligent, and not afraid to speak their minds. Also, slenderness and muteness seem to be slowly giving way to outspoken, curvy, but also strong women. I’ve seen the phrase “strong is the new skinny” very often the last couple of months, usually on a picture of a muscled woman doing fitness.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with natural slenderness. But I think it’s ridiculous that women are conditioned to take up as little space as possible in order to be seen as feminine, and that they go to great lengths to achieve this goal. It’s almost as if women try their best to disappear, and these thoughts are unhealthy for both body and mind. So maybe we should stop seeing the space a woman occupies as a measure for femininity. Or maybe we shouldn’t focus on gender roles at all, since they are (like beauty ideals) created by society rather than nature.

And as for me? I’ve grown into my adult body. Yes, I’ve lost a lot of baby weight, but my curves will always be there. I still have a lot of insecurities, and I allow myself to have them. But I also allow myself to love my body, and I love myself. My hair is big and so are my hips. That makes me a whole lot of woman, and I will take all the space I need.

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