The (self-) surveillance of womanhood

It’s about time we address the social pressures put on women to express femininity

Art by Ranuka Tandan.

From the moment we are born, our bodies are assigned a set of gender roles. This impacts everything from how we look, dress, and style ourselves to how we act and behave. This is especially true for women. 

As women, our bodies are heavily policed, including by our own selves. From a young age, we are taught that our bodies are not ours and do not belong to us. It is, therefore, easy to feel like we exist outside of our bodies. Some might even say this contributes to the “Other”-isation of women in a patriarchal society. 

In this age of individualism and liberalism, it is easy to believe that the choices we make are our own. However, our choices do not exist in a vacuum. They are most often dictated or influenced by the societies and environments we live in. In “Ways of Seeing”, art critic John Berger wrote “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. […] And so she comes to consider herself the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet distinct elements of her identity as a woman.” 

Several gender theorists have further analysed this idea through closely linking it to Foucault’s work on power, subjectivity, and surveillance in society. Although Foucault’s analysis was genderless, feminist scholars have looked at it through a feminist lens. Feminist scholars argue that the body acts as a form of social control through gendered discipline (in this case, femininity). In other words, how we discipline our own bodies is heavily impacted by the male gaze. 

Critical theorist Angela King argues that women’s bodies are often posited as “inferior” yet also threatening in comparison to men. It is then that the category of ‘woman’ is constructed to be condemned, and therefore controlled and disciplined. 

This increases twofold when it comes to women who are racialised, transgender, queer, or gender non-conforming. The rules as to what constitutes ‘womanhood’ get tighter and therefore women who may not fit the mold of what the ‘perfect woman’ looks like might feel a particular disconnect to womanhood. Womanhood, particularly in Western societies, is also largely constructed to suit white Western notions of cisgender womanhood. 

From a young age, women internalise the idea that a woman must be attractive, successful and conventional to be deemed worthy and desirable. This manifests itself through the social pressure to conform to these standards; making sure you look presentable at all times, having something to offer, and on the other side of that self-moderating so that you are not too loud, too forward, and don’t take up space in any setting. Gender essentially becomes a ‘performance’ and women who fail to meet the standards are punished or regarded as ‘unnatural’. 

It is worth examining how market ideologies capitalise on the surveillance of womanhood to sell femininity to women. Consumer culture often relies on constructing and reinforcing particular narratives. There is no doubt that fashion, beauty, and makeup are heavily marketed towards women. In a sense, women’s bodies become commodified. To be a woman the ‘right way’ you must watch and continuously assess yourself. Then you must constantly sell yourself both literally and figuratively. 

Bodies are also largely manipulated to fit the ‘perfect form’. A woman is taught to believe that her body and skin must be smooth, hairless, and soft, regardless of age. Endless amounts of money are spent on hair and weight loss treatments and cosmetic products trying to gain and maintain this form. Many women also seek out expensive plastic surgery treatments to fit patriarchal beauty standards. 

In the digital age, we have seen the rise of Influencer culture on platforms such as Instagram. In particular, this has been targeted towards young girls and women. Aesthetics are often repackaged for the consumption of others. More often than not, young girls and women heavily modify themselves in trade for attention and likes. In turn, the capital of the social media economy is then used to sell and endorse products for financial gain in return. 

It is through campaigns like these that women and their bodies are reduced to a selling point. Capitalism through choice feminism has pushed through the fallacy of ‘empowerment’ – however, individual empowerment has been proven to be nothing more than just a meaningless slogan to sell more beauty products. However, such advertising campaigns are harmful as it is not about who they’re trying to sell to, but also what they are trying to sell. Many influencers often advertise products such as specific weight loss products reinforcing hierarchical notions of beauty. 

Consumer culture ultimately positions identity – in this case, gender – as something to be consumed, rather than something that simply is. However, gender is deeply complex and everyone has differing individual, social, and cultural understandings of gender. 

Despite the fact that not all women adhere to feminine ideals, it is very evident that the social pressures of femininity are exerted onto women daily, and often by other women too. Although liberal individualism has room for varying interpretations of womanhood, it is ultimately not sufficient enough in a capitalist and patriarchal society. 

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