Feminine Traditions Essay

In our society women are often pressured and conditioned to conform to
traditional feminine standards. In the past fifty or so years women have begun
to find modes of resistance against these cultural constraints. In this essay I
will cover Bartky’s essay ” Skin Deep”, she theorizes about the”properly feminine subject”, the definition of the body, disciplinary
practices and how to resist. Bartky theorizes about the properly feminine
subject by stating that it is to embody the proper feminine qualities of
character and behaviors. According to Bartky the properly feminine woman must be
sure to never appear sloppy or loose. The properly feminine woman should also
allow herself to physically controlled by male companions to a certain extent.

She must allow the man to lead her around almost like a dog on a leash. Bartky
talks about the properly feminine body and how every movement is to be done a
certain way in order to seem feminine. It is like when a mother tells her
daughter “Don’t sit with your legs open, its not lady-like”. Bartky talks
about how the proper feminine body must display itself within the proper
parameters of femininity. A woman must wear clothing and make-up that display
her in a positive way. A woman should not wear clothing or make-up that would
make her look sloppy, unkept or masculine. This can be seen through out society
but especially in the sports world. Women who compete in sports are often seen
as unlady-like or non-feminine because they are active in a masculine dominated
realm of society. Most sports are traditionally seen as outside the parameters
of femininity. The idea of the properly feminine subject is an extreme example
of femininity, yet it is the example that we use most in our society. In order
to conform to these concepts a woman must train herself and her body. Bartky
talks about how the proper feminine body requires training and how our culture
implements certain disciplinary practices in order to do this training. She
talks about dieting, make up and fashions. American culture perpetuates these
practices through the mass media. One of the most powerful disciplinary
practices for women in the United States is that of dieting. “Dieting
disciplines the body’s hungers: appetite must be monitored at all times and
governed by an iron will.” ( Bartky 18) By dieting women are disciplining
their bodies to only consume a certain amount of food. By doing this women feel
they are becoming more like the image of the perfect (properly feminine) woman.

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Many women tend to over diet which leads to anorexia and women who don’t diet
are scorned by society. Mass media contributes to these ideas by using images of
predominantly thin unrealistic women. After saturating the women audience with
images of super-thin starlets , television networks then proceed to show hours
and hours of commercials and infomercials on weight-loss, dieting and fitness
programs. Another disciplinary practice that is perpetuated through the media is
that of skin care and make-up. ” A woman’s skin must be soft, supple,
hairless, and smooth: ideally, it should betray no sign of wear, experience,
age, or deep thought.” ( pg 19 ) Images of proper skin care and make up can be
found more in magazines than on T.V. This is because magazines can give you page
upon page of “make-up tips” and “skin care strategies” that women should
follow in order to conform to the properly feminine standard. The overwhelming
media showcase of properly feminine subjects and disciplinary practices leads to
women either conforming to these practices or resisting them. Bariky also talks
about how and why women can and should resist these practices and cultural
constructions of the female body. Bartky lists several reasons why women should
resist these practices: 1) it is very costly and time consuming, i.e women spend
hours and hours infatuated with their physical appearance instead of spending
time working on their mental appearance 2) women are persuaded that their bodies
are defective, i.e. images in mass media tend not to reflect the average woman
leading the average woman to feel something is wrong with her 3) they lead to
problems such as racism and class oppression, i.e most of the women in these
media images are white so any woman of color who sees this often feel inferior
and will try to conform 4) they lead to women feeling alienated, i.e. women who
don’t conform to these beauty norms often feel like outsiders or don’t fit
in with the rest 5) the construction of this body is for the appreciation of
male outsiders as well as the woman’s inner self, i.e. women do this to be
appreciated by men but often is more of a beauty contest 6) the proper feminine
bodies postures and movements are seen as subordinate to men, i.e. it leads to
women being seen as child-like to men, who are then seen as superior. Bartky
stresses that many women are becoming resisters to these practices of proper
femininity. Women body-builders and athletes are resisters, women who take
self-defense classes are resistors and lesbians are resisters. Any woman who
goes against the properly feminine subject and its disciplinary practices is a
resistor. Women athletes are definite resistors because sports especially
basketball have been anti-women for so long that women’s basketball at the pro
level is a slap in the face to masculinists. Anything having to do with heavy
athletic participation is seen as a resistance to traditional cultural norms.

Resistance eventually leads to cultural change. Bartky talks about her vision
for the future of the body and a new radical configuration of this body. She
talks about how the whole conventional idea of beauty will be thrown by the
waste side, people will be able to experiment with their appearance and pretty
much do whatever they want. She also says that the gender and class system will
also be thrown out and it will lead to a society in which one’s image is
freely chosen; true existentialism. In Bartky’s essay “Skin Deep” she does
a very good job of analyzing the current situation of women in our society in
particular women as part of the American culture. She theorizes on “the
properly feminine subject”, the definition of the body, disciplinary practices
and how to resist. She also talks about a new society in the future that would
be entirely free of class and gender systems and would have none of the previous
society’s beauty standards. This sound’s like a good idea but realistically
it would be almost impossible for our society not to be able to classify and
categorize people through gender, class, race etc.

“Skin Deep : Feminity as a Disciplinary Regime”. Daring to Be Good:
Essays in Feminist Ethico-Politics. Edited by Bat-Ami Bar On and Ann Ferguson.

New York,NY : Routledge, 1998. pp.15-27.


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