Way back in 1975, French philosopher Michel Foucault conceptualized the word ‘discipline’ as seeming to connote two meanings. One had to do with the learning of knowledge, and the other with the use of coercion to correct behavior deemed as out of the normative implementations. While both the meanings seem to be completely different, they often converge at a point. Knowledge gets imparted in educational institutions which use coercion and punishment to discipline the body to behave in a way that the authority deems as standard. Disciplining in schools, hospitals, and offices – much like those in prisons – is about creating ‘docile’ bodies.
Talking of prisons, Foucault believed that Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon in model prisons symbolized the true essence of what discipline is in today’s society. The panopticon was a tall tower in the middle of the prisons, to overlook all the prisoners and control their behavior. Regardless of someone’s presence in that tower, the mere presence of the building and the prisoners’ belief that ‘someone’ might be monitoring them, made them behave in ‘appropriate’ ways. Today, several objects form one or the other versions of the panopticon, albeit metaphorically.
In one such example, Sandra Lee Bartky (1997) reinterpreted these concepts. She states that while the idea of beauty and a ‘desirable’ woman changed through the ages, the underlying narrative of the obsession with a woman’s body remained the same. A woman’s body is seen as an enactment of her character, and any disciplining of her body has to be in accordance with the new age Panopticon, called the ‘male gaze’. The women’s body is coerced into behaving in ways that satisfy the male gaze, while at the same time, is not very straightforward in the fulfillment.
It is a well-known fact that a woman’s body is disciplined differently than a man’s. This is done to the extent that the primary focus of a woman’s entire life lies in the beautification of her physical being. Starting from adolescence, till death perhaps, the painful coercion, in the form of exercises like waxing, threading, plastic surgery and so on, are all focused on making the female body more ‘desirable’ to the man, and his gaze. There is a flipside, however. The aforementioned desirability must not be too fiercely portrayed on the body. Doing so would mean that the woman is ‘promiscuous’ and too ‘easy’ to be desirable. What follows is a series of shaming tactics – like calling such a woman a ‘slut’, a disciplining method to rewrite the normative verdict of docility on her. Despite this, if the woman refuses the verdict, what awaits her is a series of extreme humiliation, unacceptability, and separation.
Let us look at the majority section of the Indian society, starting from school. In schools, most of the rebuttals are directed at the length of the girl students’ skirts. If the majority of the girls get ‘way out of hand’, then the uniform needs to be changed into something that covers up more – the salwar kameez. This is not to speak against the Indian piece of clothing; but rather to point at the fact that its implementation comes only when the skirt seems to be too ‘provocative’ for the ‘innocent male desire’. What is more infuriating is that the boy students are believed to be these uncontrollable beasts, at tender ages - such that the only way not to distract them is to impose further discipline on the female students. After school, comes the grand Indian marriage market. Subsequently, everything about the woman – being thin, fair, glowing, a virgin – everything is directed towards making her appropriate for the marriage market; more suitable for the abstract Panopticon. The woman should be beautiful, and yet not attract the gaze of the unwanted men.
Even in the way women walk or be in public space is influenced by this ‘discipline’. Bartky cites the German photographer Marianne Wex who took pictures of men and women in public spaces, like the subway. While men seem to cover wider space, and sit or stand in a posture to make them seem larger, women’s bodies, on the other hand, take positions which are smaller, submissive, and one that covers her body. Her gaze is usually downwards, and posture is away from facing the man. Any gesture in non-conformity to this stature of the woman is again subjected to shaming.
There are other ways of disciplining the female body. Suppose, if the woman happens to not conform to the perfect body structure of 36-24-36, she will be deprived of the most basic need of any living organism – food. Current data suggests that eating disorders are three times more prevalent in women than men (Jones and Morgan, 2010). According to Naomi Wolf (1991), this statistics actually came into existence when women suffering from extreme deprivation and lack of food after World War 2, could not nourish their bodies adequately. Sadly, according to Wolf, these standards of beauty do not just apply to the grown women, but also to children as young as 6 years old. This seems to coincide with the beauty pageants for children that have been introduced off late. The documentary, Pre-Teen Beauty Queen (2015), traces the journey of the child pageant girl participants. It seems hard to believe that a female child would also be subjected to similar torture as an adult woman, by her own mother.
In conclusion, the question arises as to why beauty has come to be of so much focus only on women, that even the young girls are not safe from the coercion. The answer could perhaps lie in the evolutionary perspective, influenced by Darwin’s (1871) Sexual Selection Theory. Among the hunter-gatherer society, the role of the woman was to bear a healthy offspring that would carry the genes forward. For a healthy offspring, the woman must be healthy, which is represented through her physical attributes – a glowing skin, wider hip, long voluminous hair (meaning that she eats healthy), and so on. Because the perception of women’s primary role in society is still that of giving birth, disciplining the body to look more beautiful (and hence, capable of bearing healthy children) is still prevalent. But this is not a justification of the discipline being imposed on the woman. It is a reminder that the role that was entrusted millions of years ago needs to change, along with the change in society; that a woman’s role today is neither limited to nor bound by the act of giving birth.
Bartky, S. L. (1997). Foucault, femininity, and the modernization of patriarchal power. (n.p.).
Wolf, N. (2013). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. (n.p.): Random House.
Butcher, J. N., Mineka, S., & Hooley, J. M. (2017). Abnormal psychology. (n.p.): Pearson Education India.
Devshi, S. (2014, November 15). How Evolution Explains Attraction. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/saj-devshi/how-evolution-explains-attraction_b_5645416.html?guccounter=1
Real Stories. (2015, June 6). Pre-Teen Beauty Queen (Full Documentary) - Real Stories [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0F20P2EjKj4&t=2453s
Image credit: Freelancer: dyeth
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