by Katie Rich
“‘Plastic surgery is like a burqa made of flesh.’ One woman gave us this harsh and incisive description. Having been given freedom of choice for all, are we not under a new cultural yoke of a singular feminine model?”
This question was raised in “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference,” a document written for the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome by a group of women in early February. The document was meant to engage questions of feminine specificity, in particular, what it means to be a woman in the Catholic Church.
In the late 19th century, women – particularly in Western countries – began to demand equality of the sexes. As the Plenary document put it, women “no longer accepted the role of the
deuxième sexe.” The document argues that equilibrium must be found between equality and difference in order for the true vocation of women to unfold. There are inherent differences
between the masculine and feminine, and rather than diminishing these differences, we should use them to enlighten the road for understanding how they can compliment each other while remaining on
The Plenary document focuses on the female body as a means of communicating what femininity is. “The body for women – as also happens for men – is, in a cultural and biological, symbolic and natural sense, the place of one’s own identity. It is the subject, means, space of development and expression of the self, the place of rationality, psychology, imagination, natural functionality, and ideal tensions converge.” As humans, our entire being cannot be solely spiritual but is inherently both physical and spiritual. Our bodies, then, play an important part in understanding and communicating who we are.
The document continues: “If the body is the place of truth of the feminine self, in the indispensable mixture of culture and biology, it is also the place of the ‘betrayal’ of this truth.” By objectifying women, our society betrays the truth of the feminine self. The body, as stated earlier, is the place of one’s own identity. It is our means of self-expression, the center of our rationality and imagination. Without it, we are not human, much less women, and by this same logic, it deserves ultimate respect.
Our culture, and western culture at large, obsesses over the appearance of women’s bodies without any concern for what it is they contain: the rationality and soul of the woman. Constant pressure from media and cultural norms drive women to drastic measures of manipulating their own bodies to appear sexually appealing to men. We mask our natural selves to fit the mold society cuts for us, the “new cultural yoke of a singular feminine model” as stated earlier. This is how plastic surgery is like a burqa made of flesh. It masks women in order to please men.
In her essay “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem,” Fatema Mernissi relates her distress at being told in an American clothing store that because she did not fit into a size 6, she would have to shop at a special store with larger sizes. Mernissi, a normally confident woman, was horrified. She relates how men in Morocco always praised her for her hips, but here in America, she is treated as a pariah for her ‘unconventional’ beauty.
It is from this experience that Mernissi realizes the metaphor of the Western harem. She explains: “Unlike the Muslim man, who uses space to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light. He declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look fourteen years old… to be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless.” She continues: “This idea gives me the chills because it tattoos the invisible harem directly onto a woman’s skin.”
We cannot progress towards better treatment of women without first respecting the female body as a temple of the Spirit and of our own rationality and expression of self. This understanding must come largely from men. But women, on the other hand, must acknowledge within themselves that their bodies, like their souls, are worthy of respect. If we do not want to be thought of as childish and brainless, then we as women must both embrace our femininity while working for our equality, in part by dressing and treating our bodies as a true reflection of our interior selves.