The gaze – power and bodily practices

Norms change, and somehow these norms get internalized in our body and mind to a point where it’s hard to think it could possibly be any different. And today, in this corner of the world where I am writing from, the gendered identity “woman” seems to be related to the practice of regularly removing body hairs from specific places on one’s body.

I think it is interesting to reflect upon how these norms get internalized so deeply in our understanding of ourselves and the world, to a point where it almost feels like a law of nature: If you show your legs in public, they better be hairless! There is often no direct punishment if you fail to comply. It is all “in our head”, and yet, it feels extremely powerful. Especially, I’ve found it challenging to explain to men why I cannot just let my hair grow if that’s what I want. From their perspective, it should be easy. In the passages below, I look into sociological theory to seek an explanation to why it’s not that easy.

In Michel Foucault’s theory on disciplinary power, the exercise of power (understood as influence) does not need to be direct. It can work in sophisticated ways, when perceived surveillance disciplines our behavior through self-regulation.[1] Disciplinary power is often illustrated by the architecture of the Panopticon prison: a circular construction of cells with a watching tower in the middle. The inmates are isolated from each other and are not able to see if they are being watched at any given moment. However, they are aware of the possibility of being watched from the tower. The power is a) visible and b) unverifiable. Once the technology is constructed, no guard is actually needed in the tower, and the inmates become the real bearers of the system.[2] In this way, disciplinary mechanisms create autoregulation in the intimate sphere – amongst Panopticon’s prisoners as well as amongst women, who need to make themselves up to be recognized as such in the eyes of society.[3]

Sociologist Sandra Bartky takes the idea of disciplinary power to feminist theory and argues that the beauty system of women is regulated like this to produce the docile bodies that facilitate patriarchy.[4] The time and effort we put into being recognized as beautiful females, should be regarded as valuable resources. When we put on makeup and remove our body hair, we do actually do work; beauty work. But we don’t acknowledge this as work, because it is culturally understood as ‘pleasure’ within a narrative of individuality and freedom. This is what Naomi Wolf has called The Beauty Myth.[5] The beauty myth is a story told by advertising agencies, that tells us that we make ourselves beautiful by free choice. Wolf’s argument is that beauty work is, in fact, a conformation to normative femininity as dictated by the disembodied patriarchal gaze[6]. The experience of being watched derives from the heavy exposure of images of objectified women in the public and of normative stances on the female body that are dispersed in society. In this sense, the media becomes the visible expression of power; the guarding tower that is seen by Foucault’s inmates. As Foucault also notes, the machinery of the Panopticon is extremely efficient due to its impersonal nature.[7] There is no need for a sovereign king to execute this form of power, the position in the tower can be taken by any anonymous and temporary observer. The woman will regulate herself automatically based on the anxiety for being punished, no matter whether a concrete observer actually observes and judges you from a normative patriarchal gaze. Bartky argues that this experienced existential need for intimate self-modification produces a shared low self-esteem amongst women and enforces women’s inferior position in society at large, for example in the labour market.[8] Culture is intimately incorporated into bodily practices, and power works through emotions. We self regulate our body hair because we perceive a surveillance and a set of cultural expectations to what it means to belong to “the women-people”.

The anxiety of being deemed out of “the women-people” is just too big to let the shaver drop. Or put in another way; the social cost is too high. We cannot afford to loose our gendered identity, because we live in a world build on gender binaries, where your worth as a person sometimes is related to how well you perform “woman”.

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[1] Foucault, Michel. 2009. Security, Territory, Population – LECTURES AT THE COLLÈGE DE FRANCE, 1977-78. Picador, 1st eds., Pp.20

[2] Foucault, Michel. 1991. Discipline and Punishment – The Birth of the Prison. Penguin Books, London. Pp. 201-201

[3] Black, Paula and Sharma, Ursula. 2001. Men are Real, Women are ‘Made up’: Beauty Therapy and the Construction of Femininity. The Sociological Review, 49 (1), Pp. 100-114

[4] Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1997. Chapter 5: Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power in: Meyers, Diana T. (eds.): Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. Pp. 94

[5] Wolf, Naomi. 1990. The Beauty Myth. Vintage, London.

[6] Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1997. Chapter 5: Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power in: Meyers, Diana T. (eds.): Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. Pp. 100-103

[7] Foucault, Michel. 1991. Discipline and Punishment – The Birth of the Prison. Penguin Books, London. Pp. 195-228

[8] Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1997. Chapter 5: Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power in: Meyers, Diana T. (eds.): Feminist Social Thought: A Reader.