Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Reading Simone de Beauvoir

I picked up the Second Sex over a year ago, but I'm still plodding through it. The points she makes are laboured at times, and the book seems encyclopaedic in its scope: she takes many prejudices directed against women (as the 'inferior' sex) and dissects them one by one. This makes the book seem much like a textbook, a textbook on how women have always been treated as the other, the 'second sex'. Some of the points she makes are of course, outdated - yet our 'modern' world contains so many prejudices within it that it only occasionally feels like you're reading history.

Sample this:
Costumes and styles are often devoted to cutting off the feminine body from any possible transcendence: Chinese women with bound feet could scarcely walk, the polished fingernails of the Hollywood star deprive her of her hands; high heels, corsets, panniers, farthingales, crinolines were intended less to accentuate the curves of the feminine boydy than to augment its incapacity. Wighted down with fat, or on the contrary so thin as to forbid all effort, paralyzed by inconvenient clothing and by the rules of propriety - then women's body seems to man to be his property, his thing. Make-up and jewellery also further this petrification of face and body. The function of ornamental attire is very complex; with certain primitives it has a religious significance; but more often its purpose is to accomplish the metamorphosis of woman into idol.
I completely agree: in fact I have often suspected the same about traditional clothes, and especially, the expectation that women should continue to wearing them while men switch to more comfortable trousers. Yet - if constricting attire and jewellery was a ploy to render women more ineffectual, were women too stupid to realise it? How did we become complicit in our own subjugation?

(Of course, I don't mean that we should never wear impractical garments. I must confess I love saris: but I would hate to wear one if I had to catch a bus. Ditto high heels (though I don't wear them in any case - a) I never got used to them and would be scared of toppling over, and b) my back protests at the slightest sign of heels and I know too well now to anger it). My question is why are clothes that are deemed suitable for women usually the less comfortable ones? I agree salwar kameez isn't as uncomfortable as a sari or a burqa but a) it's not as comfortable as wearing pants and shirt instead and b) it's more a unisex garment than one meant exclusively for women, even though women's ones are usually somewhat differently tailored and decorated.)

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