Friday, February 03, 2006

Follow-up of sorts

I have been meaning to write about The Size Six Harem for some time now. It's an incredible article by Fatima Mernissi, a Morroccan Feminist. I wanted to comment about it, but anything I said seemed to be inserting my oar into someone else's experience. So I'll just post a extract and then you can go and read the whole thing:

It was during my unsuccessful attempt to buy a cotton skirt in an American department store that I was told my hips were too large to fit into a size 6. That distressing experience made me realize how the image of beauty in the West can hurt and humiliate a woman as much as the veil does when enforced by the state police in extremist nations such as Iran, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia. Yes, that day I stumbled onto one of the keys to the enigma of passive beauty in Western harem fantasies. The elegant saleslady in the American store looked at me without moving from her desk and said that she had no skirt my size. "In this whole big store, there is no skirt for me?" I said. "You are joking." I felt very suspicious and thought that she just might be too tired to help me. I could understand that. But then the saleswoman added a condescending judgment, which sounded to me like Imam fatwa. It left no room for discussion:

"You are too big!" she said.

"I am too big compared to what?" I asked, looking at her intently, because I realized that I was facing a critical cultural gap here.

"Compared to a size 6," came the saleslady's reply.

Her voice had a clear-cut edge to it that is typical of those who enforce religious laws. "Size 4 and 6 are the norm," she went on, encouraged by my bewildered look. "Deviant sizes such as the one you need can be bought in special stores."
Her words sounded so simple, but the threat they implied was so cruel that I realized for the first time that maybe "size 6" is a more violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil. Quickly I said goodbye so as not to make any more demands on the saleslady's time or involve her in any more unwelcome, confidential exchanges about age-discriminatory salary cuts. A surveillance camera was probably watching us both.

Yes, I thought as I wandered off, I have finally found the answer to my harem enigma. 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. If she dares to look fifty, or worse, sixty, she is beyond the pale. By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility. In fact, the modern Western man enforces Immanuel Kant's nineteenth-century theories: To be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless. When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.

These Western attitudes, I thought, are even more dangerous and cunning than the Muslim ones because the weapon used against women is time. Time is less visible, more fluid than space. The Western man uses images and spotlights to freeze female beauty within an idealized childhood, and forces women to perceive aging—that normal unfolding of years—as a shameful devaluation. "Here I am, transformed into a dinosaur," I caught myself saying aloud as I went up and down the rows of skirt in the store, hoping to prove the saleslady wrong—to no avail. This Western time-defined veil is even crazier than the space-defined one enforced by the Ayatollahs.


  1. Ugh. Just ugh. I've noticed this too, and while I am not big by any means other then US beauty standards I have problems finding clothes when I'm about a size 8/9, depending on what store I'm in. (The more chi-chi expensive stores size up so that rich women will feel skinnier. I'm about a size 5/6 if I could afford to shop at those places, which I wouldn't anyway, but that's beside the point.)

    Women are encouraged to take up less space and if we dare to be "bigger," whatever our size we're punished for taking up too much space. This may be why I buy men's pants. I know my waist and leg measurements and don't have to deal with condescension like that (although I'm amazed when I do get it.) I hate these "beauty" standards.

  2. I just found the article annoying. I recall on a number of occasions finding that stores just did not have any trousers with a waist smaller than 32 inches, or at least, not ones that I'd want to buy. Those Western Men bastards, trying to make me feel bad about not having a beer gut! Or, it could just be that most of their customers had a waist size 32 or up and they couldn't be fucked selling to the minority. Nah, that's just implausible - a conspiracy is really far more likely!

    I work with a lot of American women, and not many of them would be smaller than an NZ size 14. I've no idea what size an American 6 is, but if it's much smaller than an NZ 14 you have to wonder who the hell is buying all the clothes in those shops.

    The capstone has to be though: "Her words sounded so simple, but the threat they implied was so cruel that I realized for the first time that maybe "size 6" is a more violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil." Oh no - the awful threat of having to go to a different shop to get your clothes. The horror! Now, it's some years since I've been to America, but I'm pretty sure there aren't yet "size police" who will shout at you or give you a good whack with a stick for not being a size 6, which is what you can expect in Saudi or Iran if you go out without your headscarf. If Fatima Mernissi wants to extrapolate the fact that a shop assistant made her feel bad for not being a size 6 into some kind of control conspiracy in which "Western Men" "force" women to appear a certain way, I can't stop her. But she really should get a grip on herself, tell unpleasant shop assistants to get fucked (in a nice loud voice), and just buy her clothes at a shop that sells her size. It's really not that hard.

  3. I actually wondered the same thing when I read it - admittedly I'm in Canada not America, but I have /never/ seen a store that has size 6 as its biggest. 8 or 10 maybe, but 6?! Going to 14 or 16 seems to be the norm.

    Nonetheless, while I have questions about the details of the anecdote, I do think the author is onto something in general - that women's lives and ability to participate in society as fully and autonomously as men is circumscribed to some extent by the messages that we have to be thin or else.

  4. This reminds me of a book by a Chinese woman who lived through the era of foot-binding. She managed to avoid having her feet bound but was ostracised in her own country.

    She later came to America and found the practice of wearing high heels was just as painful and restrictive as foot-binding itself. I can't believe some women wear those things every day. I can't believe some have to, because of their jobs.

    Expectation is a crippling jacket, alright. And of course "the illusion of freedom can be the greatest form of control of all".

  5. Some comments have been disappearing from this thread, and I'm not quite sure why. Hopefully it'll stop happening soon.

    One of the reasons I like reading articles with American sizing is that I've actually no idea how bit the size is. I have vague idea that American sizes are between two and four numbers (ie one or two sizes) down from NZ sizes. But I actually think the point comes through more clearly the more abstract the numbers are.

  6. Anonymous10:18 am

    Here's my take on it.

    I think the article is bullshit.

    I mean, factually bullshit.

    American department stores usually carry between Women sizes 4 and 16. Anything above 16 is called "plus size" and sometimes department stores will carry that too. AND there are plus size stores!

    Which means if she went into a store that carried no bigger than 6, she probably walked into some sort of boutique shop that sells only clothing for supermodels (and those are notorious for being assholes in the first place, even among supermodels.) Or, more likely, she's making the whole bullshit story up.

    I mean, even the dialogue. "Deviant sizes?" What department store worker calls uses that terminology to describe clothing?

    More importantly, I think some perspective is needed here. Far from being ostracism, big and tall or plus sizes shops developed as an economic necessity. Most department stores follow a "most cost effective model" - most people aren't above size 16 or 42M, and if you can serve 90% of the customers, adding additional selection to chase after that 10% that is either smaller than a size 4 or bigger than a size 16 doesn't make a lot of sense. On the other hand, big and tall shops cater specifically to the market not served by mainstream department stores where they don't have to waste much retail space on products that customers can't use and therefore won't buy.

    I'm a size 50M myself (and losing weight) so I also go to the big and tall shops.

    But even taken on the face of it - which, I wouldn't - she's using one rude (and strange) salesperson to paint the whole of the American obsession with thinness. There's a little difference. If you're a big girl in America, you might get teased a bit. If you are an assertive, veilless woman in a muslim-majority nation, you face much more severe social reprocussions.

    Marylyn Monroe, considered one of the most sexy women who ever lived even decades after her death wore what would now be considered an American size 12/British size 16.

    It is true that there is a disproportionate portrayal of thinness on television and in magazines which may cause young women to develop self esteem problems. And I certainly don't want to dismiss or trivialise the problem.

    At the same time, though, I grew up and am still fat by male standards. I don't know about you, but I've never had a rock chucked at my head for having bad self-esteem.

    If you want to seriously talk about the problems of unrealistic image expectations in American society, that's fine. Not only do supermodels end up starving themselves to get that crackhead-waif look but then they get photoshoppers to go in and artificially make the image even smaller. That's not healthy if women are comparing themselves to flatly impossible standards.

    But if you just make shit up like this, no one will take the problem seriously.

    I think there need to be more "normal people" on TV. I think that television, as a whole, however, is a vast wasteland with a few exceptions like Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who. (And hell, even those have Katee Sackhoff and Billie Piper... and c'mon... you really think Colin Baker would ever be considered today when you give ultra-thin, ultra-tall David Tennant the ultimate British part?)

    The truth is that American women sometimes get shit on by narrow minded people. EVERYONE gets shit on by narrow-minded people. But we've never instituted law making it illegal for a woman to be fat or to wear larger than a size 6.