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Control over Female Bodies as the Way to Enforce Gender Binary

Why Do We Need to Know Gender?

The human body is a place of intersection of sex and gender in the gender binary system. Gender is defined on the base of sexual characteristics, primary or secondary (Norris & Carr, 2013), depending on the social situation, and those characteristics formulate our expectations on one's behavior according to their gender role (Ellemers, 2018). At the same time, our own identity includes gender parameters that were formed by our internal understanding and social norms. The difference between sex and gender was articulated in the 1950s when Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead distinguished sex and social behavior/role based on sex (Meyerowitz & Meyerowitz, 2004).

Gender stereotyping, which is the tendency to perceive individuals as representatives of certain social groups, is an innate need of our cognition and a primary feature of our perception. Though studies showed that we could correct our understanding of gender roles, especially in a particular context, the binary categorization remains the first step of recognition and quick estimate (Ellemers, 2018).

Gender and sex-typing have been a subject of interest of different groups of specialists – psychologists, culturologists, anthropologists, etc. In Western culture, though specialists recognized the limitations binary gender system, they used to remain within male/female dichotomy until recent times, regardless of criticizing or supporting it (Lurye, Zosuls & Ruble, 2008).

Feminist studies have contributed to gender and sex knowledge by sharing a gender-based approach and bringing attention to gender-related issues (Jenkins, Narayanaswamy, & Sweetman, 2019). One of the directions of feminist research is control over female bodies in patriarchy as a toolset for maintaining a binary gender system.

Wrong, Fake, Ugly, Sinful

Rephrasing Andrea Dworkin (1981), male domination and control over women's bodies remains the basic reality of women's lives, and the struggle for dignity and self-determination still relates to the control of one's own body. The control over the female body can be performed in various combinations of psychological (e.g., the privilege of evaluation), physical (e.g., domestic violence, involvement in prostitution, pornography, etc.), social (e.g., moral norms, beauty ideals, peer pressure), administrative (e.g., anti-female laws), etc.

There are multiple ways to evaluate femininity from a patriarchal standpoint, labeling women as "right" or "wrong," "real" or "fake." The question of the body, physicality in such an assessment is especially painful because physical appearance change is hard or impossible and risky, and also because questioning someone's physical realness relates to the questioning of existence itself. Different studies proved the toxicity of labeling, stigmatization, and body shaming (e.g., Ferguson, Winegard & Winegard, 2011; Henrichs-Beck & Szymanski, 2017; Rodgers, McLean & Paxton, 2015). The manipulation of creating ideal/norm of female body/ beauty was revealed and described in major feminist works, such as "The Feminine Mystique" (Friedan, 1963) or "The Beauty Myth" (DiNozzi, Massey, Schmidt & Wolf, 2009).

Domination over women's bodies can also be expressed through controlling and shaming their sexuality, reproductive ability or disability, and physiological specifics. Reproductive coercion (Silverman & Raj, 2014), female genital mutilation (UNICEF, 2016; WHO, 2020), sex-selective abortion, abortion ban or limitation (Ross, 2017), fluid "milk and blood" taboos or scares (Bramwell, 2001; Linton, 2016) – this is just a general list of the control tools used in patriarchal societies.

As for physical violence, in case of dominance over the female body, it mostly refers to domestic violence. The studies bring evidence that a significant part of male violators is not strangers; they are victim's friends, colleagues, family members, etc. (Englander, 2007), which is reasonable from the standpoint of control.

If we try to list the requirements for the female body, we will face numerous controversial statements. Some of them have emerged in an early age, like responsibility for sexual power and slut-shaming (Alexandre, 2006) some reflect modern stereotyping, like incels' requirement to have sex with all men who need it (Sloan, 2019).

Gail Ukockis (2019) described the approximate ideal as quiet, flexible, inconspicuous, attractive, with low self-esteem, always ready for sex. This list aligns with basic body requirements – be or pretend young, never feel bad, be invisible and silent, hide all "disgusting" features. The general message of all requirements remains the same – "you are an object/property."

Resistance and Future Challenges

There's no surprise that such suppression and objectification would face resistance. Alexandre (2006) stated that resistance was present throughout history and reflected in different arts, fiction, and practices – dance, dressing, performance, etc. Women's body protest, according to Alexandre, is using their bodies to challenge existing gender restrictions and asserting the returning of control. Currently, the body-positive movement focuses on the legitimization of the traits that were shamed – shape, weight, height, body hair, menstruation, breastfeeding, delivery, digestion, mental issues, etc. (Raikwar, 2016).

As for body-related challenges that would inevitably and fundamentally undermine the binary, specialists name reevaluation of existing body stereotypes, ranging from "male/female brain" to overall malleability of gender dichotomy (Hyde, Bigler, Joel, Tate & Van Anders, 2019). These changes are expected to eliminate control over female bodies as a useless and harmful relic of the past. Without gender polarization, there's no need to conquer for power, at least in the form of male/female opposition.


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