Simone de Beauvoir: The second sex – the social construction of women and implications for wellbeing.
In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir published ‘The Second Sex’, a book that was put on a ‘prohibited list’ by the Vatican. In 2015, the ideas within should also make the non-religious think again about what makes for femininity and why. Women suffering from eating disorders, or spending a great deal of money on cosmetic surgery, might wish to consider why they are doing so and who profits from it. Nurses as women, and a nurse education interested in the personal growth of its students, might profit from this analysis as they experience, almost daily, images of what the ideal body type should be. This experience is implicated in negative evaluations of body shape (e,g, anti-fat bias); evaluations that even health professionals engage in (Teachman and Brownhill 2001), and the prevalence of eating disorders (Garner and Garfinkel 2009).
Biology is not destiny. To begin with, the fact of female biology is an ‘is’ but should not be automatically linked to the ‘ought’ of social roles around, for example, child rearing and the plethora of social and domestic roles women have played for centuries. In 1740, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, in his ‘Treatise on Human Nature’, pointed out that human reasoning can so easily jump the gap between what ‘is’ and then declare that it also ‘ought’ to be. This gap between the ‘is’ of fact and the ‘ought’ of value requires examining rather than uncritical acceptance. Just because we eat meat, ought we to eat meet? For women, examining the gap between fact and values means realising that reproductive biology (an ‘is’) is not their destiny linked to a subordinate domestic role (an ‘ought’). In part 1 of the book ‘Destiny’, Beauvoir argues that the facts of biology must be viewed in the light of the ontological, economic, social, and physiological contexts in which they exist.
Beauvoir goes further into the nature of female sexuality and their feminine forms to suggest that notions of female beauty are socially constructed, and most often by men. In addition, women learn how to be women often in relation to male ideals. Beauvoir argued: “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman” (book 1, part 2 ch 1). This feels counterintuitive and goes against natural thinking at the birth of a child in which the sex of the child is established by biological factors but almost immediately gender constructions begin. Sex and gender are intertwined and erroneously conceptualised as being the same thing. In western societies, the bestowal of the pink and the blue begins that process of the social construction of gender which then overlays the biological sex of the baby. Howard Garfinkel (1967) in ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’, later described the continuous process of the social production of gender roles, whereby ‘Agnes’, born with a penis, passed as a woman.
In part two ‘History’ Beauvoir describes the historical subjugation of women by men for example quoting Proudhon who valued a woman at 8/27th the value of a man. The almost total subjugation of women, and their subsequent invisibility in history, results from patriarchy often underpinned by religion. Biology (the ‘is’) is invoked to put and keep them in their subordinate place (the ‘ought’). However, in the modern era, two key factors were involved in the evolution of the female role in society: 1. participation in production and 2. freedom from reproductive slavery. ‘Modern’ women, such as Rosa Luxembourg and Marie Curie, who were able to exploit these factors:
“brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women’s inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority” (p131).
Industrial, and now postindustrial capitalism as a dynamic system, has both freed women and created new forms of subjugation. Factory work, especially during war, gave opportunities for women to, en masse, demonstrate their strength and provide alternatives to lives of domestic labour. Nursing arguably began its professionalisation following these factors, and nurses themselves enjoy almost total freedom from obligatory reproductive labour secured by the contraceptive pill. Yet, new forms of subjugation have been created. Advances in cosmetic technologies and medical practices have now given women new tools to construct themselves as befitting whatever cultural artefact is now considered as beauty. We now have labiaplasty offered, not to correct genital ‘malfunction’ but as an aspect of new norms of beauty possibly in response to exposure to pornography (Davis 2011). Beauvoir pointed to the male gaze, but it now seems that women themselves are complicit in this reconstruction of the feminine.
In part three ‘Myths’, Beauvoir discusses such as issues as men’s ‘disappointment’ in women revolving round issues such as menstruation, virginity, copulation and motherhood. Myths about the female role abound in literature written by men, especially the ‘mystery’ of woman to man, perhaps foreshadowing Betty Friedan’s later work, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (Friedan 1963). Friedan argued that male editorial decisions in women’s magazines, insisted on articles that showed women as either happy housewives or unhappy careerists. This was the “feminine mystique” the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. In both books there is this suggestion that men misunderstand, or perhaps even fear women, and engage in creating a simulacrum (Baudrillard n.d.) of femininity to best fit their own gendered and sexual needs. It might be that male fear of women, their lack of control of female reproduction, is at the root of ‘femicide’ – the killing of females by males because they are females (Russell and Harmes 2001).
Volume two of the work is also divided into 4 parts; ‘Formative years’, ‘Situation’, Justifications’ and ‘Towards Liberation’. Beauvoir describes the learning of appropriate femininity and subsequent domestic roles. Her critique of marriage and acceptance of lesbianism no doubt helped the Vatican in its decision.
Beauvoir assembles an historical account using examples from literature, politics and philosophy to argue that to fully understand what it is to be a women requires moving beyond biology as destiny to examining the myths of femininity, myths often created by and for men, and then towards constructing emancipatory practices.
Women should come to see that they are under a ‘male gaze’ which constructs who they are and that beauty itself is a social construct. It is through other people’s assumptions and expectations that a woman (sex) becomes ‘feminine’ (gender). Part of that feminization is the requirement of women to strive after beauty, defined by mens’ view of what they would like women to be. A view that denies women the capacity for action and thought, to be passive objects of the male gaze, and to use artifice in order to be ornamental, to disguise the more animal aspects of their bodies, e.g. the removal of body hair in western aesthetics. The pressure on women to become an object, to be conventionally beautiful, to diet, is intense.
Of course, the male gaze can be internalized by women, and it is the case that women’s magazines produced and edited by women perpetuate beauty myths (Wolf 1991). Aesthetic technologies, such as dermal fillers and botox, are often advertised by women, performed by women, performed on women. Beauvoir focused on patriarchal values and concepts as drivers for these processes, whereas and especially since the development of liquid modernity (Baumann 2000) characterized by individualism, consumerism and atomization, and by the increasing marketisation of society (Sandel 2012, Marquand 2014), consumer capitalism has also targeted men as consumers of beauty products. We have now the construction of the male body type with the ‘six pack’ as its apotheosis.
The creation of dissatisfaction with one’s body, be it male or female, is now a marketing tool to sell product. This process may have become a dominant ethic in contemporary society. Booth (2014) refers to a contemporary concerns with ‘mammon worship’ defined as ‘seeking satisfaction through the superficial’ while Skidelsky and Skidelsky (2012) focus on the dominance of the values of acquisition and ‘insatiability’ while societies have lost the sense of what the good life might be. If this is the case, then Beauvoir’s focus on patriarchal values and the male gaze, allied with more and more of a concern with financialisation and the creating of new markets for profit, come together as dominant social ethics to create who we are at both emotional and physical levels.
There is resistance of course. Since Beauvoir’s publication, some have suggested that ‘second wave’ feminism (Gamble 2001) and ‘third wave’ feminism (Tong 2009) arose to address the rights of women. Resistance to the male gaze can be seen in Susie Orbach’s work (1978). For Orbach, gender inequality makes women fat; compulsive eating and being fat is one way to avoid being marketed at or being seen as the ideal woman. Orbach suggested it was some womens’ way of rebelling against powerlessness in society. More recently, the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project exists to address instances of sexism experienced by women on a daily basis. Within a health context, Hagell (1989) discussed the conceptualization of nursing work as women’s work while Aston (2011) have used feminist post structuralism (FPS) as a way of understanding obesity. Sundin-Huard (2001) used subject positions theory to illustrate how nurses in a gendered profession can be positioned into subordinate roles within hierarchical medical and managerial structures.
The value of returning to Beauvoir’s work is in reminding us that what seems normal and natural for women’s place in society and what seems normal in their ‘natural’ attributes as carers and nurterers, may not be normal or natural. We need to remember the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. The pressures women experience, and the tools they use to provide an acceptably pleasing face to themselves as well as to men, are cultural artefacts bound up within systems of power. Powerlessness in the face of the social construction of feminities that lead to abject and subordinate subject positions can lead to reaction which might even be self harming. Feminist theory may not find a home in nurse education, perhaps it should?
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