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“The Female Body” by Margaret Atwood Essay

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2021

Summary of the Readings

Author’s Main Point

In her essay, Atwood (1990), through her eyes and those of her family, describes how people’s perception of the female body as a sex object with accessories has been normalized in society. In their book, Shaw and Lee (2011) reflect on contemporary feminine experiences through a compilation of writings by other authors. Their main point is that the feminine-masculine duality is a construction of cultural ideas learned from contemporary media.

Outline of the Argument

Atwood’s (1990) argument is summarized below.

  • In the introductory paragraph, she describes how her body appears and feels
  • She then depicts the accessories and color-coded parts of the female body
  • She likens a woman’s body to a toy featuring prominent plastic breasts and narrow waistlines with optional reproductive parts
  • She lists the functions of the female body from the men’s eyes – from opening doors to selling cars
  • Men perceive women as the missing half required for wholeness

Shaw and Lee’s (2011) argument is highlighted below.

  • Masculinity or femininity shows how gender is inscribed on a body
  • This binary is normalized through how we dress, walk, and talk
  • While femininity is associated with the “body, earth, and nature,” masculinity is linked to the spirit and sky (Grossman, 2011, p. 183)
  • Male infatuation with breasts and wearing bras portray women as sexual objects
  • Men would want to give “power justifications” if they could menstruate (Shaw & Lee, 2011, p. 209)
  • Racial differences in body consciousness result from media portrayals
  • Women strive to be sexually attractive to men and attain a ‘beauty appeal.’
  • The female body dictates that one has to use the girl’s bathroom
  • Fashion is associated with femininity

Personal Reflection/Understanding of the Material

A fundamental point gleaned from the material is that we perceive human bodies as either male or female. This binary has become the norm with the media defining appropriate masculine or feminine dress and appearance. I agree with these sentiments as the color of clothes worn by boys or girls often has a gender-dress association. I have also understood that beauty norms are a reflection of masculine power. Sexual appeal determines a woman’s acceptability by men. As such, she has to modify her body to match the male-defined ideals. To be desirable, females have to dress or act as males expect, hence, they become more like sex objects.

Reactions, Opinions, and Thoughts

Women are under pressure from beauty and sexual norms inscribed on feminine bodies. Atwood (1990) writes that, according to men, an ideal female is slender and large-breasted. Personally, I am yet to meet a woman with this figure. Only dolls can match that description. In my opinion, fashion and beauty are meant to depict women as subordinate to men. They are objects of male enjoyment. As such, they rarely dress or behave as they wish but must always adhere to gender norms and expectations. I believe that due to these sexualized images, girls are pressured to undergo breast augmentation and plastic surgery to maintain their appeal and desirability in the eyes of men. Television shows, fashion magazines, and ads feature slender models. Rarely would you see media images of plump or disabled women? Exposure to ideal figures and gender roles results in internalized notions of how an attractive female should look like.

Discussion Question

In what ways would deformed bodies challenge dominant norms on feminine attractiveness and desirability?

References

Atwood, M. (1990). The Michigan Review, 29, 490-493. Web.

Grossman, M. (2011). Inscribing gender on the body. In S. M. Shaw & J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (pp. 181-183). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Shaw, S. M., & Lee, J. (2011). Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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