By Namit Arora
(An excerpt from a longer work of fiction.)
It has been a month since they first slept together. He wondered why their verbal sparring had increased in recent days. Just this morning at her place, Liz set off on the youth-obsessed American culture and the skinny ideals of female beauty manufactured by the consumer industry—a conspiracy, she said, to keep women down. ‘That’s true but what’s also true,’ he argued, ‘is that there will always be some power that will try to contain us, define us, or gain from us. Did earlier ages not have oppressive ideals of beauty? In this culture, power is exercised mainly through marketing. Fortunately, women here also have the power to free themselves from the narrow ideals of beauty impressed on them.’
‘Easier said than done,’ she retorted. ‘You don’t know the pressure this culture puts on women, how it ruins their self-esteem, causes them anxiety and self-loathing, not to mention eating disorders and health problems. These days many college sororities even have puking contests after dinner. You don’t know because you are not constantly evaluated by the shape of your tits and butt, are you?’
‘That may be because I don’t have tits,’ he tried to inject some humor.
‘What pains me more,’ she ignored his remark, ‘is the knowledge that so many women don’t see the big picture, and become co-conspirators with men in their own oppression.’
‘Co-conspirators? Wait a minute. Are you saying that men conspire to oppress women?’
‘What I mean is that it is still a man’s world, customized to serve his convenience, his desires, goals, expectations. A world designed and run by women would look very different. But so many women accept and even further the status quo. They don’t push back, since they don’t recognize their long-term interests.’
‘What solution do you propose?’ he retorted. ‘Oppressors are also victims. Men, too, have pressures—the same culture also lays down ideals of success for them, which includes being rich and famous, and scoring with skinny women. It may not be so physical but the demands on men are no less damaging to their souls.’
‘When it comes to gender issues, I bet it is convenient for men to conflate oppressors and victims. To say we’re all oppressed only serves to perpetuate the status quo.’
‘That may well be,’ he raised his voice. ‘But the fact is that women are not a single group. They have a great many identities and interests, a lot of which coincide more with other men’s than with other women’s. “Oppressor”, “victim” are fluid and amorphous terms in this context. One must always look at particulars to pronounce judgment.’
‘Maybe so, but some disadvantages extend to all women, whether or not they see it that way. Like the narrow ideals of beauty for women in this culture—so insidious!’
‘Perhaps. But most men in real life don’t actually have those narrow ideals of female beauty. More women ought to push back against such ideals, and if they don’t, why feel sorry for them? They have to take responsibility because if not this, something else will find a way to menace and control them. Such is the nature of power in human societies.’
‘I agree, that’s why we need to educate women, so they can see how they are controlled and manipulated, how the system keeps them down. That they deserve better in their relationships. I do feel sorry for them.’
‘Is it worth doing this for all of their relationships?’ he asked.
‘Yes, wherever women do not share power equally with men.’
‘Why not only in situations where women are resentful? I’m not sure about the merits of provoking all unequal power relationships, particularly those rooted in consent or convenience, and which may seem more objectionable to outsiders than to the woman involved.’
‘Would you have used this argument for slavery as well, that not all slaves seem to mind?’
An old trick in rhetoric: resort to extreme comparisons, with Hitler, slavery, genocide. ‘That’s an absurd comparison Liz. Women don’t live under oppressive institutions in America. In this day and age, all I can say is: stop blaming others. Get over it!’
‘So easy for you to say! You won’t understand because you are a man. You are not subject to the same depressing messages constantly from age three—behold you girls, this is the ideal, desirable female body! This is what men want! And you know what? Once we internalize it, we can’t just give it up one fine day! Not until men too start giving it up more widely!’
‘I am sorry I am a man but I think—’
‘If only you would try to understand women! Instead, you speak from a comfortable high perch to us lesser mortals, breaking the news about our weakness to the world—look here, how even these modern, educated women keep themselves in chains!’
‘Listen, your making this so personal helps no one. See how wretched it makes you feel? Why let what you cannot wish away cause such heartburn? Why let it consume you? You owe it to yourself to remain functional, even joyful and serene, in a world that is, and will always be, partly unjust.’
‘I know that!’ she screamed. ‘I don’t let it consume me for God’s sake. It happens, OK? And it happens because it makes me angry!’ She began sobbing, forcing him to mentally replay everything he had said, searching for something to apologize for. He regretted getting into this conversation in the first place.
But then he remembered that her own experiences were too painfully wound up with this issue: her ex, Peter, had left her for a younger skinny blonde. He felt a bit guilty. Easy for him to say what he did. How well does he really understand the experience of women? And doesn’t he himself gravitate towards these narrow ideals of female beauty, rather than resisting them? What else can explain his instinctive reaction when he first met her? And isn’t anger often necessary to fuel positive change? Moving closer, he put his arm around her. She was stiff at first but then relaxed against him.
Later, trying to enter her mind to see the world from within, he thinks: each of us is a singular echo of the cosmic mind. We harbor all kinds of theories, but without inhabiting the skin of others, can we truly understand their experience of life, in all its complexities? Probably not, but trying is the best we can do, even though it may not always lead us closer to the real thing. Trying is all we have.