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Simone de Beauvoir
Becoming A Woman: Simone de Beauvoir on Female Embodiment
Felicity Joseph finds that sometimes it’s hard to become a woman.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”
Simone de Beauvoir
Generally for existentialists, one is not born anything: everything we are is the result of our choices, as we build ourselves out of our own resources and those which society gives us. We don ’t only create our own values, we create ourselves. Simone de Beauvoir, although an avowed life-long existentialist, posits limits to this central existentialist idea of self-creation and self-definition, qualifying the absolute freedom Jean-Paul Sartre posited in Being and Nothingness. By contrast de Beauvoir presents an ambiguous picture of human freedom, in which women struggle against the apparent disadvantages of the female body.
In The Second Sex, her most famous work, de Beauvoir sketches a kind of existential history of a woman ’s life: a story of how a woman’s attitude towards her body and bodily functions changes over the years, and of how society influences this attitude. Here de Beauvoir raises the core question of female embodiment: Are the supposed disadvantages of the female body actual disadvantages which exist objectively in all societies, or are they merely judged to be disadvantages by our society? She answers this question by exploring case studies of the various stages of female life. In these case studies the female body is presented as both positive and negative, and women as both oppressed and free. A woman ’s body is the site of this ambiguity, for she can use it as a vehicle for her freedom and feel oppressed by it. There is no essential truth of the matter: it depends upon the extent to which a woman sees herself as a free subject rather than as the object of society ’s gaze.
Sartre observed that whatever we perceive, including other people, is rendered as an ‘object’ to our gaze and is defined by us. De Beauvoir takes up this idea and applies it to men’s perception of women. The very concept of ‘woman’, de Beauvoir argues, is a male concept: woman is always ‘other’ because the male is the ‘seer’: he is the subject and she the object – the meaning of what it is to be a woman is given by men.
De Beauvoir argues that it is not the biological condition of women per se that constitutes a handicap: it is how a woman construes this condition which renders it positive or negative. None of the uniquely female experiences – the development of female sex organs, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause – have a meaning in themselves; but in a hostile or oppressive society they can come to take on the meaning of being a burden and disadvantage, as women come to accept the meanings a patriarchal society accords them.
De Beauvoir points out that pre-adolescent boys and girls are really not very different: they “have the same interests and the same pleasures” (The Second Sex, p295, Translation and Ed, H.M. Parshley, Vintage, 1997). If the initial psychological differences between young boys and girls are relatively trivial, what then causes them to become important? If one ‘becomes’ a woman, how does this ‘becoming’ happen?
The Flesh and the Feminine
De Beauvoir argues that as a girl’s bodily development occurs, each new stage is experienced as traumatic and demarcates her more and more sharply from the opposite sex. As the girl ’s body matures, society reacts in an increasingly hostile and threatening manner. De Beauvoir talks about the process of ‘becoming flesh’, which is the process whereby one comes to experience oneself as a sexual, bodily being exposed to another ’s gaze. This does not have to be a bad thing; but unfortunately, young girls are often forced to become flesh against their will:
“The young girl feels that her body is getting away from her… on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh” (p333).
There are many more such events in a growing girl’s life which reinforce the belief that it is bad luck to be born with a female body. The female body is such a nuisance, a pain, an embarrassment, a problem to deal with, ugly, awkward, and so on. Even if a girl tries to forget that she has a female body, society will soon remind her. De Beauvoir gives several examples of this: the mother who frequently criticises her daughter ’s body and posture, thus making her feel self-conscious; the ‘man on the street’ who makes a sexual comment about a young girl’s body, making her feel ashamed; and a girl’s embarrassment as male relatives make jokes about her menstruation.
However, de Beauvoir also gives positive examples of having a female body. She shows us that there are situations in which young women can be comfortable in their bodies – indeed, not only comfortable, but joyous and proud. Consider a girl who enjoys walking in the fields and woods, feeling a profound connection to nature. She has a great sense of happiness and freedom in her body which she doesn ’t feel in a social environment. In nature there are no males to gaze upon her, there are no mothers to criticise her. She no longer sees herself through others ’ eyes, and thus is finally free to define her body for herself.
But she cannot escape to the natural world forever. As part of belonging to a patriarchal society she must eventually undergo a further traumatic event – initiation into sexual intercourse. Intercourse is physically more traumatic for girls because it involves penetration and usually some corresponding pain. Culturally it is more traumatic because girls are kept in a greater state of ignorance than boys, and are often ill-prepared for what is to come. Culturally too, there are certain techniques of sexual intercourse which predominate, which may not be ideal for female enjoyment and orgasm (for instance, man on top). De Beauvoir points out that girls ’ sexual education tends to be mainly of the ‘romantic’ sort, which emphasises the courtship period and the pleasure of gentle caresses, but never the penetration. Thus when sex finally happens, it seems a world away from the romantic fantasies a girl has grown up with. De Beauvoir dryly observes that for the shocked young woman “love assumes the aspect of a surgical operation” (p404).
Ultimately, is it the biological penetration itself which causes the distress, or is it the culturally-engineered ignorance of young women? De Beauvoir thinks the biological facts need not be traumatic: the distress is due to a lack of generosity in the man ’s sexual behaviour, combined with the woman’s fear of being objectified before an aggressive sexual gaze. She suggests that the way to a more positive sexual experience for both genders is through each partner acting in ‘erotic generosity’ towards the other, rather than in selfish sensuality.
The experience of pregnancy is more positive, yet still an ambiguous one for women: it can be both an unfair invasion of her body and at the same time a wonderful enrichment. As a woman ’s pregnancy develops, society tends to consider her less sexually attractive, as no longer sexually available. This means that she temporarily escapes man ’s sexual gaze. This is a positive development for a woman, de Beauvoir argues, because “now she is no longer in service as a sexual object, but she is the incarnation of her species, she represents the promise of life, of eternity ” (p518).
What about as a woman gets older? The aging woman is described by de Beauvoir as “intent on struggling against a misfortune that was mysteriously disfiguring and deforming her ” (p595). This is a very negative description of the aging process. It evokes the tone of a cosmetics advert which pressures women to buy their products to struggle against time. Nevertheless, de Beauvoir ’s description is an honest one. We know from her autobiographical writings that she really struggled to come to terms with her aging body: she liked clothes, was considered attractive, and felt upset when she thought she was losing her looks. Yet as a philosopher she was able to step back and see that this attitude was due to an inordinate value placed by society on such ephemeral assets. She had accepted society ’s definition of her worth as her own definition.
De Beauvoir does admit that as a woman persists through the oncoming of age, she may find herself in a more positive stage of life: “She can also permit herself defiance of fashion and of ‘what people will say’, she is freed from social obligations, dieting, and the care of her beauty” (p595). So although old age has many negative aspects, it can provide a kind of escape from society ’s pressure. The desire to conform is lifted, and freedom increases. De Beauvoir’s point is that freedom needs space to move. In the case of female embodiment, there is often no room for women to really ‘see their bodies through their own gaze’, since the male gaze permeates everywhere.
The intertwinedness of body and mind helps explain women’s oppression. Women do not choose to think about their bodies and bodily processes negatively; rather they are forced to do so as a result of being embedded in a hostile patriarchal society. On this view the body is not just the thing we can prod and poke, it is shaped by a plethora of perceptions: if we feel bad about it, it becomes a ‘bad thing’; if we feel good about it, it becomes a ‘good thing’. But the way we think about it is not a matter of free choice unless we live in a society which gives space for that freedom. What feminist philosophers like de Beauvoir aim to do is to open up a space for that freedom to flourish.
© Felicity Joseph 2008
Felicity Joseph currently lectures in recent European philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is also co-editing a companion to existentialism for postgraduates.