The Persistent Narcissist
According to Simon de Beauvoir, in her seminal feminist manifesto (The Second Sex), a woman is rather defined by her social roles and her existential objective is to transcribe the assigned meaning into her essence. Any possible means prescribed to transcend her ascribed significance — narcissism (devotion to herself), devotion to her loved ones or mysticism (devotion to god) — merely deceives her and denies her freedom. All her accessible pursuits withhold comprehension of her being and advancement of self. Even though it was written seven decades ago, the second sex is still relevant and reading it was confrontational, enlightening and stimulating all at once.
In particular, I am drawn towards her analysis of “the narcissist” as it pertains to contemporary issues. Simon De Beauvoir employs narcissism as per the psychoanalytic jargon, which refers to the infatuation with one’s bodily being. The narcissist, says Freud, “treats his (her) body the same way a sexual object is treated”. Psychoanalysis deems women are more narcissistic than men besides the supposition that narcissism is a necessary feature of normal feminine personality.¹ The second sex extends narcissism beyond sexual objectification (she explains narcissism as objectification of one's self; even victimization could be a form of narcissism) and evaluates it through the lens of existentialism. In this post, however, I will rivet my discourse on the persistent (self-)objectification of women with regard to beauty and desirability. I will compose my perception on its prevalence, causes and consequences through personal experiences, empirical evidence and postmodern feminist philosophies.
Part I — Chronicles of commonplace narcissism
Norms and subtle reinforcements
When one talks about objectification or self-objectification of women we tend to focus on full-blown body image issues like anorexia, plastic surgery, male gaze and narrow beauty ideals promoted by the media. We fail to notice or question the narcissism interwoven with women’s schema when it unveils itself in mundane aspects of life. The daily acts of objectification are very nuanced that we dismiss them as norms and this lack of introspection reinforces our ingrained ideologies. Recently I watched “Sillu Karupatti”, a Tamil anthology film on Netflix, which includes four stories: The pink bag, Turtles, Hey Ammu and Kakka kadi. Although the movie was heartwarming, every story included shallow perspectives on the desirability of women. Especially there was a scene in Kakka kadi where Madhu shares with Mukilan all the letters, portraits and gifts she received from men who expressed interest in her. Mukilan exclaims these gifts are rather awards and she should preserve them. They attest her worth and she should hold this as insurance in her future relationship. A couple of my friends who watched this movie along with me were in favor of this perspective and one of my (guy) friends said that the (romantic) attention a woman receives corroborates her worth. This typical comment marks the conception of objectification of women.
The messaging here is two-fold; a man takes pride in being with a woman who is desired (by other men) and a woman’s desirability features her value (partially if not completely). The former attests objectification of women by diminishing them to a trophy while (self-)objectification of women is an outcome of the latter. I concede to the fact that gratification of holding an attractive partner is gender agnostic however the extent to which it is practiced is asymmetric. In addition, a man’s desirability depends on his accomplishments or personality but a woman’s attraction quotient may be supplemented by her brains while physical appearance is its core. Both men and women have internalized these values as a consequence of traditional ideals and contemporary practices that bolster narcissism in women.
Dominique Francon (from The Fountainhead) is a mystery to me. As an idealist, I do admire certain parts about her and for a very long time I genuinely appreciated the romance between Howard and Dominique. I even idealized “the rape”. I have ardently argued that it was “rape with an engraved invitation”. Another romanticized rape (personally as well as) in literature is the encounter with Rhett and Scarlet in Gone with the wind. Nevertheless, in recent times I perceive invasion and desecration rather than passion and romance from these depictions. As much as I would love to introspect about consent, I want to examine what makes Dominique welcome such a violation. As written by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett feels “humbled” by sexual domination. I discussed this with my female friends and asked their opinions. One of my friends (who has read fountainhead) believed that Dominique wanted to have sex and Howard was taking the initiative. This resonated with Christina Hoff Sommers’s take on Gone with the wind that women are uncritical of this scene and in fact, they enjoy it.² It is important to note the rape here implies “roughly taken by a passionate male” rather than sexual assault.
Rape fantasies among women are more common than we think. According to a recent study on 355 undergraduate students, who formed a reasonable demographic cross-section of young Americans, 62% admitted fantasizing about being raped.³ “Being desired is the orgasm”, says Marta Meana, a psychology professor at UNLV in a New York Times (NYT) interview. She believes women’s sexual drive is narcissistic and not relational.⁴ Studies have also shown that women implicitly associated submission with sex and this association greatly predicted personal adoption of a submissive sexual role.⁵ In the same NYT article Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queen’s University, theorizes receptive sexual behavior in women could be intrinsic or biological. On the other hand, there is a school of thought which emphasizes that this narcissism is a consequence of nurture and could be detrimental to women’s sexual experiences. Researchers have demonstrated when women associate sex to submission they exercise inadequate sexual autonomy which in turn impedes sexual arousal.⁵ Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology in Unversity of Utah conceives women’s desire is driven by intimacy and emotional connection.⁴ This is in chord with the research that showed 86% of lesbian women reported they usually or always orgasm during sexual intimacy while only 65% of heterosexual women reported the same. The study included sexual autonomy and higher relationship satisfaction among key drivers for sexual fulfillment.⁶ In conclusion, narcissism or self sexual objectification is prevalent in women, even though its causes — nature or nurture — are not thoroughly established and it can be unfavorable to women’s sexual experiences albeit it is gratifying in one’s fantasies.
As much as academics, being part of clubs and organizations was a crucial part of my undergrad life as it was the key gateway to socializing outside your classroom, establishing relationships, honing in on your interests along with defining your personality. They all had structured and rigorous induction processes which included written screening tests, group discussion and personal interviews. Since it was all student-run, it was not always fair, nepotism and favoritism was inevitable. In addition to other reservations, we had “the maal quota” aka “the hot girl quota”. Beauty was indeed a social currency which fetched you several opportunities that were otherwise inaccessible or accessible to girls only if they proved to be better than guys. I come from a middle-class Indian family that deemed emphasis on beauty as vanity but my undergrad painted a very different picture. I thought beauty is a virtue, some are born pretty but I realized it is rather a pursuit. As Helena Rubinstein quotes “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones”. Girls should be groomed and basic hygiene practices are just primitive. I learned unibrow should be altered and facial hair should be removed. Your skin should be moisturized, powered, scented and tanning should be prevented at all costs. Being skinny is pretty, fat is unhealthy after all. In my personal life, over the last ten years, I have not met at least one girl who is satisfied with her body and has not embarked on the journey of transforming or enhancing it. We are all part of the epidemic “beauty sickness” as christened by Renee Engeln in her book Beauty Sick.
Objectification theory proposes that women (in western society) are socialized to view themselves as objects evaluated based on their appearance which in turn manifests adoption of an observer’s perspective on physical self and a self-consciousness which promotes body monitoring. Self-objectification can be trait (women have internalized the observer’s perspective and are preoccupied with their appearance across situations) or state (a temporary condition representing women’s situational awareness of the observer’s perspective towards their bodies which leads to a preoccupation with their appearance). Women can be subjected to state self-objectification just by looking at an image of a sexually attractive woman or by wearing a dress that makes them feel insecure about their bodies. Even though it is temporary, state self-objectification can have detrimental effects on women’s self-esteem, cognitive abilities and peak motivational states (or flow). As observed in ten different studies — the key affective outcome of state self-objectification is body shame which enhances restrained eating, intentions to have cosmetic surgery, low self-esteem and appearance-based anxiety.⁷ Research has also shown that state self-objectification can lead to impaired performance in maths, Letter Number Sequencing (LNS) task (which evaluates working memory capacity) and Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) (which measures working memory, sustained attention and impulse/inhibitory control).⁷ It is demonstrated that when self-objectification is induced in women they talk less in cross-gender interactions, justify gender system and hence have reduced resolve to engage in collective action for gender equality.⁷ The seemingly innocuous preoccupation with beauty has far-reaching and unfavorable consequences for women that are unrecognized or dismissed in daily life.
Part II — Beauty, power and resistance
The origin story
‘I feel good when I dress up’, ‘I feel like I can give my best at work on the days I wear makeup’, ‘I feel more confident when I am groomed’ are common statements I hear from my friends. Even though the empirical evidence suggests narcissism is a form of oppression, at an individual level indulging in beauty seems empowering and even liberating. To understand this phenomenon we need to comprehend the nature and operations of power wielded by modern societies. Michel Foucault (in his notable works Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality) explains, unlike pre-modern societies where a centralized sovereign authority exercises power through repressive force such as law, threat and censorship, modern societies operate on “bio-power” which entails management and organization of life. Bio-power has two facets to it — the first focuses on efficient government of life processes through regulation of birth, death, disease, sexual relations, etc and the second (labeled as disciplinary power) targets human bodies to optimize its capacity, skills and productivity. To achieve the latter, the model of disciplinary practices enforced by institutions such as hospitals, schools, factories and military are more broadly applied in a social setting through the process of constant surveillance to obtain unceasing and inescapable control of individual conduct. This disciplinary power fosters bodies' usefulness and docility. He also illustrates that the docile bodies created through perpetual surveillance give rise to self-policing and isolated individuals who have internalized the gaze. He reinforces that, in modern society, norms are the primary forms of social control.⁸
What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act on the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it…Thus, discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, “docile” bodies — (Foucault 1977: 138–9)
Thanks to the feminist movements, women now have access to paid work, divorce, sexual independence and are less confined to the domestic sphere. In the past, women were oppressed by the patriarchal system (analogous to the pre-modern sovereign authority) which denied them equal opportunity and liberty. With the transformation in time, women have developed resistance to patriarchy and these older constructs of oppression have eroded at a larger scale. (In the west) Chastity, restriction to the domestic sphere, and duties around child-rearing no longer encompass normative femininity. However, a new form of femininity has emerged as a consequence of disciplinary power (media, fashion, male/female/generalized gaze, medical sciences and beauty industry) which monitors the “docile bodies” of women by regulating its size, shape, appetite, posture and appearance. Granted women’s narcissism is a perennial practice, the spread and normality in recent times in startling. The indulgence of aristocrats and courtesans are now observed routines in women from all economic classes and age groups.⁹ Although gratification through beauty is a consequence of oppression, it seems empowering since it is a product of voluntary self-surveillance and self-normalization. It is challenging to break free from these control mechanisms since they (deceivingly) manifest as individual agency and a personal identity linked to a sense of competence.⁸
Biological sex is defined by a human’s reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct that is attached to a sexed body. As Simon De Behavior quotes “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”, masculinity or femininity is achieved by enacting the prescribed gender norms. In spite of diversity in talents, sexual preferences, interests, personalities, styles of interpersonal interactions and modes of expressing oneself, all these differences are condensed into a binary system of socially and legally recognized genders — ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Gender paradigm imbibed as personal identity can limit individuals’ prospects despite their essential abilities and capabilities. In addition, the binary nature of gender reinforces the binary nature of sexuality(heterosexuality); according to Judith Butler, production and maintenance of gender power relations naturalize heterosexuality and constrains reproduction of sexuality in individuals. It is crucial to decompose dualism in gender to truly achieve gender equality, sexual diversity, equal opportunity and liberation from biases triggered by gendered social norms. Beauty work plays a key role in emulating gender, since wearing makeup or doing your hair is a way of doing/performing your gender. Your body becomes the canvas and it is stylized through adornment. Men and Women have prescribed ways of practicing beauty that emphasize and crystalize gender differences, hence sustaining the current social order and subtly enforcing gender inequality.¹⁰
Mechanisms of disruption
The two common approaches suggested to combat beauty sickness are “making beauty taboo” and encouraging “multiple forms of beauty”. In my personal experience, I was never exposed to beauty work during my childhood as it was strongly associated with vanity. This has helped me disassociate myself with beauty practices with ease. I do see the advantages of making beauty a taboo but it might come at a cost of curbing creative expression through adorning one’s body. On the other hand, expanding numerous forms of beauty can still be amalgamated as overarching “feminine beauty” or “masculine beauty” and can fail to address the gender reproduction problem. Also, numerous beauty standards do not cure self-objectification observed in women as it is tied to how they view themselves and not the type of beauty practice they adopt. Although I cannot propose a solution for mass resistance, I have a few suggestions on habitual changes and experiments that can be adopted at an individual level (mostly borrowed from Renee Engeln)
- Confront and acknowledge: It is important to have self-awareness around our beauty practices. If you think ‘you dress up for yourself’ or ‘dressing up makes you feel better’, understand the power mechanisms that are at play and acknowledge it could be self-objectification rather than exercise of agency.
- Audit: Audit the hours and dollars you put into beauty work. Try to set goals on decreasing your time/money spendings (and invest it in your long-neglected hobby). Go Marie Kondo on your cosmetics and try practicing minimalism in your beauty products.
- Monitor your complements: Manage beauty talk and be self-aware when you are engaging in such conversations. Minimize complimenting people on their appearances like ‘you look pretty’ and switch focusing on actions and qualities like ‘you are kind’.
- Beauty breaks: Similar to body detox routines, try to go no makeup (or no skincare routine) for a month/week. If you feel more rebellious try not shaving for a bit.
- Drag: Next Halloween experiment cross-dressing. Incite gender trouble for fun. Make sure you perform your opposite gender, do not limit yourself to clothes, make sure you adopt poses and gestures as well. (Inspired from “Girls will be Girls by Emer O’Toole”)
Let’s practice beauty (and gender) thoughtfully and promote counter-hegemony through our bodies!
- Narcissism, Femininity and Alienation by Sandra Lee Bartky
- Word for word. A Scholarly Debate; Rhett and Scarlett: Rough Sex Or Rape? Feminists Give a Damn by Tom Kuntz from The New York Times
- Bivona, JM et al. “Women’s Rape Fantasies: An Empirical Evaluation of the Major Explanations”, Archives of Sexual Behavior (2012).
- What do women want? By Daniel Bergner from The New York Times Magazine
- Sanchez, DT et al. “Sexual Submissiveness in Women: Costs for Sexual Autonomy and Arousal”, Personality & social psychology bulletin (2006)
- Frederick, DA et al. “Differences in Orgasm Frequency Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Men and Women in a U.S. National Sample”, Archives of Sexual Behavior (2018)
- Kahalon, R et al. “Experimental Studies on State Self-Objectification: A Review and an Integrative Process Model”, Frontiers in Psychology (2018)
- Michel Foucault: Feminism
- Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power by Sandra Lee Bartky
- Kwan, S et al. “ Beauty Work: Individual and Institutional Rewards, the Reproduction of Gender, and Questions of Agency”, Sociology Compass (2009)