Body theorising gripped women’s studies for a time in the 1980s and 1990s. Books were written, papers delivered at conferences, newspaper columns and columnists pronounced upon the subject, theses were proposed and completed, PhDs were awarded, and the topic gripped – or seemed to grip – an entire generation of academics. Then, as is so often wont, the topic drifted into abyance.
The body has in past and present held centre stage in more than the academic sense. During the decades and more of the Inquisition, the body – particularly woman’s body – was central to sin. Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Malificarum - ‘The Hammer [or Anvil] of Witches’ determined that women’s bodies should not be covered in gorgeous draperies, fine costuming or jewellery. Yet covered should they be – particularly the hair, which was demonised as a source of vanity, pride, evil and error. Still, modestly dressed women were not safe, being destined to die along with their more worldly sisters, for the body was the problem for witch-finders (so called) and no covering could protect a targetted woman from the prickings of Kramer, Sprenger and their colleagues, including the English jurist Matthew Hale who not only sat on trials of witches, declaring witchcraft to be ‘real’ and so to be subject to the criminal law, but pronounced upon women’s perfidy in other regards, particularly in the field of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Centuries later, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty played with the ‘body’ theme in fiction, whilst a century before, the body in all its constituent parts – along with beauty – was both a subject for sniggering sentiment, with ‘naughty’ postcards being sold surreptitiously on street corners and in alleyways or at fun fairs and in seaside pavillions, as well as a serious topic ‘for the ladies’.
Beauty , what it is and how to Retain it, published in London, Sept., 1873 by Frederick Warne & Co, led the way, along with its companion volume, How to Dress on £15 a Year.
Written by ‘A Lady’, readers learned that beauty, being ‘one of the great powers of the world’ necessarily found its way into discussion ‘by the philosphers and poets of all ages’, so that writing about it in the latter half of the nineteenth century created difficulty. ‘A Lady’ was, nonetheless, up to the task.
No longer was the body to be treated ‘by all wise people’ with ‘contemptuous indifference’. Nor was it any longer to be considered ‘a sinful vanity’ to dwell in thought on ‘personal beauty’. Leaving Kramer and Sprenger in the darkness of history, ‘A Lady’ pronounced Christianity – no less – to have, in its fresh ‘muscularity’:
‘… restored to the human frame that due regard with all men owe to it; and the new and more artistic sense of beauty which undoubtedly sprang from the great Exhibition of 1851, has rendered people more inclined to discuss beauty as an important and valuable gift, which, like all other good gifts of Heaven, requires and deserves our careful attention.’
A Lady had firm ideas about what constitutes beauty. Albeit citing writers, philosphers, playwrights and poets from Aristotle to Plautus to Shakespeare, Longepierre, Byron, Spenser and Drayton, and observing that England ‘has been justly styled the land of beauty’, she deplored the failure of English women to take steps to ‘improve or preserve their beauty’. This, it is, that she sets out to remedy.
A ‘gently serpentine’ body is that for which we ought to strive. Affirmation for this standard is found in the words of Leigh Hunt, asserting just this, for stiffness ‘is utterly ungraceful’. Women should emulate the movements ‘of an unconscious child’ for these are ‘the perfection of grace; they are easy, unstudied, natural’.
As to figure, the waist and throat should be synchronised in their measurements, for the waist should be ‘twice the size of this tower of ivory’, the throat, which ’should be round, full, and pillar-like’. Shoulders ‘should be falling, and not too broad’ for very broad shoulders are a sign of masculine, not feminine, beauty. Nonetheless, shoulders ‘had better be broad than too narrow’. Why? For ‘any contraction across the chest gives a mean and pinched look to the person’.
Abjuring the exhortations that found support in the ante bellum south of the United States – as evidenced so well in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and in the visual representations displayed in Victor Fleming’s film (who can forget the scene of Vivienne Leigh as Scarlet being laced into her stays, clasping the bedpost whilst Hattie McDaniel tugs and pulls the strings tight, tightly, tighter …), A Lady contends sharply that twenty-seven inches is the signal waist ‘beauty’:
‘The figure should be easy; too small a waist is an actual deformity, and we may remind young ladies who labour under the delusion of thinking that a waist of eighteen inches is lovely, that that of the Venus de’ Medici, the acknowledged type of female beauty, measures twenty-seven inches.’
What is extraordinary about Beauty … , at least in present times when the bosom, bust or breasts are such a feature in the panoply of every plastic surgeon’s list of ‘to dos’ or, rather, ‘must dos’, is that this part of the body is entirely left out of the recitation of ‘form’. It is also instructive to observe the vast difference between then and now: perusing Beauty is a reminder that what is now known as ‘the beauty industry’ has existed for centuries, yet today’s manifestation of it is no improvement on the past and the resort to surgery that appears to be an everyday requirement was generally absent from 19th century recitations of what women were obliged to do to be ‘real’ women.
Chinese footbinding and other cultural attacks on women’s bodies – including the Inquisition, neck-stretching and female genital mutilation (FGM), along with 19th century psychiatric ‘cures’ including clitoredectomy and rhinoplasty - find no place in Beauty … Rather, A Lady concentrates upon posture, diet and ungents for the face and neck. Yet just as the ‘surgical’ changes to women’s bodies caused and cause serious damage, so too the pastes and creams applied. This is graphically described in Barbara Ewing’s Fraud one of the major protagonists ultimately suffers serious skin damage and facial disintegration from applying paste to whiten her complexion.
The field is rich with so many graphic indicators of the way that women’s bodies have ever been, and remain, sites for and of struggle. Women’s independence, autonomy, sense of self and wellbeing are located not only in the mind, but equally so in the body. For women it is clear that the purported disjunction between mind and body is fallacious. Wilhelm Fliess, longtime colleague and friend of Sigmund Freud, drew upon this fundamental connection in his work, a tale of horrors, a recitation of the way in which acts that would be classed as torture in other circumstances can be meted out upon women in the name of ‘cure’.
Beauty … reminds us that homilies such as ‘her face is her fortune’ and ‘no ugly women need apply’ have a resonance in the lives of women and the demands women face in everyday life whether in centuries past or present.
Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) January 2013
Jocelynne Scutt’s films include ‘Covered’ – A DVD Installation in 3 streams – ‘Debating the Scarf’, ‘Romancing the Veil’ and ‘Contradictions of Cover’, ‘A Greenshell Necklace’ (with Karen Buczynski-Lee), and ‘The Incredible Woman’ (with Karen Buczynski-Lee). She is currently researching the field of women’s bodies, women’s ‘beauty’ treatments’, and medical negligence in the field of body ‘enhancement’.
By the mid 1980s more British Asian women worked outside the home in Britain than was assumed by the white population and many such women, particularly those of Hindu and Sikh backgrounds, were moving into the professions (Brah, 1996). Poorer British Pakistani and Bangladeshi women have been organized as ‘home workers’ producing clothing etc, often having little choice whether they want to work or not. Their labour has become increasingly important as traditional occupations of Pakistani men (woolen industry in West Yorkshire, metal work in the Midlands) have disappeared.
Many younger Asian women are now more liberated than their mothers. Some prominent British Asian women have found success in British society but many poorer women of Asian origin still suffer multiple disadvantages. There is thus a huge diversity in the experiences of Asian women influenced by ethnicity, religion, class and age. There are also differences between East African Asians and those from the Indian subcontinent and between, for instance, Sikh women who have been in England for many years and have had a long experience of paid employment and trade unionism and Bangladeshis who have arrived more recently, are restricted the exploited home-working sector and ‘black’ economy and are targets of racial harassment.
In contrast to Asian women, many African-Caribbean women like Irish women, came as independent migrants. Some left behind partners and children – an additional stress on their difficult existence in England. White representations of West Indian migrant women reiterated stereotypes based on white, brown, black divisions stretching back to slavery (Bush, 2001). In Britain, younger, lighter skinned coloured women were more likely to be employed than older black women (Patterson, 1962) but the colour/class hierarchy of the Caribbean and the fact that some better off, light skinned migrants would have had darker skinned maids ‘back home’ became less relevant in Britain. West Indian women were regarded as best suited to domestic work and all of the first generation West Indian female migrants found it more difficult to find suitable employment than men. Even trained teachers had to take menial jobs and nurses were condemned to working as ancillaries, often experiencing racist remarks from patients. The majority of women worked at harsh, ‘slave-labour’ jobs in the garment trade, food and other light industries or as poorly paid ancillaries in the new National Health Service.
Little had changed by the late 1990s. A report compiled by Gloria Mills, who became one of UNISON’s first female black trade union stewards in 1978 and the union’s director of equal opportunities in 1997, confirmed that black women worked longer, did more shift work and had lower rates of pay than white women. In white-collar jobs they were blocked in lower management and high percentage of black women remained single parents and worked in low paid employment. Black women earned 20 per cent less than black men and, in some areas, less than white women. The report stressed the importance of overcoming stereotypes of black women, many going back to slavery, pointing out lighter skinned women were still more likely to get on but even successful women still had to break through not only a ‘glass ceiling’ but a ‘double glazed‘ ceiling.
The legacy of the past also influenced the private domestic life of West Indian female migrants. The (inaccurate) belief that slavery had adversely affected the family and resulted in promiscuous relations and illegitimacy still influenced official and popular perceptions of the black sexuality and family life. The government was concerned about the uncontrolled sexuality, and ‘prodigious breeding’ of younger women and black women, particularly single mothers, have been consistently blamed for the state of the black family as a deviation from the (white) norm. These perceptions ignored the pressures of poverty and stresses of migration which affected gender roles and relationships. In the Caribbean mixed race unions were rare but in Britain relationships between West Indian men and white women were more common and this reflected adversely on the lives of black women. In the 1950s The London Family Welfare Association reported the problems of black women in London whose husbands had deserted them for white women, who ‘wouldn’t leave our men alone’. West Indian women could ‘cope’ if their husbands had affairs with other West Indian women but saw white women as home wreckers. As Beryl Gilroy observed in her autobiography, Black Teacher, black female identities in Britain were also complicated by the fact that younger, attractive black women remained the focus of white men’s sexual fantasies. Adverse comparisons with white women also resulted in pressures on black women to meet white norms of femininity. Black and white women’s identities have been mutually, and unequally, shaped through history and this has impacted on debates between black and white feminists, generating hostility and lack of meeting of minds.
Younger black men and women have reaffirmed African-Caribbean culture through London Jamaican patois, dress, hair and music styles. These gendered British Caribbean cultural styles, however, have tended to uphold black male machismo, epitomised in the practice of young black men taking pride in ‘babymothers’, with whom they frequently do not live, and taking little responsibility for their children. Deep seated problems in British Caribbean gender relations thus persist and misogyny is reflected in male-dominated African diaspora music forms such as calypso, reggae, and, more recently, ragga and American gangsta rap. Gender conflicts within the Caribbean community, however, must be contextualised in the wider framework of racial exclusions. When working-class black men were denied the normal routes to individual fulfillment in British society their only source of prestige was power over women, black or white.
Despite the multiple obstacles they have encountered in British society, women of Caribbean origin, particularly mothers, have had a pivotal role in the family and in building West Indian communities in Britain. (See illustration below). As during slavery, women were key figures in transmitting and preserving African-derived cultural forms and played central roles in embedding these African-Caribbean religions in Britain. Testimonies collated by Wendy Webster reveal that, ‘home’ was very important in women’s strategies for survival in a hostile world (Webster, 1997). Women were also seminal in the development of a more organised political resistance against racism (Williams 1993).
However, women’s contribution to building the British Caribbean community has only recently been recognized in the Bronze Woman memorial erected in Stockwell Gardens, Lambeth, South London in 2009. (See illustration below). This is the first monument of a black woman to be displayed publicly anywhere in England and represents “the struggle of black women across the ages as well as their spirit and courage”.
Source: Bronze Woman Monument Project, http://www.bronzewoman.org.uk/ Accessed 1. 10. 2008
A number of important developments have taken place since the 1980s. In Jamaica and Britain black women now outstrip black men in academic achievement. Black ‘superwomen’ such as Naomi Campbell, sport celebrities like Dame Kelly Holmes, academics Hazel Carby and Baroness Lola Young, politicians like Oona King and Diane Abbott and a blossoming of black women’s poetry and fiction (Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith, Grace Nichols, Jean Binta Breeze and many others). Younger black women such as Alexandra Burke, winner of fifth series of UK television singing talent show, the X Factor, Estelle and Speech Debelle, both winners of the Mercury Prize for Music in 2008 and 2009 respectively, have broken into the competitive world of black music. All have changed perceptions of black women’s capabilities. The image of the black woman created by contemporary British Caribbean women writers reveals the complexity, depth and diversity of black women’s lives. It provides a positive and empowering contrast to the generalised stereotypes perpetuated by white culture, and in a different, but equally significant way, by black male culture.
British Asian women – Baroness Warsi, Shazia Mirza, Meera Syal and many others – have also achieved prominence in politics, media and the workplace confounding popular perceptions. Despite the success of some women, however, a high percentage remain unemployed or in low paid employment. A recent report revealed that 16 year old Black Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi girls have better GCSE results than boys from the same ethnic origin and (in most cases) white boys, are more ambitious than white girls in the same schools and want, and expect to, have a successful career but they are still discriminated against in the workplace. They are also less likely to reach senior positions than white British women, despite having better qualifications (Moving On Up, 2006). Similarly a seminal report by the Fawcett Society (2005) showed that on average, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women earn only 56 per cent of the average hourly wage of white men.
Gendered experiences of life in Britain: commonalities and differences.
There are clear differences in the experiences of black and Asian women in terms of class, culture, ethnicity and histories but also some commonalities. First: their experiences as migrants to Britain were adversely affected by stereotyping stemming from the colonial era that adversely contrasted them to white women, and inequalities have persisted. Second: the stresses of migration and racism impact adversely on gender relations, particularly in poorer families where racism is compounded by poverty and unemployment. This has enhanced women’s vulnerability and both black and Asian women have both experienced domestic violence which has remained more hidden because of the need for community solidarity against racism and alienation from white agencies. Third: women have had to cope with their children’s problems in British schools and concern that their sons should become involved in crime and street gangs: the increase in gun crime and murders of young African Caribbean men has added to the burden black women face on a daily basis. Women have also had to bear the sorrow of their children’s deaths from racial attacks, the case of Stephen Lawrence is perhaps most notable here but there are many others who have not received the same media attention. Fourth, and on a more positive note, black and Asian women have organized together in the workplace to fight for better conditions and have joined together around black feminist organizations such as Southall Black Sisters, founded in 1979 to defend their rights (Rahila Gupta ed. 2003).
In conclusion, black and Asian men and women experienced migration in different ways. As British citizens, women’s lives continued to be influenced by inherited cultural beliefs and values, racial and gender discrimination, and the legacy of white gendered stereotypes. There have been individual successes and much has changed in the transition from first generation settler to subsequent generations of British-born women. However, discrimination in employment still exists and the ‘corridors of power’- parliament, the law, the police – are still dominated by white men. Even in the world of black British and British Asian music, female musicians have not had the same profile as, for instance, male rappers such as Dizzie Rascal. Thus, despite important advances since the 1970s and some spectacular success stories, black and Asian women’s life chances are still negatively influenced by the link between whiteness and success.
Atvar Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora (1996).
Lynn Segal, ‘Black Feminist Perspectives’ in Is the Future Female? (1990).
Shiela Patterson, Dark Strangers (1962).
Hazel Carby, ‘Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood’, in Cultures in Babylon, (1999).
Rahila Gupta (ed.) From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters (London: Zed Books, 2003).
Fawcett Society, Black & Minority Ethnic Women in the UK, (2005). http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=46
Equal Opportunities Commission, Moving On Up: Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black Caribbean women and work ( Interim report , 2006) http://www.swadhinata.org.uk/misc/bme_gfi_early_findings_england.pdf
Home Office, A choice by right; The report of the working group on forced marriage (2000) http://www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/pdf14/fco_choicebyright2000
Claire Alexander, ‘Black Masculinity’ in Kwesi Owusu ed., Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader (2000), pp. 373-385.
Wendy Webster, Imagining Home: Race, Class and National Identity, 1945 -64 (1997).
Claudette Williams, ‘We are a natural part of many different struggles’: Black women organising in Clive Harris and Bob Carter eds., Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain. pp. 148-166 (1993)
S. Ruck ed., The West Indian Comes to England: A Report Prepared for the Trustees of the London Parochial Charities by the Family Welfare Association’ London, (1960)
Moving On Up: Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black Caribbean women and work (Summary, Interim report, 2006)http://www.swadhinata.org.uk/misc/bme_gfi_early_findings_england.pdf
Barbara Bush is Emeritus Professor of History at Sheffield Hallam University. She is the author of Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650-1838 (James Currey, 1990); Imperialism, Race and Resistance: Africa and Britain 1919-1945 (Routledge, 1999) and Imperialism and Postcolonialism (Pearson Education 2006). Since the 1980s she has published number of articles on gender and culture in slave and post-slave societies.