I read about the term “imperialist feminism” in the past, but I had no idea how much this theory would permeate and complicate my thoughts as an American woman living in Morocco. Imperialist feminism seems like an extreme term that wouldn’t actually apply to my experiences. Some quick googling tells me that it is an
The international exchange program that I’m on right now might have even emerged from these same assumptions that propagate imperialist feminism. But since I’ve been privileged to never experience war or systemic oppression, imperialist feminism for me means the eagerness of people at home to hear about the plight of women here. In reality, how patriarchal norms operate on women anywhere depends on a whole host of factors in addition to gender. Without acknowledging that our society is patriarchal too, discussions around women’s rights in these countries become a way to Orientalize other cultures and reaffirm the superiority of the U.S.
Today, I’d like to just vent about how, despite the fact that I’ve had every freedom in terms of choice and economic mobility, I’m still negatively impacted by a form of patriarchy that, from what I have experienced so far, doesn’t exist to the same degree here in Morocco. I’m sure there’s another academic word for it, but for now I’ll call this form of internalized patriarchy “defining-womanhood-and-beauty-not-from-within-ourselves-but-rather-in-competition-for-the-male-gaze.” It’s succinct, I know.
Why Are We So Obsessed With Body Image?
So rewind a little bit. This week, I was sitting in my living room in my host family’s house (this is where a lot of my stories start). My host mom was just starting at me, and suddenly made a move towards my face. She touched it lovingly, and goes…
That means, “Julie is fat.” My host mom had just told me I’m fat. My face turns into a frown. I hoped that she was just kidding. So I asked her…“what? I am?” She replied with a laugh—“just a little, in your face, from my Moroccan bread!” My host family seemed to think that my appalled face was some sort of a joke, so they put air into their cheeks and point to me, laughing some more.
Since as you might know I am not the stoic type, I thought I’d explain to my host mom and family that I was not okay with being called fat. To express my anger and hurt, I refused to eat the bread my host mom gave me for about 10 minutes, before giving in to my lack of self-discipline that wins out over my long-term desire to lose weight.
What ensued was an enlightening conversation on how in the U.S., nobody really calls each other fat because we’re all so sensitive about our body image and we don’t want to offend our loved ones. To make me feel better and demonstrate that being fat is no big deal here, my host mom started calling my two host sisters fat (they were there too). Our supposed fatness was all just a comedic reality.
Let me just clarify something, by the way. There is no possible way I haven’t gained a considerable amount of weight here. I eat like, a loaf of bread every day, and right now, it’s so cold that I don’t even want to move. So yea, my face is definitely a bit rounder and my clothes a bit (okay, a lot) tighter. But why am I so hurt by being called fat? My weight gain is just a stupid fact.
There’s lots of scholarly evidence that the American definition of beauty for females usually includes someone who fits a particular (skinny) prototype, and how the normalization of this body type has varied, detrimental effects on women. If you happen to feel like your body doesn’t fit this ideal, there’s a whole host of mediums, from magazines to weight-loss tv shows to societal perceptions, that are telling you that you won’t be wanted, attractive, or enough until you lose weight. For an amazing and thought-provoking depiction of this phenomenon, please listen to the This American Life podcast episode “Tell Me I’m Fat.” Also, think about how many words there are to avoid calling someone “fat,” since it’s become this static insult in English. In Arabic, it’s just an adjective.
Where are the Hamams in DC?
This whole “fear of fat” disguises itself as society’s paternalistic care for our health as women, but the way we talk about weight and weight loss has nothing to do with health and everything to do with judgment. Trust me, I come from Potomac, where achievement and judgment are like currency. These weight norms didn’t come from American women, but instead from this “defining-womanhood-and-beauty-not-from-within-ourselves-but-rather-in-competition-for-the-male-gaze.” At the same time, many women in the U.S., including me, have certainly internalized these norms.
That is why, if I could guess, a hamam (kind of like a giant group sauna that often replaces a shower here) in my communities at home would not be popular for women, even though it’s a gender-segregated space. Even if we’re not in front of the “male gaze” literally, most American women I know would have a hard time being naked in front of each other because, simply put, we would judge each other. We sexualize the female body, and (problematically) once we sexualize it, we’re putting it back in front of the male gaze and conditioning it with weight norms.
Sometimes I joke that everything’s a competition with Americans, but in my experience, it’s kind of true. In Morocco, no one really cares about being naked in front of each other. Your body doesn’t define your sexuality, beauty, or womanhood, and especially when we’re in a gender-segregated space, none of that stuff is a competition anyway. On the other hand, in the U.S., there are many workout classes, youtube videos, and magazines that make money on promising American women their “bikini body,” so they can win an unannounced competition of looking the best at the beach (or on facebook).
You Must Be This Hot to Dance
For me, not just my body, but also the way I move it, has been made part of this competition under male gaze. Now please rewind again, this time to ten years ago. I was 15 years old at a sleepaway camp social, where my fellow campers wanted me to dance with a boy, since it was just time, I guess. I was introduced to this guy who actually liked another girl camper more than me, but this girl liked a different boy more. Those dramatic sleepaway camp love triangles, am I right? Anyways, after realizing that his super-fun dancing times were not going to happen with this other girl, he settled for me. We talked for about 5 seconds on the dance floor, and then got to the serious business of mixed-gender dancing, which we so accurately defined as “grinding.” I have linked here to the Wikipedia article on it if you’re curious what that entails.
Since this nausea-inducing grinding session at sleepaway camp, I have avoided any sort of dance that might express my femininity--even if I’m only with other women. Flash forward ten years—I am at a Moroccan wedding, waiting for the ceremony part to start. We’re in a gender-segregated space and have all just eaten a four-course meal of chicken, then lamb, then couscous, then cookies. So… I’m feeling very full to say the least. Suddenly, someone brings in the stereo set and almost every girl and woman—from 4-year-olds to grandmothers, of all sizes, heights, and levels of makeup—starts shaking their hips and behinds in the most confident and skillful way.
I want to say that I can’t dance like them because it’s just not in my genes. I don’t come from a family (or culture) of people that dance this way, so it’s not my fault that I can’t do it, right? But in reality, for me, whenever I try to dance like that, I feel like I’m entering into some sort of competition for sexiness, and it’s a competition that I definitely don’t feel beautiful or confident enough to win. If my first encounter with dancing were in a space that had nothing to do with capturing the attention of men, I think I’d feel more comfortable with it today. Just like our bodies don’t have to be naked for someone else, dancing doesn’t have to be sexy for someone else.
Man, I (Kind of) Feel Like A Woman?
For anyone who identifies as a woman, they might be able to relate to this desire: I want to be able to feel like a woman, and feel beautiful, without comparing myself to someone else or entering into a competition that’s on someone else’s terms. While this seems easier to do in Morocco, I have internalized this “defining-womanhood-and-beauty-not-from-within-ourselves-but-rather-in-competition-for-the-male-gaze.”
I’m still trying to be okay with weight gain, and comfortable dancing without reliving my days of sleepaway camp socials. My ultimate goal is being a “strong, independent woman;” I feel like I have the “strong, independent” part down pretty well, but I’m still working on removing the “woman” part from the unrealistic, sexualized, and competitive expectations that conditioned it back in the U.S.
I’ll get back to you when I’ve succeeded, but for now, I’ll drown myself in spoofs and commentary from body-positive female comedians like Amy Schumer, Rachel Bloom, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham. They remind me to laugh in the face of this elusive “male gaze” that makes us feel anything less than worthy. I have to laugh at these problems because in reality, us women have more important and serious things to do than be held down by them.