Very Astute

Fati­ma Mernissi and the Size 6 Harem

Size 6: The West­ern Wom­en’s Harem.
from Scheherazade Goes West by Fati­ma Mernissi, a Moroc­can fem­i­nist and pro­fes­sor at Mohammed V Uni­ver­si­ty, who grew up in an enclosed harem, unable to leave except once a week when she could walk, escort­ed and veiled, to the Ham­mam, or Turk­ish baths.

It was dur­ing my unsuc­cess­ful attempt to buy a cot­ton skirt in an Amer­i­can depart­ment store that I was told my hips were too large to fit into a size 6. That dis­tress­ing expe­ri­ence made me real­ize how the image of beau­ty in the West can hurt and humil­i­ate a woman as much as the veil does when enforced by the state police in extrem­ist nations such as Iran, Afghanistan, or Sau­di Ara­bia. Yes, that day I stum­bled onto one of the keys to the enig­ma of pas­sive beau­ty in West­ern harem fan­tasies. The ele­gant salesla­dy in the Amer­i­can store looked at me with­out mov­ing from her desk and said that she had no skirt my size. “In this whole big store, there is no skirt for me?” I said. “You are jok­ing.” I felt very sus­pi­cious and thought that she just might be too tired to help me. I could under­stand that. But then the sales­woman added a con­de­scend­ing judg­ment, which sound­ed to me like Imam fat­wa. It left no room for discussion:

“You are too big!” she said.

“I am too big com­pared to what?” I asked, look­ing at her intent­ly, because I real­ized that I was fac­ing a crit­i­cal cul­tur­al gap here.

“Com­pared to a size 6,” came the salesla­dy’s reply.

Her voice had a clear-cut edge to it that is typ­i­cal of those who enforce reli­gious laws. “Size 4 and 6 are the norm,” she went on, encour­aged by my bewil­dered look. “Deviant sizes such as the one you need can be bought in spe­cial stores.”

That was the first time I had ever heard such non­sense about my size. In the Moroc­can streets, men’s flat­ter­ing com­ments regard­ing my par­tic­u­lar­ly gen­er­ous hips have for decades led me to believe that the entire plan­et shared their con­vic­tions. It is true that with advanc­ing age, I have been hear­ing few­er and few­er flat­ter­ing com­ments when walk­ing around in the med­i­na, and some­times the silence around me in the bazaars is deaf­en­ing. But since my face has nev­er met with the local beau­ty stan­dards, and I have often had to defend myself against remarks such as zirafa (giraffe), because of my long neck, I learned long ago not to rely too much on the out­side world for my sense of self-worth. In fact, para­dox­i­cal­ly, as I dis­cov­ered when I went to Rabat as a stu­dent, it was the self-reliance that I had devel­oped to pro­tect myself against “beau­ty black­mail” that made me attrac­tive to oth­ers. My male fel­low stu­dents could not believe that I did not give a damn about what they thought about my body. “You know, my dear,” I would say in response to one of them, “all I need to sur­vive is bread, olives, and sar­dines. That you think my neck is too long is your prob­lem, not mine.”

In any case, when it comes to beau­ty and com­pli­ments, noth­ing is too seri­ous or def­i­nite in the med­i­na, where every­thing can be nego­ti­at­ed. But things seemed to be dif­fer­ent in that Amer­i­can depart­ment store. In fact, I have to con­fess that I lost my usu­al self-con­fi­dence in the New York envi­ron­ment. Not that I am always sure of myself, but I don’t walk around the Moroc­can streets or down the uni­ver­si­ty cor­ri­dors won­der­ing what peo­ple are think­ing about me. Of course, when I hear a com­pli­ment, my ego expands like a cheese souf­flé, but on the whole, I don’t expect to hear much from oth­ers. Some morn­ings, I feel ugly because I am sick or tired; oth­ers, I feel won­der­ful because it is sun­ny out or I have writ­ten a good para­graph. But sud­den­ly, in that peace­ful Amer­i­can store that I entered tri­umphant­ly, as a sov­er­eign cos­tumer ready to spend mon­ey, I felt sav­age­ly attacked. My hips, until then the sign of a relaxed and unin­hib­it­ed matu­ri­ty, were sud­den­ly being con­demned as a deformity.

“And who decides the norm?” I asked the salesla­dy, in an attempt to regain some self-con­fi­dence by chal­leng­ing the estab­lished rules. I nev­er let oth­ers eval­u­ate me, if only because I remem­ber my child­hood too well. In ancient Fez, which val­ued round-faced plump ado­les­cents, I was repeat­ed­ly told that I was too tall, too skin­ny, my cheek­bones were too high, my eyes were too slant­ed. My moth­er often com­plained that I would nev­er find a hus­band and urged me to study and learn all that I could, from sto­ry­telling to embroi­dery, in order to sur­vive. But I often retort­ed that since “Allah had cre­at­ed me the way I am, how could he be so wrong, Moth­er?” That would silence the poor woman for a while, because if she con­tra­dict­ed me, she would be attack­ing God him­self. And this tac­tic of glo­ri­fy­ing my strange looks as a divine gift not only helped me to sur­vive in my stuffy city, but also caused me to start believ­ing the sto­ry myself. I became almost self-con­fi­dent. I say almost, because I real­ized ear­ly on that self-con­fi­dence is not a tan­gi­ble and sta­ble thing like a sil­ver bracelet that nev­er changes over the years. Self-con­fi­dence is like a tiny frag­ile light, which goes on and off. You have to replen­ish it constantly.

“And who says that every­one must be a size 6?” I joked to the salesla­dy that day, delib­er­ate­ly neglect­ing to men­tion size 4, which is the size of my 12-year-old niece.

At that point, the salesla­dy sud­den­ly gave me and anx­ious look. “The norm is every­where, my dear,” she said. “It’s all over, in the mag­a­zines, on tele­vi­sion, in the ads. You can’t escape it. There is Calvin Klein, Ralph Lau­ren, Gian­na Ver­sace, Gior­gio Armani, Mario Valenti­no, Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo, Chris­t­ian Dior, Yves Saint-Lau­rent, Chris­t­ian Lacroix, and Jean-Paul Gaulti­er. Big depart­ment stores go by the norm.” She paused and then con­clud­ed, “If they sold size 14 or 16, which is prob­a­bly what you need, they would go bankrupt.”

She stopped for a minute and then stared at me, intrigued. “Where on earth do you come from? I am sor­ry I can’t help you. Real­ly, I am.” And she looked it too. She seemed, all of a sud­den, inter­est­ed, and brushed off anoth­er woman who was seek­ing her atten­tion with a cut­ting, “Get some­one else to help you, I’m busy.” Only then did I notice that she was prob­a­bly my age, in her late fifties. But unlike me, she had the thin body of an ado­les­cent girl. Her knee-length, navy-blue, Chanel dress had a white silk col­lar rem­i­nis­cent of the sub­dued ele­gance of aris­to­crat­ic French Catholic school­girls at the turn of the cen­tu­ry. A pearl-stud­ded belt empha­sized the slim­ness of her waist. With her metic­u­lous­ly styled short hair and sophis­ti­cat­ed make­up, she looked half my age at first glance.

“I come from a coun­try where there is no size for wom­en’s clothes,” I told her. “I buy my own mate­r­i­al and the neigh­bor­hood seam­stress or crafts­man makes me the silk or leather skirt I want. They just take my mea­sure­ments each time I see them. Nei­ther the seam­stress nor I know exact­ly what size my new skirt is. No one cares about my size in Moroc­co as long as I pay tax­es on time. Actu­al­ly, I don’t know what my size is, to tell you the truth.”

The sales­woman laughed mer­ri­ly and said that I should adver­tise my coun­try as a par­adise for stressed work­ing women. “You mean you don’t watch your weight?” she inquired, with a tinge of dis­be­lief in her voice. And then, after a brief moment of silence, she added in a low­er reg­is­ter, as if talk­ing to her­self: “Many women work­ing in high­ly paid fash­ion-relat­ed jobs could lose their posi­tions if they did­n’t keep to a strict diet.”

Her words sound­ed so sim­ple, but the threat they implied was so cru­el that I real­ized for the first time that maybe “size 6” is a more vio­lent restric­tion imposed on women than is the Mus­lim veil. Quick­ly I said good­bye so as not to make any more demands on the salesla­dy’s time or involve her in any more unwel­come, con­fi­den­tial exchanges about age-dis­crim­i­na­to­ry salary cuts. A sur­veil­lance cam­era was prob­a­bly watch­ing us both.

Yes, I thought as I wan­dered off, I have final­ly found the answer to my harem enig­ma. Unlike the Mus­lim man, who uses space to estab­lish male dom­i­na­tion by exclud­ing women from the pub­lic are­na, the West­ern man manip­u­lates time and light. He declares that in order to be beau­ti­ful, a woman must look four­teen years old. If she dares to look fifty, or worse, six­ty, she is beyond the pale. By putting the spot­light on the female child and fram­ing her as the ide­al of beau­ty, he con­demns the mature woman to invis­i­bil­i­ty. In fact, the mod­ern West­ern man enforces Immanuel Kan­t’s nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry the­o­ries: To be beau­ti­ful, women have to appear child­ish and brain­less. When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is con­demned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the Euro­pean harem sep­a­rate youth­ful beau­ty from ugly maturity.

These West­ern atti­tudes, I thought, are even more dan­ger­ous and cun­ning than the Mus­lim ones because the weapon used against women is time. Time is less vis­i­ble, more flu­id than space. The West­ern man uses images and spot­lights to freeze female beau­ty with­in an ide­al­ized child­hood, and forces women to per­ceive aging—that nor­mal unfold­ing of years—as a shame­ful deval­u­a­tion. “Here I am, trans­formed into a dinosaur,” I caught myself say­ing aloud as I went up and down the rows of skirt in the store, hop­ing to prove the salesla­dy wrong—to no avail. This West­ern time-defined veil is even cra­zier than the space-defined one enforced by the Ayatollahs.

The vio­lence embod­ied in the West­ern harem is less vis­i­ble than in the East­ern harem because aging is not attacked direct­ly, but rather masked as an aes­thet­ic choice. Yes, I sud­den­ly felt nor only very ugly but also quite use­less in that store, where, if you had big hips, you were sim­ply out of the pic­ture. You drift­ed into the fringes of noth­ing­ness. By putting the spot­light on the pre­pu­bes­cent female, the West­ern man veils the old­er, more mature woman, wrap­ping her in shrouds of ugli­ness. This idea gives me the chills because it tat­toos the invis­i­ble harem direct­ly onto a wom­an’s skin. Chi­nese foot­bind­ing worked the same way: Men declared beau­ti­ful only those women who had small, child­like feet. Chi­nese men did not force women to ban­dage their feet to keep them from devel­op­ing normally—all they did was to define the beau­ty ide­al. In feu­dal Chi­na, a beau­ti­ful woman was the one who vol­un­tar­i­ly sac­ri­ficed her right to unhin­dered phys­i­cal move­ment by muti­lat­ing her own feet, and there­by prov­ing that her main goal in life was to please men. Sim­i­lar­ly, in the West­ern world, I was expect­ed to shrink my hips into a size 6 if I want­ed to find a decent skirt tai­lored for a beau­ti­ful woman. We Mus­lim women have only one month of fast­ing, Ramadan, but the poor West­ern woman who diets has to fast twelve months out of the year. “Quelle hor­reur,” I kept repeat­ing to myself, while look­ing around at the Amer­i­can women shop­ping. Al those my age looked like youth­ful teenagers.

Accord­ing to the writer Nao­mi Wolf, the ide­al size for Amer­i­can mod­els decreased sharply in the 1990s. “A gen­er­a­tion ago, the aver­age mod­el weighed 8 per­cent less than the aver­age Amer­i­can woman, where­as today she weighs 23 per­cent less… The weight of Miss Amer­i­ca plum­met­ed, and the aver­age weight of Play­boy Play­mates dropped from 11 per­cent below the nation­al aver­age in 1970 to 17 per­cent below it in 8 years.” The shrink­ing of the ide­al size, accord­ing to Wolf, is one of the pri­ma­ry rea­sons for anorex­ia and oth­er health-relat­ed prob­lems: “Eat­ing dis­or­ders rose expo­nen­tial­ly, and a mass of neu­ro­sis was pro­mot­ed that used food and weight to strip women of … a sense of control.”

Now, at last, the mys­tery of the West­ern harem made sense. Fram­ing youth as beau­ty and con­demn­ing matu­ri­ty is the weapon used against women in the West just as lim­it­ed access to pub­lic space is the weapon used in the East. The objec­tive remains iden­ti­cal in both cul­tures: to make women feel unwel­come, inad­e­quate, and ugly.

The pow­er of West­ern man resides in dic­tat­ing what women should wear and how they should look. He con­trols the whole fash­ion indus­try, from cos­met­ics to under­wear. The West, I real­ized, was the only part of the world where wom­en’s fash­ion is a man’s busi­ness. In places like Moroc­co, where you design your own clothes and dis­cuss them with crafts­men and –women, fash­ion is your own busi­ness. Not so in the West. As Nao­mi Wolf explains in The Beau­ty Myth, men have engi­neered a prodi­gious amount of fetish-like, fash­ion-relat­ed para­pher­na­lia: “Pow­er­ful industries—the $33-bil­lion-a-year diet indus­try, the $20-bil­lion-a-year cos­met­ic indus­try, and the $7‑billion pornog­ra­phy industry—have arisen from the cap­i­tal made out of uncon­scious anx­i­eties, and are in turn able, through their influ­ence on mass cul­ture, to use, stim­u­late, and rein­force the hal­lu­ci­na­tion in a ris­ing eco­nom­i­cal spiral.”

But how does the sys­tem func­tion? I won­dered. Why do women accept it?

Of all the pos­si­ble expla­na­tions, I like that of the French soci­ol­o­gist, Pierre Bour­dieu, the best. In his lat­est book, La Dom­i­na­tion Mas­cu­line, he pro­pos­es some­thing he calls, la vio­lence sym­bol­ique”: “Sym­bol­ic vio­lence is a form of pow­er which is ham­mered direct­ly on the body, and as if by mag­ic, with­out any appar­ent phys­i­cal con­straint. But this mag­ic oper­ates only because it acti­vates the codes pound­ed in the deep­est lay­ers of body.” Read­ing Bour­dieu, I had the impres­sion that I final­ly under­stood West­ern man’s psy­che bet­ter. The cos­met­ic and fash­ion indus­tries are only the tip of the ice­berg, he states, which is why women are so ready to adhere to their dic­tates. Some­thing else is going on on a far deep­er lev­el. Oth­er­wise, why would women belit­tle them­selves so spon­ta­neous­ly? Why, argues Bor­dieu, would women make their lives more dif­fi­cult, for exam­ple, by pre­fer­ring men who are taller or old­er than they are? “The major­i­ty of French women wish to have a hus­band who is old­er and also, which seems con­sis­tent, big­ger as far as size is con­cerned,” writes Bor­dieu. Caught in the enchant­ed sub­mis­sion char­ac­ter­is­tic of the sym­bol­ic vio­lence inscribed in the mys­te­ri­ous lay­ers of the flesh, women relin­quish what he calls “les signes ordi­nar­ies de la hiérar­chie sex­uelle,” the ordi­nary signs of sex­u­al hier­ar­chy, such as old age and a larg­er body. By so doing, explains Bor­dieu, women spon­ta­neous­ly accept the sub­servient posi­tion. It is this spon­tane­ity Bour­dieu describes as mag­ic enchantment.

Once I under­stood how this mag­ic sub­mis­sion worked, I became very hap­py the con­ser­v­a­tive Aya­tol­lahs do not know about it yet. If they did, they would read­i­ly switch to its sophis­ti­cat­ed meth­ods, because they are so much more effec­tive. To deprive me of food is def­i­nite­ly to deprive me of my think­ing capabilities.

Both Nao­mi Wolf and Pierre Bor­dieu come the con­clu­sion that insid­i­ous “body codes” par­a­lyze West­ern wom­en’s abil­i­ties to com­pete for pow­er, even though access to edu­ca­tion and pro­fes­sion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties seem wide open, because the rules of the game are so dif­fer­ent accord­ing to gen­der. Women enter pow­er games with so much of their ener­gy deflect­ed to their phys­i­cal appear­ance that one hes­i­tates to say that the play­ing field is lev­el. “A cul­tur­al fix­a­tion on female thin­ness is not an obses­sion about female beau­ty,” explains Wolf. It is “an obses­sion about female obe­di­ence. Diet­ing is the most potent polit­i­cal seda­tive in wom­en’s his­to­ry; a qui­et­ly mad pop­u­la­tion is a tractable one.” Research, she con­tends, “con­firmed what most women know too well—that con­cern with weight leads to a ‘vir­tu­al col­lapse of self-esteem and sense of effec­tive­ness’ and that … ‘pro­longed and peri­od­ic caloric restric­tion’ result­ed in a dis­tinc­tive per­son­al­i­ty whose traits are pas­siv­i­ty, anx­i­ety, and emo­tion­al­i­ty.” Sim­i­lar­ly, Bour­dieu, who focus­es more on how this myth ham­mers its inscrip­tions onto the flesh itself, rec­og­nizes that con­stant­ly remind­ing women of their phys­i­cal appear­ances desta­bi­lizes them emo­tion­al­ly because it reduces them to exhib­it­ed objects. “By con­fin­ing women to the sta­tus of sym­bol­i­cal objects to be seen and per­ceives by the oth­er, mas­cu­line dom­i­na­tion … puts women in a state of con­stant phys­i­cal inse­cu­ri­ty… They have to strive cease­less­ly to be engag­ing, attrac­tive, and avail­able.” Being frozen into the pas­sive posi­tion of an object whose very exis­tence depends on the eyes of its behold­er turns the edu­cat­ed mod­ern West­ern women into a harem slave.

“I thank you, Allah, for spar­ing me the tyran­ny of the ‘size 6 harem.’ ” I repeat­ed­ly said to myself while seat­ed on the Paris-Casablan­ca flight, on my way back home at last. “I am so hap­py that the con­ser­v­a­tive male elite does not know about it. Imag­ine the fun­da­men­tal­ists switch­ing from the veil to forc­ing women to fit size 6.”

How can you stage a cred­i­ble polit­i­cal demon­stra­tion and shout in the streets that your human rights have been vio­lat­ed when you can­not find the right skirt?

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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