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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