Commodification is the process in which something is turned into a mere commodity – something that can be bought and sold on a market. By definition, a commodity has to be replaceable, disposable. It cannot have inherent value, but is instead limited to whatever external (market) value is assigned to it by its owners.
Individuals can also be commodified – as is the case, for instance, with animal exploitation. When we use non-humans as our resources, however “humanely” we may (claim to) do so, we necessarily treat them as if they were mere objects. Their lives and their well-being become inconsequential. No recognition is given to the fact that they are sentient beings who value their own lives – every and any interest of theirs, no matter how important it is to them, can be sold for a price tag. They become nothing more than means to our ends.
Today I’d like to talk about another kind of commodification – the commodification of women in our patriarchal society, which is pervasive and very harmful to us (women). I am going to address some topics that are of a much more personal nature than usual, and in doing so, I hope that I do not offend anyone who may have a different view on the topic. My intention is not to denigrate or alienate anyone, but to (hopefully) to get you thinking.
In our patriarchal/phallocentric culture, we (women) derive a huge sense of our self-worth from how men value us. From television ads bombarding us with an endless stream of cosmetics that we (allegedly) need to buy, to pop magazines telling us that we’re too fat, to bikini contests and beauty pageants telling us that we’re not worth looking at if we don’t look like pornified barbie dolls, the importance of being hot and fuckable (to men) is constantly drilled into our heads. The actual standards for looking “right” are constantly changing and, unless you have a lot of money and a very high tolerance for pain, generally unattainable.
Most of us know this, and we know that this is done on purpose, in order to keep us coming back to buy more “stuff” in a never-ending quest for the mythological beauty standard. We know that this harms us. We know that heels hurt our feet (and restrict our movement), that waxing hurts, and that the (often toxic) chemicals in make-up would take an encyclopedia to fully cover. We know that teenage girls often have issues with eating and with their weight (regardless of whether or not they’re actually at a healthy weight). Those of us who are politically progressive are often critical of this endless stream of commodification, and we often shun at least some (if not most) of these fake “beauty” standards. But we rarely ask the more radical question: why is it that we (women) derive our sense of self-worth from men to begin with?
Under patriarchy (which has been the order of the day for thousands of years), women have been (and continue to be) second-class citizens. As a sexual class, we lack the economic resources that men have; we are under-represented in politics, in academia, in literature, and in the media. Gender roles and stereotypes (what we consider to be “masculine” vs. “feminine”) are all social constructs, but under patriarchy, the social construct of “woman” is often reduced to her utility to men. “Woman” is made synonymous with sexual services and child-bearing (or some mixture thereof).
This might sound like abstract theory, but it’s really not – it affects us in very real ways. We might not like to admit it, but the reality is that a woman – no matter how smart or successful or accomplished she might be in her own right – is often thought to be worthless if she is not valued in some way by men. When we go out into the workplace, how we look is often just as important (if not more so) than how well we do our jobs. Elderly women (who are neither fuckable nor looking after children) face an enormous amount of discrimination, and are marginalized. And even if you, as a woman, have a university degree and work a full-time job, you probably still make less money than the hot “babe” with her breasts hanging out and her ass rubbing against a pole at the local strip club.
I don’t want to vilify men, or to suggest that women should leave men (not that there’s anything wrong with spinsterhood if that’s the choice that some women wish to make). But the question needs to be asked: why? Why do we insist on letting other people define our value for us? Why don’t we have enough self-respect to realize how demeaning all of this is; to see that we really have immeasurable, inherent value that cannot be traded away? Why does our sexual class spend its (already diminished) economic resources on fuckability mandates that are intended to objectify us and keep us in our place – i.e., that of second-class citizens? Why do we allow our whole, sentient selves to be reduced to a series of disconnected body images for others to “consume” (just as the butcher’s knife reduces a whole, sentient non-human individual into a series of body parts meant to be consumed)? Why do we allow ourselves to be treated like pieces of meat? Why do we confuse the short-term benefits of being “liked” by our civil superiors with real empowerment – the kind of freedom that comes from the honest and unapologetic ownership of one’s own body?
Having extrinsic value (i.e. having your value defined and measured by someone else) is necessarily inimical to having inherent value. It necessarily means being inherently worthless. Being treated like a generic object for someone else’s unilateral gratification is necessarily inimical to being a fully autonomous, unique, and self-realized individual. Needing to be a passive recipient of someone else’s approval is necessarily in conflict with being an active agent that goes out into the world, does things for herself and pro-actively constructs the meaning of her own life.
Having been reading some feminist literature recently (which I hope to blog about more in the future), I’ve decided to ignore fuckability mandates altogether. I no longer own make-up or heels. I’ve thrown out the short skirts I used to own. I’m no longer shaving my legs (our phallocentric society’s obsession with hairlessness on women is meant to infantilize us). No more pedicures or manicures. I’m still doing my hair and otherwise looking after my physical health and hygiene, but I’m just not playing into the standard, misogynistic “beauty” standards that have nothing to do with real beauty and everything to do with devaluing women.
In the short-term, this will cost me. People will whisper and make judgements about me. I’ll lose out economically/at work. Men (who own a disproportionate portion of the power in this society) will pay less attention to me. This is particularly true of many of the immature
men boys of my age (I’m 21).
But frankly, I’m OK with that – because what I will get in return, over the course of my life, is infinitely greater: my full/complete sense of personhood that is not quantifiable or replaceable; a sense of self-worth that is not rooted in being treated like an object; full control/autonomy over my own body; and the ability to pro-actively create and define my life on my own terms, rather than on ephemeral, consumerist trends. The short-lived fuckability standards that we (women) are taught to chase after seem empty in comparison, don’t’chya think? ;)