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A woman in the world of men

Studies of the female body place in check old gender notions

For many years the vision of a feather in a peacock’s tail would irritate Darwin. Why, he had thought, have that “useless” ornament if species only develop the necessary traits for their survival? One certain day the plumage took on a (certain) meaning: the scientist perceived that the birds with the “plus” attracted more partners and, therefore, had a greater chance of passing on their genes. With the same Darwinism in his head, the English zoologist Desmond Morris makes, in the book A mulher nua [The naked woman] (Editora Globo), a journey around the female body to attempt to show that the majority of the women’s characteristics evolved with the purpose of attracting men. “In the way in which men and women have traced out their evolutionary trajectory, the man has behaved  in a manner that is more and more infantile and has shown fewer physical changes, while the woman has developed more physical attributes and less infantile mental qualities”, explains the researcher. Men were more infantile in their behavior and women, in their anatomy, the so-called neoteny, which made them more desirable for the males “The more baby characteristics they show, the greater is the interest of their partners for them and the more protection they receive’. A feather in the tail is not always just a feather in the tail.

“Throughout evolution we have been developing forms of attracting partners for sexual pleasure, which guaranteed the return of the hunters to the tribes and the permanence of females during their absences. Our species only survived and was successful because of the incredible relationship between the males and their partners. There is no war of the sexes”, says Morris. Nature would differentiate the genders so that one needed the other. Why do men prefer blondes? “They pass on a more juvenile image and this image, projected by an adult woman, increases her power of seduction, with strong signals that she desires to be cared for.” What makes the lips so sensual and why do woman keep putting lipstick on them? “In their form, texture and coloring, they imitate the vagina lips.”

Why grow long nails? “In various cultures this meant that they didn’t have to do any work.” Is the masculine fixation on breasts a sign of masculine regression? “There is no foundation for this. Primate females emit sexual signals with their behind while walking on four legs, attracting the males. The woman walks erect and is seen, almost always, from the front. A pair of false buttocks that she wears on her breasts allows her to continue transmitting a sexual signal without having to turn her back to the interlocutor.” How can one understand the so-called “national preference?” “The woman has her back more arched than men and, when she is in a standing position, the behind projects itself more forward than that of a man. When she walks, the bone structure of the legs and hips bring about a greater undulation in the gluteal region. In other words: she swings when walking.”

These biological explanations, even if he researcher struggles to manifest eulogies to women, recently brought about a polemic discussion about an old model: “Reproduction is one of the main pillars of what one understands as femininity. The maternal function seems to be build into the central nucleus of being a woman, and not to be a mother is to be empty of the woman’s potential, and her importance. Femininity, at the same time, as commonly understood, possesses resonances of meanings coming from scientific and religious discourses that have their portion of contribution in the manner such as how female behavior should be, the place and the role of the woman”, remarks Kimy Otsuka, author of the doctorate thesis entitled, “Travessias do feminino” [Feminine Crossings]   (which had FAPESP’s support). It has become more and more difficult to pout, as the French do, and to say with gusto: “Vive la difference!” The nude body, historically, has come dressed in a political character. “Both biological sex, and the cultural genre are ideas informed by scientific, political, philosophical and religious etc. convictions concerning the ‘nature’ of human beings”, analyzes Jurandyr Freire Costa. “The obsession for ‘sex and gender’ is irrelevant for recognizing the differences between men and women or to judge, from the ethical point of view, the best and the worst.” In the end, it is only two centuries ago that humanity accepted that there were differences between the sexes.

Up until the end of the 18th century it had been thought that sex was the same thing for men and women. As Thomas Laqueur observed in his study Inventando o sexo [Inventing sex]: “During thousands of years it had been believed that women had the same genitalia as men, only that theirs remained inside their body and not outside. A woman was essentially an imperfect man. To be a man or to be a woman was to maintain a social position, to assume a cultural role and not to be organically of one or the other of two incommensurable sexes. Thus, before the French Revolution, sex was a sociological category and not an ontological one”. Liberty, fraternity, equality and, therefore, two sexes. “These new forms of interpreting the body resulted not from science in itself, but from the path of its development applied to politics”, points out Kimy. Ideology understood better than anatomy and there was only interest in looking for evidence to build upon two distinct sexes, the researcher notea, concrete anatomical and physiological differences between men and women, when this diversity turned itself politically desirable. Biological sex was, and is, according to Laqueur, a social construction and the body is conceived as a natural entity that contributed to the explanation of the gender. “Finally anatomy turned itself into destiny”, she observes. This is when gender latches onto the idea of sex.

Thus, “the woman is unceasingly ‘naturalized’, contrary to man, in a general fashion associated to the domination of culture, of action and of thinking”, evaluates Fabiola Rohden, author of Uma ciência da diferença [A science of the difference]. In her opinion, starting from the 19th century, there began a constant effort on the part of doctors and scientists to establish clear differences of biological and predetermined character between the sexes. Besides, sex started to be understood as a natural element, responsible for the social destiny of men as providers and of women as wives and mothers. “Medicine is going to propose a re-reading of the female body, when the so-called ‘science of women’ appeared, whose origin would be found in the field of interest in difference”, notes Fabiola. Then gynecology would be seen as a form of reinforcing the supposed relationship between the physical, psychological and intellectual “inferiority” of the woman in relation to the man as a reality inscribed in the body itself. “It is based on this biological vision that the social roles were established. The anatomical characteristics of women destined them to maternity and not to the exercising of public functions.”

Rachel Soihet, the organizer of O corpo feminino em debate [The female body in debate], goes even further. According to the researcher, medicine appeared as the ideological foundation for the crystallization of these power relationships, contributing in such a way that the main political decisions obtained success anchored in the differences between men and women. In other words, it was an “orthopedia” related to both masculine and feminine, collaborating in the reproduction and maintenance of positivist – functionalist aspects that the social ordering demanded in determined eras and contexts. Modernity, nevertheless, reserves surprises even greater concerning this already diluted differentiation of the genders. Developed after the two world wars, with their innumerable mutilations, plastic surgery would manage at the same time to consolidate and to hide away this political imposition about the feminine body. “In a first vision, biomedicine had, and has, the function of social control, contributing to a disciplining of the body or docile obedience, which determines the expected and convenient postures for society”, observes the anthropologist Liliane Brum Ribeiro.

“The medicalization of the female body, after decades immersed in a Darwinism that had been concerned with finding differences, now with plastic, esthetical and corrective surgery, no longer legitimizes itself by the same biological medical discourse that, in centuries gone by, determined what a woman had to do with a fragile and broken down body”, she says. According to data obtained through the thematic project supported by FAPESP, Gênero, corporalidades [Gender, corporalities]  (still being developed), coordinated by the anthropologist Mariza Corrêa, from Unicamp, “Brazil is certainly a country in which the cult of beauty, youth and sensuality, appears as one of the most marked characteristics of its culture, but it is also a country that can count upon an impressive beauty industry”. According to the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery during the year 2000 the country was the global champion in the number of plastic surgeries for esthetical reasons. There is in this a notable duality. “Today the body is the subject of culture, it possesses an activity (action); and it is as though, for the plastic surgeons, gender goes on to mark the female body. It can be thought that the silicon filled body or that built up of plastic places in check the dualism nature/culture, subject/object, but it can also elucidate the way the contemporary subject possesses her body tamed by the apparatus of power; informed by structured and structuring dispositions, but also allotted an activity. Or that is to say, the body goes on to be the space to be understood as it becomes”, suggests Liliane.

Hence the interest of the Unicamp project “to investigate what there is of sharing in our societies when one deals with thinking of bodies taking into account discussing the (vision) more and more disseminated vision of the body as plastic material capable of deceiving or postponing the restrictions that are imposed upon it by what it has of material, finite and fragile, and on the other hand, of being adapted and amalgamated to whatever (convention) culturally established convention”. This can be verified both in practice such as sexual tourism, in which men from northern countries seek out women  from underdeveloped countries with the idea of recreating traditional standards of gender in the mark of extremely unequal relations, and in the so called trans-genders. “They are a body in transformation and perhaps make us think of the metamorphosis of the body not as a finished substance, but something organic, mobile, in a process. More than just a body, a corporality, a becoming that is remade always into a corporality”, evaluated researcher Liliane. We have left the Darwinist vision to enter into the futuristic science of Donna Haraway, author of Manifesto cyborg [Cyborg manifesto], in which the researcher says that “the image of the cyborgs could suggest a manner of coming out of the labyrinth of dualisms  through which we explain, to ourselves, our bodies”.

In his doctorate thesis, recently defended at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), “Os dilemas do humano” [The dilemmas of the human being], Marko Synésio Monteiro worked exactly with this new concept of the body and of how molecular biology technology has influenced our perception of what the body is, what it represents in culture and how we relate to it. “I agree with Haraway when she invites us to accept the existence of the cyborg not as the end of nature, as machines taking over our bodies. She reaffirms that we are cyborgs in the understanding that we establish strict relations with technology, which, instead of slaving us, gives us the possibility of freedom, since the old visions of what signified being human can be recreated and rethought, in such a way that we don’t, for example, continue to be so patriarchal”, analyzes Monteiro. On such a day, Marilyn Monroe’s “philosophy” will make good sense: “I don’t mind living in a man’s world, as long as I can be a woman”.