Duped by the God-Trick: How feminism changed the way I look at body-image research
By Paras Sharma
It was in the second semester of my Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology, when the idea of studying how people are treated differently on the basis of their looks, and the impact that has on them, came to me as a potential focus area for my Master’s Dissertation. As I went on to read more about the issue, I realized that our perceptions of the way others may view our physical appearance influence the way we view our bodies tremendously. This, I learned, was called ‘Body Image’. It amazed me back then, and does now, that this image can be contrary to the way we may actually feel about our bodies independent of the perception of others. It was this amazement that led me to study body image as part of my Master’s dissertation, as well as pitch it as the proposed focus area for my Doctoral thesis.
I’ve realized over the years that I am guaranteed passionate reactions, when I tell someone that I have specifically chosen to study the body image of men. I am often asked why I chose to do so, and if indeed, there is even a need for a study on this issue. One of the panellists at my PhD interview, in fact, completely dismissed the notion that this was a legitimate area of study: “Why would men ever be worried about how they look? No matter how ugly they are, they will still find a bride thanks to patriarchy!” I was able back then to defend my proposal by saying that almost half out a hundred-odd men that I spoke to for my Master’s dissertation said that they wished to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, and that most men were willing to use men’s cosmetics (the market for which was opening up in a big way in the year 2010 when I began my study). While that seemed to convince the panel of the legitimacy of the study, the panel did leave with me with a fundamental question: Why do I, as a man, wish to study this, and how has it influenced my understanding of what being masculine is?
I realized that this was a question I had never been asked, nor tried to answer for myself in all the years that I had been studying this topic. This essay is an attempt to explore as to why this issue appeals to my personal sympathies, and how my experiences as a feminist ally affect my understanding of the issue, and vice-versa.
The biased worldview of ‘Objectivity’
The first semblance of an answer to the question of why and how my study of male body image thus far had been devoid of self-reflection came from Donna Haraway’s (1988) landmark essay, “Situated Knowledges”. As I read Haraway elaborate upon the god-trick of viewing everything from nowhere through an all-conquering, all-transcendent, disembodied gaze, I remembered that not only was I taught not to self-reflect on an issue while I studied it, I was cautioned against ‘contaminating’ my lens as a researcher with my ‘biases’ in my early academic training. I was, in effect, dissuaded from dwelling on my own lived experiences while studying an issue that was so closely related to them, because it would somehow make me less objective as a researcher. This idea of objectivity, as I see now, fits in brilliantly with how I was also taught as a counselling psychologist to be non-biased and non-judgmental, lest I ‘influence’ therapy with my politics. It also fitted well with my own discomfort back then, around talking about my own body to another person, in a matter-of-fact, non-sexual way. I couldn’t help but notice how research methodology, counselling psychology, and socially sanctioned gender roles, all asked me to not turn my gaze inward, and always study the ‘other’. I realized, therefore, that patriarchal ideals of ‘good research’, ‘good counselling’ and ‘good masculine conversation’ had all come together to prevent me from looking at my own ideas of body image.
Having my very definition of the word ‘objective’ being challenged made me really want to retrace the path that led me to study male body image. An important part of this trajectory is the fact that I went from studying in an all-boys school in suburban Mumbai for the first 10+ years of my academic life, to studying Arts in a ‘South Bombay’ college, where I was one of a handful of male students in the class. In fact, by the time I reached the final year of my undergraduate degree in Psychology, I was the only male student in a class of twenty-five (the only other man being our Head of Department).
Looking back at school, I don’t think that I, or any of my friends, for that matter, ever felt conscious about our bodies. The physical changes that came with puberty, in fact, were things that I remember feeling really good about. Growing to six-feet in height meant that I was taller than most of my peers, and was able to do better at sports, while my hoarse pre-pubescent voice smoothening into a baritone meant that I received compliments over how good I sounded over the phone or while delivering speeches during the school assembly over the PA system. Even body hair, for that matter, was something that was seen as a sign of masculinity amongst my peers, and to top it off, the fact that I was one of the few boys in high-school to have a girlfriend, meant that my confidence was at an all-time high heading into college.
However, going from an all-boys institution to one populated predominantly by young women from South Bombay and Bandra, which were localities far more affluent than the distant suburb, Dahisar, where I came from, changed the way I viewed my body. In college, I realized that despite the fact that I did not feel the need to change my physical appearance, I was expected by my peers to do so. Being considered attractive in college, I realized, was also connected to the kind of lifestyle one could afford to maintain. “This looks so much better than your earlier haircut!” I was told by female classmates, who had previously never spoken to me, the first time I got a haircut from a salon rather than from the local barber; another woman friend conveyed a message from her friend that the latter thought I looked really well-dressed in a tie and formal-clothing during a college event.
Since branded clothing was not something we could regularly afford, my friends and I regularly hunted for factory outlets of major brands that sold ‘reject maal’, which we would then tell our peers we purchased at full-price. It is unlikely that I would coherently have been able to answer back then why I suddenly could not get a haircut from a local barber, or wear something that was not branded, to college. It is now clear to me that feedback like this, juxtaposed with ridicule towards how I looked on days when I did not look like this influenced deeply how happy (or not) I felt with my physical appearance. It made me conscious not only of my body, but the fact that when girls looked at me, they were looking not just at my body, but other markers that indicated my class. To be considered attractive, I realized, I did not just have to dress in the latest branded clothing, but also mark my class by watching movies at South-Bombay multiplexes, as opposed cut-rate morning shows at single-screen suburban theatres, or partying at clubs with a thousand-odd rupee cover charge, that I could afford a lifestyle as expensive and luxurious as the clothes I wore. I also realised acutely that when my richer peers shopped at Colaba Causeway or cut up their jeans, it was unlikely that their clothing would be considered a reflection of their class.
Growing as an ally
It was also around this time that my efforts to try to live up to ideals of masculine physical appearance began to flag. I had now found a tightly-knit group of friends that accepted me the way I was, and felt increasingly put off by the way I saw my male peers treat my female peers. Objectifying some women classmates, while fat-shaming and slut-shaming others, as part of ‘guy-talk’ was something I was not comfortable with, and as a result, I found myself relating more and more with women (and men) who found the same distasteful. I did not quite consider myself as a feminist then, but I was certainly uncomfortable with uber-macho ideas of masculinity. Choosing this path meant that the compliments on my physical appearance too started to dry up, and while I met and became friends with many more women, few reciprocated attraction wherever there was from my end, citing that they valued our friendship too much, whenever I expressed the same. On the select occasions where someone did feel attracted to me, I would invariably be told that the attraction was a result of realizing that I was ‘different’ from the other men, though this was not immediately evident to me. Being told that my friendship or my politics was considered more attractive than my body went against everything that I had been taught by society and it wasn’t always easy to accept. I wanted to be told I was ‘sexy’ and not that I was ‘a healthier option’, and I did not want to be ‘friendzoned’ all the time. Jibes from men friends about ‘nice guys finishing last’, and lesser attractive guys having to be content with behenjis, reject maal and fat women, didn’t make things any easier. In one case, when, in my feminist hope, I tried to encourage friends to transcend ‘narrow’ considerations of bodily looks while choosing their romantic interests, it seemed to endanger the friendships themselves.
It almost seemed at one point that relating with feminist ideals meant that I was to give up ‘shallow’ ideas such as being attracted to someone/being considered attractive on the basis of physical appearance, and pursue higher, more refined concepts, like choosing a partner based on their ideologies. It almost seemed like feminism was too uptight and no fun and I would lose friends owing to aligning with feminist beliefs. At the same time, being feminist on a ‘convenience basis’ left me feeling dissonant about where I stood in terms of my ideologies. I struggled, therefore, to understand what the ‘feminist way’ of living one’s life was.
Resolving the Dilemma
Going back to Haraway’s incisive critique of ‘objectivity’, one realizes that feminism advocates multiplicity of realities. The struggle of becoming a feminist ally, in the face of predominant patriarchal ideals, some of which I adhered to, made me question whether I could ever call myself ‘feminist’. But I have realized, over the years, that contradictions and dilemmas are an essential part of this struggle. My journey of resolving these dilemmas and becoming a feminist ally (a term I have come to use after thinking about whether it is possible for me to call myself ‘feminist’), was influenced in important ways through my relationship with a person (who went on to be my spouse), who identified as feminist, and it changed the way I viewed my body and what it meant to be masculine. Getting into a relationship where friendship and physical attraction, feminism and being considered physically attractive were not mutually exclusive, showed me that the aforementioned arguments made by my peers were creating unnecessary false dichotomies between things that could actually go extremely well together. Feminism, if anything, was about breaking rigid ideals and norms, rather than creating them.
I certainly feel that had I been exposed to feminist ideology earlier, I would have been able to study male body image in a much more nuanced manner. I know, thanks to feminism, that there isn’t a one-dimensional masculinity out there, which can be objectively measured. And I am glad that I’ll be alert both as an individual and as a researcher, when someone tries to play the god-trick on me again.
Haraway, D. (1988). “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. Feminist Studies, 4 (13), 575-599.
Paras Sharma is a doctoral scholar, and the Programme Coordinator, iCALL Psychosocial Helpline, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.