Patriarchal Internalization and Resistance to, or; ‘Why Isn’t Every Woman a Feminist?’


“As noted earlier, women punish themselves too for the failure to conform. The growing literature on women’s body size is filled with wrenching confessions of shame from the overweight:

I felt clumsy and huge. I felt that I would knock over furniture, bump into things, tip over chairs, not fit into VW’s, especially when people were trying to crowd into the back seat. I felt like I was taking over the whole room. … I felt disgusted and like a slob. In the summer I felt hot and sweaty and I knew  people saw my sweat as evidence that I was too fat.

I felt so terrible about the way I look that I cut off connection with my body. I operate from the neck up. I do not look in mirrors. I do not want to spend time buying clothes. I do not want to spend time with make-up because it’s painful for me to look at myself. (Millman, Such a Pretty Face, pp. 80 and 195.)

I can no longer bear to look at myself. Whenever I have to stand in front of a mirror to comb my hair I tie a large towel around my neck. Even at night I slip my nightgown on before I take off my blouse and pants. But all this has only made it worse and worse. It’s been so long since I’ve really looked at my body. (Chernin, The Obsession, p. 53.)

The depth of these women’s shame is a measure of the extent to which all women have internalized patriarchal standards of bodily acceptability. A fuller examination of what is meant here by “internalization” may shed light on the question: Why isn’t every woman a feminist?

Something is “internalized” when it gets incorporated into the structure of the self. … I have described elsewhere how a generalized male witness comes to structure woman’s consciousness of herself as a bodily being. This, then, is one meaning of “internalization.” The sense of oneself as a distinct and valuable individual is tied not only to the sense of how one is perceived but also what one knows, especially to what one knows how to do; this is a second sense of “internalization.”

Resistance … may be joined by a reluctance to part with the rewards of this compliance; further, many women will resist the abandonment of an aesthetic that defines what they take to be beautiful. But there is still another source of resistance, one more subtle perhaps, but tied once again to questions of identity and internalization. To have a body felt to be “feminine”–a body socially constructed through appropriate practices–is in most cases crucial to a woman’s sense of herself as female and, since persons currently can be only as male or female, to her sense of herself as an existing individual. To possess such a body may also be essential to her sense of herself as a sexually desiring and desirable subject. Hence, any political project that aims to dismantle the machinery that turns a female body into a feminine one may well be apprehended by a woman as something that threatens her with desexualization, if not outright annihilation.

The categories of masculinity and femininity do more than assist in the construction of personal identities: they are critical elements in our informal social ontology. This may account to some degree for the otherwise puzzling phenomenon of homophobia and for the revulsion felt by many at the sight of female bodybuilders; neither the homosexual nor the muscular woman can be assimilated easily into the categories that structure everyday life. The radical feminist critique of femininity, then, may pose a threat not only to a woman’s sense of her own identity and desirability but also to the very structure of her social universe.” (Bartky, pp. 104-105.)

“[W]idespread resistance to currently fashionable models of feminine embodiment or joyous experimentation with new “styles of the flesh” … face profound opposition from material and psychological sources … . In spite of this, a number of oppositional discourses and practices have appeared in recent years. An increasing number of women are “pumping iron,” a few with little concern for the limits of body development imposed by current canons of femininity. Women in radical lesbian communities have also rejected hegemonic images of femininity and are struggling to develop a new female aesthetic. A striking feature of such communities is the extent to which they have overcome the oppressive identification of female beauty and desirability with youth. Here, the physical features of aging–”character” lines and greying hair–not only do not diminish a woman’s attractiveness, they may even enhance it. A popular literature of resistance is growing, some of it analytical and reflective, like Kim Chernin’s The Obsession, some oriented towards practical self-help, like Marcia Hutchinson’s recent Transforming Body Image: Learning to Love the Body You Have.(See Marcia Hutchinson, Transforming Body Image–Learning to Love the Body You Have (Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1985). See also Bordo, “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture.”) This literature reflects a mood akin in some ways to that other and earlier mood of quiet desperation to which Betty Friedan gave voice in The Feminine Mystique. Nor should we forget that a mass-based women’s movement is in place in this country which has begun a critical questioning of the meaning of femininity–if not yet in this, then in other domains of life. We women cannot begin the re-vision of our own bodies until we learn to read the cultural messages we inscribe upon them daily and until we come to see that even when the mastery of the disciplines of femininity produce a triumphant result, we are still only women.” (Bartky, pp. 108-109.)

Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1997. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Pp. 93-111 in Feminist Social Thought: A Reader, edited by D. T. Meyers. New York: Routledge. [The linked pdf here is from a different book. The new citation would be Bartky,  Sandra Lee. 1998. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Pp. 25-44 in The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, edited by R. Weitz. New York: Oxford University Press.]



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