Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Dystopian Mirror and the Female Body

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Dystopian Mirror and the Female Body

Article excerpt

Women's experience of the change room mirror is not a particularly affirmative one. The pleasure in looking at the self is dissipated by the ideal feminine 'I' that hovers in the shadows of their image of self and others constructing dystopian surveillance and entrapment. This article considers the responses of a number of women bloggers who describe their negative experiences in front of change room mirrors. It also argues that the mirror has been used in more positive and creative ways by women artists to assert a self that is not subject to a critical gaze.

Consumerism has a long and complex association with women and the female body. The change room mirror is an interesting instance of this relationship as it invites women to conjure an idealised form of the body as it simultaneously abjures the 'real' one, jeopardising a primary goal of consumerism - pleasure. This article considers a number of women's experiences of and responses to the change room mirror arguing that these are largely dystopian acts of self-imaging fed by the broader consumer culture in which they occur. The article also considers other types of mirrors that have been proffered by feminist and artistic practice in less dystopian ways countering the mirrors of phallocentric representation and accenting women's capacity to express more positive and liberatory images of the self. Feminist interest in women's identity locates the body as central to the cognitive scaffolding of self-image. Kathy Davis observes:

For feminist scholars, the body has always been - and continues to be - of central importance for understanding women's embodied experiences and practices and cultural and historical constructions of the female body in the various contexts of social life (Davis 1997, 7).

As one of the contexts in which identity formation is conspicuously engaged, Western consumer culture contracts specific form of the female body for its primary goal - the pressure and desire to consume (Jagger 2000; Featherstone 1991). In thousands of women's clothes boutiques and women's clothes sections of department stores throughout the Western world, the changing room mirror acts as a tangible instance of women's dissociative and ambivalent relationship with their bodies and of consumer culture's complicity in this process. Despite the ways in which postmodern consumer practices make available a multiplicity of ways for women to 'be', the change room mirror remains a site that reflects back to women a visual consumerist discourse in which their bodies are 'regulated, normalized, fetishized and commodified' (Jagger 2000, 55). The change room mirror in this respect is not unlike French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's mirror which signifies the powerful and often deleterious effects of the social and symbolic systems in Western culture on the individual's (specifically the female's) sense of self.

In his references to the mirror stage as a transitional period in the individual's entry into the symbolic order, that is the order of society with its cultural, ideological, legal and linguistic rules and norms, Lacan highlights the importance of language and the specular in helping shape identity (Lacan 1977). Rose writes that for Lacan 'the mirror image represents the moment when the subject is located in an order outside of itself to which it will henceforth refer' (Rose 2005, 53). Althusser (1971,69), working with Lacan's conceptual mirror in Marxist terms, remarks on the ways in which the broader society, carrying its ideological imperatives, interpolates the subject into culture compelling it to recognise and relate to the various images of that culture's identity on offer. Foucault also alludes to the ways we are made 'subject' to ideologically and power laden discourses in the symbolic order which position us in controlling ways (1982, 212). To adopt these ways of understanding self-formulation, is to recognize that we can never see ourselves other than in the images reflected back to us by society, which becomes, in effect, the mirror itself. …

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