The Impossibility of Separating the Self from Society

Sexual liberation. This is something that many modern, Western women have started to emulate and embrace as gender roles and norms have begun to be questioned. Rather than allowing our sexuality to remain as something for the purpose of satisfying male consumption and gaze, women are reclaiming it, along with their femininity and sexuality; to express themselves, as a facet of their person. We have begun to appreciate that conservatism is not synonymous with femininity. Women can be as liberal as they choose with their sensuality, clothing choices and sexual life. Personally, my femininity is a source of pride and power for me, something that I willingly celebrate and express, and which is very much essential to my essence as a human. It is also something which I have rarely doubted or questioned, and as a disclaimer, I fully recognise and appreciate my privilege as identifying as a cisgender woman, being able to express this freely and openly without discrimination and abuse.

Our individuality is never personal to us.

However, existentialism has begun to leak into my thoughts. I have found myself questioning if my seemingly self observed ‘innate’ femininity is truly who I was meant to be, or is it the result of the process of indoctrination I entered into at birth when labelled with a gender, fed certain roles and experiences? I cannot help but feel that my sexual identity is based on a process of force feeding; as I identify as a straight, cisgender woman, my gender identity has been created and cultivated by years of patriarchal conditioning. For example, how much of my hair removal is something that I do for myself and appreciate the results of (which I believe it is), and how much of it is conditioned by the patriarchy as something I ‘should’ do which I have now tried to subvert and take into my own ‘liberation’?

Yet as a modern cisgender woman, I feel like I have the right to express my sensuality liberally as a reaction to the historical oppression of this natural aspect of femininity. We have been taught that we cannot be sexual beings in the same way men can, and I along with many other women wish to subvert this notion. I, in turn, feel liberated, but I cannot help but wonder: how far is this a celebration of the self, and how far is this merely reactionary to women’s history? By feeling like I can express my sensuality and femininity more liberally in reaction to this long history of oppression, am I in some way not playing into the patriarchy and male gaze unintentionally? Although I am sure that I am doing this to convey myself and only for myself, I cannot escape the possible labels, discrimination and danger that could come along with expressing myself so freely. 

This has brought me to the conclusion that although we can feel that our values are clear and that we are individuals independent of space and time, our individuality is never personal to us. We are unmistakably products of our own environment, what society values is clear and we cannot escape society’s gaze. How can we be individuals when our path has been pre-planned and defined? It thus seems that it is impossible to separate the self from society. I understand that we can break from this and act against norms that we have been prescribed, but we will always live a portion of our lives under society’s control, and we cannot escape the criticism that will follow from expressing ourselves truly.

The only control we have is that we ultimately decide what we will allow to affect us.

The author Milan Kundera defined the four gazes of modern society, alluding that we will always choose one to live under: the unknown eye, being the gaze of the general public; the known eye, being the gaze of your friends, family and acquaintances; the eye of the lover; and the imaginary eye, being the gaze of those who are only present in our mind. We are doomed as a society as we will always be ruled by one of those gazes. They form us and slot us into certain roles (whether we choose to break or not break from them), and therefore we cannot remove their eyes from following our movements and developments.

Art by: Julie Torres

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