Friday, January 05, 2007

Hips Don't Lie

This is part of a long feature called "The Body As Battleground" that I did for the Jan 2007 issue of the Malaysian edition of New Man. (Yeah, I write on feminism for mainstream men's magazines). I'm upset about some things regarding the layout of the feature -- for instance, the half-page on celebrity plastic surgery that has pretty post-surgery pix but none of the pre-surgery ones, making the captions seem stupid, superficial and spiteful. But I particularly like this article, and am glad they didn't fuck it up (although I wish they had used the visuals I provided). If you want to see the rest of the feature, grab a copy.

Hips Don’t Lie
by Sharanya Manivannan

Yes, the vagina is the seat of much controversy -- it's actually the secondary sexual organ (to the mighty clit), but it's overrated; yet it’s so derided that its other names are used as pejoratives; and it can even strike a Freudian fear of castration a la vagina dentata in the hearts of some. But in terms of aesthetic beauty, of the clothed kind anyway, no other female body part is nearly as contentious as the hip area. Breasts, bouncy or bite-sized, are difficult to not be pleased by. Legs only matter when they aren't covered. Hair can be changed every day, if one wishes. But the hips – oh, the hips! – poets don’t call them "battleships" just for the sake of rhyme.

By definition, the hips consist of the projection of the femur known as the greater trochanter and the overlying muscle and fat (including the buttocks and upper thighs at their widest). Hips are measured around the widest part of the buttocks, and in most women are marked by a slope that tapers upwards toward the waist, and fleshes out seamlessly downward into the leg.

For thousands of years, voluptuous hips have been considered attractive in most cultures based on the biological features they indicate: sexual and reproductive maturity, and easier facilitation of childbirth. Ultimately, evolutionarily speaking, sex is all about progeny, and sexual attraction is a means to an end. The more bountiful a woman’s hips, the more likely that her body is prepared to handle pregnancy. Somewhere deep in our genes is a response that should send male hormones into frenzy at the sight or touch of childbearing hips.

The “classic” hourglass shape, a throwback to the 50’s and to an era when a noticeable discrepancy between the waist and hips was valued, is frequently defined as a 36-24-36 one or thereabouts, although this in itself is an unrealistic depiction. More correctly, the healthiest waist-to-hip ratio (waist size divisible by hip size) for women, which lowers risk of coronary disease and increases longevity, is around 0.7. For example, 36-inch hips with a waistline of 24-27 inches, 32-inch hips with a 22-24inch waist or 40-inch hips with a 27-30inch waist are all, technically, ideal. Men are also supposedly programmed to be drawn toward women with such proportions, regardless of the actual measurements involved. Hourglass paragons aside, with regards to this, breasts, bless them, don’t really matter.

In recent decades, however, there has been a backlash of sorts against this supremely female part of the anatomy. Gone are the days of sensual curvature, when ampleness was appreciated and “womanly hips” was a compliment. Global exposure to Hollywood standards that increasingly value a streamlined silhouette (remember Gisele’s claim to fame when she first burst onto the scene as “the hipless wonder”?) has ensured that even in cultures that previously admired booty baggage, androgyny (paradoxically, with plenty of cleavage) became the aesthetic of choice.

In terms of fashion, womanly hips do, now and then, make a comeback, although strictly speaking, hips are most often seen as ruining the line of an outfit. Lately, the high-fashion runways of Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, among others, have seen the emergence of what one newspaper disturbingly-tagged the Monster Hip: curves constructed from fabric, corsets and other clothing trickery. The empire-waist dress or blouse, which cinches below the bosom and flares from then on, has also made a comeback. But the problem is this: women with the lower bodies of prepubescent boys (genitals notwithstanding) can carry off the faux curves such fashion provides, go hoochie mama hot for a season, then revert to having the contours of uncooked spaghetti by the next. But women with hips like nature intended, well, tend to resemble pregnant penguins in them. Fashion, even when it gives the illusion of embracing real figures, still caters only to those who with technically unhealthy proportions. Even the current fetish for bulbuous bums conveniently forgets to take into account that most women thus endowed also come with a usual serving of extra meat on their sides.

So what then is the bottomline, so to speak, on modern society’s love-hate (but predominantly hate) relationship with hips? Physically speaking, hips are what make women women. Boys don’t have them, girls don’t have them, men don’t have them. Chubby men can grow man-boobs, but not matryoshka doll cambers. As one rather large-and-lovely-hipped crooner keeps reminding you every time you switch the radio on, hips don’t lie – they’re women’s and women’s alone. But what ought to be sexy is, more often than not, dismissed as excess by both the male gaze and the female self-gaze. Like the symbolic regression of maturity that Brazilian waxing connotes, does the desire for slim or nonexistent hips also suggest a form of subconscious self-loathing? In other words, what does it say about the damning powers of fashion, advertising and society itself when women are taught that, essentially, perfection is a matter of desexing, and men, in turn, internalise cues for desire that are incompatible with biological programming?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really awesome post! Great stuff! You highlight something which sadly, people are choosing to miss out on. Look at our classical Indian temples and sculptures. Hiplessness is ugliness in our traditional aesthetic. So you're absolutely right -- modern aesthetics are the opposite of both nature and culture.

I loved this post!

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Guru said...

Great post -- but you are biased, Oh Curvy One. ;)

11:53 PM  
Anonymous Vi said...

You're completely right (and I don't think you're biased at all. ;)).

Great post!

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Androgyny (small chest and hips) seem to be prevalent only in fashion shows. In TV, newspaper ads, and movies however, curvy women still abound.

I do agree with your concept of desexing. Desexing appears to be a form of conformity to the male shape. Male dominance? Hmm...

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as an indian woman with child bearing hips myself, i agree with every word of your post.

fashion posts convoluted/unnatural images of the female body, which after the course of time, is accepted as normal by the masses. remember the time in the 18th century when fat was beautiful?

if ur biased, then i am as well..


3:38 PM  
Blogger brock said...

Saw this response to your article here (http://www.xanga.com/jemufo/565051052/item.html) and was horrified.

The writer, while entitled to her views, is either misguided or working at the behest of the fashion/advertising/media conglomerates you expose. People have the right, certainly, to choose androgyny but your point, I think, is that the fashionable aesthetic doesn't present it as a choice: it's compulsory. Androgyny as a standard is very different to androgyny as one of many choices and alternatives. I believe your argument is in support of such choices, on a broad level, not an abject rejection of androgyny.

Your article is fair and points out the inequities of "androgynators". The rebuttal smacks of, well, the same sillines displayed by those who yell "White Power!" It's as if these conglomerates are somehow the victims, just as white people (in white majority nations) are somehow victimised by the assertion of the rights of the minority. One doesn't even have to go as far as rights. The appearance of a black person on television as something other than an afterthought or caricature constitutes some kind of attack against caucasians everywhere. In this case, it would be "pity the poor fashion industry, suffering under the tyranny of hips!"

What's surprising to me is that the rebuttal comes from the vaunted left-of-centre. There's nothing "left", "liberal" or "open-minded" there. Suddenly the assertion of a minority position, in a mainstream commercial magazine at that, must be attacked? Shameful.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Amerie said...

Who is that Jemufo? She's a disgrace to feminism. I can't imagine why she thinks that harping a party line sold by the fashion industry is revolutionary.

I was goig to ask you why you didn't respond to her, but I saw the racism and disgusting attitude of some of her commentators and I saw you have done well to not give people like that a minute of your time.

Well done on a wonderful article about real women, not wannabe feminists.

12:47 AM  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Thanks, all. Glad you liked the article. :)

Brock and Amerie -- When I first saw Jemufo's rebuttal, what stuck out for me most was the tone of condescension. But on second read, I also saw that for all her academic high-handedness, she failed to even grasp something as basic as context: it was for a mainstream heterosexual men's magazine. I was writing for a certain audience in a certain voice. I was conveying a deeply womanist message in a light, accessible tone. While annoying, having certain quarters sabotage one's intentions and completely distort them so as to promote their own agendas is a fact of the blogging life.

2:58 PM  

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