Is This the Answer?

Is This the Answer?

Is this the Answer?: These medieval instruments of torture, real and imagined, are visual comments on the state of safety for women in the 21st century.

What is the answer to keeping the world’s women and girls safe from physical and sexual abuse? What will it take for our sisters, mothers, and daughters to live in safety without shame?  “Is this the Answer?” reflects on the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse, victim’s internalized feelings of shame, and the failure world wide to provide women and girls with protection and redress. The juxtaposition of these medieval instruments of torture, with western proverbs taken from history, are comments on the continued vulnerability of women in the 21st century. Together the proverbs and images underscore mixed messages that women still struggle to reconcile today.

In the middle ages women could be sentenced to wear shaming devices for being too outspoken, for dressing in a way that was considered shameful, or simply walking in a way that was considered enticing to men. Today, women no longer are sentenced to wear a branks, or mask of shame, but may still be silenced by internalized notions of self-blame. Feelings of guilt are frequent among victims of physical and sexual abuse. Women continue to “Suffer and Be Still”, witnessed by the continued under reporting of rape world wide. Women, young and old, frequently internalize blame in domestic assault cases, insisting that they elicit abuse by provoking their partners or by not being docile enough. The double pillory presented in “It Takes Two to Make a Quarrel”, literally binds both victim and abuser together, making no distinction between them, in much the same way women have been known to make excuses for an abusive partner.

Despite the romanticization of the chastity belt, women who were locked in this devise (“Under Lock and Key”) to maintain their “honor” despite it’s inability to protect, were more often inflicted with physical and emotional pain. Then, as now, women who lose their “purity”, even in cases of rape, can face a punishment of death in certain cultures. A cage or “gibbet” once used to inflict a slow and torturous death, might today be put to better use as a protective devise for a young woman coming of age.

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Extreme Beauty

“If tiny feet suddenly became fashionable, would American women subject themselves to foot-binding?” This was the question posed in an article of the Los Angeles Times, denouncing breast implants, with the headline “Draw the Line at the Knife”. Standards of beauty are continuously changing, but what is the often grotesque reality behind the extreme measures taken to reshape women’s bodies?

I began to investigate these notions by exploring various bodyshaping practices beginning with ancient Chinese foot binding. The vision of a teetering, helpless young bride was considered erotic, and a family prosperous enough to support a young woman made—by design—unsuitable for any kind of physical labor, gained status within the community. However, the reality of these treasured “golden lilies”, were deformed, painful feet, often malodorous due to rotting flesh and infection.

Corseting began at a very early age in Victorian England and North America of the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme tight lacing had an understandably negative effect on the developing body of young girls, effecting not only outward appearance, but the growth and position of internal organs. The vision of the delicate swooning young woman at this time was considered ideal, but how robust and active could an individual be with a compressed rib cage, gasping for breath? A loosely corseted woman, by contrast, was judged not only to be imperiling her health but to be of loose moral fiber as well.

Today, there is no longer a need for girls to be excessively corseted, when they are willing to carve out their own bodies through surgery or self-imposed starvation. The rise in incidence of anorexia, has  made clear how much young girls today have internalized societal ideals of beauty, just as foot binding and corseting of young girls and women were signs of past repression through the idealization of the female form.