“The hysterical neurotic is experiencing himself as somebody who is enacting a role for the other, his imaginary identification is his ‘being-for-the-other,’ and the crucial break that psychoanalysis must accomplish is to induce him to realize how he is himself this other for whom he is enacting a role–how his being-for-the-other is his being-for-himself, because he is himself already symbolically identified with the gaze for which he is playing his role.”Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology
Terminology (as defined by Slavoj Žižek)
- imaginary identification: identification with the image in which we appear likeable to ourselves, with the image representing “what we would like to be”
- symbolic identification: identification with the very place from where we are being observed, from where we look at ourselves so that we appear to ourselves likeable, worthy of love.
What is Femininity?
How does one who identifies as feminine adequately express her femininity? Such is a question answered on the level of society towards individuals as they seek initiation to the whole. Families and communities are the smallest social units responsible for setting the guidelines for expected social norms. All this to say that an individual’s expression of femininity (or masculinity, or anything, for that matter) is largely dependent upon the time and place in which the inidividual is born.
Personally, I gleaned early on from my social group that the most valuable expressions of femininity were expressed through long, silken tresses, well endowed busts, and petite, svelte physiques. While I could do nothing to improve my personal lack of bosoms, I could grow long tresses and I could modify my figure by way of starvation, to at least satisfy two of the three requirements for adequate gender expression. Thus, for much of my life, I grew my hair and maintained the lowest weight advisable for my height. This anecdote illustrates the impact of the Big Other over subjectivity. From the discourse surrounding me, which included high esteem of women with long hair to pained expressions and quizzical retorts–“Are you sure?” in response to my requests for shortened coifs, I learned how best to please my version of the Big Other–that persistent force of social expectation pressed upon me. Over time, though, as happens, the voice of the collective external became the inner voice of my own conscience. Thus, as I matured and at different points opted to alter my physical appearance with fresh hairstyles, I almost always found myself regretting the choice altogether. I told myself that to be feminine I must maintain long locks. I remember cutting my hair in college during a romantic dry spell. I was convinced that young men were repelled by my short hair, and all the evidence (the interest drought) served to prove the absolute authority of my theory.
Over the decades, I’ve cruised the swinging pendulum between long hair and cropped coifs, feeling guilt and remorse whenever I chopped off all length, resolute in the knowledge of my failure to fulfill my duty to the Other. New voices chimed in to affirm the authority of this internalized influence. For example, when I became active in my church community as a young adult, I internalized the decree of Paul in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” Bleh. It has taken years to hush the voice in my head pronouncing damnation over me for investing precious evangelizing time in something so vain as my physical appearance. Further, in my late twenties, I finally decided to try a pixie cut. After months of maintenance, I asked my stylist to go even shorter, and she denied my request because–and these were her words–“I don’t want you to look like a dyke.” Thankfully, I have since found a new stylist!
The thing is, all these years, I have identified with the expression of femininity, which I believed to be the most likeable–the most worthy of love. In so doing, I took on the view of the external collective. I subsumed a way of thinking into myself, and that infused ideology became the inner voice, or conscience, navigating my journey through life. That voice is not the organic voice of me, but something external, which I appropriated as my own. If I can recognize this–as Žižek says, if I can realize that my “being-for-the-other is” my “being-for” myself, then perhaps I can freely abandon the inadequate role in which I’ve cast myself, for the role I’d rather play.