OpEd: Kim Kardashian and Vera Sidika – in the service of patriarchy

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I knew that the women’s movement in Kenya was on its death bed when I saw naked images of Vera Sidika, also known as “The Kim Kardashian of Kenya”, on social media. Vera’s main claim to fame and notoriety are her extraordinarily large buttocks, which she is happy to display to her thousands of followers. Rich people apparently pay her a lot of money to view her physical assets – she has graced and been paid handsomely to attend many social events in Nairobi.

“My body is my business and it is a money-maker,” she admitted to the NTV host Larry Madowo – and she has spent millions of shillings on it. She told Madowo that a skin lightening procedure in the United Kingdom had cost her nearly 15 million shillings (more than $150,000), and that she spends between a quarter of a million to half a million shillings on her long hair weaves.

Modern-day hottentot venuses

Vera and her American counterpart, the reality TV star Kim Kardashian, are modern-day “Hottentot Venuses” – without the cage or the coercion. Saartjie Baartman, the original Hottentot Venus, was a South African woman whose naked body was put on display for four years in London, where she was caged, mocked and leered at by Europeans.

Baartman’s large buttocks became the object of much scientific curiosity, amusement and voyeuristic stares. She was then taken to Paris, where an anatomist further examined her body at the Museum of Natural History. Her miserable life was cut short in 1815 when she died of an illness at the age of 25. However, even death did not spare her the humiliation she had suffered while alive. Her skeleton, genitals and brain were preserved and exhibited at the museum for the next 150 years; the exhibit was only removed from public view in 1974.

Neither Vera nor Kim see themselves as victims of the kind of racist and sexist European culture that thought nothing of putting a naked African woman on display for the amusement of white people. On the contrary, they see themselves as modern, successful career women who turned their natural physical assets into money-making enterprises.

Unlike Baartman, who was forced to strip and entertain people against her will, these modern-day exhibitionists are willingly degrading themselves in front of cameras. They are not the victims of pimps or slave owners; they are the products of post-Berlin Wall society where neoliberalism and misogyny have become the norm, and where the backlash against women’s liberation has seen a rise in the hyper-sexualisation and infantilization of women.

In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi chronicles the demise of the feminist movement and how the beauty industry helped fuel what she calls “the undeclared war against women”. In the late 1980s, when Reaganism and Thatcherism were at their peak, the beauty industry, alarmed by the decline in the use of its products by women who no longer cared for makeup and skin-revealing clothes, embarked on campaigns to lure women back into the sexist fold.

The backlash, she says, was not so much a conspiracy against women as it was a calculated business decision to improve sales of cosmetics, plastic surgeries, skin-lightening creams, and other potentially harmful products, whose sales were plummeting.

Agents of their own oppression

In societies where women are valued mainly for their bodies, women will go to extraordinary lengths to make their bodies attractive to men who decide what is attractive and what is not. This has spawned entire industries where women will self-mutilate, through, for example, skin-bleaching creams, tummy tucks and vaginal tightening procedures, in order to achieve a standard of beauty prescribed by the dominant male culture.

This, says Faludi, has had a devastating impact on women’s health and self-esteem. Anti-wrinkle creams expose users to cancer-causing agents; silicone breast implants leave painful deformities; liposuction causes infections; and harmful eating disorders lead to severe malnutrition.

Meanwhile, the rape of women and girls has reached epidemic proportions around the world, with “date rape” being cited as the most common form of sexual violence among college students in the United States

The commodification of women, black people and racial minorities has gained a new impetus in this new money-worshipping world. Anyone is game. Memories of slavery and female subjugation have been erased by advertisers, the music industry and the media in general, who use women’s bodies to sell everything from cars to soap.

In Kenya, female news anchors and TV hosts act as if they are on a catwalk, with each competing with the other to show off their cleavages and legs. This sexing up and dumbing down of presenters has turned the 9 o’clock news into a mini beauty pageant.

Women who fought for years against the objectification of women’s bodies are described as prudish and out of sync with the demands of a capitalist, individualistic society. Women’s breasts, buttocks, vaginas are on sale to the highest bidder, with the bidding being done by none other than the women themselves.

This “oppression of the self” is by no means a new phenomenon.

In ancient upper-class Chinese society, mothers would bind their daughters’ feet for years in order to achieve an ideal of female beauty that included stunted feet that looked like hooks. Girls with bound feet were considered more marriageable, presumably because they would not be able to “run around” (i.e. be unfaithful to their husbands).

The practice of female circumcision is similarly carried out by women in many African societies, notably Somalia and Egypt, where more 90 percent of women have undergone the procedure, often under unhygienic conditions without any anaesthetic. “Uncut” girls are considered promiscuous and therefore unmarriageable.

Today, it is women like Vera Sidika and Kim Kardashian who encourage women to self-mutilate. All these women are in the service of patriarchy – they are essential cogs in the wheels of institutionalised sexism. They reinforce every stereotype of women, and ensure that women remain the agents of their own oppression.

At any other time in our history, “celebrities” like Kim and Vera would have been the objects of pity. They would have elicited the same sympathy one feels for a poor woman who is forced to sell her body on the streets or women who are coerced by pornographers to perform sex acts with strangers.  Today girls all over the world want to be just like Kim and Vera – porn stars, but without the label.

Rasna Warah is a columnist with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper and the author of War Crimes, Mogadishu Then and Now, Red Soil and Roasted Maize and Triple Heritage.  You can follow her on Twitter @RasnaWarah.

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