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Women: Self-Image
Constraints and Change

by Jessica Henriques
Writer's Craft ISU

When we think of the self-image of women, we focus on the set of preferences and beliefs that make up their sense of self. The issue here is the extent to which our sense of self as women or men is something we determine, or is determined for us. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the self-images of women and men are the result of their biological differences. On the other, they are those who argue that biology does not determine our self-images, but that these images are based on the nature of our social relationships.

In this context, this paper argues that literature can help us think about the self-image of women and its sources, and concludes that women's self-image is to a large extent shaped by the society in which they live. This does not mean, however, that women can do nothing to change the way they think of themselves. They can, in fact, come to understand the sources of their disempowering self-image and then do something about it. In order to discuss these points, references will be made to Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman (1978) and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (1999).

Recent studies in neuroscience tell us that biology underlies our self-image and the frontal lobe of our brain controls our sense of self. (Kathy Stone 2002). While it is certainly true that biological disorders can affect our behaviour, the self-images that women and men have of themselves are affected more by the nature of their respective social relationships within time and place. Indeed, the novels of Atwood and Kingsolver show that the self-image of women is not uniform, static, and unchanging but undergo fundamental changes as they come to understand their social world. The novels of Atwood and Kingsolver nicely illustrate this point.

The wife's and daughters' self-images in Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible are not only different, but undergo fundamental changes during their twelve-month mission in the Belgian Congo in 1959. Prior to their African experience, it would appear that the women in the novel have self-images that resemble the housewife/mother role. Thus, women seem to be the content, capable, and the caring housewife and mother, whose constant concern is with the family and its needs.

For example, Leah Price, the evangelist Nathan Price's daughter, says that her mother “wouldn't go against him, of course. But once she understood that there was no turning back, our mother went to laying out in the spare bedroom all the world things she though we'd need in the Congo just to scrape by” (Kingsolver 1999, p.13). Indeed, according to Nathan Price it would appear that women should not be encouraged to think of roles beyond housewife and mother. For example, he warns his wife “not to flout God's Will by expecting too much” from his daughters beyond a basic-level education. According to his daughter, Leah, her father believed that “sending a girl to college is like pouring water in your shoes,” (Kingsolver, p.56). Thus, prior to the family's trip to Africa it would appear that the self-image of Nathan Price is that of the traditional patriarch whose wife obeys him unquestioningly and who is warned not to flout God's Will. On the other hand, the self-image of women appears to be that of obedience and service.

The African experiences of the family, however, reveal that women's self-image is not fixed but can be transformed through crises and introspection. Against a background of a CIA promoted coup against those fighting for an independent Congo, Orleanna Price critically reflects on her life, her losses, and personal responsibility. For example, Orleanna Price experiences a sense of her self as culpable for being “one more of those women who clamp their mouths and wave the flag as their nations roll off to conquer another in war” (Kingsolver, p.89). In then end, Orleanna Price realizes that she was her husband's “instrument, his animal. Nothing more” (Kingsolver, p.89).

These examples point out that through processes of introspection or self-assessment we gain knowledge about our selves and the potential to change. But whatever knowledge we have of ourselves through introspection requires the presence of other people. In this context, Orleanna Price recalls a scene in which “a foreign mother and child assuming themselves in charge, suddenly slapped down to nothing by what they all saw us to be” (Kingsolver, p.89).

In Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman, the self-image of women as expressed in their political views and personal style is also seen as a product of introspection and social feedback. As in Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, the self-image of women as subordinate to men is being questioned in Atwood's novel. For example, through introspection Marian appears to question the conventional female role during the conversation about the wedding day. She realizes that the conventional marriage seem to involve a loss of independence and free will but nevertheless gives in to it. She says to her fiancé, “'I'd rather have you decide that. I'd rather leave the big decision up to you.' I was astonished at myself. I'd never said anything remotely like that to him before. The funny thing was that I really meant it” (Margaret Atwood 1978, p.87). In the words of Kenneth Hermanson (1970, 2),

“As a matter of fact, Marian voluntarily gives up her position as a free and independent individual. She becomes symbolically an egg insider her shell and totally dependent on her future husband. An egg which is being eaten, an individual who is being consumed. While being consumed she is not able to consume, while being eaten she is not in the position to eat.”

In considering the phenomenon of self-image in both Atwood's and Kingsolver's novels, the question about its origin comes into mind. In this context, it would seem that self-image is a product of what other people think and the institutional sources of their beliefs and values. In The Poisonwood Bible, God is supposed to have decided what women can and cannot do—a patriarchal God whose representative on earth is the husband/father Nathan Price. In The Edible Woman, on the other hand, the woman is marketed as a product for the male whose appetite “has been created (or at least organized) by the media” (Millicent Bell 1970,p.1).

In this context, Marian's fiancé is the “consummate” consumer and is portrayed as a man whose self-image as a lover is directly out of Pent House, or so it seems. For Peter, the woman is a sexual object and he is only concerned about the feelings of women in terms of his needs. For example, Marian recalls the time they made love in the bathtub: “I was wondering why he had insisted that we get into the bathtub. I hadn't thought it was a good idea, I much prefer the bed and I knew the tub would be too small and uncomfortably hard and ridgey” (Atwood, p.55).

Marian thinks about the various other places where they had made love, once on a sheepskin and another time in a field, and concludes that Peter's ideas about the sexual act came from “outdoorsy male magazines” and Pent House (Atwood, p.56). Marians says, “Peter's abstractions on these occasions gave me the feeling that he liked doing them because he had read about them somewhere” (Atwood, p.56). Thus, it would seem that both the self-image of women and men couldn't be understood without reference to other people and institutional sources.

The novels, The Edible Woman and The Poisonwood Bible, reveal that self-images are not biologically determined, but the product of introspection and social relationships. If this were otherwise, then we would expect that self-images of men and women would be the same at all times and in every society. In Poisonwood Bible, for example, the women through their critical reflection of their experiences can make choices as to whom they want to be and not to be. Thus, Adah proves her father wrong, goes onto to college and becomes a doctor. She does all of this despite his lack of support and tyranny: “Do you know when I hated him the most? When he used to make fun of my books. My writing and reading. And when he hit any of us” (Kingsolver, p. 496).

In Atwood's The Edible Woman we also observe that although self-image is a product of institutions and what others think, it can be challenged and rebuilt through our ability to look “into” ourselves. Thus, Marian realizes that her sense of self as autonomous is to be preserved. This comes out clearly towards the end of Atwood's novel when Marian says to Peter, “You've been trying to destroy me, haven't you?…You've been trying to assimilate me. But I've made you a substitute, something you'll like much better” (Atwood, p.284). In the end, Marion reaches a point where she regains a sense of her self as worthwhile: “Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again I found my own situation much more interesting than his” (Atwood, p.290).

The examples from The Edible Woman and The Poisonwood Bible suggest that self-images are not natural, since we see that our sense of self depends on the power of institutions (Religion and Consumerism) and the nature of our social relationships. Our ideas of ourselves, what we value and believe, are produced as we interact with one another; that is, women are constrained to think of themselves in certain ways. Thus, we are brought up as females and males and develop feminine and masculine forms of behaviour. However, this does not mean that these forms of self-image are permanent. For example, both novels show that women can and do challenge conventional stereotypes of themselves. In this context, literature provokes awareness of the factors that constrain us and provides us with an understanding that things could be changed. Through individual action we can transform our self-images and take responsibility for our selves.



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