|by Sakura Shinjo|
We generally understand today that we need to cut our consumption of fossil fuels: we must end the use of plastics in our foods; we should try to make more responsible decisions in transportation; however, some of these issues are more easily tackled than others. Millions live in food deserts where the question of healthy foods cannot yet be asked. And the United States’ infrastructure is intended for personal vehicles, so it is difficult to simply transition to buses, rail, or bikes. There are systemic issues that are the primary movers in the world climate crisis, and so what I address here comes with the recognition that the United States’ military industrial complex is the greatest consumer of fossil fuels in the world, and that to end climate injustice, we need to fundamentally transform the world economy and international policies and orient them towards a radical understanding of equality and peace.
As individuals, however, we must continue to exist in this unjust system that compels us into certain lifestyles. For now, I focus on the way that this system pressures women to orient our bodies toward approval by the male gaze. It must be earned though, because we are inherently unworthy. And so today, rather than the one-dimensional, transparent windowpane of a human prescribed for the 1950’s housewife, “choice feminism” has co-opted the movement towards equality, which tells women they should find balance in their lives by aspiring to simultaneously be the career CEO femme fatale and nurturing mother. You can have it all.
Succumbing to this market-made desire reproduces the ideology that the more we have, the better we feel, and it is fundamentally contrary to how a sustainable future will look.
This new type of pseudo-feminism is one that attempts to, and is generally successful in, guiding women like cattle back into the arms of consumerism and self-conscious concern for appearance — because that is the goal of capitalism. It continues to reinvent ways to consume anew, and women trapped by the socially constructed requirement to please men and find fulfillment in such other-pleasing, have long been the primary target of these campaigns.
Today, however, is no longer the time of Edward Bernays’ “Torches of Liberty” campaign of the 1920’s, which expanded the cigarette market to American women. Today is no longer the appliance revolution of the mid-twentieth century that sold the housewife essentials, with kitchen gadgets galore in which to make Jell-O in fish-shaped plastic Tupperware molds. Today is the day of the mass beauty industry, where women are meant to feel that their natural face, body, or hair can be contoured, dieted, or removed to help them have it all.
Here I return to global climate disaster, because the tools we use to achieve these ends — the chemical-laden cosmetics, clothes, hair products, accessories—they poison not only the earth, they poison us as well. They contribute to climate change on the macro level, telling us that consumption of chemical-laden items is essential to our “image”, and they psychologically harm us for thinking so. They contain sulfates, which harm our waterways and our bodies. They contain alcohols, which dry our hair and skin to give us the sensation that we require more of the product, effectively causing chemical addictions. Clothes contain harmful dyes and are produced en masse through the use of petroleum-based fibers. These items tend to contain endocrine disruptors which can cause cancers, birth defects, and brain damage.
The beauty industry tells us to flock to diets and fix our bodies, the latest of which is the Keto diet. Despite its nutritionist seal of disapproval, many seem not to care because it has caused weight loss—thus is beauty. This occasional weight loss comes with the sacrifice of vitamins and minerals that our brains and bodies need to sustain themselves long term, replacing those requirements with fats and proteins, mostly derived from animal products. And while I could invoke the 90% fecal contamination rate of poultry in the United States or the use of glues and fresh blood to make pork and beef more appealing for consumption after graying from decomposition, the point is that this feeling of the need to transform our bodies in a variety of ways is deeply tied to capitalist consumerism, the continued lack of awareness of what we as individuals do to the environment, and what these two elements do to our self-awareness as humans in society.
We need to understand that a portion of climate disaster is tied to the gendered expectations of consumer culture that drive individuals to continue unhealthy and unsustainable practices that cannot be tolerated.
None of this is to advise women to stop wearing makeup, to stop shaving their legs, to stop trying to lose weight if they feel they could be healthier — but let’s not confuse feeling good, or physical and psychological health, with marketing designed for endless consumption. Women and men wore makeup, shaved, and lost weight long before the plastic revolution. What I am advising is that we start thinking responsibly about purchases that we know are only a result of desiring excess. Succumbing to this market-made desire reproduces the ideology that the more we have, the better we feel, and it is fundamentally contrary to how a sustainable future will look.
If a sustainable future can be achieved, it is going to radically transform how women think of their bodies and minds, which will include our gendered consumption habits. We need to transform the mutilated image that women are taught to have of themselves that then tells them the answer is to consume and change their bodies and appearance to please others at the risk of their own health on a chemical level, and at the risk of environmental health. At the same time, a sustainable future will tackle the narcissism that this type of consumer culture has produced in women, a preference for personal aggrandizement over forgoing the next purchase that feeds the industry and the climate disaster.
As half of the human population, women are disproportionately impacted by climate injustice. We need to understand that a portion of climate disaster is tied to the gendered expectations of consumer culture that drive individuals to continue unhealthy and unsustainable practices that cannot be tolerated. While we cannot currently end fossil fuel consumption on a grand scale, we can begin to change how we view ourselves and the reasons for our actions. This must include a radical look inwards to understand how deeply tied gendered expectations that produce self-harm and environmental degradation truly are, and to begin to coexist with the environment rather than poisoning it with unjust expectations of female bodies.
Sakura is a second year PhD student of political science at Temple University. She studies political homophobia, homoprotectionism, national identity in Central and Eastern Europe, and critical feminist theory.
Published in the 2020 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley