Burqas and Bikinis: Introducing the Concepts Macroproblematic and Microproblematic

I want to introduce two concepts in this post that I think are missing from the social justice conversation.  My labeling for them is a little tongue in cheek, but my suggestion that we adopt these concepts in the discourse is serious. First, let me define the somewhat clunky term “microproblematic”. If an action or attitude is “microproblematic”, it means that it is problematic for any individual to hold or to do regardless of the cultural context that this individual finds themselves in. For example, even if our culture were a paragon of gender equality and diversity in every single way, it would still be problematic for an individual heterosexual man to say that “No doesn’t always mean no” because it’s rapey. Pressuring anyone for sex, no matter how subtly you (mistakenly) think you are doing it, is microproblematic. Another example: even if our culture celebrated and respected all body sizes and shapes, it would still be problematic for an individual to suggest that another individual change their body shape or size. Most of the basic issues that any 101-level activist would call out are microproblematic (whether or not broader society thinks so).

By contrast, an attitude or action is “macroproblematic” if it is not problematic for an individual to choose to hold or to do, but on a broad, sociocultural level it is problematic or at least symptomatic of wider problems, especially if it is an enforced social norm.This second definition, the idea of something being problematic in the aggregate only, is I think the key concept missing from our discourse around social justice. Let me give you the examples that lead me to this concept: the conversation around the burqa, and the conversation around the bikini/skimpy clothing worn by women.

First, consider an individual woman’s choice to wear a burqa (of course this applies to the niqab, the hijab etc but I am using the burqa because I think it receives more scrutiny). Clearly, there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about this choice – it is a perfectly valid choice, whether it is based on religious, cultural or purely personal reasons. There is no coherent case against any individual woman’s free choice to wear one. It is her right to choose how she dresses, and frankly, the “security risk” argument is such total crap that I’m not even addressing it (come back when you want to ban masquerade balls for similar “security concerns”). No woman’s individual choice to don a burqa should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.

However, I think there is something macroproblematic about a sociocultural situation that demands women be totally covered up, but does not demand the same from men. Any norm that considers women’s clothing to be associated with moral rectitude is inherently misogynistic and masks an attempt to control women by dictating how they may present themselves. Also, some of the justifications for the burqa as a social norm reflect a fundamental lack of respect for both men and women, often reinforcing rape culture, painting men as base creatures with no self control, and calling on women to do everything they can to avoid exciting men and thus causing their own rapes. Clearly, to the extent that it remains a moralised sociocultural norm that applies only to women, the burqa is highly macroproblematic. However, it is not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to wear it.

Interestingly, the exact same situation arises when women appear in the public sphere wearing very revealing, highly “sexy” clothing and presenting themselves in an overtly sexual manner. It should be perfectly obvious that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any individual woman choosing to do this. It is every woman’s right to dress in the way she chooses, and if she wants to go out with her breasts or thighs or any other “socially-coded sexual” part of her body uncovered, that is a valid choice. It certainly does not reflect any personal issues or “deep seated insecurities” or any other armchair psychologist bullshit. Some women feel comfortable dressing up really sexily in public, and there is nothing microproblematic about this choice. No woman’s individual choice to wear a bikini or sexy lingerie out in public at any time of day in any location should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.

Yet again, on a sociocultural level, it clearly is problematic that women are consistently presented in all forms of media in an overtly heterosexy way, wearing very revealing clothing and posed in such a manner as to bring pleasure to heterosexual men. Men are almost never presented posing sexily to gratify heterosexual women (and when they are, panic and confusion ensue!). Consider this: there is no male equivalent of lingerie in mainstream culture. Furthermore, merely in observing the dearth of so-called “unattractive” or “unsexy” women in media, women are implicitly taught that their primary value is their capacity to provide a pleasing image and/or sexual gratification to heterosexual men whether they like it or not. They are of course also slutshamed if they provide sexual gratification to men and/or like it! (In misogynistic societies, women can never win.) The depiction of women as being heteromale lust objects before they are people is a symptom of deep misogyny in our culture. It is one reason why many American girls self-report that they would rather win ANTM than a Nobel Prize and nobody even asked American boys that question. It is highly macroproblematic. However, sexy women are not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to present sexily.

I think the fact that we don’t have terms for these two separate things is at the root of many confusing arguments – especially between second and third wave feminists, many of whom fail to grasp the difference. Many second wave feminists, noting that the dominant sociocultural representation of women in heterosexy poses and outfits for heteromale viewing is macroproblematic, then claim that NO WOMEN ANYWHERE should ever choose to behave or dress in this way, because even if it makes her happy, SHE’S A DELUDED TOOL OF THE PATRIARCHY. Meanwhile third wave feminists, noting that there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about women wearing sexy clothes and presenting in an overtly sexual manner, go on to claim that there is NO MACROPROBLEM AT ALL, EMBRACE IT LADIES, WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING PRIMARILY CONSIDERED A LUST OBJECT?

If we employ these concepts, it can be coherently argued that women presenting overtly sexually is not microproblematic in any way, but the broader social norms that treat women as sex objects for heteromale consumption is indeed macroproblematic. A lack of clarity around what it means for something to be “problematic” and the extent to which people’s personal decisions should be scrutinised causes real harm, especially to people who find themselves personally bearing the brunt of someone else’s genuine complaint about broader culture. We must attack macroproblematic practices on a sociocultural level without hurting individuals who may, intentionally or unintentionally, conform to these ideas and practices. When we seek to destroy the kyriarchy, we have to be careful we don’t create collateral damage. I think these concepts can help us achieve that.


18 Comments on Burqas and Bikinis: Introducing the Concepts Macroproblematic and Microproblematic

  1. Your Blogger says:

    It’s sort of sad that this is the first time (outside of gchat conversations with you) that I have actually seen this distinction made.

    I feel that perhaps the point should be made that people do often engage in macroproblematic behaviour for specifically microproblematic reasons. For example, wearing a burqa because of an honestly held belief that men’s sexuality is uncontrollable. In which case I am uncomfortable with the strength of: “No woman’s individual choice to don a burqa should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.” Uncomfortable because I would like to debate and scrutinise an opinion that awful.

    But aside from that, I agree with this post and am surprised and dismayed few others seem able to make the distinction.

    I would also like to point out that, while microproblematic ideas have been observed in a laboratory, macroproblematic ones have not. It’s only a theory.

  2. David Barry says:

    With individual actions that are not microproblematic negatively affecting broader society, I’m surprised you didn’t suggest a Pigovian tax.

    More seriously, this is the first time I’ve found a feminist-theory-type thing interesting.

  3. asdf says:

    Silly me, I forgot that it’s only wrong for heterosexual men to talk about what “no” means. Everyone knows that double standards are only wrong if men hold them.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      I said heterosexual men there because I was trying to draw the distinction between micro and macro problematic really sharply. Because we live in a sexist society, when men pressure women for sex it feeds into larger, macro tropes about men and women. But even if we did not, it would still be wrong. That’s the distinction I was trying to show. I should have been clearer.

      That said, I think I made it clear in my next sentence, where I addressed the reader him or herself about pressuring people to have sex (I did not say women), that neither myself nor anyone else thinks only men rape people (while it is overwhelmingly men who rape people, of course it is not only men, and all rape is a serious problem).

      Further comments from you that take this same sarcastic and unhelpful tone will not be approved. Engage with respect or do not expect to be engaged with here.

  4. egalitarian says:

    On the point of there being no male equivalent of lingerie, I can’t speak for women, but I’ve seen billboards with these sorts of images: http://thesindrome.com/fashion/celebrity-fashion-trend-sports-stars-underwear/

    They’re certainly not for the enjoyment of straight guys, although gay guys probably enjoy them — I don’t know, maybe someone else could provide a more informed perspective. Either way, the male models in underwear ads certainly have the kinds of bodies that men are expected to aspire to.

    I’d hazard a guess and say that, in general, the sight of a fit male body is sexually appealing to straight women, but most women don’t feel comfortable in expressing it overtly, for fear of being thought of as sexually loose or something like that.

    Do you think more women would allow themselves to overtly express their enjoyment of a desirable male body if our society were more egalitarian?

    • Connie Connie says:

      Do you think more women would allow themselves to overtly express their enjoyment of a desirable male body if our society were more egalitarian?

      Yes, I believe so. I point you first to Filament Magazine which I really enjoy. The creator/editor regularly writes on the topic of how we don’t really understand the female gaze, except that it is definitely different from the straight AND gay male gaze. She regularly uses a Livejournal community to get feedback on photography and asks women directly why they feel certain photos are more desirable than others (often it has to do with particular things like angles, direct eye contact, body shapes, etc). One point she makes is that women are often cited in scientific studies as not being as visually stimulated by men, but the pornography in those studies are usually made for male gaze (regardless of the gender coupling).

      I feel (and I know some other members of this blog also feel this way) that women have been taught the male gaze as not just the default gaze, but the only way to express desire. As a woman it is actually very difficult to understand your own desires because you’re not taught to be in sync with your desires, you’re taught to desire everything through the male model.

      Hopefully that makes sense.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      The images you’ve linked to certainly might be the start of something like what women experience, but I think as of now there are some key differences. First, all of those adverts are for underwear. But women’s seminude bodies are used to sell literally everything from beer to lawnmowers to milk. Second, a lot of those pics have more of a friendly, “joking around” vibe and less of a sexy vibe. I feel that there’s a difference between many of these pictures and the way in which women are usually presented in underwear adverts – mouth open, gazing at the viewer in simulated lust, posed like softcore porn.

      That said, it is becoming more common for men to be depicted naked and with sexy overtones (like a few of the ones you linked to).

      I think your guess is right that women find these bodies attractive (and other kinds of bodies too!) but they believe that other people will judge them if they express that attraction. Absolutely right. And yes, if women did not think they would be judged (ie if society were more egalitarian) I think women would overtly express their enjoyment. I for one already do express my enjoyment because I don’t care what people think about me. And in fact, judging from the many female-dominated online communites that produce erotica, I am pretty sure I’m not alone.

  5. ned says:

    I have to say that covering one’s entire body, including one’s face, seems microproblematic to me in a way that nudity certainly isn’t … I’ll grant anybody the right to dress any way they want, but when you cover your face, you’re effectively preventing yourself from becoming a participant in society in many ways. Face recognition is literally the main way in which we identify each other and by covering your face, you render yourself invisible *as an individual* — this would be problematic even if patriarchy didn’t exist. Thoughts, anyone?

    • Connie Connie says:

      I don’t think we should be creating problems where none may exist? I can think of a myriad of ways to identify someone whose face is hidden if I actually need to get a hold of them. Mobile phones for one.

    • heathenwench says:

      I see what you mean here in that they are not just covering their faces but their facial expressions, thus limiting their potential for non-verbal communication. It would be interesting to ask burqa wearers what they do to compensate for this – perhaps they are more explicitly verbal, or rely more on tonality etc, when wearing the burqa? Also interesting would be to ask them if *they* feel more socially isolated when they cover up. Perhaps studies have already been done on these questions? I shall have to do some research…

  6. B. E. says:

    I realize this is a bit late to the party, but this post really resonates. Reading backwards in the posts, when the terms “microproblematic” and “macroproblematic” were used I knew right away what was meant. And this is a very good explanation.

    If anyone has heard of the blue curtains argument, (which is the not at all fancy sounding way I’ve picked up to describe this) it’s essentially this. There is nothing individually wrong with blue curtains, but if all you ever see is blue curtains, it starts to be come suspicious/problematic.

  7. Mark says:

    Reading this post was a real “A-ha!” moment. This distinction strikes me as so tremendously and fundamentally useful that I’m kind of surprised that terminology wasn’t already available to describe it.

    Off the top of my head, it strikes me as very convenient for discussing topics such as the Bechdel test. In the past I’ve found it a bit tricky to articulate why it’s a major problem for films in aggregate to fail the test even if many aren’t overly problematic as individual works. This will help, I think.

    • Ella says:

      This was my first thought, too! I was talking about the Bechdel test with my teenage brother and sister and we were all floundering to express just that.

      This terminology is pretty clear and concise, though we’re still left with the “what do we do about it?” questions that might be more easily answered if we ignore this phenomenon.

      • Becky says:

        Exactly! It’s been established that there is nothing inherently wrong with individuals acting in a way that reflects more macroproblematic trends. After accepting that, though, I’m left with the question of “how do we address these macroproblems without criticizing individual people/media/trends that resemble them?” For example, if I am trying to explain to someone unfamiliar to the social justice community the dangers of hypersexualization, how can I do so without first citing a number of small instances that hint at a broader problem without making those instances out to be microproblematic? And, furthermore, how can we treat an individual problem (for argument’s sake, an act by one person) that exists because of a fundamental acceptance of a macroproblem without taking away the agency of the actor (thereby treating it like a microproblem when it is, actually a macro).

        Maybe I’m approaching this too much in a second-wave manner?

  8. tcatsambas says:

    Excellent post, well written, and making us think. In addition to the important broader point you made about issues that may not be issues at the micro level but are issues at the macro level, there is the issue that something as superficial as the choice of “dress” is in fact judged by others. So, the choice of dress is not only about personal taste, but also about chosing what message you want to give out. So because the macro level is a reality, what does this mean for individual choice? How aware are people about the macro message of their individual choice, and how ” free” is their choice, given the overwhelming influence of macro issues on that “free” choice?

  9. Dangles says:

    I heard these terms for the first time a few months ago and finally reading your post I find them appealing and useful to an almost revolutionary degree! Well done. The macro/micro distinction is so helpful and I wish I had been armed with it in so many past conversations. Thanks!

  10. Kacey says:

    Very well-written article. You explained very well how both the attitude i.e, to tell women to cover-up completely and exposing women’s bodies in a hyper-sexy way in media, are problematic. I liked your article so much that I bookmarked it. Now when someone brings up the topic of objectification of women in society and media, I would be sure to refer them to this article.

  11. gdfishquen says:

    Thank you for exploring these differences. I have always been torn about accepting feminist arguments because the distinction between micro and macro problems isn’t made but when you lay the distinctions out like this everything makes a lot more sense.


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