Okay, MAJOR rant coming:
I had a good discussion in my women’s history class this morning on shame and body image. We talked about 19th century notions of women’s bodies, and the culture of modesty that left young women often woefully ignorant of their own physiology. Joan Brumberg, in her book The Body Project, cites an 1852 study that suggested that 25% of American adolescent girls were “totally unprepared” for the onset of menstruation, to the point that they believed they were seriously ill or injured at menarche. During that same period, clitoridectomies were regularly performed on young girls in America and England to cure them of what one doctor called “the moral leprosy” of female masturbation. (They were usually performed as a last resort on adolescent girls; some such operations were performed on young masturbators as late as 1958). My students are always stunned to hear that; they falsely assume that female genital mutilation was never a Western practice. Young women were shamed for the inevitable (menarche) and the normal (masturbation) to a far greater degree than they are today.
But what occurs in the 20th century is a shift from morality to aesthetics, with shame being the constant. Though public discussions of menstruation and masturbation (even in an academic setting) are still sometimes awkward, most of my students seem to consider themselves far more educated and enlightened on those subjects than their Victorian sisters. But all too frequently, my students loathe their bodies with the same puritanical intensity as their forebears. They may not be as ashamed of their sexuality as their great-grandmothers were (though some are still understandably shy), but they are still ruthlessly critical of their own flesh. The negative judgments however, are now rooted in aesthetics. Fat has replaced desire as the primary enemy to be contained and controlled. If self-control and exercise fail, there is always the surgical removal of the offender (fat) through liposuction and body sculpting.
I try — with limited success — to make the case that Victorian clitoridectomies and contemporary plastic surgery are remarkably similar procedures from a feminist analysis. Yes, the former were performed on the young and the vulnerable, often against their will. But I’m not sure that the young students of mine who save and scrimp and go into debt for liposuction and breast enlargements (and I can think of quite a few who have done just that) really have much more agency and autonomy than their forebears. Slicing up the body to conform to a societal ideal is inherently a woman-hating act, whether the offending body part is the clitoris or thigh fat. There is no progress in moving from a culture that shames sexuality to a culture that shames any divergence from an unrealistic aesthetic ideal.
Yes, I have heard from my students who say they feel better about themselves after their surgeries. But the number of women in Somalia or Mali who support female infibulation are high as well. The fact that some women feel personally empowered by cutting up their bodies (or allowing their bodies to be cut) does not vitiate the essential horror of the practice. Some feminists are so in love with the notion of “choice” that they will defend any action a woman takes to alter her body. But choices are only exercised within a cultural context that decrees that certain choices are better than others. In this culture where even slight physical imperfections are seen as barriers to happiness, most young women who choose plastic surgery are not making a genuinely free choice.
Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.