Surgery, sex, shame and paternalistic feminism

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.

68 thoughts on “Surgery, sex, shame and paternalistic feminism

  1. Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo. I wrote on FGM just this past Autumn and came to much the same conclusions, although mine focused more on the political problems of cultural body mutilation and hypocritical Western attitudes toward it (for example, horror at female circumcision but not at its male forms, and why). This is a fantastic, fantastic entry. And no, I don’t think you’re paternalistic. After seeing “I want a famous face” for the first time this week, I’ve got a few things of my own to say about the way we exploit the human body…

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  4. Plastic surgery is such a spotty issue. I happen to agree with you, Hugo. When a woman decides to have surgery done on any part of her body, it is an attempt to fit better into society. Our western society is deeply patriarchal when it comes to standards of beauty. I have a feminist friend who thinks that a woman should be allowed to do whatever she wants with her body, and I have to agree with that, but I think most plastic surgery is done for the wrong reason. Our society glorifies beautiful people, and people want to be beautiful. Anyway, this post is going long, but I wanted to state that I agree mostly with your argument. I hate plastic surgery and the popularity it has gained in the past years. I’d love to see your argument fleshed out (punny) in a longer article, definitely. . .

    Especially with that creepy Fox show, “The Swan”, coming out soon.

  5. One of the most fantastic things I have read in a long time. (until this morning, now you and Jenell are neck and neck)

    I will be thinking about this paragraph for a long time:

    “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. ”

    you simply must come to minneapolis and visit Solomon’s Porch.

  6. Hi Hugh –
    I am friend of Jenell’s, roommate of the Colleen who commented above, and fellow blogger.

    My question for you: how much is too much? What crosses the line from self-improvement to self-abuse? Plastic surgery…exercise for the soul purpose to lose weight…teeth whitening…highlights in hair…wearing push-up bras…what do you think??!

  7. I think there will always be some ambiguity about the line between self-decoration and self-mutilation; ear-piercing and tattooing come to mind. I don’t think we can successfully draw hard and fast lines. I think it is something we need to have conversations about, and discern together. I’m not of one mind myself!

  8. I’d like to jump on your bandwagon, but I can’t quite do it–mostly because I’ve never said never on the issue of breast reduction–nor on the possibility of a face-lift when I’m sixty or whatever.

    When I was in my teens and twenties I mostly eschewed makeup, and I didn’t shave my legs. Now I look back and regret that I didn’t enjoy my attractiveness when it was at its peak–but it could be that we only appreciate things when we’re losing them (or have lost them). Could be.

    I think diet extremes are the same as surgery: an overreaction to our culture’s overabundance. Keep in mind that the more statistically important cultural trends are overweight and obesity, which are killers, and are affecting girls and boys at ever-younger ages.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, except maybe for older women to tell younger ones that we all have things we don’t like about ourselves–things that jump out at us from the mirror. But that others don’t see us that way at all.

    From my own experience I’d say it can take 20 years or so to absorb that lesson.

  9. From my Russian perspective, it seems like the reason people torture their bodies is because women don’t know how to be women, and men don’t know hot to be men. Male sexuality is constantly degraded, just like female. (I am curious about Hugo’s opinion on circumscision: is it a man-hating act?)
    I look at celebs, and see neither men nor women among them. American culture has turned into a parade of perpetual adolescence. Holliwood actors play high-school level power games, the media indulge in irresponsible whining, and college professors keep on mentally masturbating to the great 60s fantasy.

  10. I’m not sure, Ivan what you mean by “men” and “women”. Visually, our celebrities (think “The Rock” and Pamela Anderson) are caricatures of extreme masculinity and femininity, with massive pecs and breasts everywhere; our male role models have become physically larger and MORE violent (think Vin Diesel).

    On the other hand, if by “men” and “women” you mean certain ways of conducting oneself, with a respect for the unique characteristics of each gender, than I do agree.

  11. Hugo,
    Strangely enough, by “men” I mean people with penises, and by “women” I mean people with vaginas. Stay away from all that contextual relativism, Hugo man! Don’t be like Chomsky.

    Jokes aside, I indeed meant ways of conducting self as opposed to loking a certain way. It seems a common practice for educators to tell girls that arrogance and bitchiness indicate “liberation”, and to reinforce slobby, impotent behavior in guys, presenting it as “intellectual” and “sensitive”.
    Also, did you notice that it is always boobs that are supposed to be massive in America – as opposed to ass and thighs? Do you see any significance in that?

  12. Hugo,

    I’ve just discovered your blog, and it’s a delight; Christian voices that are both socially conservative (relatively speaking) and economically progressive are pratically non-existent in the blogosphere. I hope to read a lot more from you. And do think about expanding this post into a real op-ed or publishable essay; it’s a tremendously important subject, and the way you say it is makes your message even more valuable.

  13. Hugo,

    Human males are attracted to larger breasts, symmetrical facial features, etc. Why that is the case is neither here nor there (though there is considerable evidence suggesting evolutionary biological factors). But it’s a sociological reality. Absent cosmetic surgery, a woman’s prospects for attracting a desirable mate (among other things) will be in some measure limited by her body. And one’s body is largely beyond one’s control. If you’re born ugly, if you have a “fat gene,” if you suffer third degree burns…what are you to do? Chalk it up to bad luck and resign yourself to fate? Or bitterly rail on men, the media, image-peddling corporations, etc., before retiring to a lonely bed to rest up for another day of vocal discontent? *That’s* liberation? I don’t see it. Cosmetic surgery is a physiological gateway to social mobility. It allows women to overcome the limitations of birth and circumstance. It is a tool of liberation.

    Is it slavery to conform to a societal ideal? If so, then nearly all of us are slaves. Just think of all the things we (women *and* men) do to alter our appearance in ways we hope will appeal to (or, at least, not offend) others. Cutting, styling, combing, or coloring our hair, for instance (not to mention Rogaine, folicle implants, toupees, wigs, hair coloring, extensions, et al.). How about working out? (Granted, some people may do that solely for health reasons; but, for most, an element of vanity intrudes–keeping thin, looking buff, whatever.) Have you ever used deodorant? What about clothing–high-heels, neckties, and other impracticalities? Cosmetic surgery is just one facet of this scintillating diamond, my friend. So why do you single it out? Why the focused concern for your young, surgically buxom female students?

    C. Young

  14. I just want to point out, having had recent second-hand experience in the matter, that surgeons prefer to distinguish between “cosmetic surgery” and “reconstructive surgery” these days. I think repair for third-degree burns or, say, horrific cosmetic injuries sustained in a car accident, falls more under the area of reconstructive surgery, and I don’t want to speak too much for Hugo but I suspect he wouldn’t take issue with this.

    It’s “cosmetic” surgery that’s the problem. Personally, I’d love to see a move to a place where people are no longer encouraged to undergo expensive, intrusive, painful, and life-threatening surgical procedures for the sake of beauty, but I don’t see it happening soon.

    And I really don’t think I can buy a comparison between stilettos and liposuction.

  15. Thanks, Lorie, for making the distinction so nicely. Decoration, reconstruction, and mutilation are very, very different practices.

    Despite the rather pointed final question (which I will politely ignore) in her post, Catherine sums up the alternative view nicely:

    “Cosmetic surgery is a physiological gateway to social mobility. It allows women to overcome the limitations of birth and circumstance. It is a tool of liberation.”

    I also recognize how widespread and pernicious this worldview is, and I recognize that many good and thoughtful people share it. But it is immensely destructive.

  16. Hugo,

    You write, “Decoration, reconstruction, and mutilation are very, very different practices.” I agree. Before I proceed, though, let me voice an objection to your ongoing rhetorical stunt of characterizing cosmetic surgery as “mutilation.” Such contortions (ala “meat is murder, “all intercourse is rape,” etc.) may whip up a froth in those who already agree with you; but they do nothing to persuade the majority of fluent English speakers familiar with the accepted semantic range of the word “mutilation.”

    To get back to the issue, I grant that decoration, reconstruction, and cosmetic surgery are different practices. But it was your contention that “Slicing up the body to conform to a societal ideal is inherently a woman-hating act….” You never made any distinction between elective cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery. Now you apparently do. So what’s the basis for that distinction?

    My 10 year-old nephew was recently in town to have cosmetic surgery. He was born without an ear on the left side of his head. The surgery will not affect his hearing; he will still be almost entirely deaf on that side. But, after a remarkable procedure in which cartilage from the rib cage is “sliced out” and attached under skin on the side of the head (followed by additional sculpting and a skin graft in a procedure several months from now), he will have a passable ear on that side of his head. The surgery was undertaken for one reason only–to conform to a widely accepted “societal ideal” (i.e., two-earedness).

    Back to the breasts. A Miracle Bra is “decoration.” Breast implants following a radical mastectomy would be “reconstruction.” And an elective breast implant boost from an A cup to a C cup would be “cosmetic surgery.” In each case, the intent is *solely* to conform to a societal ideal (relating to size and shape of breasts).

    So again I ask, What’s the difference? If one is conforming to a societal ideal of having breasts of a certain size and shape (or of having two ears), what difference does it make (a) how one’s body happened to find itself out of conformity (e.g., birth, accident, behavior) or (b) how one goes about achieving that conformity?

    C. Young

  17. Good questions.

    The “woman hating act” phrase is of course polemical. I am arguing that it is essentially misogynistic to excise flesh from the body that deviates from a given societal ideal. (Of course, in our culture, men have begun to undergo plastic surgery as well, but that’s another topic).

    Two-earedness is a universal from which only a fraction of human beings deviate. Imperfect or uneven breasts are “normal” — the ideal to which women who get implants aspire is an artificial and socially CONSTRUCTED ideal; the two-earedness to which your nephew aspires is a biological norm. I think there is a colossal distinction
    between the two.

    The goal of feminism (as I see it, and not all — obviously — agree with me) is NOT to provide an ever-larger group of women with tools with which to compete in the sexual and economic marketplace. Rather, it is to critique and to deconstruct the values of that marketplace. As we used to say in college, “We don’t want a piece of the pie, we want to bake a new cake!”

    Or as one of my heroes, Audre Lord, put it, “you can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools”.

    Thanks for the great questions — I wish my students argued them so cogently!

  18. Hugo – I wish more people could answer them as cogently.

    Seriously, begging for a full-length treatise… no one at my institution is doing research on the new body politics and feminism, which ARE intensely more complicated! Additionally I just want to say that I like having your voice around the blogosphere. Too many ignorant men (I love you Daddy, but bless your soul) think feminism has to do exclusively with women. Au contraire – feminism and feminist epistemologies are just plain better equipped to explain why MEN would go through elective cosmetic surgery as well. No one said women are the only ones who suffered – but your original example of how even that lens is distorted shows us just how serious the problem is.

    This issue gets even more interesting when we look at how communities that are sometimes perceived as communities of acceptance (i.e. the male gay community) actually become very socially oppressive, mimicking the same static forces that they fault for holding them back (look no further than Queer Eye and its expensive tastes, styles, and habits, and how gay men are expected to conform to that ideal of the beautiful, big-spending gay male).

  19. Hugo,

    Two-earedness, you say, is a universal–a biological norm. Obviously it’s not an *actual* universal, since every day people are born without ears. Are you referring to a Platonic Form here? Are you generalizing from statistical probabilities? Is there *nothing* socially constructed about ear-related norms? Please clarify.

    You state that imperfect breasts are “normal.” Is that also a universal or a purely biological statement? The Realm of the Forms? Statistics? What is the basis for your conclusion about breast-related norms? How is your conclusion about “how breasts should be” any less value-laden and socially constructed than that of surgery-seekers?

    The “colossal distinction” you see is not so apparent to me.

    In any event, let’s return to the other hypotheticals (and expand them). How would you distinguish between: (i) a woman who gets breast implants after a radical mastectomy; (ii) a woman who gets breast implants because, even after puberty, she remains precisely as flat-chested as the aforementioned cancer survivor; and (iii) a woman whose breasts fall in the top or bottom 5% in size and undergoes breast augmentation or reduction in order to bring her more towards the biological or statistical norm?

    Anyone who salivatingly contemplates an imaginary cake while shunning the very real pie in front of her isn’t very hungry.

    C. Young

  20. Candace, you write:
    “Au contraire – feminism and feminist epistemologies are just plain better equipped to explain why MEN would go through elective cosmetic surgery as well.”
    Better than who?

  21. Oh dear, Plato goes right over my head. And Catharyne (what a lovely spelling), I am afraid that if you are not prepared to concede the distinction between “two-earedness” and different sized-breasts, than I am afraid that our philosophical viewpoints are too far removed from one another for us to continue. I’m not blowing you off — I just think this line of discussion is rapidly headed for the unproductive. Or maybe since I haven’t had Plato since freshman year, I am not prepared to have a visceral issue wander off into the realm of the philosophical. Or, maybe I am dodging! 😉

    Why would a woman want a new cake rather than a piece of the pie? Because she has finally seen that the pie itself, while offering the temporary illusion of nourishment, is in fact, toxic to her and to her community.


    Oh, and Candace — thanks for the encouragement. The gay male issue is a fascinating one; I commend to one and all Susan Bordo’s superb “The Male Body” as helpful text.

  22. Ivan – the problem is your question is that it misunderstands my contention. I do not argue that “feminISTS” or people who call themselves feminists or any of the number of political platforms associated with mainstream feminism are as people smarter or better equipped to deal with difficult issues. Feminism is NOT about girl power. It is an intellectual approach that seeks to uncover truths not addressed in typical discourse. It examines more subtle social forces in addition to the easy, pseudo-scientific methods of data analysis. It is called feminism for two reasons, in my understanding:
    1) the female experience in societies throughout the world and throughout history has an abundance of things to say about oppression, about relationships, and about a number of social problems that would be overlooked if we merely traced the history of men.
    2) its dialogues are more closely associated with the “feminine” qualities of understanding, of the importance of relationships, of compassion and related values, and of cooperation. that’s not to say those are truly or exclusively “female” qualities, but that is largely what is meant by a “feminist” approach.

    so it follows that when discussing issues like this, feminism is much better equipped to analyze the powers of oppression at place and break down the myths of “choice” that allow us to ignore, for example, the moral roots of choice. Male thinkers in our intellectual history (including such capital-R Republican types as John Locke) who challenged existing paradigms and addressed issues such as women’s rights are looked back on as feminists, not because they necessarily advocated for equality or for suffrage, but for their progressive thinking.

    Hopefully that answers your question!

  23. Candace, if you ever want to do a joint feminist blogging thing, let me know. Really great stuff here.

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  25. Candace,
    I’m sorry to misrepresent my question. Let me try it one more time: feminism is better equipped – better than what – what do we compare it to? Locke? Leo Strauss? Lenin? What’s the context here?
    “social problems that would be overlooked if we merely traced the history of men.”
    According to your description, feminism sounds compensatory, not to say reactionary.
    There must be a million definitions of feminism, but my experience is that feminism is not about ideas; it’s about wearing a badge. What about your experience?

  26. If I can jump in for a sec, Ivan, let me provide a quote on feminist history from another heroine of mine (right up there with Audre Lord), the historian Gerda Lerner:

    “Women have been left out of history not because of the evil conspiracies of men in general or male historians in particular, but because we have considered history only in male-centered terms… to rectify this and to light up areas of historical darkness, we must, for a time, focus on a woman-centered inquiry, considering the possibility of the existence of a female culture within the general culture shared by men and women. This is the primary task of women’s history. The central question it raises is: What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women, and ordered by the values they define?”

  27. Hugo,
    Thanks for the quote, this is great. So, women have been left out because we have considered history only in male-centered terms (“only”? that’s an exaggeration, but suppose it’s true), and to rectify this, we must focus on female-centered inquiry.
    Let me see if I get this right. Historians made the mistake of looking at the world one-sided way – so let’s make the opposite mistake, and look at things the other way!
    Doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. Applying Derridian deconstruction to gender studies was a silly enterprise to begin with, and to me the results seem disastrous. It may be entertaining to indulge in such mental activities, but it is ultimately inconclusive, and evidently, counter-productive. Look at the American educational system, which has very much adopted this approach in the past few decades, and you will see a tragic failure at teaching both girls and boys how to become women and men. It may be therapeutic for college girls to talk about how women don’t get enough attention from history, science, and society in general, but benefits of such therapy are dubious, to say the least.

  28. When I started teaching Asian history, about ten years ago, and I talked about Chinese footbinding, I could compare it to breast augmentation, facial modification, but with some obvious differences: footbinding was done to children and it was inherently disabling. I recently read an article, though, about the dramatic rise in orthopedic podiatric surgery… to make women’s feet narrow enough to fit the slender fashion shoes they want to wear. Now I describe footbinding, and I have a direct comparison, and the differences aren’t as great. And I’m troubled by that.

  29. Hugo – “What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women, and ordered by the values they define?”

    Depends on the woman (Angela Davis was my teacher in Womans Studies at SFSU), but many cultures are matriarchal.

  30. Hugo,

    “Normal” is a value judgment–whether we’re talking about the normality of ears, breasts, penises, height, weight, sexual orientation, behavioral patterns, etc. “Deconstructing the values of the marketplace” is a hollow (or hypocritical) exercise, if you’re unwilling to turn the same critical eye on the values with which you’d supplant them.


  31. Oh, I have plenty critical to say about most feminist utopias! But a culture of greater body acceptance is surely a culture we can all agree is desirable.

    I heard Angela Davis speak once; wasn’t moved. Feminist history is best done in community, in listening to and sharing the stories of women from the past and the present. It can use the techniques of masculinist history (empirical inquiry) but is not limited by them.

  32. Hugo,
    You say,
    “Feminist history … can use the techniques of masculinist history (empirical inquiry) but is not limited by them.”
    So what makes it feminist then?

    Another quote from Ms.Lerner:
    “The central question [women’s history] raises is: What would history be like if …”

    Doesn’t it strike you as vain and simply ridiculous that somebody could in all seriousness pose such a “what if” question as “central” to any branch of science? How much more useless and masturbatory does it get?

  33. I find it very interesting that this thread moved into feminist theory. I need to point out that not all feminist thought is the same – there are many different areas of feminism, just as there have been different “waves” of feminism. Not all feminists have the same ideology. . .but in general terms, I think the descriptions I’ve read here of feminism are about right.

    As for the mention of footbinding, I actually wasn’t familiar with the practice until I saw the Ingrid Bergman movie, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”, in which she stars as a missionary in rural China. One of her goals was to stop the footbinding of girls.

  34. Thanks, Elizabeth, I’d agree. There are different ways of seeing things. The difference (this is for you, Ivan) is not merely that we look at an opposite, narrow world view (potentially, a radical feminist one) at the same time as we examine the preexisting narrow paradigm, although that in itself would increase our understanding. The difference is that feminism as a way of thought (not a political movement, which my father-loveuBigDaddy-seems incapable of realizing!) is inclusive, meaning that it values all perspectives, including the male.

    Look, I’m not here to defend every mainstream “feminist,” to pretend like I own feminist thinking, or to refute the claims I hear from male students that they feel “excluded” by anger and hatred in women studies classes. I get all that. What I will do is say that if we look at this problem as something partly due to patriarchy (gasp! she used that dirty radical liberal p-word!) we can start to understand the broad roots of this issue. Hugo’s original post talks about dominating structures of the past, oh-so-clear to us now as we look back at an early 18th-century work like Defoe’s Moll Flanders. We tend to think now that we have already solved all those problems of the past: women vote, work, have greater political agency, etc. Yet that is still a masculine evaluation of progress. The issues dealt with then (“How could a woman dare to refuse a proposal, especially a poor woman!”) still haunt us today, merely in different forms. Whereas traditional thinking can’t understand that, the inclusive nature of feminist thinking has room for both – or, as HUgo puts it, “It can use the techniques of masculinist history (empirical inquiry) but is not limited by them.”

    Ivan, it’s not about therapy or whining about the past. It’s about understanding historical patterns in order to change them. If you look even at science, there is so much study that’s missing — about the female body, for example. That must be rectified in order to improve women’s health (again, not at the expense of men’s health, but in addition to it!).

    I’m not sympathetic to every cause that passes as “feminist,” but neither will I apologize for believing that the present should not repeat the mistakes of the past, and looking to the past to inform future actions. The very fact that this discussion has been so long, and that it seems inexhaustible, just goes to show how much work remains to be done, how much remains to be said, how much remains to be done when it comes to feminist issues.

    Hugo, hit me up.

  35. I don’t want to argue in circles, Ivan, but what makes feminist history “feminist” is that it asks the question, “how do traditional methods of doing history leave out women?” How do they ignore issues of the body in favor of a (traditionally masculinist) ideal of an objective “view from nowhere”?

    Feminist history is not merely a litany of complaints, but it also embraces the intensely personal — and it denies the possibility of total objectivity to boot.

  36. C.,
    Normal is not a point, but a range. You can not illustrate normal with one sample, or point to one person and say her body is normal. Rather, you show examples across the range and say, these fall within the bounds of normal.

    Now ‘normal’ can be socially constructed, and it sounds like that is the only definition of normal that you are using. Under that definition, normal can be used interchangeably with ‘norm’, or a socially defined value.

    There is an alternative, though. Normal can describe a statistical range, i.e. all bodies that fall within the 15th and 85th percentile on this range are accepted as normal. This normal can also be socially determined in so much as the breadth of accepted is determined (at what percentiles we draw the lines.)

    I believe Hugo’s desire for a society with a broader body acceptance is a society that enlarges the breadth of range of both statistical and socially defined ‘normal’; one that is accepting of both 1)people who’s bodies are noticibly different from many other’s bodies and 2)people who’s bodies vary significantly from an established societal norm.

  37. “I don’t want to argue in circles, Ivan”
    Hugo, arguing in circles is what you seem to do for a living.

    “How do they ignore issues of the body”
    We just demonstrated that it wasn’t just the female body, didn’t we? Are you ignoring it on purpose, or just playing stupid with me?

    “in favor of a (traditionally masculinist) ideal of an objective “view from nowhere”?
    I believe this issue was addressed by such thinkers as Plato and Aristotle, and many others afterwards. To pretend that feminists invented this approach is an arrogant way to perpetuate politically biased ignorance, which is rampant at our colleges.

    It would be stupid to say that no feminist ever came up with anything worthwhile. However, to confuse young people by “arguing in circles” and making science serve a political agenda is immoral – and to deny it the way Mr. Hugo does is hypocritical and doubly immoral. I’m afraid what we have here is another case of trivial parasitism, masked as “progressive intellectualism” – and feminism, in this case, is nothing more than a badge of approval, that this cute earnest professor proudly puts on his muscular chest. Something to be concerned about as a general tendency, but not really interesting as an individual case.

  38. “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.”

    Therein lies the crux of your conflict with MRA’s. They percieve (with varying degrees of sophistication and compassion) agency in women where you do not. Within your “Where I Stand” entries, the only woman whose agency you truly acknowledge is Amy Richards.

  39. Type 5, you misunderstand me. I’m not denying that young women have any agency at all, just that on body issues they don’t have much more than women did a century ago. Saying that their agency is oversold is not the same as saying it doesn’t exist.

  40. I pretty much understood that. It’s the sliding scale for female agency that I find problematic. It’s the basis for what one MRA aptly termed the “now we’re weak, now we’re strong” shell game.”

    Contrast it to your position on C4M. (I pretty much agree with your position, BTW) It contains an embedded assumption of… nay, an expectation and requirement of complete, autonomous, accountable agency. (Thus, I was heartened to see you extend that same expectation to Ms. Richards.)

    I understand that a major part of your estimation of agency in the case of this post is the youth of the women, which I find reasonable.

    But again, it must be contrasted with views of the degree of agency in young men. From your entry “Boys, Grrls, Hugs” I know that you favor nurturing communality in men, but I don’t find a view on agency. Therefore, I’ll use examples of law, which might be considered to reflect societal views.

    Anecdotally, I’ll mention the increasing practice of charging juveniles as adults. While I may be wrong, It certainly seems the vast majority of those cases are young men. What is that but the formal designation of these boys as possessing full agency?

    More concretely, I’ll point to the consistent body of law in which a minor boy who can’t legally enter a contract is suddenly a fully responsible agent when his babysitter seduces him. (See II. “YES, YOU WERE UNDERAGE. NOW PAY YOUR CHILD SUPPORT.”)

    I hope this has clarified my point.

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  42. “Back to the breasts. A Miracle Bra is “decoration.” Breast implants following a radical mastectomy would be “reconstruction.” And an elective breast implant boost from an A cup to a C cup would be “cosmetic surgery.” In each case, the intent is *solely* to conform to a societal ideal (relating to size and shape of breasts).

    So again I ask, What’s the difference?”

    Here’s the difference: buy a “miracle” bra to reshape my natural breasts for amusement, sexual fun with a partner, or some insecurity about my breasts and it costs around 30-40 bucks and I am in no danger of dying when I purchase it. When I get radical reconstruction after mastectomy I am endangering my life (as we do in any surgery) to look “normal” after a life-threatening illness that required the removal of my breasts to save my life. When I risk my life to get implants because I “think” my normal breasts are somehow deformed or abnormal in size, then I am getting plastic surgery. I see a big difference in the three, although if I had a mastecotomy I wouldn’t bother with implants. I would probably get a padded bra, just so I would look the same as I do now. Frankly, I see the difference between a padded bra that costs 30 bucks and a potentially life threatening surgery that costs thousands of dollars and potential health risks.

  43. >“Women have been left out of history not because of the evil conspiracies of men in general or male historians in particular, but because we have considered history only in male-centered terms

    But of course, there is nothing to stop anyone from writing woman centered histories. We do have free speech, despite the best attempts of the PC movement to abolish the 1st Amendment (provocative statement!).

    Of course, one can argue that history is made by great individuals, men or women, and that any history which is honest is going to have to reflect this.

    An issue I have with Howard Zinn (whom I can otherwise respect for his activism) is that he rigs up his “People’s History of the US” to ignore the repression that came out of the “people’s” movements.

    For example, the 19th century women’s movement pushed “sexual purity” and supported bans on birth control, prostitution, oral sex (even in marriage), etc., as well as promoting prohibition and (sometimes) segregation (had to protect women from being raped!).

  44. pardon my intrusion, but i incidently stumbled upon your blog and couldn’t resist the read. over the years, i’ve had a growing interest in women’s history and the factors that spearheaded the women’s movement, which is ever-present. however, i do find that many modern feminists have lost sight of their forebearers’ framework, to simply be acknowledged as an equal intellectual being obtaining the means to contribute to the world and not unwillingly drudge out a domestic lifestyle. feminists such as sojourner truth, margaret fuller, s. anthony, e. stanton seemed to have a less convaluted arguement (in regards to what i’ve recently read) in defining their terms.

    i believe that humanity as a whole has lost sight of the benefits of simplicity. at the risk of creating an uproar, gender roles were not humanity’s greatest crime. of course, there are a litany of disadvantages attached to a society operating according to this system, but equally there are advantages. now, mating, marriage and family life has become as complicated as science! oftentimes, philosphy underscores what humanity had once upon a time seemed to do so well. although there were no utopias, there was a reliable and efficient rhythm to life in such societies.

    lastly, the masculine male is facing a steady yet rapid decline. men are constantly being encouraged to take part and show enthusiasm in areas that they simply may not have an interest and that should be okay with this newly liberated and intellectual society. the feminist perspective is relative to experience and wisdom, along with a host of other things. thanks for allowing me to share.

  45. gender roles were not humanity’s greatest crime

    This is a good point. One thing that feminists ignore is that many if not most women chose their “role.” It was women who objected en masse to the ERA (e.g., Phylis Schlafly). Many women want to be housewives and have husbands who provide for them.

  46. There’s an article in the September 2005 “Commentary” magazine by Charles (Bell Curve) Murray called “The Inequality Taboo.” In it he states that there are inherent differences between men and women but that the prevailing PC ideology makes it impossible to deal with them realistically.

    For ex: he points out that virtually all advances in science and technology have been created by men.

    Now, this is an interesting point. Why have women failed to contribute as much to society as men?

  47. Alexander, I don’t know much about Hugo’s feminist theory, but that seems to be one question that it can help to answer. However, your implications that inherent gender differences are the cause of imbalances in the sciences is a real stretch. Tell me, do you expect in a society where women have been excluded from math and sciences and dumped with full family responsibilities to make an equal amount of scientific discoveries? And your assertion falls down once we add a control.

    Since races are a social construction and have litle if any actual genetic basis, why have virtually all advances in science and technology been created by WHITE men? While the experience of white women and black people have been vastly different, this shows that the dominance of white men in society and its related biased social constructions has influenced more than we would ever have thought.

  48. Tell me, do you expect in a society where women have been excluded from math and sciences and dumped with full family responsibilities to make an equal amount of scientific discoveries?

    1) Women for decades have had equal access to universities and such. Women can say “no” to having children and families. So why then do we see the majority of scientific achievements being produced by men? Could it be there are inherent differences between men and women? But this is not in line with current ideology, so any such discussion of it is suppressed, see Harvard. (Charles Murray has an interesting discussion of this in the September “Commentary” magazine, though I dispute some of his conclusions.)

    2) I find it interesting that you think having a family is being “dumped” on.

    3) Of course, men have had to deal with a lot of repression to get out scientific ideas. Again, go back to the Middle Ages and the Inqusition. If men were willing to face up to being publicly executed for developing science (e.g., Giordano Brno, Copernicus, Galileo) then why can’t women do the same?

    4) There is a record of women scientists, just not as many as men. For example, one of the pioneers of atomic theory in the 1930s was a female Jewish physicist living in Vienna, and had to face all sorts of anti-semitic hellaciousness. And so now I have supposed to listen to feminists claim they are today not “enouraged” to be in the sciences?

    Since races are a social construction and have litle if any actual genetic basis, why have virtually all advances in science and technology been created by WHITE men?

    There is a difference between race (which is a social construct, e.g., skin color) and sex, which reflects real biological differences between men and women. I do not agree that white men have created virtually all advances in science and technology (though your argument could be used as a justification for white supremacy, sort of). One need only look at the record of black scientific achievement in America, even in the face of segregation. In recent years, we are seeing vast increases in technology coming from the Asian nations.

    I’d give you that Western civilization in the last several centuries has produced the conditions allowing for scientific progress: free societies, the concept of progress, the scientific method. “Dead white men” ideas if you like it.

  49. I am currently attending a state university part time. I take computer science classes. I’d say that 2/3 of each computer science class is made up of men. Of the 1/3 women, most are from Asia or eastern Europe.

    There is nothing to stop any American woman from signing up for a computer science class, or any other science class. But if women CHOOSE to not sign up for science classes, then feminists need to live with the result, which is that men will produce the majority of scientific advances.

  50. Doesn’t it strike you as vain and simply ridiculous that somebody could in all seriousness pose such a “what if” question as “central” to any branch of science? How much more useless and masturbatory does it get?

    Hee hee. As a computer science major, we spent ridiculous amounts of time reverse engineering from the “what if”. I’d say most of human advance is predicated on some wise-acre asking “what if”.

    Alexander, I’m one of those female comp sci students, and white to boot. Women don’t choose to sign up for science classes in part because they’ve spent their lives internalizing messages about their abilities. There was exactly no black people in any of my classes, as well. I had to do a shitload of emotional work to believe it was possible for me to program a computer. If I got a bad result, I blamed my ovaries.
    I did quite well, but it was very, very hard emotionally.

    It’s only been a very short period of history in which women have had the opportunity to not be pregnant constantly, and a short period of time in which we’ve been legal persons. Things’ll get better vis a vis registration, I think, if women become more visible.

    There are lots of women who’ve made contributions to Comp Sci, as well.

  51. I would disagree with the caricature of Victorian society being presented. Up until the early 19th century, British (and American) society was quite laissez faire in regards to sex. What we think of as Victorian prudery and double standards did not dominate until the mid-19th century. This was due to several reasons.

    One was the rise of the Women’s Purity Movement, which advocated modesty, sexual abstinence and the criminalizing of sex work and birth control. Women made the choice to create societal norms which abnegated the human body.

    There were the religious revivals of the century which emphasized puritanical mores and the concept that women were the “angel of the household”. Women chose to support these movements as they found themselves elevated on pedestals. There’s a passage in Bakunin somewhere where he fulminates about how the main barrier to radicalizing women was that women were too busy going to church.

    There was also the rise of the middle class (I mean in the American sense) where women decided to let hubby go to work while the wife stayed home and took care of the kids. This placed a premium on women who witheld sex until she got a man to promise her lifetime financial support.

    This all has to be related to such things as the rise of the temperance movement and women’s suffrage, all of which called for people to behave in a more restrained manner, and this included sexual repression as part of the deal.

  52. Women don’t choose to sign up for science classes in part because they’ve spent their lives internalizing messages about their abilities.

    1) What are these messages? Please give me some quotes.

    2) Are women that easy to brainwash that they believe whatever they are told?

    3) Here’s one solution: why don’t women’s studies departments start their own computer classes?

  53. Alexander, under my new thread drift policy,this sort of thing can get you banned. Only comments directly related to the topic of the post are permitted. The fact that others in the past have sent the thread a-driftin’ doesn’t mean I will permit it to continue to happen.

  54. I realize that, but I have permitted thread drift in the past — not anymore. New rules.

    Oh Well!

  55. Hugo, I really enjoy reading your thoughts, and in this case I agree 100%.

    Those who argue that plastic surgery allows ugly duckling women to capitulate to nature’s rules of attraction (which patriarchal standards just happen to reflect) are missing the point. Even assuming men are hard-wired to like large breasts, we are not apes. The natural order also dictates that if someone makes you angry enough to get your adrenaline flowing, you should beat them up. The natural order dictates that if you get cancer, you die. Clearly, we’re capable of using our brains to make conscious choices to better ourselves and our species.

    But are beauty standards the result of hard-wired biological programming? Look at Renaissance paintings of voluptuous nude women we would now send in for lipo. Look at how much varitation there is among body types worldwide. The standard we seem to have picked for women – skinny, but with a big bosom that doesn’t sag under its own weight – is virtually impossible in nature. So how exactly did men come by this biological programming to want it?

  56. Misogynistic?

    I’ve often heard it said – and overwhelmingly by women, say when we’re ready to go out and I’m insisting “You look FINE! Jeez, you look any better and we’ll never make it out of the house – “Women don’t dress for their men, they dress for other women.” (The most vocal proponent of which was my very feminist first wife.)

    How do you account for that in your theory?

    I heard it opined not to long ago that the repressed gay man in “Brokeback Mountain” was truly the most homophobic character portrayed in recent years on the screen – if it’s misogynistic, it seems that this is a case, much of the time, of female misogyny.

    I’m sure I could be dismissed as a weirdo, but I don’t think so. I don’t like grotesquely large breasts, and most the men (and a couple lesbians) I know who do are fetishistic about it. I don’t like the Kate Moss, Twelve year old androygnous anorexic boy look. Kate Jackson was the Charlie’s angel who made me wake up with wet dreams when I was an adolescent. Easily – EASILY – ninety percent of the men I know regard “The Model Look” as an illusion, and such women as probably shallow and not worth the high-maintainence they would be. Until the extra weight starts translating into obesity, with double chins, rolls, and jowls, it really doesn’t bother me, or most men I know. Small breasts? Not an issue.

    Like a great deal of Amp’s infamous “privilege checklist” I find a great deal of those expectations to be self-inflicted, and unnecessarily so, and number this among them.

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