The summer issue of Ms Magazine is on the shelves this week. I was raised on Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, and though it has gone through many transformations in the years since, it remains one of the indispensable serious reads for feminists and their allies.
One particularly noteworthy article is Extreme Makeover, Feminist Edition: How the pitch for cosmetic surgery co-opts feminism. Written by Jennifer Cognard-Black, it’s a superb and timely response to the increasingly common strategy of marketing plastic surgery to women under the guise of “empowerment”.
… the cosmetic surgery industry is doing exactly what the beauty
industry has done for years: Itâ€™s co-opting, repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed â€œconsumer feminism.â€
Under the dual slogans of possibility and choice, producers, promoters and providers are
selling elective surgery as self-determination.
Those who are eager to make a fortune out of women’s fear of growing older use the language of the pro-choice movement over and over again: “it’s your body, shouldn’t you be in charge of how it looks?” The precious right to be sovereign over one’s flesh becomes, in the hands of the beauty industry, the duty to battle against the onset of ageing. Feminists who critique cosmetic surgery are accused of inconsistency, of refusing to allow women the full range of “choices” to which they are entitled. Cognard-Black:
The word â€œchoiceâ€ obviously plays on reproductive-rights
connotations, so that consumers will trust that they are
maintaining autonomy over their bodies. Yet one choice
goes completely unmentioned: The choice not to consider
cosmetic surgery at all.
One of my first posts to attract a lot of attention appeared in April 2004: Surgery, Sex, and Shame. I compared liposuction to nineteenth-century clitoridectomies (which were done far more often in the USA than many realize). Excerpt from my post (not Cognard-Black’s article):
…clitoridectomies were regularly performed on young girls in America and England to cure them of what one doctor called â€œthe moral leprosyâ€ of female masturbation. 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 â€” with limited success â€” 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 Iâ€™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 â€œchoiceâ€ 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…
Feminists must be careful to walk a thin line — judging and condemning those women who do “choose” cosmetic surgery isn’t helpful, even if (as my use of quotation marks suggests) we are doubtful about the feminist authenticity of their “choice.” Our anger and our energy, rather, ought to be directed at those who repackage feminist language to market their wares. Feminism critiques the very standards of beauty that the cosmetic industry seeks to uphold; the surgeons offer women (at least the ones with money) the freedom to choose to alter their bodies to chase an ideal; feminists want women to have freedom from that very ideal.
…itâ€™s feminists who have emphatically and
persistently shown that cosmetic medicine exists because
sexism is powerfully linked with capitalismâ€”
keeping a woman worried about her looks in order to
stay attractive, keep a job or retain self-worth. To say
that a preoccupation with looks is â€œfeministâ€ is a cynical
misreading; feminists must instead insist that a furrowed,
â€œwiseâ€ browâ€”minus the fillersâ€”is the empowered
feminist face, both old and new.
Pick up the new issue of Ms. at your local newsstand, or better yet, subscribe. And visit these sites: