#FTF: Feminism 200 — Susan Bordo explains why it's more complex than 'doing whatever you want'

I recently decided to start using my Twitter account. Many of my friends and acquaintances found this puzzling given that a) I don’t otherwise have any masochistic tendencies and b) I’ve always found Facebook to be a sufficient medium for throwing pithy statements of around 140 characters out into the ether. Regardless, I thought it was my duty as a feminist with radical leanings to go down in flames with all the other women fighting postmodern madness.

In my brief time as an active Twitter user, I’ve noticed an irritating pattern… Dudes trying to explain to me that “women should be able to do whatever they want all the time” is a key component of this virtual Feminism 101 curriculum. Now, I’ve only recently gone back to college as, in my late teens and early twenties, I felt that any extended period of study was incompatible with my number one priority — moving out of my parents’ basement before the onset of menopause. However, I was always under the impression that once one finished 101 level courses, she or he went on to explore higher level courses like Feminism 201 or even Feminism 301 where she or he might just learn new insights or find new lenses for looking at 101 level materials. Let’s call this post, “Feminism 200: Susan Bordo explains why it’s more complex than ‘doing whatever you want.'”

In “Material Girl: Effacements of Postmodern Culture,” she begins by giving us a bit of context for her 1993 piece, describing the explosion of a new form of cutting edge technology: plastic surgery. She notes that between 1981 and 1989, plastic surgery procedures rose in America by 80 per cent and over half of those seeking cosmetic “enhancement” were between the ages of 18 and 35. Since 1989, to put the discussion into a contemporary context, the number of procedures in America went up by 2117 per cent. That’s over 22 times the original figure. While Canadian statistics on cosmetic surgery are sparse compared to our American counterparts (the global leader in number of procedures performed), the International Survey on Cosmetic Procedures Performed in 2011 gives us some unique insights into Plastic Surgery in Canada. For example, the most popular procedure in Canada — in contrast to the global favorite (liposuction) — is breast enlargement, which constitutes almost 25 per cent of all cosmetic surgeries. Unsurprisingly, 86 per cent of those seeking any kind of cosmetic surgery are women… I digress.

Bordo points out two trends in the discussion around plastic surgery that are still very much alive today. The first, she says, is the tendency for the general public to equate surgical procedures with fashion trends:

Of course, the rhetoric of choice and self-determination and the breezy analogies comparing cosmetic surgery to fashion accessorizing are deeply mystifying. They efface, not only the inequalities of privilege, money, and time that prohibit most people from indulging in these practices, but the desperation that characterizes the lives of those who do.

Clean and Dry "vagina lightener."
Clean and Dry “vagina lightener.”

She continues by highlighting the fact that, not only are cosmetic procedures (non-surgical included) practices reserved for the rich, they’re also often deeply racist (not to mention fat-shaming). She uses coloured contact lens commercials as an example in which women are instructed to hide that they have eyes “as brown as bark.” I’m personally reminded of the skin bleaching ad which inspired this article at Jezebel. The commercial has since been removed from the internet but here’s another one that’s almost as good.

Contrary to the neoliberal assertion that cosmetic procedures offer endless possibilities for women to uniquely express themselves, “one cannot have any body that one wants — for not every body will do.” It’s funny how everyone wants to express their inner uniqueness through a completely uniform image including a svelte physique with impossibly large breasts, wrinkle and blemish free (relatively light) skin, and a perky, round ass, isn’t it?

The second trend she identifies is “plastic discourse” — the tendency for academics and liberal feminists to label seemingly regressive/sexist practices, images, and meanings “empowering” (and beyond critique) when individual women choose to adopt them and use them for their own purposes. She argues that it can be difficult to engage in reasoned discussion around cultural/political constraints with people who have embraced “plastic discourse” as they believe that “dominating images and messages are only in the minds of those totalitarian critics who would condescendingly ‘rescue’ the disempowered from those forces that are, in fact, the very medium of their creative freedom and resistance” (quote by cultural critic John Fiske).

Sound familiar? Plastic surgery and non-surgical cosmetic procedures (much like prostitution, pornography, burlesque etc.) cannot be made “empowering” when we frame them as “our own” because we’re not really making them our own are we? We’re making our own into something entirely different, something very much lacking in diversity, something that simply wouldn’t exist without the shame we’ve absorbed from the pornography, diet, beauty, fitness, and even wellness industries. These capitalist industries profit from the fact that “our own” simply won’t do, and that “our own” (as defined by cosmetic surgery apologists) exists for the pleasure and approval of men.

What does Bordo suggest we do about it? She recommends that we “[recognize] the social contexts and consequences of images from popular culture, consequences that are frequently effaced in postmodern and other celebrations of ‘resistant’ elements in these images.”

In short, don’t be duped by the idea that objectifying images and practices are somehow subversive because an individual woman has made them “her own.” Should we make a habit of wagging our fingers at women who have gone through cosmetic procedures? Of course not. As feminists, our judgement is reserved for those who truly benefit from the existence of plastic surgery and plastic discourse: primarily the pornography, diet, fitness, and beauty industries.

Jess Martin
Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food.

In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.

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  • C.K. Egbert

    Jess and Meghan: I really appreciate this series that provides feminist theory people might not otherwise know exist or be able to access.

    If I may, I’d like to suggest another really great and clear article if/when you do another post, this time by Dr. Lori Watson (director of Women’s Studies at the University of San Diego) which addresses why “sex work” is not like “any other job”:
    http://logosjournal.com/2014/watson/

    • Meghan Murphy

      I appreciate it too! Thanks Jess (and thanks for your comment, C.K.)!

    • That is an amazing article. I had never considered the OHSA angle before.

      You know all of these arguments also apply to acting environments and the performing arts in general? Now I’m off to look up the equivalent Canadian legislation.

      • David

        I always assumed that if “sex work is work” then HIV and other STDs would be classified as “occupational diseases”. Any worker who contracted an occupational disease should be able to claim compensation.

        Two years ago, I asked a sex work organisation whether such a claim for compensation had ever been successfully made in any jurisdiction. The answer was no, as far as they were aware no such claim has ever even been attempted, anywhere.

  • one of the core components of liberation is seeing your body as a machine or a functional tool and not as a decorative thing or as an apology or as something that needs fixing over and over again. I believe that one of the things that is preventing women from seeing in this perspective is the frailty myth, or the belief that they are meant to be frail/sexualised decorative and not power machines, when women athletes are proving this notion wrong.

  • Anna

    “It’s funny how everyone wants to express their inner uniqueness through a completely uniform image including a svelte physique with impossibly large breasts, wrinkle and blemish free (relatively light) skin, and a perky, round ass, isn’t it?”

    SHHHHHHHHHHH
    too much truth
    can’t handle
    head may explode

    “We’re making our own into something… that simply wouldn’t exist without the shame we’ve absorbed from the pornography, diet, beauty, fitness, and even wellness industries.”

    TRUTH OVERLOAD
    ABORT READING!! ABORT THINKING!!! *brain shuts off*

    I choose my choice I CHOOSE MY CHOICE!!

  • I’m glad you mentioned COSMETIC surgery, as such an increase in PLASTIC surgery would have been a great boon for humankind, if all the people who have been born deformed or maimed by war, “accidents” (as if car and industrial damage to humans were “accidents”), diseases and misogynist practices such as throwing acid or hot oil at wayward women could recover a normal human appearance that doesn’t scare others or force their victims into seclusion. A friend who is one of those humanitarian emergency surgeons said his colleagues who correct wrinkles or other normal and not frightening phenomena should be sentenced to working in a war zone.

  • Dana

    “It’s funny how everyone wants to express their inner uniqueness through a completely uniform image including a svelte physique with impossibly large breasts, wrinkle and blemish free (relatively light) skin, and a perky, round ass, isn’t it?”

    Or by all wearing very similar outfits. Or by some significant number “choosing” to (1) shave; (2) wear makeup; (3) deform their feet in high heels; (4) strip or take up prostitution; (5) watch porn with boyfriends/husbands.

    I don’t ever hear mainstream pomo neoliberal funfeminists praising the opposite of the above choices as “being uniquely yourself” and “choosing your choices”. You’re only choosing your choices if you’re doing what the patriarchy wants you to do.

    (Hell, you could even say this about reproductive choosy-choices. I’m convinced that center-to-leftist men only want abortion legal because it gets them out of child support. Well, maybe they care more about the health angle later when it affects a woman they PERSONALLY KNOW, meaning her maiming or death would inconvenience them in some way, like making them feel unpleasant feelings, but until then I mean.)

    • “Or by all wearing very similar outfits. Or by some significant number “choosing” to (1) shave; (2) wear makeup; (3) deform their feet in high heels; (4) strip or take up prostitution; (5) watch porn with boyfriends/husbands.”

      (6) Get a bunch of piercings and tattoos (somehow a body built from a highly complex and specific specific genetic code is not “unique”, but a piece of metal or a tattoo available to anyone with money and permissive partents is)

      (7) Dress up like princesses, fairies and ballerinas (in the case of children.) Three costumes that barely look different form each other and promote the same values.

      One time my neice was going to get her face printed and the woman doing the painting asked her if she wanted to be a princess or a fairy, as if those were her only options. I swear pre-school and early primary school aged girls all seem like clones of each other nowadays. I guess this is what capitalist “individuality” looks like.

      I wonder how the people promoting these ultra-feminine roles in the name of “individuality”, would feel if there was a society where girls could choose between dressing up as revolutionaries or guerilla fighters. Those options are about as diverse as the options offered by our culture and far less likely to damage girls’ self-esteem in the long run.

      “You’re only choosing your choices if you’re doing what the patriarchy wants you to do.”

      And generating profit for corporations, don’t forget that part.

      “Hell, you could even say this about reproductive choosy-choices. I’m convinced that center-to-leftist men only want abortion legal because it gets them out of child support.”

      A liberal endorsing a practice that involves defyining femininity (specifically, the belief that marriage and babies make a woman complete) and prevents a woman from vomiting, experiencing physical pain and putting their bodies at risk? Haha, yeah right.

      In the eyes of liberals and moderate leftist men, abortion (whoops I mean “reproductive rights”) is the worst thing ever (or at least the complex, difficult and agnosing decision a woman has ever had to make), but should still be legal in case a woman is raped, abused, in danger of dying, desperately impoverished, etc. How about women who just *gasp*, don’t want (more) biological children? Who don’t find pain and vomiting, followed by more pain and staying awake all night from constant crying sexy or fun? Isn’t that a valid reason to have an abortion, a procedure which is generally safer and less painful than keeping the fetus? The way I see it, abortions are awesome and you shouldn’t have to be super poor and oppressed to get one and have liberals see it as legitimate. Pregnancy is an unfortunate necessity (for the human race, not for any specific woman.)

      As for why men endorse legalising abortion, in addition to legitimate motives (e.g. not wanting women to suffer as a result of unwanted pregnancies, respecting women’s right to defy femininity, wanting women to be able to participate fully in society, recognising that a fetus is not a human and thus there is no reason to oppose abortion in the first place), men may want to legalise abortion for the following motives.

      (1) They think the fear of unwanted pregnancy is the only thing holding women back from having a tonne of casual sex, thus enabling more men to get laid, (2) they blindly go along with whatever stance their party or political movement takes, (3) the blindly endorse the view that “a woman can do what she wants with her body”, (4) they want to make sure that the anything-goes principle is never violated so that they can drink, smoke, do drugs and watch hard-core pornography without criticism.

  • lizor

    I apologize ahead of time if I’m missing something obvious, but is there a particular Susan Bordo essay or book that’s being quoted? I’m interested in reading the source but can’t seem to figure out how to access it.

    Thanks. 🙂

    • Meghan Murphy

      Hey lizor! Just asked Jess the same thing — it’s “Material Girl: Effacements of Postmodern Culture” — will link to in the article as well. Sorry about that!

      • lizor

        Thanks! Finally got the time to read it. What a powerful and clarifying piece. Amazing that it is 25 years old – that such a rational critique should have been around for so long and remain so marginalized. Sigh.

  • Non-PC RadFem

    “How about women who just *gasp*, don’t want (more) biological children? Who don’t find pain and vomiting, followed by more pain and staying awake all night from constant crying sexy or fun? Isn’t that a valid reason to have an abortion, a procedure which is generally safer and less painful than keeping the fetus? The way I see it, abortions are awesome and you shouldn’t have to be super poor and oppressed to get one and have liberals see it as legitimate.”

    Amen sister!

    I’ve been asked, when applying for the procedure, I kid you not: reasons for termination. I’ve just replied; I don’t want it (meaning the fetus of course). The nurse gave me a nasty look and said; that’s not a valid reason, you’ll have to give me another. I felt like stabbing her in the eye at that point. How dare she? I mean; I understand there might be ‘legal’ reasons why she must tick the right box on the paper work or whatever, but it’s the whole patronizing thing that is just wrong. ‘I don’t want the blood-sucking parasite’ should be just as valid as any other reason. Period.

    Imagine if you’d be asked a similar question by a surgeon before removing a tumor and then it‘s up to him to judge if that‘s a good reason or not…

    Ireland just voted on a public referendum for Gay Marriage, the yes campaign won by 60 odd percent and now they’re all patting themselves in the back at how ‘progressive’ Irish society has become. Yet, abortion is still illegal and remains a political hot-potato for any party to even consider touching.

    Because you see, getting married is far more of an important issue than women’s physical, mental AND economic health.

    I’m not for, nor against gay marriage – I’m sorry, but I’m just utterly indifferent about it, so sue me! I just happen to think women’s rights are far more crucial than marriage rights, gay or otherwise.

    Gay equal rights have been used by the phony left, in pretty much all Western countries, to avoid talking about the real political issues a true left should be discussing; lack of jobs, declining wages, diminishing worker’s rights, the dismantling of social safety nets, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the rise of fascist corporatism (etc).

    Once Gay Marriage is instituted, then comes the other ridiculous debates; should they be able to adopt/foster children? In the case of gay men; do you enable them access to women’s wombs via surrogacy? And on and on the whole distraction tactics away from more pressing issues will continue.

    • Meghan Murphy

      With you, 100 per cent, sister. I’m not for marriage, in general. We should be working to ensure rights for everyone, regardless of whether or not they marry. Marriage is not a progressive institution and women’s actual lives are at stake when abortion is illegal. Are women’s lives less important than the right to have a fucking wedding?? (For the record, I of course believe that so long as heterosexual couple are allowed to marry, gay couples should be able to as well — I just wish society weren’t set up in a way that granted rights to the marrieds and forced us to define ourselves and our lives within this regressive, patriarchal, COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY institution. )

      • Non-PC RadFem

        “Are women’s lives less important than the right to have a fucking wedding??”

        ^ Please, can I have that printed on a T-shirt? 🙂

        That is precisely – almost word for word – the way I synthesized both subjects in my mind as soon as I heard the news from the Irish referendum results.
        While I’m happy for my Irish lesbian sisters… on the other hand; I’m livid about how women’s bodily sovereignty is yet again; ignored, overlooked and pushed to the back of the political agenda queue…

        Many thanks for your response Meghan, it’s quite comforting, at least, for me it is.