#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 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.