Monday, 4 August 2008

we're more than boobs

i'm not conflicted at all about boobs on bikes. i hate it. i hate the emphasis on women as only breasts or sexual beings. i hate the implication that big breasts are what make women attractive. sorry all you small-breasted women, you just don't cut it. best you spend thousands of dollars of your hard-earned money on a surgical procedure, mutilating your body, just so you can feel good about yourself.

it amazes me that we can recognise female genital mutilation as the horror it is, but not not see breast implants in the same way. ok, i accept there are some major issues around FGM like the lack of consent, and unhygenic operations conducted by unqualified women that lead to horrendous health problems. but let's say the operations were done in sanitised hospitals, and the women consented to having their genetalia surgically modified because that would help their confidence and sense of self-worth. would that be ok?

i know it wouldn't be ok with me. i'd say we should be working on changing the culture, so that those women feel comfortable with their bodies in their natural form. and so that they also get a sense of self-worth from the other aspects of their being - their academic achievements, their creative achievements, etc etc.

so why would we shy away from doing that here, in this country? why do we accept a situation where it has become common for women to surgically modify their bodies in a way that may cause long-term pain or interfere with the natural functioning of their bodies? it has become so acceptable that the latest lotto ad now has the woman saying she would use her winnings to get a boob job. not buy herself a nice new car, some expensive jewellery, a cool new piece of technology or even donating it to her favourite charity. nope. her aspiration is to spend it on cosmetic surgery. how many men would answer in the same way? not too many i'd suggest.

we are supposed to accept boobs on bikes because women are making informed decisions and are willing participants in their own objectification. and why shouldn't they be? they receive a lot of positive attention, and can make a lot of money. the fact that their male employers make much more doesn't worry them, as long as they can live comfortably.

we should care. because it affects us all. as an example, i found this piece of research from this blog (thanx to the carnival of feminists), which shows the impact of sexist humour on the men exposed to it:

... researchers showed a selection of video clips of sexist or non-sexist comedy skits to a group of male participants. In the sexist humor setting, four of the clips contained humor depicting women in stereotypical or demeaning roles, while the fifth clip was neutral. The men were then asked to participate in a project designed to determine how funding cuts should be allocated among select student organizations.

“We found that, upon exposure to sexist humor, men higher in sexism discriminated against women by allocating larger funding cuts to a women’s organization than they did to other organizations,” Ford said. “We also found that, in the presence of sexist humor, participants believed the other participants would approve of the funding cuts to women’s organizations. We believe this shows that humorous disparagement creates the perception of a shared standard of tolerance of discrimination that may guide behavior when people believe others feel the same way.”

then there were the findings from research on hate speech which i came across a few years ago:

Mari Matsuda at the University of California, and Richard Delago of the University of Colarado* conducted research on the effects of racist hate speech. They found that hate speech had the effect of limiting the personal liberty of the victims. This results from victims beginning to view all dominant group members with suspicion, thus placing limits on their ability to maintain broad support networks, and circumscribing possibilities to form and maintain personal relationships. The victims may restrict personal freedom to avoid recurrence of hate speech acts or confrontation with actual or potential hate speakers. This latter may involve resigning from a job, leaving an educational institute, moving house and/or avoiding public places. Victims come to believe that violent acts of racial hatred are often preceded by speech acts of racist hatred.

The researchers also found that, despite conscious attempts to resist the messages, racist hate speech acts are capable of planting the idea in the minds of all hearers that racial inferiority may hold some truth (Greenberg & Pyszcynski).

this implication i take from this, when taken in the context of boobs on bikes, is that it's very difficult to objectify women in one situation then treat them as equals in another. the objectification is likely to have a lasting impact, even when you are consciously aware of what is happening.

one of the interesting things about hate speech is that it tends to silence the victims. they become increasingly unable to speak back. again i see a parallel here. i find many women are hesitant to speak out against objectification, even though i suspect they feel deeply uncomfortable about it. part of the hesistancy comes from the pretty nasty backlash that comes from speaking out (of the "hairy-legged feminist" or "jealous small-breasted women" variety). another parts comes from not wanting to tell other women what to do, not wanting to be judgemental.

that doesn't hold with me. i'm judgemental. i make judgements all the time as to what is acceptable and what isn't. so do you. everyone does. we all have our boundaries or limits. while i can't impose my boundaries on anyone else, i can at least articulate them and my reasons for adhering to them in the hope that it will have some impact. it doesn't mean i disrespect the women who take part in this event. it means i disagree with their decision, and i hate the cultural set-up that gives rise to the objectification of women in this way. i hate that we live in a society where they feel they are better off participating.

maybe i can't change anything, but i can at least say what i believe without feeling conflicted about it.

*All research cited was taken from the following publications: "Speaking Back: the Free Speech Versus Hate Speech Debate", Katharine Gelber, University of New South Wales, 2002; and "Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment", Mari J Matsuda, Charles r Lawrence, Richard Delgado, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw; 1993.


Hugh said...

let's say the operations were done in sanitised hospitals, and the women consented to having their genetalia surgically modified because that would help their confidence and sense of self-worth. would that be ok?

Isn't that basically what genital piercing is?

ms poinsettia said...

Great post. I too am very uncomfortable with the tendency to shy away from critiquing something for fear of offending women involved. We have to be able to distinguish a critique on a cultural level from a personal attack. And like you, I'm unequivocal in opposing BoB.

stargazer said...

no, hugh, FGM in it's most extreme form affects the ability for women to have sexual pleasure by removing the clitoris. it may also affect the ability to urinate and has life-long health impacts (including a lot of pain).

similarly, breast implants can lead to chronic back pain and can affect a women's ability to breastfeed her children.

i don't know anything about genital piercing, but i suspect it wouldn't have the same consequences. if it did, then i would be against that too as a cosmetic measure.

Hugh said...

Would you also be against a woman taking up smoking? I'd say the health consequences of smoking are worse than getting breast implants, and the benefits to the woman are similarly ephemeral.

I realise that I may seem like I'm comparing apples and oranges, and that breast implants are a separate issue to boobs on bikes. But I think you're potentially heading down a slippery slope by saying you're opposed to any cosmetic measures that have adverse health effects for the woman indulging in them. Isn't the principle 'her body, her choice' operative here?

stargazer said...

as long as her choice doesn't impact others, that would be an argument.

but my issue is more with the cultural environment created with this event than the choices of individual women.

ms poinsettia said...


It seems like you're boiling the issue down to individual choice, which is a really limited way to analyse comsmetic procedures. The choice to get implants may be an individual woman's, but where does the impetus come from? From a society that tells women that their natural bodies are not good enough, not sexy enough.

I think women get implants because there are benefits to doing so - women who are seen as more attractive get more societal approval and I think studies have shown they are more likely to be successful at getting jobs/getting paid more. However, there can also be serious consequences and the fact that our society values a woman adhering to unnatural beauty standards at the risk of natural functions such as breastfeeding points to the similarity with FGM, in which a woman adheres to particular customs of womanhood at the risk of natural functions such as urinating and sexual pleasure.

And no, breast implants are not comparable to smoking. A habitual behaviour common to both genders, albeit with longterm health risks, cannot be compared to invasive cosmetic surgeries with potentially serious health consequences undertaken predominantly by women in response to overwhelming social pressures about appearance.

I think its perfectly acceptable to be personally opposed to harmful cosmetic procedures. Women will probably still choose to do them in this culture but someone needs to be saying 'hang on, this makes a lot of money for surgeons but it can be harmful, it's not necessary.' Boiling everything down to personal choice seems to suggest that we can't critique our culture at all. And we need to, cosmetic surgery is a business which requires constantly trying to drum up more business which means making women ashamed of more and more parts of their body. Hence the emergence of 'vaginal rejuvenation' - which just this week was condemned in the media by professionals as dangerous. Yet if we accept that all cosmetic modification is fine as long as it is a personal choice and we have unreal images of women in the media, porn etc, this procedure will take off too (as I hear it has done in the US).

Anna McM said...

Completely agree stargazer - it's easy to let the individual agency stuff overshadow the greater cultural issues. As Miss P says, it's vital to retain the ability to make those larger cultural critiques. The individualist turn which has made those sort of critiques less popular (because they impinge on people's personal agency) really worry me - I see it as backlash, in fact.

Anna McM said...

It's disrespectful to Chinese women to directly compare boob jobs with foot binding, but it is interesting to note that when the communists tried to outlaw the practice, much of the opposition they met with was from women. Women were afraid that if they didn't bind their daughters' feet, the girls would be unmarriageable - something even worse than having their bodies painfully disfigured. So footbinding was really a concession to a shitty misogynist culture, made to avoid an even more harmful cultural sanction. That much should sound familiar.