Maybe if the augmentation is a hammer for smashing patriarchy?
May 15, 2017 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Is there a feminist case for breast augmentation or other cosmetic surgeries? ISO reading recommendations.

I had a heated discussion with a friend the other day about cosmetic surgery. Breast augmentation was the example--purely cosmetic, not reconstructive or related to gender identity or reduction to reduce pain/discomfort. I said I thought it was sad that healthy women felt so much pressure to be perfect, and individuals may be free from emotional abuse from their partners but because of the cultural sewage we are all swimming in it's hardly a free choice. She was offended that I would even speculate about a hypothetical woman's motivation for getting breast augmentation, said repeatedly "it's her choice" and "you're judging". This was sparked by an article about cosmetic surgery rates among Utah women, with reasons such as "I've had all my children, and now I need to fix my body".

This exchange did not change my mind in the slightest but now I'm curious about writing that might. I'm looking for explicitly feminist or otherwise pro-woman perspectives on why cosmetic surgery with the exclusions above is empowering or beneficial beyond the obvious rewards of increased attractiveness, especially if written by a self-identified feminist who has had cosmetic surgery or otherwise worked through ambivalence on the subject. I'm interested in essays, blogs, and articles and I have access to an academic library, though I do not have the scholarly chops to read anything too dense. I haven't read much feminist nonfiction (e.g. The Beauty Myth) and I'm interested in books too, either with an explicitly feminist slant, or sufficiently compelling otherwise. (We're in a book group so why have one awkward conversation when you can have two!)
posted by esoterrica to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think the thing might be to tease apart your idea that augmentation is for "the rewards fof increased attractiveness" rather than "enhanced self-perception." I do not have breast augmentation but have no trouble supporting women who, for whatever reason, feel that they would be more who they are, in their own skin, with a different physical profile than the one they were assigned at birth than I do supporting women who want to change their birth-assigned gender, their nose, their clothes, their haircut, the natural hair on their legs or upper lip, their makeup, or anything else.

There are certainly patriarchal reasons that some women pursue cosmetic surgery (though you're not in a great position to evaluate how much of their reasoning is patriarchally reactive); but at the same time, if you really and truly believe that women are the best authorities on what is best for them and what will improve their happiness, it does mean you have to stop adopting the role of judge of whatever other women choose to do with their bodies, their time, and their money.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on May 15 [22 favorites]

Also, this topic is easily Googled - here are a couple fast results:

Can You Be A Feminist with a Boob Job? I Am
I'm a Feminist and I Got Breast Implants
posted by Miko at 8:12 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I assume that by "related to gender identity" you're talking about trans women, but in some ways that is a strange exclusion/differentiation to make. If a woman has small breasts and feels like larger breasts would be more congruent with her gender identity, why does it matter if she is cis or trans?
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:21 PM on May 15 [25 favorites]

A consequentialist argument might be that a breast augmentation is justified if a woman feels she needs to address an intractable and deeply felt insecurity that's not easily approached by rationality (as self-esteem and self-perception are - noting that patriarchy runs deep) in order to free her mind of it enough that she can devote her energy to efforts that further feminism in ways that are more directly or widely impactful in foreseeable ways.

Say there's a policy maker who for whatever personal reasons cannot get over the feeling that the size or shape of her breasts are uncomfortable or inadequate or displeasing to her, to the degree that it consumes an inordinate amount of mental energy, and affects her ability to fully engage with both her own self-image and intimate relationships with partners [which might affect her overall sense of happiness, relatedness, etc]. Big whoop, she gets a boob job. She's happier with her appearance, freer with partners & can establish intimacy more easily as a result, (unrelated or maybe not) spends more mental energy on policy (or just feels more centred in her dealings with others in general).

Some things to remember are that a) breast augmentation has the highest satisfaction rate of all cosmetic surgeries - and lots of people get them and stop there, and b) breasts are really changeable in shape and size. Pregnancy and weight gain or loss can affect them in dramatic ways. Insisting that someone's body be a daily locus of political contention and anxiety for the sake of political purity might be a lot to ask and might not be super empathetic. (And I've noticed that a lot of the major "natural body" purists are men or *young* women who haven't faced related issues themselves.)

People need to get by. Feeling all right about how you look is a universal human concern, across ages, irrespective of ideology or society. Grooming is a universal, so is societies having *some* kind of beauty standard. In this instance, patriarchy is informing the norm and concern, and it's inordinately and punitively focused on women, to be sure. Bu a woman can arguably be aware of that fact, and consciously make a little concession on this front so that she can feel like a more grounded, self-reconciled person, and maybe do more in the larger scheme of things.

Also - it's rare to find people who use *no* art, device, or means of signification to improve their appearance or communicate something about themselves to themselves or others. Do you get a particular hairstyle out of preference? Wear makeup? Prefer one watch to another? That's you constructing yourself, and it never happens in a vacuum. Breast augmentation can be thought of as just another kind of self-construction. (Doesn't come without greater risks than a haircut, for sure. But it's apparently not a complicated surgery; many surgeons are practiced in it so risk is minimized to a degree; and plenty of women do it and are fine. I'm just making the case, here, not saying anything beyond that.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:43 PM on May 15 [15 favorites]

(The long-term tradeoff is that she's perpetuating and reinforcing oppressive norms affecting other women around her, on this front. I guess that would have to be weighed against the impact of her particular work and larger role in society. [On the consequentialist/utilitarian tip.])
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:49 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]

This seems like an extension of the make up question to me and that's been a hot topic for years, i.e., easy to find multiple feminists' slants on the subject.
posted by she's not there at 9:00 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

A big part of feminism is acknowledging the ways patriarchy shapes and informs our daily interactions as members of a society, and taking them into account in one's actions. There's plenty of evidence that people who conform more closely to the body shapes enforced by patriarchal culture get paid more, are viewed as more credible, etc., so if somebody thinks cosmetic surgery will allow them to move more easily through this patriarchal world in order to advance toward goals of liberation, they should go for it.

It's a bit like driving a car to a protest against the oil companies—the relationships between the ends and the means is mediated by the circumstances of the system.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:35 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]

“When I was 26, I went to Indonesia and the Philippines to do research for my first book, No Logo. I had a simple goal: to meet the workers making the clothes and electronics that my friends and I purchased. And I did. I spent evenings on concrete floors in squalid dorm rooms where teenage girls—sweet and giggly—spent their scarce nonworking hours. Eight or even 10 to a room. They told me stories about not being able to leave their machines to pee. About bosses who hit. About not having enough money to buy dried fish to go with their rice.

They knew they were being badly exploited—that the garments they were making were being sold for more than they would make in a month. One 17-year-old said to me: “We make computers, but we don’t know how to use them.”

So one thing I found slightly jarring was that some of these same workers wore clothing festooned with knockoff trademarks of the very multinationals that were responsible for these conditions: Disney characters or Nike check marks. At one point, I asked a local labor organizer about this. Wasn’t it strange—a contradiction?

It took a very long time for him to understand the question. When he finally did, he looked at me like I was nuts. You see, for him and his colleagues, individual consumption wasn’t considered to be in the realm of politics at all. Power rested not in what you did as one person, but what you did as many people, as one part of a large, organized, and focused movement. For him, this meant organizing workers to go on strike for better conditions, and eventually it meant winning the right to unionize. What you ate for lunch or happened to be wearing was of absolutely no concern whatsoever.

This was striking to me, because it was the mirror opposite of my culture back home in Canada. Where I came from, you expressed your political beliefs—firstly and very often lastly—through personal lifestyle choices. By loudly proclaiming your vegetarianism. By shopping fair trade and local and boycotting big, evil brands.

These very different understandings of social change came up again and again a couple of years later, once my book came out. I would give talks about the need for international protections for the right to unionize. About the need to change our global trading system so it didn’t encourage a race to the bottom. And yet at the end of those talks, the first question from the audience was: “What kind of sneakers are OK to buy?” “What brands are ethical?” “Where do you buy your clothes?” “What can I do, as an individual, to change the world?”

Fifteen years after I published No Logo, I still find myself facing very similar questions. These days, I give talks about how the same economic model that superpowered multinationals to seek out cheap labor in Indonesia and China also supercharged global greenhouse-gas emissions. And, invariably, the hand goes up: “Tell me what I can do as an individual.” Or maybe “as a business owner.”

The hard truth is that the answer to the question “What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?” is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts. We can only meet this tremendous challenge together. As part of a massive and organized global movement.

The irony is that people with relatively little power tend to understand this far better than those with a great deal more power. The workers I met in Indonesia and the Philippines knew all too well that governments and corporations did not value their voice or even their lives as individuals. And because of this, they were driven to act not only together, but to act on a rather large political canvas. To try to change the policies in factories that employ thousands of workers, or in export zones that employ tens of thousands. Or the labor laws in an entire country of millions. Their sense of individual powerlessness pushed them to be politically ambitious, to demand structural changes.

In contrast, here in wealthy countries, we are told how powerful we are as individuals all the time. As consumers. Even individual activists. And the result is that, despite our power and privilege, we often end up acting on canvases that are unnecessarily small—the canvas of our own lifestyle, or maybe our neighborhood or town. Meanwhile, we abandon the structural changes—the policy and legal work— to others.”

-- Naomi Klein.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:22 AM on May 16 [75 favorites]

There is an entire feedback loop of industry, mostly marketed to the same target audience of economically comfortable white women, that attempts to place concerns about patriarchal beauty standards at the very top of the heirarchy of feminist issues. Three big pillars of this loop are:

-- women's beauty magazines
-- the diet industry
-- pop feminism like Tina Fey that insists that the erosion of self esteem brought on by the first two are the biggest issue women in the US face, and the battlefield on which all other feminist issues must be fought by proxy. Eg, Beyonce may be openly criticizing police violence against black people and showcasing black feminist writers, but she sexually objectifies herself/is in compliance with heteronormative beaty standards, so how can she be a REAL feminist?

These pop industries based on appearance and self-esteem focused obsession and solipsism, as that obsession cycles back and forth through shame to compliance to liberation through "empowerment," are a complete economic ecosystem. All these industries sustain each other and are a powerful and deeply profitable cultural force that distracts women from engaging in real political or feminist work. This should not be a mystery that you need a jstor article to figure out.

If you want to try to pop this bubble, "white feminism" paired with words or phrases like "beauty industry" or "empowerment" or "Lena Dunham" are a good set of google terms to get you started.

Around 10 years ago, a fellow nerdy friend and I were talking about compulsory femininity and feminism. We both grew up chafing at gender and were both stuck on a photo of a woman who made us both uncomfortable. She was bottle blonde, had a full face of makeup and obvious cosmetic work, a boob job, clear heels. "It's just," said my friend, raised 2nd wave feminist like me, "that's the kind of woman it's okay to hate." Seeing that line typed out and made real was a game changer for both of us. It might be a worthwhile question for you to ask yourself: What kind of woman, based on her presentation alone, is it OK to hate? It's true: a lot of the time it's fun and satisfying to be childishly hateful, to be petty and judgmental. Sometimes, judging others as less pure than yourself feels good. The cliquey urge to sneer at someone else's lifestyle or dress sense feels good. Gossip is a fun activity, up to a point, until it becomes destructive. How destructive was this conversation to your friend, who seems to have been backed into a defensive corner and pretty emotionally affected by it? What is the net value, as a feminist act, of hurting her in the name of feminism and then cheerfully coming to the green to announce that your friend's hurt did not affect you "in the slightest"? What is the "pro-woman" interpretation of you telling Metafilter that you have zero respect for either your female friends' feelings or her argument, but are open to peer-reviewed articles that might legitimize her point of view? Mixing petty judgements with political ideology can give you a powerful high, but it may be worthwhile to step back and ask yourself: who does it feel good to dismiss as inferior and sad? Mormon housewives? My friends? Who have I told myself it's OK to hate?
posted by moonlight on vermont at 3:35 AM on May 16 [27 favorites]

When I was a in my early 20s my best friend criticized women who shaved their legs. As a dark-haired, hairy women this pissed me off because she had fine, blonde hair that you could barely see. Easy for her to say! At the same time I, a larger-breasted woman, was critical of women who had boob jobs. I eventually saw the hipocracy in this, and decided to change the way I personally respond to these individual women, even if I believe there are all larger societal issues that need to be changed. With all the problems and disadvantages women face, I just can't hold individual women personally responsible for doing what makes them feel good or helps them in some other way.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:53 AM on May 16 [10 favorites]

Honestly, almost everything women do in terms of "looking good", from wearing makeup to shaving our legs, can be said to be because of the patriarchy. And that's true to an extent. But it's also true that we have agency and like expressing ourselves and sometimes wearing makeup, high heels, tight clothing, etc, is about expressing who we are and feeling good. Breast augmentation is not really any different. Maybe it's also about the patriarchy. But because we live in a patriarchal society it's not really possible to separate choice/expression from that, and every woman has a right to make their own choices about their appearance and body- that's feminist.
posted by bearette at 7:03 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]

I've come to believe that there is not good woman who is not a dead woman. In so many of these circular arguments we have about women and their "choices" it often seems to me that the only way a woman could satisfy all these requirements and be judgement-free is if she somehow winds up dead.

I am a feminist. I am also married and a mother and I wear some makeup almost every day. I work for myself in large part so that I can be home with my kid after school and help make the domestic side of our lives run smoothly. I could not currently afford our lifestyle without the support of my husband who has never had trouble getting a job and makes a nice though not extravagant living. Am I really a feminist given all these "choices" I've made?

I think as individuals, we are right to question the "choices" we are making. But sometimes, you just have to do the expedient thing, the easy thing because that's just what you've got to do. What's more feminist? Throwing myself into a corporate environment which under-rewards me as a woman from the start, working long hours and hiring out my domestic chores? Or, staying home with my kid full-time and managing the house? (I'm tempted to defend how much my husband does as well but that detracts from my point!)

I can make a "choice" as an individual which at the micro level doesn't present as very feminist while still being a supporter of feminism in the aggregate. I feel that we actually have more choices than we've ever had, women have more buying power than they've ever had, our kids have more freedom from gender constraints than we've ever had but we are all still swimming in the culture. And the current is so strong and the playing field is not level.

Which is more feminist? Increasing your boobs or reducing your boobs?

It's too silly a question to waste our feminist energy and advocacy on. Hey, you can feel judgemental on a personal level because that just happens but giving your personal judgements too much weight starts to detract from the kind of advocacy that Naomi Klein talks about above (that's a really great piece of writing - going to be thinking about that for awhile). Just remember: compassion is free. Sometimes certain issues make us uncomfortable and so we hold tight to our openness, afraid of what would happen if we let it in. The well of compassion is deep and you won't reach the bottom by giving it away.
posted by amanda at 8:24 AM on May 16 [6 favorites]

I’m not sure I understand why you think that the quote “I've had all my children, and now I need to fix my body” is so un-feminist. I’ve only had one kid and I tell myself (delude myself?) that when I finally have the opportunity to exercise regularly again that I will mostly regain my pre-pregnancy body. It doesn’t matter to anyone else. But I *miss* the body I lived in for most of my adult life. I’m sure that if I’d had multiple children I’d feel even more unlike “myself.”
posted by Kriesa at 8:29 AM on May 16

Thanks for the patient and insightful answers. *Not* criticizing individuals for their choices as it's none of my business was at the top of my mind at the time but was not my opening statement, to obvious detriment. Starting with compassion is always wise and I will strive for this in the future. I'm still interested in reading recommendations, but otherwise this question is excellently answered.
posted by esoterrica at 12:57 PM on May 16

So what if they are getting boob jobs for men's approval? Does that make them less worthy of respect?
posted by divabat at 8:43 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Was thinking about this thread while swimming today and when it comes right down to it, the real feminist affront here is the fact that there is an article for public consumption about what some people, some of whom are women, are doing to their bodies so that we can be entertained by our outrage and judgement with a side-order of, "Ladies, are you really measuring up?" It's great! Lucrative! Sells eyeballs, gets clicks, sparks moments of outrage, divides us, convinces us to spend more money conforming to the invisible hand of the market, a very patriarchal hand that demands so much of us. Don't fall for it. Double birds to that shit.
posted by amanda at 9:29 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]

On a practical level, women with breasts that are pendulous or tuberous in shape as well as women with one breast that is smaller than the other can feel much more comfortable fitting into bras and under clothes after breast augmentation surgery.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:27 PM on May 19

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