Januaries has, in a series of provocative comments here, and a post, been attempting to find her way into the density of the theoretical approaches usually found on this blog. She also had some wonderings, some questions and some thoughts about cosmetic surgery… and it occurs to me that I haven’t stepped into this particular minefield, and perhaps it is time…

In general, I take the possibly somewhat uncharitable position that previous thought about cosmetic surgery, particularly that from feminists, has tended to leave us trapped in a corner. This isn’t their fault, or at least not directly, and it’s not a lack, precisely, that produces this. It’s more, I think, that they are too swiftly trying to find an answer, to take a stand, and tend to all too quickly cover over the ambiguities, uncertainties, the unresolvabilities of the question of cosmetic surgery, without dwelling with them a while. Indeed, I suspect that part of the problem is not enough theory, but then, I would think that, wouldn’t I? ;-P

To sketch the vague outlines of an impasse: the major figures in these kinds of questions tend to be Kathryn Pauly Morgan, infamous for suggesting the use of cosmetic surgery towards uglification – the production of wrinkles, the deliberate surgical sagging of breasts and so on; the perhaps equally infamous but far less rigorous Sheila Jeffries, who stands against all ‘beautification’ techniques, arguing them to be mutilations; Kathy Davis, whose qualitative research helped to get at the centrality (questionable, certainly, but intriguing nonetheless) of the experience of suffering to women’s seeking out of cosmetic surgery; and of course, Susan Bordo, whose work on physical appearance and its relation to feminism and women’s rights is thorough, considered and interesting. There are of course other contributors to this debate: some come from a non-mainstream bod mod perspective, like Karmen McKendrick, who argues that cosmetic surgery ought not to be done because it does not seduce and trouble the gaze of the other (which some might say is kinda the point for some people!) Others tend to approach it from a rampantly bioethical position, like Art Frank, who compares cosmetic surgery to other ‘proper’ surgeries such as limb-lengthening surgery, cranio-facial reconstructive surgery and so on, and decides that those who seek cosmetic surgery aren’t really suffering, but experiencing ‘an inflation in the language of pain.’ I go to town on this latter claim in the thesis, as you can probably guess..

But it is Susan Bordo and Kathy Davis who provide the best demonstration of the impasse at which feminism finds itself in relation to cosmetic surgery. Kathy Davis interviewed numerous Dutch women about their application for cosmetic surgery, and was present during their discussion with a government-paid doctor in which they argued their case for having the State pay for their surgery. Over and again, Davis was struck by the extent to which the word suffering arose. Some have suggested that the bureaucracy involved in the State’s financing meant that women had to claim to suffer. This, doubtless, is accurate to some degree. But I have questions about the implied lack of sincerity of these women; and more specifically, I have serious questions about the assumption that these bureaucracies do not come to inflect and (amongst other factors) construct the experience of women seeking cosmetic surgery. Indeed, there have been some analyses of cosmetic surgery brochures, which coach women in the ‘proper’ way of thinking about surgery in order that they are ‘good’ patients (that is, are satisfied with the outcome; ‘bad’ patients, interestingly, are never the fault of the surgeon, but the fault of unrealistic expectations) and can argue their case in ways that surgeons can accept. Of course, the language of these brochures circulates more broadly, and tends to emphasise ideas like individuality, freedom, and the famous and rather curious ‘becoming who I really am’ line. [This is the origin, I think, of my obsession with the Voxtrot lyric, ‘Maybe I want to be myself, but I am somebody else,’ which implies a rather more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of authenticity talk.]

So; Kathy Davis’ account invites us to follow her into the clinic, listen with her to the women she spoke to, and sympathise with their plight. She invites us to do as feminists ought: to honour women’s experiences. She claims to have been dubious about the ‘suffering’ that women could possibly experience prior to her interviews, but afterwards, she is utterly convinced. Indeed, she is so utterly convinced that she comes to see cosmetic surgery as perhaps the only resolution for these suffering women: this may be the only way to empower them to move beyond their suffering and be happy in their lives. And, surely, the argument runs, a real feminism seeks for women not to suffer? How could we suggest that these women ‘take the shot’ for a political position? Does this not expect women, again, to give up their own lives in the service of others?

And Susan Bordo responds with resounding force (no, seriously, there’s some grumping that goes on in these debates!): the real question is how on earth we wound up in a situation where the alteration of women’s bodies is made to be the source of their happiness? A Foucauldian to the bone, Bordo refuses to take these women’s experiences on as a neutral matter; they are, she argues, constructed, and as such, what we really need to be paying attention to is how and why women are constructed to experience their bodies as inadequate, are constructed to experience their bodies as fundamentally other to who they ‘really’ are. I suspect that Bordo is a little angry that Davis seems to imply that her position lacks sympathy; in fact her sympathy is to some extent more thorough-going—she sees the non-necessity of these women’s suffering, and seeks not simply to cure, but to cut it off at the root (even though she knows, really, the impossibility of that).

What I think would be an interesting line of analysis is to query how and why talk of ‘cures’ came to be so very convincing. Political language is more and more bound up with medical discourse, and this, I want to suggest, tends to imply particular things about the body and the suffering it experiences (amongst very many other things, but that’s a whole other post).

First of all, it implies that bodies simply do suffer, for natural reasons. This positions the suffering as beyond the scope of culture, and beyond politics: it is a natural and somehow implacable ‘truth’. Medicine habitually does this, suggesting all kinds of pathologies which delimit the suffering to this particular body, and to its nature. It closes down any possible conception of embodiment, of the deeply contextual production of our experiences of bodily being and selfhood (I don’t see these two as separable, although our Descartes-informed embodiment tends to divide up experience in this way).

Second, it implies that where there is suffering, there ought to be a cure. Not a revolution (actually, I don’t think I believe in revolution, though I’m happy for Marxist friends to try to convince me otherwise!), not political change, not social change. A cure. Individualised, such that no one ever guesses that the source of the suffering may, indeed, not lie purely and simply within this individual body.

Third, my research into disability studies has given me a peculiar sensitivity to language. Over and again, it is the disabled body which is evoked as the ‘truth’ of women’s surgically altered bodies. It is a ‘mutilation’, a ‘crippling with beauty,’ as Januaries’ quote would have it. This again supposes a neutral, normal and fundamentally able body as what would naturally occur, and that it is made deformed—and this is implicitly positioned as nothing other than a bad thing, once again reifying the able/disabled dichotomy—by the culture within which it occurs. Apparently disability is used to evoke that which is rejected, refused, and ought to be, by any right-thinking person. Ugh.

I do, to some extent, tend to agree with Susan Bordo, even when others accuse her of not respecting the autonomy that women do have. I suspect I have less faith in what we call ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’ than others do; I tend to see this as always occurring in a liberal vein, as always supposing that there is, deep down somewhere, a free essence to all of us which is being squashed out of shape by power (thereby conceived of as repressive, rather than my preferred Foucauldian dispersed network). This is, I think, what Ms Pepperell would call a negation: a stripped-back ‘truth’ which is full of content, and taken problematically as a foundation. Indeed, what I think that such a perspective forgets to pay attention to is the space that we do have for altering these constructions of femininity and women’s bodies. When we suppose ourselves to be radical individuals, we forget to pay attention to the ways that we affect one another. This is another of the challenges to Kathy Davis: she pays attention to the individual women, their suffering and its resolution, but not to the effect that each woman’s surgery might have on other women, on their experiences of their own bodies. She accepts, rather than challenging, the liberal humanism through which subjects are currently produced, and this means that she never even sees that women are not, fundamentally, alone. They are produced in and through their relations with one another (oh, and with men too; sorry boyz, I has left you out of this post a lot. Consider this a reflection of the obsessions of this area of study, less than my own interests!). And in response, I would suggest that Bordo emphasises perhaps a little too much the extent to which women are produced by power; they become little more than bits of power in conversation with other bits of power.

Contra both positions, I want to suggest that what is needed is a far more complex understanding of embodiment. This would, of course, mean that it might take a while to think it through, to fully consider it, to develop a political stance; given the impasse sketched above, I think it might be time. To suppose either that we are fundamentally individual essence or merely another line of power forgets that we are produced together. As Diprose describes, “There is a third term forgotten in this haste of liberate ourselves from the law. Identity is ambiguous and open to change, not just because of a deformity inherent in repetition over time [as Butler may be understood as claiming] but also because… between the body and the law is another.” (CG, 68) Indeed, it is this intercorporeality that I hope to show by the end of my thesis offers a deeply political but all too often forgotten space for newness, for change. The claim to individual sovereignty “not only den[ies] the corporeal generosity of intersubjective exisence, effectively stealing from the other and effacing the ambiguity of her or his difference… also cut[s] off my own potentialities for existence. For, as Irigaray puts it, “one does not move without the other.”” (CG, 71). In the end, I am not interested in whether cosmetic surgery in itself is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; I do not think it has to be either. Rather, I am interested in the way that our talk of it covers over the very space for political change we seem to seek. These spaces we forget, the spaces of intertwining of self and other, spaces which, if we listen carefully enough, with our ‘ear in our foot’ as Nietzsche would have it, offer numerous spaces for being drawn on to tap out a counter-rhythm, for being drawn on to dance other-wise.

[Forgive the lack of referencing in this post; most of these debates can be easily found via Google Scholar, and it would take me a while to assemble them all. Also, this post was not really proof-read, so… ahem… feel free to correct!]