I chose the topic of female body modification and female oppression because I felt it encompassed almost all the aspects of body image and well-being. With obvious implications on how it affects the way women view what is an acceptable form of beauty and what lengths they will go to to achieve it; societal reasons are often overlooked. In past procedures or even more primitive ones that exist today, it is easy to see how males used modification to keep women as second class citizens. Keeping women weak and reliant on male protection and care allowed men to be dominant in those cultures and societies.
I found this topic really interesting because we live in a society where cosmetic surgery has become so common place. No longer is it just an option for wealthy people in certain parts of the world, it has become accessible for just about anyone with enough money. Living in a time in which women are said to make their own decisions regarding their bodies and their lives in general, I think that society's role in the decisions these women make are often overlooked. Many of the articles I found studied the psychological reasons women chose to have this done, but overlooked any outside influences on their decisions. By linking body modification of the past to today's cosmetic surgery it was startlingly easy to draw parallels between the oppressive nature of those practices compared to the modern day.
In my paper, I will be reviewing female body modification throughout time and showing its role in the patriarchal oppression of women. Topics such as corsets, foot binding, female genital mutilation and cosmetic surgery will be covered because they tend to be more well-known and equally invasive in both a physical and an oppressive sense. While the obvious physical effects can been understood with little explanation, the social implications of what this means for women can easily be overlooked.
Female beauty has always been held to an unnatural standard that is not achievable. Women of today, much like those of the past, will go to great lengths to change what they can with whatever means they have access to. The question is whom are they making these changes for? While women of the past were often forced into modifying their body, today the choice is said to be theirs. With overwhelming media images telling women to look and act a certain way it is easy to pigeon-hole the reason women have these procedures as their reaction to society telling them to look a certain way, but the actual reasons run deeper than that. Easily hidden behind the guise of the aesthetic, men's manipulation of fashion and beauty has kept women in a dominated and subjected state. Without the resources to fight against an oppressive society, they were and are held passive in society.
I intend to use the feminist paradigm to show that men have relegated women to an inferior class and maintain this inferiority by helping to enforce body modification. Not only are they subjected to changing their appearance to be accepted as normal or attractive but also they are kept physically and economically below their male counterparts. Looking back at the past procedures forced on women of many cultures, it is easy to connect their oppressive nature to today's modern day surgeries.
The corset is probably the most recognizable piece of clothing from the entire Victorian period. Seen as the standard for women of any social class, it creates an extreme hour-glass body shape by combining lacing with whale bone ribbing that pulls the waist in, shaping the buttocks and pronouncing an elevated bosom. Aside from the aesthetic, it functioned as a social confinement as well. Its restricting nature made it impossible for women to work, exercise or even move at all. This body shape and affected behavior epitomized what a Victorian woman should be by making her passive and domestic. Despite the fact that women were likely not to have a job, the corset assured men that they would be kept 'in their place'.
Chinese foot binding is an even more restricting form of modification. The practice began centuries ago, but started its reign during the Yuan dynasty in the early 1200's. It continued growing in popularity until the late 1800's before stopping completely in the 1930's. The origin of foot binding is unknown, but there are several legends about its beginning, most of them involving a Prince's fascination with a dancer's nimble feet. From that point on bound feet became a symbol of wealth and social standing. Men began to demand that the women they would marry have bound feet. Since binding began at such a young age, usually around four years old, the physical effects were a life long struggle. Women who did not die as children from infection and disease grew up unable to walk and had lower hip bone density which put them at greater risk for fractures and death.
Foot binding also served to maintain Chinese beliefs of men's superiority to women. Binding made women physically weak and dominated by their husbands; because binding started at such a young age, leaving them no opportunity for education or choice, women were forced to follow their family's order and eventually their husband's as well.[ ]Women also felt they had to
comply with their family's wishes because "being born female was to be a family burden only partly redeemable by constant work and self-effacement."[ ]
Possibly the most startling of all female body modification is the clitorodectomy, more commonly referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM). While the practice f removing a young woman's clitoris was once a wide spread phenomenon, occurring in "most communities of the world" at one time or another, it has recently limited itself to regions of developing countries such as sub-Saharan Africa, east Africa, Egypt, Sudan and the Arabian Peninsula. The actual procedure varies, ranging from the mutilation occurring only to the clitoris and removal or splitting of the clitoral hood to the removal of part of the labium major and/or minor. After removal of any of these parts of the genitalia, it is not uncommon for the girls to be sewn shut with only a small hole left for urination.[ ]The negative effects of this procedure are both physical and mental. Many children die as a result of infection, women have ongoing infections throughout their lifetime, and many are unable to conceive as a result. Since FGM takes place in small, underdeveloped villages, there is no antiseptic or pain control for these young women. A newer complication that has arisen for these girls is the increased risk of HIV infection, not only during the actual procedure due to unsterilized tools, but also later during the act of sex because the risk of tearing and bleeding is increased for women who have undergone FGM. Psychologically, women are unable to feel sexual after such a violation, and many feel as if they are missing a part of what makes them an attractive female.
The reasons for this so-called female circumcision change from culture to culture such as
creating a symbol of femininity, stopping masturbation, and reducing vaginal discharge. The most common however is the reduction of libido to ensure chastity of the females before and after marriage.[ ]By demanding women's chastity, the patriarchs of these cultures are able to continue the reign of this debilitating mutilation. If women are negatively affected by FGM, resulting in the inability to conceive children or ongoing complications during urination, they are seen as unfit to wed and are cast aside by the same society that forced this procedure upon them in the first place.
The most modern and wide spread of all body modification would have to be cosmetic surgery. In 1988, more than two million Americans underwent some form of cosmetic surgery. Between 1984 and 1986 alone, the number of cosmetic operations in the U.S. tripled.[ ]Ninety percent of these operations are performed on women: virtually all breast augmentations and reductions, 90% of face-lifts, 86% of eyelid reconstructions, and 61% of rhinoplasties. In 1987, American women had 94, 000 breast reconstructions, 85, 000 eyelid surgeries, 82, 000 nose jobs, 73, 230 liposuctions and 67, 000 face-lifts. Due to the staggering amount of surgeries, I am
going to focus on breast reconstructions. I choose this surgery specifically because, apart from a very small percentage, this tends to be a 'female' procedure.
Although women for centuries have used many different methods for either concealing or enhancing their breasts, cosmetic procedures as we know them today only began at the turn of the century. The first reported surgeon performing such surgeries was Charles Miller who opened his Chicago practice in 1903. He reportedly opened up women's chests and inserted braided silk, bits of silk floss, particles of celluloid, vegetable ivory and several other foreign materials. There is no account of the effects these materials had on these women. Other reports site paraffin, petroleum jelly and olive oil being injected into the breasts. It was not until the 50's and 60's, with the introduction of the silicon implant, that breast augmentations really began to increase in numbers. Silicon was first injected directly into the breast, but the silicon invaded the surrounding material and most of these women ultimately had to undergo mastectomies, removing part or all of the breast. This negative consequence lead to the invention of the silicon implant that consisted of a silicon sac filled with silicone gel. Most women did not feel immediate discomfort with the implant and thought that their surgeries were successful. It was the long-term effects that people tended to overlook, which include silicone bleed, autoimmune disease, polyurethane toxicity and implant rupture or leakage. When these implants were removed due to discomfort or illness, especially in implants over 10 years of age, two thirds were found ruptured or leaking. Although a causal link has not been formally established, it is widely accepted that implants increase the risk of breast cancer, impede breast feeding and cause nerve damage. The most common disease associated with silicone bleed is scleroderma, a condition in which the body's connective tissue hardens and contracts. And, this is done all in the name of beauty.
While the physical effects of breast enhancement can be understood as a direct result of the procedures, the economic effects can be overlooked. Three hundred million dollars are spent every year on cosmetic surgery, and the amount is increasing annually by 10%. When the high percentage of women involved in these surgeries is examined, it is easy to deduce that they are the primary spenders on these very pricy procedures. One woman who wanted to have a face-lift
had to work "one day job, one night job, occasionally a third job."[ ]She even had to 'bank' four weeks of overtime at her primary job so that she could take time off to recover. In addition to these expenditures, she also put off repairs on her house because she could not afford both that and the operation.
I feel the literature holds overwhelming evidence that achieving beauty was only a partial reason for these continuing modifications. The literature also brings to light that the standard of beauty was typically what men perceived it to be. While women may have been satisfied with their looks, their need to attract a partner is what dictated their actions. Especially in a time when women relied economically on men, they had little choice but to comply with men's demands. While dependency helps to explain the overt subjection by past patriarchal societies, it is today's oppression that is harder to understand. Men obviously felt threatened by women in some sense or their need to dominate would not have been so great. Using literal restrictions on a woman's body, in the case of corsets or foot binding, seems barbaric and cruel by today's standards, but we have simply lessened the physical pain of these restrictions while retaining the social ones. In today's society, women are subjecting themselves.
The feminist paradigm helps to examine constraints that are placed on women's lives from society's institutions. As a whole, this analysis has helped develop the view of a patriarchal society structure that encapsulates all realms of life. This theory, I feel, perfectly captures the oppressive nature of female body modification. Because these procedures are forced on many of the women by society as a whole, the feminist paradigm brings to light the control men hold over women by placing physical, social and economic restrictions on them and does not allow the procedures to simply be written off as the quest for beauty.
Using this framework, I have come to understand body modification as a ongoing battle of power between the sexes. In the past men held power in most aspects of life, including the economic and home life. Women were expected to be decorative and entertaining. To keep women in this lower position of power, men utilized restrictive modifications to the body to ensure women's physical and therefore social reliance on the male population. With very few resources to change these conditions, women were forced to comply with male demands of beauty to ensure themselves survival in the cultures of their times.
In modern and technically enhanced society where women have gained the power of choice in many aspects of life including education, economic freedom and family life, it is harder to understand how women can still be oppressed by a male society. By using the ever prevalent pursuit of beauty, men have been able to gain back some of the control they have been forced to give up through many feminist movements over the past decades. While having cosmetic surgery is a choice women make for themselves, the reasons they have these procedures in the first place may not be thoughts of their own. By attempting to live up to an artificial standard of beauty, women are in turn allowing themselves to be held below men as second class citizens. They risk not only their health, but their jobs and their hard earned money to be more accepted into mainstream society. Further, because the medical profession is still dominated by male doctors, money earned by professional women is being funneled right back into male hands. With the seemingly ever increasing rates of plastic surgery, the trend towards female oppression seems to be taking a backwards slide from the feminist movements of the early twentieth century.
Similarly, women trying to break out of this cycle are met with overwhelming odds. Even if a woman is unwilling to comply with society's beauty standards, someone is always more than willing to take her place. While today's woman is not reliant on a man for money, the search for a life partner can cause women to go to drastic measures to ensure themselves a mate. With women readily following a set standard, men come to expect women to look (and act) a certain way. Even women in a committed relationship have to be wary of being 'replaced' with someone younger than themselves, or simply younger looking.
Looking back across time at the continuing subjection of women to painful and sometimes deadly body modification, it is hard to imagine just how pervasive body modification is in today's society. Since the beginning of time, women have utilized different means to change their bodies in hopes of attracting a partner. Some of the most well know modifications include Victorian corsets, Chinese foot binding and female genital mutilation, but it can include everything from tattooing and piercing to neck and lip rings of African tribes. Today, however, the most widespread form of modification is cosmetic or plastic surgery. Women undergo extensive operations to remove, reduce, enhance, slim, lift and change almost every part of their bodies. While common belief is that these women are simply attempting to fit themselves into society's unattainable standard of beauty, research has helped show that the implications run much deeper than believed. Connecting the male dominance of the past procedures, where physical restrictions helped to keep women weak and vulnerable, relying completely on men to support them, helps bring to light the control men try to wield over the much more liberated females of today. Because it is a woman's choice whether or not to have an operation, the male role is often overlooked as a dominating factor. However, the patriarchal society's push, in the forms of media and advertising, towards a singular accepted beauty standard has help keep women professionally and economically below their male counterparts; and the increasing trend of cosmetic surgery in North America paints an ominous picture for the future of women's power falling back into the hands of men.
List of References
Adekunle, A.O, Fakokunde, F.A, Odukogbe, A.A and Fawole, A.O. (1999) Female genital mutilation-postcircumcision vulval complications in Nigerians. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Vol 19, No.6, 632-635
Amnesty Intenational (1997) Female Genital Mutilation: A human rights information pack
Gimlin, Debra (2000) Cosmetic Surgery: Beauty as Commodity. Qualitative Sociology, Vol 23, No.1, 77-98.
Henig, Robin Marantz (1996) The Price of Perfection. Civilization Magazine, April 1996
Hutchins, Candace (2000) Chinese Foot Binding, Online, www.sfmuseum.org/chin/foot.html
Sarwer, David B., Nordmann, Jodi E. and Herbert, James D. (2000) Cosmetic Breast Augmentation Surgery: A Critical Overview. Journal of Women's Health & Gender-Based Medicine, Vol 9, No.8, 843-856.
See, Lisa (2005) A Wealthy Woman's Life in China Not so Long Ago. Washington Times, The (DC), 07328494, Sept. 11, 2005.
Summers, Leigh (2001) Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. Berg, Oxford.
Thabet, Saeed, Mohamad Ahmad and Thabet, Ahmed (2003) Defective sexuality and female circumcision: The cause and possible management. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Vol 29, No.1, 12-19.
1 Leigh Summers, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset Berg, Oxford, p.184.
2 Ibid., p. 207.
4 Ibid., p. 2.
5 Lisa See, A Wealthy Woman's Life in China Not so Long Ago Washington Times.
7 A.O Adekunle, et al. Female genital mutilation- postcircumcision vulval complications
in Nigerians Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, p. 632.
8 Saeed Mohamad Ahmad Thabet, et al. Defective sexuality and female circumcision:
The cause and possible management Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, p. 13.
9 Female Genital Mutilation: A human rights information pack Amnesty International
Index: ACT 77/05/97, pp. 1-2.
10 Adekunle, op. cit., p. 634.
11 Thabet, op. cit., p. 17.
12 AI Index, op. cit., pp. 5-7.
13 N. Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women New
York: William and Morrow, p. 251.
14 Debra Gimlin, Cosmetic Surgery: Beauty as Commodity Qualitative Sociolgy, pp. 78-
15 Robin Marantz Henig, The Price of Perfection Civilization Magazine, p. 2.
16 David B. Sarwer, et al., Cosmetic Breast Augmentation Surgery: A Critical Overview
Journal of Women's Health and Gender-Based Medicine, pp. 845-847.
17 Gimlin, op. cit., p. 78.
18 Ibid., p. 84.