Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Notion of Choice

This discussion is NOT about abortion. I'm talking about the idea of women making choices in our society in a broader sense.

Recently, in my online feminist world, there has been a bit of discussion surrounding the notion of choice. Specifically, when are the choices that women make "not feminist" vs feminist? Can you be feminine and also a feminist? This realm really interests me, and I scratched the surface of this before when I was talking about "fuck me feminism." It's the type that's discussed in the first blog I linked where a woman says, "I am a feminist. I got my breast implants for me! They are empowering."

The problem with believing that any choice a woman makes is empowering simply because she made it assumes that we live in a societal vacuum or a gender neutral world. It gets at the very question of free will. If a woman "chooses" to get breast implants, why is she really getting them? What is her motivation? Why does she feel that bigger breasts are better? Why would she feel better about herself with surgically enhanced breasts? I doubt that in most cases you could answer these questions truthfully without evoking something that has been culturally transmitted by patriarchy. And when that's the case...who made the choice? The woman or patriarchy?

Fact of the matter is that we are all subject to patriarchal assumptions. If you have ever set foot outside your home, opened a magazine, or turned on the TV you were receiving patriarchal messages and prescribed gender roles. How did you "know" when you were 3 that girls wear pink and boys wear blue? How did you "know" that boys don't cry? How did you "know" that women take care of babies? How did you "know" that men do heavy, physical work? How did you "know" that women are supposed to care about their appearance and wear makeup and skirts and hosiery and perfume and jewelry and high heels and bras and shave their legs and armpits and wax their eyebrows and vaginas and paint their nails and color/curl/straighten their hair and carry purses and lotion their skin and diet to extremes?

Obviously so much of the things that women are "supposed to do" are dictated to us by patriarchy. Women are supposed to go through that litany of physical appearance related things because it makes them "prettier" and keeps women in a way which has been culturally determined as physically attractive and sexually desirable. And as is well known, these demands take a toll on women...women spends thousands of dollars more in their lifetimes on these items (yet making less) dedicate their time toward it (and time is money) and suffer a loss of self esteem when comparing themselves to the "perfect" images they see in the media.

OK. So performing gender is patriarchal and sexist. Duh. So far all I've said is things that anyone in a Women's Studies 101 class has learned day one. However, despite all of this, the "fuck me feminism" side of things says the woman who has made a choice (to get breast implants or what have you) is making it for her. She's empowered. On one hand, I really want to say blatantly NO you are not. You are playing a part in your own oppression. But here's the conflicting thoughts in my head:

1) Who am I to judge what another woman does with her body? Why should I shame her? Does she really need another voice in the cacophony telling her how to look?
2) Is it actually possible to get breast implants "for yourself?" Can this be empowering?
3) Where do feminists draw the line? What parts of performing gender are acceptable and what are not? Is a mani-pedi OK, but a bikini wax is too far? How could we ever determine this?

No one can ever answer these questions. The whole situation is so complex. I think about my own life for example. I have acrylic nails. And I love them. Did I get them for a man? Sort of, it was for prom (damn, I've had acrylic nails for 6 years.) Does a man encourage I have them? Yes. He loves when I scratch his head. If I really wanted to get rid of them and he protested, would I still do it? Yes. If he really wanted me to get rid of them and I still wanted them, would I keep them? Yes...truth is I love the suckers. Do they cost me too much, really? Yes. Do I enjoy getting them? Yeah, I love feeling relaxed and having clean, pretty nails which display a part of my unique quirky self. (I often get funky colors and designs.)

So what's the verdict? Are my nails feminist? Probably not. And that's part of my point. I am a feminist. I truly care, to my very core, about eliminating barriers to women and sexism. But I still make "unfeminist" choices. I cannot claim everything I do or like is feminist. So how do I live with the cognitive dissonance?

In a lot of ways the problem I have with performing gender isn't that certain beauty rituals exist, it's that the rituals are directly solely at women and we are expected to do them. I think it would all be a lot simpler if women were not criticized for leaving their armpits unshaven and men were not mocked for getting pedicures. Then, in these examples, the idea of choice could be much more valid. Men don't even encounter the "choice" to shave their legs, so how can we say that it's really a choice for women? If leg shaving or acrylic nails or makeup or carrying a purse were as gender neutral deciding what to eat for dinner or which car to buy (which aren't totally gender neutral, just closer) then this would all be a lot simpler.

Of course, I've just proposed a world that most people would be very uncomfortable in...especially Mr. McAsshat over at the American University student paper.

As for the breast augmentation part, however: At the end of the day, I'm not really a pro plastic surgery person at all. And I can never imagine breast implants as feminist. Ever. Not even a little.


  1. I would add the caveat that breast implants can be feminist in the case of a transwoman, for whom it is embracing their natural femininity (as opposed to performing a constructed femininity, as in the case of a ciswoman)and goes against the patriarchal system. For a transwoman it is moving outside of the gender box to get implants, while for a ciswoman it is conforming to it. This is not to say that transwoman do not often have to conform their gender presentation to the patriarchy (in fact the gender policing of transwomen is horrible) just that the act of getting breast implants for a transwoman by itself can be an act against the patriarchy, and therefore I would say feminist.

    By the way, cool blog, I found you through your comments on "the sexist" and will definitely be adding you to my bookmarks.

    1. It is accepted that transwomen seek breast augmentation to "embrace their natural femininity" but you must remember that to do that, one must accept that breasts are naturally feminine and lend to one's identifying as a woman. Why then is it wrong for ciswomen to seek the same femininity to help themselves identify more fully as a woman? Many women do not develop much in the way of breast tissue, and many women lose almost all of it through child bearing and breast feeding. Left then with a body that no longer fits with who she identifies as, surgery may be her only option to reclaiming her "natural femininity".

  2. Thanks!

    I *totally* agree and I actually meant to put in a disclaimer about this being about cisgendered women, but in the course of writing I forgot.

    1. It would be nice if a few online pundits allowed for the realities of human evolution and anthropology. Men and women are attracted to the differences in their body shapes, not the similarities. This is why idealized artistic depictions of male and female are often exaggerated.

      Feminism betrayed women when it started telling them do whatever makes you feel right* but the asterisk is just FYI many of your choices are oppressive to other women.

      Men learned ages ago to break from the collective and think of themselves as individuals first, men second. Women must do the same- and many of them that are strong, independent and fearless already have.

  3. This was the first post I read on your blog. I Googled 'feminism' and 'breast augmentation' to see what I would find.

    I just replied to another one of your posts that during puberty I was really skinny and people called me stick with peas (amongst other things). Having breasts that were smaller than my protruding ribcage was quite annoying to me, but what made me more insecure of my body was that my breasts were, small as they were, of unequal size. A difference of 2 cup sizes even. A bra never supported, but I only 'just' needed to wear bras.

    Over 5 years ago I did make the choice to have breast augmentation. I wanted a 'normal' size. Friends were surprised, I'm not really feminine in my appearance: I hate wearing make-up so I hardly do that, I never wear heals, etc. What was it that made me take that decision? It's hard to answer. If thin chested was the norm or popular, maybe I would have felt differently? Maybe if I wasn't called names making fun of my lacking a 'normal' size breasts or maybe if this wasn't a patriarchial society? Maybe maybe? Maybe it was my own decision after all?

    I do know that it has made quite a big impact on me. Not only did I cry when I went to a lingerie shop and thought to myself that all of the stuff there would fit me. Not only did my posture change (walking upright now!). I just feel better, feel more proud of my body.

    Maybe I cannot be a feminist now. Maybe it was my own choice, or maybe it wasn't. Maybe there's also something called a breast privilege? ;)

    1. It's not that one can't be a feminist if they have breast implants; it's about analyzing the context in which these choices occur and the societal pressures involved. Would you have made the same decisions if you weren't encouraged to compare you body against other people's?

      It's good if you made a choice which makes you happy--it's your body and I certainly won't judge you for doing that. I just don't buy into the "any choice I make is feminist" mentality. But by the same thread, making an un-feminist choice doesn't make you un-feminist. I'm sure I'm rambling here, but I think it's worth contemplating and examining that we each do not exist in a vacuum. Our society really affects how we behave, for better or worse.

    2. "Would you have made the same decisions if you weren't encouraged to compare you body against other people's?"

      That's a really tough question. But I think the right question for me would be that would I have made the same decision if my breasts were of the same cup size, not two different ones? I think the answer would probably be no.

  4. I love this article. I am very troubled with the ignorant idea that most 'feminists' are currently in support of the plastic surgery industry and breast implants. It is obvious that women are pressured to look 'more womanly, 'sexier,' etc through breast augmentation. they may choose to go through with this surgery, but the reasonings behind these choices are created by beauty standards created by the patriarchy, and our learned ideas that only women with large breasts are 'womanly' or 'sexy.' It is extremely depressing to me. I have struggled with self love for my small breasted figure but do not want to change my natural form because all body types should be womanly and sexy. I am a woman either way. Supporting the industry of plastic surgery and claiming it to be a choice just perpetuates this sexist ideal for future generations of young girls. I am a feminist and I am 100% against breast implants and plastic surgery, even though I know I would be considered sexier by society if I changed my natural form. I hope we can learn to find all women beautiful and stop supporting these standards of beauty.

  5. I appreciate your viewpoint on feminism vis a vis breast augmentation.
    I think at one point in my life I would have agreed with you.
    I have considered myself a lifetime feminist yet have seen my own views on breast implants change over time.
    Ultimately, it's a woman's personal decision to have implants based on their own individual life experiences, beliefs and expectations.
    I think getting implants to boost a career in the exotic dancing or the porn industry could much more feasibly be responding to the patriarchal society we live in and even feeding it.
    However, I refuse to believe that a middle aged woman who has watched her breasts shrink from B-cups as an adolescent/young adult to an AA cup following birthing and breastfeeding two children and who despite therapy and reassurance from her husband that it doesn't matter that she could in fact be empowered by having implants. The difference being that by definition, women have breasts, that's what defines them apart from men, and when she's faced with a chest that is as flat as a man’s then who can judge her for wanting to feel more womanly? If she is doing is purely to match her internalised sense of femininity with her external appearance, how is this different to a transgender born-male wanting to appear as she feels internally?
    In the United Kingdom (where I live), the National Health Service provides breast augmentation in rare circumstances where a woman's self esteem is severely compromised by her breast size and I for one see this as a very empowering and informed policy.
    For while I firmly believe that we should all be working to more equality for women In society, we still are facing the society as it is today. The fact that some women with completely flat chests feel less womanly and want to identify more with their femininity externally, with no intention to attract extra male attention should not be judged for taking this into their own hands.


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