Cast your mind back to the start of 2001. The news was full of debates around cosmetic surgery, particularly breast enlargements. It was all sparked off by 15 year old Jenna Franklin, who was thrust into the spotlight when she decided to have breast implants for her 16th birthday. Her mother, who herself had had two breast operations, and who runs her own plastic surgery business, said she and her husband would happily pay the £3,250 for the operation.
Jenna was articulate, slim, and pretty, but explained her decision saying she was unhappy with her body and that a breast enlargement would give her more self-confidence and get rid of her hang-ups. She also asserted that you need big breasts to be successful in life, naming various celebrities such as Britney Spears and Pamela Anderson as proof.
If she waits a while, her breasts might grow bigger. Problem solved!
There was a flurry of press comment and criticism. She’s far too young, they said (i.e. if she was a bit older there’d be no problem); she probably hasn’t finished growing, they said (i.e. if she waits a while, she might get bigger breasts, then she’ll be okay); she’s emotionally too young to cope with the repercussions, they said.
No-one seemed to question the fundamental assumptions behind it: that ‘big’ breasts are desirable; why breasts are such an issue; that if a woman thinks she has small breasts she should want to change them.
Soon after, Channel 4 showed a documentary called ‘Perfect Breasts’, investigating the apparently growing phenomenon of young women opting for cosmetic enhancement. The programme featured women and girls explaining how they were unhappy with their bodies, and how they ‘just want to look normal.’ Interesting. The bit I remember most is a scene of two sisters, both who’d had breast implants, eating dinner with their parents and discussing the possibility that they may never be able to breast feed a baby. The younger sister said it didn’t bother her in the slightest, that the very idea of her breasts being used to nourish a baby was repulsive. “They’re sex objects, to me” she explained with gusto, giggling, “Sex objects!” Her father mumbled nervously in protest. “Most natural thing you can do, breast feeding…” but he was soon drowned out by the chatter from the women. It struck me as humorous, strangely sad, and also telling about different attitudes to the humble breast.
Now, teenagers having cosmetic surgery is not new. It’s been happening in the USA for years. In the richer American cultures for their 16th birthday, boys get a car, girls get a nose-job. Even over here the issue is old news. In 1998 the BBC investigated younger and younger girls having cosmetic surgery, and plastic surgeons willing to offer it to them. In 1999 they reported what women wanted; Emma Bunton’s nose, Melinda Messenger’s breasts, thighs of Naomi Campbell, etc. Recently WH Smith began stocking ‘Cosmetic Surgery Magazine’.
What’s behind this are some unquestioned assumptions about women’s bodies
It’s not the specific issue of breast implants I am talking about really. Neither is it the young age of these girls: I’ve argued in another article that 16 years olds should be treated as young women and their opinions respected (only if they agree with me, of course! ;-)). The solution is not to ban 16 year olds from having plastic surgery, or ban it altogether. I’m all for the fundamental right of women to do what they want with their bodies and make their own decisions about their lives. BUT I believe there is a more fundamental issue here; that what’s behind this are some unquestioned assumptions about women’s bodies that our society subscribes to. These assumptions are:
1. Something is fundamentally wrong with the female body and it’s natural to be unhappy with it.
It’s not just natural teenage insecurity either. In our society, adult female bodies are treated like mistakes that continually need correcting. It’s too smelly, it’s too hairy, it’s the wrong shape, it’s the wrong colour. We’re seen to be badly designed somehow, needing extra stuff to make them okay. Being unhappy about your body is often presented as one of the essential personality traits of women, if we believe what society tells us. I’ve heard many times suggested, often humorously, that in the darkest ages of humankind, women were whining to their caveman mates, ‘does my bum look big in this loincloth?’ Silly yes, but there’s also a subtext that says it’s something women have always done and will always do. We just instinctively hate our bodies, and, we are brought up to believe, with good reason.
There is something in all these exaggerations that we are supposed to relate to
Take Bridget Jones and her ilk. Women who are obsessed with how they look, the size of their bum, and convinced they are the wrong shape are an absolute staple of women’s fiction, and Bridget is hailed as representing ‘everywoman’. Of course Bridget is humorous, and exagerrates the obsessiveness to comic effect; but the fact is there is something in all exagerrations that we are supposed to understand and relate to. They simultaneously take the piss out of such irrational concerns and enable us to sympathise with them, whilst stuffing us with the unsubtle morality: maybe you’re not as fat as you think you are and maybe just maybe, looks don’t matter that much. Well gee, thanks for pointing that one out!
How many times have you had to convince your friends that their bum is not as big as they think it is? I’ve heard this from the skinniest friends of mine, obsessing about parts of their bodies. It’s come to something when the best way to comfort and reassure them is to act like you’re jealous; ‘Your bum’s non-existent, you bitch!’ The TV fashion and beauty programme ‘She’s Gotta Have It’, trailed their new series mentioning ‘the hang ups we all have’. The hang ups we all have. Proves my point perfectly.
It’s almost seen as an essential part of the female experience. If I was to say, if asked, that I’m completely happy with my body and wouldn’t want to change it, I’d be viewed as an arrogant cow. Who does she think she is? What’s the question female celebrities are usually asked in interviews? ‘If you could change any part of your body, what would it be?’ Surely we can come closer to a feminist critique of the beauty myth than letting celebrities and models admit that, guess what? They hate their bodies too.
2. If we’re unhappy about our bodies, we should change it. And, women are changeable creatures.
If you think there’s something wrong with your body, change it. If your lips aren’t the right shape, fake it. If your hair is the wrong colour, dye it. If your skin isn’t matte enough or glossy enough or good enough, change it. If your eyelashes are too thin, change it. If your body isn’t good enough, get something done.
Girls who’ve been brought up on the idea that our bodies can be altered at a whim by make-up and everything else, think of cosmetic surgery as the next logical step. People who attack cosmetic surgery but don’t see the connection with other forms of women changing and camoflaging our bodies to fit the social norms are missing something deeper.
I’m not saying that if you wear lipstick you will eventually have a boob job. Of course not. But I think it’s on the same spectrum; something you do to change yourself and make yourself acceptable. If you put on makeup every day to face the world, to correct and improve your face, you are falling for the same lie; the underlying idea that there is something unacceptable about you that needs to be corrected.
I can’t deny the fact that makeovers are fun!
I’m aware I sound really radical here! I’m torn every day between my feminist ideals and the impulse to just – well, lighten up. I don’t know where the dividing line is between adorning and decorating our bodies to add colour and fun to the world, and changing our bodies to present a false image to be acceptable. Where does one end and the other begin? It’s a tricky one. On the one hand I refute the concept that there is an unchangeable standard of beauty and it’s only natural and right that women should try to attain it. But on the other, I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with having a fashionable hair cut, being interested in trendy clothes, or being bright and colourful. And I can’t deny the fact that makeovers are just – well – fun! Nevertheless, I think that women are seen, far more than men, as changeable creatures. As Richard Madely from ‘This Morning’ said, before a foreign young woman who’d never worn make-up before underwent a makeover; ‘She’s a real blank canvas’. As the Head and Shoulders ad with the Mona Lisa wannabe puts it; ‘a work of art’. She literally is a blank canvas; painted by a man.
Nothing demonstrates more clearly that women are seen as changeable creatures than the makeover. The traditional before and after shots; the gasps when the ‘new’ woman is brought out ‘you look amamzing!’ the fact of how completely different they look surely says something about how femininity is a construction. Ever noticed that men who have makeovers don’t look as different as the women tend to do? Does this mean that women are essentially, inherently, blank canvases to be filled in and altered by fashion stylists, make-up artists – or plastic surgeons? I’d like to think not.
There are many, many examples of the makeover factor, and of women being encouraged to change themselves to fit in with what other people think they should be.
The coolest character gets madeover and is instantly more acceptable and attractive
At the end of the film The Breakfast Club, the coolest female character who dresses in black, sulks and peers out from under her duffle coat through thick black eyeliner, gets madeover and is instantly more attractive and acceptable to the other characters. She’s forced into white, prissy clothes – an alice-band, for goodness sake – and gets to wear make-up, which instantly makes her look far better, of course, and allows her to get the guy. In Grease, Sandy only gets to be popular when she rejects her uncool look and fakes it as a raunchy leather-clad wild-child. As an uncool girl myself at school, it seemed like a surrender. Similarly, I remember watching Neighbours years ago, when plain Jane gets made-over for a prom and emerges sparkling into the living room and shocks her date, who had previously been grumpily expecting to have to go to the prom with the ugly girl. How many times have we seen that tired plot line?
Many times, in stories like Cinderella and My Fair Lady, updated for modern times by Miss Congeniality, in which Sandra Bullock plays an ‘unladylike’ FBI agent who gets to work undercover as a beauty queen. The trailers showed a male collegue shouting at her ‘Don’t worry – no-one thinks of ya that way.’ Presumably, when she emerges swaying in a tight pink dress, hair gleaming, they darn well do.
So, breast surgery is just a type of makeover for girls who want to ‘look normal’. Nevertheless, some women have claimed that getting a boob job is a feminist act. All the women who get breast enlargements will claim they are doing for themselves, not for anyone else; they’re doing it to empower themselves. Of course they are doing it for themselves. Who else would they be doing it for? But the fact is, they’re doing it so they’ll be happy with their own body, in a breast obsessed society. I find it hard to believe that if they lived in a remote society and had never heard of cosmetic surgery, they’d somehow have an inherent, deep-seated unhappiness with the size of their breasts and want to make them bigger.
It’s heartbreaking to see young women convinced there’s something repulsive about their own bodies
So, I think this is what’s behind the breast implant boom. The underlying expectation that women hate their bodies, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the idea that women are changeable, able to make ourselves over in a few hours, or by a team of make-up artists and hair-stylists, or indeed, by a few days spent having plastic surgery. Added to a culture obsessed with a part of the female body – the breast at the moment, there you have it. It’s heartbreaking to see young women convinced there’s something repulsive about their own bodies. But you can’t condemn women for having breast implants if you think its normal to refuse to leave the house without make-up. It springs from the same root.
For further reading, I really recommend the excellent book The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.