The violence beneath 'beauty' [Women and Violence, Part 5]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

Next week I’m giving a presentation in class on cosmetic surgery in regards to women of color. Now, cosmetic surgery does not readily fall under most common definitions of ‘violence,’ and I find myself hesitant to categorically label it as such.

On the one hand, while cosmetic surgery does involve bloody alterations on a person’s body, so does surgery in general, and we generally don’t label that as violent – especially when voluntarily consented to by the patient. The fact that cosmetic surgery is often (though not always) agreed to by an autonomous individual does mitigate the physical damage it brings.

Of course, we are all aware that ‘consent’ is a sticky issue, and that we can’t ignore the pressures that can constrain a person’s ability to make a choice – particularly in the case of women facing pressures to be ‘beautiful’ in a certain way.

Furthermore, the same level of physical damage can be construed as ‘violent’ or ‘non-violent’ depending on the context. Full-contact sports can be performed just as ferociously as a street brawl, yet not be uncontrolled and violent. What’s more, a session of safe, sane, and consensual BDSM can be non-violent, while the quietest rape perpetrated under clearly communicated threat is clearly not.

Still, I find it difficult to attach the label of ‘violent’ to cosmetic surgery in its entirety. There is still a risk of compromising the agency of the woman who elects to have that surgery. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that ‘cosmetic surgery’ is a difficult category for me to define, because its borders blur with what is considered ‘reconstructive surgery,’ as well as decorative body modifications.

So all I have right now are the beginnings of an analysis of the level of violence within cosmetic surgery. One of the most important pieces that I have so far comes out of my study of women of color. While researching for my presentation, I ran across a book by Margaret L. Hunter called Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. While her object of analysis is colorism, or racial prejudice based on skin color, she examines the connection between the creation of beauty standards and the exploitation of women of color’s bodies in a way that I find useful for contextualizing cosmetic surgery.

Consider this passage on the construction of blackness:

“African-ness” came to be known as evil and “whiteness” came to be known as virtuous. These abstract concepts, however, quickly manifest themselves in the actual phenotypic characteristics of the racial groups […] Blackness and whiteness were no longer merely abstract concepts. Actual physical traits associated with each racial group began to take on these ideological meanings. Dark brown skin, kinky hair, and broad noses started to represent barbarism and ugliness. Similarly, straight blonde hair and white skin began to represent civility and beauty. (Hunter 20-1)

For women of color, this racist pressure is combined with a sexist one: for instance, Latina women are faced with the history of imagery that constructed dark-skinned Mexican American women as not only inferior, but as whores, while light-skinned and therefore favored women were tied to the Madonna (Hunter 31). Thus even the light-skinned and white women who are seen as ‘good’ are subjected to the same overarching system that judges and degrades women based on their physical appearance. Or, as Hunter puts it, “The racist action of the beauty queue seems obvious, but the fact that there is a queue at all is the less obvious but equally damaging effect. So the beauty queue is racist in its hierarchy of women by color and misogynist in its function to objectify all women” (28).

Physicality, and physical beauty, are not just about the body, but are intimately tied with ideas of social and sexual worth. This is, of course, true for more people than just women of color – women of all races are judged on how attractive they are to heterosexual men, people with disabilities are judged as less intelligent or capable or worthwhile than able-bodied people.

From value judgments, it is a frighteningly easy transition to actual violence. Consider the dark-skinned Latina ‘whore’ who is denied the sexual innocence of the ‘Madonna.’ When such a woman is raped, her violation is minimized in the same way that all violations of the sexually deviant are minimized – with excuses that she was ‘asking for it,’ or that it doesn’t matter because she’s already ‘used.’ How many other racialized constructions can we think of that justify sexual violence based on a woman’s appearance as non-white – the oversexed Black woman, the Oriental geisha girl, the Indian squaw?

And now we can change some of those features that identify us as ethnic minority women. Eyelid surgeries add creases to Asian people’s eyelids, making them look more similar to white people. Rhinoplasty is used to alter the noses of members of various races, bringing them more in line with the longer and narrower Anglo nose (Hunter 56).

Are women of color who choose such surgeries aware of the violence that has historically plagued women who look different from the (white) standard? Certainly not all of them are. But can we honestly say that such women are completely unaffected by the continuing judgments leveled upon the worth of women of color, which are based in such a history?

So what Hunter provides for me is the possibility that the violence of cosmetic surgery lies not in the practice itself, but in the history that shapes the parameters of that practice: what is performed, why it is performed, and how women are pressured into participating in this practice.

This conclusion, half-formed as it is, still leaves open the question of whether or not cosmetic surgery is violent in and of itself, or whether it is just surrounded by violence. I’m still working that one out.

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This entry was posted in Abuse, rape, and domestic violence, Feminism, Racism, The Beauty Myth, Women and Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The violence beneath 'beauty' [Women and Violence, Part 5]

  1. Luke says:

    I think in many ways cosmetic surgery reflects perhaps the harsh extremes in which women are told to wage a lifelong war with their bodies in terms of weight and reducing, mainly, the waistline (though no part of a woman’s body is safe from this violent sort of thinking due to the attitudes towards labias, nipples, feet, noses, etc). And I say “war” very specifically because with eating disorders so prevalant in women and young girls especially, it’s always been coined as “Jane’s battle with her size” or “Britney’s fight with her weight”…language that to me very much suggests a certain mentality of violence….of hostile, opposing forces when it comes to women’s bodies being culturally seen as the domain, the battlefield upon which a woman can only “win” by in essence, “defeating” her own body.

  2. Elayne Riggs says:

    I think your instinctive reluctance to label this as violence is absolutely correct. Elective surgery may be cringeworthy, and some may certainly be sexist, but it’s not violence. I think you need to be careful not to try to fit the subjects you want to cover into your series even if you have to forcibly contort them to fit a definition they obviously don’t — it weakens the overall point of what you want to say. Cosmetic surgery is certainly a worthy subject to examine for another series, but it’s just not categorizable into this one, and your lengthy insistence on why it might be sounds more like you’re trying to convince yourself than us.

  3. Jo says:

    Good call, Luke. Not only are women with eating disorders “fighting” their weight, this terminology is applied to any woman who is trying to change (lower) her weight *at all*. I’ve used it to refer to myself.

  4. Revena says:

    This reminds me of an article I read a few years back when I was writing something about self-mutilation for a class. My memories of the piece (which I will see if can at least find the title for – it may be of use to you) are hazy, but essentially it talked about how some kinds of self-inflicted/voluntary injury by women are read as just that – injury – and reacted to with shock and horror, whereas others that are physically very similar are not (the author was comparing cutting and a face lift, if I remember right). Not 100% on-topic, but might lead to some interesting thought processes.

  5. Revena says:

    I looked up my old essay, and this is the citation I had for the article I was talking about, if you want to try to track it down: Elliott. “”Self-Inflicted” Violence.” Off Our Backs 31 (2001). 19 Nov. 2002

  6. Katie says:

    I think that there is certainly a link between cosmetic surgery and violence, as I understand violence to encompass the mental and emotional trauma of the brainwashing of racism and sexism. 50% of Korean women in their 20s have had plastic surgery – and that’s a conservative estimate. It’s a stock tactic of forms of control and repression that, after a while, the victims begin to police themselves. Speaking as the daughter of a woman who had a slit cut into each eyelid to make them more Western-looking, I feel that we need to expand our understanding of notion of violence and root it out of our own thinking where we perpetrate it in our own communities.

  7. Luke and Jo: You’re right, the dominant culture is already providing us with the language of violence for the treatment of women’s bodies. I would hazard that this animosity towards the flesh is tied to the mind/body dualism that’s so prevalent in Western thinking – and that dualism, of course, mirrors the male/female one. So even if we don’t want to say that this all amounts to ‘violence,’ exactly, there’s still that binary judgment of worthy vs. worthless.

    Elayne: “Lengthy insistence?” I think that’s a bit unfair; the post was a lot of back-and-forth with my reasons supporting either conclusion. I do agree that we ought to be careful about what we label as ‘violent,’ and it may just be that the historical context of judging women of color by their appearance is where the violence is located, rather than the modern practice of voluntary surgery.

    Revena: Thanks for the article; it was fascinating. The arbitrary divide between acceptable and unacceptable self-harm is really illuminating, because it shows how much women’s (and people’s in general) behavior is policed by societal standards.

    Katie: What you say about self-policing touches upon a Foucauldian understanding of power that showed up again and again in the articles I read for my presentation. You’re right that just because there isn’t a central, visible authority that coerces women into surgery, it doesn’t mean that power and domination aren’t involved (even if they’re internalized).

  8. arielladrake says:

    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned, but I do love this series. And I think you’ve covered the exploration here really well. Interestingly, I realised this week that I do have a small visible-crease in one eyelid, and no visible crease in the other. I’m not sure if it means anything in particular that I didn’t notice this before, though I suspect it has to do with the fact that generally speaking, my appearance is usually ‘white’ on account of being multiracial, but it was just a kind of weird realisation I had this week.

  9. arielladrake: I think you have mentioned – but thanks! It’s interesting how certain features can be racially coded in different ways – people might not take your eyelids as “Asian” if they think of you as white. This kind of thing does raise the question of how – or if – cosmetic surgeries on facial features might indeed be free from racism, if we could recognize the arbitrariness of assigning them to one ethnic group or another.

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