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April 06, 2004



Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo. I wrote on FGM just this past Autumn and came to much the same conclusions, although mine focused more on the political problems of cultural body mutilation and hypocritical Western attitudes toward it (for example, horror at female circumcision but not at its male forms, and why). This is a fantastic, fantastic entry. And no, I don't think you're paternalistic. After seeing "I want a famous face" for the first time this week, I've got a few things of my own to say about the way we exploit the human body...


As always, Hugo, spot on.

Bill Ekhardt

Remarkable, Hugo. I would like your work to be more widely read.


Plastic surgery is such a spotty issue. I happen to agree with you, Hugo. When a woman decides to have surgery done on any part of her body, it is an attempt to fit better into society. Our western society is deeply patriarchal when it comes to standards of beauty. I have a feminist friend who thinks that a woman should be allowed to do whatever she wants with her body, and I have to agree with that, but I think most plastic surgery is done for the wrong reason. Our society glorifies beautiful people, and people want to be beautiful. Anyway, this post is going long, but I wanted to state that I agree mostly with your argument. I hate plastic surgery and the popularity it has gained in the past years. I'd love to see your argument fleshed out (punny) in a longer article, definitely. . .

Especially with that creepy Fox show, "The Swan", coming out soon.


One of the most fantastic things I have read in a long time. (until this morning, now you and Jenell are neck and neck)

I will be thinking about this paragraph for a long time:

"Fat has replaced desire as the primary enemy to be contained and controlled. If self-control and exercise fail, there is always the surgical removal of the offender (fat) through liposuction and body sculpting. "

you simply must come to minneapolis and visit Solomon's Porch.


Hi Hugh -
I am friend of Jenell's, roommate of the Colleen who commented above, and fellow blogger.

My question for you: how much is too much? What crosses the line from self-improvement to self-abuse? Plastic surgery...exercise for the soul purpose to lose weight...teeth whitening...highlights in hair...wearing push-up bras...what do you think??!


I think there will always be some ambiguity about the line between self-decoration and self-mutilation; ear-piercing and tattooing come to mind. I don't think we can successfully draw hard and fast lines. I think it is something we need to have conversations about, and discern together. I'm not of one mind myself!

Little Miss Attila

I'd like to jump on your bandwagon, but I can't quite do it--mostly because I've never said never on the issue of breast reduction--nor on the possibility of a face-lift when I'm sixty or whatever.

When I was in my teens and twenties I mostly eschewed makeup, and I didn't shave my legs. Now I look back and regret that I didn't enjoy my attractiveness when it was at its peak--but it could be that we only appreciate things when we're losing them (or have lost them). Could be.

I think diet extremes are the same as surgery: an overreaction to our culture's overabundance. Keep in mind that the more statistically important cultural trends are overweight and obesity, which are killers, and are affecting girls and boys at ever-younger ages.

I'm not sure what the solution is, except maybe for older women to tell younger ones that we all have things we don't like about ourselves--things that jump out at us from the mirror. But that others don't see us that way at all.

From my own experience I'd say it can take 20 years or so to absorb that lesson.

Attila Girl

Oops. Re-commenting because I've moved my blog, and I forgot to change my info.


I noticed this in relation to your post - Amsterdam ups the ante in body piercing.

Ivan Lenin

From my Russian perspective, it seems like the reason people torture their bodies is because women don't know how to be women, and men don't know hot to be men. Male sexuality is constantly degraded, just like female. (I am curious about Hugo's opinion on circumscision: is it a man-hating act?)
I look at celebs, and see neither men nor women among them. American culture has turned into a parade of perpetual adolescence. Holliwood actors play high-school level power games, the media indulge in irresponsible whining, and college professors keep on mentally masturbating to the great 60s fantasy.


I'm not sure, Ivan what you mean by "men" and "women". Visually, our celebrities (think "The Rock" and Pamela Anderson) are caricatures of extreme masculinity and femininity, with massive pecs and breasts everywhere; our male role models have become physically larger and MORE violent (think Vin Diesel).

On the other hand, if by "men" and "women" you mean certain ways of conducting oneself, with a respect for the unique characteristics of each gender, than I do agree.

Ivan Lenin

Strangely enough, by "men" I mean people with penises, and by "women" I mean people with vaginas. Stay away from all that contextual relativism, Hugo man! Don't be like Chomsky.

Jokes aside, I indeed meant ways of conducting self as opposed to loking a certain way. It seems a common practice for educators to tell girls that arrogance and bitchiness indicate "liberation", and to reinforce slobby, impotent behavior in guys, presenting it as "intellectual" and "sensitive".
Also, did you notice that it is always boobs that are supposed to be massive in America - as opposed to ass and thighs? Do you see any significance in that?

Russell Arben Fox


I've just discovered your blog, and it's a delight; Christian voices that are both socially conservative (relatively speaking) and economically progressive are pratically non-existent in the blogosphere. I hope to read a lot more from you. And do think about expanding this post into a real op-ed or publishable essay; it's a tremendously important subject, and the way you say it is makes your message even more valuable.

Catharyne Young


Human males are attracted to larger breasts, symmetrical facial features, etc. Why that is the case is neither here nor there (though there is considerable evidence suggesting evolutionary biological factors). But it's a sociological reality. Absent cosmetic surgery, a woman's prospects for attracting a desirable mate (among other things) will be in some measure limited by her body. And one's body is largely beyond one's control. If you're born ugly, if you have a "fat gene," if you suffer third degree burns...what are you to do? Chalk it up to bad luck and resign yourself to fate? Or bitterly rail on men, the media, image-peddling corporations, etc., before retiring to a lonely bed to rest up for another day of vocal discontent? *That's* liberation? I don't see it. Cosmetic surgery is a physiological gateway to social mobility. It allows women to overcome the limitations of birth and circumstance. It is a tool of liberation.

Is it slavery to conform to a societal ideal? If so, then nearly all of us are slaves. Just think of all the things we (women *and* men) do to alter our appearance in ways we hope will appeal to (or, at least, not offend) others. Cutting, styling, combing, or coloring our hair, for instance (not to mention Rogaine, folicle implants, toupees, wigs, hair coloring, extensions, et al.). How about working out? (Granted, some people may do that solely for health reasons; but, for most, an element of vanity intrudes--keeping thin, looking buff, whatever.) Have you ever used deodorant? What about clothing--high-heels, neckties, and other impracticalities? Cosmetic surgery is just one facet of this scintillating diamond, my friend. So why do you single it out? Why the focused concern for your young, surgically buxom female students?

C. Young


I just want to point out, having had recent second-hand experience in the matter, that surgeons prefer to distinguish between "cosmetic surgery" and "reconstructive surgery" these days. I think repair for third-degree burns or, say, horrific cosmetic injuries sustained in a car accident, falls more under the area of reconstructive surgery, and I don't want to speak too much for Hugo but I suspect he wouldn't take issue with this.

It's "cosmetic" surgery that's the problem. Personally, I'd love to see a move to a place where people are no longer encouraged to undergo expensive, intrusive, painful, and life-threatening surgical procedures for the sake of beauty, but I don't see it happening soon.

And I really don't think I can buy a comparison between stilettos and liposuction.


Thanks, Lorie, for making the distinction so nicely. Decoration, reconstruction, and mutilation are very, very different practices.

Despite the rather pointed final question (which I will politely ignore) in her post, Catherine sums up the alternative view nicely:

"Cosmetic surgery is a physiological gateway to social mobility. It allows women to overcome the limitations of birth and circumstance. It is a tool of liberation."

I also recognize how widespread and pernicious this worldview is, and I recognize that many good and thoughtful people share it. But it is immensely destructive.

C. Young


You write, "Decoration, reconstruction, and mutilation are very, very different practices." I agree. Before I proceed, though, let me voice an objection to your ongoing rhetorical stunt of characterizing cosmetic surgery as "mutilation." Such contortions (ala "meat is murder, "all intercourse is rape," etc.) may whip up a froth in those who already agree with you; but they do nothing to persuade the majority of fluent English speakers familiar with the accepted semantic range of the word "mutilation."

To get back to the issue, I grant that decoration, reconstruction, and cosmetic surgery are different practices. But it was your contention that "Slicing up the body to conform to a societal ideal is inherently a woman-hating act...." You never made any distinction between elective cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery. Now you apparently do. So what's the basis for that distinction?

My 10 year-old nephew was recently in town to have cosmetic surgery. He was born without an ear on the left side of his head. The surgery will not affect his hearing; he will still be almost entirely deaf on that side. But, after a remarkable procedure in which cartilage from the rib cage is "sliced out" and attached under skin on the side of the head (followed by additional sculpting and a skin graft in a procedure several months from now), he will have a passable ear on that side of his head. The surgery was undertaken for one reason only--to conform to a widely accepted "societal ideal" (i.e., two-earedness).

Back to the breasts. A Miracle Bra is "decoration." Breast implants following a radical mastectomy would be "reconstruction." And an elective breast implant boost from an A cup to a C cup would be "cosmetic surgery." In each case, the intent is *solely* to conform to a societal ideal (relating to size and shape of breasts).

So again I ask, What's the difference? If one is conforming to a societal ideal of having breasts of a certain size and shape (or of having two ears), what difference does it make (a) how one's body happened to find itself out of conformity (e.g., birth, accident, behavior) or (b) how one goes about achieving that conformity?

C. Young


Good questions.

The "woman hating act" phrase is of course polemical. I am arguing that it is essentially misogynistic to excise flesh from the body that deviates from a given societal ideal. (Of course, in our culture, men have begun to undergo plastic surgery as well, but that's another topic).

Two-earedness is a universal from which only a fraction of human beings deviate. Imperfect or uneven breasts are "normal" -- the ideal to which women who get implants aspire is an artificial and socially CONSTRUCTED ideal; the two-earedness to which your nephew aspires is a biological norm. I think there is a colossal distinction
between the two.

The goal of feminism (as I see it, and not all -- obviously -- agree with me) is NOT to provide an ever-larger group of women with tools with which to compete in the sexual and economic marketplace. Rather, it is to critique and to deconstruct the values of that marketplace. As we used to say in college, "We don't want a piece of the pie, we want to bake a new cake!"

Or as one of my heroes, Audre Lord, put it, "you can't dismantle the master's house using the master's tools".

Thanks for the great questions -- I wish my students argued them so cogently!


Hugo - I wish more people could answer them as cogently.

Seriously, begging for a full-length treatise... no one at my institution is doing research on the new body politics and feminism, which ARE intensely more complicated! Additionally I just want to say that I like having your voice around the blogosphere. Too many ignorant men (I love you Daddy, but bless your soul) think feminism has to do exclusively with women. Au contraire - feminism and feminist epistemologies are just plain better equipped to explain why MEN would go through elective cosmetic surgery as well. No one said women are the only ones who suffered - but your original example of how even that lens is distorted shows us just how serious the problem is.

This issue gets even more interesting when we look at how communities that are sometimes perceived as communities of acceptance (i.e. the male gay community) actually become very socially oppressive, mimicking the same static forces that they fault for holding them back (look no further than Queer Eye and its expensive tastes, styles, and habits, and how gay men are expected to conform to that ideal of the beautiful, big-spending gay male).

C. Young


Two-earedness, you say, is a universal--a biological norm. Obviously it's not an *actual* universal, since every day people are born without ears. Are you referring to a Platonic Form here? Are you generalizing from statistical probabilities? Is there *nothing* socially constructed about ear-related norms? Please clarify.

You state that imperfect breasts are "normal." Is that also a universal or a purely biological statement? The Realm of the Forms? Statistics? What is the basis for your conclusion about breast-related norms? How is your conclusion about "how breasts should be" any less value-laden and socially constructed than that of surgery-seekers?

The "colossal distinction" you see is not so apparent to me.

In any event, let's return to the other hypotheticals (and expand them). How would you distinguish between: (i) a woman who gets breast implants after a radical mastectomy; (ii) a woman who gets breast implants because, even after puberty, she remains precisely as flat-chested as the aforementioned cancer survivor; and (iii) a woman whose breasts fall in the top or bottom 5% in size and undergoes breast augmentation or reduction in order to bring her more towards the biological or statistical norm?

Anyone who salivatingly contemplates an imaginary cake while shunning the very real pie in front of her isn't very hungry.

C. Young

Ivan Lenin

Candace, you write:
"Au contraire - feminism and feminist epistemologies are just plain better equipped to explain why MEN would go through elective cosmetic surgery as well."
Better than who?


Oh dear, Plato goes right over my head. And Catharyne (what a lovely spelling), I am afraid that if you are not prepared to concede the distinction between "two-earedness" and different sized-breasts, than I am afraid that our philosophical viewpoints are too far removed from one another for us to continue. I'm not blowing you off -- I just think this line of discussion is rapidly headed for the unproductive. Or maybe since I haven't had Plato since freshman year, I am not prepared to have a visceral issue wander off into the realm of the philosophical. Or, maybe I am dodging! ;-)

Why would a woman want a new cake rather than a piece of the pie? Because she has finally seen that the pie itself, while offering the temporary illusion of nourishment, is in fact, toxic to her and to her community.


Oh, and Candace -- thanks for the encouragement. The gay male issue is a fascinating one; I commend to one and all Susan Bordo's superb "The Male Body" as helpful text.


Ivan - the problem is your question is that it misunderstands my contention. I do not argue that "feminISTS" or people who call themselves feminists or any of the number of political platforms associated with mainstream feminism are as people smarter or better equipped to deal with difficult issues. Feminism is NOT about girl power. It is an intellectual approach that seeks to uncover truths not addressed in typical discourse. It examines more subtle social forces in addition to the easy, pseudo-scientific methods of data analysis. It is called feminism for two reasons, in my understanding:
1) the female experience in societies throughout the world and throughout history has an abundance of things to say about oppression, about relationships, and about a number of social problems that would be overlooked if we merely traced the history of men.
2) its dialogues are more closely associated with the "feminine" qualities of understanding, of the importance of relationships, of compassion and related values, and of cooperation. that's not to say those are truly or exclusively "female" qualities, but that is largely what is meant by a "feminist" approach.

so it follows that when discussing issues like this, feminism is much better equipped to analyze the powers of oppression at place and break down the myths of "choice" that allow us to ignore, for example, the moral roots of choice. Male thinkers in our intellectual history (including such capital-R Republican types as John Locke) who challenged existing paradigms and addressed issues such as women's rights are looked back on as feminists, not because they necessarily advocated for equality or for suffrage, but for their progressive thinking.

Hopefully that answers your question!


Candace, if you ever want to do a joint feminist blogging thing, let me know. Really great stuff here.

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