According to United Nations documents such as the ‘Fact Sheet on Harmful Traditional Practices’, harmful cultural/traditional practices are understood to be damaging to the health of women and girls, to be performed for men’s benefit, to create stereotyped roles for the sexes and to be justified by tradition. This concept provides a good lens through which to examine practices that are harmful to women in the west — such as beauty practices. But western practices have not been included in the definition or understood in international feminist politics as harmful in these ways. Indeed there is a pronounced western bias in the selection of practices to fit the category such that only one western practice, violence against women, is included. The implication is that western cultures do not have harmful practices such as female genital mutilation that should cause concern. I argue that western beauty practices from make-up to labiaplasty do fit the criteria and should be included within UN understandings. The great usefulness of this approach is that it does not depend on notions of individual choice; it recognises that the attitudes that underlie harmful cultural practices have coercive power and that they can and should be changed.
Socially Approved Self-Injury
Changing attitudes and practices will not be easy, however, particularly given the normalisation of cosmetic surgery. For example, according to Elizabeth Haiken in her book Venus Envy, between 1982 and 1992, the percentage of people in the US who approved of cosmetic surgery increased by 50 per cent and the percentage who disapproved decreased by 66 per cent. Cosmetic surgery, she says, began at the same time in the US as the phenomenon of beauty pageants and the development of the beauty industry in the 1920s. Haiken points out that cosmetic surgery can be seen as an indication of the failure of feminist attempts to dismantle male domination: ‘Cosmetic surgery’, she argues, ‘has remained a growth industry because, in greater numbers, American women gave up on shaping that entity called ÒsocietyÓ and instead turned to the scalpel as the most sensible, effective response to the physical manifestations of age’. Cosmetic surgery, as Haiken points out, was always about putting women into the beauty norms of a sexist and racist society. Women who did not fit American norms had to cut up. Thus by the mid-century, ‘Jewish and Italian teenage girls were getting nose jobs as high school graduation presents’.
Breast augmentation, however, is more recent than other types of cosmetic surgery and dates from the early 1960s. This places its origins in the so-called sexual revolution in which men’s practice of buying women in prostitution was destigmatised through the ideology of sexual liberalism. The sex industry expanded swiftly in the US through pornography and stripping. Breast augmentation was associated in the beginning with ‘topless dancers and Las Vegas showgirls’. The method of enlarging breasts for men’s pornographic delight in this early period was silicone injections rather than implants. Strippers, Haiken tells us, were getting a pint of silicone injected into each breast through weekly injections. The origin of the practice lay in the prostitution industry created in post-war Japan to service US soldiers who found Japanese women too small for their taste: ‘Japanese cosmetologists pioneered the use of silicone É after such solutions as goats’ milk and paraffin were found wanting’.
The effects on the health of victims of this harmful cultural practice were very severe. The silicone ‘tended to migrate’. It could turn up in lymph nodes and other parts of the body, or form lumps that would mask the detection of cancer. As Haiken comments: ‘At worst, then, silicone injections could result in amputation, and at the very least all recipients were expected to have Òpendulous breastsÓ by the time they were forty’. In 1975 it was reported that ‘surgeons suspected that more than twelve thousand women had received silicone injections in Las Vegas alone; more than a hundred women a year were seeking help for conditions ranging from discoloration to gangrene that developed anywhere from one to fourteen years later’. Silicone implants replaced injections but concerns about the health effects caused the American Food and Drug Administration to impose an almost total ban in April 1992. Women who received implants regularly lost sensation in their nipples after the surgery and suffered problems such as encapsulation when scar tissue rendered the breasts hard. Saline implants were favoured where silicone was outlawed. Nonetheless, by 1995, when Glamour magazine asked men, ‘If it were painless, safe, and free, would you encourage your wife or girlfriend to get breast implants?’, 55 per cent said yes. This figure does indicate where the pressure for women to have implants originates.
One impulse that underlies women’s pursuit of breast implant surgery may be depression. Several studies have shown that there is an unusually high suicide rate among those who have implants. A 2003 Finnish study found that the rate was three times higher than among the general population. There is controversy as to the reason for this high rate. Some researchers say it indicates that women who have implants are already depressed and have a tendency towards suicide. The high rate would then suggest that the surgery does not cure the depression. Others say that the suicides may relate to the degree of pain and anxiety women suffer because of the implants. Either way, the suicide rate suggests that breast implants are not positively correlated with women’s mental health.
The routinisation of seriously invasive cosmetic surgery is evident in the discussion fora and message boards the industry has set up in recent years to gain clients and encourage women to pay for their services. The message boards are sections of the websites of cosmetic surgery clinics and referral services. They are interesting because they demonstrate how forms of interaction that women have developed to deal with oppression — gossip, sharing of experiences, encouragement and support — have been exploited to increase industry profits. The discussions resemble a distorted form of consciousness-raising techniques. Women discuss their pain and distress but instead of criticising the process of exploitation in which they have been involved, they support each other in going through with surgery and getting more. The boards are a consciousness-lowering medium.
One exchange on the Plastic Surgery Message Board in June 2004 gives an impression of how serious the sequelae can be. Tenta writes that she had a tummy tuck four years ago, which ‘involved major complications’. She had to go to hospital to have the ‘binder’ cut off. She says:
At the time I had pubic area swelling and was told that it would go away. It has been 4 years and my pubic area still is swollen. I feel very uncomfortable and can’t wear tights and usually purchase pants/skirts one size bigger.
Danya replies that liposuction would probably solve the problem and explains that the mons pubis sometimes after a tummy tuck ‘gets pulled up because of the tension from having a nice flat tummy’.
Other problems that women discuss include swelling, bruising, pain, numbness, itching, smell, unwanted lumps, dents and constipation. One woman, Calimom, complains on the Implantinfo Support Forum about pain:
My PS [plastic surgeon] has me massaging for 2Ð3 minutes every hour but today it really hurts. I’m very bruised and swollen below my breasts and it’s starting to really burn there when I massage. Should I continue but just be gentler?
On the same message board another woman, Emily, talks of the problems she has four days after both liposuction and implants in her breasts:
I was not expecting it to be this bad. Where my PS sucked out tissue on the side is just so painful. I just want to be able to wash my own hair, feed myself, and go to the bathroom alone É when should I really start feeling back to normal with pretty good usage of my arms? I don’t know if I’ll make it much longer!
The surgery these women have had is the everyday practice of modern cosmetic surgeons. The message boards demonstrate the extent to which such surgery can now be the aspiration even of young teenage girls. A labiaplasty message board attached to <lastertreatments.com> has a message from a fourteen-year-old girl so desperate to have surgery on her labia and mons pubis that she has considered cutting up her own body:
Hi I’m 14 and I’ve been wanting labiaplasty too. (and lol I’ve gotten so mad I thought about taken the knife myself too!) It’s bothered me for as long as I can remember and as much as guys say it’s a turn-on I still hate it … I was also looking into getting liposuction of the mons pubis … and I know it seems weird to get liposuction there but I’m skinny but then fat there and it bothers me so much.
Fortunately a woman responded to her, telling her that it is normal for young girls of her age to be concerned about the way their body is developing and she should not consider altering it until she is fully grown.
The Pornographic Demand for Breast Implants: Lolo Ferrari
Ferrari is a woman who was constructed, and driven to her death, by men’s pornographic demand for women with large breasts. Her life story serves as a grave example of the way men’s fetish demands can be carved onto the bodies of women, and the effect this can have on women’s lives. Ferrari was in the Guinness Book of Records for possessing the biggest breasts in the world. They weighed one-eighth of her body weight. She died in March 2000, apparently of an overdose of prescription drugs. She had made several suicide attempts previously. She was born in 1963, had an unhappy childhood and was bulimic in her teens. This is not incidental. As Marilee Strong argues in A Bright Red Scream, eating disorders frequently accompany other forms of self-mutilation in young women. Her first job was in a club as a waitress but by 1986 she was posing in porn magazines. She also posed topless for amateur photographers on the beach at Cannes. The cosmetic surgery operations began in 1990 after her marriage to Eric Vigne. Vigne sketched the results he would like to see for the surgeon and her chest was increased from thirty-seven to forty-one inches, her nose was reduced, her cheekbones accentuated, her lips filled with collagen and her eyes lifted. Her eyebrows were shaved and replaced with tattooed lines. There were more than twenty operations to come over the next four years, with five to six surgeons operating on her. New implants took her chest size to forty-five inches.
Her pimp/husband, Vigne, was a transvestite interested in transsexuality. He had a fear of surgery so would not create the perfectly feminine face he wanted by cutting up his own. He used his wife as a canvas on which to create the extreme version of femininity that he found exciting. Lolo’s final implants contained 3.3 litres of silicone in each, taking her chest size to fifty-one inches. It is troubling that a cosmetic surgeon was prepared to do an operation that would create such damage. Vigne exhibited Lolo in nightclubs around Europe where thousands of men would go to see her breasts. In one performance in 1999 Lolo fell from the stage unconscious. She was taking a great many drugs to anaesthetise herself and was unable to sleep easily because her breasts prevented lying on her front or back. Operations on her nose meant she had difficulty breathing. Just before her death she weighed only 48 kg. In an interview that appeared in the Guardian in 2000, Lolo said of the cosmetic surgery she had suffered:
All this stuff has been because I can’t stand life. But it hasn’t changed anything. There are moments when I disconnect totally from reality. Then I can do anything, absolutely anything. I swallow pills. I throw myself out of windows. Dying seems very easy then.
Lolo chose her coffin some weeks before her death, but as it turned out she was found not to have committed suicide after all. Vigne, who was living off the earnings from the pornographic images compiled during her lifetime, was arrested by the French police on suspicion of her murder in March 2002. A new report by a team of three police scientists said that she had died of suffocation and not an overdose of prescription drugs as was previously thought.
Writing in the Australian Magazine about Lolo’s life and death in November 2000, however, William Peakin quotes Peter Stuart — managing editor of Rapido TV and an editor of Eurotrash, which helped to pornographise Lolo — in order to engage in an exercise of woman-blaming. Stuart says that the cause of her tragic life was her mother, rather than Vigne. He says that she was exploited by both men and women and ‘even exploited herself’, but, ‘if you asked who caused her the most pain or damage in her life, Lolo would tell you it was her mother’. In fact, in a search I performed, the Rapido website is just one of over 10,000 that profit from pornographic photos of the dead woman. As is frequently the case in other harmful cultural practices against women, they are blamed on women and the responsibility of men is made invisible.
Ferrari’s experience may be the most extreme lengths to which breast implant sadism towards women can go, but there are other women following in her wake. The Australian magazine NW, which, like other women’s gossip sheets, likes to cover the harmful practices carried out on celebrities, dedicated an article in 2001 to photos of women they considered to be seriously inconvenienced by what had been done to their chests. The UK model Jordan had apparently had three ‘boob jobs’ costing AUD$28,350, leaving her frame ‘grossly out of proportion’ with a size 32FF chest. The magazine helpfully includes a diagram showing how Jordan, on 20cm heels, as she is pictured, has dangerously shifted her centre of gravity. Jordan’s links with pornography are demonstrated by the fact that she ‘paraded around at Playboy king Hugh Hefner’s 75th birthday party in London’. She is an ex-Page 3 girl — the Sun newspaper’s regular pornography page. A friend of the model explained, ‘Jordan admits she’s always had low self-esteem and craves attention’. In 1999 she took a drug overdose and her boyfriend left her over her ‘increasingly raunchy photo shoots’. Jordan, with heavily collagened lips, is looking more and more similar to Lolo Ferrari.
The US actor, Pamela Anderson, is going along the same path. She had breast implants taking her to a size 34D in 1989, and had them replaced by larger implants taking her to 34DD a few years later. She had the implants removed in 1999. In 2001 she had new implants put in and replaced these with larger ones almost immediately, according to NW. All this is despite the fact that she has had the problem of leaking implants.
The body types featured in sexual entertainment spawn other forms of extreme mutilation of women. The hipster pants fashion, particularly as portrayed by Britney Spears, has led to a surge in lipo-surgery to create Britney-style flat stomachs. NW features a woman who undertook the nine-hour operation, costing thousands of dollars, because she was ‘so embarrassed by her belly’. The patient, Hilary Coritore, explains:
I’d just like to feel proud of my figure, but right now I’m so ashamed of my belly — it just hangs there. Britney Spears has an amazing stomach, and I’d give anything to look like that. She wears all those low pants and I just wish I could have a stomach as flat as hers.
In the operation, she receives liposuction to her thighs and upper abdomen to help ‘show off’ the tummy tuck that took place as follows: ‘A large 15cm-square slice of Hilary’s belly is then cut off and thrown away. The whole area from Hilary’s pubic bone up to her navel has been removed’. She received breast implants at the same time to utilise the same incision. Cosmetic surgeons like to give the impression that they perform these mutilations for the sake of the women rather than to exploit women’s low self-esteem to line their pockets. The surgeon in Coritore’s operation says that ‘all my girls’ in the compulsory ‘before’ photograph of their almost naked bodies look ‘shy, timid and insecure’, but, ‘the change I see in my patients in just a few days is so amazing’.
Cosmetic surgeons seem to like to surgically construct their wives, as advertisements for their business, and, presumably, because they then have their favoured fetish objects easily available in their homes. One such is Ox Bismarchi who, according to NW, cut up his wife, Brazilian model Angela Bismachi, ten times in two years. He encouraged her to undertake more surgery and carried it out himself. He says: ‘When I look at her, I see my own creation’. He is twenty-five years older than his twenty-eight-year-old wife. He gave her ‘Pamela Anderson-like breasts, a tiny waist and a totally flat stomach’ as well as placing ‘non-absorbent gels’ in his wife’s ‘calves, lips and cheeks’. He even gave her a dimple in her chin.
The cosmetic surgery carried out on women in the malestream entertainment industry is directed towards making them conform to men’s sexual fantasies in order to earn their subsistence. In extreme forms women are made into freaks who cannot physically support the weight of their own breasts and whose faces are contorted masks, but the purpose is related to the dictates of the sexual corvŽe. The women are mutilated to provide feasts for men’s eyes.
The forms of mutilation that are socially approved because they make women more sexually attractive to men — cosmetic surgery and some forms of piercing and tattooing — are usually separated out from the wave of self-mutilations of more extreme or unusual varieties involved in body modification. It is not clear to me that they should be, however. The seriously invasive surgery involved in breast implantation, for instance, would be considered savage if it was carried out at a body modification convention. When it is done by surgeons in the name of relieving the supposedly ordinary distress of women about their appearance it can be seen as unremarkable. The connection between amputee identity disorder and cosmetic surgery is usefully made by Dan Edelman who asks: ‘When in both cases the language used implies a sense of Otherness with respect to one’s body, wherein lies the difference in the decision to remove a ÒforeignÓ limb versus tucking the tummy or lifting the face of a body that is not a ÒhomeÓ?’
In the face of an epidemic in the west of increasingly severe forms of self-mutilation, it may be time to ask how the attacks on the body may be stopped. The fashion, beauty, pornography and medical industries that justify and promote these forms of self-harm are parasitic on the damage male dominant western societies enact on women and girls and vulnerable constituencies of boys and men.
Sheila Jeffreys is a researcher and lecturer in politics at the University of Melbourne. This is an edited extract from her book Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West, published by Routledge, 2005.