...but they can obviously be fixed with plastic surgery.
Women's right to choose was not meant to be about Botox
Libby Brooks, guardian.co.uk, Thursday 14 January 2010 19.00 GMT
The era of perfectability has seen feminist calls for autonomy distorted into a row about rights to self-mutilate the body
This lady has a tattoo on her right buttock. That lady's breasts are slightly lopsided. The woman to the left has an ample tummy that jiggles when she bounces. As a quotidian consumer of contemporary culture, I consider myself inured to nudity. But, on a chilly evening earlier this week, before a stage full of naked, whooping strangers, I realised that I don't know women's bodies at all.
Nic Green's Trilogy is an exuberantly choreographed and unashamedly political piece of theatre that examines the arc of the women's movement from the passionate debates of the early 70s to the neutered discourse of big jugs and work/life juggling today. Now playing in London for the month, Trilogy was the talk of the steamie at the Edinburgh festival last summer for reasons that were easily apparent the other night: for much of it the actors are nude, there is a set piece naked dance performed by non-professional volunteers, and a finale that invites female audience members to strip on spec and join the cast in a singsong.
There's something at once endearingly old-fashioned and perfectly modern about deploying the elemental shock tactic of nudity in the service of women's empowerment. Germaine Greer famously posed naked for the 60s underground publication Oz. Only last week, the actress and fashion designer Sadie Frost, guest-editing the rather more sedate Grazia magazine, included nude and un-airbrushed shots of herself in order to make the "big point", she said, that women should be proud of who they are. Certainly, there is little more visible than bared flesh. But there is also little more dishonest.
What is striking about Trilogy, alongside ordinary women's delight in striping off, is how unfamiliar we have become with the familiar sight of the female form. From the cult of the Virgin Mary in late-middle ages European art to the surgically sculpted cover girls of today, the perfected female nude has been rendered the idealised aesthetic and unequivocal, aspirational norm. We live in an era of perfectability, where cosmetic procedures are marketed according to how effectively they may be executed in a lunch hour, and almost half of secondary-school girls would consider some form of surgical intervention to change the way they look.
Quite apart from the unknowable physical and mental health consequences of performing invasive and unnecessary operations on younger and younger people, the terrifying normalisation of cosmetic surgery, in tandem with the epic prevalence of digitally altered images, distorts not only our notion of what is beautiful, but our sense of what is natural. It is ironic that the more shapes and sizes that become technically attainable, the narrower our template of what is attractive becomes. Instead, what have been vastly expanded are the aspects of appearance we pathologise.
This is really nothing more than the logical extension of the way that late capitalism co-opted the language of empowerment to sell women shampoo and mascara "because we're worth it". A woman's right to choose, once the foundation of feminist discourse about abortion, contraception and the like, has mutated into a woman's right to inject her crow's-feet with botulism, or indulge in potentially life-threatening mutilations. Physical flaws, no matter how minor, and the consequences of ageing, no matter how inevitable, are re–conceived as a challenge. Since bodies can be so easily improved upon, is it not, in fact, one's ultimate responsibility to do so?
In her 1990 classic The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf predicted the inevitable outcome of what she called the Surgical Age: "Women in our 'raw' or 'natural' state will continue to be shifted from category 'woman' to category 'ugly', and shamed into an assembly-line physical identity. As each woman responds to the pressure, it will grow so intense that it will become obligatory, until no self-respecting woman will venture outdoors with a surgically unaltered face." It's not so far from the more recently imagined dystopia proffered by Jeanette Winterson in her novel The Stone Gods, in which scientific advances allow women to fix their physical appearance at their preferred moment of youthfulness.
The era of perfectability is far from singular in its focus on women's bodies. Men are similarly maligned, and encouraged to entertain their moral responsibility to achieve perfect pectorals or phalloplasty. Indeed, the winnowing factor is no longer gender, nor class, but cash. But still, it does retain a specific message for women: that, after longer than a century of political movements fighting for the right to visibility in public life, the locus of participation has shifted to the private preoccupation with individual presentation. Perhaps you can't change the world, but you can – and indeed it is beholden upon you – to change yourself.
I choose not to get fixed.
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