Cutting edge of feminist cred

Book:RESHAPING THE FEMALE BODY: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery by Kathy Davis, Routledge £35/£11.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IS IT politically incorrect to have your breasts enlarged, your thighs liposculpted, or your nose done? Most feminists condemn such fripperies outright. Misguided women, they say, are driven to the scalpel by failure to live up to the unreasonable stereotypes of standardised "beauty". Any other view verges on the heretical, as Kathy Davis discovered in her study of women's reasons for having their bodies surgically reshaped.

At a conference on feminist ethics, Davis, a professor of Women's Studies at the University of Utrecht, dared to suggest that removing cosmetic surgery from the Dutch national health care package was not necessarily a stride forward for womankind. Her audience of feminist philosophers muttered and tutted and condemned her as not radical, "problematical", "too liberal".

Davis is (emphatically) not a promoter of plastic surgery. She points out that an operation may well leave the subject looking worse than before, and she is critical of the many surgeons who fail to give adequate information to their patients beforehand. But, she argues, if plastic surgery makes women feel better about themselves, radically changes their lives for the better, why not let them make an informed choice to go ahead?

Her own doubts about the feminist knee-jerk reaction crystallised when a friend announced that she was going to have her breasts enlarged. "I must have looked flabbergasted, as she immediately began defending herself. She said she was tired of putting up with being flat-chested. She had tried everything (psychoanalysis, feminism, talks with friends) ... She saw no other solution than to do something about it ... If she had used the very same rhetoric to justify a divorce (`My marriage is awful. I've had it. I'm going to do something about it. I'm getting a divorce') I would have heard this as `ideologically correct'. In the first case she is the victim of manipulation and in the second, just another feminist who is taking her life in hand."

Few orthodox feminists would agree. In fact, writing this book, says Davis, "put my feminist credentials in danger". What's so shocking? Mainly the fact that in virtually all the cases Davis studies, far from feeling degraded by their experiences, the subjects claim that going under the knife was one of the best things they ever did.

Diana, a schoolteacher, had her entire face remodelled. "Kids tell it like it is ... that you have a rabbit face, that you're Bugs Bunny. And they start imitating you all the time ... I used to spend hours crying about it." After the operation, Diana says she is not especially beautiful - but "It's just ... well, it's a nice face now ... I'm just ordinary."

Sandra had a breast reduction. Before the operation, when she was jogging, boys would shout "Buttermilk, buttermilk" after her. After spending years hiding under bulky sweaters and leaving her shirt on during sex, she now says "I just want to show everyone my boobs. I'm so happy with them."

There are also horror stories. Caroline's breast implants went dramatically wrong. "This slippery white thing poked its way through the infected hole in my breast right before my eyes." Even after a successful operation, the women Davis interviewed describe pain, scarring and side-effects. Several who underwent breast augmentations had to go back for a procedure euphemistically called "fluffing up", an excruciating process where the surgeon pounds at implants that have become encapsulated in hard tissue to re-soften them. But, amazingly, nearly all of them (including the unfortunate Caroline) say that if they had the choice again, they would repeat the surgery.

According to Davis, this is because they have made a life-changing decision they are determined to stick with. None had been pressured by husbands desperate for D-cups or scalpel-happy surgeons. And none dreamed of being transformed into a human Barbie. Each earnestly explained they "did not have cosmetic surgery because they wanted to be more beautiful ... It was not about beauty, but about wanting to become ordinary ... "

And there's the rub. "Normality", like "beauty" is firmly in the eye of the beholder. Davis admits that some patients' vision of normality is considerably narrower than others. Observing a Dutch consultant with his patients, Davis was amazed to see "a slender, pretty woman in her early twenties, like a blonde Natassia Kinski". This "vision of loveliness" was persuaded out of a huge leather jacket, a bulky sweater and three layers of T-shirts to expose a chest she considered inadequate. After she left, the doctor turned to Davis and groaned, "Those were fantastic breasts, real beauties. It's a shame to tamper with them." But he referred her for surgery, just the same.