The failures of our feminist vision seem to be right up in our faces of late – from these wretched wars and occupations to the mortifying bouffant hairdo’s that network newswomen seem expected to wear. Recently I’ve had reason to regret how little impact we’ve had on the lives of girls – or at least on their concept of “femininity.” I was disappointed when, at a wonderful bat mitzvah party, I realized that all the dozens of 12 and 13 year-old guests – the girls, that is – were teetering on high heels. Kudos to the parent-hosts who supplied them all with thick sockettes so they could and did kick off the torture devices. (Heels-hating isn’t just my own personal piss-off; check out what the Mayo Clinic has to say about them.)
Now it seems that we have a plastic surgeon publishing (self-publishing, I believe) a children’s book entitled “My Beautiful Mommy” in which a little girl accompanies her mom to an appointment with a cartoonishly hunky plastic surgeon (does he do work on himself for a discount?). There they all patronize the daughter, explaining that slicing up nose cartilage and suturing tummy skin is all part of an adult woman’s beauty regime.
The good Dr. keeps lollipops around as he explains to the kid what is going to happen to her mommy. He covers her procedure, her recuperation and most of all her need to improve herself. The child worries whether mommy will be different afterwards. "Not just different, my dear -- prettier!" Well, that’s worth risking one’s life for. Not.
The author, Dr. Michael Salzhauer has had absolutely unprecedented media attention – and the book isn’t even out yet (whereas most self-published authors are given the shaft by media and booksellers alike.) Fear not, though: apparently if you pre-order, it will be shipped out in time for Mother’s Day. So much for our feminist dream that people would be admired irrespective of their biology, for their principles, their achievements, their values, their relationships, their art… but not in proportion to the tightness of their belly.
Instead, there’s been a lot of retreat in American society. In order to bolster self-worth, to comply with cultural norms and to shine at job interviews, women feel they need to subject themselves to elective surgery. As the economy tanks, there’s been a spate of articles proposing that “Plastic surgery is the next must-have career tool” – based in part on a book purporting that good-lookers pull in the big bucks. Surgery: the new little black business suit.
I checked out various studies and no matter what the source, a sizeable chunk of women are dissatisfied with the skin they’re in. According to a report on NOW’s foundation site, “In 2001, over 8.5 million people had cosmetic procedures in the United States. Of these, 88% were women.”
Hmmm, what could be motoring all this slicing and dicing? Cosmeticsurgery.com, which with no sign of irony puts their info into a “fun facts” list, boasts that in just 2003 Americans spent $9.4 billion on plastic surgery (about equal to what we pay for a month of the Iraq war). In my day, for special events like birthdays, my family went out to McDonalds together. Now it’s surgery: this site claims that 44% of patients were mothers and daughters having surgery together and 38% were couples. This is a whole new concept of families spending quality time – side-by-side on gurneys. Once mothers gave their girls a charm bracelet: now it’s an intravenous drip.
The combination of marketing and sexism works. One UCLA study shows over 70% of women so dissatisfied with their bodies that they would consider the risks of operations. (I found the parallel figure of 40% for men surprisingly high.)
Even if it weren’t such a lucrative field and even if Dr. Michael Salzhauer were free of any self-interest, one would still find the whole idea of this book troubling on multiple levels. But the sound of ka-ching! rings loudly through this literature, which educates a whole new generation of girls – potential customers – to associate “beauty” and carving.
And it’s not just the plastic surgeons who want to sexualize and commercialize girls. I’ve just read about a new book I must get ahold of called "The Lolita Effect." In it University of Iowa Professor Gigi Durham says she is criticizing “how the media present girls' sexuality in a way that's tied to their profit motives. The body ideals presented in the media are virtually impossible to attain, but girls don't always realize that, and they'll buy an awful lot of products to try to achieve those bodies.” The review in Newswise.com observes:
At Abercrombie & Fitch, little girls were sold thong underwear tagged with the phrases "eye candy" and "wink wink." In Britain, preschoolers could learn to strip with their very own Peekaboo Pole-Dancing Kits -- complete with kiddie garter belts and play money. And 'tween readers of the magazine Seventeen discovered "405 ways to look hot" like Paris Hilton.
'Seventies feminists tried to build a movement and a consciousness that would endure through the generations, but the forces of profit are so strong that they require each generation to build its own defenses. Luckily there are a lot of feminist girls and young women who have stepped up – but that, as a friend say, is a whole other story.
P.S. Hate as I do to bring any further attention to “My Beautiful Mommy”, if you want to see some of the pages from this sorry excuse for a children’s book, check out this slideshow from Newsweek.com.