Academic journal article Hecate

'Woman-Made Women': Mobilisations of Nature in Feminist Accounts of Cosmetic Surgery

Academic journal article Hecate

'Woman-Made Women': Mobilisations of Nature in Feminist Accounts of Cosmetic Surgery

Article excerpt

Cosmetic surgery is often discussed in terms of its `naturalness,' with references to nature found not only in the popular press, but also in considered feminist critiques of the phenomenon. These references carry with them political problems that warrant close examination. What is at stake when feminists portray cosmetic surgery as unnatural, or pose the non-surgical body as precultural?

In this paper, I analyse a number of feminist texts to demonstrate the frequency with which notions of the natural are used in discussions of cosmetic surgery. Often, references to nature take the form of an implicit reliance upon the natural body through the construction of the body as the pre-existing object of cultural pressures. I argue that although in this work there are points at which the natural is briefly problematised, it is never thoroughly critiqued. Instead, the natural (or precultural) body remains a founding concept for many of the arguments, despite the role of the natural body in the reproduction of normative categories of sex and gender.(1) In identifying these patterns, I also argue that appeals to nature run the risk of achieving an effect not at all intended by the writers: the confirmation of the female body as an appropriate site for cosmetic surgical intervention.

In undertaking this examination, I focus only on those accounts which deal with surgical interventions commonly defined as `aesthetic' or `cosmetic,'(2) rather than those presently understood as involving transsexual motives or effects. Although transsexual surgery can be seen as cosmetic in the context of postmodern theorisations of gender as performative rather than expressive,(3) the particular cultural meanings and weight ascribed to the alteration of sex suggest that transsexual surgery cannot be equated in any simple way with other cosmetic surgical body alterations.(4) In addition, the scholarly and political investments of those who analyse transsexual surgery cannot be assumed to correspond to those of researchers interested in cosmetic surgery as it is generally define.(5)

The natural

The natural is situated at the very centre of a system of dichotomies that work to delineate male and female. Closely examined by a number of feminist and other scholars, the distinction between nature and culture has been identified as a central organising feature of culture and, according to Donna Haraway, provides the necessary legitimation for science. She argues that just as the fictional construct of the `Orient' makes possible the Orientalist, the fictional construct of `nature' makes possible science.(6) Mary Jacobus, Evelyn Fox Keller and Sally Shuttleworth confirm the development of this relationship in the post-Enlightenment age. They make the point that nature is concomitantly gendered feminine, arguing that:

The last two centuries have witnessed an increasing literalisation of one of the dominant metaphors which guided the development of early modern science. For Bacon, the pursuit of scientific knowledge was figured rhetorically as the domination of the female body of nature, illuminated by the light of masculine science. With the professionalisation of science, and the development of ever more sophisticated technologies of control, the metaphorical base of this epistemological quest has become explicit material practice. The full weight of the power and authority enjoyed by science in our culture has been brought to bear on the female body.(7)

The concept of nature legitimates science and, I would argue, can in turn be said to underpin the scientific/medical field of cosmetic surgery.(8)

The natural has occupied at least two main roles in post-Enlightenment Western culture. According to Bloch and Bloch, one understanding of nature has been that it constitutes the inert raw materials upon which culture sets to work. This view privileges culture over nature, and sees human existence as necessarily a struggle against the primitive, impoverishing forces of nature. …

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