Is body modification a beauty practice and is it misogynist?

(34 Posts)

Stuff like piercings and tattoos?

I've just finished reading Sheila Jeffreys Beauty and Misogyny and she makes a very strong case for beauty practices such as hair removal, make up, heels, cosmetic surgery etc. to be counted as 'harmful traditional/cultural practices' according to the UN definition:

In United Nations (UN) documents such as the Fact Sheet on "Harmful Traditional Practices" (UN, 1995), 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.

So far so good, but she also includes body modification practices that are more normally associated with alternative culture, such as tattoos and piercings. I get that these practices can be seen as quite literally bodily harm but I don't think they are performed for men's benefit and I don't think they create stereotyped roles. Am I missing something?

My body is my temple. I shall decorate my temple however I please.

This is my mantra, always has been, always shall be. My tattoos are for me, I shave my legs/underarms for me. I wear a bit of make-up for me. It makes me feel good - so why should I NOT do it?

Do you see your tattoos and your hair removal as the same sort of thing?

I have tattoos and piercings which all mean something very personal to me and which I have not felt any mainstream societal pressure to get (quite the opposite - I need to cover them sometimes, eg. for interviews). I don't feel like they are a particularly 'feminine' thing because I know at least as many men with piercings/tattoos as women and I don't feel like they stereotype me as feminine.

I feel completely differently about hair removal. I do it just enough to fit in. Men don't have to do this, it's extra work for women and it doesn't feel OK to not do it, not now I'm old.

I'm not into telling anybody what they should or shouldn't do. We're all just muddling through smile I'm interested in why we do what we do.

For me it very much is the same thing! I don't shave my legs for a fair few months in winter - I'm always covered in opaques/trousers and I don't feel the need to when I'm not bare-legged much as I don't wear earrings when my hair is down! I like freshly shaving my legs and smothering them in body butter to give them a gorgeous shine when I do get my legs out - I'll body butter up my tattoos too when I am showing them off!

When I ask DH if he likes this/that or the other it's very rare he's even noticed so I'd definitely say I do these things for me because I like how they make me feel smile

MiniTheMinx Wed 11-Jul-12 20:42:34

Really interesting question Plenty. A few weeks ago a guy in the pub was really rude to a friend who has piercings and tattoos, saying very loudly that he thought she looked like a tin can. Another friend challenged him and the following day asked what I thought she should have done.

The piercings are in her face, and she has absolutely fab electric blue hair, she looks great she is also very pretty. It struck me that this man had a problem with the fact that she doesn't do femininity. She refuses to subject herself to mainstream beauty practices and standards and he found it offensive and disempowering to him.

MooncupGoddess Thu 12-Jul-12 14:21:43

Beauty and Misogyny is a pretty amazing book (though I don't agree with 100% of it). One of the crucial points I think is that it's not about how individuals feel, it's about the deep cultural attitudes that make people think and behave in particular ways. I like to shave my armpits once or twice a week and start feeling grubby if I don't, but fundamentally I'm not doing it 'for me', I'm doing it because I've been conditioned since earliest youth into believing that women should have shaven armpits.

Tattoos and piercings seem quite odd to me. Why inflict physical pain on yourself in the name of aesthetics? Surely this can only be a culturally conditioned practice? I agree that most piercings and tattoos aren't a direct function of patriarchal attitudes (whereas breast implants, cosmetic surgery etc are). Instead they seem to reflect a desire to belong to a particular subculture, or maybe rebel against the prevailing culture? I wonder, if we didn't have ridiculous patriarchal beauty practices, people would feel less inspired to cause themselves damage in an attempt to define themselves as different from the mainstream?

WaitingForMe Thu 12-Jul-12 14:34:59

I think part of the difficulty with tattoos is that the motivation for them varies far more from person to person than the motivation for say hair removal.

OatyBeatie Thu 12-Jul-12 14:46:07

Tattoos and piercings inoffensive when they were countercultural. Except to the extent that people might have faced subcultural pressures to get them done, they did seem to be arguably a form of individual self-definition and autonomy.

But it is quite different now, isn't it? Tattoos and piercings have become quite mainstream consumer goods, to the extent that we might be able to claim that at least some of the individuals who get them are manipulated by the same sort of systematic consumerist pressures that cause them to buy other pointless and/or damaging cosmetic products.

I wouldn't think of women as being more subject to that particular aspect of commercial manipulation than men, though. I would think of it as a harmful practice that men and women are both affected by.

MiniTheMinx Thu 12-Jul-12 14:49:44

It seems that the beauty industry is set to get it's claws into men, it's just capital looking for new markets to exploit.

OatyBeatie Thu 12-Jul-12 14:52:36

YY, its the dynamics of capital: look for new markets, always and relentlessly. Often that means developing new spurious "needs", such as hairless genitals, inflated lips, tattoos. But it also means drilling spurious needs into into men in ways that have been formerly restricted to women.

MiniTheMinx Thu 12-Jul-12 15:17:41

Need is created I think by making people feel insecure, so that we all start to perceive inflated lips and massive breasts as normal, anyone who doesn't subscribe is now abnormal, lacking in integrity, standards and money. The same is happening in health in general, as capital looks to find ways of making money here in the uk. Doctors have been given massive bribes to hand out anti-depressants like smarties and yet it is little wonder, we are all suffering from consumer fatigue and insecurity abounds.

MooncupGoddess Thu 12-Jul-12 15:28:24

That is all true... BUT women are still much more the focus of such pressure than men, and their beauty standards much more rigorously enforced. Generally speaking men can still get away with shaving their chins and an overall neat and clean appearance. A woman who did the same would be perceived as dowdy, unattractive and at some fundamental level inadequate.

OatyBeatie Thu 12-Jul-12 15:28:54

I hope it has a natural limit, and that consumer fatigue, plus the implosion of the debt economy that generated a alleged duty to spend spend spend for the sake of the economy, will eventually turn us away from this madness.

You'd think that when consumer capitalism had reached the point of telling us to pay for fish to eat the skin off our feet it would pretty much have burnt itself out, but it seems to have a few more consumerist death-twitches up its sleeve.

OatyBeatie Thu 12-Jul-12 15:32:14

I certainly agree with that Mooncup. Men are feeling more pressure than they did, but it is still way less than that which women are subjected to. And as well as massively more consumerist pressure around their own appearance, look at the obscene way that parenthood has been consumerized in the last couple of decades, with the invention of a million new silly products to accessorize childrearing. Women get the brunt of that. It is an important part of the business model of a site like Mumsnet.

EclecticShock Sat 14-Jul-12 23:11:52

I think whatever you do to your body is generally for your own satisfaction. Whether that's because you like it or you like that someone else likes it, is your choice. Taking steps to be attractive to the object of your desire is something most people do at some point, whether that's reading poetry or putting in lipstick.

Hi thanks for the replies. I'm not ignoring this thread, I'm snowed under with work at the moment (in a good way smile). I'll be back with proper responses soon.

Mini - yes, I have a friend with rather a lot of facial piercings and I've seen her get really quite angry reactions from men. One said 'why do you want to make yourself look ugly?' in a tone that sounded more like, 'how dare you not make yourself look beautiful (for me)?'

MooncupGoddess - they seem to reflect a desire to belong to a particular subculture, or maybe rebel against the prevailing culture? yes, I think this is a reason for a lot of people. I'm less sure about this bit - I wonder, if we didn't have ridiculous patriarchal beauty practices, people would feel less inspired to cause themselves damage in an attempt to define themselves as different from the mainstream? - I don't think it's a reaction against just beauty practices, after all, there are a lot of men who do it.

OatyBeatie - that's a really good point about the mainstreaming of tattoos and piercings. There was that godawful fashion a few years ago for bare midriffs with pierced belly buttons and a tattoo across the lower back - that did seem a particularly 'feminine' fashion. I also had a read of the clit piercing thread - I'd be interested in figures for female vs. male genital piercings. Maybe it is becoming more gendered? I doubt it's something any woman would think of doing if she hadn't already removed her pubic hair and from what I hear from youngsters, there's definitely a pressure to do that.

I really hope that performing femininity has not started to extend to genital piercings. sad

MooncupGoddess Tue 17-Jul-12 19:46:57

Having read the utterly terrifying clit piercing thread, I am now aware that I know essentially nothing about 'body modification'. And frankly I'd rather keep it that way!

www.mumsnet.com/Talk/_chat/1517124-Clit-piercing-well-it-is-Friday

I think generally body modification should not be classed with hair removal and such, because it is more of a subculture that includes men and women fairly equally.

I think there are some gender aspects to it. The 'tramp stamp' tattoo, for example -- how many women got that because it was something perceived as sexy to men? Even as it garnered such a tasteless nickname?

Alternative-looking women being challenged for being unfeminine is another issue, although some alternative-looking men will also be challenged for looking unmasculine.

I guess I see tattoos and piercings as often challenging conventional notions of beauty.... except where they seem to get mainstreamed into conventional society, and then they might take on more of a gendered aspect.

From a personal POV I do what I want to my body, for my own personal gratification. From a wider POV I would worry that any large scale fashion trend, whether it's botox or tattoos or getting tango'd in the local salon, is due to societal pressure and therefore starts becoming something women 'have' to do in order to conform to men's perceptions of sexual norms (and that's a long sentence, sorry)

Despite the odd bit of smart analysis, Sheila Jeffries is at bottom a dishonest whinyarse who hates pretty much everything and everyone.

It is worth remembering that permanent 'disfiguring' body modification for men is not actually a new thing: quite a few African tribes have been known to go in for deliberate facial scarring, there's those rainforest types with the plates in their lips, etc etc (am not an expert and just picking examples at random, no racism or condemnation intended). And the sort of drastic and permanent facial modifications that some people have these days (ear stretching, tongue bifircation) is slightly more common among men than women.

I still maintain that people have the right to do what they want with their bodies.

MooncupGoddess Tue 17-Jul-12 20:25:14

Well yes SGB, and we have the right to analyse the social attitudes that make people to decide to do those things.

Of course you're quite right about different cultures and body modifications (I still shudder when I recall a description of the ritual circumcision of teenage boys in one African culture). Overall, though, I still think women have it worse than men.

(I saw Sheila Jeffreys speak at the weekend; she was surprisingly good fun though clearly in mourning for the lost 1980s days of political lesbianism.)

Thing is, the likes of Jeffries would try to take an example like that bloke who wants to be a tiger and has had all sorts of implants and tattoos, and say he Shouldn't Be Allowed because it's antifeminist and playing into the patriarchy's hands. Because anything anyone else does that she and her crew don't fancy is EEEEEVILLL!

LurkingAndLearningForNow Thu 19-Jul-12 00:46:02

I desperately want Rhinoplasty because as a child a man broke my nose and it was poorly set.

Honest question, not snarky: Is this conforming to the beauty myth or not?

MooncupGoddess Thu 19-Jul-12 13:25:47

Hmm. I think for me it would depend what your nose looks like. If it's sticking out at an odd angle and is one of the first things people notice about your face, then I don't think it would be conforming to the beauty myth to fix it. After all, it would just be returning it to its original appearance.

Similarly I wouldn't criticise people who got snarled-up teeth straightened up (which I've done myself) or had breast implants following a mastectomy. It's normal for humans to care about their appearance, to some extent, the problem comes when people focus on it above anything else.

Of course it may be that your nose has a tiny kink that no one but you has ever spotted... be honest with yourself! Lots of people have non-ideal noses without it having any effect on their lives at all.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now