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Historically and surgically constructed gender

2009 January 31
by Hannah Mueller

The cosmetic surgery industry relies on “Western notions of beauty that are not only sexist and classist but also inherently racist”, according to Victoria M. Bañales’ article.  This put cosmetic surgery in a whole new light for me.  While before I left off thinking about it as one woman’s personal choice, now I doubt, as Bañales suggests, that any woman can get cosmetic surgery “for herself”.  She is always pushed toward it not only by expectations that she look “beautiful” (for men), but also that she look white, and thereby not lower-class.  The concept of “choice” is not clear-cut at all.  At some level, all women who undergo cosmetic surgery do it “of their own free will”–but for women who live in a deeply racist society like Peru’s, the alternative may be not earning a living wage.   Life or death is not much of a choice.

Although women in “Third World countries” (that term is another can of worms) may have no real choice but to undergo cosmetic surgery, they are not passive victims.   I like that Bañales made this point.  She cites a book called When Women Rebel: The Rise of Popular Feminism in Peru that gives a more true-to-life view how women actually act in response to their oppression.  That is, with huge protests, strikes, and participation in armed resistance.  Even if they’re oppressed by Western hegemony from without and within their own countries, in public and in private, they are not “docile victims”, especially not because they’re women.

Anyway, I digress from how technology fits into this.  Firstly, Bañales talks about how women’s bodies have been “historically constructed”.  The word “constructed” stands out to me as an indication of something at work that we could label technology.    So I had this idea that maybe Histroy is the biggest, baddest technology of all, and is especially the main technology of gender.  Like we call cosmetic surgery a technology because it is a man-made process that we use to create results not found in nature.  But this is only true of History in a very broad sense.  By saying gender is historically constructed, we mean that is biologically, socially, legally made-up (as Bañales says).  I am not a woman because just I am;  I am a woman because first humans evolved to have two separate sets of sex characteristics, and then history constructed lots of different divisions between the two sets.  So:  history constructs gender, thus history is a technology.  I think this is a useful point because if we remember that History is something humans made, we can remember that gender is not only not “natural,” it’s a manmade construct made by another manmade construct (History).

The artefact I have for class Monday is this article and photo essay that I read in the New York Times Magazine a year ago, about female circumcision (aka female gential cutting or, the less politically correct term, female genital mutilation) in Indonesia.  This is another kind of cosmetic/ritualistic surgery that many people in the U.S. consider much more obviously sexist and destructive than the cosmetic surgery we have here.  I would agree that there is no reason for girls to be circumcised; as an expert says in the aritcle, there is no medical benefit to cutting the clitoris, while there is a lot of pain.  But for the circumcisers (all of them women in this article, interestingly), it is “a rite of passage meant to purify the genitals and bestow gender identity on a female child”.  This is strange to me–why would removing part of the most female part of a female body make a girl more female?  What do other people think about this seeming paradox?

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