I hooked up with aesthetic theorist and artist-designer Nyx Mathews to talk about about body modifications, sexual politics and subversion
Max: Having been brought up by feminist ‘body love’ assertions (like StopHatingYourBody, LoveYourBody) I find the prospect and reality of body modifications fairly troubling. I think because we are taught that ‘dissatisfaction’ is fixed by changing what you want, rather than what you are, you know, things like:
- SheliaJeffreys: Feminists like myself envisage a time beyond gender when there is no correct way to behave according to body shape.
Nyx: I reckon that’s the wrong way around. What you ‘are’ is just what you’re born with – it’s a bit like…being told you should stick with the family you were born into, or the class – like the medieval idea that being, say, a peasant is something inherent, as though it’s an intrinsic part of the way your head works – I think that’s quite clearly rubbish. On the other hand, what you want can (or has the potential, however often it is under-utilised, to) be utterly deliberate. I absolutely think that wants should be consideredoverandover, and analysed, and that one shouldn’t take them for granted because, of course, they’re (initially at least) products of circumstance. And by no means is something valid just because you desire it. But I actually think that a considered, carefully analysed want is more valid than just what you came out of the lucky dip with.
I get the premise, of course – fix your ideas not your body – but I think it’s predicated on the notion that you can never think, and thus form desires beyond, those which have been thrust upon you. I think that’s a lousy way to approach things, and very limiting. It’s that fine line between idealism and realism, but you don’t really make things better by just being realistic, so…I’m decidedly against making that your baseline.
Max: I think the crux of the problem is we consider bodies as something other than “products of circumstance.” Various feminist emphases on bodily acceptance and pride stems from a defiance of the ways that femaleness and femininity have been (and continue to be) devalued. This is clear in fat pride manifestos such as:
- NataliePerkins: I don’t know if you’ve heard of body acceptance, or fat acceptance, but I’m an active participant within the movement [...] open your mind to an existence where you are free to love your body, instead of feeling ashamed of it.
I guess the conflict is weighing up what’s at stake (probably always) between conforming to social ideas and hegemonic pressures (of sex, gender, weight) and ‘what you want;’ the hope is one thinks about whether what they want is just a result of social pressure…but is it ok to be against that (if it is)? For instance
- Drakyn: It’s not like we jump into medical transition without thinking. [...] I’ve seen a few trans* guys who’ve had to come to terms with their beliefs about what constitutes healthy tissue and unneeded medical procedures and their need for surgery.
Some [...] said that they had had a dialogue with their body; telling their chest or uterus how while there may not be anything wrong with them, they simply didn’t belong on their body, how much they needed this surgery, etc.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with the trans*folks that had/have these feelings; we live in an ableist and transphobic world after all. But I do think we should examine these feelings and decide what are our ethical beliefs and what is just internalized shit.
I guess intentionality is important. But this ismyargumentagainstbeingskinny for reasons other than dieting: it still results in the same thing – being skinny and ‘hot,’ and yet claiming that it’s subversive (which I don’t buy, it’s just another kind of skinniness; barely subversive, but that’s not ok with me).
Nyx: I don’t think subversiveness in itself, even if it is achieved, is inherently valuable. In order to be a valuable form of alternative culture/activism I think it needs not only to be subversive (going against the norm) but cause no harm, and ideally even to have some benefit (beyond a possible/probable immediate personal gain). The point is: I think in this case, as in most others, it’s more a question of the impact of a subversive action. And I do think that altering one’s physical sex characteristics is subversive. It definitely goes against the grain, it upends normative notions of permanence and inherent hierarchy based on sex. I think altering bodies in that way does this regardless of the intentions of the person undergoing the process. What is more blurry is whether the effect of such subversiveness is positive.
Max: Impact, yes totally. That’s the thing that trans folk say, and have to fight for, and I think is the basis of trans/femme alliances; that ‘just because I look normal/straight/normative, doesn’t mean I am.’ But what is the impact of not looking queer?
Nyx: This is something I think about a lot, and I still don’t have an ‘answer’. I do have more questions, though. It starts with the fact that ‘looking queer’ is a fashion in itself. Fashions are, by definition, about emulating other people: fitting in, being a recognisable part of a crowd. I’m not sure that’s ever particularly subversive past a certain point. Sure, you don’t look like the status quo; but there are lots of minority fashions that work that way, and some of them come with very similar risks to looking overtly queer. Goths get beaten up, too. For different reasons, and maybe in different circumstances, but there are similarities in terms of violence. Looking like the status quo is also falsely safe, particularly for women, but increasingly for men also – look at all the straight white guys getting bashed or knifed in clubs. This is not to say that looking queer doesn’t come with special risks or is not valuable; it declares your allegiance, and that’s definitely something important. I’m just not sure that ‘looking queer’ is particularly interesting any more.
That queer look was once revolutionary, but not only has it become a cultural uniform – it’s now being picked up by the mainstream, which is a surefire way to tell an aesthetic has, at the very least, lost a bit of its subversive sparkle. I think like all things ‘looking queer’ should be treated as a springboard for the next step. I think we should think about new aesthetics that are more powerful. I reckon it’s more interesting to think about broadening the spectrum in any given ‘now’ than to speak about what’s ‘queer looking’ or ‘straight looking’ or conforms to any other visual markers. I want to think about, say, how wearing more and brighter eye makeup than is ‘in’ or queer questions ideals of beauty and femininity and heteronormativity and lgbtq-normativity. One of my favourite quotes fromFemmesofPower is about how if wearing makeup makes you feminine, shouldn’t more makeup make you more feminine? How does that add up with ‘don’t wear lip-liner, you’ll look like a drag-queen’?
Altering one’s body whilst simultaneously living in a way that interrogates normative ideas and ideals of physicality, gender…I’m pretty sure that’s positive. And I don’t think that the scope for a lived interrogation of normativity – particularly gender normativity – should be limited to people who maintain the sex organs they were born with; ergo physical alterations – as a politics – I think are less…valuable than what you do. And that is much more vital to how such an alteration should be viewed.
Max: Absolutely. I definitely think that what one does is more important than how one looks. But there’s action in that, that move to alter one’s body…and how we look does matter – we make ourselves look certain ways to be received in certain ways.Someofwhichwe’repunishedfor. I think the implication of my original question is that there is an expectation of [a certain amount of] ‘body hatred’ involved in obtaining ‘sex change’ surgeries, which I don’t know how to reconcile with feminist ‘body love’ politics. Embroiled in all that is the idea that a certain amount of suffering (a huge, unbearable amount in fact) must substantiate trans lives in order for surgery to be admissible. Binding, for example, can be tremendously physically painful. And yet one must construct a story about the pain of ‘the wrong body’ in order to obtain surgery. You can’t just say, ‘well, breasts never go with my outfit, so I don’t want them.’
I hate that suicidal trans discourse, like one has to be suicidal before it’s ok to get surgery? (This is often cited in court hearings related to trans surgeries for minors, such as “The court was told that Brodie had threatened self-harm at the prospect of her [sic] periods starting” -TheAge, or “There were real fears that Alex may be driven to self-harm in the event that he was unable to fully express his gender identity” -DeakinLawReview). I sayNo to that.
Nyx: Part of what needs to be discussed, I think, is changing the way people speak about bodies as something you either love or hate inherently. Obviously this comes with some baggage (like women being encouraged to say ‘oh, I hate my thighs,’ ‘my most/least favourite body part is…’, etc.) but I don’t think desiring to alter your body is synonymous with hating it. What about athletes or iron-…people? They’re types of body obsession which cause very overt physical alterations, but are acceptable because exercise, even ‘to excess,’ is viewed (right now) as ‘good.’ Removal of your breasts, however, is (similarly, at present) viewed as ‘bad.’ But in the 20s women wore corsets that were actually what we’d call binders, similarly to get rid of their breasts, but this time with the approval of fashion/society. It’s fairly obvious, I suppose, but fashion (ie, current physical ideals) also play a big part in the way we see things as body ‘love’ or ‘hate.’ Is it better to wear a corset than get liposuction? Why, because you ‘don’t change your body irreparably?’ But…you do. Corsetry cracks ribs, re-aligns organs, decreases blood flow and oxygen. When you bind your chest, it hurts, makes moving difficult (which, for somebody who is gender ambiguous could certainly be dangerous all in itself), and I’m pretty sure there are long-term implications for squashing and remoulding soft tissue for prolonged periods of time. Is it then worse to undergo surgery entirely?
Or is the question actually whether visually or physically doing away with one’s breasts in any way is a form of ‘anti-feminist’ ‘body hatred’?
Max: I wish I knew.
Originally published in The Scavenger: Femme/trans aesthetics and sexual politics: A conversation