Drawing a line

At what point is it fair enough to criticise other women for the choices they make about their bodies?

I’ve been turning the question over for the last month or two, ever since I made a negative post about women injecting their feet with botox in order to wear what I regard as “silly shoes” [link], and in comments at Hoyden about Town, Tigtog and the Queen of Thorns had an extended discussion about whether it was fair to make such comments [link]. In particular, QoT was concerned about linking “silly shoes” and health.

Nobody owes staying in perfect health to anybody, or maintaining “natural” feet, or not bleaching their hair because “it’ll dry it out”, or any other number of “harmful” things we do.

Well… hmmm… I don’t know. As in, I am in epistemic doubt, not that I am trying to indicate that I disagree with QoT (‘though I may well do, but if I disagree with someone, I prefer to say, “I disagree with you” rather than faff around with weasel words). You will see that this is a rambly, thinky piece, and I don’t think I’ve even answered the question, but that’s because actually, I really don’t know what I think about this. I’m hoping that people will have more thoughts to add in comments.

I think it is a moral failing to neglect to take reasonable care of yourself if that then means that other people near to you will be required to turn around and look after you. For example, a few years ago, a young man in New Zealand got some cheap cats-eye contact lenses to wear for a party. He left them in for three days without changing them, and got an eye-infection. He didn’t use the medication that his doctor prescribed, and eventually, ended up having surgery on that eye. And then he neglected to look after his eye post surgery, and ended up losing his sight in that eye. [link] I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the young man should not be given as much assistance as he needs in order to function as well as possible in the world. But all other things being equal (there could after all, be some other reason that we don’t know about that explains why he so neglected his own health), I think that it is reasonable to at least make a moral judgment that he was negligent. (NB: In New Zealand, his health care would have been paid for by taxpayers.)

And even if we can make a charge of negligence with respect to health, it’s still not going to give me the machinery I need to defend the claim I made about silly shoes and botox. As far as I know, botox administered properly has no long term effects. It does however, entail a certain amount of pain. So the question becomes, for me, to what extent it is reasonable to endure pain in order achieve a particular fashion look?

I have tried to think through what I do for the sake of ‘beauty’. I use cleanser, toner and moisturiser, and wear a small amount of makeup (I buy foundation and loose powder, and use the freebies that come with the regular ‘gift packs’). And I choose my clothes carefully. All aimed at making me feel as though I look good, of course. Otherwise jeans and t-shirts and jumpers would be just fine, n’est ce pas? All temporary, and able to be changed at a whim.

But then there’s beauty techiques that have a longer lasting effect I got my ears pierced when I was 14. My earlobes were numbed with ice, and the piercing studs were shot through. It was momentarily painful. I get my legs waxed, which is momentarily painful. And I get my hair coloured – sometimes the dye stings my scalp, also momentarily painful, and I suppose that in the longer term, it may damage my hair. I see these as minor and trivial pains, a nuisance and nothing more.

That’s it. I’ve not considered cosmetic surgery, and I don’t think I’m likely to. With the exception of ear piercing, I’ve had nothing done that has a permanent effect on my body. I don’t necessarily reject permanent body adornment; although tattoos are not for me, if another woman wants to get them, well, whatever. The same thing goes with piercings – not my thing, but if someone else wants them, fine. It’s her body, her choice.

But somehow, I still want to reject botox and ‘silly shoes’. I think it’s for two reasons. One is that those amazing high heeled shoes, beautiful though they can be, do seem to have a negative affect on longer term health. [link] [link] The other is that even without the effects on bones and joints, high heeled shoes prevent women from moving naturally, from swinging their legs freely, from standing with ease. They hobble women, with all the subtexts and overtones and secondary meanings implied by that, all for the sake of appearing a certain way. It seems to me to be a step too far.

As you can see, what I am trying to do is to draw a line, between appearance related activities that are, for want of a better word, acceptable, and those that are not. I don’t think it’s an easy line to draw, and by no means do I want to claim that I’ve got it right. But I do think that I have a conceptual tool that gives me a way of distinguishing one end of the line from the other i.e. the effect on health. That’s why tattoos and piercings and make-up don’t worry me, but very high heeled shoes do. I also think that is possible to make a moral claim about one end of the line, that is, that someone who engages in beauty practices that have a long term deleterious effect on health is negligent.

Having said all that, if you choose to wear high-heeled shoes on occasion, well, then, that’s your business. I’m not at all interested in stopping you, even if you wear them all the time. Your body, your choice. I simply reserve the right to make a judgement about it. It’s not a judgement based on my own beauty preferences; it’s a judgement about neglect. And even if I think that it is your own behaviour that has caused health related problems, I will happily pay my taxes to support any medical assistance and treatment for you. That’s the price of of living in a liberal democracy.

I do understand what QoT says about making judgements about other people’s choices. There’s not just a line to be drawn here, but a fine line to be walked, between making a judgement about someone’s behaviour, and forcing that person to behave in certain ways. Perhaps over the longer time social disapproval will make very high heeled shoes disappear, along with some other distorting beauty practices (extreme thinness achieved through stringent dieting, for example). My hope is that such disapproval would be based on a rational understanding of health and healthiness, on considered arguments and above all on strong evidence about what is, and what is not healthy. It certainly should not be based on simple ‘I don’t like this’ reactions. One way to avoid coercing people’s behaviour is to refuse to make moral judgements as all, but to my mind, that’s as much a failure as falling into prejudice and coercion. We actually need to do the hard work, to think hard about what reasons underpin our judgements, to amass the evidence and then make our judgements on that basis. And even then, that in no way means that we should not help that person as best we can. Not because she or he deserves or doesn’t deserve it, but because that’s what decent human beings do.

As for me, given that I don’t approve of very high heeled shoes, you will not find me wearing them. I will admire yours, if they are particularly delicious (I recommend Dr Isis and Megan for pictures of gorgeous shoes), especially if you wear them as an ornament from time to time, just as I wear earrings in my pierced ears, and dye my hair to match my car*, just for fun. If however, you insist on wearing them all the time, to the extent that it damages your body, then I will think that you are negligent in that regard.


* Given recent events, there is some concern in my family about what colour my replacement car will be.


12 responses to “Drawing a line

  1. A very interesting post, Deborah. My thought is that you are trying not to draw a line that says it is silly (or other pejorative word) to do something that is forced upon you by the patriarchy (high heeled shoes being a classic example), but it is if it has long term consequences for your health.

    I’m not sure if I agree, but it is much easier to refuse to do something forced upon you by the patriarchy if you have power in other ways (which I do by virtue of my economic and professional status) – hence my lifelong refusal to wear makeup might be less of a rebellion than I think it is.

    Very interesting post.

  2. I think a part of the problem is that these kind of judgements tend to assume a lot about what a particular body choice signifies for another woman. For example, I have a friend (who is not a woman and is often read as such) whose body is in such a way that flat shoes are painful for her and she only is comfortable in high heels. And a lot of thin women are body shamed because people think they are on stringent diets, and sometimes they are on those diets, and sometimes they’re ill, and sometimes they just have that sort of body type, but I don’t think it’s up to me as an observer to judge them based on my perceptions. Which is not to say that I think you’re saying to do that to random women in the street! You can’t really tell what’s going on for an individual, and these judgements are often based on ideas of what women are like that don’t fit all women (for which reason the next person who tells me that changing your name on marriage isn’t feminist may well get a lovely long lecture on heteronormativity and how surnames were forced on my people by white people so where is the anti-oppression choice for me anyway, huh?, from this woman who changed her name quite outside of het marriage! grr) (which is not really relevant to what you’re saying, but that name thing really annoys me).

  3. Oh, I really hope that makes sense, sorry if it doesn’t, I’m a bit out of it!

  4. I think the problem with judging other women for their choice of footwear (or makeup, hair colour, tatts etc) is that “those shoes are silly” very quickly becomes “that woman is silly”, which leads to “women are silly”. I know you’re talking about the choices of individual women, but our culture generalises about women very readily, so I choose not to engage in all those judgements because they give ammunition to the “women are silly” brigade, and they don’t need my help. So I try to focus on the positive stuff, celebrating women who look comfortable, walking freely and confidently, rather than having a go at the vast majority who don’t.

    I’d disagree with your assessment of the ephemeral nature of makeup and hair colour too, but that’s my concern for the state of our waterways (and therefore the health of the community) rather than the health of the individuals who use them.

  5. Deb says: I think Daleaway meant this comment to go in this thread, so I’m copying the text below.

    I agree about the shoes – if men and women are to stand side by side, or compete on an equal footing, it starts with the footwear. Would those female shoes still look “gorgeous” if your husband wore them? or would their inherent grotesque nature reveal itself?

    You may want to think again about the innocence of hair dye. Try Googling “hair dye” + “carcinogen” . Or have a look at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/hair-dyes

  6. I’lll get back to you on this tomorrow, Chally… busy with family right now, and dinner looming, but hopefully I will get some time tomorrow morning. Many thanks for your input.

  7. Making me think but I’m not sure that I can contribute anything useful. Agreed about our ‘moral duty’ to look after ourselves. But that so easily tips into judgement of those who are perceived not to have looked after themselves, such as people with Type I diabetes (so often confused with Type II – ask anyone with a child with Type I about the dreadful things people say to them), and people who develop cancer or have heart attacks young (“she never looked after herself properly”).

    When we didn’t know what caused most illnesses, people were much more caring of people who became ill; now it seems that a kneejerk reaction of lifestyle causality is de rigeur, and I don’t like it. But I think I’m also guilty of it sometimes, and people with feet and leg problems who have worn ‘silly’ shoes for years do bring out the worst in me.

    I don’t wear makeup, started using moisturiser when I came to Aus, and I do dye my hair. I always, always wear sensible shoes – especially since I ruptured my achilles three years ago. And I really try not to be judgemental. Mostly.

  8. M-H, I do so agree with you. People are quick to see illness as moral failure.
    Susan Sontag wrote an interesting book on this theme ..
    “Illness as Metaphor is a nonfiction work written by Susan Sontag and published in 1978. She wrote it during her own fight against breast cancer and challenged the “blame the victim” mentality behind the language society often uses to describe diseases and those who suffer from them.”

  9. Just a small thought to add which really follows on from Penguinearthed’s comment.

    I think high heels (like make-up and hair dye) can be forced onto women (so we’re not deemed to be looking after ourselves or caring about our looks or showing respect for the people we work with/for if we don’t wear these things.)

    On the other hand, we can wear these things flamboyantly or in fun; to be a bit outrageous or highlight what we we think are our beautiful qualities, rather than to cover up what we might feel isn’t good enough on its own.

    So I don’t know that I’d agree totally with using the word silly. Then again, I really hate hearing that six inch heels are “actually really comfortable. I don’t even notice them really.” I mean, if you’re going to bear so much pain to look a certain way, take credit for the effort!

    (PS – I can’t walk on heels at all and wear make-up only on dress up days, so I have some admiration for those who’ve mastered these difficult skills.)

  10. This is a fascinating post! Really intrigued me and I will have to think about it all further, but my reaction at this stage is that we need to hear that our shoes are ‘silly’ more than we need to be protected from potentially offensive indignation.

    I think we all buy into the beauty myth and acknowledging that that is the case is part of feminist work. It can hurt to admit one’s capitulation to the patriarchy or to have it pointed out to oneself, and none of our ‘choices’ are entirely all that.. but highlighting participation in the patriarchy is an incredibly important step in feminist activism.

  11. You can’t really tell what’s going on for an individual, and these judgements are often based on ideas of what women are like that don’t fit all women

    Okay, but the flip side of that is treating everyone in exactly the same fashion, and being insensitive to people, because we don’t want to make judgements. And that leads to just as many problems, because it means that we don’t make any effort to accommodate difference. I think this is why I am uncomfortable with the idea of not making judgements, because that looks like huge insensitivity to me. So, very roughly, I think that being sensitive to other people, trying to work out what I need to do in order to make life easier for people around me, rather than harder, entails developing the capacity to make judgements. Not of desert (as in what people ‘deserve’) but of what people need. But once we do that, we also have the capacity to look at some things that people do, and say to ourselves, “That’s wrong.”

    I gave this piece the title, “Drawing a line”, but the underlying metphor is not just a making a judgement call, but also of navigating the incredibly fine lines of moral judgement. It’s a hard thing to do, because many of us have absorbed the ethic of not criticising other people’s choices. But I’m starting to think it’s a mistake, because it means that we impose a blanket, and insensitive, non-engagement with other people, on ourselves.

  12. Deborah: See, I knew I could have said it better!! I think we’re actually trying to make the same point, that we should try to be sensitive to difference. So, what I gather you’re wanting to do is to get to grips what is right for an individual, which inevitably entails a judgement. And I’m saying is that often ‘is that hurtful/harmful?’ judgements come from people who do not take the time to consider or engage with where an individual is coming from, but work from ideas of a monolithic experience.

    I absolutely agree it’s valuable to be able to criticise other people’s choices; I think it has to be done taking a particular person’s circumstances into account, as you’re evidently thinking, too. That is, I don’t think we can apply, for instance, ‘wearing heels isn’t feminist’ to my friend when heels keep her from experiencing pain rather than causing her pain. But wearing heels isn’t feminist in lots of other contexts. So I think we’re all right as long as we take the time to engage with each person’s situation and choices, rather than saying ‘such and such isn’t good for you’ to everyone.

    Also, please don’t feel as though you have to respond to my comments promptly, or at all! 🙂