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.