For me, two trains of thought collided when I read a comment in Masuimi's forum. Further to some negative comment about her breast implants, Masuimi replied,

I don't care if someone doesn't like what I have done to my body, thank goodness we CAN do what we want to our own bodies. It's nice to have our own ideas of beauty. [...] I didn't "need" larger breasts, and I certainly did not "need" the tattoos or piercings I have. They were simply choices I made.

This set me thinking about a certain degree of choice we all assume in our modifications. This is one aspect of our community we cannot stress enough: we are not doing this to rebel, or conversely, to conform to anyone's standard of "beauty" except our own. It is a luxury which human beings, especially women, have not often enjoyed over the centuries.

Consider Chinese women between the 10th century and 1911, subject to the practice of foot binding, designed to emphasise their vulnerability and dependence on men. To elevate this crippling of women to the status of beauty was an easy way to show women their place in society. The actual process of footbinding is a fascinating insight into what pain women will accept in the pursuit of beauty -- the feet were crushed by placing a large stone on the arch, destroying it. Then the toes were bound underneath the foot, causing further deformity. Jung Chang, in her acclaimed novel Wild Swans, remembers her grandmother trimming the dead skin from her feet after a morning's shopping, noting that the pain was also caused by the toenails, which grew into the balls of her feet. The level of pain experienced as a result of bound feet, as well as the smell and appearance of the naked foot was a female secret, as men would never be allowed to see the feet without their bindings. Even in bed women were expected to wear special soft shoes.

The practice of foot binding was clearly as much about male power as beauty (in fact, if you have read Naomi Wolf's excellent The Beauty Myth, you may agree the two are synonymous), as women unable to walk were women unable to run away, unable to care for themselves. It was also suggested that the special hobble of women with bound feet tightened their vaginal muscles, so the exercise of foot binding was really about men's pleasure. It is not perhaps surprising, then, that bound feet were a prerequisite for a good marriage, as it was something of a status symbol for a family to keep a daughter, useless as far as manual labor was concerned, in pampered luxury.

In The Beauty Myth, Wolf argues that ideals of female beauty are always at the expense of women, occupying their time and using up their money in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. By constant comparison with a flawless ideal, flawed women are made to feel powerless and inadequate. Wolf argues in the final chapter that the beauty myth does as much harm to men as it does to women, by forever distancing the sexes. This concept of power through beauty is clearly illustrated by the plight of bound-foot women. I would argue that at the other end of the spectrum, body modification can be the answer to the beauty myth. If I choose to modify myself in a way that rejects the airbrushed, glossy and above all, unreal images which the media presents, I am defying the system which dictates the aesthetic ideal, and equates beauty with powerlessness.

Famous photo of small girl with bound feet.
Of course I cannot fully explain my argument in relation to The Beauty Myth without the assumption that anyone reading this will have also read that work -- I know this is not the case, so I urge everyone (male and female) to beg, borrow or buy a copy. In considering some of the sacrifices which women (and in fewer cases, men) have been asked to make in the name of beauty -- foot-high hairstyles, restrictive corsetry which affected breathing and the internal organs, linen dresses which had to be dampened for the correct clingy look causing pneumonia in several cases, crinolines which were a fire hazard, white lead make-up which was poisonous, and even cosmetic surgery with its potential for harm to the patient -- it is clear that the drive for beauty is something which has always had its hazards. If we choose to have piercings, tattoos, implants etc -- all of which carry risks to health, even if in a very tiny percentage of cases -- we must be really sure that we are embracing these of our own free will.

A newsgroup comment which was linked to from Bryan's recent editorial mocked girls who get tongue piercings because

they say it brings more pleasure for men during Monica Acts. The jester continued, I can't fathom the low self esteem it must take to mutilate your body for someone else's desires.
This also set me thinking -- is it acceptable to modify yourself for "someone else's desires"? On thinking it through, however, I realised the issue couldn't be summarised like that; in a relationship, unless you are completely selfish and Patrick Batemanesque, giving pleasure to a partner and making someone you love happy, should also make you happy. In the Modified Love interview of Frances and Jason Sand, they discuss their complementary modification plans:

JS: We do discuss what would be more better for the other. Example. Pubic implant. I have little to gain from this but she we give a bit of our body space up for each other in some ways.
Surely this is an answer to the critics? I'm not disputing the fact that some people are pressured into modifications by their partners, but I feel it must be emphasised that this is not always the case.

I hope this article is thought-provoking, and I would be interested to hear any feedback from people who have modified themselves for a partner, through peer pressure, or pressure of the media. In the meantime, I think everyone must question their personal motives for modification, as I worry that we have rejected one aesthetic ideal for an equally unachievable alternative. Contact Helen Lewis at [email protected]

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