books October 2005

Latex Conquers All

A revised compendium of the curses and clichés that beset modern feminism

For all its comically bad prose and cloying eulogies to female anatomy, Our Bodies, Ourselves was in its day a solution to women's problems. In our own day it is the problem. First published in 1970, in a cheap offset edition by twelve Boston friends who sought to free their sex from dependence on doctors and husbands, it became an icon of the age. Now published by Simon & Schuster and 600 pages longer, this women's health classic has become a compendium of the curses and clichés that beset modern feminism—curses and clichés that feminism must discard or else render itself obsolete.

Take the attack on beauty with which the new edition opens. Couched as it is in the analysis of magazine ads, it will strike anyone who has visited a typical freshman composition course as darkly familiar. "Look at this Calvin Klein ad of a woman in a classic submissive pose," we read in Our Bodies, Ourselves: "Her fingers cover her mouth, another sign of submission … Her eye make-up is so dark and heavy that her eyes seem bruised …" She is simply "an object to be used," a creature for the "male gaze." As, indeed, is any woman who looks attractive or dresses agreeably; after all, according to the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, "the main reason that women try to 'improve our appearance' is to attract and win the approval of men."

This is the opposite of what Judy Norsigian, the collective's executive director, implied at a workshop last May. In a discussion of cosmetic surgery she lingered over the tale of a young man who'd begged her for advice on how to dissuade his girlfriend from buying breast implants. Far from seeking silicone to appeal to her man's sense of beauty, the young woman was defying him in order to appeal to her own—and to that of her sorority sisters, she told him. Right or wrong, this is what women do regularly. That women's interest in their appearance lies largely in wanting to please men is a myth, and one that should be retired without further ceremony. In the same way that women decorate a dorm or a dining room, they decorate themselves. As the painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser contended, any artist's first canvas is himself—or herself. We have, he claimed, "three skins: … our natural skin, our wardrobe, and our house." And if we have any aesthetic instinct at all, we attend to each one. To argue, like the authors of the book, that "men look (active), and women receive their gaze (passive)" is to mistake the female sex. The majority of men take little notice of their girlfriends' finer aesthetic improvements—the fresh manicure, the dropped dress size, the new halter top. Women notice more than men do, and they often appreciate the same things that men do.

I would wager that most women, if they were honest, would say they like the Calvin Klein model in Our Bodies. She looks vulnerable, to be sure—but we cherish vulnerability in our fellow creatures. What is more affecting than a picture of a sensitive cowboy or a doe-eyed street kid; what sells calendars faster than a forlorn kitten?

It is not freedom from beauty that needs defending but freedom for beauty. How often we hear academics say of a female colleague behind her back, "How can she expect to be taken seriously if she dresses like that?" In feminist circles "pretty" is a term of insult. It is as though one had to choose beauty or truth, style or substance.

Which brings us to another myth propagated by Our Bodies, Ourselves: female solidarity. In many cases women have more to fear from other women than from men. This is a truth strenuously resisted by feminists who pretend that all women are compassionate, supportive, and united against men. It is a truth resisted by the surpassingly hokey and misleading use of the word "us" throughout Our Bodies, as in "Some of us may not have our full clitoris intact due to clitoridectomy." If we thank the book's "tone and voice editor" (one Zobeida Bonilla) for such anomalies of speech, we also thank its ideologues for assumptions like the one that women make friendlier doctors than men—or more generous lovers. Such sentimentalization is really a form of infantilization—akin to caricaturing indigenous people as "noble savages" or destitute people as "the virtuous poor." We frequently attribute greater goodness to people we consider less complex or sophisticated than the norm. It's how we compensate them for our essential condescension.

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Cristina Nehring is at work on Women in Love: A Feminist Defense of Romance.

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