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.
Not that our Boston authors do any of this deliberately, of course. Indeed, they don't seem to realize, for example, that by overdramatizing petty problems involving "sensitivity" they trivialize far greater problems. An alien reading Our Bodies would conclude that exclusion from a restroom because of one's "trans-gender" identity is a far greater tragedy than, say, dying because America is the only industrialized country without universal health care—or than suffering from an affliction such as quadriplegia or bladder cancer. "I have been surprised," declares a woman who must wear a bag of urine attached to her abdomen, "at how little most men I have sex with are bothered by my urostomy." "It is fun," says a quadriplegic young woman, "to be part of an education process aimed at challenging [the] perception" that being a quadriplegic in any way constrains one's "ability to enjoy and participate in sex." If the severely ill or injured make light of their troubles in these pages, the same cannot be said for the mildly marginalized. "Everybody talks about surgery," complains a man who had an operation to become a gay woman, but "no one talks about the mental difficulties faced … after … the transition … Like being banned from places like the Mountain Moving Coffeehouse in Chicago." It is in the wake of this particularly stirring testimonial that the editors issue their call to arms: "Those of us who are heterosexual," they intone, must "use their privileged status to challenge" such forms of sexual intolerance.