Monday, June 13, 2011

‘Boob Job’ Vouchers and Cultural Expectations

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

Just like the Canadian parents who are raising their child without revealing hir sex, the British woman who gave her 7-year-old daughter a gift certificate for breast augmentation is none of my business – but that minor detail has never stopped me from commenting. 

Sarah Burge, the woman who has apparently proclaimed herself the “Human Barbie” and is said to hold the world record for the most cosmetic procedures, and who has been giving her 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, Botox injections, has made the news again for the unusual birthday present to 7-year-old Poppy.

When Poppy turns 16, the legal age in Britain for this type of surgery, she can exchange the voucher for a “boob job,” or if she is sufficiently satisfied with her breasts, she can have some other procedure done, her mother says. Poppy apparently begged her mother for the surgery and is thrilled with the gift.

When I was 7, it never even occurred to me that I would someday want breast augmentation. I didn’t beg for it until I was 16. At that time, my dad said that, if I still wanted it when I was 21, he would pay for it. Well, 21 came and went and I didn’t make him follow through on his promise. I didn’t get my “boob job” until I was in my early 30s, and I paid for it myself.

My situation might be slightly different, because there was a bunch of gender stuff going on that was complicating the issue. I didn’t realize that until far later, but the bottom line was that I didn’t feel “womanly” enough, and I thought having big boobs would help that situation. It didn’t, and that’s the trans part of the equation that I would guess is not at work in Poppy’s situation.

Nevertheless, all trans things aside, the underlying “what makes a woman beautiful” motif that influenced both Poppy and my decisions makes us not so different.

I’m a product of Western culture. So are Sarah and Poppy Burge. For all of us, our culture, whatever it is, designates the particular physical features that make women beautiful. Those features differ in different cultures, and in different eras within a particular culture, and they are often difficult and uncomfortable or painful to attain, which makes them all the more desirable – tight corsets to produce unnaturally small waists, foot binding for tiny feet, neck rings for elongated necks, or lip plates for distended lower lips.

In some cultures, certain means of modifying the body are expected rituals and symbolize particular things, such as the maturing of a girl to womanhood. But, in many cases, they also symbolize beauty, status, and desirability.

Cosmetic surgery has not yet reached the point of a cultural norm or expectation in Western society, and it probably never will, although it certainly does symbolize beauty, status, and desirability. Unlike some cultural rituals and norms, cosmetic surgery is for those who can afford it, making privilege a requirement for attaining a certain type of culturally sanctioned “beauty.”

But an increasing number of women (and men) are having cosmetic surgery, and at younger and younger ages. So what about Poppy Burge?

I think it’s unfortunate that it has already been determined that a 7-year-old will possibly be inadequate as an adult. Poppy may be happy with her voucher now, but in the worst-case scenario, there is the potential for psychological damage as she grows up and realizes that she doesn’t “measure up,” and that surgery is the only means of remedying her insufficiency.

But if this happens, it’s not happening just to Poppy Burge. Her culture, not her mother, has set this up for her, because other girls – those who do not have similar vouchers – do, and will continue to, feel the same.

What’s more important than the fact that Poppy Burge has been given a voucher for cosmetic surgery is that she – and all other young women – be given the tools to critically examine herself and her culture, and that she be given agency over her body to do with it what is best and most comfortable for her – even if that means not doing anything at all.