Is It Beauty? Or Is It Coerced Modification?
On the political promise of the unmodified body, with philosopher Clare Chambers.
My teeth are brushed but my hair is not. My face is bare, my under-eyes bagged. I am wearing a loose tank top and have made no effort to conceal my upper arms (my least favorite body part). I don’t feel beautiful. I’m not bothered by that.
This is the promise of the unmodified body.
I am here, on Zoom, from the comfort of my home, where I face no cultural consequences for forgoing concealer and curl-smoothing cream, to ask professor and philosopher Clare Chambers — author of Intact: A Defense of the Unmodified Body, the book that inspired my low-key look this morning — if what I’m experiencing is really possible on the outside, on a mass scale: a world without beauty, where no one feels bad.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong about an attempt to focus on the concept of beauty,” Chambers clarifies. “We love to look at a beautiful landscape or beautiful artwork, right?” The problem, she claims, is that what Western culture calls physical beauty could more accurately be described as coerced modification. “Our culture is constantly telling us that our bodies are never good enough,” she says. “Shame about our bodies is something we absorb from the media, from commercial interests, and from each other.” Unrelenting shame begets unrelenting body modification: dieting and dyeing our grays, shaving our legs and shaping our brows, applying foundation and injecting fillers. “I do it for me!,” the modern feminist cries — but in Intact, Chambers argues that these behaviors aren’t merely personal choices. Rather, they’re “part of the political fabric.”
“That leaves open this idea of resistance,” the author says.
To that end, she proposes the principle of the unmodified body: a body that is acknowledged – by society, by the state, by the self – to be good enough, exactly as it is; a body that is allowed to opt out of modification without incurring social, emotional, economic, or political punishment. “The unmodified body is not a literal thing,” Chambers notes. “Your body might be very much left alone, or it might have had surgery or undergone procedures. The idea is that whatever your body is like, right now, you can let it be.”
“It’s simple,” she adds. “But radical.”
Jessica DeFino (me): You frame the unmodified body as a political principle. How does the pressure to modify – even if modification is framed as self-care, self-expression, and empowerment, as it often is in the beauty industry – hold people back politically?
Clare Chambers: There are a couple of ways of answering that. One way is to say that this shame that we are encouraged to feel about our bodies is in itself a public health issue. When everybody feels bad about their bodies, it's not the bodies that are the problem. It's something else. The second reason the unmodified body is a political concept is because although it affects the vast majority of us, it doesn't impact on us equally. The ideals that we are supposed to reach are themselves highly discriminatory. For women, it's important to look youthful. There are strong ideas about ideal body size, which usually mean that the body should not be fat. There's the idea of what our skin should be like, the perfect colour and tone – not too light, not too dark, smooth, supple, no wrinkles, no blemishes. Disabled bodies and visibly different bodies are not thought of as beautiful. These ideals are gendered, they are racialized, they are class-based, they are ableist. The value that we place on people according to their bodies is reflecting and reinforcing standards of inequality and discrimination.
“When everybody feels bad about their bodies, it's not the bodies that are the problem. It's something else.”
JD: And reinforcing shame, too. You coined the term ‘shametenance’ to describe acts of maintenance that are less about ‘beauty’ and more about shame. What are some ways we engage with shametenance?
CC: Shametenance is all the things that we do to maintain the idea that our bodies are shameful. One thing I talk about is make-up. There's an approach to make-up where it's really about a very glamourous look where it's obvious you're wearing make-up. Then there's this idea of natural make-up — make-up that looks as if you're not wearing make-up. Before, I had this idea that natural make-up is more in line with the idea of the unmodified body, because you're not trying to look deeply different. But the more I started to interrogate the practice of natural make-up, I changed my view. When we apply natural make-up, what we're really doing is submitting to shametenance, because we are suggesting that it's okay to look make-up free, but only if our faces look a certain way. And if our faces don't look a certain way, we have to conceal those ‘bad’ features, whether it's dark circles or red patches or acne or whatever it might be that detracts from the ideal standard. ‘Natural’ becomes a sort of deception or an artifice of shame.
JD: Youth feels like another artifice of shame. Anti-aging marketing pushes the idea of ‘looking like yourself again,’ which you say suggests that the current you is somehow not the real you. The beauty industry tends to claim the ‘real’ you is young – usually in one’s early twenties. Why do you think that is?
CC: Under sexist social norms, women are valued for their looks, not for their achievements. It is idealizing the point in a woman's life when she is less experienced, less wise, less competent, less powerful. It also provides women with something constantly to be worried about, in the sense that the aging process is something that takes up a lot of our time, a lot of mental energy, and a lot of our actual material resources – time spent in the salon covering up grey hair, time spent at the mirror covering up wrinkles, time spent in the gym, time that could be spent on other things.
JD: It’s like you write in the book: “We overemphasize how we appear from the outside and under emphasize how we feel in our bodies, how we live life in and through our bodies.”
CC: There's that sense of always sort of deferring the moment when our bodies will be okay to some future time.
JD: This imagined self that is someday going to be perfect and beautiful and happy and whole.
CC: Yes. And I think if I asked anybody, “What part of your body would you like to change?”, most people could instantly come up with an answer. But then if I said, “Imagine I wave a magic wand and that part of your body has changed the way you would like. Is that all done?” I think most of us would say, “Well, the next thing would be this, this, this, and this.” There's this perpetual need to change. At what point are we going to allow our bodies to be okay as they are?
JD: But you also maintain that the pressure to meet the beauty ideal compromises our ability to choose freely. When is the choice to modify not actually our own choice?
CC: Our choices are strongly shaped by our social context — what we choose is strongly shaped by the social disadvantages and benefits that are heaped onto that practice, or that are heaped onto not using that practice. So what is the cost of [opting out]? The fact that we want to have a body that is a certain way, and the fact that we associate a body that doesn't fit into that model as being something shameful, and the fact that there exists a procedure available to change the body — those are all socially created facts. They don't come from our own internal autonomy. This isn't to say that people who choose these practices are somehow duped, or that they're irrational. It can be absolutely rational to choose to undergo a procedure that brings your body in line with dominant ideals of attractiveness. This is to say, Why do they become procedures we want to choose? And none of that is down to individual autonomy.
JD: The beauty industry has recently made an effort to be more diverse – to showcase more skin tones, more body types, more people with disabilities. You argue that the unmodified body is diverse by definition. How do you grapple with the idea that everyone deserves access to modification – for instance, that foundation should be available for people of all skin colors – versus the idea that everyone deserves access to an unmodified body? Can these things coexist?
CC: To try to rectify discrimination is clearly a demand of any progressive society, that’s a given, but that's a separate question from whether what mainstream society is doing is something that is beneficial. It's bad to be excluded from the beauty industry, but that doesn't mean that the beauty industry itself is a good thing.
“It's bad to be excluded from the beauty industry, but that doesn't mean that the beauty industry itself is a good thing.”
JD: Questioning the beauty industry is often equated with ‘tearing down women,’ since it’s mostly women who participate. Is there a way to interrogate an industry that so many women enjoy without shaming them in the process?
CC: We're talking about a set of commercial and social norms with entrenched power structures that have been socialized into us for generations. It's not a surprise that many of us would participate in these structures. It is also not a surprise that women, when so much of our value is connected to our appearance, find value in engaging in that activity. The question is, what is that ‘beauty’ embodying and what are the consequences of not conforming?
JD: Eliminating the “consequences of not conforming” will take political action. You advocate for policy changes to address male violence, sexual harassment, and objectification. But you also suggest simply talking about the problem “between friends, in consciousness raising groups, on social media, in public.” How does talking help dismantle beauty standards?
CC: Part of what makes these ideals so powerful is that individual people conform to them. So individual acts of resistance really can matter, and individual acts of conformity can strengthen these norms. So much of what we do, we do in private — in our homes, in our bathrooms, in the gym, in the kitchen, standing in front of the mirror, wondering whether to eat this meal, whatever it might be. And it's in this private action that we maintain the feeling of shame. Resistance is sometimes about sharing, about consciousness-raising. Because when you share with people that you feel the same way, that can sometimes lessen the idea that the shame is due to your own personal failings and show that actually, it's a feature of society. Sharing can be really helpful. It’s not enough, but it’s important.
JD: Do you think that the unmodified body will be considered politically equal – that there will be no consequences to not conforming – in your lifetime?
CC: I hope so, but I'm never one for prediction. I thought maybe the pandemic would be a reminder that our bodies exist to keep us alive and flourishing, and maybe it could be a break from having to dress up and present ourselves, but it didn't turn out that way. If anything, it made it worse. I do think there will be an increasing sense of awareness that the path we're going down is unsustainable. Putting forward a vision of resistance has to be the first step.
I'm going to be thinking about this quote all day: "It is idealizing the point in a woman's life when she is less experienced, less wise, less competent, less powerful."
P.S. Would anyone be interested in starting an Unpublishable book club in January? 👀
"The value that we place on people according to their bodies is reflecting and reinforcing standards of inequality and discrimination." 👏👏