Submission is the wrong lesson
I put this link up on Facebook, just because I saw it on Feministing, and my take was similar to Courtney’s. (Her response: “This, my friends, is so not how we should be conceiving of effective anti-bullying work.”) I decided to post on it because it got a lot of Facebook comments, but it was also interesting what shape they took. Even we feminists and feminist allies sometimes fall into the trap of dropping a discussion about women’s behavior and responses to oppression (and what works and what doesn’t) when the topic of women’s bodies and what is permissible to alter about them is at hand. So, even though the original topic was “responses to bullying”, the discussion quickly became “when is it okay to get a nose job?”
Barring an absolutist “no cosmetic surgery” position, I think it’s going to end up being subjective. There just isn’t going to be a bright line between when a cosmetic procedure is a reasonable response to a physical flaw and when it’s an overreaction to oppressive beauty standards. Or when it’s in-between—an understandable but sad survival response to patriarchal oppression. But I want to post on this here to talk not about this incident recounted to discuss bullying and what works and doesn’t work in response.
The story at hand:
High school senior Erica Morgo says she likes what she sees when she looks in the mirror, but that was not always the case. Erica was bullied horribly by her classmates in middle school.
“In sixth grade I was in the bus, and a lot of boys made fun of me for having a big nose,” Erica said. “They would call me Pinocchio. And in school, in class, people would point it out. I felt helpless. I felt like a loser.”
The situation grew so severe that Erica grew depressed and started missing school. She estimates she missed a total of month’s worth of classes to avoid the taunts of classmates. Finally, one night she says she couldn’t take the teasing any longer, and decided to take matters into her own hands.
” I tried breaking my nose once. I was so fed up with the bullying that I tried banging my face against the door,” she said.
After the incident, her mother, Dana Manzella, said she knew that she had to do something. She decided to allow her then 15-year-old daughter to undergo cosmetic surgery to shape her nose to her liking.
“I think that was definitely a good decision, because it brought her back — her self-esteem back up to be able to do activities that she did before, with comfort,” Manzella said.
I’m going to point out that it does seem the bullying declined, but correlation isn’t causation. Right at her age, the bullying against me declined as well, and I didn’t change anything about myself. Kids actually start to grow up in their later years of high school, and thus bullying loses a lot of its appeal. Especially appearance-related bullying, though it’s often replaced with sexual harassment, especially for female victims.
I just want to set aside questions of whether or not women should ever get cosmetic surgery, or whether or not minors should, and focus on cosmetic surgery as a response to bullying. This has human psychology exactly backwards. If you want a behavior to stop, the very last thing you should do is reward it. A dramatic show of submission to bullying may stave off the bullying for a time, just as feeding a hungry animal will make it stop begging. But if you feed an animal, you know what happens, right? It comes back for food when it’s hungry again, and every time it’s louder and more entitled. Bullies are demanding, pretty openly, shows of submission that shore up their own self esteem. When the hunger strikes again, they know who to go for if you put on a rather dramatic show of submission, such as altering your nose to fit their demands.
One of my friends on Facebook told this story as an example:
Back in grade school there was a kid with big ears that stuck out and like any child with any trait that was out of the ordinary, he was mocked. I don’t think it was particularly horrible mocking, but then I wasn’t experiencing it. It was bad enough though that he got his ears tucked one Summer. Then people starting calling him “Tucker.” Kids are such assholes.
Beyond the ineffectiveness, I worry about teaching young girls that any random dude who has an opinion about your appearance should be taken seriously. And let’s be clear, every example in this story was a girl, and I imagine that the plastic surgery rates for minors reflect those overall, which is that women get plastic surgery more often than men. As any woman here can likely tell you, there are a lot of men who feel entitled to dictate the beauty and fashion choices of any random woman they see, no matter how little they know her. I’ve had men whose names I don’t even know suggest I wear too much make-up and too little of it, that my hair should be shorter and that it should be longer, that I need to lose weight and that I need to gain it. There’s a whole culture that teaches a huge percentage of men that women aren’t subject to the rule that says you should keep your opinions to yourself on these matters. (Fun examples at this blog. The best way to hit on a lady is surely to, before even introducing yourself, suggest that she alter her appearance to suit your arbitrary tastes!)
Young women should be equipped with an early and frequent understanding that this noise from dudes should be laughed at, not taken seriously. This is for two reasons, the first being that since no two dudes agree, you can drive yourself insane trying to meet all the conflicting demands. The second is more in the WTF category: there is no reason to push girls into internalizing the misogynist message that they are subject to male authority on all matters, just because men are men, and that their own desires and wishes are irrelevant. A lifetime of anxious worrying that you’re meeting arbitrary, ever-changing standards imposed by random dudes is not something you should reinforce. There’s already enough pressure on women to put up with that.