Here are a list of things women mainly and sometimes solely use that they pay more than a 5% tax on when pay buy them, at least in states with sales taxes:
Tampons and pads
Fancy little moisturizers
Bras and other fancy lingerie
I’m sure you can think of more. Some items on that list are necessities—tampons for sure, bras and hosiery being so ubiquitous that they might as well be. The others are easily addressed with the same arguments that some feminists are making against a tax on plastic surgery. And yet, we tax those things every day and no one raises a peep, largely because the argument that women as a class shouldn’t face taxes was only brought up when a group of largely middle class white women were facing a 5% tax that is going to pay for health care reform, which will give a lot of help to Americans from all walks of life, but especially to the ranks of uninsured, who are more likely to be poorer and people of color. This, as I’ve said before, bothers me tremendously, especially since tampons aren’t cheap and, unlike plastic surgery, the argument for why you have to have them to go to work is clear-cut and indisputable.
I also pointed out that I get the arguments. I think, especially reading Rose at Feministing, part of the anger about a tax on plastic surgery is the implication that women who get plastic surgery are stupid and awful and need to be punished. As Rose put it, it’s “stigmatiz[ing] women’s choices”. Now, I don’t have a problem with stigmatizing choices per se, and I object to the idea that women as a class should have the privilege not to be judged at all. Just because women have been judged harshly for things that were not bad things to do (have an abortion) or were survival strategies (be “frivolous” and man-pleasing) doesn’t mean every judgment of every choice comes from a bad place. Women do downright fucked up things, due to being human.
Of course, getting plastic surgery is generally not one of them. The feminist argument here is a more interesting one. Basically, it’s about the catch-22 women are put in. We’re punished if we don’t conform to certain beauty ideals, but if we’re caught “showing our work”, we are stigmatized for being vain. The only non-stigmatized option is to simply cease existing. Feminists can object to the stigma on women both coming and going, right? So I appreciate where that’s coming from, though I also agree with Alexandra Suich that the emphasis on making it cheap to conform has a great power to eclipse demands for a genuinely better society, nor should feminists be lending ourselves to increasing the power and esteem of the overtly misogynist plastic surgery industry.
Feminism is about fighting a discriminatory society, not about accepting that discrimination and making it more cost-effective for women to capitulate to it.
There’s a contradiction there, and woe unto us who think we can elide it. Plus, the whole question of cost effectiveness is a loaded one—a lot of women take the beauty myth hit when they age, but will never be able to afford plastic surgery, tax or no. They are being ignored in this. They are also the people most likely to be uninsured, and in desperate need of this health care reform. You know, so they can live at all, not just live wrinkle-free. And we need ways to pay it. A plastic surgery tax is an excellent way to do this, both because it redistributes a very small amount of money (per person) from someone who has economic privilege to someone who doesn’t, and because it hits plastic surgeons, people who took their medical training and put it to use enforcing impossible beauty standards instead of doing things like saving lives because it pays better. I’m not saying we should punish them, but why is it such a bad thing to make them pull their weight? Taxes aren’t punishment. That’s a right wing frame. Taxes are about making sure that people pull their weight, and those who have more should be grateful that they have an opportunity to pull their weight.
The more I think about it, the more empty some of the arguments against this tax seem. “But I need it to get by in this society!” No one is denying you your right to feel that way, and I certainly don’t. But I’m going to go on record saying the women who are more likely to die from breast cancer or cervical cancer because they aren’t insured need that insurance more, and pulling your weight isn’t going to kill you. “But women get most plastic surgery!” Okay, well, women do most housework, and the solution hasn’t been to capitulate and just stop doing housework and live in filth. We try to change the system. There’s a demoralizing fatalism about addressing the beauty myth through finding ways to capitulate with ease, almost as if feminists don’t really believe that radical change is possible. But second wave radical feminists tackled the beauty myth head-on, and were able to achieve a number of successes, which is part of the reason why I bet none of you reading this today will have to go out in the world wearing an elaborate and painful underwear system built around a corset, steel bra, and hose, nor will any of you spend an hour on your hair or wear false eyelashes. Unless you’re going to a costume ball or something.
I don’t think that most feminists who are so adamantly opposed to this plastic surgery tax would really disagree with these points. That’s why the passion about it is so odd to me. But reading this article at Salon from a self-identified feminist who got botox, I think I had more of an insight. She clearly feels guilty about it—she’s not trying to hide that at all, even if she concludes that it was the right choice for her. She shouldn’t feel guilty, of course. Her reasons are understandable. But I can see why there’s a lurking unease with the whole thing, and I don’t think it’s because you’re cheating or because you’re betraying feminism or anything like that. Honestly, it’s because engaging with the overtly misogynist plastic surgery industry would leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. They are, after all, shooting your face up with one of the most toxic substances on the planet. Introducing strawberries and champagne to the equation doesn’t really help matters, I’d think—the writer likens her appearance after the injections to that of a domestic violence victim. You don’t reach for that metaphor for no reason. Most women just get a little work done at the plastic surgeon, but we’ve all seen what happens when they get their hooks into someone insecure enough to think they need their whole body dramatically remade. They stop looking human, but instead look all puffed up and plastic and oddly shaped. At this point, the sadism towards women’s bodies is unmistakable. An hour watching a reality TV show is enough to convince anyone that at least the plastic surgeons that did those women’s work really hate women. That plastic surgeons inflate women’s breasts like basketballs and have set out to convince women that their labia are ugly seals the deal.
Caught in that contradiction—between the belief that you deserve to have a little work (and honestly, I really don’t think it’s that big a deal) and dealing with an industry that has an openly sadistic view of women—of course people get a little defensive. And lash out at the government that wants to tax it, under the assumption that this is shaming and punishment. But it really isn’t. The primary reason we tax people is to pay for things that the government needs to do. We try to tax some goods over others so as not to hit the most impoverished the hardest. A plastic surgery tax fits right into that.