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This is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place on 21st February 2022 to coincide with the publication of Clare Chambers' book Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body. Big thanks to Zara Bain at Academic Audio Transcription for her work on the transcript.
Brian D. Earp (BDE): In your work, you offer a defence of what you call the “unmodified body”, and you argue that the unmodified body is a key political principle. Before turning to this political aspect, I was hoping you could clarify what you mean by an unmodified body?
Clare Chambers (CC): An unmodified body in the sense that I am using it is not a literal thing – it is not a body that has never been changed. Any time we do anything, from eating to sitting to exercising, we are doing things that change how our bodies are. So, by the unmodified body I mean something quite specific, and I mean it as a political principle. The unmodified body is the body that is allowed to be okay just as it is; it is allowed to be good enough. This is a very simple, very modest kind of claim on the one hand, but it is also a very radical claim on the other hand because we are overwhelmed with the message that our bodies are not good enough just as they are. It is really expected that we will experience our bodies as inadequate, as failing. In fact, I think it is rare for us to feel that our bodies need no improvement – we might even think that somebody who thought that was arrogant or suspect in some way! So, the unmodified body is the idea of the body that is allowed to be good enough just as it is.
When it comes to the question of actual modifications that we might want to make, it is not part of my argument either to suggest that permission should not be granted for body modification procedures or to suggest that people necessarily do anything wrong in pursuing various kinds of body modification. We have the right to change our bodies. But we also have the right to live in a society that does not constantly tell us that the bodies that we have are wrong. When everybody feels bad about their bodies then perhaps it is not the bodies that are the real problem – instead, it is the social context.
So, the key point that I want to emphasise is that the choices we make to modify our bodies are not made in a vacuum – they are made in this context of a constant barrage of messages telling us we should feel worried about our bodies and ashamed of them. And it is that pressure to modify that I want us to fight against, not necessarily any particular practice of modification.
BDE: You argue that the messages that we are all getting to modify our body are not just random messages, but serve sexist purposes, racist purposes, and so forth. I wonder if you could say a bit about this structure within which you are analysing body modification so that we can start to get a sense of the forest and not just the trees.
CC: It is something of a truism to say that we are living in a culture that places enormous emphasis on how we look. We have a constant emphasis on the “selfie”, the image, the photograph, especially on social media. We have a very visual culture and that has intensified over the pandemic. For example, with the focus on video conferencing, we look at our own images as we speak to other people in a way that is unprecedented.
This visual culture is part of what causes what psychologists refer to as an “epidemic of appearance anxiety”, something that hangs in the air and affects all of us, causing serious impacts on our mental health. One really large study, for example, found that 70% of women feel media pressure to have a “perfect” body, and two thirds of men feel ashamed of their body. So, in one sense, we have this atmosphere of bodily inadequacy that is all-pervasive and strongly affects all of us – men, women, and children.
The images and the ideals about how our body should be are strongly dependent on, and reflective of, existing inequalities and discriminatory practices.
On the other hand, however, the ways in which our bodies are supposed to adapt to fit standards are far from neutral. Rather, the images and the ideals about how our body should be are strongly dependent on, and reflective of, existing inequalities and discriminatory practices. They relate strongly to norms of gender and sex, they reflect racialised hierarchies, they reflect ideals of disability and difference, and they tend to be structured along lines that reflect class and age. The ideals of how our bodies should be, and how we should look, reflect and reinforce some of these really strong social-structural-political phenomena. And that means that the pressures to change our body, the pressures to fit in and make our bodies fit into these discriminatory norms, are very clearly political in a very familiar sense.
BDE: On the face of it, disability appears to be a counter-example to your overall argument because if somebody has a disability there is often a presumption that they should change their body. After all, the argument goes, what is a disability if not something that is a lack or something that suggests a need for change? You see numerous weaknesses in this way of thinking, having to do not only with the concept of disability but with the way that changing our body relates to that concept. Could you say a little bit about how disability fits into your overall picture?
CC: As you say, one objection to my argument is that the demand to change our bodies is entirely appropriate if we want our bodies to be healthy, if we want to avoid disability, if we want to avoid illness, and so on. But what I am interested in is what we are doing when we label bodies as disabled or not, and the close relation to the idea of normality or what it is to have a “normal” body. The idea of a normal body is something that you see cropping up frequently in health, in medicine, in clinical treatment of bodies. For example, on the UK’s National Health Service website it states that they will provide plastic or reconstructive surgery when necessary to restore normality, but they will not provide cosmetic surgery when people want to create an enhanced body. I think it is very interesting to think philosophically about what it would really mean to have a normal body.
One way that we might think of normality when we are thinking about issues of disability, impairment, health, and functioning, is something like: a normal body is a body which is like others, that can do what other bodies can do, that has some kind of objective standard of normality. But, of course, that standard of normality just won’t work, because our bodies are fundamentally different in a whole host of ways. The obvious example here is that male bodies and female bodies are different, and female bodies can do things that male bodies cannot do and vice versa. Consider the fact that we do not describe the male body’s inability to get pregnant and to gestate and birth a fetus as a disability. Why don’t we describe that as a lack or as a health problem? Well, it is because we think that it is normal for a male body not to be able to do those things. So, we are already applying a judgment about what is normal and abnormal for different kinds of bodies to do. But for disabled people, particularly people who have a disability from birth or from a very early age, their bodies are absolutely normal for them too. For each of us, if we have lived in a body that is roughly as it is from birth and that has grown and developed in a way that is predictable, then our bodies are normal for us. So the question then is: where does an idea of a standard body or a normal body come from and where does it take us?
Some features that in some contexts are understood as disabilities are not understood as such in other contexts; some features that are viewed as differences or even as lacks in some contexts can be viewed as abilities in other contexts.
I argue that this idea is always going to reflect cultural and social political values about what we think and expect of bodies. Some features that in some contexts are understood as disabilities are not understood as such in other contexts; some features that are viewed as differences or even as lacks in some contexts can be viewed as abilities in other contexts. Take the example of people who are born with an additional finger. This is typically treated in a westernised context as being a lack, a disability, a problem, and typically parents will be offered surgery for their children to remove that extra finger so that the child looks more like a ‘normal’ child. But of course you could equally see that having an additional finger is an ability, an extra skill, an extra contribution to dexterity and to functioning. So, whether we see something as a disability, as an impairment, as a health condition, as an abnormality, or whether we see it as an enhancement, as a feature, or just part of normal diversity, is always cultural and political.
And we see something like this at play not just in the context of disability and impairment. Another example that I find fascinating is the idea that women who have just had a baby should try to “get their body back”. Everyone knows that this phrase means becoming slimmer again after pregnancy, but the actual phrase is “getting your body back”. And what that suggests is that the body that you have after childbirth is not really your body, it is not your authentic body; rather, it is some kind of imposter, some kind of abnormal or inauthentic you. But what is this authentic body implied in that phrase? Apparently, a woman’s real authentic body is the body she has post-puberty, pre-pregnancy, which for an average woman might be a period of something between ten and twenty years of an eighty year lifespan! That kind of imagery does so much work in showing the strong pressure that we place on ourselves to fit into a very particular and narrow mould.
BDE: You have already touched on the idea of a “normal” body, but I am interested in your thoughts on the related idea of the “natural” body. Feminist thinkers and philosophers have for a long time attacked the concept of “natural”, because it has often been wielded in ways that subjugate women, sexual minorities, and gender minorities. For example, it is often proclaimed that it is “natural” for women to want to spend all their time caring for children, it is “natural” for them not to participate in the workplace, and so forth. Where do you stand on this question of the “natural”, both in relation to our bodies and more generally?
CC: The idea of the “natural” brings with it certain normative implications. When we talk about something as natural we tend to mean that it is something good. For example, we talk about natural health but not natural disease. And, as you mentioned, feminists have had to strongly resist the idea that women have a nature which explains and justifies their subordination. For example, a clear contemporary form of the argument for women’s natural inferiority is present in theories of evolutionary psychology, with evolutionary theorists arguing that women have a naturally different set of intuitions or incentives that explain gender difference. So, the rejection of the idea that nature explains and justifies gender inequality remains an important part of feminist theory and activism. But an equally important part of feminist theory and activism has also been to argue that a significant part of women’s experience of oppression is through their embodiment and embodied experience. I think this partly explains why some of the debates around questions about gender identity and women’s rights and trans people’s rights have been so difficult within feminism. There is a really clear sense that feminism wants to say two things. First, that our social position should not be determined by our bodies, that nature or biology does not determine who we are what we can do – and this fits really well with the idea that recognising and respecting trans identity and trans rights is a clear part of feminist thinking. But feminism has also wanted to say, second, that embodiment makes a difference not only to people’s experience, but also to their social position and how they are treated, and this seems to suggest that we need to pay attention to that other aspect of our experience. So, we can see how nature and biology become very difficult questions that can be used on both sides of a very difficult issue, and we need to be open to thinking about the complexity of these issues rather than dismissing them in simplistic ways.
An interesting example of reclaiming the concept of the natural, and potentially using that toward feminist ends is natural hair, i.e., afro textured hair that has not been straightened. Natural hair might have used all kinds of products – it may well be coloured, it may be braided, all kinds of complicated and beautiful work may have been done on natural hair – so is not simply hair that has been left alone. But the reason that straightening undermines the naturalness of natural hair is because straightening of afro textured hair is a response to a very racialised, racist conception of beauty that puts the hair that white people typically have – straight hair – as the only acceptable or beautiful form of hair. The idea of natural hair is resisting that racist idea and that racist aesthetic. So, you can do all kinds of things to your hair that doesn’t make it unnatural; rather, the concept of naturalness is reflecting and invoking a social value – in this case, it is invoking a resistance to racism and black reclamation of the black aesthetic.
BDE: There is a strong focus in your work on people’s equal moral value, and this view is central to your construction of the political principle of the unmodified body. This political principle is tied to the notion of moral equality, so I wonder if you could talk more about that.
CC: We talked earlier about how the standards of how bodies should be are often highly discriminatory, often reflecting existing hierarchies of gender, race, age, class, disability status, and so on. And so if I were to say that a body is better if it is unmodified, then I would effectively be praising people who have bodies that society deems less in need of modification, and that would not be a position that in any way feeds into equality. So, the connection with equality here is that if we are in the grip of a really dominant social context that tells us that our bodies are not good enough, that tells us that our bodies ought to change to reflect our virtue, our moral status, our identity, and so on, then what that is really telling us is that we are not good enough as we are. And when the standards of bodily acceptability are as discriminatory as they are, then that is a fundamental undermining of equality because it says your body is not good enough, and the way in which it is not good enough reflects these existing structures of hierarchy and domination.
If I were to say that a body is better if it is unmodified, then I would effectively be praising people who have bodies that society deems less in need of modification, and that would not be a position that in any way feeds into equality.
BDE: If we reflect upon these kinds of questions and concede that a large proportion of my motivation to modify my body is actually due to pressures that are unjust or that stem from unjust forces, do you then have a duty not to modify your body?
CC: When we ask ourselves these questions about particular practices of modification, we might conclude that a particular practice is actually not something that we are undertaking from motives that are ethically suspect. But even if we conclude that a particular modification practice fits into unjust, unequal structures or discriminatory social norms, that does not mean that it is not in our interests to comply. We are social beings, we are beings who want to fit in, who are dependent on acceptance from others for a great many things, from our self-esteem to a great many other material benefits. We all conform to social norms day-in-day-out in a myriad of ways, and most of those conforming procedures are utterly innocuous. When I say “hello” to you when I see you, I reinforce the social norm that we ought to say hello or something similar on greeting, and in doing so I make other people think that this is the right thing to do and I reinforce that social norm. We are all influencing each other all the time. Does this then mean that we have a duty to always do the right thing, to always act in a resisting way, to always do the thing that would be most compatible with resistance and progress? I don’t think it can. It is far too demanding an ideal, and as a result I think it would be inconsistent with liberty. So, there is absolutely no obligation on any individual to give up the benefits that he or she or they will receive from conforming to social norms. This is why the question of body modification can never be a purely individual one.
I am not arguing for people to stop doing all of the things that they need to do in order to fit in and gain self-esteem and acceptance from within their context. The key questions that I am asking are: Why is it that we are subjecting ourselves and each other to a constant sense of inadequacy and failure? And what harms are we doing to ourselves with that context, both in terms of our mental and physical health?
Clare Chambers is Professor of Political Philosophy and a Fellow of Jesus College, University of Cambridge. The author of the acclaimed Against Marriage (2017), she specializes in feminism, bioethics, contemporary liberalism and theories of social justice. Her new book, Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body, is published in February by Allen Lane.
Brian D. Earp Brian is Associate Director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy at Yale University and The Hastings Center, a Senior Research Fellow in the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, and Associate Editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Brian’s work is cross-disciplinary, following training in philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, history and sociology of science and medicine, and ethics.
The Philosopher is unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.