Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Aimee Mullins, who I have referenced here before, asked a question in her TED talk on her 12 pairs of (prosthetic) legs. Actually, she asked three questions. They are, "What does a beautiful woman have to look like? What is a sexy body? And interestingly, from an identity standpoint, what does it mean to have a disability?" I started to think about this over the course of about a week. Not only was I wondering about the answers to her questions, but I also had a few questions about her questions. I'll try to explore these with you here.
1. What is a sexy body? What is a disabled body?
The most obvious way to answer this question is to Google these terms. But I don't think you have to. I think you'll know what you'll find, especially in the case of the former. This won't answer our questions, though. Neither question--sexiness, disability--is easily answerable. Likely, neither is answerable at all, in the end.
First: sexiness. Or, if you prefer, beauty or physical attractiveness. (If you don't want to follow my reasoning, jump to the next bold point.) They say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and, whatever that person who originally minted this phrase meant, it has a truth different from that most people accept. Most people think it means that everyone has their own standard of beauty, which is of course somewhat true. However, there is another interesting element to this which I think becomes more clear if I say, "Beauty is in the mind of the beholder." Beauty is not, at least as we experience it, a quality inherent in an object or person. Rather, it is an interpretation of that object or person. People have said this before of all sorts of things, such as colour, but this is really a different matter than colour. A thing, of course, is not red itself. That is a psychological interpretation of the lightwaves we receive. But all things that we experience as red do reflect that particular wavelength. They are in a sense red after all.
In other words, our brains see a person and think, based on assorted qualities our sensory receptors pick up, "That's a sexy person." (If you want to hold onto an essentialist theory of beauty, you of course can. God or Platonic principles or what ever defines universal beauty can make a thing beautiful--truly, inherently beautiful--and then allow our brains to perceive that. Or, there is such a thing as beauty, somehow, derived from something, and it is to our reproductive advantage, somehow, to be able to perceive that, and we have evolved to be able to perceive it. The relevant point is that it's still a process that goes on in our brains.) In this sense, beauty is in the eye of the beholder--but that doesn't mean it's entirely subjective. To the extent that our brains operate the same, sexiness, even though interpreted, is objective; to the extent that our brains operate differently, it is subjective. The degree of difference isn't just genetics, of course, but also individual personal experience and cultural factors (and I'd argue that culture factors are way bigger than most people think). Anyway, the upshot is, 'sexiness' is partly universal, partly cultural, and partly individual. So we can answer 'what is a sexy body' in part, but only in part.
Now, there are all sorts of theories about facial symmetry and hip-waist ratios and things. I don't want to get into those, because I think that they are no more than contributing factors. A girl whose enormous, unibrow-laden, protuding forehead is perfectly symmetrical isn't going to win any beauty pagents. Meanwhile, I wouldn't say Helena Bonham Carter is the most beautiful woman in the world, but she's made it pretty well in Hollywood. But her face isn't perfectly symmetrical. Not at all. So I think we can say these sorts of things contribute, but aren't absolute.
I think here we need to fall back on what I said before. A lot of it is cultural. We are trained to think of particular people--often whole, 'healthy,' young, thin people--as beautiful and others as not beautiful. There was a time when overweight girls were considered sexy by some (Renaissance). There was a time when husky women were desirable (frontier, pre- and revolutionary Russia). There was a time when effeminate men were considered beautiful (ancient Greece, some Renaissance). Sickly girls also had a vogue (Victorian). It is true that some people we just won't find all that attractive anyway for biological reasons. But I don't think that's the case for people without legs. So long as we aren't actively repulsed by them, there's no reason we can't find them attractive. Listen to Aimee Mullins talk--just the first few minutes--on training repulsion.
That's not a real answer, but it's all I've got for now. I'll also note that I purposely trained myself not to be repelled by people with prosthetics and people with assorted facial disfigurations, etc. As a kid, I simply couldn't deal with anyone who looked 'disfigured' or 'deformed,' as I put it.
So what is disability? You'll notice I used "disfigured" in my post title. This is to emphasis a point: disability suggests a definition which rests on whether a person can perform as well as a typical person can in those tasks deemed part of everyday life. So we have people with missing limbs or people who are shorter than usual or what have you or blind people. This definition works well if you're only thinking of amputees, but it breaks down in other areas, at least if you want to talk about attractiveness. People with albinoism are not in any way less able to perform typical tasks, but they are often considered unattractive. Conjoined twins are often less able to do particular things, but they aren't always. Sometimes the only thing they are less able to do is to be alone, and I hardly think that counts. Aimee Mullins points out that people without legs are far from less able. They have now become more able. And then blind people, one of the largest demographics of people who are part of the disability--or different ability--activism movement, are often indistinguishable from sighted people, including in the realm of attractiveness. Disability is not the issue; it's 'looking weird' that is.
What definition can we use, then? Well, one possibility is, People who are visually atypical in some significant anatomical or pigmentational way, which is distinct from race, gender, or age. Another, less politically correct but I think more to the point, definition would be, People who would fifty years ago have been in a freak show, and now would be on the TLC network.
Where am I going with this? Good question. This is where: the fundamental question is, can a person who stikes us as so visually atypical also strike us as attractive?
Of course they can. If you care to, you can find all sorts of fetish literature about amputees and conjoined twins and human-animal hybrids (not possible yet, I know, but they would fit in this class if they did exist--and they were once thought to exist) and goodness knows who else. There is fetish literature about dragons doing R-rated things with luxury vehicles, so I guess we oughtn't be surprised.
But what about a 'normal' person, who doesn't have such fetishes? Well, I hope by now the pictures I've been putting in have answered that for you. There's no reason they can't, so long as we don't allow ourselves to be repulsed by them. And those fetishes may not be so off topic. I wonder if the forbidden-ness, the taboo, even the repulsiveness itself contribute to the fetish. If you look it up, people can be attracted to some pretty repulsive things. A Freudian analyst might talk a lot about the repression of certain disallowed desires being exagerated through a fetish. My point being, we might be naturally inclined to feel that these people are attractive--that these are sexy bodies--but we think we shouldn't feel so, and are as a result confused and repulsed. Consider the on-going cultural debate about whether the Medusa was beautiful or hideous. C. S. Lewis, for instance, calls the Medusa beautiful long before Cixous does. The classical painters painted her as such. And yet she's also a figure for ugliness--and disability.
Can a disfigured body be sexy? Sure it can. But we must let it be so.
2. Who becomes sexy?
And, of course, unless we find ourselves desiring that element which is different, the body must be sexy even without the disability. By now you'll likely have noticed that most of the people I've shown on here would have been attractive without their particular difference (or not, if you don't find them attractive). A 500-pound person will likely not be considered sexy, unless obesity turns you on. That's just a fact. And if a person is just generally what we'd consider unattractive, whether for cultural or hardwired reasons, then that they have a plastic arm isn't going to make much of a difference one way or another. If they could somehow grow that arm back, it won't help.
Which begins to put stress on Aimee Mullins implication that allowing the disabled to be beautiful is a victory. It seems that it's only a victory for those who are beautiful.
And I don't think this is going to push us into saying, Well, now that the legless are beautiful, people with distortions on their faces can also be beautiful. Because, I'm sorry, but by standard societal definitions, they can't. Not yet.
[I recognize that someone will come around with the argument that, if you fall in love with someone who is unattractive because of their personality, you will begin to find them physically attractive by magic, almost. I am absolutely sure this is true. Love is magic. I think we can also agree that that is beside the point. We already said we're not talking about the subjective. We're talking about quasi-objective attractiveness, in as much as it exists.]
So, if only some disabled people get to be beautiful, why should we value it at all?
3. Why sexiness?
First, that there is no reason we can't bestow a privilege on some when we are unable to give it to all. It's not fair, but it would be ridiculous not to push for empowerment when not everyone in the demographic will be able to share it. It would be like saying, Let's give women the right to an education, and then someone saying, No, you can't, because those women over there are too old to start learning new things, and those women over their are so mentally handicapped that they wouldn't benefit from that education. (They have advanced learning disabilities or something.) It makes no sense.
And sexiness can be empowering. As much as people talk about beauty being a limit for women in some fields, I'd suggest you try being really downright unattractive before saying that. If you think you aren't taken seriously when you're pretty, at least people listen to you (or pay some sort of attention to you). At least people don't openly mock you for how you look, which I've seen happen.
Second, if we see some disabled people as attractive, we might be more willing to think of them--and by extension their whole demographic--as people. That is, we might think 'disabled person' over 'disabled person.' Grammatically, that is rendered 'a person with a disability,' which is the language differently-abled activists are pushing for. Hopefully, if we see a really hot albino guy walk down the street, we're less likely to think of people with albinoism as 'freaks.'
4. Why not sexiness? (I'll tell you.)
Notwithstanding what I've said so far, I think there's still a problem a number of problems, and I'm likely missing some.
While we're busy training ourselves to think of some disabled/differently-abled/disfigured/anatomically-or-pigmentally-atypical people as attractive, we're simultaneously training ourselves to think of being attractive as an important goal. That is, we're educating ourselves in the culture that worries about how people look in the first place. We're not breaking out of the system which discriminates by appearance. And before Jon breaks in here, I'm not talking about the movies. Whether we agree with Jon or not on cinema (and if you don't know Jon or what he thinks about cinema, don't worry about it) doesn't matter: I'm talking about real life here. I think it's fair to say that while enjoying an attractive person's appearance is not culturally destructive, discriminating based on it is. So we need to be careful when worrying about who is sexy that we don't by mistake brainwash ourselves into thinking that sexiness is somehow more important than, or even worse a contributing factor in, a person's humanity and their right to respect and compassion.
I revealed a particular issue earlier indirectly. There is a sort of thin edge where people who are too attractive aren't taken seriously and people who aren't attractive enough are avoided or ridiculed. Even if you found that happy medium, it would only be successful in that context; presumably, you'd be still unable to compete with those who were 'too attractive' in the other context when it comes to romantic rivalry, etc. In the end, the only thing we can say for sure is that we don't want to be in the lowest half of the attractiveness food chain. The hope, of course, is that we can somehow get out of this scenario, but if that is possible (which you might have cause to doubt), we certainly can't do it if we're at all worried about whether we're sexy when have a disability.
And then there's the issue of encouraging lust. At this point some of my readers will likely be thinking, Uhp, he's playing the prude card again, and from those readers' perspectives that would be somewhat true. There are a number of reasons why I think encouraging lust is problematic, but since some of them are religiously derived I won't fool myself into thinking that they'll be persuasive to someone outside of that context. I want to clarify here, though, that I'm not condemning the experience of physical desire. In the right situation, physical desire is a good thing--and that's biblically supported, in case you were unaware of that. But, at least from a Christian perspective, there is a problem with putting all this focus into making yourself (as a person with an atypicality of some sort) sexy, into discerning who is and who is not sexy, into allowing/encouraging/forcing yourself to feel physical attraction toward a person with a disability; the problem is the encouragement of an over-active libido. In our culture, there's already that threat. We don't need to fan the flame. But I think you can make secular arguments against allowing ourselves to be too sexually active, having to do with destroying our relationships, driving our desires into unattainable fantasies, and hampering our abilities to be romantically and sexually loyal to our partners. I haven't developed these arguments largely because I haven't seen the need to on a personal basis. They exist, though. I've heard about them.
(And in case you're thinking that I'm thus a hypocrit for writing this at all and for putting up all these pictures selected for their ability to arouse you, I say this: you're likely right. I do hope I'm making a point in all this that transcends that, but that's not to say on some level I'm not doing this just so I can think about pretty girls. The naked vanities, and everything, right? My only answer can be, "Orges and onions.")
This, then, is the crux of the question I have about Aimee Mullins' question: If we do allow that a disabled body can be a sexy body, then we are forced with a particular dilemma, which is between choosing the short-term empowerment of sexiness at risk of keeping ourselves in a destructive and discriminatory culture, or striving for other forms of empowerment which have concerns like ability and accessibility, added perspective, inherent worth, compassion, and meaningful relationships. Do we feel that worrying about sexiness as empowerment is in the end empowering, or does it just cause more problems?
There are some further lines of inquiry which are pertinent, but not so directly related that I will give them the space here (as I've so clearly gone well beyond the reasonable length limits of a blog post). You'll notice one of my photos is of an African-American woman who has albinoism. There is no way to discuss her attractiveness without bringing up race--is she beautiful because she is 'white'? The on-line discussion about the attractiveness of the Hensel twins (a pair of dicephalic conjoined twins) has, if not been exhausted, at least been exhausting. The first picture shown on here is of a prosthetic designed to be and marketed as 'sexy.' It avoids what is apparently called 'the uncanny valley'; that is, things which are close enough to looking real to sometimes 'trick' us but not close enough to really convince us are uncanny and make us uncomfortable, and the designers tried to avoid that when making this arm. Other designers strive for something verisimilitude instead, as you can see in other images. The point, then, is that whatever we decide about the moral worth of this question, in the end we cannot stop at the general principle but must then begin to untangle it on a specific level--race, uncanniness, privacy and individuality. These questions are not inseparable.
Which would be a perfect segue into the one problem I have with the feminist movement (Jon and I have discussed this), which is that there are so many other facets to identity that to focus on gender alone for your emancipation seems like a case of poor resource management. But that is getting off-topic and must be saved for another post. This one is way too long as is, and I need to go to bed.
Posted by Christian H at 19:00