Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body
Allen Lane, £20 (cloth)
“Oppressors, as a rule, deny oppressed people their own ‘native’ standards of beauty,” Susan Sontag once wrote. Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body is the Cambridge philosopher Clare Chambers’s attempt to take aim at the ideal the oppressors have cooked up for women. In place of the usual thin, buxom blonde, she presents an alternative idol—“the unmodified body,” a physique that has not been winnowed by diets, enhanced by plastic surgeries, or chiseled by grueling exercise regimens. The unmodified body may not be especially thin; it may eschew makeup and feminine clothing; it may even openly menstruate. The unmodified body takes as many forms as there are people, but each iteration is distinguished by being “good enough just as it is”—the moral leitmotif that echoes throughout Intact.
Chambers is well aware that body modification is by no means forced upon us: in her first book, Sex, Culture, and Justice (2008), she emphasizes that “women comply with appearance norms to an extent because doing so is, in myth and reality, pleasurable.” Here, as elsewhere, she is less concerned with overt coercion, which is easy enough to identify and condemn, and more distressed by the subtle pressures that skulk in the vicinity of our ostensible choices like predators waiting to pounce. Women appear to choose diets and uncomfortable shoes, but do they really? And must we respect a choice that is sufficiently degrading? The antagonist of Sex, Culture, and Justice is traditional liberalism, which the book caricatures rather uncharitably as worshipful of any state of affairs that comes about by choice. Yet, Chambers counters, we have only to think of women with eating disorders to see that some freely undertaken modifications are still ethically suspect. Hence the need for a feminist renovation of the liberal shibboleths: we should not honor choices fomented under patriarchal conditions or choices incompatible with human dignity, even if no one is holding a gun to anyone else’s head.
In Intact, the enemy is no longer traditional liberalism and its defenders but demeaning choices themselves—that is, choices made with an eye to improvement or beautification. Chambers defends her rubric in three lengthy sections: “Natural,” “Normal,” and “Whole.” While naturalness and normalcy do not perfectly overlap with the unmodified body, they are not unrelated. Chambers calls both concepts “frenemies,” insofar as they are sometimes politically profitable and sometimes apt for abuse. (We might ask, what concept isn’t?) The natural hair movement, which encourages Black women to celebrate their distinctively textured hair, is a friend, but the natural makeup movement, a trend encouraging women to apply inconspicuous cosmetics, is an enemy; removing the stigma of menstruation by deeming the phenomenon “normal” is a friend, while efforts to denigrate disabilities as “abnormal” are enemies. Matters come to a head in the “Whole” section, which tackles the question of how we should approach the decision to modify both our bodies and those of our dependents.
The writing along the way can be animated—unlike most philosophers, Chambers ventures out of the arm chair and into the fray, interviewing plastic surgeons, attending bodybuilding competitions, and speaking to women who have had mastectomies—but it can also be needlessly scholastic, laden with gratuitous distinctions and embarrassing coinages like “shametenance,” a portmanteau of “shame” and “maintenance.” Readers may lose track of the plot as they are dragged off on long digressions that that never make their way back to the book’s central thesis.
Even without the excurses on feminist critiques of the natural, however, the book’s central thesis would be maddeningly difficult to locate. Is the unmodified body a standard-bearer for real bodies, a regulative ideal that actual anatomy can at best approximate, or something else altogether? And whether it is ethereal or effluvial, is it interesting or useful?
Chambers cannot quite decide what the unmodified body amounts to: it is “not only something that exists in the world as a real, material object,” she writes in Intact’s introduction; “it is also an idea that is constructed by political processes.”
But what “real, material object” is ever “unmodified”? Time alone is sufficient to sag the skin, and even bare maintenance requires alteration. “Everything we do, or don’t do, has an effect,” as Chambers acknowledges. Whether we eat or don’t eat, tan or don’t tan, shower or don’t shower, cut our hair or let it grow, the flesh bears testament. How, then, can the proprietor of an “unmodified” body afford to eat, age, or exercise? And what about medical treatments? For Chambers, only some modifications end up counting as such, and medical interventions are generally exempt from opprobrium: she concedes that “heart attacks, cancer and infectious diseases are matters of health” in want of treatment, yet she neglects to explain why these afflictions merit modification when others do not, or whether there is any general metric for distinguishing acceptable interventions from illicit ones.
Intact is rife with richly sketched and entertaining examples, but they are never sorted according to precise principles. Chambers vehemently disapproves of breast enlargement, but she ambivalently supports the small but growing number of women who choose to tattoo their bare chests in the wake of mastectomies, though both procedures are not medical but aesthetic. Despite her enthusiasm for the natural hair movement, Chambers concedes that “natural” coiffure is in fact no more “natural” than subtle eye shadow styles, given that both are require effort and artistry. Sometimes, Chambers claims that we must intervene to restore the body to its unmodified state; for this reason, she is in favor of reconstructive surgery for patients who are suddenly disfigured. Yet she never tells us why the body that exists prior to an accident should qualify as any more “unmodified” than the same body in its aftermath. If our physiques are in constant flux, why should a person’s condition immediately before an injury count as her baseline? Why isn’t the default her body after her mishap, or her body when she was sixteen? Instead of venturing any answers, Intact makes a virtue of its refusal to take a stance. From the knotty case of cochlear implants, which endow deaf children with a sense that approximates hearing at the cost of isolating them from the Deaf community, Chambers infers “there is no simple answer to the question of whether a modification is valuable.” She is right, of course, but we turn to philosophy not for pat reminders of complexity but for some measure of clarification.
Often, when Chambers is pressed to issue a verdict about a particular procedure, she beats a hasty retreat to abstraction, claiming that the unmodified body is “a complex political concept, not a simple material thing.” She goes so far as to deem it a “principle,” though she offers no straightforward statement of the principle it is. (There is also no explanation of how something as ethereal as a principle can be transubstantiated into a “real, material object.”) Chambers is perhaps at her most perspicuous when she writes, “my argument is not that modification is always wrong, or even that it is presumptively suspect.” Rather, her argument is that “we must take collective action against the pressures to modify.” We might extrapolate that the principle of the unmodified body permits only freely chosen interventions, but Chambers directly contradicts this interpretation elsewhere, insisting in the introduction that “the unmodified body should be defended as a default” and, later, that “the whole body should be treated as the default that it is.” So is modification presumptively suspect, or isn’t it? Is the “intact” body an idea or a sack of blood and bones?
Whether this mysterious construct turns out to be an incorporeal concept or a tangible tangle of ligaments, the core imperative of Intact is that we must regard it as good enough, however difficult it may be to inhabit. Chambers provides several rationales for this injunction. The first is that there is a necessary connection between valuing a person’s physique and valuing a person: because “the body is us,” “treating people equally means asserting the political principle of the value of the unmodified body.” The second is that “rejecting the concept of nature and the realities of bodies makes us unable to theorize the way that those bodies operate in the world.” Although the natural body is not quite the same as the unmodified body, the two notions are neighboring—and, according to Chambers, only by embracing some hybrid can we confront our materiality.
How, then, are we to honor the body as “good enough as it is”? If we are not required to reject modifications out of hand, what are we required to do? Chambers emphasizes that individual actions are not enough to reform a culture that is collectively constructed and sustained, but she does not really reckon with the aesthetic hold that others retain over us, and she provides little guidance as to how broader reforms—especially of “the political and economic structures that set us up to feel bad”—might come about. Instead, she urges us to express respect for our trappings (and thereby ourselves) by scrutinizing our reasons for craving modification; should we discover that we are acting in deference to undue social pressure, we should suffer to remain as we are.
About others’ bodies, we are called upon to exercise even more caution: if we find ourselves in a position to make decisions for those who cannot consent to medical care, such as children, we can opt for modification only if “1), the evidence that the intervention is in [the patient’s] best interests is beyond reasonable doubt, or 2), there is clear and convincing evidence that the intervention best secures that person’s right to an open future.” As Chambers sees it, that means we are obligated to keep a child alive, but we are not permitted to give trans children hormone-blockers, to circumcise Jewish and Muslim babies, or to pierce a pre-verbal infant’s ears. In the last section of the book, which is dedicated to practical prescriptions, we appear to have exited the domain of principle and returned once again to the concrete question of when to consign someone to a flesh-and-blood body that she finds unbearable.
By the end of Intact, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Chambers has gerrymandered the conceptual terrain so as to exclude modifications that peeve her and permit modifications that please her. Why should hormone therapy—a course of treatment that strikes many physicians (not to mention parents) as quite resoundingly in the “best interests” of trans children, indeed as necessary to ensure them an “open future”—come in for special censure, when plenty of comparable procedures are not even mentioned? There is no obvious reason to regard the body of an infant wearing an unwieldly brace to correct scoliosis as any more “intact” than that of a child on hormone blockers—or, for that matter, a child on supplements, a child using skin creams to combat eczema, and so on and on.
Indeed, I am skeptical that there is such a thing as an “intact” body, even in principle. It is hard to imagine a way of shaping our offspring’s lives—enrolling them in dance classes or sports, feeding them more or less nutritious diets, slathering them with sunscreen at the beach, offering them vegetarian fare instead of meat or meat instead of vegetables, paving their mouths with orthodontic correctives, rewhirling the whorls of their brains by making them fiddle with Rubik’s Cubes—that does not also shape their bodies. But if the unmodified body is a patent impossibility, why should we waste time aspiring to realize it?
Chambers might respond by reminding us that the unmodified body is an idea without viscera. But she is the one who infers from the principle—together with her own interpretation of the available evidence—that we should not provide real children, who are not unfeeling principles but embodied persons, with gender-affirming care. And while there is surely such a thing as a fruitful fiction, for instance a predictively effective model in science, the unmodified body remains wrongheaded even when it has been demoted from material to myth. All of the nominal benefits of Chambers’s view can be captured without appeal to an entity so dubious. If the problem is not modification itself but undue pressures to modify, then we would do better to articulate an alternative principle—the principle of the freely modified body, for instance, or perhaps the principle of unpressured modification. Nor do we need to accept a person’s body in its current form in order to regard her as a political equal, any more than we need to embrace everything about someone’s personality in order to hold her in high regard. To suggest that a friend should be more considerate toward her partner or more diligent in her studies is not to suggest that she is worthless or without moral dignity. Even if “the body is us” (the avid italicization is Chambers’s), the notion that we ought to change some things about ourselves is perfectly compatible with the notion that we are deserving of fundamental respect.
Chambers frets that “rejecting the concept of nature and the realities of bodies makes us unable to theorize the way that those bodies operate in the world”—but declining to make a fetish of the “natural” (or the unmodified) is not equivalent to rejecting “the realities of bodies.” A modified body is still a body, still a locus of sensual attention. I would go so far as to suggest that many modification practices are part and parcel of giving physicality its due. The bodybuilders to whom Chambers devotes a chapter spend hours each day enhancing their physiques, and they are more achingly aware of their musculature as a result. Many of my favorite drag queens apply ornate makeup and thereby come to stand in a painterly relation to their faces, yet it never occurs to Chambers that successful self-stylization is sometimes an aesthetic achievement, a way of elevating raw anatomy to art.
Occasionally, Intact is not just theoretically inert and artistically bankrupt but outright regressive. Chambers sounds like the worst sort of conservative paranoiac when she concludes,
if the morally privileged baseline were the modified body as opposed to the unmodified one we would be locked into a duty to seek constant modification, constant enhancement, unending surgery or self-improvement or technological advance. There would be no principled end.
But slopes are not always slippery: this inference is simply specious. To conclude that some scintilla of body modification is inevitable, and that freely endorsed modifications can be positive, is certainly not to impose a duty for unending modification on anyone. Worse still, such conspiratorial fear-mongering often forms the basis of maudlin and all-too-familiar elegies to finitude that have frequently shaded into screeds against reproductive autonomy (contraception is evil), gay sex (what’s next, bestiality?), and, especially today, gender-affirming surgery (which is the first step, we are told, on the road to transhumanism). Chambers is apparently unbothered by her argument’s resemblance to these insidious insinuations, yet they are of a piece. Few conservatives insist that we must decline cancer treatment in order to embrace our vulnerability, but plenty argue that women who use contraception are asserting technocratic dominance over the natural order of things rather than heroically confronting the fact of human limitation. Chambers makes similarly invidious arguments, condoning cancer treatment but condemning treatments for gender dysphoria, without justification. She might as well follow feminist-turned-reactionary Louise Perry, who laments, in a recent polemic about the ills of the sexual revolution, that liberalism “seeks to free individuals from the external constraints placed on us by location, family, religion, tradition, and even (and most relevant to feminists) the human body.”
But just as it is false that liberals who hope to protect some kernel of autonomy aspire to exert total sovereignty over the world, and just as it is false that providing trans people with gender-affirming care will usher in an era of cyborgs, it is false that rejecting the standard set by Intact is to succumb to rampant, ceaseless modification. When it comes to assessing a bodily intervention, the degree to which the body will be modified is not the right metric—which is not necessarily to say that there is no metric or that anything goes.
The right standard is not that of bodily purity but that of aesthetic agency. Sontag identified the crux of the matter when she observed that oppressors impose beauty standards on the populations they colonize. The problem is not that we modify our bodies at all, a tic we could scarcely excise so long as we go on exercising and excreting, but that most people have little power over the standards by which their modified bodies are to be assessed. As Wordsworth writes in a supplement to the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” The true injustice of the present norms is that women and people of color are enmeshed in a net of their oppressors’ poor taste.
Of course, it is no trifling matter to determine which of our aesthetic propensities are really our own (or at least, enough our own), nor is it easy to relinquish the standards of our milieu, even on the rare occasions when we have succeeded in disentangling them from the snarled skein of desire. Chambers is right to worry that women in particular face obstacles to the cultivation of aesthetic agency, as well as plenty of material incentives to accept patriarchal blueprints demanding they shrink their waists and inflate their busts.
But if women are tyrannized by dint of having no hand in crafting the criteria by which they are judged, then even well-meaning paternalism is not a solution. The content of Chambers’s proposal may be less punishing than that of the patriarchal project (at least for some), but she is merely substituting a more benign dictatorship for a more barbarous one. Instead of embracing a presumption against modification, we should embrace a commitment to realizing aesthetic autonomy and enabling artistic imagination for all.
Because, if there were such a thing as an unmodified body, who would want one? It would be inert, untouched by the ordeal of living, almost inanimate. Worse, it would be artless, one more refusal to sanctify the world by beautifying it. The drag queens whose cosmetic skills I find so impressive present a better model. They have every motive to become drab or, worse, vulgarly virile, but instead they muster the courage and imagination to render themselves dazzling—an aesthetic merit that smacks of moral courage at a time when neo-fascists prowl in wait outside drag queen story hours. Like all the best artworks, they invent not only themselves but new sensibilities for themselves. Reactionaries are right, in a way, to fear them. They leave no one who sees them intact.
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