The term “cisgender” refers to people who believe that the gender that they feel themselves to be matches their assigned sex. It is a complement to the word “transgender” which refers to people who experience a mismatch between their gender identities and their assigned gender and sex. Intersex individuals refer to variations of sex characteristics (chromosomes, gonads, genitals) that do not allow them to be identified as either male or female. These categories point to the complexity of [o]ur relationships to our bodies and our decisions about how we present ourselves to the world,” which as Estelle Disch asserts, “are heavily influenced by the historical and cultural contexts in which we live” (156).
In US society, transgendered and intersex people tend to experience more discrimination than cisgendered ones due to the fact that their “bodies don’t match dominant images of what is defined as normal” (157). The pressure to match bodily standards of normative femininity and masculinity is intense and can lead to feelings of inadequacy and the investment of significant amounts of time and energy to body modification.
In “Making Up is Hard to Do,” Sheila Jeffreys discusses a practice that many women do not feel is even a form of body modification: makeup. In recent decades, she points to the shift away from the feminist critique of beauty in the 1970s to more postmodern and popular liberal ones that advocate beauty practices as means of female empowerment and that are freely chosen by women. Citing various research studies, Jeffreys argues that makeup and beauty practices are actually disempowering, and that instead of being freely chosen by women—are “the result of a system of power relations that can require women to engage in this cultural practice” (176). She believes that beauty practices are harmful to women and “fulfil [sic] the criteria of emerging from the subordination of women and being for the benefit of men, of creating gender stereotypes; that is, making a difference” (166).
Many of us have been socially conditioned through various means to think that certain kinds of facial and bodily attributes are more beautiful than others. Makeup has for so long been promoted as part of the ways in which women can express their femininity and enhance beauty that it has become seen as a naturally occurring practice of cisgendered and heterosexual women. Jeffreys, however, wants to make it clear that makeup and other daily female grooming practices are not natural and are instead socially constructed ways of reproducing inequality between men and women, as well as between different groups of women. For instance, she asks why it is socially acceptable for men to go out into public barefaced, when women often feel pressured to wear makeup in order to conform to normative images of femininity. Many beauty standards promoted in mainstream media and by beauty industries also conform to white ideals of what constitutes beauty. Working women who wear the right kinds and amounts of makeup tend to be positively reinforced and seen as more professional, just as women who engage in traditionally feminine grooming practices (e.g. makeup, shaving) are viewed as more mentally healthy. As Jeffreys points out, “Women may well say that makeup empowers them but the interesting question is, what disempowers them about being without their mask? The constraints imposed by sexism and racism and the political structures of male domination are likely to be responsible for women’s discomfort about moving into the public world ‘barefaced’” (172).
In “A Way Outa No Way,” Becky Thompson challenges some of the prevailing views of eating disorders among women. In contrast to models of individual psychopathology, feminists have shown how eating problems “are rooted in systematic and pervasive attempts to control women’s body sizes and appetites” (187). Much of this feminist research emphasizes a “culture of thinness” that primarily affects white, affluent women who feel pressure to conform to hegemonic beauty ideals of slimness. Not only does the “culture of thinness” model cast eating problems as “appearance-based disorders” among a narrow group of women, but it also neglects “how race, class, and sexuality influence women’s understanding of their bodies and appetites” (187). Thompson challenges this model by exploring the ways in which eating problems relate to women’s struggles with “a simultaneity of oppressions,” including sexual abuse, poverty, heterosexism, and racism and class injuries. From surveys conducted with various women, she finds that disordered eating behaviors like binging, purging, and extreme dieting are coping mechanisms that many women use to deal with social traumas and injustices. Instead of just being frivolous and appearance-based attempts to conform to a culture of thinness, eating disorders function for some women as “serious responses to injustices” (198). Thompson argues that eating disorders are ways of responding to disruptions to what she calls “body consciousness”—“the ability to reside comfortably in one’s body (to see oneself as embodied) and to consider one’s body as connected to oneself.” The disruptions her survey respondents reported include “leaving their bodies, making a split between their body and mind, experiencing being ‘in’ their bodies, hiding in one part of their bodies, or simply not seeing themselves as having bodies” (196).
In “I’m Not Fat, I’m Latina,” Christy Haubegger talks about how Latinas in the US live in two worlds—one in which having a curvy figure means to be bien cuidadas (well cared for) and another where it means that you are overweight and unhealthy. She herself has always had a curvy body that was met with acceptance and admiration among Hispanic people, but which falls outside US medical norms for healthy weight. While enjoying cultural acceptance in Hispanic culture, she saw few if any curvy women in mainstream media, and thus grew up with ambivalent attitudes towards her own body. Instead of conforming to the standards and norms of the medical establishment and mainstream media culture, she believes that curvy Latinas should not see themselves as overweight and unattractive. “You only have to realize that beautiful for this country still means tall, blond, and underfed. But now we know that it’s the magazines that are wrong. I, for one, am going to do what I can to make sure that mis hijas, my daughters, won’t feel the way I did” (211). As part of this effort, Haubegger founded Latina magazine, the first bilingual publication for Hispanic women in the US.