Issue #49 February 2022

Intact Bodies: The Ambivalence of The Natural and The Normal

Alfred Stieglitz - Georgia O'Keeffe, Hands and Horse Skull - (1931)

Clare Chambers is a professor of political philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Her work deals with contemporary liberalism, social construction, feminism, and social justice. Her latest book, Intact (Allen Lane, 2022), is an analysis of the ways in which the body is a political site where the inequalities of sex, gender, race, disability, age, and class are reinforced. The book argues for the value of the ‘unmodified body’. The unmodified body is not an empirical concept, such a thing would be impossible in actuality (our bodies are undergoing constant revision and intervention). Rather, it is a political tool for resisting forms of coercion and oppression that would have us viewing our bodies as never good enough as they are, and thus requiring their modification, concealment, and conformance in myriad ways. However, the unmodified body cannot be viewed as a simple ‘body positivity’ any more than it can be asserted as an empirical concept. Rather, it is a new notion that cuts orthogonally across various ideals that we have previously held the body to: the natural, the normal, and the sovereign. Because of this orthogonality, these various ideals show themselves, under Chambers’ analysis, to have an ambivalent character. The book functions as both a political and cultural call to arms, and an astute analysis of how our bodies becomes ensnared in oppressive structures that inhibit the road to equality.


John C. Brady: At one point in your new book, Intact, you tell the reader that this isn’t a self help book, and what you’re trying to do, rather, is convince us that a problem exists and offer a certain way of thinking about it. So, to get started, what is that problem that Intact is addressed to?

Clare Chambers: We live in a culture which is increasingly focused on the visual. How we look matters. And that’s only getting more and more intense with the development of social media, selfie culture, and, of course, zoom culture, where we see ourselves on the screen when we’re having a meeting in a way we didn’t before. And feminists, in particular, have been criticizing this for a long time: the pressures that it places, particularly on women, to have a certain kind of concern for their beauty and for their looks. But what is really becoming clear, and what I want to emphasize in Intact, is that that context is creating serious harm. 

It creates an environment of really serious mental health problems. Psychologists diagnose an epidemic of appearance anxiety, and that goes beyond some of the traditional topics that we may be used to thinking about, like simple beauty norms. It goes to all aspects of thinking about what our bodies should be like, how they fail, and how they are never good enough. And so many of these ideas about how our bodies should be, and what they have to be to be good enough, are also damaging to our equality. They’re very often discriminatory. They stem from entrenched hierarchies of gender and sex, but also race, disability status, age, and many more. 

So I wanted to think about that context, and work out a way of analyzing what is wrong with it, and what it tells us about how we should think about our bodies. Does it mean that we ought to try to protect a very simple idea of the body as being something that we never change, that is intact in a very literal sense? But, of course, clearly that cannot be the goal, because the moment you start thinking philosophically about what it would be to have a literally unchanged or unmodified body, you very soon see that that’s a dead end. The very moment we eat, or we don’t eat; we exercise, or we don’t exercise, we sit or stand: everything we do to ourselves, all the time, changes how our bodies are. So I don’t defend an idea of an unmodified body as a literal, real thing that exists in the world. We’re thinking about a concept: a philosophical idea. 

So, what could we say about our bodies that can show that they could be good enough just as they are, in a way that can help us to resist these harmful social pressures? With that thought in mind, I started to think about some of the philosophical concepts that tell us what it is for a body to be unmodified. In Intact I talk about three proxy concepts. First is the idea of a natural body, which is something we see a lot in popular culture. We talk about natural health, natural bodies, natural makeup, or natural hair. The idea of naturalness is often applied to the body. The second concept is the normal body. Here the idea is that what we want is for bodies to be normal, so that if they’re not normal then we might seek to change them. That kind of discourse very frequently crops up in a healthcare setting. We might want to have healthcare treatments that can restore or create normality to or for bodies. The third idea is the idea of the whole body, which is an idea associated with concepts of bodily integrity: there might be some value to leaving the body whole. And so in the book I work through each of these concepts, and I try to show that they each tell us something really important about what it is we should be valuing about our bodies. 

But none of those concepts are good enough as they are, and they are all full of complexity. I try to explore that by looking at lots of examples of different kinds of body modification practices, and the different ways we approach them. There are many connections between the ways we heap praise and judgment upon our bodies, but there are also lots of inconsistencies. 

There are surprising connections between different practices. One example I have in the book is the idea of natural bodybuilding. What is the idea of ‘natural’ doing in the natural bodybuilding example? I think there’s lots of connections between the way that naturalness is used in natural bodybuilding and what might seem like a different idea, that of natural childbirth. So there’s an example where we are using a concept in a really similar way.

But there are many times where we approach body modification practices, and the conceptual way we think about them, in ways that seem inconsistent. One example is the very different way that the UK National Health Service approaches two practices: breast reconstruction after mastectomy, and the removal of what’s called an abdominal apron. If you’re overweight, and you lose a lot of that weight, you may well be left with an overhang of skin around the belly. That’s called an abdominal apron. And that skin can be very painful and uncomfortable. It can even get infected. So in many ways, it’s a clinical problem. But most health service trusts here in the UK will not remove that as part of the National Health Service: they’ll say that it’s a cosmetic procedure. If you want to have it removed, that’s something to undertake privately. Whereas, if a woman has a mastectomy after having breast cancer, most NHS Trusts will provide reconstructive surgery – even though that’s also clearly a cosmetic procedure. So there are some really interesting inconsistencies. And I’ve tried to think about what might explain them and how we might bring some clarity.

Brady: Just to kind of spell it out, what precisely is wrong with this idea that our present predicament can be solved with a re-emphasis of nature? So just with the classic story that the problem is technological, cultural, social, too much simulacra, or so on?

Chambers: As you say, that seems like the obvious answer. And so that’s where I start the book, with this idea of the natural body. We find this idea of the natural being raised as a contrast to culture very frequently. It’s a counterpoint, a ‘natural’ way of using the concept of nature. Also, we tend to think of naturalness as being a good thing. You can see that in the way that we talk about natural health, but not natural disease. So we tend to apply that adjective of natural to things that we approve of.

But philosophers of many kinds have long been aware that the concept of nature is really difficult. It’s complex, and often inconsistent. In Intact, I think about how that applies specifically to the case of the body. What I show is that there are various different ways in which we use the idea of the natural body to apply to different practices or different body parts in ways that are completely distinct and that don’t use the same logic at all. 

So, ‘natural’ bodybuilding is bodybuilding which does not use a very particular set of substances. Paradigmatically, it doesn’t use steroids. And it also doesn’t use other kinds of substances like human growth hormone and insulin. But natural bodybuilding will still use all kinds of artificial substances. Natural bodybuilders will frequently use creatine, whey powder, all kinds of other supplements. None of these are natural, in the sense of something like ‘clean eating’ or only eating plants. These are processed substances, deliberately designed to try to enhance muscle gain. Natural bodybuilders will also engage in very deliberate, difficult to follow, regimes of bulking up, putting on muscle, and then cutting, removing fat. It’s a very deliberate form of body sculpting. So what makes it natural? Well, I argue that the naturalness here, what nature means in this context, is about an idea of authentic masculinity. Steroids and growth hormones take users away from that authentic masculinity, because they create the masculine hormones artificially. 

But if we look in other contexts, we see that we don’t use natural in that way. We use it in different ways. Think of ‘natural hair’. Natural hair is Afro-textured hair that hasn’t been straightened. As with bodybuilding, natural hair will often have lots of things done to it. It’s not hair that’s just left alone. People with natural hair won’t simply get out of bed and leave their hair and do nothing else, they will typically spend a significant amount of time and skill on maintaining and styling their hair, putting it into plaits or braids or locks, and caring for it in the way that best suits its texture. They may also color it, and they may also add other forms of decoration. So, again, it’s not natural in the sense of being untouched, or unadorned, or left alone. That’s not what ‘natural’ is doing here. 

In the case of natural hair, I think the reason that straightening is picked out as something that undermines naturalness, conceptually, is because straightening is connected with an idea that Afro-textured hair is inferior. It’s inferior, according to that idea, because it’s not like the straight hair of people with white European backgrounds. It’s a racialized and a racist assessment of different hair textures. So, here, the idea of ‘naturalness’ in natural hair is very explicitly about a resistance to a culturally imposed, racist denigration of a particular body type, associated with a particular racialized group. In other words, it’s about trying to resist an oppressive social hierarchy in that context. So there you really do see ‘nature’ as being against ‘culture’. It’s a resistance to an oppressive culture. 

But, of course, if we are defining ‘nature’ as the opposition or resistance to culture, then what that also means is that what nature is is absolutely determined by what culture is, because if nature is against culture, then we need to know what culture is to know what nature is. So they’re intertwined very strongly. And so what you see then is that the idea of nature can be used sometimes to help liberate us from oppressive discrimination or oppressive hierarchies, as in the natural hair movement: the resistance to a racist denigration of Afro-textured hair. But it can also be used to entrench ideas of how people ought to be, as in the idea that to be natural is to exhibit certain masculine norms and masculine body shapes and so on. So nature becomes really complicated. Sometimes it helps us resist, sometimes it locks us in further.

Alfred Stieglitz - Georgia O'Keeffe, Hands and Thimble - (1919)

Brady: Do you think the term ‘nature’ is one label papering over two distinct things here? On the one hand it’s activated to uphold entrenched hierarchies, but on the other, available to resist those same hierarchies. I think the term you use is ‘frenemy’, right?

Chambers: The reason I use that idea of the ‘frenemy’ is because a frenemy is somebody who is sometimes your friend and sometimes your enemy, and you’re never quite sure which they’re going to be. And I think with nature you really get that, because it’s not just that we use the idea of nature in sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful ways across different practices, but that we’ll even do this within a particular practice. The claim that a practice is natural can sometimes liberate, and sometimes oppress. The example that I think of here is breastfeeding. In one context, imagine that a mother is trying to breastfeed and is struggling, or perhaps doesn’t want to and is considering giving up breastfeeding, and she’s told ‘breastfeeding is natural’. That very much implies that she ought to breastfeed, that there is something wrong if she doesn’t breastfeed, that she ought to persevere, that there is something inferior about formula feeding. And so for a woman who’s really struggling with breastfeeding, and finding that very distressing, then saying that it’s natural is going to feel really oppressive. But, if the context is different, if the context is that the woman is worried about whether to breastfeed in public, and she wants to breastfeed in public but she feels that she might be criticized or told to stop, well, then ‘breastfeeding is natural’ is a reassurance. It means ‘don’t worry, it’s natural, of course you should be able to do it in public, it’s no problem’. It’s something that all mothers should have the ability and the right to do. So even the very same phrase, saying ‘breastfeeding is natural’ to a mother who is breastfeeding, can itself be used as a friend and as an enemy.

Brady: It really does turn on a dime there.

Chambers: Absolutely. And so when we think about the natural body and the concept of nature, you see how, within feminism in particular, it has sometimes been seen as necessary to destroy the idea that nature is in play, because concepts of nature have been used throughout centuries to put women in their place: to say that women are naturally inferior, and that their natural biological differences translate into natural inferiority, which translates into social hierarchy. That line, from allegations of a natural body to allegations of a natural place in hierarchy, is something that feminists have had to resist incredibly strongly. But, equally, you see within feminism the idea that we have to pay some attention to natural bodies, or to the female body, because part of feminist analysis has been to say that embodied experience matters. It makes a difference to how structures of gender, sex, equality and inequality operate socially. So feminism too has this struggle of what to do with nature. We don’t want to give into the idea that women’s nature determines their social position. We don’t want to get into a reductive biological essentialism. But we don’t want to abandon the idea of nature entirely and say there’s nothing to bodies, that bodies don’t matter, because we want to recognize the significance of embodied experience. So nature is such a complex concept, both when we think about what it means, but also when we think about how it’s deployed politically.

Brady: The book feels incredibly timely. But perhaps one could also be forgiven for thinking that all these dynamics that you’re investigating concerning the body have been around since forever. And here lurks the reply that on a number of metrics, things are much better now: the corsets have been thrown away, along with foot binding, and so on. So, in what ways do you see that recent decades have exacerbated the particular predicament that you’re trying to tease out in the book?

Chambers: We’ve discarded some practices, and we’ve taken on a whole lot of new ones. One area where you can really see this clearly is cosmetic surgery: both the prevalence of cosmetic surgery, and the number of people having cosmetic surgery. The number of procedures being done is going up and up, obviously with some interruption over COVID. But generally, as a trend line, it’s been increasing. And what’s also increasing is the number and types of procedures being offered. It’s a marketized process. So surgeons and private cosmetic surgery companies are constantly developing new procedures, identifying new body parts that can be enhanced. There’s an interplay between demand and supply that means we now have to worry about body parts that we never might have worried about before. Body parts that have recently become key targets for cosmetic surgery include things like buttock enlargement, whereas only a decade or so ago we wouldn’t have thought about the buttocks as being an area for cosmetic surgery. Likewise with cosmetic surgery on the genitals, labiaplasty, again, perhaps 10 years ago that would not have been something that would have been a mainstream surgery, whereas now it very much is. And there are developments of different kinds of procedures – not only things we might be familiar with, like Botox on the face, but fillers and various other high tech ways of injecting things and removing things, and doing all kinds of things to our skin and our bodies. So, there’s a huge increase in the technologies we have available, and the sophistication of those technologies. 

Also there’s been a real cultural shift in the idea of what cosmetic surgery is for. Again, not too long ago, cosmetic surgery would have been thought of as the preserve of the rich and famous, a particularly elite practice, and also something that perhaps you would have done very much in secret. You wouldn’t want anyone to know that you’d had work done. But now it’s absolutely mainstream. We see it all the time in popular culture, media, on TV shows. The idea that you would have cosmetic surgery is a completely mainstream idea for many people, and the invasive cosmetic procedures like fillers and Botox and so on are even more mainstream. There’s been a really remarkable shift in the way that cosmetic surgery has become entrenched, and the parts of the bodies that it reaches. 

I mentioned earlier the inexorable rise of visual culture, connected to social media. Online life is just so clearly something that matters here. You know, we see ourselves online, we post photographs of ourselves, those photographs are ranked or filtered or have gone through various kinds of photoshopping enhancement. And so we have this very clear sense that how we look is always something we should think about: that we should be taking a selfie of ourselves in every kind of context, that we always have cameras in our pockets, and that the photographs are instantly available to be seen. So, again, a shift in technology causes a shift in behavior. 

Actually, when the pandemic first began, and we were all suddenly in lockdown, not going out, there was a question in my mind about which way that was going to go. Was that going to mean that we paid less attention to our looks and more attention to our physical health? And also, if we don’t have to go out and meet people, we’re working in our pajamas, then maybe we can focus less on our appearance! But I think in fact that’s not what’s happening. We are focusing on our appearance as much or more than before, because we are now operating even more of our lives online.

Brady: I recall a piece by JiaYang Fan in the New Yorker, concerning, among other things, the rising popularity of plastic surgery in China. At the center of the article is this app, MeiTu, which is for modifying and beautifying your face in photos. It’s become absolutely ubiquitous here in China. And what she discovered, talking to plastic surgeons, was an increasing number of young girls coming in ordering surgeries, but using the terminology from the app. Like, I want a nose job that’s like preset number four, or something like this. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come more globally.

Chambers: I’m sure it will be. And that kind of app is promoting a number of myths about our relationships with our faces. One is that a surgeon can, in fact, create the exact nose or the exact face that you want, rather than facing constraints of the flesh and the bone structures that you have. A nose job is actually one of the procedures that cosmetic surgeons find the most difficult – not necessarily because it’s technically the most difficult, but because the nose is right in the center of your face. Changes to your nose are very profound: they make a huge difference to how you look, and to how you see yourself. Quite a lot of surgeons have told me that, when they do a nose job on somebody, there’s a serious chance that, even if the outcome of the operation is clinically perfect (as the surgeon intended, and understood that he or she could do within the constraints that were outlined) still the recipient can feel deeply unhappy with it. Either they had in their mind an image of something that could never have been achieved with their particular face, or the outcome creates the nose that was intended, but the feel of the face is so alien, and so different, that it just feels wrong, not like their face. 

This is something which is really important. With all body modification practices, but particularly cosmetic surgery, there are two things going on. There’s what we think our bodies will look like after we undergo the practice, and there’s what we think we will feel like after the practice. Those two are so complexly bound together, it can be very difficult to tease them apart. So, I think what I want to do is to have my nose look like this, and that will make me feel like that. But even if my nose does look like this, how will I feel? 

There’s very little evidence of the long term psychological effects of cosmetic surgery. Most people who have cosmetic surgery have a follow up with their cosmetic surgeon quite soon afterwards, and usually they will say that they’re happy with the outcome. But most cosmetic surgeons do not do long term follow ups, so there’s not enough evidence of the long term effects. What evidence there is suggests that there perhaps isn’t a long term sustainable psychological benefit from having cosmetic surgery in many cases. The appearance anxiety doesn’t go away, it just shifts to a different target. So, after surgery, you may become more happy with that particular body part, but you don’t necessarily become happier with your body as a whole. So I think those kinds of apps are part of that idea that you can simply change one part of your body, and then that will be finished and that will be perfect. But, sadly, I think that’s not an evidence-based perspective.

Brady: Still on the topic of recent decades, you point out a subtle shift in Intact when you are discussing the ‘get your body back’ post-pregnancy discourse, especially focussing on that ‘back’. The question becomes, which body is being returned to? Seemingly some mid-20s form that occupies a fleeting instant in the context of a person’s entire life. You point out a difference emerging here, from an ideal body to be aspired to, to now an authentic body that ties in with who one is, which needs to be ‘unearthed’, ‘returned to’, through work and modification. This seems a troubling shift, insofar as ideals, in their distance from us, can be more easily resisted than some notion of an internal, authentic perfection that fully represents us. What is driving that transformation in the discourse?

Chambers: There’s a lot there. I’m glad you pulled out the ‘getting your body back’ phrase, because I find it fascinating. The idea is not ‘you’ve been pregnant, you’ve had a baby, now you need to get fit,’ or ‘now you need to look good,’ or ‘need to look sexy’. It is getting your body back, reclaiming it. There’s a language of empowerment there, which I think is very appealing. And the perspective is: you are getting it back for you. You are reclaiming it, partly, from your baby, which reflects the dominant cultural idea that it’s very important for mothers to have an identity that is not only motherhood, that we need to reclaim an identity that is not purely motherhood.That reclamation is connected to ideas of femininity and womanhood as being related very strongly to appearance, sexual identity, and being sexually attractive, which perhaps motherhood, in the popular imaginary, is not.

So there’s lots of really deep resonances there, connecting into anxieties about what it is to be a woman, to be feminine, to be sexy. Is being a mother enough, or is it something you need to separate yourself from? I think that connects clearly to the ways in which we deal with women, as mothers and women in the workplace, and women as sex objects, and the way that women are supposed to try to negotiate all of these and combine them all successfully without letting any of them take over. In particular, motherhood is not supposed to take over: we’re all supposed to maintain careers and sexual attractiveness as well as being mothers. 

And then there’s this idea of authenticity, which we can pick out in other contexts too. The idea that there is some kind of authentic self which your body should reflect is something we find in lots of contexts. And it’s very interesting, because the idea is not that, as it were, your self, your identity, is determined by your body. It’s not that once you have a body, that fixes your identity and you have to follow it. It’s that your body and your identity should match, they should align in some way. But the idea is that the body needs to change to match the identity, not that the identity should change to match the body. 

I found it so useful, when thinking about this idea, to read the work of James Partridge, who is a man who suffered from really serious burns all over his body, including on his face, when he was a teenager. He died quite recently, having lived a long, full life. He recounts in his work, both his written work and his work with Changing Faces, the charity he set up, how an enormous part of what he had to do to come to terms with his incredibly different face that he had as a result of these burns, was the idea that this face could be his face, that he had to accept it as being his face. At a certain point, having undergone a long series of plastic surgery operations to make his face as good as it could be, he had to say ‘That is enough. Now, at this point, I need to do the work on myself, to accept the face that I have and to live in the face that I have.’ I think we do often have to do work on ourselves, to accept the bodies we have, rather than only work on our bodies to make them fit who we think we ought to be. But that’s a very countercultural idea. 

There’s also some really fascinating work that helped me think about this from sociologists. Deborah Gimlin did a lot of sociological analysis of women undergoing cosmetic surgery, but also with women at the hairdresser, women undergoing all kinds of beauty practices, from the more extreme to the more everyday. And, again, there she finds there’s a real sense amongst people undergoing those practices that they need to have the body that reflects their selves: that their class identity, their gender identity, who they feel they are inside, should be reflected in what their body looks like. And so I think that’s a very strong idea that we have at the moment that we can see played out in lots of different contexts – sometimes with helpful effects but very often, I think, in a way that adds to our feelings of shame and anxiety and inadequacy, in ways that are really quite damaging.

Alfred Stieglitz - Georgia O'Keeffe, Hands - (1917)

Brady: This ties nicely into your examination of forms of ‘self-objectification’ whereby we switch from internal and external perspectives on ourselves, and that these two perspectives have their own modes of normalization, or what it means to be ‘normal’. From the internal perspective what it means for my body to feel normal, versus when I look at myself, from an external perspective, the normality of my body takes on a new meaning. But I was wondering how these two perspectives interact, perhaps in a constitutive way, or, at the very least, how they become confused? How does the normativity of the external perspective get mixed up with the normativity of our internal perspective?

Chambers: So, just to summarize, the external perspective is when we ask ‘are we normal as compared to others?’ And the internal perspective is when we ask ‘are we normal as compared to how we normally are?’ Do we feel normal inside? Does this feel normal for us? And these two things clearly can come apart. Somebody who has a physical difference, a disability or impairment from birth, might be very different to others, so what might not feel normal compared to others can feel entirely normal for them, because they’ve always lived with that body. And that’s an example I develop in the book. 

But what you’re asking is when our ideas of what’s normal for us become shaped by what’s normal for others. And that’s exactly it. I think we have a real concern whether our bodies are normal. I begin one chapter with the question ‘is your body normal?’ That’s a chapter that I’ve talked about with various audiences. And one person in the audience once said to me ‘I found that question incredibly difficult. Because I wanted to say both ‘well, of course not,’ and ‘of course, and what do you mean anyway?’ This idea of normality is so incredibly powerful and compelling. We all really, really want to be normal, not abnormal. But we don’t want to be just normal, we want to be normal or better. So sometimes normal is average, the same as everybody else. Sometimes normal is a baseline and we want to exceed it. Sometimes normal is a target we want to achieve. It has all these different resonances. 

And what we think of as normal is very often shaped by guesswork. One example I think shows this really well is the example of labiaplasty: cosmetic surgery on the female genitals. Many women and girls who seek this surgery will say that they want to have it done because they don’t feel that their genitals are normal. They’re worried that they’re not normal. And I have a quotation in the book, which was from a respondent to an anonymous survey done by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. This woman had had labiaplasty as a teenager because she had felt that her labia were not normal. She was worried they were not normal, and had therefore had the surgery. But then, as an adult, she now realized that actually her original labia had been perfectly normal, and she wished she hadn’t undergone that surgery, because she now knows that she was fine. So whether we’re normal compared to other people is something we might not know. And very often, what we’re doing is developing our own ideas of whether we feel normal: whether we feel right in response to what we imagine is a standard that applies universally, but may just be our imagination or our anxieties. So normality is a concept, like nature, which does so much and can sometimes be reassuring (‘don’t worry, it’s normal’) but can sometimes create this real deep sense of fear and shame.

Brady: Perhaps that’s where the play of images, again, creeps in to affect and drive things here because of that guesswork of what is normal. We’re piecing that together through television screens and looking out through the world on the internet, and content ranking algorithms, building a sense of there being a public consensus, or an average that exists. A post with 500,000 likes or something is almost like a stamp of the ‘normal’, when it may be garnering so much attention initially for the exact opposite reason.

Chambers: Right. And that’s also where we get drawn into a slippery slope, an arms race. The more the images that we see have been doctored using filters or Photoshop, or are of bodies that have been doctored using clinical surgery and other kinds of procedures, the more those become normal, and the more our bodies have to change to be normal. And the standard of normality is constantly shifting and moving away from us and out of our grasp. That absolutely is a part of what’s going on, and part of why this cultural moment is perhaps different than the times, as you mentioned earlier, of footbinding and so on, where you don’t have that ready access to images of bodies from all around the world, constantly changing.

Brady: The book is keenly engaged, as we’ve been discussing, with the present predicament and the urgency of that. But how does it speak to potential near future technologies? I’m thinking here of things like CRISPR targeted genetic modification. Coming fresh from your book, my basic feeling is, with things being how they are right now, it’s probably not a good idea for us to have access to these tools, considering how present technologies are being used. What’s your take on these sorts of technologies?

Chambers: Like you, I’m not particularly optimistic at this moment, I think we are just at a time of such overwhelming technological change and development in so many different contexts, in the context of climate change, in the context of the incredible expansion of surveillance. We’re all experiencing the ways that technologies are governing our lives, taking our attention, and demanding our focus. We’re very unequipped, I think, to deal with that. That’s really why I end this book with a call for cultural resistance. I don’t ask you to resist doing anything to your body, to stop changing your body, or not to undergo any particular practice. But what I really do think we need to resist is a culture that is constantly looking for ways to tell us our bodies are wrong. It’s not that I want people to go away and stop caring about how they look, or stop caring about how their bodies are, but what I do want people to think about is how we can say ‘no’ to a culture that tells us that we ought to be doing that all the time: that we ought to be concerned and worried about our appearance, and that we ought to associate our appearance and our bodies with our identity, with our worth, and with our status. That’s what we need to put a stop to. 

Now that doesn’t mean that I’m optimistic about how we can do that. It’s going to need collective action. We have to come together to think about how to deal with this overwhelming culture of shame that we attach to our bodies. Technology perhaps could be used to help but, at the moment, it doesn’t seem to be doing that. 

It’s really difficult to know, to move slightly away from your question, what the right kind of public health methods are here. It’s really important when thinking about actual public policy methods to have an eye to the evidence. Lots of public policy methods that might seem like they will be good are not necessarily successful. One example is the idea that perhaps any image online, or in mainstream media, any place where regulation is possible, should have a little mark in the corner that shows whether or not it’s been subjected to photoshopping or alteration. And this seems like it might be a good idea, because you could look at an image and you could see whether it’s been photoshopped and so is not a real face, or whether it hasn’t been photoshopped, and so that’s what faces can really look like. But some of the researchers that had this idea found that it actually doesn’t help. If you see an image which has been photoshopped, it doesn’t matter that it’s photoshopped. You still see the image as being an image to aspire to. You still get the message that this is how you should look, and this is how you should want to look. And so you’re still getting that visual diet of perfection. On the other side, if you see the mark that says this image hasn’t been photoshopped, well, then, if the image is still of a person who fits a very particular beauty ideal, then what you feel looking at it is that you don’t look like that, whereas the model looks like that without any help. So, again, as a viewer, your appearance, your face, your muscles, your body, whatever it is, is not adequate. You get that message either way. 

It seems like one of the things that makes a difference is simply having a much more diverse set of images circulated, to actively look for diverse bodies and to have representation of diverse bodies. And not diversity that just means a body might be able to be an older person’s body, say, but still be slim, smooth, wrinkle free, beautiful, but actually to have bodies that completely differ from the standard. That seems to be one thing that does help. But, generally speaking, it’s not always obvious what measures will actually make a difference. It’s a really complex problem that now needs a lot of research and policy work to develop.

Brady: You’re also quite engaged in this, taking part in government committees looking into these issues. I’m curious, what role do you think the philosopher has to play in policy?

Chambers: I think philosophers have a really crucial role here. As we’ve seen in our conversation, there is so much complexity, and a really important part of the philosopher’s role is to try to make complex things simple: to try to bring order into the chaos, to analyze and give a framework for understanding and thinking about complexity. I also think that the philosopher has a job the other way round: of making simple things complex, showing how some things that might seem really obvious to us, very simplistically true or not, are much more difficult than we might think. We’ve talked today about ideas of what is natural and what is normal, and philosophers show the complexity in those kinds of concepts. 

I also think we philosophers have to hold the line that what is essential is thinking through debate, disagreement, alternatives, and objections, holding that critical space. So one thing I try to do throughout the book is challenge myself with objections, with contrary positions, and different perspectives on an issue. That aspect of philosophy is essential. We must always think about how opposing views can help us work towards a better understanding of an issue. I think that kind of analysis, that kind of openness to uncertainty, openness to contestation, the search for clarity, along with a recognition of deep complexity, that’s what the hallmark of philosophy is, and it’s essential to making good policy.

Read more about Prof. Clare Chambers’ work on her website.

About the interviewer: John C. Brady is a student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.



February 2022


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