Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The 'feminist' trend AW17

Whether you’ve a lifetime subscription to Vogue, or dress in a burlap sack and couldn’t really care less about fashion, New York Fashion Week post-Trump was of particular import. Almost overnight, the makers and wearers of haute couture, who rarely concern themselves with the struggles of mere mortals, adopted a political agenda. From Tommy Hilfiger to Calvin Klein, apparel appeared to become the new vehicle for social change. Designers printed bold statements on t-shirts, blouses, sweaters, even on underwear, denouncing some of Trump’s most divisive executive orders, from the immigration ban, to the 'wall', to cuts to Planned Parenthood funding.

The plight of women, however, seemed to be a hot topic for many designers to capitalize on. The Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung wrapped up his AW17 collection with a display of printed t-shirts proclaiming ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’, ‘Girls just want to have fundamental rights’ and took his final bow sporting a t-shirt splashed with ‘This is what a feminist looks like’. The American designer Adam Lippes unfurled signs reading ‘Adam Lippes stands with Planned Parenthood’ and ‘Girl Power’ outside of his show. I had a feeling Maria Grazia Chiruri’s ‘We should all be feminists’ début as the first female artistic director for Dior would be the overture to this feminist ‘trend’ of 2017. Chiruri drew inspiration for this simplistic design in her Spring 2017 collection from the influential feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

With a price tag of $710 for a printed cotton t-shirt, can we really all afford to be feminists? While I understand and appreciate the awareness many of these designers are attempting to create around feminism in a post-Trump landscape, it’s the disturbing anti-feminist trickle-down effect of many of these designs that I see as problematic.

While many luxury designers may escape scrutiny of their production methods since their garments are costly, created by hand and tend not to be produced in bulk, it’s the much-loved and familiar high-street brands harbouring more ominous secrets. Type in ‘slogan tee’ or ‘printed tee’ into the website search bars of H&M, Forever 21, Topshop, Urban Outfitters, Nike, Primark and many, many more fast fashion brands. One thing becomes apparent. The trend for feminist apparel is no longer confined to the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. ‘Feminism is for everyone’, ‘Revolution♀’, ‘Girls supporting girls’, ‘Fight like a girl’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Girl power’ were all popular buys. Yet somehow I doubt that by buying an overpriced ‘Power to the girls’ t-shirt (that you can frankly make yourself), will put an end to the sexism that is endured in this world. If anything, you may be contributing to the problem.

The 2015 Netflix documentary ‘The True Cost’ is an exposé of the many environmental and social injustices that are borne out of the $3 trillion fashion industry. When we look at the price tag on a t-shirt or a sweater, we’re often blind to the hidden cost behind the perceived bargain we think we’re getting. We often don’t see the many, many hands that have touched these garments. The hands that are being forced to work in inhumane factory conditions because they have no better employment alternative, with little to no workers’ rights, being paid well below a living wage, often forced to forfeit their families, health and sometimes even their lives as we saw in the case of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. And all for what? So we can buy cheap clothes to satiate some innate desire, only to discard of them when the next trend comes rolling in?

America only makes about 3% of its own clothes, meaning garment production is frequently outsourced to impoverished countries so desperate for the work supplied by these goliath corporations that their governments routinely hold down workers’ wages to prevent companies finding a cheaper alternative and relocating. While it’s clear that the garment industry, the most labour dependent industry in the world, doesn’t solely exploit women, but men and children too, one cannot deny that women in these impoverished countries are hit the hardest by these working conditions, with women making up over 85% of the workforce.

To cite an excerpt from H&M’s ‘sustainability’ tab on their website;
“H&M group helps to create jobs, consequently lifting people out of poverty, and contributing to economic growth and improved standards of living… About two-thirds of these jobs are undertaken by women. For many women, this is their first job that provides an income, their first work outside the home and therefore a first step to independence.”
Sounds very wholesome, doesn’t it? The reality is large corporations such as H&M or any of the brands listed above, can afford to make these grand, vague statements because they don’t directly employ the workers that end up being exploited. They can keep themselves at arms length from the 'dirty' business of factory collapses, structural defects, underpaid workers and increasingly negative health effects of sweltering, overcrowded factory floors, as their products are sourced from 'independent suppliers'. All that this shift of blame results in is avoiding any and all responsibility while at the same time reaping colossal financial benefits from cheap labor. Many of these large corporations also blocked the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act, which tried to “prohibit the import, export, and sale of goods made with sweatshop labor”, citing that it would be an impediment to free trade. The message is clear, profits before people.

With companies refusing to implement any solid legislative protection for workers, or prohibition of goods produced by sweatshop labor, all that is in place are voluntary ‘codes of conduct’ which companies can elect to undertake, and even if they don’t, or fail to see them through, they’ll face little to no punitive consequences.

I can’t help but think about the women sitting in a garment factory in Bangladesh or Cambodia, earning less than $3 a day and stitching the words ‘Girl power’ or ‘Equality’ onto t-shirts without finding the situation to be quite perverse. One poignant, yet resonating line from 'The True Cost', spoken by a female Bangladeshi factory worker lingered with me; "I don't want anyone wearing anything that is produced by our blood". We may think we’re empowering one another by wearing t-shirts with feminist slogans on them, however if they originate from a patriarchal and capitalist system in which thousands of women are forced to work in inhumane conditions for a pittance, then the irony is overwhelming.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

On MSM, Femininity, and Fags

In Dude You’re a Fag, CJ Pascoe argues that young, presumably heterosexual, men construct their masculinity in opposition to femininity and an abstract “fag” identity, a “specter of failed masculinity” embodied in an effeminate man. Extending Pascoe’s framework to adult men who have sex with men (MSM), their erotic practices suggest they too construct masculine sexual identities in opposition to femininity and feminine gay men—“fags,” a point that should concern feminists.

Given the return of Will and Grace to the small screen, one would think that MSM would embrace characters like “Jack”, a flamboyant and feminine W&G character. But sexual identities and practices remain complicated. Indeed, I use MSM rather than gay, queer, joto, etc., to reference the subjects of this piece since other descriptors carry connotations that many MSM repudiate in seeking same-sex sex. For instance, there are MSM who identify as straight and are unlikely to adopt gay or bi labels for variousreasons. That is why I focus on MSM’s sexual practices vis-à-vis femininity and “fags.”

Today’s literature on men’s sexual practices suggests men’s sexuality is as fluid as women’s is thought to be. This NSFW vignette on Ric offers insight into a MSM who does not identify as gay or bi because “straight people don’t give shit” about those labels. But he does identify as a “cocksucking anal slut faggot” to his prospective suitors. Arguably, Ric strategically calls himself a “faggot” to attract straight men whose partners may not consent to fellatio or anal sex. By marking himself as a “faggot” at the outset of his sexual encounters, Ric allows his MSM partners to remain straight and masculine throughout sex. Moreover, Ric’s sexual practices suggest that “fags” are MSM who are anally receptive or willing to perform fellatio.

When other straight-identified MSM were queried about their sexual practices, their responses repudiated femininity and fag(ness). One stated, “I don’t want the effeminate ones.”Another said he identified as straight because he “likes to hunt, fish, camp,and raise cattle for a living." In other words, these MSM don’t want to have sex with nor be considered “fags.” What then of Ric’s MSM partners who had sex with a self-professed “cocksucking anal slut faggot”? These sexual practices expose the amorphous, irrational logic undergirding MSM sexual identities, which are tinged with misogyny since they are constructed at the expense of femininity, especially femininity embodied in men—“fags.”

The same outlook can be found among users of the MSM hookup app Grindr. Its users, including many who identify as gay, routinely employ describers like “masc,” “chill,” and “dude,” to convey they are not effeminate and attract other “masc” or “real men.” This suggests that MSM, irrespective of sexual orientation, place a premium on masculinity over femininity, including “fags.” Thus, Grindr enables its users to spread an insidious form of misogyny that privileges masculinity over femininity in what is commonly thought to be a progressive space. I guess gay friendly spaces are only friendly so long as you’re not a fag—so much for gay men’s progressiveness! (For more on this, see Why areFaggots so Afraid of Faggots?)

So why should this concern feminists? It’s easy to dismiss the misogyny that colors MSM’s sexual practices as only extending to MSM’s bedrooms. But feminists should be alarmed that MSM are hindering sexual equality by reifying masculine privilege in one of our most personal and valued spheres of action, the bedroom. As feminists, we must provide more nuanced critiques of erotic practices, including the ways in which gender is mapped onto erotic practices at the expense of femininity. Curtly, we will not be able to “fuck our way to freedom” so long as fucking is construed as entailing privileged masculine elements over feminine elements.

What might the first female American President look like?

Donald Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton in last year’s American presidential election came as a huge shock to many feminists both in the US and beyond. Like many around the world, I found myself consumed by this fascinating and controversial race. Had Hillary been elected, she would have been the first female President of the US. 

Despite the disappointment that some liberals and feminists felt at the result, it seems to be largely taken for granted among women I meet that there will be a female (liberal or conservative) in the White House someday. This has led me to wonder what kind of future female President would prove a good role model for women both in America and around the world. 

As an Irish person who, before August of this year, had never been to the US, I cannot claim to be an expert in American politics. My perspective therefore is merely that of a respectful “outsider looking in,” and is based on experience and knowledge of my own country, Ireland.

In Ireland we can claim some pedigree when it comes to women Presidents. Two of our last three Presidents have been females, Mary Robinson (1990-97) and Mary McAleese (1997-2011). Of course, unlike America, Ireland is no superpower. Our international profile could never equal that of the US. Irish Government also works differently to here. Our Presidents are more figureheads than politicians, with the political role kept separate and played by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This is very different to America where the President combines both the figurehead and political functions. All this makes comparisons between the two offices neither easy nor always reasonable.

Nevertheless, I feel that Ireland’s two past female Presidents merit at least some consideration as good role models for feminists and any future, aspiring American woman President. Both Robinson and McAleese played pivotal roles in transforming Ireland into a more liberal, peaceful and inclusive society. In their own different ways, too, each showed examples of compassion, courage and sincerity that, to my mind, ought to resonate with all women. 

On a personal level, I initially came to admire Robinson because she was the first Head of State of any country to visit my own native West Belfast. This was an area whose people had been devastated by the Irish ‘Troubles’ of the 1960s to mid-90s and which had become deeply embittered by decades-long marginalization and repression. In the teeth of establishment outrage, Robinson went into West Belfast and publicly praised the spirit of its long suffering community. She also, on her visit, met with and shook hands with the community’s then infamous elected representative, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams. It was a vital and key first step in the Irish peace process.

Likewise, Robinson challenged traditional Irish nationalist shibboleths by becoming the first Irish President both to visit the United Kingdom and to meet, at Buckingham Palace, a British monarch, the present Queen Elizabeth II. On foot of this, she welcomed senior members of the British royal family, most notably the Prince of Wales, to her official residence in Dublin, Áras an Uachtaráin. These were bold moves that dramatically changed the face of existing Anglo-Irish relations.

For me, though, the most compelling example Robinson gave us of a great female Presidential role model came in 1992. She was one of the first world leaders, at that time, to highlight publicly the horrors of famine and genocide in Somalia and Rwanda. After personally visiting, over 3 days, thousands of sick and dying refugees across the region, a visibly tearful and shaken Irish woman President stood before the press cameras and famously declared:- 

“I’m sorry that I cannot be entirely calm speaking to you, because I have such a sense of what the world must take responsibility for.”

Her words and demeanour on this occasion shamed the West into action and led to the first concerted international humanitarian response to the Somalian and Rwandan crises.

Robinson’s successor, Mary McAleese, during her time in office, worked tirelessly to address issues of sectarianism and violence in the north of Ireland through an openly declared policy of “building bridges”. Picking up the mantle of her predecessor, McAleese invited Britain’s Queen Elizabeth to make a first ever state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 – a move that initially discomfited some Irish Republicans but ultimately helped open a new door - not necessarily of agreement - but certainly respect and understanding between them and the British Royal Family. 

Early in her Presidency, McAleese also incurred the wrath of the then powerful, male dominated Catholic hierarchy in Ireland by accepting communion in an Anglican church. Although a devout Catholic herself, McAleese saw the move in the context of Ireland’s long history of religious conflict. For her, respecting and representing Irish people of different religious traditions was a core, and hugely important, responsibility of her office. 

It was a similar sense of duty that impelled McAleese, as President, to call for the complete deconstruction of homophobia in Ireland. In a broadcast from Áras an Uachtaráin (Ireland’s equivalent to an Oval Office) McAleese endorsed the Irish LGBT rights campaign and praised campaigners for working to bring fully to fruition the country’s founding Proclamation that “all the children of the nation shall be cherished equally”. In 2010 she signed into law the state’s first legislation recognising the validity of same sex relationships (civil partnerships). Within 5 years of this, attitudes to LGBT people in Ireland had changed so dramatically that the country, by popular referendum, voted to amend the Irish constitution to allow for same sex marriage. The extent of the shift in Irish social attitudes that McAleese helped bring about is no better testified than by the appointment, just last June, of Ireland's first openly gay Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadakar. It is an extraordinary change in a country formerly dominated by the Catholic church.

It seems to me, then, that in order to become a great role model for women in the US and across the world, the first American woman President should consider becoming a transforming President, at least in the spirit of Robinson and McAleese. Ireland is, of course, a tiny country. But perhaps women from even a great country, like the US, who aspire to great political office, like the American President, can sometimes look towards a small country and draw some inspiration? Perhaps too, that first American woman President, when she takes office, might be able to connect, in some way, with the thoughts of Mary Robinson, after she was elected Ireland’s first woman President:-
“I must be a President for all the people, but more than that, I want to be a President for all the people. Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage, who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system. And who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Airing Ireland's dirty linen

Moving to America has made me realise how proud I am to be Irish. While my migration to Davis was inherently daunting, the fear and uncertainty about being so far away from home has been tempered by the genuine warmth of those who detect even the slightest hint of my accent. In many ways, it has helped me combat the sense of feeling like an outsider.

While I consider it a privilege that the utterance of my nationality enjoys a largely positive reception, my absence from Ireland has imparted on me a large deal of objectivity in it’s assessment, particularly from a feminist perspective. The reality is, although I’m proud of certain facets of my Irish identity, as a woman I’m also deeply embarrassed by it.

Earlier last week, a New York Time’s video titled ‘The lost children of Tuam’ circulated my Facebook newsfeed. This deeply poignant video documents the discovery, and subsequent cover up of a mass burial chamber, where the remains of at least 796 ‘illegitimate’ children and infants were dumped by the Bon Secours sisters in an act of what can only be described as pure sacrilege. You see, the Republic of Ireland, since its nascence in the early 20th Century, has been ensnared and indoctrinated by the Catholic Church. The result? The systemic enslavement and abuse of thousands of unmarried mothers in ‘mother and baby homes’, otherwise known as Magdalene Laundries, which were run by four religious orders of the Catholic Church and covertly financed by the Irish State.

The Magdalene Laundries have left a gaping wound across the social and political landscape of modern Ireland. Often referred to as Magdalene Asylums, they appeared on the surface to be institutions where women were expected to work in a laundry in return for bed, board and atonement for their sins. Behind this façade a different story. The nuns that ran these laundries quietly profited off washing the linen of local wealthy families while at the same time physically, emotionally and spiritually abusing these women.

They functioned as institutions for ‘fallen women’, so firmly believed to be in the clutches of depravity for daring to, or having the misfortune of becoming pregnant outside of marriage. With contraception only barely being legalised in Ireland in 1980 (another string of society the master puppeteer Church controlled), accidental pregnancies, not to mention pregnancies arising from the abhorrent acts of rape and incest, were almost inevitable. Among these “fallen women” were sufferers of mental health illnesses as well as women with petty criminal convictions, however the vast majority of those enslaved were unmarried mothers averaging at the tender age of 23.

The short film gives a voice to some of the survivors of this particular mother and baby home in Tuam. One man painfully detailed that when his mother had gotten pregnant outside of marriage “the priest in the parish got to hear about it and told her parents that it was an awful disgrace. That she couldn’t be seen out because she’d be a bad influence”. I assure you, this was not an isolated incident. We have to remember that practically until the turn of the 21st Century, the Catholic Church ruled supreme in Ireland. A priest paying attention to a particular person or a particular family was akin to God himself sitting down with you for tea. This monopoly on society meant that a priest telling a family how disgraceful their daughter was would often garner a visceral reaction of shame and disgust, resulting in their ‘beloved’ daughter being coerced into a mother and baby home in order to escape the toxic scrutiny of the insular Irish society. Almost always the families were told the same lie; “the nuns would look after her there”.

While the government closed this particular mother and baby home in Tuam in 1961, it continued to operate similar homes across the country right up until 1996. I wouldn’t have enough space in this post to fully detail the abuses women faced at the hands of the supposedly ‘trusted’ clergy, however at least 23,000 unmarried women were put in these homes and forced to give up their infants. Whether they were starved, neglected, left to fester in their own waste, smothered, beaten or illegally bartered off to rich American families, their children were most brutally punished for being the fruits of a perceived union of ‘sin’. They were punished for the innocence of their mere existence.

I was born a year after the last laundry was shut. However, growing up in a supposed ‘post-laundry’ landscape doesn’t rid the horrors from Irish memories or consciences. In 2013, our former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was moved to tears in the Dáil while issuing a formal apology to all women whose suffering had long gone unnoticed. This apology was accompanied by a plan to provide reparations to the few remaining survivors of the laundries, with the Church so piously refusing to contribute.  However, it was not until February 2017 that the mass grave in Tuam was addressed by Kenny in the Dáil;
“No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children. We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns' care. We gave them up maybe to spare them the savagery of gossip, the wink and the elbow language of delight in which the holier than thous were particularly fluent.... Indeed for a while it seems as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self impregnate”.

While State-issued apologies can do little more than affirm an injustice was committed, I struggle with the fact that my country propagated such a disgraceful, inhuman treatment of women merely because society deemed them to have "fallen". It’s a topic I can do little justice to in a blog post other than highlight its existence. However, to end almost where I began, in times such as these when I find myself marooned from home undergoing bouts of homesickness, I can’t neglect this. As a feminist, my national pride is wholly eclipsed by the embarrassment flowing from my country’s acts against women, and no number of Americans warmly telling me what percentage Irish heritage they are will ever override that embarrassment.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Roy Moore, females, and small-town access to justice

Media accounts sometimes implicate rural access-to-justice issues, though the connection is not always obvious at first blush.  Perhaps no story better illustrates this point than the recent allegations against the candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore.  Moore, a small-town lawyer turned-twice-removed Alabama Supreme Court justice, is now facing multiple allegations of inappropriate conduct with underage women in the 1970s.  Many have asked why the women (girls, some of them, at the time) did not come forward sooner.  I assert that the answer to this question lies in the complex barriers that have long deterred those in rural communities from pursuing legal redress.

By now, we are all familiar with the allegations against Alabama Senate Republican nominee Roy Moore. The salacious accounts, initially published by the Washington Post, paint Moore as an opportunistic predator who used his power and influence in the small city of Gadsden, Alabama as a means to attract and "romance" teenage girls. A report from a former co-worker notes that Moore's affairs with teenage girls were "common knowledge." Moore himself issued a sloppily worded defense on Sean Hannity's program, where he stated that he could not deny that he had dated teenage girls in the past.

Many, including Moore himself, have asked why these women would wait four decades to come forward with their stories. Steve Bannon has even accused Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of engaging in a  conspiracy to destroy Moore's candidacy. The people who ask these questions seem  ignorant of the social dynamics of tight-knit rural communities and the secrecy that can often times be fostered by these communities.

As the WaPo story notes, Moore was seen as a local hero. Like many rural communities, Gadsden (population 37,000), has been in a state of decline brought upon it by a loss of manufacturing jobs.  With opportunities few and far between, the fact that Moore had managed to gain admission to West Point and then to law school was seen as an inspiration to the people of the town. As is common in many rural communities, being a lawyer also conferred a certain amount of social capital upon Moore. The level of admiration for Moore was such that when Debbie Wesson Gibson asked for her mother's permission to date Moore, her mother told that she would be the "luckiest girl in the world" if Moore, then 34, were interested in her.

To make allegations against Roy Moore in 1970s Alabama would have been a tremendous uphill climb for anyone, much less a teenager. Even his co-workers viewed Moore's tendency to date teenagers as essentially a personality quirk, not anything that warranted investigation and possible prosecution. As Moore himself noted in his interview with Sean Hannity, he never dated a girl without her mother's permission. The WaPo story even notes an instance where Moore stopped dating a girl when her mother did not give permission for the relationship to continue. From the evidence presented, it seems that Moore was careful to target girls whose parents were okay with the age difference and at least, in one case, encouraged the relationship to continue.

In small towns, relationships and social standing are both very important forms of currency. In sociologist Cynthia Duncan's book Worlds Apart, Duncan tells a story about a young man in a small town in Appalachia that is able to secure a bank loan with no questions asked because of a familial relationship with a person with whom the banker had done business.  The young man's relationships and social standing made him inherently trustworthy and conferred upon him a certain amount of credibility. Roy Moore was certainly a beneficiary of being seen as trustworthy because of his social standing as well.

The standing of women in Alabama in this time period also presented a barrier. The most famous illustration of this from Alabama came from 1961 when Alabama First Lady Lurleen Wallace was diagnosed with uterine cancer. As was standard practice at the time, the doctor told only her husband, Governor George Wallace, who then insisted that the diagnosis be kept from his wife. First Lady Wallace did not find out that she had cancer until 1965. Wallace would later die from this cancer during her own term as governor, which she was serving as a surrogate for her term-limited husband.

If the First Lady of Alabama was seen as so lowly that a cancer diagnosis was hidden from her, what hope would a young girl in a small town have of successfully seeking justice against a respected local attorney?  indeed, against the local district attorney/prosecuting attorney?

Another barrier is the lack of general knowledge of how to avail oneself to the protections of the legal system. In 1969, the Duke University Law Review conducted a study on the legal issues of the rural poor. Their focus was an unnamed county in eastern North Carolina. What they found was that a very small percentage of people sought legal action when wronged by either the government or another private party. The study also found that many of them were unaware that they could even do so.

The idea that Roy Moore would have been prosecuted for his actions in 1970s Alabama is laughable at best.  Moore was insulated by a culture that knew of his actions but did not take action to stop them.  He was also enabled by parents who felt that dating Moore was advantageous for their daughters, regardless of the implications of the age difference. In a small city going through economic turmoil, Moore was seen as a shining light, proof that you could escape your circumstances and make something of yourself. The notion that the credibility of the accusers is impeached by their "failure" to come forward 40 years ago is intellectually dishonest.

While Moore's actions are egregious and--we would hope--atypical of any community, they do point to the vulnerability of people who are facing injustices and have nowhere to turn. As the Duke study notes, the issue of justice in rural communities has long been hampered by a lack of resources and knowledge of the legal system. While many communities have access to civil legal aid programs that can help people, particularly victims of domestic violence, seek protective orders and other remedies against abusers, many of those programs are increasingly facing cuts on the state and federal level. In fact, President Donald Trump's proposed budget from earlier this year called for the elimination of the LSC, which provides grants to legal aid programs.

Before asking why these women did not come forward 40 years ago, perhaps we should examine the barriers that made doing so effectively impossible.

Another post about Roy Moore and rurality is here.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.  By Christopher Chavis 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Double Eye Lid Surgery – What's The Big Deal?

Korean-Americans have a fascination with double-eyelid surgery. For some second generation Korean-American females, it is considered a rite of passage to undergo the surgical procedure at the age of eighteen. I remember on the eve of my sister’s eighteenth birthday, our mother told my sister that money had been set aside to pay for the elective surgery – if my sister wanted the procedure. Our family did not grow up with a lot of money, with little to no savings to speak of. The mere fact that our parents had specifically earmarked money for the sole purpose of an elective surgery spoke volumes. The normative subtext of our mother’s statement becomes clearer situated in this context: you should get this surgery.

In Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Comestic Surgery, Eugeina Kaw offers a descriptive account of the phenomenon of double eyelid surgery, and its social implications. Kaw provides a thorough analysis of how and why Asian-American women feel compelled into getting plastic surgery, mainly for reconstruction of the nose and the eyes.

Her views on the strict racialization of facial features and what this racialization leads to, hinges on three key aspects: (i) the “cultural and institutional structures” of a society (namely the medical field and media), (ii) the effects of a consumer orientated society, and (iii) the “internalization of racial and gender stereotypes”. Kaw further argues that these different aspects work together in order to influence Asian-American women into feeling the need obtain a more “American” look.

Let me first begin by posing a two-part question: does the medical field and cosmetic field work in conjunction to create a particular definition of beauty and if they do, how and why do Asian-American women buy into the mold of beauty that defines the “Asian” look as undesirable?

Kaw argues that the medical field, in conjunction with a consumer orientated society, does in fact shape the way people in a society come to think about what it means to appear beautiful. Eugeina Kaw believes that Asian-American women learn to associate the characteristic Asiatic facial features with negative traits such as: passivity, dullness, a lacking of expression, and slow wit. As a result of Asian-American women correlating their facial features (flat nose, “slanty eyes”) with negative traits, they “strive for a face with larger eyes and a more prominent nose,” which Kaw argues can be understood as wanting a more “American” face. These associations that Asian-American women make can be attributed to the fact that they have been continually exposed to racial stereotypes through two main socializing agents: family and media.

For example, when my sister was a junior in high school, my aunt and mother persuaded my sister to get the double eyelid surgery during her summer visit to Korea. My sister said at that age, she was easily persuaded into getting the surgery because she personally believed that “American” looking eyes were more attractive than the shape of “Asian” eyes. It seemed as if her readiness to accept the surgery stemmed from her over-exposure to American media and the transmission of cultural values that my aunt and mother held (family as a socializing agent).*

The strength of this cultural learning is only reinforced by the manner in which the medical field perpetuates these racial ideologies that influences Asian-American women to associate negative traits with their natural facial features. Although, the medical professionals never hint at the fact overtly, it is subtly implied in the way doctors describe “Asian” facial features. Terminology and phraseology such as “the absence of of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental”, expresses the view that medical knowledge is based off of “scientific rationality”. By referring to science as their justification for such characterizations, and using medical terminology, they protect themselves from racial criticisms by hiding behind the “veil of objectivity” of the medical field.

If we were to embrace the view that Asian-American women are being subtly influenced into conforming to the Western standard of beauty, what possible solutions are there to regain autonomy and empowerment? Referring back to my sister, as she became more knowledgeable in the field of sociology and Asian-American studies, her views on double eyelid surgery drastically changed. She began to despise the fact that she had undergone the surgery, and realized her decision to get the double eyelids was heavily influenced by problematic external factors. 

*I recognize that I may be editorializing here, in an attempt to shoehorn my sister’s experiences within Eugeina Kaw’s framework.