Part 2: The mystique of choice feminism (Guest post)
In my last post, I argued that beauty culture, which is supported by beautyism (a preference for “beautiful bodies”), is an artefact of ableism eugenics. In this post, I will explain why I think that choice feminism supports this ableist system. Choice feminism treats women’s choices as inherently justified and politically acceptable. If women choose to cosmetically alter their appearance, this is nobody’s business but their own. There are two main problems with this view.
First, choice feminism ignores the intersectionality inherent in the category “women.” It is patently false that women’s choices cannot be criticized as racist, heteronormative, ableist, and oppressive in other ways. Nondisabled white women, in particular, are complicit in the prevailing system of white-supremacist eugenics, because their choices routinely contribute to this system of oppression. Choice feminism shields privileged women from accountability for their ableist preferences and values. It says that women should be allowed to fear and scorn disabled (black, fat) bodies with impunity from judgment. In other words, choice feminism denies the force of the critique from Black, queer, and disabled feminists (as outlined in my last post), that the beauty industry promotes a white, thin, nondisabled appearance, and people who use cosmetic products to achieve this look are participating in a system of able-bodied privilege.
Second, choice feminism treats beautyism as a purely personal and private choice as opposed to a response to a system of oppression that compels obedience and submission. Choice feminism, that is, gets things backwards. Beauty culture isn’t the outcome of many private consumer choices, but rather a political economy that sells able-bodiedness as the onlyreasonable choice. As Robert McRuer puts it, able-bodiedness is “compulsory” in the sense that it is a condition of being seen as normal, but “compulsion is here produced and covered over with the appearance of choice…, mystifying a system in which there actually is no choice.” Choice feminism papers over the system of compulsory able-bodiedness that demands physical conformity from everyone. When women participate in this system, they are contributing to the politics of eugenics. Their choices are not independent of this system, but integral parts of it.
Having said this, it’s important to recognize that we can and should resist beauty culture. But in order to do this, we need to do two things. First, we have to admit that beauty culture is a system of oppression that stigmatizes and eliminates socially disvalued traits, which are labeled as disabilities. Second, we have to recognize that ableism, racism, fatphobia, and other prejudices intersect with each other and contribute to a eugenics culture. In this culture, being “beautiful” simply means being able-bodied, and being able-bodied overlaps with being white and gender-conforming. Having these traits confers social capital and status. Beautyism, then, is a pillar of ableist eugenics in that it selects and favors these traits. It is not a “mere preference” that consumers happen to have. It is a component part of a system of ableist eugenics that punishes and eliminates disability. Choice feminism mystifies this system by denying that women’s choices have political import. It prevents us from criticizing women’s ableist choices.
Mich Ciurria is a queer, disabled philosopher who teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her/their research interests include moral psychology, Marxist feminism, and critical disability theory. She/they is the author of An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility (Routledge) and a regular contributor to the blog BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.