Feminist scalpel slaves

The Masque of Femininity - Reshaping the female Body
November 14, 1997

THE MASQUE OF FEMININITY. By Efrat Tseelon. Sage, 152pp Pounds 37.50 and Pounds 12.95. ISBN 0 8039 8806 0 and 8807 9

RESHAPING THE FEMALE BODY: THE DILEMMA OF COSMETIC SURGERY. By Kathy Davis. Routledge, 211pp Pounds 35.00 and Pounds 11.99. ISBN 0 415 90631 8 and 90632 6

The persistent theorisation of "the body" in recent academic texts is resisted in these books, for they focus instead on female bodies which worry in front of the mirror every morning. Efrat Tseelon explores the construction of the "masque of femininity" through self-image and clothing, while Kathy Davis asks how feminists can make sense of cosmetic surgery without negating the agency of its recipients. Both writers accept that women continue to be judged from the outside in, and both chart women's struggles to negotiate their identity through bodies which consistently evade their control.

Tseelon and Davis use a methodology which bridges the gap between the empirical and the theoretical, juxtaposing feminist criticism with the daily experiences of women negotiating an over-determined identity. It is Tseelon's contention that woman has continually been constructed as an "impossible creature who is given a space and no space at all", and here she explores the paradoxes of visibility, beauty and death which culture uses to read and constrain women through their appearance. Her "cultural psychology" incorporates theology, sociology and mythology. Mermaids, prostitutes, newly ordained "vicars in knickers" and contemporary cinema are invoked as witnesses to her proposition that women are "only a series of masks with no essences" struggling to reconcile cultural practice with personal meaning. The strength of the book lies in the original research with women who describe their efforts to be invisible, yet visible, feminine yet not overly provocative, proving that the grip of femininity is still firm. However, Tseelon's cultural eclecticism fails to provide substance for her thesis, and the book's juxtaposition of, for example, the TV series The Prisoner with medieval witch-hunts is unconvincing; and the prose is often clumsy and in places incomprehensible.

Nevertheless, her questions about female identity are also pertinent to Davis: although the "real me" is an elusive figure in Tseelon's text, for Davis a new sense of self appears to be attainable through surgery. Davis began her project when a feminist friend announced that she was about to have a breast enlargement, not as a result of breast cancer, or deep psychological trauma, and this invoked anxiety in Davis about how to fit the "surgical fix" into a feminist consciousness. She argues that feminist writing has tended to push women into the position of "cultural dopes" who use cosmetic surgery as a way of colluding with the constraints of femininity. Davis focuses instead on issues of self-determination and control, demonstrating the surprising absence of male pressure on her interviewees, and the paradox that surgery is frequently taken up in pursuit of the ordinary, rather than the beautiful.

This book offers no unequivocal endorsement of surgery, and includes traumatic accounts of failed surgery: its importance lies instead in her insistence on the agency of her interviewees who attempt to gain control over the meanings of surgery. In channelling her own "ambivalence, empathy, and unease" towards cosmetic surgery into use as a methodological tool, Davis elegantly combines feminist insight with first-person accounts which often contradict received wisdom. The women quoted by Davis are all negotiating the tight-rope between appearance and identity described by Tseelon, yet they invoke discourses of power and control which subvert the reader's assumption that "scalpel slaves" are the unthinking dupes of femininity.

Victoria Howell teaches English part-time at the University of East Anglia.

The Masque of Femininity

Author - Erfrat Tseelön
ISBN - 0 8039 8806 0 and 8807 9
Publisher - Sage
Price - £37.50 and £12.95
Pages - 152

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