Belated Conversation with the Comments

Debbie says:

I’ll spare you the excuses for why it took me a month to get to this particular conversation with the comments, this time with my friend Lisa Hirsch.

In mid-May, I wrote this post, which starts with the story of a woman who had plastic surgery so she could look like her daughter. In the context of my critique of her choices, I said,

“I can’t fault an individual for making a choice that gives her self-esteem and satisfaction.”

Lisa’s first comment was:

I can, at least in this case. I’m pretty creeped out by the mother who had plastic surgery to look like her daughter. It feels like a kind of appropriation to me. Whatever is going on in her head, it is far, far beyond “looking at my daughter made me feel good at a difficult time.” If that were the case, all she had to do was…spend time with her daughter. Or look at photos of the daughter on a regular basis. Instead, she adopted her daughter’s appearance.

If it were a stranger having surgery to look like the daughter, it would look like a kind of stalking. What is it when the mother does it?

Good question.

Lisa and I had a bit of exchange in the comments section, which you can see here.

Now I absolutely understand where Lisa is coming from. I couldn’t write my share of this blog if I didn’t have strong (sometimes hyperdeveloped) opinions about things that are and are not good for both individuals and the community or society. I believe that body hatred kills. I believe that weight loss surgery is extremely dangerous. I believe that trying to live up to an impossible ideal of beauty is self-destructive. I believe that aging is part of living, and that trying to disguise or significantly slow down the process is both unhealthy and disturbing.

I also believe, with Pema Chodron, that we all “start where we are.” It’s taken both a lot of privilege and a lot of work to get to where I am about body image. I have the option of expecting everyone else to be more or less where I am, or accepting that people are all over the spectrum, and the ones who don’t see things the way I do are under enormous social pressure not to change in my direction.

I certainly don’t know everything about how I make my own choices. How likely is it that I can know everything, or even a lot, about how someone else makes her own choices? How likely is it that one news story will tell me anything of importance about how a complete stranger makes her choices? And if I did know everything, would that make it more reasonable for me to be the judge of what “the right choice” is?

When I was 21, I was an anti-war draft counselor. A good friend came to me for advice on how to circumvent the medical regulations to get into the Army, despite some health conditions. He had his reasons. I thought they were crazy and I told him that. I knew the (Vietnam) war was wrong, and I told him that. I also sat down with him and the medical regulations, and helped him figure out what would work. Now, coming up on forty years later, I might very well say, “You go ahead and do that if it’s what you want, but I won’t help you.” What I wouldn’t say, then or now, is “That’s the wrong choice for you.”

It’s actually much easier to identify wrong choices for the world, or the culture, or the society, or the community than it is to be confident of what are right or wrong choices for individuals. And yet, all social choices are made up of multiple individual choices.

I have friends who’ve had weight loss surgery and friends who are seriously considering it. The last time the issue came up, I said, “Do you want to hear my reservations about your decision?” She said, no, thanks, she thought she’d done adequate research. I shut up, except for wishing her luck and making sure there are things she can eat when she comes to my house. (She’s doing fine.) I get to have my opinions about weight loss surgery. I get to feel as strongly about them as I want to. I get to do as much research as I can and have facts and figures at my fingertips. And then I get to keep my opinions to myself unless they’re welcome.

I’m not about to stop crusading for all of us to love our bodies, appreciate how they change, accept ourselves exactly as we are. And it doesn’t feel like a contradiction to me that someone who doesn’t do that, for whatever reason or complex of reasons, also needs–and deserves–support.

3 thoughts on “Belated Conversation with the Comments

  1. I can’t help thinking that there’s a major difference between “I want to look young and conventionally pretty” (which is a separate constellation of issues) or even “I want to look like $celebrity” and a woman making herself look like her daughter.

    It’s possible that her daughter is enthusiastically supportive, but it’s also possible that she’s feeling pressured not to object, or not to make those objections about herself and her identity rather than her worry about her mother’s safety during surgery. Twenty-nine is old enough that yes, she can make her own choices too, but the “guess how old we are” thing seems a little too much like using her daughter as a prop for herself. There’s nothing new in parents doing that, I know; maybe it’s the physicality of this one that’s the difference. Though it might be easier for the daughter to cut her hair and put on a different outfit than for My Son The Doctor to walk away from that role.

  2. A good friend of mine had WLS a couple years ago and is now an advocate for it and has formed a support group for others who’ve had WLS or are contemplating it. She’s even set up a t-shirt store with shirts lauding WLS. I have grave concerns about WLS and disagree with it fundamentally, but I absolutely support my friend’s informed choice to have it. She researched the issue for more than a year before she decided to go through with it and then chose a procedure she felt to be safest for her. It’s not the WLS procedure itself I support; it’s her bodily autonomy to make that decision for herself.

  3. Late as usual, I just wanted to note a couple of things. One is the same issue that Vicki and Lisa both pointed out, and that I don’t think you’ve addressed: that this woman’s personal choice didn’t just affect her, but also her daughter. These choices don’t get made in a vacuum, even when the affect on another person isn’t quite as overt.

    The other point is that I think there’s a crucial but often overlooked distinction between respecting or supporting a person and respecting or supporting that person’s beliefs or choices. I have no problem at all with the idea that I can find fault with the specific choice a person has made and still treat that person with respect. I feel this way about people who have, for example, religious beliefs that I don’t respect, approve, or support. As I get older, I find that I care less about what people think than about how they behave.

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