The political philosopher Clare Chambers and I faced the same dilemma: how much should we dress up for an event when the topic of the talk was body modification? It shouldn’t matter, I knew, whether as the chair I wore make-up and high heels or turned up in tracksuit bottoms with unbrushed hair. The whole point of Chambers’ book, Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body, which she was at the Cambridge Literary Festival to discuss, is that our bodies should be acceptable as they are.
But knowing that didn’t help me shake the feeling I really ought to have at least put on some mascara before addressing a room of paying guests. Chambers, speaking to me conspiratorially in the green room beforehand, said she felt the same.
This tension – the myriad societal pressures to improve and enhance the bodies we inhabit – is at the heart of Chambers’ work. Of course, the truly unmodified body cannot exist in real life (we all need to eat, exercise, clean ourselves and wear clothes). Instead, Chambers, a bestselling author and fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, prefers to think of it as a philosophical ideal.
“What I’m trying to capture with ‘the unmodified body’ is the idea that there is something valuable in allowing your body to be good enough, just as it is,” she said. “And that seems like a really simple idea. But it’s actually incredibly difficult, and I think it’s also incredibly radical, because there are so many structures, norms, pressures, influences, constantly telling us that no matter what our bodies are like, they’re never going to be good enough.”
To demonstrate her point, Chambers noted that if she asked everyone in the audience what aspect of their bodies they’d most like to change, we would all be able to think of something instantly. More interestingly, if anyone refused and insisted their body was perfect as it was, the rest of us would likely find them arrogant and delusional. “So shame is built in; we’re supposed to feel shame all the time.”
Indeed, in the introduction to her book, Chambers cites a survey that found that “only 16 per cent of women and 27 per cent of men reported liking what they see when they look in the mirror”. “If all of us feel bad about our bodies, perhaps it’s not our bodies that are the problem,” she told the audience at Cambridge.
It is hardly revolutionary to point out that we feel insecure about how we look, especially given social media’s ever-growing influence on our lives. But Intact is about far more than unrealistic Instagram beauty standards or the pernicious power of Photoshop. It’s about what we mean when we idealise what’s “natural”, the judgements we make when others deviate from unspoken norms of presentation, and how to balance valuing our unmodified selves with supporting self-expression and personal choice. There is sociology, feminism and politics in the book as well as philosophy – Chambers coined the term “shametenance” to encompass the myriad ways, from bikini waxing to anti-ageing creams, we perpetuate the idea that our unmodified bodies are shameful. Intact is huge in its scope, beginning with bodybuilding, make-up and female grooming, before confronting the murky ethics of the cosmetic surgery industry, gender reassignment procedures and even treatment for disabilities.
Most people, I suggested to Chambers, would agree that the trend towards hyper-niche beauty “solutions” for things that weren’t previously viewed as problems (labiaplasty, anyone?) is troubling. So too is the emotive example with which she opens the book, of a 14-year-old girl gifted pro-bono surgery to fix her apparently oversized ears, who ends up with an unasked-for nose job and a chin reshape as well. What is more controversial is the way Chambers places such examples on a continuum that includes a range of modifications usually regarded as far less objectionable: fitness regimes, male circumcision, post-mastectomy breast reconstruction, cochlear implants for deaf children. Surely these can’t be treated within the same philosophical and ethical framework as a nose job?
“Of course there is a difference: we can give clear examples of modifications that do nothing other than increase health and flourishing, and modifications that do something which isn’t about well-being but is about appearance,” she replied. “But I don’t think it’s as simple as to say, ‘Therefore all the stuff that’s to do with health is unproblematic and not worth thinking about.’”
To explain, Chambers pointed out that while we might believe cosmetic procedures on children to be abhorrent, we’re hardly consistent in that view. “For example, we’ll often provide on the NHS surgery to remove an additional finger, even if that finger is fully functioning,” she said. Similarly, surgically “correcting” ambiguous genitalia in infants – cutting healthy tissue from a child who cannot consent – is considered a medically valid choice for parents to make in the UK. Female genital mutilation, in contrast, very much is not. Male circumcision is treated differently again. “So there are all these kinds of intuitions we have about what is and isn’t acceptable – it’s not always obvious why.”
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She was clear that her intention is not to condemn people for the modifications they make, to themselves or their children. Rather, she wants to interrogate the assumptions that modification is in our best interests, whether it’s making a child look “normal” by tweaking their ears or genitals, or buying into the drive to “get your body back” after pregnancy.
“I did the sums, and I think in the UK the average life expectancy for a woman is 83,” she explained. “So if your real, authentic body is the one you have post-puberty and pre-pregnancy, that’s ten to 20 years of an average woman’s life. It’s under a quarter of your life. Why is that your authentic body? Why is the idea of getting it back so compelling and why is there so much shame attached to the idea that you haven’t got that body back?”
The most moving moment of the talk came during audience questions, when a woman in her fifties asked Chambers for help: when she looked in the mirror and saw a face unrecognisable from her younger self, she felt shock, shame and regret. What should she do?
“When we look in the mirror and we confront our ageing selves, we’re really stymied because we don’t have images of ageing to compare with; we don’t know what others look like,” Chambers replied, adding that we judge ourselves against an ideal that is not only unrealistic, but impossible. She described her own panic at noticing grey hairs in her thirties, thinking: “Women don’t go grey until their sixties or seventies, because I’d never seen women with grey hair apart from that age.” Our bodies all change as we get older, but perfectly normal ageing is perceived as premature and shameful. Realising that, and acknowledging the futility of obsessing over how we compare to unrepresentative societal “norms”, is a simple yet radical act.
“I talk in the book about whether we can try to think about allowing our bodies to be normal for us,” Chambers said. “That this is my body for me, this could be normal for me – and whether there’s some potential in allowing that idea to be reassuring.”
I thought of the grey streaks in my hair that started appearing when I was just 19. The weight I gained during the first lockdown, which I’ve been unable to shift two years later. The blemishes on my skin I hadn’t covered with concealer and the lines on my forehead that are getting harder to ignore. Chambers’ philosophical defence of the unmodified body can’t fix any of those things any more than it can ease the cultural pressure to address them. But if Intact hasn’t made me feel better about my body, it has at least made me feel better about how I feel about my body. And by the end of the event, I was glad I’d foregone the mascara.
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer