One the things feminists have to deal with a lot is the issue of “choice.” We are told all the time, everywhere, that somehow we restrict women who “choose” to be housewives, sex workers, or women who “choose” plastic surgery to enhance their looks or women who “choose” not to breastfeed their infants. Many times we know when someone is making a “choice” that is not really a “choice,” but we don’t have the words to explain logically why we’re right.

While working on my senior thesis on American women’s choices about childbirth, I came accross this little gem by Barbara Katz Rothman that put into words what I had known all along:  “There will never be ‘free’ choice, unstructured reproductive choice. But the structure in which choices are made should, and I believe ultimately can, be made fair, ethical and moral.” It’s so true! Every choice that we make in life is constructed, whether it’s constructed by our skills and interests, resources, social expectations, or a desire to defy social expectations, or usually a combination of all these factors. And all these factors provide the structure in which our choices are made. Hence, it’s really important to examine these structures in which the choices are made to decide whether it is a “free” choice or not. “Free” is a misnomer because really what we’re implying is “happy” or “satisfactory.” But anyways, if a structure is oppressive, then a happy choice really can’t be made in it. That’s why some privileged women might experiment with sex work and find it empowering, but it’s not really empowering for poor, abused women who were unaware of other options in life, or never had any. That’s not to say that all these women need rescuing or can’t be empowered by the money they make from sex work, and it’s also not to say that the misogyny in the sex industry doesn’t exist in others, but what I’m saying is choice is really context dependent.

This is also apparent in the area of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Are women really “choosing” a C-section because it’s healthy and cool? Or are they choosing it because they’re not fully informed about the risks to both themselves and their babies from a C-section, and that labor pains need not be excruciating, and vaginal tears are unlikely if their births are attended by a good midwife and supportive system? Are they aware of the better systems other countries use? With the issue of breastfeeding, did the women just wake up one day and decide they didn’t want to breastfeed? Or did they find it annoying because our employment structure doesn’t allow enough flexibility, and our doctors aren’t encouraging enough of an option that is clearly superior to the best formula out there? Worse yet, are the women “choosing” not to breastfeed because they hold on to the notion that it’s poor and uncultured to breastfeed, or that breastfeeding will make their breasts sag which will make their “boys will be boys” husbands unattracted to them?

The “choice” to be a housewife is only a “free choice” for those women who are privileged enough to not worry about earning money or housework (done by a maid). Even then, I guess their choices are constructed by the misfortune of not having and interest or skill they could explore rather than just spend money. Being a housewife is not a “free choice” for a woman who decides that childcare is actually more expensive than what her job can afford. Getting plastic surgery is not a “free choice” when a woman is getting it to conform to society’s standard of beauty. How many white women in America choose to be paler? How many choose to be a size 10 if they can be a size 6? I’m fine with women conforming to certain expectations of society, because I do to, but don’t tell me you’ve made a “free choice” to get Botox in a culture that doesn’t like wrinkles!! Recently I heard friends discussing about how a certain woman’s choice to get breast implants was “awesome” because “she did it for herself.” Some people think that a woman is doing something for herself as long as a man is not directly involved, but I don’t think that’s correct. Where did that woman get the idea that getting breast implants was cool? Where did she get the desire to get the implants in the first place? And why didn’t she have the desire to get flat breasts, or artificial wrinkles, or extra fat injected in her tummy? It’s because the society she lives in considers fake breasts to be beautiful, and even though she didn’t get implants to please any particular man, she got implants because she felt better about herself as she fit society’s beauty standards.

In Bangladesh, many women don’t shave their legs because most women don’t show them. In America, many women shave their legs because they have to appear smooth when appearing in public. That choice is cultural. Most women may not mind it, but it is still not a “free” choice. I myself shave my legs and tweeze my eyebrows, but I wouldn’t have done it id hairy legs and bushy eyebrows were in vogue. Would women have gotten breast implants if the beauty standard was to have flat breasts? I don’t think so. The only kinds of choice that might be considered “free” are the ones a person makes for themselves despite unpopularity and resistance from society.

And finally, this concept of choice is important to be a global feminist. Some ignorant Americans tend to question whether third world women have “choice.” The implication is that third world societies are less equal than Western societies. While that might be true, it’s true because third world countries have been exploited and depleted by the West so now we have to deal with another set of problems. Both men and women have fewer choices in the third world, it’s not just that third world men are more sexist. It annoys me to no end when some American women think their choices to put of make up everyday, wear uncomfortable shoes, or get plastic surgery somehow make them “freer” than third world women. Yeah right, they’re freer now to put more toxins in their body like Botox and now Latisse (for “inadequate” eyelashes). Some ignorant women take it a step further and assume that because America is a land of opportunity, it’s a woman’s choice to do porn. Somehow getting a few bucks for having your head forced down a toilet is a “free” choice.

Hardly any choices we make in our lives is a “free” choice by itself. But it can be a happy choice when made in a free structure that doesn’t have preset standards for what is beautiful or what is acceptable. I realize that is utopia, but until we get such flexible standards, please don’t tell me that you made a “free” choice to use Latisse.

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