Body-shaming in a progressive movement in 2013? Color me shocked.


Melody Hensley is deciding whether or not to get a nose piercing. Like you do with all grave decisions about body modification, she asked friends on a social media service what people thought.

Turns out that a number of people in the freethought community have some decidedly backward views on the matter — not that, at this point, you should be surprised that we as a group are prone to every one of the foibles of society as a whole. In this specific case, not just as a matter of giving their opinion of “yes” or “no”, or making some lame joke about it. I’m talking full-on body modification shaming, occasionally veering straight into body-shaming, the likes of which I almost never see leveled at men.

Melody is the Executive Director for CFI-DC. As such, she’s in a unique position, where she might be called upon to be the spokesperson for an event or series of events, like she was for Women In Secularism, the annual conference for which she’s largely responsible. She clarified that she was thinking of a side stud, not a septum piercing or ring. People were still put out, apparently. What should have been a simple matter of opinion became a splash-damagey cavalcade of judgmentalism.

I can almost understand why someone might want to project an image of austere and socially-acceptable conservatism by having the least offensive people available present the opinions of the group as a whole, though I strongly disagree with the reasoning behind it. The first and most blatant such exhortation, in response to Melody’s yes/no question:

ABSOLUTELY NOT!. Un-professional. Not the image CFI wants. Please don’t.

If a tasteful nose stud is even noticeable, and you’re in a situation where it’s not called for, it’s fairly easy to remove. The hole will even heal over if you decide it’s not for you. This opinion inexorably ties her image with her ability to do her job despite how easy a modification it is to revert — it suggests that people won’t ever take her seriously as a leader of the movement if she happens to do something that signals a visible nonconformity. It is a terrible argument from consequences and an ethnocentrist view that I’m slightly surprised to hear from a community that prides itself on rationality. From a practical standpoint, your only concerns should be: a) do you want to add maintenance of this new modification to your daily routine, and b) does the modification help you achieve a body presentation that you’d like to have? The identical rationales should be used for choosing a hairstyle, or choosing a mode of dress, with only the added consequence of the fact that this modification adds some slightly more significant complication to your routine initially, including having the procedure itself done. The same could be said of getting your hair cut or obtaining the clothing, though.

But some people couldn’t help but go beyond their simple personal opinions, beyond discussion of the practicalities, and tried to convince her one way or the other. Some of the yes-votes were focused on discussing how sexy they personally find that sort of modification, as though whether or not a particular stranger finding you sexy is an argument for doing it; and they generalized about the population at large in a way that might be uncomfortable. Most of the no-votes included such generalizations as well:

No offense to the pierced girls, but you’re too classy.

I’m sure none of the pierced girls thought being called un-classy was out of line and they all took no offense.

We all have our hang-ups. We all have our little quirks with regard to what sort of person or what characteristics a person might express that are not necessarily attractive to them. For instance, I, personally, don’t much like obviously-fake breasts, but I would not judge someone for getting them and being proud of them. If such a modification makes you happy, if it corrects a flaw you perceive in your personal body image, more power to you.

As long as you don’t universalize the statement, expressing your personal opinion isn’t normally problematic if you can do so carefully, avoiding splash damage in the process. The major problems come not with expressing unpopular opinions, but with the way you express them, and how those opinions reflect on you. As Jodi said in the aftermath of this, “If you’re talking about judging people’s bodies, and what they choose to do with it, I am definitely going to judge your character and feel no guilt about it.”

There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with judging people for their behaviours. Judging people for their choices in self-expression, though, is needlessly damaging to self-esteem and perpetuates a number of problematic ideas pervasive in our culture. Ideas that should be challenged, because they’re needlessly damaging and enforce a sort of dogmatic conformity. Ideas that a movement for rationality should be capable of dissecting and correctly deeming unworthy.

If you’re already on the vanguard of a social justice movement like CFI purports to be, your presentation is secondary — people will lash out at the thought of fixing the privileged position religion and superstition has in our society whether the person suggesting that there’s an imbalance is a white male dressed in a suit and tie, or a woman of color with tattoos and piercings. In some ways, it’s easier to find out who’s just there to hold their position of privilege and aren’t actually interested in honest interlocution, and exclude them from the conversation if they’re fixated on your appearance instead of your words.

Comments

  1. badgersdaughter says

    I ran into this sort of nonsense when I worked in a shop at a mall in the 90s, and was friends with the young hairdressers at the upstairs salon. There wasn’t a lot of business at certain times of day, and they passed the time by doing each other’s hair. For a few months this included some creative, edgy colorwork. I was sitting at lunch with them one afternoon when I overheard some Southern biddy say to her friend, “What’s that professional-looking girl doing with those punk kids?” Um, lady, they were far, far, more professional than I was. :)

  2. Oob says

    Typical stuff. Let them do as they will with their meat bags. I tend to reject… er… physicality. I wear plain clothing that is comfortable and cheap, and my main goal is that, not expressing anything. Then some fashion mogul or something shows up and says expressing myself is “inescapable”, that even THAT is a choice of a face to wear in public, and that face is saying I don’t care about anyone. Ugh, I hate that, but I don’t know what to do with it. My interpretation has always been that it’s in the eye of the beholder, not my fault if they want to see a personal affront in the plainest possible appearance. Well, not much I can do there, as if I put any effort at all into “correcting” that, I’m now expressing something else to people, and I have no idea how that’ll be taken.

    I get that some people like to express themselves, and so no one should mind a nose ring or whatever. Personally? It all seems superficial to me. I don’t care about random bits of ink or metal inserted into arbitrary pieces of meat to seemingly no functional end (though to get cybernetic enhancements that actually did things? Yeah, I’d be all over that). HOWEVER, the key there is I understand it as superficial, so I avoid judgment either way.

  3. Steven says

    So providing an opinion on an accessory when asked is now body-shaming? This kind of bullshit is very tiresome. Personally I don’t really mind a piercing, but I certainly don’t think you’re a terrible person for having a negative opinion either.

  4. leftwingfox says

    I’m going to make a small point in defence of “professionalism”. The judgement of other people regarding appearance is inevitable, and defined by cultural norms. We can choose to challenge those norms, or acquiesce to them. The question is whether the challenge of social norms is a significant diversion from message being sent in a professional capacity.

    In this case though, I agree that the piercing is easily removed, and shouldn’t pose a problem for professional settings. And as you point out, if CFI is invested in challenging cultural norms, this isn’t necessarily distracting from the message.

    (On a personal note, the only one I don’t recommend is a small red gemstone stud. Last time I saw one of those I thought it was an infected pimple, until I got close enough to realize my mistake.)

  5. says

    No, Steven, providing an opinion on an accessory that goes beyond your personal opinion and damages everyone who chooses something you don’t personally prefer is body-shaming. And you’d know that if you’d read the original post.

    You’re not a terrible person for having an opinion. You’re a terrible person for suggesting that people who think differently from you are cows or fish. You’re a terrible person for saying people are not “classy” for choosing differently from your personal opinions. You’re a terrible person for assuming your culture is the best and any non-conformity is damning.

    Read the post. It’s all up there. This is a nuanced view and your attempt at turning it black and white is the real bullshit here.

  6. John Horstman says

    WTF? I’m not even sure I *notice* nose studs at this point – they’re tiny, unobtrusive, and get filtered by the same visual processing heuristic that discards pimples, minor cuts, large freckles, etc. And beyond that… WTF? Why does anyone care in the first place? Are there really people so insulated from the past 30 to 40 years of popular culture that nose piercings are at all unusual, nonconformist, ‘edgy’, or whatever to them? Extensive facial scarification would be unusual here in USA (though not all areas of the world, and being unusual isn’t a [good] reason to make it abject, of course), but a nose piercing? That’s downright ordinary (in the sense of common – I feel like the word has picked up some negative connotation in our hyper-individualist culture, the idea that only the exceptional can be good or is worthy of note, which is not a sentiment I wish to convey).

  7. John Horstman says

    I should perhaps note that I find the body (modification) shaming ridiculous and distasteful – I feel like that should go without saying, but it obviously doesn’t for everyone.

  8. says

    I live in Seattle, and in the edgy and gay-friendly Capitol Hill neighborhood at that. Seeing professional people without visible piercings, tattoos, facial hair and colorful locks seems off. The teller at my local credit union has three piercings in his ears, and the CU manager usually has maroon highlights in her hair (she did go green and blue once, after losing a bet on our pro soccer team.)

    I don’t care for nose piercings, as they are prone to infection even after they are fully healed. Aesthetically, though, a nose stud is pretty subtle and is common in a lot of world cultures. If a person wants to be a bit daring without being over-the-top, it’s a decent choice. I hope Ms. Hensley didn’t let the haters talk her out of getting one.

  9. JT says

    @5

    Um, I think calling someone a terrible person from this one comment(unless you know them personally) is just a tad over the top. You would probably be better to just say his opinion was terribly shitty just like yours just was.

  10. JT says

    Jason

    He said this…….. “Personally I don’t really mind a piercing, but I certainly don’t think you’re a terrible person for having a negative opinion either.”

    And then you said….. “You’re a terrible person for suggesting that people who think differently from you are cows or fish. You’re a terrible person for saying people are not “classy” for choosing differently from your personal opinions. You’re a terrible person for assuming your culture is the best and any non-conformity is damning.”

    Am I missing something?

  11. Onamission5 says

    Oh, for crying out loud. All that body shaming over a nose stud? Seriously?

    I pierced my nose in 1989, and was only one of two people in my little rural OR town to do so. The questions about how do I blow my nose and doesn’t it hurt and how did I expect to get this job with that thing in my face ended sometime in the early to mid 90’s. (I got jobs just fine, because nose studs can come out for 8 hours a day same as earrings, thanks)

    Now I live in the south US. There are attorneys and school administrators here with visible tats and more piercings than I could ever hope for. People my age. Professional people. Business owners and the head of the PTA. Folks like that. Walking around in public with a tiny stud in the side of one’s nose ceased to be edgy and shocking like 20 years ago.

    Personally, I highly doubt that anyone who’d decide not to take Melody seriously in a professional capacity just because she had something as ubiquitous as a small nose piercing is someone who’d take her seriously without one.

  12. MadHatter says

    I’ve had a nose ring for nearly 15 years now. Not only has it become increasingly common, it’s also a feature of some cultural fashion that may be very specific to where a person comes from. Most Indian women I know have one for instance. As someone else noted, it’s pretty much the norm in parts of Seattle and the west coast more generally.

    People quit asking me about it years ago, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect on my “professionalism” as a scientist. I have had occasion to remove it, no one remarks on the absence and no one remarks on it when I put it back. This is despite the fact that piercings generally seem less common where I’m at right now.

    I’m not surprised that people found it necessary to express whether or not they personally would find it attractive. Everything a woman does, wears or doesn’t wear etc etc is an excuse to comment on her potential as a sex object. I agree with Onamission @15, if they won’t take her seriously with a piercing they wouldn’t anyhow.

  13. lochaber says

    No piercing/tats myself, but I really don’t have any problem with them. As far as nose studs go, I think a single small one can look sorta elegant.

    I’m glad that tattoos and piercings have been fairly common with a lot of the younger people for the past couple decades, as I think just the prevalence of it will help shift cultural attitudes, and make them more acceptable, and get away from that nonsense of someone being ‘unemployable’ for having something outside the margins of a t-shirt.

  14. Bobo2 says

    Has absolutely nothing to do with sex. A pierced male also looks unprofessional. Gauging, for instance, would be totally unacceptable in any corporate or public relations situation (unless you’re working for a body mod shop). As would a nose stud, eyebrow stud, lip ring, etc.

    Has nothing to do with one’s own sexism or being backwards w.r.t. body modification; it’s about knowing and accepting how the majority of the public (and especially other professionals) perceive these things.

  15. says

    Just to play devil’s advocate: what if she said “I want to get a giant green afro and wear it every single day.” Would it be considered unacceptable body shaming to call it “unprofessional”?

    Personally, I am fine with nose piercings, and do not consider them unprofessional. Just seeing the limits of this issue.

  16. says

    @Bobo2 #19

    it’s about knowing and accepting how the majority of the public (and especially other professionals) perceive these things.

    Fuck that. I, for one, think that being forced to dress in such a rigid manner under the guise of “professionalism” is utter crap. It’s a totally arbitrary standard and I think that notion of “professionalism” is utter crap. How a person dresses usually has nothing to do with their work ethic and job skills and if a person has a problem with “eccentric” appearances in the workplace, then they are the problem, not the eccentric person. I don’t have any conflict of interest in this opinion because I’m a relatively clean-shaven guy with no tats/piercings.

  17. says

    Piercings aren’t classy? Do these people have any idea that there are other cultures in the world besides their own, and that in those cultures piercings are not only “classy” but they are the norm? Really, this is just absurd.

  18. says

    Do these people have any idea that there are other cultures in the world besides their own, and that in those cultures piercings are not only “classy” but they are the norm?

    I know that was a rhetorical question, but it’s pretty obvious the answer is “no”, and that they’d be very insulted if you pointed out that their opinion is kinda racist, as it basically just referred to e.g. South Asian and Maori “normal” as not-classy. And it’s of course the same B.S. that classifies natural black hair as “unprofessional” or (for students) “non-traditional” and even related to gang-culture. Because “normal” and “classy” and “professional” are really just dogwhistles for “WASP upper middle class”.

    This is also the sort of narrow-minded “professional” bullshit that leads to the corporate hilarity of (for example) a downtown Starbucks forcing its work-crew to remove all piercings and cover all tattoos, when the majority of its customers have more such body-mods (see Gregory in Seattle’s comment) than the workers, anyway.

  19. Bernard Bumner says

    I manage projects worth tens of millions, I interact with some of the largest industrial multinationals, with SMEs, and with all sorts of high profile Professors and Senior Counsel. And I wear a tunnel or plug every day. No one has ever mentioned it.

    I am not unprofessional, and have never been labelled as such.

    I am, however, an outspoken male.

  20. says

    Ah I see. Too nuanced for me, I guess. ;)

    KILL IT! KILLLLL THE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE SMILEY!!!?!!!1!

    Ahem.

    Yes, as I was saying – I saw this. It does kind of get to the image the CFI wants to project, which is something that a spokesperson has to take into account. So, I guess a lot of people prefer CFI to project a stodgy, 1950s, conformist sort of image. To which I say: WHA? I think you’re not really getting the degree to which the culture would really change if we were successful in (what I believe to be) our goal of severely lessening the influence of religion on society.

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