We Are The New Body Police

This is a quick post in response to a post on my school’s WGST program FB page. It got me thinking about how feminists practice a new form of body policing, in the name of feminism.
Neoliberal patriarchy has co-opted old-skool feminist critiques of unrealistic body images in the media, turning feminists into its own agents. Instead of the media policing normative/ideal female body image/size/etc., women, especially women who identify as feminist, now police what does and does not count or look like a “real” female body. They get us to do the work of cis-sexism, racism, ableism, and all the other kyriarchisms for them.
How does this happen? In a post-Photoshop-Disasters world, most women of a certain privilege have the digital/technical literacy to spot overly- or poorly-altered images. We can point out too-thin waists, disproportional bodies, missing limbs, etc. The problem here is this: in order to make these evaluations, we rely on an underlying standard for “realness”. Now, this standard is a range or continuum—there’s no longer one ideal body—but it’s still has its limits. So, for example, you can be too skinny or too obese, too “ethnic” or too blonde/blue, and you certainly have to pass as cisgendered and able-bodied. (The Dove Real Beauty campaign photos are great illustrations of this range.) For example, Heather Mills appearing without her prosthetic is not a Photoshop disaster—that’s her actual body. But, when feminists point out “Photoshop disasters,” we’re reinforcing ideals, or the range of ideals, for female corporeal realness. Claiming that an image was improperly Photoshopped assumes that the model/subject of the photo is normatively embodied, is not “disfigured” in some visually obvious way.
How specifically is this neoliberal? Well, it’s in the range of normative bodies. Instead of there being a hierarchy of bodies, with one absolute ideal at the top (this is the classical/enlightenment liberalism model), there’s now a sort of bell curve, a range of standardized deviations. Now, there are “exceptional” instances on each end of the curve—exceptionally privileged and exceptionally underprivileged, but being on the curve itself is a form of privilege. The worst oppression is reserved for those who aren’t on the curve, whose deviation isn’t standardizable—so, for example, transwomen, radical fat women, disabled women of all sorts, etc.
It’s also neoliberal because the enforcement has been outsourced to the general population, to us feminists. This is not a top-down power structure, where big media dictates to and oppresses women. This is women policing ourselves. So it doesn’t seem like oppression, it seems like liberated women being liberated; we think we’re fighting the power, but we are the power we think we’re resisiting. Tricky, no?