Feminists put in role of defending right to create image they deplore

February 20, 1992|By Linell Smith

A Baltimore medical technician says her life improved so much after she enlarged her breasts that she had a second operation to make them even bigger.

"My boyfriend loves them, and that's what matters," the woman says. "The implants don't bother him or me. My breasts look great in a bathing suit. They make me look normal."

This is the kind of talk that drives feminists crazy. But as the Food and Drug Administration's advisory panel heard testimony last night from women's groups about the safety of silicone gel breast implants, many feminists face a peculiar dilemma: Even as they deplore a society that imposes a stereotyped ideal of feminine beauty, they also jump to defend a woman's right to choose breast implants -- as long as there is full disclosure of any health risks.

Rep. Marilyn Lloyd, D-Tenn., delivered a scathing attack on the FDA for leaving her in the lurch by asking doctors to hold off temporarily on implant surgery.

The congresswoman had one breast removed because of cancer and had planned to have the implants inserted. "Every day I wear a prosthesis I am reminded of my cancer," she said.

But WHAM, Women's Health Action and Mobilization, staged a brief "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" protest in the hallway outside the hearing room against the FDA's possible decision to keep the implants on the market. Three women stood quietly each bearing one letter of the FDA acronym and each covering either her eyes, mouth or ears.

Their action infuriated one implant patient who shouted: "I don't need you to protect me from a product I feel is safe."

The confrontation illustrates the conflicting passions as women debate their health, body images and rights.

On one hand, there's the survivor of breast cancer, her body ravaged by the disease, seeking implants to help her feel "whole" again. On the other, there's the slim, attractive teen seeking implants to improve her shot at modeling swimsuits.

"This is a rights issue," says Pam Regis, an English professor at Western Maryland College. "We permit people to make decisions about smoking, drinking, painting bridges and engaging in dangerous pursuits of all kinds. We all have the right to do stupid things, and to risk our lives, because they are, after all, ours. Having breast implants is among the things you have the right to do."

Many see the subject of breast implants as an opportunity to discuss the cultural problems of women's body image and self-esteem.

"We've failed to communicate an important part of the feminist message which is that our worth is more than how our bodies look," says Cindy Pearson, program co-ordinator for the National Women's Health Network in Washington.

"To hear models talking about how implants are a must for their careers makes me feel that we've gone backward to an era where removing the lower ribs to have a smaller waistline was seen as necessary for beauty. It's depressing."

Portraying women with breast implants as succumbing to cultural stereotypes has angered many breast cancer survivors.

"I think it's unfair to suggest that a woman who is having one breast amputated is somehow frivolous for wanting to have it replaced," says Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the Center for Women's Policy Studies in Washington.

Some women's health advocates have recommended that the breast implant moratorium continue except for certain cases of "compassionate use." But such suggestions anger women who want the implants for cosmetic reasons.

"Women who have augmented breasts feel that you don't have a special right to an implant just because you're sick," says Marsha Oakley, a local breast cancer survivor.

Many describe the controversy as the latest chapter in the grim history of health discrimination against women. To them, the moratorium illustrates how industry and government have shirked their responsibilities to guarantee product safety for the past 30 years.

Although the FDA was given authority to regulate implants in 1976, it did not demand that manufacturers prove their safety until recently.

Scholars who study the field of women and medicine cite a series of injustices, including the A. H. Robins Co.'s suppression of information about the dangers about the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine device which was eventually taken off the market after a number of successful lawsuits.

"Clearly, products for women are not as well scrutinized as products for men," says Emily Martin, an anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins University. "It appears they never tested the implants in breast tissue and that they received decades of complaints from women. It's the kind of stuff that makes you want to scream!"

Feminist scholars also point out that implants are an issue only for a minority: those women who can afford several thousand dollars for elective surgery.

"All women should have decent health care, and if reconstructive surgery is deemed necessary, it should be safe and all women should have access to it," says Leith Mullings, an anthropologist at the City University of New York.

"At the moment, though, I think this is one instance where not being able to afford [breast implants] may work out in women's favor."

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