Cultural facts and the female form

July 14, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- To get to the heart of the Silicone Story, you have to go back to the very beginning.

Back to postwar Japan where young women trying to attract U.S. soldiers had industrial-strength transformer coolant injected directly into their breasts.

Back to Las Vegas where 10,000 women, waitresses and showgirls investing in a topless career had liquid silicone pumped into their bodies as an invisible, internal "falsie."

Silicone sin

A feminist conspiracy theorist couldn't have written a better story of original silicone sin. It's replete with dark morals about sexual beauty and sexual business, self-sacrifice and self-improvement, women disfigured in pursuit of a better figure.

When the terrible effects of liquid silicone became known, the gel was packaged before it was installed, and the market expanded. During the 1970s and the 1980s, the sexual revolution to the Reagan revolution, about 1 million women added silicone to their measurements.

These were not necessarily women in the sex market. They were women in the self-improvement market. They were not necessarily women who had lost breasts to cancer. They were women who wanted their breasts "augmented," their body images "enhanced."

During these years, the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery pushed the procedure as a cure for the small breasts they described as "deformities" that were "really a disease." The silicone marketeers, for their part, sold the product before the studies on animals were completed.

In this cultural context, it's no wonder that a bitter controversy around silicone implants raged for a decade before Dow Corning's latest agreement on Wednesday to a $3.2 billion settlement to resolve the claims of 170,000 women who believe that silicone made them sick.

Anyone appalled at the pressure to slice and dice female bodies until they conform to some Barbie shape would find vindication in the idea that implants were a danger foisted on women by corporations. Indeed, everything about the Silicone Story would lead a garden variety feminist to believe in a villain. Everything that is, but the scientific facts.

The agreement deliberately does not resolve what is most important about the silicone cases: how much, if any, harm came from the silicone implants.

One lawyer for the plaintiffs said simply, "There comes a time when you have to agree to disagree and get the job done." The lawyers for Dow Corning -- which no longer makes implants -- seemed more focused on ending the dispute and getting the company out of bankruptcy than finding the truth.

It seemed that both sides were rushing to settle before the long-awaited conclusions of a court-appointed science panel were released. If this tentative agreement is approved by enough of the women, the legal case will be closed.

But as Dr. Marcia Angell, who has written a book on the implant cases called "Science on Trial," says, "Justice without truth seems like a pretty shaky proposition."

Ugly scars

We have proof enough of the painful and unsightly localized effects of ruptured implants. That's not at stake. The bulk of the suits, however, are based on deep convictions and claims that silicone caused devastating systemic problems -- lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue.

But the problem is that in recent years, 15 well-designed studies have concluded that breast implants have either no effect on those diseases, or one too tiny to be found.

At the moment, science and the law, the lab and the courtroom, have come to a split-the-difference financial settlement. But what happens when sexual politics conflict with scientific fact? As Mr. Angell says, "Even if you reach a conclusion for the most noble of reasons, it's not good to have it utterly divorced from facts. It wreaks havoc with your thinking."

Today, if anything, there is more push for surgical self-improvement. Cosmetic surgery is sold as if it were a new blush-on. Face lifts are the female Viagra.

Many of us hold two views about such surgery. We understand the self-esteem that comes with a new look. We also know about the world that makes women feel bad about their bodies and then offers a surgical solution for the disease it's created.

Implants are made of saline these days. But the healthy women who still choose to enlarge their breasts are driven by the same old "marketing" pressures as the women in postwar Japan.

This is what we've learned from the Silicone Story. It's not science at fault. It's the cultural facts we have to face.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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