Have breasts been forgotten in feminist struggles?

Version française ICI.
*all the citations have been translated by myself.

Camille Froidevaux-Metterie has just published Seins : en quête d’une libération (Anamosa, 2020). Her work follows in the wake of phenomenology as used by Simone de Beauvoir and Iris Marion Young. To read our interview, click HERE.

 

At the beginning of this book on breasts, Camille Froidevaux-Metterie tells us a personal anecdote, which undoubtedly echoes in many of us. One day, the author goes to a lingerie store to buy her 12-year-old daughter her first bra, but the mother and the child struggle to find one without padding. « The anger has mounted, » she writes, « my daughter’s breasts were barely there but she was already being told they were insufficient, imperfect, disappointing » (p. 19). 

From there, the author begins her research and finds that feminist struggles have not (or little, see the introduction of the book) been interested in breasts. Yet they can be seen everywhere: on huge advertising posters in public spaces, on many pages of women’s magazines… Women are pushed to dream of having someone else’s breasts and cosmetic surgery is presented as an acceptable alternative to have more, to have less, to lift them up, to round them up… In short, when it comes to breasts, there is one standard (one more!) to which it seems to be necessary to conform.

Seins and the « genital turning point of feminism ».

Thus, for Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, the breasts « in themselves condense all the feminine characteristics that have justified and perpetuated male domination » (p. 13) and we have every interest in placing them at the centre of what she calls the « genital turning point » (p. 9) that we are witnessing within feminism. Thus, her book, Seins, is part of the author’s exploration of this « genital turning point in feminism ». But what is it all about?

For a long time, the body had disappeared from feminist struggles (see our interview and Froidevaux-Metterie, 2018) and the author notes that while the second-wave feminism had promised a revolution in « the intimate realm of sexuality », we can only note today that this promise has not been fulfilled (p. 7). While it is true that women have become « individuals with rights » and have taken over the social and professional spheres, they « have nonetheless continued to be subjects defined primarily by their sexual, conjugal and maternal lives » (p. 8). In fact, women’s bodies are still supposed to be accessible, available, and from the late 1970s to the early 2010s, feminism left the question of the body aside, as it was considered above all as a burden and a real obstacle to liberation. The author’s comments should not be seen as a charge against feminist activists, since she retraces the stages, in her previous works (2015, 2018), of what is in fact a historical process and, to complete, one can refer to the works of historians of feminism such as Sylvie Chaperon, Geneviève Fraisse, Christine Bard and Bibia Pavard, to name but a few.

If Camille Froidevaux-Metterie wishes to put the question of the body back on the agenda of feminist struggles, it is because she perceives, following Simone de Beauvoir (1949) and Iris Marion Young (1985 (2005)), that the body can also be a vector of freedom and emancipation, which she explains clearly in our interview. Her project is part of, and thus precisely in line with, the « genital turning point of feminism » which, according to the author, began in the early 2010s. The beginning of the decade has indeed seen the (re)appearance of several events – from the demands for free hygiene products to the denunciation of gynaecological and obstetrical violence, via the #Metoo wave – which have given the body back its political dimension. A new generation of feminist podcasters, academics and journalists, are taking over this desire to put the body back at the centre of the issue: Les Jaseuses and their recent podcast on confined bodies for example, Extimité, Les couilles sur la table, Quoi de meuf, Émotions, Un podcast à soi and so many others.

In this movement to « relaunch the project of sexual revolution » (p. 10.), the clitoris has crystallized our attention and has now become, along with the vulva, a symbol of our feminist struggles. With this book, Camille Froidevaux-Metterie invites us to consider the breasts in the same way, namely on the one hand as the place of male domination, certainly, but also as that of a possible feminist reappropriation.

Feminist phenomenology, a fertile method

As for the method used, I can only refer, once again, to my interview with the author because she explains her philosophical method better than I could do here. It is phenomenology. Simone de Beauvoir had discovered its full potential in the work of Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty, 1945; Beauvoir, 1945(2020) ). In phenomenology, the body is considered « as a vector of our presence in the world, to ourselves and to others » (p. 17). But it goes without saying, at that time and under Merleau-Ponty’s pen, that the body is considered within a universal male frame of thought. It was Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, who enriched phenomenology with a new dimension, namely that of the female corporeality (Froidevaux-Metterie, 2018(2)). Several decades later, Iris Marion Young, noting the disappearance of the body in contemporary feminist issues, reactivated « the Beauvoirian approach by adapting it to the new conditions resulting from the emancipation revolution » (Froidevaux-Metterie, 2018-2). Camille Froidevaux-Metterie is one of the rare philosophers in France, along with Manon Garcia and Mickaëlle Provost in particular, to follow this path.

The method has until very recently been accused of being essentialist, especially in France. No doubt because the notions of « lived experience » (see interview) and « feminine » had long since ceased to be used as philosophical notions. Camille Froidevaux-Metterie explains that, when she speaks of « feminine », she is not referring to an alleged nature of women, but to « a situated state of the relations that women have with the world, with others and with themselves, which passes through the incarnated dimensions of their existence. » (p. 16.)

Thus, through the phenomenological approach and by focusing more particularly on the breasts, the author intends to show how women apprehend a paradoxical experience: through their bodies, they are at the same time subjected to injunctions of sexual availability which confine them to the position of an object, but they also have the possibility of emancipation and thus of becoming full-fledged subjects; there is no fatality, the author tells us, emphasizing the transformative and appropriative capacity of women (like any human being).

A beautiful object

Camille Foidevaux-Metterie thus sets out on the traces of the lived experience of about forty women (from 5 to 76 years old, heterosexual, lesbian, cisgender, trans, white, racialized, able-bodied, invalid*) through their breasts, from puberty to old age without forgetting sexual life or mutations due to diseases. She tries not to leave any « phenomenological knots » at random, i.e. crucial stages in women’s lives that cause bodily upheaval and make them experience the sexuation of their existence both intimately and socially (p. 17).

The result is a very beautiful book (both in content and form) that alternates the philosopher’s analyses, women’s testimonies and black and white photographs of their breasts. These photos, taken by the author herself at the end of her interviews with these women, are an integral part of the philosopher’s work, whose aim was to show women’s real breasts, in all their diversity and fluidity. 

The book echoes a feminist work from the late 1970s, Breast. Women speak about their breasts and their lives, which aimed to show women’s real breasts and give them a voice. Camille Froidevaux-Metterie’s study leads to an invitation to reactivate the feminist proposal of the 1970s, that of the liberation and reappropriation of our bodies and our lives.

See this Twitter Thread by the author:

 

Not only is Camille Froidevaux-Metterie’s book a feminist and political one** because it contains a potential for empowerment, but it is also a book that proposes an interesting philosophical, theoretical and epistemological proposal, the richness of which is still little grasped in France.

*The author clarifies that she has certainly talked about every possible cases and therefore does not purport to be exhaustive (p. 23.)
**The political dimension is inherent in feminism: feminism is a political project. I place the two terms side by side here because this original dimension tends to be forgotten. 

References

Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe, Paris, Gallimard, 1949.
– « La Phénoménologie de la perception de Maurice Merleau-Ponty », Philosophie, 2020/1 (N° 144), p. 7-10. Publié dans Les Temps Modernes en 1945.

Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, La Révolution du féminin, Paris, coll. Bibliothèque des sciences humaines, Gallimard, 2015. Disponible en Folio essais depuis mars 2020.
– Le corps des femmes. La bataille de l’intime, Paris, Philosophie magazine Éditeur, 2018.
– « Le féminisme phénoménologique d’Iris Marion Young. Tenir ensemble le concept de corps vécu et la notion de genre », Revue philosophique de Louvain, 2018-2, N°114, vol. 4, p. 493-516.
– Seins. En quête d’une libération, Paris, Anamosa, 2020.

Manon Garcia, On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient, Paris, Flammarion, 2018.

Iris Marion Young, On female body Experience.Throwing like a Girl” and other essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005. L’article « Throwing like a girl » a été publié en 1985.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Gallimard, 1945.

***

To site this article: Marine Rouch, « Have breasts been forgotten in feminist struggles? », Chère Simone de Beauvoir, June 2020. URL : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3237

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Marine Rouch

Doctorante à l'université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès - Histoire contemporaine des femmes et du genre - Histoire littéraire - Laboratoire FRAMESPA (UT2J) - Laboratoire ALITHILA (Lille 3). CV ici : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/curriculum-vitae

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