The first, and only, set of breast implants I’ve ever touched was on a blonde stripper. The most intriguing thing about her was that she had short hair; I haven’t seen too many strippers with short hair. I thought she was hot, and maybe was staring at her or something, because she came up to me, grabbed my hands, and placed them on her breasts.
They were cold. Not that I cared.
I reacted exactly as you’d expect a nerdy programmer to act, by which I mean, I was very awkward. I think maybe I giggled. Anyway, I left that strip club thinking to myself the breasts are bigger in California.
This was right before I moved from Boston to San Francisco, and while I was weighing my options, I wondered to myself if everyone else’s boobs are bigger in California, does that mean my breasts would get smaller? Or, phrased another way, how would people react to my appearance in California? I was like, kind of lazy about a bunch of stuff w.r.t my physical appearance. That was totally fine when I was slumming it up in Allston. For the record, I’m pretty sure this image (or one just like it) made the rounds when I was working in Boston, and people were like “lolz, that is so Allston.”
So, suffice it to say, I was a little nervous about how my “look” might be received in SF, and these large, globular boobs were not boding well. Fortunately, parts of SF turned out to be just as “laid back” as Boston (thank you dirty hippies) so not only did I not have to get breast implants, but I could also stop shaving and wearing antiperspirant. (The fact that men are less criticized than women for BO is an expression of the patriarchy, and I am taking it back motherfuckers.)
However, a deeper analysis of my anxiety points to some knowledge I was only holding subconsciously at the time; I would be willing to alter my physical appearance to fit in with my community. Maybe not too much, maybe if I really had to get breast implants I’d have been like “fuck this,” and gotten my ass on a plane back to Boston. But, there were some things I was willing to do, some changes I was willing to make.
The fact that this was all subconscious and was registered only as apprehension is significant. After I moved, all the physical changes I made felt like they were my choice even though they were very much influenced by my surroundings. I started wearing jeans and “programmer shirts” to work even though I’d been a bit more biz cas on the east coast. Thank goodness people in SF aren’t stuck up about clothes I thought to myself without noticing I’d simply switched one mandatory uniform for another. In fact, had I been too overdressed (aka a “suit”) this would have been just as damaging to my tech cred as had I been underdressed on the east coast.
After a few years, I started to realize I sort of feel like shit dressing like this. It was as if I’d retreated into a world of asexuality. I started to cycle a few skirts and stuff into the wardrobe, and it went over weird. If I wore a dress, or makeup, or whatever my coworkers would notice.
“You look nice today,” they’d say. Which like, was a nice thing to say. But… I felt weird. Like, I didn’t want to be looked at and I didn’t want any attention drawn to my physical appearance. I wanted to sit in silence and code. Even though I find skirts more physically comfortable than jeans (because they are) I kept to my programmer jeans routine because I was more comfortable with the reactions of other people. I started to see this after a while that, even though I believed my fashion choices were “my own” choices, they were actually dictated heavily by the people around me.
Other people’s reactions to how I look change my emotional reality. Someone smiling at me can make my day, a snarky comment can ruin it. So, if my wearing something causes people (en masse) to react to me a certain way, and then I experience emotions based on these reactions, it will alter my behavior. Would you do something that was guaranteed to make you feel like shit all day? My dressing similarly to my male coworkers led to reduced sexualization and increased social acceptance, both of which helped me feel more relaxed at work, so I ended up wearing what my coworkers wore. Well, what they wore in a girl’s cut, that is.
The important point though, is that I conformed while feeling like I had agency. I felt like I was free to wear “whatever I wanted” in the “causal” programmer environment without noticing the mechanisms of control that environment was exerting on me. Had San Francisco really been full of women with huge boobs, what would have happened is I would have started feeling self conscious. I would have started feeling ashamed of my “small” breasts, and felt like there was something wrong with me.
Perhaps, it may even have led to my getting breast implants, and if someone had asked me why I got them, I would have said “I did it for me, to feel good about myself.” I would have felt like it was my choice because no one had forced me, no one had even asked me to get them, but would it have really been my choice? If I’d lived elsewhere, I might never have wanted them.
One some level we know this (different places have different cultures) so does it even matter?
I think it does. The myth of agency is the current method of behavioral enforcement from larger power structures, and it is significant because it is far more encompassing than grosser methods of manipulation. For instance, let’s say I’d been financially dependent on a husband who said he’d divorce me if I didn’t get breast implants. I may have gotten the implants, but any negative emotions I had about the implants would have been directed on my husband for not accepting me. With false agency, the negative emotions we have about being forced to do something are directed on ourselves for being inferior. This prevents any sort of retaliation toward the controlling powers.
The man who makes his wife get breast implants may well find himself divorced; the man whose wife voluntarily gets breast implants because she feels bad about herself gets to be the “good guy” supporting her though her decision. If you are a man who wants to manipulate his wife into getting breast implants, you’re better off bringing your wife to parties with busty women than you are being mean to her about her breasts.
Now, I don’t think most men really care that much about their partners getting breast implants (that example was primarily for illustrative purposes) but this mechanism plays out in other arenas with more dire consequences than nipple desensitivity.
Most professors of science consider themselves to be self directed, in that they choose their own areas of research. However, most scientists receive grants from the government and industry even when they work in “pure” academia. Through this funding, primarily things that are useful to the government or large corporations are financed, and things that might be useful for “the greater good” or individual happiness are not. Yet, scientists have a hard time seeing how these financial incentives affect them personally. Consider this description from Jeff Schmidt, who worked as a physicist and researched how sponsorship affected scientific curiosity for his book Disciplined Minds:
How aware are academics themselves of the outside influences on the topics that they take up? Are they as aware as their sponsors? As the discussion moves from “Agency X” and “Professor A” and gets closer to home, university scientists show less and less understanding of the influence that others have on the work that they do. They readily agree that the reason university science departments are bigger and do much more research than, say, university philosophy departments has more to do with the priorities of those who sponsor research search than with the wishes of scientists and philosophers. With greater difficulty, the university scientist recognizes that much of the research in his or her own field and subfield owes its very existence to the priorities of the sponsors; somehow, the influence of sponsors is easier to recognize in fields and subfields fields other than ones own. Finally, by asking individual scientists the extent to which they decide for themselves which topics to take up as their own, one often finds that the professors so savor the I-am-my-own-boss self-image that they are unwilling even to consider the possibility that they have less than total control. I have heard academics with defense agency funding put it like this: “I am doing my research because I am interested in it, not because the military directed me to do it. It just so happens that the Defense Department is paying for it.”
Effectively, while scientists may be able to see that other scientists are researching things because they are paid to, most of them feel like they chose their own discipline through their own agency. But, what choice did they really have?
Schmidt goes on to later quote the National Science Foundation that found if you ask these same professors (who profess agency) “If the same funds were available to a department without strings of any kind or interests of sponsoring agencies except that the money be used for research-would the staff of the department be doing the same research?” that they will admit, in such a case, they might consider doing other things.
I suspect a lot of these professors are behaving a bit like me with my fashion choices. If you were a professor, and you picked a popular, well funded topic of research, you’d get to feel special and important. You wouldn’t have to worry (as much) about money or long term job security. However, if you picked an unpopular, badly funded topic, you might feel anxiety over resources and the threat of obsolescence. No one would have forced you to research anything, but the emotions generated by picking the “wrong” topic will ensure that you pick a “good” one.
And, by good, I mean one the government or industry wants.
Yet, to a professor, it feels like a true choice coming from their own interests. Schmidt goes on to describe how these feelings of agency are reinforced by voluntary grant proposals. No one ever makes a professor apply for a grant, or tells them what topic they should be applying for. However. There is only so much money out there and 2 out of 3 grants get rejected (possibly more now, these numbers were pre-2010) so professors try to write ones they think their potential sponsors will like. But, all the ideas originated in the professor’s head (or, their grad students’ heads) so it feels like their idea. No one “made” them do anything, but in a different environment, they would likely be doing something completely different. Which, like, is fine but they seem to not believe this about themselves.
It was reading about that made me first think of breast implants, actually. I thought to myself that sounds like a bunch of girls vying for the same guy. You get the image, right? Maybe the girls start dressing nicer, showing more cleavage, wearing more makeup, etc. but like… it all sort of feels fake to outsiders. When you watch someone doing something just to impress someone else, it seems like “not who they really are,” but to the person doing it, it does feel like they are really themselves.
In the case of women, they will pretend to like dressing a certain way or to enjoy doing certain things they don’t really enjoy to get male attention. In the case of professors, they will claim to like researching certain topics they wouldn’t otherwise pursue to get industry money.
And, it’s not just man-hungry women and money-hungry professors that do it. It’s like… everyone. Or, a lot of people. I remember talking with a bunch of my coworkers about vacation time, and most of them didn’t take all their vacation time. They said “I wouldn’t even know what to do with myself if I took that time off.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “You wouldn’t know what to do for a week if you didn’t have to work?”
I wondered if they were lying to suck up to the boss or something, but they weren’t. He was nowhere around. It went deeper than sycophancy; they had internalized the company’s values so they felt bad when they weren’t being model employees. Ultimately, even I started feeling weird about taking all my vacation (but I did it anyway because I’m willing to fight the man with my underarm stink and my PTO.)
So, this is like, bad because people are getting mind controlled and not knowing it (which, I guess is the definition of mind control.) It’s especially bad because it prevents the people being manipulated from fighting back in any way since all their controlled behavior feels “voluntary.” This is why you won’t end up with an engineering union; who would strike for more vacation days when 2/3 of the people aren’t taking them all anyway? So, most professionals are destined to spend their lives doing what the man wants, but pretending to themselves it’s what they wanted.
Who cares about having more than 3 weeks a year with your family? They’re just a bunch of freeloading assholes, amirite?
However *even worse* than all this is that we perpetuate this culture of terrible to even more terrible depths by continuously upping the ante.
Back to breast implants. Imagine one woman tries to gain a man-grabbing edge by getting her tits done. Suddenly, all the women around her start looking a little more flat chested. This makes the next woman who was a little self conscious about her boob size slightly more likely to get breast implants. Then, if she does, even more women are likely to be self conscious, etc. etc. until we have a culture where women are expected to get breast implants. Now, this didn’t happen in the US because not all men care about breast size, and because some men will pretend not to care about breast size when vying for female attention.
However, such limits often don’t exist in the corporate world because of the excessive power employers have over employees. This is especially true in fields where workers are oversupplied. One of the reasons the engineering mind control didn’t go as deep on me as it did for many of my colleagues is that I’m a woman in a male dominated field. I know employers are embarrassed about their gender demographics, and are desperate for more vaginas in their cubicles. I am a more appealing hire than a man with identical qualifications, so consequently, I have less incentive to brag about how much I hate vacation time.
But, ultimately, to live a happy life, you’re going to need to know what you want. That’s YOU you, not the corporate drone you. Not professor you. Not lawyer you. And, yes, maybe you’re going to have to deep throat some big industry dick to make a living, but don’t fool yourself and act like sucking big industry dick is “just what you wanted to be doing anyway.”
Re-inhabit your vibrant self.
For anyone wanting more advice on the topic, I do recommend that Schmidt book Disciplined Minds. Full disclosure, not finished yet, but so far so good.