Just in time for our annual glorification and castigation of the rituals of romantic convention, we have yet another piece bemoaning our decadent age in which we have, allegedly, become more fixated on our bodies and convinced of their "perfectability" through science and ritual than at any other time in human history.
In her essay for the New Scientist titled "Why Do We Need Bras for Babies?" (short answer: We don't), the British writer Susie Orbach claims that over the past 25 years, "the notion of the empowered consumer, along with the workings of the diet, pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic surgery and style industries, and the affordability and availability of their products have made us view our bodies as something we can and should perfect." Taken together, she writes, these forces have conspired to create a global "beauty terror" whose symptoms include penis pill spammers, baby bra sets and stilettos and extreme makeover shows. She writes:
So why is bodily contentment so hard to find? Why are body transformations, from sex change, to the drive to amputate good limbs, to cosmetic surgery, if not ubiquitous, then a growing part of public consciousness?
To be fair, this essay is a preview of what will be a book-length answer to all of these questions (her new book "Bodies" comes out this month). But I still bristle when I see "sex change" lumped in with plastic surgery. And amputating healthy limbs seems, while certainly worthy of attention, exactly the opposite of the kind of surgeries meant to bring one closer to the conventional beauty ideal. But perhaps she addresses those issues convincingly in her book. What really gets me is the idea that contemporary notions of vanity somehow represent a decisive break with history:
Something new is happening: our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself.
While I give props for working in a little Marxist theory, there is something weird about using the royal we here. Who is turning whose body into a production here? University professors of Marxist theory? Alex Kuczysnki? Meg Ryan? Susie Orbach? Editors of the New Scientist who get breast implants when not putting together issues on contemporary notions of beauty? You and me?
I won't speak for Alex Kuczynski or Meg Ryan here, but while "we" may all be seeing a new awareness of our bodies as malleable through plastic surgery, it hardly means "we" all have firsthand experience, and it most certainly does not mean that "we" even approve (Orbach, the author of "Fat Is a Feminist Issue," once helped Princess Diana with her bulimia). For every participant in, say, "Rock of Love" or "The Real Housewives... " who claims that "everyone" gets boob implants (yeah, I watch those shows, too, and I'm thinking of that episode when no one in Atlanta believes Kim's boobs are "real"), there is a long, thoughtful essay in a periodical for serious, thoughtful readers excoriating a culture in which everyone gets boob implants. Let's put, say, Judith Warner on Brett Michael's tour bus, or invite Heather the stripper to a party of National Review editors before we pretend that there is a monolithic beauty standard to which we all subscribe.
Over at Jezebel, Anna points out that body modification and adornment -- from tattooing to neck lengthening to Ice Age makeup -- has been around as long as human history (nor, as some commenters point out, would the idea of enduring extreme physical pain the better to conform to the beauty ideal of one's tribe be unfamiliar to anyone who has heard of foot binding, ritual scarification or hymenoplasty). I agree with her (and presumably Orbach) that "baby heels are the sign of the apocalypse," but I would add that the only reason I know that such hideous contraptions exist is because I -- we? -- have read about them on sites like Broadsheet and Jezebel bemoaning them as signs of the apocalypse.
Orbach does make the an interesting point that aggressive marketers have expanded from targeting mostly women to corralling in men and children, too. (Ah, yes, the penis pill will go down as the iconic image of the Internet age, along with letters from Nigerian princes who have taken an inexplicable personal interest in your financial well-being.) And I also agree with Anna that the most disturbing part of her argument has to do with the increasing global "homogeneity" of Western beauty standards. Writes Orbach:
"This democratic call for beauty wears an increasingly homogenised and homogenising form. While some people may be able to opt in, joyfully, a larger number cannot because the "democratic" idea has not extended to aesthetic variation but has, paradoxically, narrowed to a slim, westernised aesthetic, with pecs for men and big breasts for women. Body hatred is endemic in the west and is becoming one of its hidden exports."
But for a disturbing counterpoint to that last statement, it's worth taking a trip over to Alternet to check out this essay by Samara Ginsberg, a 25-year-old woman with a 23-inch waist and a size E cup. It includes seriously horrifying anecdotes about the downsides of having an "ideal" figure (as a teenager, boys grabbed her breasts for sport, girls called her a slut, a teacher talked about her boobs in class, and one kid told her about a specific sexual fantasy he had about tying her up and raping her). But she also points out that even women who look like Barbie are encouraged to dislike their bodies as well -- in part because they should be ashamed of looking like Barbie. "Because it's entirely unacceptable for a woman to be happy with her appearance, anyone with big tits needs taking down a peg or two, the conceited bitch," writes Ginsberg, and concludes, "We cannot win. Whatever body type we have, even the most conventionally attractive kind, we are encouraged to be unhappy with it somehow."
Which is really effing stupid. As Ginsberg writes, "So quit worrying. Stick two fingers up at society rather than down your throat."