There once was an ugly duckling...
Who is to decide which surgery is
socially useful and which is not? Who is to decide what surgery is
ethically acceptable? Whose body is it anyway? Some people are so
unhappy with their bodies that they seek extreme ways of changing
themselves. At its most extreme this becomes the personality disorder,
The issue has become culturally explosive
following the US reality TV show
http://www.fox.com/swan/home.htm Broadcast by the loathsome Fox
Corporation in April 2004, the show took 16 women who considered
themselves ugly, and transformed them through the course of the series,
including reconstructive dental procedures, and plastic surgery.
Gradually they were eliminated until there was a series winner, the
"ultimate swan". Thousands of women submitted audition videos to compete
in this degrading pageant.
The TV show's official web site needs to
be quoted to appreciate the how offensive it is: "Kelly
wants to be a swan because she would love to look in the mirror one day
and be happy with what she sees. Fortunately, she has a boyfriend who
loves her for who she is but believes that their relationship could
benefit from her feeling a bit sexier. They've only been physically
intimate seven or eight times in the last three years. This statistic
makes the experts watching the video cringe. But then there's good old
Mom, who doesn't think she needs any transformation at all. ... ... The
experts agree, Kelly's got potential. Just a little nip here, tuck
there... well, maybe a little more than that. Kelly will be receiving a
complimentary: brow lift, lip enhancement liposuction on the cheeks and
chin, several visits to the dermatologist, collagen, lasic eye surgery,
breast enhancement, etc "
What is most revealing is that before
surgery all the women look normal and individual. Perhaps their self
esteem would benefit from spending a few hundred dollars on clothes and
a new haircut, but they are basically people like us. After
reconstruction every one of them looks like Barbie. This is a disturbing
twist on the "Stepford Wives":
the women replace themselves.
Similarly, a "Miss Plastic Surgery"
beauty pageant is being run in China in October that will only be open
to women whose "beauty is man made". China now has one million beauty
salons employing 6 million people, with a turnover of 20bn yuan
Clearly, sexism is an important issue for
Swans. But not only women are affected. The original "Swan" is Cindy
Jackson who has become a media celebrity in the USA through becoming a
Barbie Doll after 9 bouts of surgery. However, Miles Kendall, an
Englishman was inspired by Cindy Jackson to become a real life Ken doll,
and has also had extensive cosmetic surgery to look "perfect".
are also forms of Body Image Disturbance that are almost exclusively
male, such as muscle dysmorphia (popularly known as Bigorexia), where
men compulsively build muscle, becoming addicted to weight training.
Here the cultural icons of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone,
Jean Claude Van-Damme, etc, are clearly playing the same normative
influence on male image as cover girls have on women.
It is important to recognise therefore
that the traditional feminist concerns about women being culturally
conditioned to be dissatisfied with their own bodies are now also
relevant to many men. This means that any explanations simply based upon
gender stereotypes being used to reinforce women's subordinate role are
The fact that we as human beings must
sell ourselves as commodities surely lays us more open to marketing
influences about how we can improve our own competitiveness. A positive
self body image is important, and American economists have published
research showing that people who consider themselves good looking earn
5% more on average.
This commoditisation of people reinforces
an alienation from our animal selves. Increasingly we culturally
distance ourselves from the pain, discomfort and bloody animal reality
of birth, disease and death. Capitalism regards nature as a resource to
be conquered and exploited, and we tend to regard our own bodies with
the same alienated dispassion.
We may therefore regard Body Art as a
contradictory phenomenon, partly self mutilation as an expression of
modern alienation, and partly a return to atavistic pre-modern
traditions. As someone who personally stuck a safety pin through my
cheek in 1977 as a punk, I can assure you it does hurt.
Certainly piercing and tattooing are
becoming increasingly widespread as part of popular culture. (There has
also been a long tradition of tattooing in the aristocracy as well, and
all male members of the Royal family are tattooed- remember you read it
While most body art is purely decorative,
extreme tattooing (for example, spiders webs on faces) is also known,
and the desire for such exhibitionist self mutilation has been linked
with schizophrenia. But even in less extreme cases visible tattoos and
piercings can be designed to provoke an alienation reaction in the
Brechtian sense (Verfremdung), a dislocated response where the observer
experiences the mutilation as a barrier inhibiting easy human
connection. Most tattoos are much more conventional, but even here the
wearer is mediating your relationship with them through the iconography
of the tattoo.
On the other hand, tattooing and piercing
also have long traditions in primitive cultures, and their introduction
into modern Britain was via naval contact with South Pacific Islanders
in the Eighteenth Century. To a partial extent the contemporary
resurgence of tattooing resonates with a rejection of enlightenment
The most explosive defiance of
rationalism and modernism must surely be the French performance artist
Orlan, who has grotesquely transformed her own body in systematic
violation of any normative concept of beauty.
There is no comfortable way of
experiencing Orlan, even to the degree that she has made her own
surgical procedures into theatre.
In the conventional vocabulary of art
criticism it would be pernicious to speculate whether Orlan as an artist
is influenced by Body Dysmorphia, and it would be presumptive to
question whether she is happy doing what she does. However, the
separation of Orlan the artist from the woman underneath (whose name is
unknown) is itself a symptom of alienation and indeed of commodity
fetishism, where we experience a real living woman through the commodity
she has transformed herself into.
As a socialist I believe we should value
and promote happiness, and the doctors colluding in Orlan's
self-mutilation are behaving as unethically as the vultures feeding on