The Socialist Unity Network

There once was an ugly duckling...

Andy Newman


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, Body Dysmorphia.


The issue has become culturally explosive following the US reality TV show Swans. 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 ($2.4bn).


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".


There 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 inadequate.


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 here first).


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 rationalism.


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 the swans.



August 2004


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