The Things We Can Control

In the comments to our recent post which links to Feministe’s “Being Monroe”, Nancy Lebovitz says, “There’s a Cathy cartoon in which she’s angsting about body perfection: the breasts optimize at a certain age, the rear end optimizes at another, it’s all perfect for about twenty minutes…..and then you get pregnant.

“When I read that, I realized that the culture wasn’t just crazy and misery-inducing, it was also profoundly anti-biological.”

And Lynne Murray responds in part:

“Nancy makes a good point. … I think the anti-biological … is part of the same “control freak” side of our culture that comes out in the dieting craziness. Much as we arrogantly wish to change at will, science provides no real weapons that will sculpt our bodies like modeling clay or fend off Time’s decay.”

Read Lynne’s whole comment; it’s lovely. Serious food for thought here.

We’ve been saying for years that one of the things that drives not only dieting but a huge variety of body modifications and body management fads and trends is the massive number of things in contemporary life that we can’t control. While this has been true for decades, as the “War on Terror” and the apocalyptic-seeming effects of global warming take over the front page, it feels truer and more present with each passing season.

As our the world seems to be slipping further and further out of our control, it seems that our choices about controlling our bodies grow more varied (and more dangerous) at a similar pace. Where we used to look at dieting, smearing our scalps with hair-growth lotions, and “retarding aging” with face-lifts or wrinkle creams, now our palette of choices includes a vast array of chemical options including Propecia to manage hair loss, Viagra to manage male sexual function, and Botox (yes, it is botulism toxin) to smooth out our faces, and stomach stapling surgery for our big bellies. (Note: Links were chosen to illustrate how these products present and sell themselves, and are certainly not the views of Body Impolitic.)

Needless to say, whole books can be written from this jumping-off place. A few thoughts:

1) We agree with Lynne that there can be “a toxic self-centered quality in seeking to simulate a surface of eternal youth rather than accepting the ticking clock of life.” And at the same time, we’re very aware of how much pressure there is on each of us to embrace that quality, and how much effort it takes to move away from this locus of control into being centered on the uncontrollable world.

2) One thing Nancy is talking about being “anti-biological” is the management of pregnancy. This is another topic, and a very rich and layered one, which we’ll address another time.

3) The urge to modify our bodies to retard aging has always been with us in one way or another, although minimized in cultures that revere and respect age. One thing that’s become different in the last half-century or so is the driven nature of that urge in so many people. We seem to be trying not only to retard aging but to deny the power of death, something that never occcurred to previous generations.

These old and new body management plans are all-too-often presented as a road to happiness, when in fact they reinforce a deep unhappiness with our lives by localizing it in the bodies we want to live in forever, and simultaneously want to replace with some unreachable perfection. Again, as Lynne’s references to Shakespeare point out, body “dysphoria” and the search for eternal youth are centuries old, but the ways in which the predators prey upon that unhappiness, dangle the possibilities of literally eternal youth in front of our noses, and encourage toxic self-centeredness become more and more complex and convincing over time.

Which when you come down to it, only makes conversations like this one more important. Spread the word.

6 thoughts on “The Things We Can Control

  1. I think that not only are things in the world perceived as more out of control than they used to be, but we (especially in the individualism-worshipping US) have been taught that we *should* be able to control everything. We have more access to knowledge than ever, and therefore we know more than ever about what’s wrong both in the world and in our bodies, and it plays into that “should”. We “should” be able to fix the problems in the Middle East, and we “should” be able to eat and exercise according to all the health recommendations we receive.

    But the world is a complex system and our bodies are complex systems and both are subject to the laws of thermodynamics and chaos.

  2. The expectation of ‘self control’ is an invitation to divide one’s self into at least two parts: one part presumably superior to the other; the controlled somehow less perceptive, less valid than the controlling. It’s an invitation to inner conflict, a recipe for failure (in fighting one’s self who can win?) and produces only contagious unhappiness.

    Who’s fooling who?

  3. “… but to deny the power of death, something that never occcurred to previous generations.”

    Um, what? Christianity is a pretty old meme, and it’s all about denying the power of death through the promise of a resurrection: “Death, thou shalt die” and all that.

  4. Stef and Laramie, yes, absolutely!

    Vito, you’re right, of course, and still I think there’s a difference between denying the power of death through resurrection and denying the power of death on the physical plane. That was an unfortunately glib sentence that you quote, since the intent to deny even the physical power of death is as old as the human race. At the same time, I believe our current culture’s refusal to acknowledge either the inevitability of death or its power is unique to these times, and gets in our way on all sorts of levels.

    Pearl, thanks for the links!

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