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 minutesâ€¦..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.