Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Bloody Pursuit of Perfection

I’ve just read an article in the Guardian entitled ‘The Bloody Pursuit of Perfection’.

It’s hard for me to think of a time in my life, at least since the age of about eight, when I wasn’t conscious of my body. I never felt at ease with it and even when I was a healthy size and weight I was always dissecting it and thinking, “I wish my thighs were a bit slimmer or my arms more toned.” This is the experience of many women (if not all women in western societies). It seems that from childhood girls are taught to feel unhappy with their bodies and they try to search for “perfection”, but is that ever achievable or even desirable? I love people to be unique and it’s the quirks and imperfections which we can become most fond of.

The Guardian article pointed out that:

Liposuction is booming - and the vast majority of patients are women. What makes them submit to such a violent procedure - especially when it removes only a few pounds of fat?

They do it to try and achieve so called “perfection”. As a surgeon said in the Guardian article:

“If, after dieting and exercise, you haven't achieved what you wanted, and you have some stubborn areas of fat, then you would be a good candidate for liposuction." The maximum amount of fat it is possible to lose from a specific area would be 2-2.5 kg, he adds.

Ironically I’ve spent a lot of my working life around the fashion and media industries. My personal experience can back up the research (and common sense) that tells us that these industries have a lot to answer for in encouraging poor body image among women (especially the young).

So, for instance, late last year, the Mail on Sunday's You magazine ran a survey in which women were asked to assess which part of their body they liked least out of their breasts, thighs, face/neck, bottom, tummy, upper arms, and legs. (The tummy, that long-time foe, romped home with 45.2%.)…

This tendency to pick ourselves apart, put each part of our bodies under the microscope, has been encouraged by celebrity magazines. As a culture, there is plenty of evidence that our body obsessions are making us less and less healthy, with both obesity and eating disorders at an all-time high. And still, in the midst of these two extremes, we remain obsessed with the idea that the human body is perfectible.

Do all cultures seek an ideal of femininity? Why do we as females conform and allow these trends to exist?

In advertising we see that any "imperfections" in the images are airbrushed out. Blemishes, scars, and slight bulges of fat are all erased. What is it in our society that makes us want to rub out imperfections and difference? This sad situation alienates people, and those who may already suffer from low self esteem can be affected so badly that they develop eating disorders and depression.

Maia at Capitalism bad: tree pretty has an interesting piece on body image and hating your body. It seems to me that New Zealand as a society finds it particularly hard to tolerate people who don't fit the mould. Is this one of the reasons why we suffer from one of the world's worst youth suicide rates? Feelings about body are closely related to a woman's sense of self; the body is perceived as acceptable or unacceptable, providing a foundation for self-concept women trying to look their best, it is also a struggle for control, acceptance and success.

I don’t think that we should keep saying it’s ok to be fat when we aren’t happy with it ourselves. I don't buy into what some feminists say that we have to be happy with being fat and by continually saying we are happy with our bodies we will somehow suddenly accept our bodies. I can say I am not happy with my body. I am happy with who I am as a person. I'm not searching for "perfection" in my body just health, so I will continue to loose some weight but I don't have a desire to be skinny or "perfect". I would also like to see women being seen as people and not judged by the way they look.

It is unhealthy to be obese. This is a fact and I don't think we should be afraid to acknowledge that. But, I still disagree with the way that our society makes people feel about themselves and their bodies. What I think we should talk about is the obsession with looking for “perfection” and objectifying and dissecting our bodies. And, I'm worried about women feeling depressed when they can’t live up to an unrealistic body image projected by our society. I’m angry at a media that makes women feel so bad and that motivates them to put their bodies through barbaric surgery so that they can look like Barbie dolls!

We need to shift our society away from the obsession with the material, external, individualised, capitalist model. We need to find ways to make people feel accepted for who they are and connected to their community and wider society. We need to look to more holistic models of being and less dissected and alienated ways of living.

I'm no expert on this topic. I just read an article, got angry at yet more evidence of the insanity of cosmetic surgery and our materialistic society and wrote a blog post about it! Would like to hear other people's ideas on body image + our society + feminism....



Blogger Richard Taylor said...

This is good - BTW my daughter is an expert in this area. Or this is the area she is currently studying in in her (this year an MA) psychology degree. I could get you in touch with her.

You are right here overall - it applies also - perhaps in different degrees and in different areas - to men. After all the images we are bombarded with - especially from the US are of a kind of "Super People" - but on some British TV (and some American etc) there are counterattacks to this "Hollywood disease" with things sush as "Little Britain" - but wherever I see magazines very rarely do I see images of "ordinary" people.

The sum effect of the "push" is for people to buy stuff (and ideas) (and to absorb images) they dont need - but of course this doesn't mean we are not - all of us fascinated by beauty and good clothing and culture etc but we are like Tuna in sea of sharks...we have to "toughen" our own self images - the big one is our own sense of our own internal self worth - and then we can face the mass of advertising etc and make our own choices. This as you imply doesn't mean we should ignore overweight issues or even appearance - but we need to put the bigger issues of true human worth first or indeed we will contribute to the overall suicide rate.

I think -as mymother got older and wrinkles appeared - & she was had fashion magazines and so on and she would spend hours in front of the mirror with make up (in struggle that really amounted to a hopeless struggle agaisnt aging and death) - this was a torment she went through - now I have just remembered that again - this happenned to her from the 50s to the 60s - she was born in 1917. I was aware of it and somehow I knew what it was about although I hadn't heard of womens liberation (it is not of course an "invention" of that movement however) - that -the 60s kind - I learnt about in the 60s - but I think I was between 10 and 17 when this was occurring (my awarness was lees reasoned than somehow I realised it - I could feel or sense my mother's sadness) - so it is a phenomenom not just arising with the advent of television (we didn't get a TV until I got a B&W set in 1967); but messages were already there on the movie screens and in magazines etc

To some degree humans and particularly women have always needed to 'compete' in the physical beauty stakes - this "natural" aspect has been confused with an artifical aspect.

And the consequences of it all can be tragic.

9:32 pm  
Anonymous Olivia said...

Interesting... I'm not so sure that what you describe is something "in our society that makes us want to rub out imperfections and difference" so much as a tendency to encourage young girls to turn all their energy and judgement and desire and talent inwards (i.e at their own bodies) in an attempt to become the "perfect" commodity object.

Not that I'm saying the opposite (pursuit of the "perfect" commodity located externally) is great either, but materially it has different consequences than this thing you describe.

I also think "health" and the idea of a universally preferable aesthetic are often red herrings - notice even elective cosmetic labiaplasty (yes, you can get that in NZ now) tends to be marketted and presented as being about health, functionality and aesthetics. Yet, the main market for these surgeries seems to be strippers and trophy wives - it's clearly economic and about aesthetic standardisation to aid in the construction of a heirarchy of value.

I think the answer, to this, if there is one, has to come from women themselves.. For me, I've found that once you stop concentrating about what value others put on you, and start paying more attention to what YOU feel and think about the world around you (and your own experiences of embodiment), a lot of this stuff seems much less important. $0.02

1:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:09 pm  

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