Body politics: why are we obsessed with our flesh?

The cultural fascination with corpses, plastic surgery and healthy living suggests we are objectifying ourselves.

My five-year old recently arrived home with a new ‘Step-o-meter’. At first I thought it an electronic pet. ‘Great!’ I thought. ‘So much better than a grungy mutt, and with a “reset” function too!’

But this was no Tamagotchi. It was a pedometer, on loan to all children in the year group. And not only was the gadget attached to the child; she was also asked to record her steps, and return the results to the school at the end of the week. (Quite what the results reveal remains to be seen. A vigorous shaking of the gadget did wonders for the score, a lesson not lost on the children.)

But the point of the exercise was not just to tot up the numbers and do the maths. Not only were the children invited to tag themselves electronically for the week, they were further ‘empowered’ to learn more about the merits of ‘healthy living’ through the medium of an extended ‘Get Fit, Eat Fit’ programme of lessons and activities in which the wonders of vegetables, skipping and relaxation were all explored.

Thanks to a nice lady from Sainsbury’s, my child also now informs me which brands of fruit drink contain added sugar, and which are ‘best’ for her. Coupled with the badge of moral excellence that is the school’s ‘walking bus’ policy, the overall message would seem to be that the child’s body is as important as her mind.

Not that the school neglects the mind of my child; far from it. And a good, rounded education should include plenty of exercise - I am all in favour of a testing, competitive sports agenda at school, alongside an equally demanding commitment to the three Rs. It is just that the two tend to be accorded a different status, with the body a secondary concern, and the cognitive side of things in an altogether different league. At least, that’s how it was when I was at school.

It is unfair to hold a school to account for merely following the rules. School curricula reflect wider values, and this is what is troubling. Nowadays, it seems that mind and body share the same pedagogical purview, each informing the other as if they merited equal amounts of attention. This encourages an inward-looking, fetishistic perspective, both on the self and on the outside world.

Inward looking

To understand why children as young as five are being encouraged to think inwardly - to focus upon the maintenance of their own organism rather than the stimulation and realisation of their precious, boundless imagination - it is necessary to look at the cultural fuel for such values. Out there, in the body politic, lies the source of today’s fascination with all that goes on in here, inside the body.

A cursory glance at the TV listings, for example, suggests a society in thrall to the body. At one end of the spectrum are the hospital dramas, such as Casualty, ER and Holby City, all of which tend to explore clinical procedures in more and more graphic detail in order to keep abreast of trends beyond the standard demands of the doctor/nurse drama.

Then there is House on Five, upping the ante with mini-tutorials, zoomy graphics and histological hype. Nip/Tuck abandons all such pretence - playing fast and loose with the theme of flesh, it points the way to a more corporeally focused and dramaturgically banal agenda.

Beyond this, reality TV takes over, delivering real live persons under the knife in a succession of programmes concerned with cosmetic surgery, from MTV’s I Want A Famous Face, to ABC’s Extreme Makeover, to Five’s All New Cosmetic Surgery Live, and more recently Brand New You (1). Salacious, the lot, serving as much to advertise the services of celebrity surgeons in LA as to follow the life story of luckless participants, these programmes are at the cutting edge of a new kind of media wherein subjects seem more objectified than ever before.

What this represents, it seems to me, is the transformation of our common cultural understanding of human corporeality, from contingent assumption to axiomatic locus of meaning - in other words, from something we take for granted to something we feel compelled to obey. This is what unites a broad array of practices and symbolic representations, from personal behaviour to public broadcasting and all that unite the two.

From being the most immediate of categories, the body has become one of the most mediated, attuned to priorities beyond the self in the hope that this will put some flesh on the bones of the self. Tattooing and piercing are thus brought into the mainstream of fashion, tweaking the flesh in the desperate attempt to connect inner need with outer norms, through the medium of a corporeal statement. Transcendentalism is literally written on the flesh - in Sanskrit in the small of the back, maybe, a perfect expression of the solipsistic silliness of such acts.

Cosmetic surgery is the starkest expression of this trend. Easily dismissed as schlock TV, in fact shows such as Extreme Makeover tap into a yearning for change at the level of the body that seems to have gained a wider currency. A ‘crazy increase in demand’ (2) was apparently met last year by the UK’s first consumer cosmetic surgery exhibition, The Body Beautiful show, at the Cafe Royal in London’s Regent Street. Nine out of 10 takers are female (3). Lloyds TSB reckons that six out of ten Britons (57 per cent) believe that plastic surgery is the key to true happiness, and are prepared to take out a personal loan to fund their new look (4). In 2004 alone, more than 65,000 Britons opted for cosmetic surgery, an increase of 50 per cent in the past five years (5).

Cunning stunts

For those less able or willing to persuade their bank manager of the merits of a ‘designer vagina’ - the ‘new nose job’ apparently (6) - much the same forces fuel an even larger industry than that of cosmetic surgery. This is the nutty Neverland of ‘healthy living’, where policy and prejudice find common cause against anyone with a deviant Body Mass Index.

The BBC’s Fat Nation (7), timed to coincide with last year’s Department of Health jihad against porky people, set the tone by heaving fridges out on to the street, where contents were graded according to their moral fibre. Following up from this is the ongoing, online prescriptions of the Big Challenge (8). This summer the BBC developed much the same format, with B-list celebrities bingeing on their own bad faith in order to answer the question, Are You Younger Than You Think? ‘For 30 years I’ve been methodical in my diet and exercise’, declared Toyah Wilcox, who hopes ‘internally’ to be ‘40 years old’, a condition that will no doubt delight her many fans. Viewers are invited to assess the value of their own internal condition online (9).

Then there are the makeover shows, such as You Are What You Eat, where fat families are force-fed ‘healthy living’ by ‘holistic nutritionist’ Dr Gillian McKeith. The fact that the McKeith dogma seems pure snake-oil - ‘a menace to the public understanding of science’, according to Ben Goldacre in the Guardian (10) -  is beside the point; her message clearly resonates with that of the Department of Health; Fat Nation could have been scripted by health policymakers. The point resides in the claim that personhood can be meaningfully interpreted and manipulated through the medium of the body, as if inside gurgitations were as significant as outside interactions.

The sordid, scatological apotheosis of this logic was most fully explored in the guise of Celebrity Detox Camp, where we were treated to the spectacle of C-list celebrities pumping themselves with 18 litres of coffee solution twice a day for a week, in the demented belief that this would make them better people. It certainly raised their profile, putting them in the same league as the colonically correct antics of the late Princess Diana.

But the sad truth is that such stuff merely represents one end of a spectrum that is in all other respects entirely conventional. The term ‘detox’ is now common currency, drawing on the idea of something toxic about everyday life that can be periodically purged. Detox for Life by Carol Vorderman tops a list of similar titles, all pandering to the same anxiety, wherein our very mode of being is the root of ill health.

The fact that we all live longer, and more free from disease, than at any other time in human history, is lost in the existential smog enveloping me, me, me. Everyday assumptions about pesticides and mass production underpin a burgeoning organic food sector that is driven by wholly emotional demands. Jamie Oliver surfs the same, state-sponsored wave of nutritional narcissism, parasitic upon deep-seated angst about the presumed toxicity of common foodstuffs.

What such programmes and paradigms have in common is the body as locus of meaning, as if the deepest, intestinal workings of the human organism were inherently purposeful. Eating your greens is not just good for you; it makes for a good you. Value and ethical integrity reside within, in relation to organic - asocial - norms. Interrogating social values is hard work. Science is even harder. So why bother, especially when the body seems a more pressing register of moral worth?

The logical conclusion of such a trend is the body as pure object, divested of its specifically human, subjective qualities, the kind of qualities that situate a person in relation to ideas, institutions and ultimately history itself. Where such forces seem opaque and unknowable, the attraction of the body, as the one site over which any of us might still exert our authority, can seem eminently attractive - which is what fuels a fascination with cosmetic surgery, as much as five-a-day, join-the-gym, eat-your-greens, lifestyle correctness.

But the purest expression of this focus is the totally objectified organism, free of all subjective determinations, while still implacably related to the world of human experience. Which is what explains the phenomenon that is Gunther von Hagen and his touring exhibition, live demonstrations, and televised programmes in which he skilfully advances his mission to ‘re-democratise anatomy’ (11).

Home is where the heart is…and lungs and liver too!

Like other programmes of the genre, Body Worlds presented the viewer with real flesh-and-bone people, but this time utterly objectified, without personality and - as a Munchkin once said - ‘really most sincerely dead’. A viewer able to flick between Body Worlds and a cosmetic surgery makeover programme would have trouble telling which is which. Flesh is flesh, dead or alive.

A dead body is the most objectified of all bodies. It is also the logic of a focus upon the body in terms of a living person. Stripped of subjective capacity, the body is all object, something to be acted upon by others, an insight most radically developed by the Marquis de Sade. Indeed, sadism and masochism lurk just beneath the surface of much art today. There is, for example, a scene in the middle of the recent, star-studded, mainstream movie I Heart Huckabees (2004) that plays to precisely these themes. Where life is apparently chaotic and without meaning, punishment and pain at least hit home. Chastise me, super-size me, lacerate and plastinate me.

Who knows, maybe Bernd Brandes saw things this way when he responded to an ad for ‘a young, well-built man who wants to be eaten’, placed by the German cannibal Armin Meiwes in 2001 (12). Certainly the jury at Meiwes’ trial were sympathetic to his defence - that cannibalism could be a lifestyle choice between consenting adults - and gave him eight years for manslaughter, as opposed to life for murder.

In another context Meiwes would be given his own TV show, in which hapless saps consume their own flambéed genitals (as did Brandes), before the least gay participants are voted off and promptly eaten by Meiwes; Ready, Steady, Cook meets Big Brother. Who knows, it could even contain some top tips on healthy eating.

Cadaverous culture

Back in the real world, a deep fascination with the body is accompanied by deep unease. While we had Gunther von Hagen on television, pathologist Dick van Velzen of Alder Hey hospital was in the metaphorical dock (13). Both are professors, both dealt with dead bodies and both sought to further the bounds of knowledge. But in an odd turn of events, the one who displayed his wares in public was lauded, whereas the one who kept them pickled in jars was struck off.

Why this disjuncture? Why the tightening of the mortal coil at one end of society and an apparent loosening at the other? Why an increasingly restrictive environment for clinicians when it comes to the body, but an increasingly permissive one beyond the medical arena? How does the cultural endorsement of surgical procedures such as Vaginal Rejuvenation square with a wider antipathy towards female genital mutilation? Why are we so squeamish when we discover body parts stored in a hospital cellar, when body parts are ‘plastinated’ in art galleries? Why is there a shortage of cadavers for strictly medical purposes when the dead body is more visible than ever before? (14) Why are 70 per cent of those watching live web-casts of detailed surgical procedures not doctors, but lay-persons? (15)

The answer lies in our shifting perceptions of the body, simultaneously an object and a subject. It is the relative weakness of the latter side of ourselves that makes the former seem so much more salient.

Dislocation and atomisation, as fuelled by a collapsed distinction between public and private, feed into a culture of limits that is all too happy to point people back to their own bodies as locus of meaningful existence. When the focus of the ‘make-over’ is as much a person’s organism as their house, then we can say that the body is as much an object as any other lump of matter, which is to suggest that the subject is as manipulable too.

This has a ring of truth to it, in the sense that many people feel precious little control over their own destiny, and therefore resolve to tinker with the one part of their world that seems relevant and accessible. And the tragedy is that the government is all for this kind of stunted agency, focusing upon somatic selves in an attempt to connect with alienated political selves.

In truth, things work the other way around. Being human is a thoroughly unnatural affair: we live at the expense of nature, not in harmony with it. In part this applies to our own bodies. But only in part, because while we all have a body, we also are our bodies, and as such can never fully transcend the brute dictates of nature, which ultimately lays claim to all of us in disease and death. Until that point we do the best we can, establishing and realising interests beyond the body, knowing ourselves as we know and order the world around us, and in the process forging distinctively human values. It’s all part of what was once called civilisation.

Children, in particular, are possessed of the most plastic and energetic of imaginations. They should be encouraged to think well beyond ordinary material boundaries, including their own bodies. Tagging them with pedometers can only fetter their imagination, and lead them to view the body as if it meant something in and of itself, when in fact it is a thoroughly contingent category that should trail well behind the uniquely human ability to perceive the world from various points of view. Peering up one’s own backside is the least interesting view.

Stephen Bowler is a lay member of South Sheffield Local Research Ethics Committee.

(1) I Want a Famous Face, on the MTV website; Extreme Makeover, on the ABC website; All New Cosmetic Surgery Live, on the Five website; Brand New You, on the Five website

(2) Nip and tuck - we’re all up for it, Christine Doyle, Daily Telegraph, 25 January 2005

(3) See the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons website

(4) Lloyds sees sharp rise in loans for plastic surgery, MyFinances.co.uk, 1 February 2005

(5) Cutting remarks, Birmingham Post, 25 June 2004

(6) The new nose job: designer vaginas, Jo Revill, Observer, 17 August 2003. Also see Designer vaginas, Deborah Ollivier, Salon, 14 November 2000

(7) ‘Fat controller on your street’, Simon Crompton, The Times, 28 August 2004

(8) Big Challenge Health Club, on the BBC website

(9) Are you younger than you think?, on the BBC website

(10) Gillian McKeith, round 2, Ben Goldacre, Guardian, 19 August 2004; Behind the label: Dr Gillian McKeith’s living food love bar, SE Harris, The Times, 28 August 2004

(11) ‘Cutting too deep’, Paul Hoggart, The Times, 22 January 2005

(12) Cannibalism trial told of suspected new cases, Ben Aris, Guardian, 6 January 2004

(13) The pathologist, BBC News, 29 January 2001

(14) ‘Will any organ do?’, Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times, 10 July 2005; ‘Effect of media portrayals of removal of children’s tissue on UK tumour bank’, Seale et al, British Medical Journal, vol 331: 401-403, 2005

(15) Live surgical webcasts play to potential patients, Barnaby J Feder, New York Times, 6 July 2005

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