Contestants in the Fitness America competition pose for a photograph, Redondo Beach, California. The body has become a primary expression of individual identity for women and girls in contemporary American culture, and many girls put an enormous amount of energy and attention into their appearance (Image: Lauren Greenfield / VII)
"UNTIL very recently, we took our bodies for granted. We hoped we would be blessed with good health and, especially if we are female, good looks. Those who saw their body as their temple, or became magnificent athletes or iconic beauties, were the exception: we didn't expect to be like them. Like gifted scientists, historians, writers, directors, explorers or cooks, their talents extended and enhanced the world we lived in, but we didn't expect this beauty, prowess or brain power of ourselves.
Over the past 25 years, however, the notion of the empowered consumer, along with the workings of the diet, pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic surgery and style industries, and the affordability and availability of their products have made us view our bodies as something we can and should perfect. Looking good for ourselves will make us feel good, we believe.
These days, inboxes are full of invitations to enlarge penises or breasts, to purchase the pleasure and potency booster Viagra, to try the latest herbal or pharmaceutical preparation to lose weight. The exhortations have fooled spam filters and popular science pages, which, too, sing of implants and pills to augment body or brain and new methods of reproduction which bypass old biology.
Mothers can buy bra sets for their babies or rubber stilettos, little girls can go on the Miss Bimbo website to create a virtual doll, keep it "waif" thin with diet pills and buy it breast implants and facelifts. They are primed to be teenagers who will dream of new thighs, noses or breasts. Simultaneously, governments warn of an epidemic of obesity. Your body, these phenomena shout, is your canvas to be fixed, remade and enhanced. Join in. Enjoy. Be part of it. Be wary of it. But, above all, fix it.
So why is bodily contentment so hard to find? Why are body transformations, from sex change, to the drive to amputate good limbs, to cosmetic surgery, if not ubiquitous, then a growing part of public consciousness? Why is sex a must-have, wrapped up with performance and saturated with fantasy in a way that would have Freud reeling? What is the deep appeal of extreme makeover TV shows? What is wrong with our bodies as they are?"
The notion that biology need no longer be destiny, and the belief in both the perfectible body and the idea we should relish or at least accede to improving our own all contribute to the idea of a progressively unstable sense of our body, a body which to an alarming degree is becoming a site of serious suffering.
In an updating and democratising of the habit of the leisured classes of decorating themselves for amusement and as a marker of social standing, we are invited to take up this activity too. Something new is happening: our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself.
Interesting thoughts by Susie Orbach who's essay was published in New Scientist recently. It's an extract from her new book called "Bodies"