By Jo Harrison AnyBody Activist
In July, we received the news of BBC3’s planned Body Image Season with great enthusiasm, as we believe there are crucial issues within this topic that need to be made part of the public debate, and the BBC is a fantastic arena to raise important issues and question common assumptions. As an organisation that focuses on the cultural and social causes of the distressed and damaged relationships many of us today have with our bodies – relationships which can limit the full potential as of people as human beings – we know that the way we perceive ourselves has a huge effect on what we feel capable of, how we treat ourselves, how we will allow ourselves to be treated and how we treat others.
We know that there are huge problems with the representation of diversity in terms of the body in our culture, especially for women, although men are definitely feeling the burn of our culture’s very narrow ideals, and much needs to be done to make sure people see themselves first and foremost as human beings who have something to contribute to the world, not to feel their potential is rendered unworthy because they don’t match up to an ever shifting (and therefore elusive) idea of perfection.
Unfortunately, upon seeing the first outcomes of the Body Beautiful Season we were concerned about some of the messages being propagated, and the opportunities missed. For one, that the season was finally titled “Body Beautiful”, we felt it sent a slightly skewed message about the cultural value of appearance. The banal tyranny of the word “beauty” stalks most women on a daily basis; in fact, the average British woman thinks about the size and shape of her body roughly every 15 minutes. Whether you’re berating yourself for not being beautiful enough or berating yourself for not waking up every morning with a body-positive “I’m beautiful” feeling of wonder at your own uniqueness, it can hover about like a bad smell. Yes, it’s a word that grabs attention and that’s probably why it was chosen, but body image is a broad topic and under such an umbrella, beauty goes hand in hand with “ugly”, in a world where the pop-cultural go-to format is relentlessly competitive we felt this had an exclusive edge.
The tag line of the season, “A new season of BBC Three programmes exploring whether changing your body makes you happy” along with the title seems to suggests that changing one’s body, rather than changing one’s mind, is considered the norm in the quest for happiness.
AnyBody’s been watching…
I attended a season preview of the documentary, I Want To Change My Body directed by Sam Emmery. The programme followed 30 young people aged 16-25 as they went on a personal quest to transform their bodies with the hope that the changes would make them happier. Some of the issues explored were extreme weight loss surgery, hair transplant surgery and nose jobs. Some of the emotions revealed were anxiety, excitement, pressure and fear. Whilst the feelings were named, they were not expanded upon with enough time and depth to genuinely understand the meaning behind why these youngsters were deciding/choosing to go forward with these drastic physical changes to their bodies. This documentary highlights body-obsessed Britain and reveals the problems through exposing the participants’ dangerous behaviors. On a greater scale, the quest for perfection is societal failure. That stops there. In fact, all of these stories might even entice more young people to consider enhancements to change their own bodies.
The question, “What happens if changing my body doesn’t change the way I feel about myself??” is asked. This is a very important and excellent question. The answers were cursory, shallow and not truly thought about. Questions like this are big and require time to reflect upon. The culture we are living in doesn’t allow for that space or time needed to properly formulate a sound decision. Besides which, there is no one facilitating this process- where are the parents? Or what about the professionals who have an obligation to ask these questions and truly be available to help young adults process the content of their feelings, and then help them weed through understanding the repercussions of their choices should they be disappointed with the outcome?
A general feeling of “needing to get rid of “or “get more of” is what the film reveals. There is no mention, presentation or suggestion of learning to accept what you have and who you are. Learning to appreciate yourself flaws and all. The theme of striving for unattainable perfection is rampant. There was a comment made about how there is so much available to fix yourself that why wouldn’t you?
The young girl who had always wanted to have a nose job was very fixated and determined. Her excitement throughout the process was real and palpable. I could understand how desperate she was to see herself differently and that because her dissatisfaction was so specific, it felt contained and her desire reasonable; she was convinced, on side and empathic. Until a month later when she had been living in her new nose and was continuing to feel good about this new change that she revealed what I always worry about after her clients have elective surgery:
“I like my nose so much that now I think I will do my boobs – I don’t mind them really but they could be a bit more round”.
Oh no, there it was… the moment of truth! Do these changes address underlying dissatisfaction? If after one area is “fixed” is it only replaced by yet another target for dissatisfaction? This situation mirrors what the research shows. Many of these young people were suffering from some form of Body Dysmorphia.
There was one young woman whose story was dissimilar. She was a victim of a terrible accident, which left her face scarred and disfigured. This was very different than the others who were wanting to change themselves because of their perceived disfigurement. Ironically, it was she who was the most grounded in her perspective and her reality. There was a mourning that she seemed to be going through and ultimately an acceptance of her situation. She had an accident, which left her scarred-physically and emotionally. She needs to wear a type of mask to keep her face protected and to help the skin heal. The sadness and loss were expressed. Her surgery seemed necessary, and can be validated in a different way than those of the others.
I Want to Change my Body presented us all with a massive cultural problem, which needs addressing on many levels.
This isn’t an ideal starting point for discussing the very complex area of what it means to be transgender, since gender and sexuality are intimately linked to body image but are also enormous subjects in their own right. In an ideal world, perhaps it would not be complex at all, where gender fluidity would be an accepted human trait, and physical characteristics such as genitalia might be less of a hindrance to expressing a person’s multifaceted self. But at present such a utopia is not in sight, and what it means to be a woman is so often depressingly surrounded by on all sides by the spectre of beauty.
Eighteen-year old Jackie is seamlessly female to anyone and everyone who doesn’t have access to the chromosome codes in her DNA, and even if they did, what does that matter? She lives as she sees fit, she has done what she felt she had to do to carry on living in a world that has very divisive gender norms. She uses the term gender variant which is very pleasing, after all we know that variety spices up life, for all but lovers of absolute uniformity. The documentary was intelligent and sensitively handled, but it’s a shame that the main crux hinged on participation in a beauty pageant. Jackie’s desire to be an ambassador is brilliant, and the fact that she is funny and bolshy and stylish and swears like a sailor is awesome and shows someone well-rounded despite a very difficult childhood. However, the competitive leitmotif of this season of programming just seemed to reinforce the problems it purports to want to understand, after all, what of other transsexual teenagers who may not fit the prescribed “norm” of the gender they ascribe to as successfully as Jackie?
This programme appeared to be merely another version of the stream of body-as-freakshow TV, comparable with Channel Four’s Supersize versus Superskinny. It may make for ‘good TV’, however, its content encourages radical and fast-paced transformation (which can have severely detrimental psychological and physical effects).
There are two major concerns with this programme. Firstly, it offers inspirational material for those who want to change and re-shape their muscle-mass. In the same way as individuals with anorexia may keenly retain any information that will help them to lose weight, those people whose thoughts circulate obsessively around their muscle mass may collect the ‘tips and tricks’ from this programme: that, if we are not mistaken, was not what the Body Image season was about.
This then leads to the second, and major concern with the programme: Skinny Boys and Muscle Men does not question the concept of an ideal body. It takes for granted that these men need to change in order to be ‘happy’, rather than asking the obvious question of what is wrong with a society in which a body must always be monitored, evaluated and forcefully transformed.
While the inclusion of men and the topic of muscle is an important part of the Body Image debate, this programme does not seem to offer anything much different to what a quick flick through Men’s Health magazine can provide. Crucially, what needs to be asked is why these men are compelled to do what they do — simply showing how they do it, and turning it into a ‘hero’s journey’, is not enough.
Jo Harrison watched: Inside the Body Beautiful
The standout comment for me on this programme was the young woman, Lucy, at the beginning discussing her reason to have breast augmentation: “No, I’m not happy with the way I look and I know I can change it.” She wasn’t asked, “What if you couldn’t so easily change it?” and for many it’s not so easy, despite cosmetic surgery being more affordable than perhaps it once was, especially with many clinics offering finance, some people, approximately 3 in 10 according to a cosmetic surgery expert on another programme, are turned away from having surgery for a variety of reasons, medical and psychological. Some argue that surgery offers everyone equal access to beauty, when we do not even have equality in far more fundamental areas, this can’t possibly be true.
Roanna Mitchell & Jo Harrison watched: Body Image & The Media on Class Clips in the Learning Zone
This film is also offered as source material for curricular activities around body image. However, the celebrities (often role models) who told their stories within this video merely display their own dissatisfactions with their bodies, normalizing the idea that it is accepted to hate our bodies and that there will always be something we must improve on. These sorts of messages can easily serve to encourage especially young people to further doubt their adequacy (e.g. Do I have man-boobs? Should I always walk around with my chin up to hide a double chin?). What is missing here is the question of why these celebrities feel that way: where are the pressures coming from, and who is profiting from them?
In addition to this video, Nobody’s Perfect on Radio 1 Surgery website, shows deejays from Radio 1 and 1Xtra who volunteered to have their photos dramatically airbrushed to show how far images in the media are manipulated. This website offers the opportunity to distort and re-assemble bodies and faces. We believe that the playful approach to the dissembling and re-arranging of features here encourages a view of the body as an object which can be changed at will, and engages the topic of digital re-touching in a way that offers no creative and productive engagement with the subject.
It’s great that they got people to discuss their various choices but was a shame they added the “versus” element, which is frustrating; inclusiveness is key to this issue, not divisiveness. On the whole, the individuals speaking who had chosen a more natural appearance seemed more relaxed and confident than those who had chosen the more ‘high-maintenance’ route, even though some had overcome issues to get there. This is not to say that altering one’s appearance will make a person miserable, rather, it seems it is the pressure to do so that causes problems, the freely chosen modifications in some cases seemed to generate an added fear of their loss, or as a condition for being able to indulge in certain activities, like being always ready to go on holiday. On the whole good debate starters.
Jo also watched: Free Speech
Rosi Prescott CEO of Central YMCA, Sabrina Mahfouz Performance Poet and Playwright and Grace Woodward fashion creative, stylist and TV personality were thoughtful and engaging panelists. Venice Fulton, personal trainer, self-regarding “maverick” and author of 6 Weeks to OMG: Get Skinnier Than All Your Friends was largely at odds and frustrating to the rest of the panel, not least when he reduced a girl who’d nearly died from an eating disorder to tears for suggesting the title of his book promoted unhealthy attitudes and practices. He had the peculiar air of a cult leader and contradicted himself when insisting that to suggest people with eating disorders or body anxiety were vulnerable to media pressure was a dumbing-down of the issues, despite suggesting that he had to name his book very sensationally to make sure people took note, as Mahfouz insightfully pointed out. Prescott kept the debate grounded with research findings and urged for treating body distress and low self-esteem holistically: “We’ve gotta get away from ‘skinny is great’ and fat is to be vilified, we’ve got to stop stigmatising people on the basis of the way they look and their weight”. Mahfouz and Woodward were both thoughtful and sensitive in handling what for many are provocative issues.
One person watching tweeted that people should have the common sense to see that advertisements are real, but the lines between entertainment, editorial and advertising can blur to the point where a magazine article is a thin veil for an ad and a viral ad is something people share to amuse or wow their friends.
On the subject of the cause of body anxiety and media regulation, Fulton was emphatic that, “The Media” is merely a mirror of society, one that does not influence us but that is influenced by us. If that were true then advertising, marketing and spin doctoring would be not be aspirational career options. Both Prescott and Woodward disagreed explaining that the truth is more complex and we absolutely agree. In all fairness though, Fulton’s metaphor was insufficient since the media’s mirror-like qualities cannot be unbiased and is more comparable with a fairground hall of mirrors, mirrors after all are not all reliable in showing us our true selves; they can distort and also only present us with evidence of the two-dimensional.
At the beginning of this episode there was a great clip with Olympic athlete Zoe Smith, who publicly responded to internet trolls who criticised her appearance during the games. Her attitude is great, she’s smart, likeable, inspiring and accomplished; why there wasn’t more of this throughout the season is anyone’s guess.
The Free Speech episode was probably the high-point of the Body Beautiful season since it wasn’t concerned with maintaining any particular entertainment-heavy narrative and was open to discussion. What came up over and over again was the normalisation of cosmetic surgery, artificial enhancements and superficial “fixes”; yet the absence of questions such as, “Would you prefer to feel better without going through all of this?” or “What if there were a way to feel better without physically changing a thing?” is bewildering, especially if this is to be a one-off season rather than an introduction to more exploratory programming on what people really need to feel contented with themselves. There’s also the fact that this season, by and large, dealt with quite extreme body issues, pushing the discussion to limits where there is fear and heightened emotions around inadequacy, exclusion and health hysteria. What is also important are the issues surrounding what is becoming the norm, and many efforts to make decent change and promote body diversity (something research suggests is beneficial to all) is met with the dull thudding of obesity-scaremongering and BMI-loving tub-thumpers who insist that representing diverse body shapes promotes obesity. They seem to have failed to notice that while we’ve been fed a meagre visual diet of impossible flawlessness and ever shrinking thin models for years, we also have a very, very prosperous diet industry that seems to create more problems than it solves.
The biggest issue was the emphasis on competition, the use of versus and pageant culture throughout the programming, the online clips and educational content reflected that which pervades much of pop-culture fare such as celeb mag staple Who Wore it Best? or TV’s Supersized versus Superskinny and Next Top Model etc. Our consumption of the idea that everything is a battle and there must be winners (which inevitable creates losers) is hugely problematic, especially when dealing with body image which is so often linked to self-esteem, a topic ill-served by lazy formatting. We’ve had a great deal of competition on our screens this year, some healthy, some less so; it’s not great to see athlete’s Olympic hopes dashed, but we accept that for most people sporting prowess is only one element of a person’s worth, otherwise we’d all be racing each other to bus-stops and getting hernias showing we can carry our weekly shop to the car without a trolley. Pitting people against each other and requiring external approval, as if there is a general consensus and only a limited number of ways to being considered “beautiful” or acceptable, is one of the reasons people feel distressed enough to want to drastically change their bodies.
The vested commercial interest in encouraging competition is as divisive as any means to exert or accrue power; we’re encouraged to take against one other rather than the system that suggests we’re all somehow inadequate based on a criteria that is like shifting sand. What seemed to come up over and over was the need for those who are perceived to be somewhere outside the realms of acceptable – whether as a fat woman, a skinny man or a transgender individual – to be able to “do what everyone else does”, which boils down to taking the format of a contest, in which there is only one winner, and apply it to themselves despite their potentially subversive power as individuals with qualities that exist beyond the edges of a mirror. Of course, being different is never easy and anyone who has ever been bullied or singled out for difference will want in some way, or at some point, to assimilate. But this is social failure on a large scale, a failure of our society to see the beauty in people as the same and yet different, for allowing ourselves to be coerced into valuing the things that money can buy and disregarding those things which are completely recession-proof.
As an example of the media, the BBC’s Body Beautiful Season seemed to be a reflection of a reflection of a reflection, suggesting we are doomed to endless demonstrations of oneupmanship, that even factual entertainment cannot see beyond the “reality” format of weeding out a “winner” from a group of hopefuls, who lay some of their self-worth at the feet of judges. If this continues, don’t we all lose?
* * *
AnyBody is the UK branch of the international movement, www.EndangeredBodies.org, which currently has seven chapters around the globe. Learn more about the UK’s team activism, in addition to their special project, Shape Your Culture.
Cross-posted with permission. Originally posted on AnyBody’s blog.