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Reprinted at by permission: November 14, 2023 © Observer

The skin we're in

Each of us has one complex, lifelong relationship - with our body. We exult in it, feel betrayed by it, and, given the chance, would change some aspect of it. Tim Adams conducts a closer examination

Sunday October 26, 2023 The Observer

What does each of us think of when we think of our body? Do we see it as our friend or our enemy? The home of our pleasure or the source of our pain? Do we want to indulge and pamper it or starve and dominate it? What makes us desire to paint it and pierce it, abuse it and poison it? Are we imprisoned by it or liberated in it? And why is it that the more we think about it - its appetites and its urges, its faults and its perfections, all that stuff that goes on inside, all the time - the stranger it seems to us? One thing we do know for certain is that the body is the place where each of us lives, and the place where each of us will die: our body will always, in the end, betray us.


Another thing we know is that, given the choice, hardly any of us would select exactly the body that we inhabit. The desire to improve on our bodies, to mould and change them, seems to be coded somewhere deep within them. Perhaps we are obsessed with the way our own bodies look and behave because we know how instinctively judgmental we are of the bodies we look at. One recent psychological survey proved that we make decisions about the attractiveness of people we meet in the space of 150 milliseconds, and that this instant perception of their beauty (or otherwise) hardly alters after longer examination.

This superficial appraisal has profound implications. In Dr Nancy Etcoff's book Survival of the Prettiest she shows how this 'lookism' shapes our world: those we consider most beautiful not only find sexual partners more readily but also get better jobs and more lenient treatment in court. We are, in the main, more willing to trust them, help them, lend money to them and love them.

You might say, therefore, in wanting to change our bodies, to improve on our birth-given beauty, we are simply exercising our human rights: indulging in a little redistribution of wealth from the imbalances of the genetic lottery.

Earlier this year I talked about some of this with James Watson, the man who, 50 years ago, first understood the structure of DNA. He foresaw a world where we could design our babies to look the way we wished we had looked. He was unashamedly excited about this possibility. 'People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty,' he suggested. 'I say it would be great.'

But would it really? In Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake the future is populated by genetically screened, physically perfected humans. And it feels like a nightmare (or at least like California). Our dreams of bodily perfection distance us further and further from the flesh we inhabit; and they undermine the notion, also ingrained, that it is our imperfections that make us fully human.

These fears are rooted in the complicated understanding of the relationship between our bodies and our essential selves. When we stop to think about it, which most of us do surprisingly rarely, it is impossible for us to define where our body ends and what we consider to be our self begins. We know our limbs, say, are part of us, but are they really us? Would most of us even recognise our elbows or our backs if we were asked to pick them out of a line-up?

This kind of dislocation between our thinking and our bodily selves has many implications. As Roy Porter explains in his wonderful, posthumously published book Flesh in the Age of Reason, it was the legacy of Enlightenment philosophers that a fit and healthy body, and a clear and open face, were the visible expressions of human virtue.

This perception still runs very deep in our culture. It underpins the stubborn prejudice against the overweight and the ageing; and it challenges us to make our outward selves representative of the traits our culture aspires to: the qualities of youth and sexuality. Because of this, the overriding theme of our times, we might contend, is that of self-transformation.

If psychoanalysis has, for nearly a century, offered us the possibility of transforming our interior lives, so the habits of gyming and slimming, as well as the techniques of plastic surgery and the personal branding of body art, offer us the chance to remake our outward selves also. We might think of this process as a desire to make ourselves feel at home in our skin: to make our 'envelope' reflect more fully the message we feel within. At its extreme this involves altering what nature considers unalterable. Since a landmark case in 1999, transsexuals are now able to demand to have their sex change operations on the National Health. When Jan (formerly James) Morris wrote her book Conundrum in 1974 about the sex change operation she had undergone in Casablanca she spoke of how she saw it 'not just as a sexual enigma, but as a quest for unity'.

This alignment of outward appearance with inward perception takes on many forms and is subject to the whim of fashion and class. We have always wanted our bodies to reflect our times. When, for example, cosmetic breast surgery first became a possibility in the early twentieth century, the women who could afford it used it almost exclusively for reduction, large breasts being associated with the lower classes. These days, middle-class girls (of a certain kind) are being given silicone as an eighteenth birthday present.

The body, in this sense, has become just another consumer purchase (plastic surgeons offer packages of treatment - buy one implant, as it were, and get one free). We can, in the spirit of our age, go shopping for bodily transformation. There have long been snake-oil salesmen willing to sell us wrinkle-free vitality: in the 1890s the injection of canine semen under the skin was seen as a way of enhancing the body's glow; now Botox offers hundreds of thousands of people smoothness in a lunch hour, and threatens to alter the way we smile for ever.

Whereas once such vanity was piqued by street corner hucksters, now it is fuelled by global advertising campaigns and a magazine culture that reflects an increasingly narrow palette of beauty. Naomi Wolf argued a decade ago in The Beauty Myth that this conjunction of international capitalism and personal insecurity produces almost unbearable pressure on women in particular to conform to norms of appearance (and to feel further undermined when, inevitably, they fall short).

'As each woman responds to the pressure,' Wolf predicted, 'it will grow so intense that it will become obligatory, until no self-respecting woman will venture outdoors with a surgically unaltered face.'

Ten years ago this seemed a little hysterical. Now it feels less unlikely. Some New York plastic surgeons are currently recommending an annual 'MOT' for the skin, in which the advance of lines from the eyes is checked and sags from the neck tightened on a regular and preventive basis; they want you to visit your surgeon like you would visit your dentist. 'The industry takes out ads,' wrote Wolf, 'and gets coverage; women get cut open.'

This paranoia of self-actualisation (or this liberating perfectionism) is also migrating south. If we want our face to sell our sense of self, so, in our overtly sexualised culture, we may well want our genitals to say something important about us, too.

There is growing demand for operations which tighten the vagina in the hope of increasing sensation during intercourse; and no male inbox is complete without at least one offer to add 'three inches to your length'.

You might say such marketing was aimed at increasing the sum of human happiness and personal fulfilment, and what on earth could be wrong with that? Feminists increasingly make the argument that cosmetic surgery is a statement of empowerment, allowing women to stress the strength of their sexuality and enhance their idea of self.

There is a sense, too, however, even as you put in the time on the treadmill at the gym, watching the statements of impossible physical perfection on MTV and Sky Sports, that the project of eternal youth is doomed, and at least in part an expression of desperation. Our bodies have always been our biography, tracing the 'thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to'. There is a wonderful short story by Raymond Carver concerning a couple selling a secondhand car with a doctored mileometer out of desperation to keep a roof over their heads. The story ends with the couple in bed, the woman asleep, and the man running his fingertips gently over the route map of stretch marks on her hips and thighs. He has one thought in his head, which is also the story's title: 'Are these actual miles?'

However much we desire to wipe the slate clean, to give ourselves a new skin, to make ourselves 'like a virgin' once again, our bodies will eventually tell us otherwise; we cannot be innocent twice. One result of this, you could argue, is that we increasingly desire to be out of our bodies and to find our innocence elsewhere. We fetishise the supremacy of our spirit over our flesh, even as we fail to enforce it. The extreme of this urge for prolonged or recaptured innocence is one manifestation of the epidemic of eating disorders. This newspaper recently reported on the scores of pro-anorexia websites available on the internet in which young girls across the world share the secret strategies of their addiction. 'Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,' said one. 'That which nourishes me destroys me,' announced another.

Saturated with the messages of a culture that invites us to indulge our appetites, the anorexic seems to want above all to destroy the messages her senses are giving her. It is a supreme irony that the models of beauty in our consumer culture are paradigms of arrested development, triumphs of defeated hunger.

Nancy Etcoff reports a study in which the facial proportions of cover girls from Vogue and Cosmopolitan were fed into a computer and analysed; the computer programme 'guestimated' them as children between six and seven years of age. In this sense, we increasingly seem to want to use our body as a strategy of denial, as a way of mastering some of the trauma our psychology presents us with. In Don DeLillo's twenty-first century fable The Body Artist, his heroine, to obliterate the grief of her husband's death, punishes her body with 'prayerful spans of systematic breathing'; she contorts herself with yoga, and shaves and exfoliates with 'clippers and creams that activated the verbs of abridgement and excision'. She dreams of removing all evidence of herself from her body: 'This was her work, to disappear from her former venues of aspect and bearing and to become a blankness, a body slate erased of every past resemblance.' In the mirror, she has the desire to be someone 'classically unseen, the person you are trained to look through, bled of familiar effect, a spook in the night static of every public toilet'. Like the anorexic, she wants somehow to disappear.

Much as we may like to, however, the one thing we can never escape in life is our flesh. And increasingly we are coming to realise this flesh is also our fate. Coded within our genes (and uncoded in the Human Genome Project, the so-called Book of Life) is much of the information that will set the bounds of our life and predict our death, just as surely as a novelist dictates the lives of his characters. Undoubtedly, when it becomes properly understood, some of this information will also become our economic reality, too.

The use of genetic tests to assess risk for life premiums and critical illness insurance could, for example, become a reality within the next three years. The implications for those at genetic risk of contracting common illnesses such as breast cancer and Alzheimer's might be severe. There are even fears of a 'genetic underclass' being created, people excluded from insurance and screened out of employment. (Britain has refused to join 31 other European countries, including France, Spain and Italy who have signed the European convention on human rights and biomedicine, which prohibits genetic discrimination).

James Watson, who led the mapping of the Genome Project, was spurred on in his quest by the fact that his own son was a victim of what he calls 'genetic injustice' and born with a severe form of autism. What he knows for certain about the new genetic universe is that the decisions we will have to make for our bodies are only going to get more complicated, and that increasingly they will be taken by individuals rather than governments. 'If the technology becomes available,' he says, 'who are we to tell a mother she should not want a child that is prone to hereditary disease?'

Watson is an atheist: 'If scientists are not going to play God, who is?' He is, too, a supreme optimist about the possibilities of our bodies. 'I am sure that the capacity to love is inscribed in our DNA,' he suggested to me. 'And if some day those particular genes, too, could be enhanced by our science, to defeat hatreds and violence, in what sense would our humanity be diminished?'

The implications of such a technology are already beginning to be felt. Our bodies have for nearly a century become something of a battleground in our quest for self-fulfilment and self-expression. But the choices we will have to make about them are about to multiply, and the battles are only just beginning. recommends the following books from


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