They came from Thailand, from Rwanda, The Sudan North and South, Italy, Denmark, India, the UK. There were so many delegates that security came to turf half of them out but gave up when it was clear that this session of UN Women in New York was not going to budge. The session was there to talk about the virus of body hatred spreading throughout the world eating into the confidence of girls and women from five to 80.
The causes of this virus are well known. They nestle cosily on billboards, screens, in magazines. Everyone is alerted to it. The doctors, the fashion industry, certainly the beauty industry and those old standby's the diet industry and their friends and owners in the food industry. Everyone professes to want to eradicate it.
The images of tall, white, young, skinny, western women - women who don't really exist because they have been so digitally re-ordered - command a presence from Lagos to Bejing, from Ladak to Buenos Aires. They invite the spectator to understand that to belong in global culture is to mimic this body. To find a place, operate on your eyelids, lengthen your legs, refashion your nose, lighten your skin, starve yourself if you don't happen to come skinny, buy some boobs, learn to look at yourself from the outside as though whatever you are doing you are a display item. Be critical, hypercritical, so you can fix what is wrong.
The virus marauds your personal body evacuating its intrinsic loveliness in the name of uniformity and the production of a body that conforms to today's mono beauty aesthetic.
Bodies are no longer the place we live from to go about our lives. They have become far too profitable a commodity which can be mined globally and locally like coal and iron by the viruses pre-genitors that grow rich as girls and women (and increasingly men) succumb to the sense that they have to remake their bodies to reflect the images that are all around them.
It's not that from Rwanda to Denmark, Sao Paolo to Tokyo, that we have all become simple minded copy cats, but so undermining have been the nefarious practices of certain industries and with it the spread of body discomfort, that few girls and women feel comfortable in their skin.They search to find soothing in the terms in which that comfort is posed - the appropriation of the enhanced post-modern body.
The pro-Ana sites that chill us in the west making us fear for our daughters and our friends have become an accompaniment, a friend for the global teenager seeking identity in the turbulence of modernity. Less sinister seem the bewitching palate of colors, shapes and looks created by the beauty, fashion, style industries as they render their incredible artistry to produce looks that dominate our desires and encourage us to hand over our dollars.
As our own markets are stricken, so the worldwide market for beauty opens up, yielding unimaginable profits for companies like L'Oreal whose growth rate in the new economies can be in the tweens and twenties. So too with the diet companies who enter new markets to boost their own growth rate. But even at home, where economies are well nigh stagnant Weight Watchers growth was over 20% last year. Not bad for a company that admitted in British parliament just a few weeks ago that they couldn't really help people lose much weight.
And that's the point surely. If dieting worked, you'd only have to do it once. Diet companies depend for their profits on repeat customers. It is repeat customers who fill their coffers as they breed, perhaps inadvertently, a sense of body hopelessness.
For years the West has congratulated itself on its distance from practices such as female genital mutilation or rape as an instrument of war. It has bemoaned famine and starvation. But in so doing we have failed to see the ways in which toe operations to fit into four inch high heels, or labiaplasty to reshape genitals and voluntary starvation are becoming accepted practices that are fast becoming commonplace here and then, being exported to the new economies as a form of new colonialism. Each body a potential consumer.
This colonisation is stripping beauty and self-decoration of its pleasures. Beauty is something we adore, admire and want to express for ourselves.
The relentless representation of beauty's limited aesthetic is denuding. Variety is effaced with uniformity, not just the uniformity of this year's fashion but the imperative of size, shape, color, height, skin tone. Instead of relishing in the diverse beauties that cultures all over the world engender, we are dominating them with our own.
We hold out the possibility that to belong is to look like us. And with that, we spread the underbelly of our virus, body hatred. With the spread of body hatred, so too comes the diminishing of women's potential and as the women in the Sudan said, their capacity to contribute to civil society and political life. Robbed in this way we are all diminished. Not to mention we destroy the richness of different body types which are disappearing as fast as local languages.
Image © Photocapy www.creativecommons.com
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