As junk-food merchants are demonised in the halls of parliament, we have entered into an age where fast food is out, anorexia is a no-no, and gyms are all the rage. SALIENT Feature Writer Nicholas Holm examines the modern obsession with control over one’s body.
Reclining in your hover-chair, six feet above below where your grandchildren sit, who genetically have more similarity to an iguana than yourself, cause a ruckus, you’ll probably think that a sunset in 2129 is pretty much the same as it was back in 2006. When you recall the turn of the previous century, that decade that never wore a name, odds are you’ll remember rowing machines and sports drinks, the organic food and dietary supplements that seemed so important at the time, and the obesity and anorexia that seemed so dangerous. Environmental contaminants to fret about and exercise regimes to adhere to, the common thread through it all is an imprecise conviction that the human body is the obvious site of all society’s anxieties and interests. It might be hard to see it now, but in a hundred years it’ll seem obvious.
We’re living in the age of the body.
We see the fifties as a decade ruled by the suburban consensus, the sixties by righteous turmoil and flower power. In the seventies everyone learnt to love themselves again as the world seemed determined to tip into turmoil any second, a trend that was made official in the eighties with the Western world’s adoption of laissez faire economics as everyone forgot what good taste was. If the nineties are beginning to emerge as a decade marked by the proliferation of electronics, the creeping concerns of environmentalism and a smiling breed of cynicism, then what is this decade? Undoubtedly, terrorism will feature high, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the headlines of today will dominate the history books of tomorrow. Rather it’s the things we take for granted that come back to represent us, and in this case it’s our assumption that we should be concerned about our bodies, concerned about being concerned about our bodies, and in our most confused moments perhaps even concerned about that.
In the beginning, our knuckle-dragging chest-thumping ancestors used to gather around the waterhole to commune and gossip and identify suitable partners to indulge in shameless public mating rituals with. When we grew tired of that, humanity devised such social outings as the private orgy, church, and even castle sieges to meet and mingle, that was, however, until sometime during the past century or so, when some bright spark invented the bar, and the evolution of social interaction was realised to be complete. That was of course, until now. As an hale and hearty postgraduate student told me, “People go to the pretty people gyms, where they pick up and meet people.” The gym has quite clearly come of age as a social institution for bright young things interested in networking and pressing, not to mention gawking at, the flesh. Since the late 80s, communal exercise has been a spreading ooze, as of the moment as disco in the 70s and revolution in the 60s. Previously the reserve of dubious men with a thing for spandex and tightly cropped moustaches, gym membership, if not attendance, became a necessity for the young executive, or young executive-wannabe, during the late 90s. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, membership of British gyms doubled between 1996 and 2001. The number of health clubs in the US tripled between 1982 and 2002. Meanwhile on our own shores, 540,000 New Zealanders say they attend a fitness centre or aerobics class according to Fitness New Zealand, that’s 13.5 percent of the total population including bubs and pensioners, and over a quarter of the entire labour force. It’s estimated that around 10 percent of New Zealanders are members of a fitness centre and with an average annual fee of $448 that’s $179.2 million dollars a year. That’s over 40.2 million Big Macs a year. You could swim in them. You could drown in them.
It’s no wonder then that the gym is seen as a crucial move for those keen on rapidly rising through the ranks of the cubicle dwellers. As one aspiring lawyer told me, ” I’m going to have to join the gym if I want to be a good lawyer, because all the lawyers are always talking about going to the gym.” In the fast-paced competitive world of modern legal and finance it always helps to have an extra something to keep you ahead of the pack, but more and more it seems that ‘something’ isn’t a keen analytical mind, but a demonstrated desire for tight firm buttocks. Check out the cover of the recruiting prospectus for any of the major law firms in town and you won’t see images of diligent young men and women, their brows furrowed deep in thought, rather you’ll see them broadly canting, exhibiting their sculpted bods as if to proclaim to the world, “pick me, I am full of breeding potential!” The same lawyer also revealed to me that in their firm, “It’s easier to count the number of people at work who haven’t read a weight watchers book than to count the people who have.” After all, it follows on from our modern desire to squeeze in 20-minutes on the rowing machine during our lunch break that we should also watch we eat. Doesn’t it? The catch is, that just because this is the age of the body it doesn’t mean that we actually look after them any better, it simply means that we worry about them more. If the road to a “new healthier you” was paved with good intentions, that girl from your hostel in first year would have been able to fit that tube top she was always trying to compact herself into. Just as gym attendance doesn’t necessarily follow gym membership, healthy eating isn’t always the spin-off of healthy intentions. We shouldn’t look to waistlines to assess the concerns of the age, we should look to the politicians.
“MPs grill fast food giants” read the Dom Post headline last Thursday. In the early 1950s, US senator Joe McCarthy led what is now regarded as a modern-day witch hunt through the corridors of political, and military power in a zealous search for potential Communist sympathisers. By the end of the decade, the same country had put the television industry in the dock for corruption in the wake of the Quiz Show scandals as society began to concern itself over the growing power of mass media. Politicians have railed against satanic lyrics lurking backwards in heavy metal, the violence in video games that lure young children into lives crime. In the 1970s and 80s a growing concern with recreational drug use saw the launch of an international war on drugs. Heroin doesn’t make the front page anymore though. Neither do communists for that matter. In a world transfixed by the notion of two global ideologies battling it out for supremacy it made a certain amount of sense to fear the Reds under the bed. And conversely, in an age where our anxieties revolve around ideas of the body, it makes sense that the people’s democratically elected representatives should set their sights on the unregulated sale of fatty foods. Just as the McCarthy trials can be seen to stand in for the political fears of their age, the fact that a Select Committee’s interrogation of representatives of McDonalds and the Coca-Cola Company is deemed worthy of the front page speaks volumes about how the body is at the centre of our modern world-view. Only in an age where obesity, rather than AIDS, political corruption or economic recession is viewed as an unstoppable epidemic could McDonalds be forced to defend itself before the onslaught of society’s moral flag bearers.
That Super Size Me could have ever been produced, let alone go on the achieve notable critical and popular success as the seventh highest grossing documentary film in US history, speaks volumes, because when you think about it, it’s really just an hour and a half of a guy eating, whining about eating and occasionally throwing up.
Once viewed as one of the more legitimate and praiseworthy industries of Western capitalism, the fast food business has had to retreat as of late after suffering an ideological beating at the hands of an unsympathetic zeitgeist. Previous attempts to take down Ronald McDonald with charges of environmental damage in the late 90s failed to energise public sentiment in a sustained and involved manner, but the cheeseburgers-make-youfat argument appears to have been a message everyone could understand. The publication of Fast Food Nation (film version released in cinemas next month) in 2000 can be considered the vanguard action of a concerted campaign against multinational corporations, which saw the addition of healthier options to the menus of the Golden Arches and its competitors in a desperate effort to halt a steady decline in sales. Even this switch to salads and fresh sandwiches over burgers and fries hasn’t been enough to silence the critics who despair about the children in a world that permits them to purchase dead cow fried in lard. Which is not to say that a growing concern for the welfare of the world’s increasingly porky children is a bad thing, far from it. However it should definitely be of interest that a topic that previously would have been of interest only to health professionals and PE teachers has now become a pertinent topic for dinner party conversation and has done so in increasingly alarmist terms. The increasingly moral tone of anti-fast food rhetoric would seem to indicate that this debate between conscientious politicians and multinational corporations has slipped out of the realm of the strictly medical, and into something much more insistent, and much much more populist. That Super Size Me could have ever been produced, let alone go on the achieve notable critical and popular success as the seventh highest grossing documentary film in US history, speaks volumes, because when you think about it, it’s really just an hour and a half of a guy eating, whining about eating and occasionally throwing up.
The flipside of society’s burgeoning Whopper-phobia is a developing love affair with all food deemed to be natural or organic. Previously limited in appeal to hippies, sustenance farmers and those with extreme allergies, organic food in all its forms has become this season’s black. Those with the ability to quickly cash in on the increased demand from city dwellers for vegetable fertilised with animal dung over industrial chemicals have been able to charge a premium for their produce. Commonsense Organics, a local grocer dealing exclusively in organic food, acknowledge that while they may charge a little more than other supermarkets, they provide their customers with the assurance that their food is “safe” and “doesn’t contain a cocktail of chemicals – the chemical companies say they don’t harm you, but who wants to take the risk?”
“Often people think that they have active agency and self-worth, identity, self-esteem and some sort of empowerment through what are called body projects,” explains Sean Redmond, a film lecturer with an interest in the cultural significance of the body. “Through tattooing, piercing, literal transformations of the flesh, people think they can reshape, reown, reconfigure, transcode their own flesh.”
This notion of risk turns up time and time again when we consider the concerns of the body, which are to a large extent tied into the idea of protecting ourselves and prolonging our lives. In a world that seems to present a host of new unavoidable and unpredictable perils every day, the body becomes a site of power where people can establish a modicum of control over something, even if its just their abs or the colour of their hair. While this often takes the form of dieting and exercise, it can also manifest itself in practices such as tattooing, piercing and plastic surgery. “Often people think that they have active agency and self-worth, identity, self-esteem and some sort of empowerment through what are called body projects,” explains Sean Redmond, a film lecturer with an interest in the cultural significance of the body. “Through tattooing, piercing, literal transformations of the flesh, people think they can reshape, reown, reconfigure, transcode their own flesh.”
In a world where people feel they lack any real say in their own destinies due to the presence of corporations, government or structures of power, controlling or modifying their bodies can allow people to express themselves. As plastic surgery has become cheaper and more mainstream, it has crept its way into everyday discourse. First presented as a vanity treatment for the wealthy, the media presentation of plastic surgery has increasingly focused on its growing influence in everyday life, providing further focus on the body as an important part of fitting into society and the drive to possess an ‘attractive body.’ “The body isn’t just a piece of flesh,” says Redmond. “It transmits messages about race, about class, gender and sexuality. In and through the body you get to know more about culture.” By asserting control of their bodies, by declaring that they no longer want to eat fast food or that their physique is worth the effort and penance people put into it, our peers, family and friends are making statements about what they see as important. But it’s not only the fitness fanatics for whom the body is important; what truly makes this the age of the body is that on some level we are all becoming increasingly caught up in seeing the world in terms of bodies.
“[There does] seem to be a quantifiable shift in the amount of bodies out there just because of media transmission of messages and images through new technologies, new machines, a whole range of magazine outlets, a whole range of media sites, the body is everywhere,” concedes Redmond. The media has become a site in constant struggle over what should be regarded as the acceptable body shape; we’ve gone far beyond a simple critique that stick thin models create a dangerous precedent for women. You’re just as likely, if not more, to see a prime-time TV show or a magazine article that deals with the body politics in an explicit and up-front way than one which presents Nicole Ritchie as an unproblematic role model. “You might open up one of these magazines and on one page you’ll get ten tips to be thin … constant packaging of what it means to be beautiful, which is often about the thin, slim, soft, milky body. But then often in a feature in the same magazine, sometimes the juxtaposition is amazing, you’ll get an article about anorexia nervosa,” explains Redmond. You’d be hard pressed to find a person over the age of thirteen who hasn’t heard that the media presents dangerous examples for women that encourage unsafe behaviour. Thus we’re not just thinking about our bodies anymore, we’re thinking about thinking about our bodies. “We are more selfreflexive, aren’t we?” asks Redmond. “In the same magazine, you’ll get the idea that you should be more concerned about what you look like, the presentation of self is everything and at the same time we’re told its a problem.”
On the one side there’s a fear of obesity, constantly hyped up by not only the media, but also by government campaigns that work to reinforce the idea that obesity is a disease. We train our bodies to try and maintain a state of control, while at the same time we’re also bombarded with the message that to be too thin is also a problem. This double act of policing our bodies, not to mention ensuring we receive adequate vitamins and minerals or enough sleep, or clean and present ourselves correctly adds up to a lot of worrying about the body. This is only added to by a host of television shows, such as The Biggest Loser or the homegrown equivalent Downsize Me, that position weight loss as a necessary and ultimately life-defining task.
While there is no denying that maintaining a healthy body is a worthwhile pursuit which may have been neglected in the past, there is also a potential downside that must be acknowledged: the more we’re told to worry about our expanding waistbands, the less we’re told to worry about expanding our minds. If we spend too much time worrying about how many calories are in a Sausage McMuffin, or if we’ve done Iroquois Squats to account for the cupcake we ate at morning tea, then pretty soon we’ve no time left for much else. It seems perfectly reasonable for us to be barraged on all sides by claims and calls for us to worry about weighing too much, or too little, putting the correct things in our body and checking to ensure only the right things come out, but where’s the TV show that encourages everyone to pick up a book, or simply interact with the world around them? Worrying about the body is unavoidably a selfish pursuit, because beyond a given point, having a healthy body is only going to benefit one person – you. For the majority of the population, and this is doubly true at a university, physical fitness is not a social asset. The community will not function any better because the individuals who compose it have rock hard abdominals, in fact the energy and resources that have gone into sculpting the body would be better spent in almost any other pursuit…
Back in 2129, as you sink deeper into the plush cushions of your hovering recliner, odds are your killer quads will have long since melted back into the flab from which they came. The body invariably ages and withers despite all our best intentions, and hours at the gym watching Ricki while you’re on the treadmill don’t exactly make for great memories. The age of the body definitely has its merits, but cardio will never be something the iguana grand-kids wanna hear about, not when compared to living a real life that appreciates a need for balance: body and mind.