Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection – reviewed by Grace Lucas

‘Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection: Cosmetic Surgery, Weight Loss, and Beauty in Popular Culture’ by Deborah Harris-Moore (Ashgate, 2014).

mediaDeborah Harris-Moore’s Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection is a book about bodies: what defines the parameters of normality for those bodies, who determines what makes a body beautiful or healthy, and how those ideals are communicated. In the context of the huge growth of cosmetic surgery and with a media obsessed with weight-loss narratives, Harris-Moore sets out to address the critical problem of the Western world’s ‘rhetoric of body perfection’ (p.2). This rhetoric is crucial because it makes available cosmetic and weight loss technologies, ‘widely-known, accepted and desired’ (p.9). ‘Rhetorical invention’ then becomes as important as ‘technological intervention’ in defining what is perceived as the normal or right way our bodies should look (p.10). Such perfectionism naturally counters inevitable change and ageing and becomes an unwinnable battle, but as Harris-Moore argues, the power of this body rhetoric is strong and part of a wider ideological issue – ‘the social and moral imperative for transformation’ (p. xi).

In order to interrogate this transformative, competitive context wherein individuals are supposedly given choice to change their bodies and lives, Harris-Moore’s approach is two pronged. She considers how the rhetoric of perfection works differently in different mediums (from television and cinema to advertisements) and how it is embodied in lived experience.  Overwhelmingly this is a book about women’s bodies in a contemporary North American context: Harris-Moore applies feminist research methodologies, reads programmes and texts through the approaches of feminist critics (Judith Butler, Susan Bordo, Marjorie Devault, Donna Haraway) and much of her material is about women, but it is not solely focused there. Harris-Moore speaks to men who have been through cosmetic surgery and body transformations and considers how western culture sees the male body as ‘emasculated’ by fatness. In a reading of the use of fat
suits in films such as Mrs Doubtfire – where the suit is used to transform male to female – the fat suit represents femininity and covers up the male-defining muscular figure. Fatness is seen as something that takes away those muscles and therefore weakens a man – fatness
is represented as female and negative. And so, ultimately it is the conflicted and fragmented experience of women’s bodies which travels through the text, and for which it feels Harris-Moore is setting up a space of resistance.

Harris-Moore argues that medical rhetoric has permeated the language of beauty. As a result, the word health is not just the opposite of illness, it’s about being ‘better than well’ (p.74) and part of that extends to thinness as the optimum body shape. The weight loss industry is vast; Harris-Moore points out that in the US there more than 100 million dieters, but the issue is not just commercial, it’s political. In America, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign for children isn’t so much focused on general health and wellbeing as in ‘eradicating’ fatness; the campaign makes weight loss into a public moral responsibility (p.31). Eradicating obesity is not just about being healthier; it is linked to a much deeper ideology.

This moralisation of weight loss leads Harris-Moore to explore feminist analysis of the tropes of transformation and agency. In American body-obsessed society, controlling one’s body is a ‘rite of passage in becoming an agent’ (p.2). In the midst of an obesity epidemic, control is ‘especially desirable’. The fear of fatness – of not achieving, not producing – has led to a ‘moral panic’. Fatness – as defined by this culture of control – is a self-made problem (p.75). Within this model of self-betterment, Harris-Moore explains that fatness is equated with, ‘apathy and negligence’ (p.49). Thinness, on the other hand, is controlled and shows you are in charge of your life and destiny. Advertising for weight loss and cosmetic surgery fuels aspirations of social mobility to convince its consumers of their power to change their lives (p.45).

When it comes to cosmetic surgery, the dividing line between what is a necessary procedure for a patient and what is a chosen procedure for a consumer is moveable according to the all-powerful, scalpel-wielding surgeon. In her examination of cosmetic surgery, Harris-Moore examines another integral concept in body perfection rhetoric – competition. Through the work of Susan Bordo and Judith Butler, Harris-Moore demonstrates how beauty standards shift. Women are enticed to access their individuality or better themselves (against the next person) but the end point is conformity – there is no possibility of actually winning.  It is a useful reminder of how consumers are offered a sense of their own creativity and personality through advertising, but how this is a constructed mirage.

Reality TV makes it possible for the body transformation competition to be won. Harris-Moore devotes a chapter of the book to explore how the medium of television represents before to after narratives, smoothly edited and packaged up into episodes of metamorphosis. Programmes such as The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover and The Swan are predicated on the idea that ‘fat bodies need to be changed, controlled and disciplined’ (p.74), and they have successfully self-restrained experts – medical, physical (rarely psychological) – who can help. This chapter is useful for illustrating the apparent differences in these programmes at the same time as demonstrating their common narrative arc of competition and elimination. Harris-Moore reflects that outside of this entertainment world, in a competition of constructed and changeable ideals of beauty, how can you ever win? When she goes on to consider the arguments between second and third wave feminist critics, her position is clear – that there can be no real agency when you can only ‘choose’ from select body ideals.

The book’s penultimate chapter takes her fieldwork away from screens to research interviews with participants, who have undergone cosmetic surgery or body modification. She wants to know ‘how individuals represent their experiences’ and what kind of terms they use to describe them (p.111). This stand-alone chapter shows the disjuncture between the evidence of media pressure in the first four chapters and the way in which participants view their own stories. The participants find it hard to explain and pull apart the different familial, social and media-driven influences on their decision-making processes. Harris-Moore explains that they are aware of having ‘been exposed’ to media imagery but can’t directly attach that to their choices (p.128). Perhaps this is not surprising – there is a sense that if you buy into airbrushing or advertising, then you are somehow duped. In addition, advertising rhetoric convinces you that you are making a personal choice for your individual needs.

Methodologically, this meeting of lived experience and media analysis is interesting and useful – an account which focused only on mass media can only represent a fraction of the story. In addition to this, Harris-Moore introduces her personal experience of eating disorders and cosmetic surgery in the preface to the book. Her approach is self-reflexive – situating her own stake in the discussion, and putting her own body into the frame.

In the final chapter of the book, Harris-Moore moves through a range of forms of resistance – including fat activism, disability studies and feminism – which seek to complicate perfectionist rhetoric. She looks in particular to the documentary as a potential form of social criticism. In her analysis of the Lauren Greenfield’s eating disorders’ film, Thin, Harris-Moore sees anorexia as a fight against ‘social meaning of the body’; girls in this film deny the neat closure of before and after, they realise that the competition has no end except death.

While the book is both wide-ranging and focused, it invests heavily in US media and American participants. As Harris-Moore points out, because those participants live in Los Angeles, their views of cosmetic surgery might be very different than people living away from such a beauty-obsessed place. Although, as she explains in the conclusion, these notions of beauty are not only contained to the US, it would be very interesting to take a closer look at some countries where beauty has not traditionally been equated with thinness to see how this rhetoric is emerging there.

Harris-Moore might have talked more about the complexity of other influences on body perfectionism. In some of the research interviews, she feels there are clear family dynamics at play, but that participants struggle to relate these to their surgery decisions.  When ideals of narrative change are simplistically embedded into cognitive therapies, it could be argued that we overlook far-more-complicated questions about identity. Is it really so easy to be an agent of one’s life?

Harris-Moore feels that there is a battle worth engaging with, or rhetoric worth unpicking. This book provides a very contemporary perspective on a confusing and contradictory set of messages. It is broad in scope and covers a diverse a range of topics from body dysmorphia to disability as it sweeps through an evolving rhetorical landscape. While it doesn’t revolutionise, it is useful for the connections it makes between issues which may appear to be vastly opposed – eating disorders and obesity.  Harris-Moore tethers the two; they are, ‘part of a cultural system, where an action creates an equal and opposite reaction.’ And as she confirms, ‘if weight loss is society’s collective responsibility then so is educating kids on eating disorders and self-esteem’ (p.33). The overcoming narrative arc is too simplistic; Harris-Moore negates this simplicity by revealing the complex and often contradictory rhetoric which holds it up. As an academic and researcher this book is useful for its research methods, media analysis and valuable critical tools, but a recovered anorexic,  woman and mother it resonates and reveals on a much deeper level.

Reviewed by Grace Lucas (formerly Grace Bowman), the author of ‘Thin’ (Penguin, 2007), a memoir of anorexia and recovery. Grace has written for publications including the Guardian, The Sunday Times and the Independent and has appeared on numerous TV and radio programmes to discuss eating disorders and mental health issues. In 2011 she achieved a Distinction in MSc Medical Humanities at King’s College, London. In 2012 she was awarded a School of Arts Studentship at Birkbeck College, University of London to begin her PhD research looking at emotional health, embodiment and sound. She also currently works as a health services researcher in London.Correspondence to Grace Lucas.

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