The Tyranny of ‘Transformation’

The Tyranny of ‘Transformation’

‘We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating, if you choose to see it that way.’

Sarai Walker, Dietland

‘Publicity…  proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more… Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.’

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Last week, at the age of 90, celebrated art historian John Berger died in Paris. Anyone with an interest in the visual culture of Western societies will likely have encountered Berger’s groundbreaking 1972 book and documentary series Ways of Seeing. By turns accessible, deeply political and incisive, Berger’s analysis of Western art de-naturalised and contextualised artistic practice, showing how factors like consumerism and patriarchy shape not only images themselves but the various gazes centred on the act of looking. In one of the book’s most famous passages, he observed ‘…men act and women appear,’ a critique of visual culture that remains essential to this day.

That such a powerful critic as Berger should pass away in January struck me as sadly ironic, for it is perhaps the cruellest month in the cultural calendar (save for the crushing predictability and barely concealed misogyny of ‘Bikini Ready’ season). Central to this cruelty, which is often dressed in the seductively peppy wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing of ‘empowerment’ and ‘#goals’, is the notion of ‘transformation’, a phenomenon almost always represented by persuasive, often gendered, imagery.

Berger was critical of the effects and empty promises of ‘transformation’ in Western consumer societies. Writing about the proliferation of what he terms ‘publicity images’ (those in advertising and in much of the media more generally ) he argued that they propose ‘to each of us that we transform ourselves, by buying something more.’ This system of images is designed to make us believe in the power of transformation by showing us people who have been transformed, thereby eliciting our envy, our desire and, of course, our cash.

Images, however, can only ever represent pleasure and suggest fulfilment. Like holograms, they may dazzle us but they are never the real thing. That is why commodities, which images are used to sell, so rarely live up to their promise and yet why they remain so compelling. Thus, the process of transformation stays forever incomplete, necessitating endless work, endless consumption. And, if your sense of self is deeply bound to the belief that the ‘real you’ will only emerge once you are ‘transformed’, endless misery.

I’ll leave you with one final insight of Berger’s which focuses on the dissatisfaction that occurs when we chase transformation. He emphasises that this dissatisfaction is turned inward by the individual, rather than outward at a society which encourages, nay preaches, the glories of consumption and the ever-increasing commodification of human existence. Perhaps if we make one resolution this year, it should be to reject the isolation and self-defeat inherent in that which is peddled by the prophets of transformation . And if January still gets you down, keep in mind this rather excellent observation from the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

Ain’t that the truth.


Read: Exploring the Pressures of Instagram Beauty Culture

Read: Exploring the Pressures of Instagram Beauty Culture

ICM AUG 2016

The role of social media in our lives is an on-going cultural conversation which doesn’t seem to be about to resolve itself any time soon. In the meantime, we struggle to figure out the best, or most healthiest, way to navigate these new spaces and the demands they present. As ever, this results in specific problems for the female of the species. In this feature I hear from parents of teenage daughters and young women themselves about their experiences and perspectives on Instagram beauty culture.

Read: ‘The Rise of Orthorexia’ in U magazine

Read: ‘The Rise of Orthorexia’ in U magazine

U magazine

A healthy lifestyle is something most of us rightly aspire to but sometimes this type of dedication can spiral into obsession, potentially leading to an eating disorder known as ‘orthorexia’. In the latest edition of U magazine, I outline what eating disorders experts have to say about the issue and hear from a young woman who recovered from the condition. If you or someone you know is affected by an eating disorder, Bodywhys, Ireland’s eating disorder association, is a fantastic resource and support. Click here for their website.

Skinny By Any Means: Why Are Women Told To Starve Themselves?

Is there anything worse than food poisoning? Quite possibly, yes, but when you’re in the throes of its horrors it is difficult to imagine a nastier state.  Fortunately for me, I’m finally crawling out from under the food poisoning rock, which began explosively on Sunday night and left me in a weak, aching heap for two days. Being too sick to eat however has its high points, as my friends (tongue-in-cheek) pointed out: you lose weight! And that’s good, right?

Norma was going to eat the damn sandwich, enjoy the damn sandwich & she didn't give a twopenny hoop what anyone else thought about it!

Well , of course it isn’t. The fact that I was sick negates surely any ‘benefits’, at least to my mind, but the idea that ‘skinny by any means is a worthy pursuit’ persists culturally. How many times a day do we see headlines screeching about the latest fad diet or exercise regime or miracle supplement? How many times are celebrities – who have the finances and time to overindulge their physiques -used to exemplify the perfect body? Too many, I suspect, too many even for the most sane woman not to find herself goaded into thinking, at least for a moment or two, ‘wow, I really should skip dinner/ run  for three miles a day/ go on that diet where you eat nothing but cabbage soup.’

‘Skinny by any means’ ideal is not just silly, it is dangerous. Fad diets might might help you lose weight in the short term but study after study shows the weight lost is inevitably put back on, not forgetting the nutritional and metabolic problems some of these diets cause. Extreme exercise without proper training and warming/up down is not a recipe for fitness but one for injury and defeat. None of this is a road map to health but that doesn’t stop the media churning out images and messages to the contrary. After all, if people accepted the simple, scientifically proven facts of eating less, doing more and consuming a varied diet high in fruit and veg and low in processed foods, well, who’d buy the diet books? And where would we be then?

Part of me reluctantly acknowledges there are people who would elect to have food poisoning if it meant they lost a few pounds, just like folk who mess around with laxatives, eat nothing but popcorn for weeks or exist in a haze of cigarettes and coffee (or worse) to make sure they stay on the right side of thin. In this zany world of ours, we reward women for basically starving themselves and chastise those who don’t. Honestly, if you asked me which was sicker: food poisoning or our culture, I know which one I’d chose. Sadly, it isn’t the one you cure by resting up and taking plenty of fluids. Oh ladies and gentlemen, if only it were that simple.

Skinny Versus Curvy: Why Women Can Never Win

Ladies: it’s time to put down those sparkly shoes and pick up your shields, for the battle of the body types rages on and you’ve simply got to choose a size, sorry, side. No, no – no dithering. You’re either one or the other and before you starting rambling on about ‘healthy body image’ just shut it. ‘Healthy body image’ doesn’t whip up a media frenzy the way ‘skinny versus curvy’ does, so you can park that notion, thank you very much.

Discover a Lovelier You (Woman Alive, 1972)

What’s it going to be, women folk: the skinny tribe of supermodels and disordered eaters or the curvy tribe of so-called normal women and celebrities who can’t hack diet pills anymore? Hey – why the long faces at my ridiculous over-simplification of female body types? Are you seriously suggesting that women’s bodies cannot be categorized as one of two things? Of course you are… and you are absolutely right.

As any well-adjusted person knows, women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes, most of which do not fit neatly into the ideals of skinny and curvy that are hammered home by the media and fashion industry. However, given the prevalence of these images and messages in our lives, it is little wonder that so many otherwise sane and smart women succumb and begin to compare themselves – often unfairly – to one of the two standards of female shape on offer.

To see how hopeless and crushing such comparisons are, take a moment to consider how ‘skinny’ and ‘curvy’ are treated in the media. Let’s start by taking a look at the thin side of things: skinny women are on the one hand lauded for achieving what we are led to believe is the cultural ideal of ‘thinness’ but their triumph (such as it is) is short lived. Speculation about eating disorders invariably follows, along with demands to know diet and exercise secrets, coupled with tremendous pressure to remain skinny. Extremely thin women – regardless of whether this is their natural, healthy state or not – are treated as freakishly asexual and lacking in femininity, a notion that is as difficult to pin down as a piece of fluff in a blizzard.

Meanwhile, curvy women are cheered on for railing in the face of the tyranny of skinny but lo, the bubble isn’t long for bursting. While they are applauded for being real women with real bodies, the ads for underwear etc. to constrict and camouflage the very curves we’re supposed to be celebrating are never too far away. That’s not forgetting preachy features on diets and exercise regimes, not to mention the yards of press celebrities locked in ‘weight loss battles’ receive. If ‘curvy’ is so wonderful, why are women who identify themselves as such sold such conflicting, utterly rubbish messages?

Food glorious food: Discover a Lovelier You (Woman Alive, 1972)

Just as women cannot be skinny in peace, neither can they be curvy in peace. She, whatever her size, can never win. This suits those who profit from insecurities down to the ground, a point made very well last week by Plus Model Magazine in their article entitled: ‘Plus Size Bodies, What is Wrong with Them Anyway?’ which featured a shocking comparison between a plus sized model and a typically thin fashion model.

The crux of the issue is how women’s bodies are treated as public property, as ‘things’ to be consumed, improved and judged. Off the top of their head, does anyone know the size of the average British male? Probably not but more than likely, you do know that the average British woman is a size 14 or larger. You are also far more likely to see or hear women’s bodies being reduced to dehumanised ‘bits’ – breasts, hips, thighs, bums, legs – than men’s. Women’s bodies – the very physical fabric of their being – are something we all have an opinion on, whether we are entitled to or not.

The saddest part of the ‘skinny versus curvy’ debate is how often it misses the fundamental issue of good health. The best size for anyone is the one they are most healthy at and only your doctor can advise you about that. What’s the point in being a size 8 when you are shaving years off your life smoking fags to stave off your appetite? What’s the point in lying to yourself about being curvy if you are in fact dangerously overweight and hurting the very heart that sustains you? Isn’t it time we turned our backs on the silly ideas of ‘skinny’ and ‘curvy’ and sought out something kinder, healthier and better for our souls, our bodies and our minds? Ladies, never mind being worth it; we deserve nothing less.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Images from Mod As Hell on Flickr, under Creative Commons licencing.