But who, if it comes to that, has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood? So long as a woman lives the life of the past she can never come into conflict with history. But no sooner does she begin to deviate, however slightly, from a cultural trend that has dominated the past than she encounters the full weight of historical inertia, and this unexpected shock may injure her, perhaps fatally. C.G. Jung1
There is a lot that Jung wrote about women that we might disagree with —I know I do. But I think he hits something important here. Think about what has happened to women who deviated from the course of things and choose to run for President. All have encountered exactly what Jung says above: But no sooner does she begin to deviate, however slightly, from a cultural trend that has dominated the past than she encounters the full weight of historical inertia.
Deviating from the cultural norm gets one tagged as pathological. In the West it is no longer the case that a woman is expected to eschew ambition and stay at home raising children and caring for the home. Though a considerable portion of people in the US still subscribe to the notion that a woman’s place is in the house, but not the House, it cannot be denied that our horizons are wider than they once were, wider even than when I was a young woman. But it is still expected that a woman conform to the image of ideal femininity, that is be slender and visually appealing, mostly to men.
If Thine Eye Offend Thee
Few of us realize that we do not see unmodified images of people, especially of women, in magazines, film, or television. The images of those we see as ideals, as possessing the looks we should aspire to are not real. We do not see those woman as we would see them were we to encounter them in the supermarket or on the street.
…it is the photographic image— both the moving image on TV and film and the still photograph— that has created the new visual grammar. Its effects should not be underestimated. They are changing the way we relate to our bodies. John Berger’s prescient statement that (bourgeois) women watch themselves being looked at has been transmuted into women assuming the gaze of the observer, looking at themselves from the outside and finding that they continually fail to meet the expectations our pervasive and persuasive visual culture demands.2
We are bombarded with altered images, thousands per week — images that convey an idea of a body which does not exist in the real world. Cosmetic surgery as a means to attain this non-existent ideal has flourished in this environment. Cosmetic surgery as a consumer option is becoming normalized. In some communities women casually discuss, even compete over the procedures they will have. To not get one’s eyelids “done” or have Botox injections to smooth wrinkles, to not alter themselves is taken as a sign of self-neglect.
The surgeon, both authoritative and solicitous, becomes the arbiter on female beauty. As he acknowledges the pain his patients feel, he demonstrates how he can change different aspects of their body for them, enabling them to reach the beauty standard he has himself set. In his engagement with them, he gives them the body they could never imagine they would have. He is confident and persuasive. He responds to their wish with gravity but also as though they were choosing their dream holiday.2
The beauty industry and the diet industry reap profits in the billions of dollars each year as women pursue the hopeless quest of achieving the perfection of the images placed in front of us thousands of time each week, of sleek flawless bodies which seem never to age. It is also worth noting that 90% of cosmetic surgeons, the “arbiter[s] on female beauty”, are male and 90% of patients seeking such surgery are female.
The Wrong Body
What does it mean when a person says she is in the wrong body? We hear this most in an indirect way when any of the legions of women unhappy with their weight go on diet after diet in a largely fruitless quest to release the thin woman they believe lives inside them, a thin woman trapped in the wrong body. What does that mean? The effort to find “the right body” leads to all manner of surgical solutions, ranging from the cosmetic procedures to removal of most of the stomach in order to lose weight. In other words, the quest for the right body easily leads to mutilation of the existing body. Though little noted, bariatric surgery has an unexpected consequence of significantly elevated risk of suicide post-operatively. Among patients who have undergone bariatric surgery, the suicide rate is 6-7 times higher for people who have had the surgery than those who did not.3 Suicide risk in this group, people desperate to obtain and inhabit “the right body”, suggests that in at least a significant percentage of them, the body itself is not the problem. But in a society that finds efforts to pursue perfection through surgery acceptable if not admirable, there is little critical examination of what taking that pursuit to such dramatic lengths means nor of the inherent danger of the entire notion of the perfect body.
…the very problems the style industries diagnose are the same ones the beauty industry purports to fix. They are handmaidens in the process of deconstructing and reconstructing our bodies. And the purported fixes are offered as solutions which we can’t help but wish to take advantage of. The solutions entice us. We do not see ourselves as victims of an industry bent on exploiting us. In fact we are excited to engage with and reframe the problem: there is something wrong with me that with effort exercise, cash and vigilance— I can repair. I can make my offending body part( s) right.1
1.Jung, C.G., (1964). ‘Woman in Europe’. CW10, p. 130
2. Orbach, Susie. Bodies (BIG IDEAS//small books)
3. Castaneda, D., Popov, V.B., Wander, P. et al. Risk of Suicide and Self-harm Is Increased After Bariatric Surgery—a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. OBES SURG 29, 322–333 (2019).
The image above is a reproduction of a sculpture found in an alcove in an underground temple on the Island of Malta, dating back approximately 6,000 years ago.