Cover image: Toby Burrows (image) and Michael Cutrupi (dancer). From ‘nothing to Lose’ by Force Majeure. From The Biopolitics of Lifestyle, Routledge (2015).
I suggested the image after seeing Force Majeure‘s dance production ‘Nothing to Lose‘ at the 2015 Sydney Festival. This production was billed as exploring ‘fat’ – ‘the powerful little word, full of baggage and judgement’.
At the time I was finishing off the final draft of my book, which was also exploring aspects of this word and its medicalized cousin – obesity.
While I was not able to discuss ‘Nothing to Lose’ in my book, I remember that it reminded my of Chantal Mouffe’s remarks on public art as,
‘bringing to the fore the existence of alternatives to the current post-political order…[and] making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate’.
The production powerfully challenged the commonsense ways of seeing bodies and the ways that they are obscured. This was most clear in a performance where half a dozen dancers moved towards, and into, the audience while relentlessly repeating condescending cliches: “have you tried dieting?”, “such a pretty face”, “have you looked in the mirror?”, “have you considered some exercise?”, “do you really need that?” and on, and on.
The ‘Nothing to Lose’ dance performance is an important way of highlighting and confronting the social and political imperatives surrounding bodies, notions of health, and what types of bodies are allowed to be seen and under what conditions.
I hope that my book is able to live up to its cover and do something similar, even if in a more turgid form.
A new gym recently opened in Summer Hill. The gym replaced the old Blockbuster video store – no doubt to the delight of some public health advocates.
As the renovations were finished a large poster appeared of a ‘ripped’ man and woman with the threatening challenging imperative – ‘Be The “After”‘.
I was initially taken aback when I first saw this poster. I hadn’t seen many women thumbing their gym shorts in Summer Hill. Or hooded men with six-packs glaring. Both seemed a little out-of-step with the inner-west-come-north-shore aesthetics of Summer Hill.
The following morning my local council member was handing out leaflets at Summer Hill train station. I stopped and asked if he had seen the poster. No, but he’d go and have a look.
A week or so passed and I got more used to the poster. The local council member was leafleting again. I asked him what he thought of the poster.
‘A little surprising. I spoke to the owner who said it was temporary but would remove it if people complained.’ The local member told me that even some women didn’t like it.
Several weeks passed. The poster remained. I took a photo of it to show friends and ask their opinions. Most thought it was pretty “full-on”, some wondered what my problem was.
It is not the exposed flesh or sexual pose as such, but the portrayal of unrealistic body norms as an ideal. If the models were from the production – Nothing to Lose – or the This Girl Can advertisement then I wouldn’t have a problem.
The slogan – ‘Be The “After”‘ – is also problematic for the insistence assumption that everyone needs transforming. However, such transformations are unrealistic and damaging to health and well-being.
This picture from Threadless illustrates this point. Many of the images of fit and healthy bodies are like the unicorn – they don’t exist. They are often photo-shopped. However, they are held up as an achievable goal for everyone.
If we work hard and truly believe, we can transform ourselves into the “after”.
But in reality we are the rhino – anxiously sweating away on the treadmill wondering when we will transform into a unicorn.
Yesterday afternoon I went to do some shopping. As I came into the car park I noticed the poster had been defaced. It appears I was not the only one in the community who didn’t like this poster. However, unlike my approach of going through the office of elected representatives to bring about change, these folks went with the swifter approach of direct action.
Paint covered the walls above the poster and it appears the woman’s torso had been cut out. I am not sure if this was because something had been written there and the owners cut it out or if the people responsible for the defacing cut it out.
While I think it is unfortunate that this will cost the owner in re-painting the walls – and other approaches are perhaps preferable (at least initially) – I do think it was effective in sending a swift message.
After taking this picture I noticed a young boy (10ish) walk out of the gym. I left and went into the shops. While in the shops, I turned and noticed the boy was taking a picture of me with a phone. I said “Hello”. He turned and ran.
After a few minutes I noticed another boy-teenager (17ish) in gym gear waiting in the foyer. I looked at him. He looked at me. I continued my shopping.
When I finished, after about 10mins, the older boy was still in the foyer. I walked passed him. He started following me. I walked through the car park. Still following me. I walked out of the car park and towards some shop windows. I could see his reflection (super sleuth move I know). I quickly turned around and walked directly at him. He turned. I sat down at a park bench. He walked away and back into the gym. Then, I remembered, I forgot to buy light globes.
The sustained concern over obesity as a threat to population and economic security has led to a proliferation of medical and non-medical experts intervening in the daily lives and practices of individuals. These interventions commonly fall under the rubric of lifestyle. Seen as both the cause and solution, the modern lifestyle is the target of modification strategies and techniques.
Of course, interventions into lifestyle are not entirely new or exclusive to obesity. Smoking, homosexuality, extreme sports or drug-use have all been described as lifestyles with associated health risks that justify outside intervention. Yet, I contend that obesity is unique in its characterization as a political, economic, aesthetic and public health problem that emanates from individual choices and practices.
The uniqueness of obesity is partly evidenced in comparison to smoking. While smokers have attracted a significant share of vitriol and harassment, much of the blame for smoking and the associated health impacts is reserved for “Big Tobacco”. If repentant, smokers can be characterized as the victims of industry deception and chemical addiction. Although there is anger directed toward “Big Food”, obesity is primarily framed as the result of individual choice and lack of control.
Furthermore, there is an aesthetic difference that distinguishes obesity from smoking. While there are active efforts to counter the “coolness”of smoking, the iconic images of Humphrey Bogart or Audrey Hepburn with cigarettes in hand continue to influence Western aesthetics. And the more recent fictional characters, Don Draper and Joan Halloway stubbornly resist the cliché that “kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray”. In contrast, the aesthetics and celebrity of obesity are comical, grotesque or both. Cartoon characters like Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin who eat anything within reach, from a week old sandwich to the legs of a paralytic friend, serve to confirm the message that obesity is grotesque in form and the result of lack of control.
This aesthetic also carries with it a judgement on the ability of an individual to self-govern and also to govern others. Kim Beazley, the former leader of the opposition in Australia was once told by Prime Minister Bob Hawke that the Australian people wouldn’t elect a fat prime minister. A contemporary example in the US is Chris Christie. Since at least the 2012 Republican primaries Christie’s weight has been a continual talking-point. These discussions are set to increase as speculation grows over his intentions to run for President in 2016.
Contemporary concerns about obesity and its relation to aesthetics, self-governance and the governance of others resembles regulations over sexual conduct in Ancient Greece. In examining the problematization of sexual practice in Ancient Greece, Michel Foucault outlines the link between a husband’s sexual conduct, household management and governance of the city. According to Foucault, the Greek husband’s authority and control over his home (of which his wife was a part) reflected his ability to have authority and control over himself and the life of the city. While the husband was free to engage in sexual practice outside of the conjugal relation, “having sexual relations only with his wife was the most elegant way of exercising his control” (HSII, 151). Further, when Aristotle condemns extra-marital sexual relations as dishonourable it is not that the activity deviates from a moral law or order, rather such action demonstrates the husband’s inability to conduct himself in relation to the ethical substance of pleasure with the appropriate degree of self-control and mastery.
The example of Nicoles the ruler of Cyprus illustrates this point. According to Isocrates, Nicocles explains his conjugal fidelity in saying, “I am the king, and because as somebody who commands others, who rules others, I have to show that I am able to rule myself.” Therefore if Nicocles wishes to rule others and the city with glory and authority then he must rule himself first. Foucault argues that for the Greeks the mode of subjection was politico-aesthetic in which “political power, glory, immortality and beauty are all linked together at a certain moment.” Thus the Greek free man is at liberty to engage in sexual activity with someone other than his wife, however if he has accepted the politico-aesthetic mode of subjection, if he wishes his existence to be characterized by self-mastery and beauty, then he will recognize the particular rules of conduct that are constitutive of that subjectivity.
In a somewhat similar fashion, the American (or Australian, or any citizen of a Western liberal democracy) is free to indulge in whatever culinary and dietary activity he or she wishes, however, in return the society will discount beauty and the capacity for self-governance and the governance of others and thereby justify interventions into their daily choices, activities and practices.
I have just arrived home from the Candle Light Vigil held at Penn State in recognition of the victims of child abuse at the University, and more broadly. I will reflect further on the evening before posting here, but an immediate response to the event that continued to resonate during the walk home was the singing of John Lennon’s Imagine during the ‘service’.
While I have flirted with Imagine over the years, the despairing emptiness of the song was brought home tonight. To be clear, I am not pushing some “you have to have religion or nationalism to have meaning” agenda, but you need to try a lot harder than the insipid and vacuous lyrics of Imagine if you want some substantial meaning. Religion (in the abstract) may be full of paradoxes, knots and apparent contradictions, but at least it is full of something. Lennon’s Imagine is merely a carefully constructed list of platitudes that attempt to mimic depth and gravitas.
The sheer hollowness of the lyrics was driven into my bones like the near freezing wind blowing across the lawn. Apart from the complete detachment from reality, the sentiment promotes empty thinking rather than critical thought. The imaginary of ‘Penn State’ provided the conditions for these abuses to occur and the hubris to attempt to cover them up. The last thing that is needed is imaging. What is needed is mourning, humility, reflection and silence. Not circuses and children’s song about some utopia (literally no-place) where it is always school holiday and ice-cream is served instead of vegetables.