The dream of the perfect body has become one of the great ideals of the time. Still more allow their daily lives to be characterised by the dream and struggle of achieving the ideal. The ultimate beauty of the body is one of the popular ideals of our time - we see it in advertisement, among starving teenage girls, in the tiny clothes sizes in the fashion shops, and in the increasing interest in dieting and exercise.
By Birthe Linddal HansenBody fixation has become popular because physical well-being is nice and because a human being can increase its physical well-being through exercise and active use of the body. But everything in moderation - when body fixation becomes an obsession or a constant reminder that you aren't good enough, you should consider stopping and reconsidering idealisation and its manifestation!
The manifestation of body fixation is evident and is seen in still more spheres of life. Together with an indisputably predominant health discourse, the interest in the body is topical. One health campaign after another and popular magazines as well as more serious periodicals constantly preach guidelines for the 'right way' of leading a healthy life, as if it were catechism. The road to health and well-being is nigh-indisputable these days: Exercise, healthy food, fruit, and vegetables is the way to go; all else is wrong. And yes, you can't find health among the overweight. Whereas the health of the undernourished top models, who abandon their feminine cycles in order to maintain the ideal, don't get the same attention as is given to the unhealthy overweight.
The ideal of the perfect body and the way to reach it is today not established by professional medical science, but far more by the popular media's interpretation of science held together with the ideal for beauty. This is expressed in a popular image of the ideal for health and beauty as being something specific. Exactly like the girl on the cover of VOGUE, wearing a tiny dress and not having a single ounce of fat on her body. Or the handsome man who with naked chest and pronounced ribs reminds us that the modern man also struggles with what used to be a purely feminine obsession.
The road to the perfect body is long. A lot of hours and miles must be spent in the narcissist communities of the fitness centres - and still more go there, old as well as young. They struggle in contraptions in front of mirrors until they are physically exhausted and soaked in sweat. A lot of valuable personal energy is directed into the many workout exercises. Exercises that gradually change the body and bring you closer to the ideal: Pronounced muscles, a narrow waist, and no excess fat. A surgical procedure may even be required, simply to come a bit further or in order to get a real chance of reaching an acceptable level of attractiveness. The expenditure of calories is calculated in minute detail and compared to the current expert advice about nutrition, eternal youth and elimination of risks.
The interest in the body in an individual age means that the body becomes your own responsibility; you create your own body. You choose if you want to be in the danger zone of health and a social outcast. The way you look is today perceived as an expression of personal choice. You choose if you want to be beautiful or fat! Personal success is in 2002 increasingly measured and evaluated according to physical ideals such as the perfect body and the control you exhibit by having a perfect body.
That the body ideal has achieved this attention in the modern life indicates a society with changed norms and values. The manifestation of body fixation is a good example of how the modern man of today has changed the way it orients itself according to both physical and more symbolic parameters. The problems with overweight, the eternally raised finger, and discrimination of people with deviant body measures all indicate a body fixation which we all are influenced by one way or the other - whether it is in connection with looks or health or if you choose to react passively or actively to the fixation.
The concept of conscience has gained new content with body fixation. After a Friday afternoon workout you can in good conscience start the weekend. When you say no-thanks to chocolate, cake and whipped cream, conscience is suddenly more about personal control than about morals. Good conscience is today achieved more by personal optimisation than by gestures towards others. Body fixation is a good example. We all know the satisfaction in body and soul after a good run, an hour of workout or a few days living off vegetable juice, salads and organic apples. You are in control; you act as proscribed by the ideal! Satisfaction knows no end. By jogging a couple of miles, you can even get indulgence so you can eat a delicious dinner Saturday night.
The new religion
The Norwegian psychiatrist and writer Finn Skårderud has in his book Uro - en rejse i det moderne selv (Unrest - a journey into the modern self) described how he sees body fixation manifest itself in a way that resembles religion. One of the key words is control, a control that derives from disciplining your association with food and your ability to cultivate your body. You shape your body according to the current ideal. The body has become a tool for identity formation.
"The mouth and the control of appetite has become the new organ for symbolically marking self-control. The ability to associate virginally with food becomes the new symbolic expression of purity and the separate body." (Skårderud, 1998).
The ideal of the youthful body is according to Finn Skårderud a symbolic expression of the fear of ageing and the retention of eternal youth. A retention that in practice means that nobody wants to be grown-up, hence body fixation is also a symbol for retaining something impossible and a lack of adults that let age create the differentiation. Eating disorders are the ultimate manifestations of body fixation. The body and control of the body become the primary things and in the end assume control of the individual's ability to act.
Ethnologist Signe Mellemgård points out how the manifestation of body fixation shows its true face in paradoxes. Still more become fatter and fatter while still more at the same time become thinner and thinner. The sale of cola and crisps grows in pace with the sale of fruit and vegetables. The paradoxes of body fixation are clearly seen in the social differentiation. Body fixation manifests itself paradoxically different according to social patterns. Fat people increasingly belong to the poorer social groups, while the underweight body controllers can be found among the resourceful well-educated people.
Fatness on the public agenda
Futurist Niels Bøttger-Rasmussen points out how body fixation has become a significant item on the agenda for health politics. Fatness is an economic strain on society, and since more and more are becoming overweight, the focus has increased considerably in the later years. The newest studies by the Danish National Institute for Public Health shows that nearly half the Danish population is overweight and about one in ten is directly obese.
All studies conclude that 'curing' fatness is almost impossible. Only a few overweight who achieve weight loss manage to maintain it for longer periods or indefinitely. By far the most revert to their overweight, and only 10% get rid of their fatness indefinitely. According to the Danish Adopositas Association, fatness should be viewed as a chronic disorder. Hence the authorities choose to focus on prevention. Fat people generally have a lower quality of life, more often become depressed, lonely or excluded, and they carry a higher risk of getting lifestyle-related disorders. Taken together, this means larger public expenses and less individual well-being.
Brave new world
Nothing suggests that body fixation will become less significant in the near future. If you want to live up to the ideal, you might as well start tomorrow. The recipe is fruit and vegetables and one hour of hard exercise every day. However, there may be hopes in the near future for getting more opportunities to 'cheat' yourself to a perfect body, or at least get a little help.
The science of cosmetic surgery is currently experiencing a strong growth, and better and better results are achieved. There is an increasing interest from both men and women to improve reality a bit through surgical procedures. Today it is fully accepted, no questions asked, if you want to have protruding ears laid in or a large chest made smaller. It has also become commonplace to meet girls who have bought artificial, bulging breasts. 5 years from now it may be considered "wrong, gross, and strange" to go around with small breasts, fat on the thighs or dark circles under the eyes, since these defects easily can be corrected through a minor procedure. Who knows whether cosmetic surgery in the future will be considered as natural as depilation is today! Probably not an entirely unrealistic scenario.
In the future, other paths to the perfect body may be more functional food, medicinal solutions, exercise at work, or a personal health monitor chip that daily advises you and checks your condition. If you have eaten incorrecly the last couple of days and haven't exercised in a while, the health monitor will step in and demand instant changes of your behaviour.