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Substance over form there, please

More spirituality and less cosmetics.

In Ireland philosophy rarely features in mainstream discourses. We seem more comfortable in either the narrow empiricism inherited from our former colonial overlords or the lyrical engagement found in poetry. The unflinching analysis of concepts found in philosophical enquiry is not part of secondary educations: it still does not figure as a Leaving Certificate subject.

It remains a specialist course in university. Philosophy of education is a subject in the education of teachers but again is treated in a rather desultory fashion by institutions and students alike. Those who pursue scientific study at third level are given no philosophical grounding which might explain a lack of nuance among cheerleaders of science. It only figures in the study of law as jurisprudence – rather than being seen as the foundation for all positive as it ought. Arguably the general lacuna tilts society towards a conservatism born of failure to interrogate widely held assumptions.

In a cogently argued and accessible work, TCD philosopher Luna Dolezal discusses the concept of body shame through a number of lenses. She arrives from a phenomenological perspective especially identified with Maurice Merleau-Ponty who emphasised that we encounter the world through the lived experience of our bodies and not simply our conscious minds. He rejected the dualist view which dominated European thought from Plato right through to Descartes and beyond.

Dolezal engages with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre who conceived of an “Other” that generates a self-reflection intimately connected to a feeling of shame. According to Sartre: “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgement on myself as an object, for it is an object that I appear to the Other”. This can lead the alienation or estrangement from what Dolezal refers to as “the possibilities of the self”, This recurring evaluation of how we are perceived has become a more pressing concern in a world of intrusive social media.

Dolezal argues that other thinkers have advanced on Sartre’s ideas to show that objectification is experienced to a greater extent among marginalised groups. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir argued that in our patriarchal societies women experienced this feeling far more than men. Another layer was added by Frantz Fanon who observed the alienation caused by perceived racial hierarchies. Fanon argued: “This is because the white man is not only the Other but also the master, whether real or imaginary”. It is probably a fair generalisation that women, racial minorities, as well as gays and people with disabilities, are more subject to shame than straight white men with full physical capabilities.

Dolezal also explores the socio-cultural and political framework in which power relations are embedded, drawing on the insights of Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias. Perhaps Foucault’s most useful idea was his revival of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the constant surveillance of modern life. The Panopticon was a prison made of glass allowing every action to be observed, in theory leading to the observance of all rules. The inmate would be shamed into conformity. It is reflected in today’s latent perception that our every move is subject to the unrelenting gaze of cameras leading to sense, especially among women, that her physical appearance is constantly being assessed.

In his seminal work ‘The Civilising Process’ Elias traces the evolution of manners and other forms of personal comportment. The story of the fork is particularly informative. It arrived in Europe with the Byzantine bride to a Dodge of Venice and its use was initially dismissed as a prissy affectation. But soon courtiers succumbed to its utility and it became such a fixture across Europe that by the nineteenth century one writer described people who ate with their hands as cannibalistic. Elias shows that such quotidian habits are socially constructed.

Shame has been used immemorially to enforce conformity. But Dolezal is emphatic that shame plays a critical role in how we learn and socialise among our peers. She argues that it plays a key role: “in skill acquisition, self-presentation, bodily management and the formation of the body shame”. Put simply, without experience of shame there would be a little inducement for self-improvement in a range of spheres. This feeling may however lapse into a chronic condition where we feel ourselves, especially our physical bodies, to be the source of that shame. Chronic body shame: “can lead to a diminished bodily experience where a constant preoccupation with the body affects one’s self esteem and self-worth”, This seems to be the plight of many women today: look at the weight of column inches and advertising devoted to beauty ‘treatments’, an interesting choice of words ascribing pathology to deviations from conventional notions of beauty.

Thus, according to Dolezal: “Women; compared with men, spend more time, energy and material resources in trying to achieve a socially pleasing body that conforms to prevailing normative standards”. Further, “Women far outnumber men in incidents of eating disorders, chronic dieting and cases of cosmetic surgery industry which preys on these insecurities, inducing women to alter bodies to conform to societal expectations. Yet, as she points out, this is increasingly impossible as the body ideal found in the innumerable forms that flash before us are often digitally-enhanced or surgically-altered.

Unfortunately according to Dolezal: “Beauty regimes are becoming more punishing, more painful, more expensive, more intrusive, more extreme and, as a result, more disempowering”. In the United States alone over eleven million cosmetic procedures included injectables such as Botox, laser skin resurfacing and chemical peels are deployed daily. Americans spent almost $12bn on cosmetic procedures in 2013 alone. Our own Celtic Tiger spawned a cosmetic surgery boom.

The next generation faces ever more sophisticated marketing techniques that position these illusory forms in increasingly ineluctable ways. The Internet is increasingly used for this marketing, and beleaguered parents cannot possibly keep track of their children’s engagements.

The changes that are made to bodies through cosmetic surgery have profound philosophical implications, for as Dolezal points out it “presupposes some sort of Cartesian self, where the body is merely a container for and commodity of the true inner self”. Here the phenomenological view of the body could have a redemptive quality as it comes to be seen as “much more than something we ‘have’, but fundamentally as something that we are”. By acknowledging the body as the location of our true selves we accept perceived deficiencies or limitations in our bodies.

One challenge to this potentially redemptive realisation is posed by the perception of being born with the ‘wrong body’: a feeling common among transgender individuals. Here Dolezal points out “there seems a clear distinction between one’s authentic ‘inner’ self and one’s physical body, seemingly confirming the dualistic paradigm”. It would appear there are exceptional scenarios where cosmetic surgery or even biological alteration may prove liberating, but an overall context of bodily obsession that may cause this dissatisfaction should be acknowledged.

Thus, according to Dolezal, “cosmetic surgeons play out the common formula of neoliberal consumer culture: they cultivate profound anxieties about the body and then present themselves and services as the only means to eliminate or alleviate the very shame and guilt they have themselves helped to produce”. The message to women is that their bodies are ‘wrong” but that a solution is at hand, for a price of course.

Dolezal identifies redemptive qualities offered by the practice of yoga which is open to all age groups and body types. She claims it provides “an alternative and compassionate vocabulary with which one can regard the body and the self”. And that “The body’s uniqueness is not compared to some ideal and through these practices new ways to understand and relate to one’s self and the body can be established, and transformation and healing can take place”.

If this is so, it is heartening that the practice of yoga has witnessed extraordinary growth in Ireland in recent times. To some extent it fills a spiritual void left by the decline of the Catholic Church. This perceived threat may account for a Donegal priest’s claim in 2014 that it was “putting souls in jeopardy”.

If however it has the potential to liberate women, and men, from demoralising relationships with their bodies then it should be viewed as a way fro society to restore a lost balance. But we might question whether it has not already been co-opted by the dominant neoliberal culture as one more means of self-improvement that is purchased in the yoga studio or through going on an exotic yoga holiday. It may be however that Buddhist ideas that guide the practice of yoga do indeed contain the redemptive qualities that cosmetics only promise.

Frank Armstrong