Yet, with my psychology background – dammit, as me – I can’t help feeling alarmed at the normalisation of cosmetic surgery, of which inking one’s epidermidis is surely the mildest manifestation: hippie dope to today’s crack cocaine. I’m naturally suspicious of transformations on the outside deemed to make people happier on the inside, but I have to admit, it works for some.
Another novel featuring troublesome bodies is Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That. There’s illness, disability and, SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT HERE, the gruesome impact of botched cosmetic surgery, but the real transformation comes from a character’s determination to follow his somewhat unrealistic dream.
I’ve had a long-standing interest in exploring our relationship with our bodies in my own fiction, from the girl who’s always longed to look like everybody else to the woman who wakes up on the morning of her wedding to find her neck has grown as long as her arm to the sister whose determination to decide the shape of her own body causes consternation to those around her. The idea behind How’s Your Sister? came from wondering whether there should be any limits to an individual’s custody over her own body. Should we be able to commission cosmetic surgery to order in the way we can employ a carpenter to construct a custom-made cupboard to fit into an awkward corner of our home?
When I was a child, tattoos were for merchant seamen, but these are more liberal times. Botox, a nose job or new boobs – the province of narcissistic celebrities as little as ten years ago are heading towards the requirement for a groomed woman as much as a decent haircut and the correctly coloured lips. Nobody forced me, she says. I’m doing it for me.
But what if she wants something more extreme: dainty feet only possible through foot binding á la 19th-century China; amputated genitals á la too many places around the world. Think she’d only want what’s good for her – how about those who starve themselves in the midst of plenty?
We mobilise the psychiatric system to rescue the anorexic from herself (albeit not always very successfully, or even sympathetically, but that’s another story). We question the motives underlying her desire for a super-thin body. Society has drawn a line here about what she can and cannot choose.
The consensus of what’s deemed healthy and acceptable evolves over time. I’ll be watching the shifting boundaries of cosmetic surgery with interest. But I’ll live it only through my fiction, thank you very much. I wouldn’t even subject myself to the tiniest tattoo. How about you?