Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Visualisation Technologies in Makeover Practice - Part I

This is an extract from the section of my thesis I am currently working on/editing. Three x25 minute twitter #shutupandwrite sessions have got me to this still rather rough stage, but on the basis that a done blog is better than no blog here it is.

Makeover Practice – Visual/Visualisation Technologies

Whereas the question used to be about how women were represented, in visual art, media or film for example, now we need to consider that what stands for ‘representations’ of women are virtualised, hyperreal simulations of women. They no longer re-present women, they (re)create them. These simulated bodies can be developed from scratch without taking into account any actual female bodies, they represent not what women are (passive) but what women could be (active).[1] They really are ‘dream’ women.
By allowing the simulation of women’s bodies computer imaging technologies create new expectations of womanliness and femininity as bodies are coded and recoded in the virtual arena. They enable the creation of bodies from nothing, and these bodies simulate the female body, rather than represent it, that is to say that the creator is not constrained by the actual physical dimensions of an initial image, as they would be if using Photoshop or similar technology to manipulate an image. As Balsamo discusses, the creation of virtual bodies is limited only to the imagination of the creator. “The virtual body is neither simply a surface upon which are written the dominant narratives of Western Culture, nor a representation of cultural ideals of beauty or of sexual desire. It has been transformed into the very medium of cultural expression itself, manipulated, digitalized, and technologically constructed in virtual environments”.  (Balsamo 1996, 131)[2] The simulated, or virtual woman’s body is coded female, it needs only to be read by the viewer as a female body, not to be an accurate representation of what a female body actually is.  The laws of physics need not apply to the simulated woman, thought she may seem real at first glance, we have to consider whether she would actually be able to stand up and move around if she were made of flesh and blood. Could Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), the original simulated woman, really have fought like she did with those breasts.

Makeover Context

In terms of Makeover Culture Visualisation technologies are the technologies of dreams, fantasies and futures. They range from something as simple as a mirror, to sophisticated medical imaging equipment, to visual media technologies and play a key role in creating dissatisfaction with what is and driving the desire for constant improvement that is the heart of neoliberal makeover culture. Through visual media technologies, women are bombarded not only with (heavily edited) pictures of real women but with simulations which represent what women could be, not what they are. So much so that ‘real’ women’s bodies can no longer be defined, indeed may no longer exist. Our technological ability to conform to virtualised ideals means that real bodies have been dieted, exercised, plucked and excised out of existence to comply with the expectations set by the virtualised hyperreal[3] bodies of media, film and computer games.
Visualisation technologies enable users to see what was previously unseen; in the context of this study they enable the visualisation of makeover outcomes. Through the mediation of experts, these technologies enable women to visualise the potential of their bodies. The technologies are therefore implicit in the creation of new bodies.
Even the simple mirror enables the body to be seen in ways that it cannot be seen without and a common device used in makeover television is using mirrors, photographs or video to enable the participant (and the expert) to see the body from all angles and in great detail. [Ten Years Younger – puts the participant on view in a glass box, Trinny and Susannah make participants stand in front of a full length mirror in their underwear, How to look good naked uses mirrors and video footage to get up close and personal with women’s bodies].

Visualisation Technologies and Cosmetic Surgery

The use of imaging technologies in medical situations is another important area. Many of these technologies were developed for medical reasons such as ultrasound scanning and CT scanning which enable doctors to look at what would previously have been unseen.
Cosmetic surgeons, and their sales teams, make excellent use of visualisation technologies. Starting from the before and after advertisements in the back of popular women’s magazines the visual image is critical to the cosmetic surgeon’s trade. Lo-tech methods include the use of mirrors to and tape measures to examine the body and drawing the changes directly on to the customer’s skin.
In the hi-tech arena photography and video shows the body as it is and computer based imaging is used to design, visualise and materialise the post surgical body – the after body – to help convince the customer to go through with the surgery. The technology -  its expensiveness, its modernness, its exclusiveness - contributes to the authority of the ‘expert’ surgeon, as if their authority is developed/evidenced through this technology.

[1] The move from passive to active involvement in makeover practice is key to my thesis and is developed in depth elsewhere
[2] Balsamo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

[3] This section will be developed to reference Baudrillard on simulation and hyperreality.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Writing for Readers

I'm struggling through a chapter draft this week. It needs to go to my supervisor early next week if I want any chance of staying on target. In the hope of feeling vaguely productive I thought a blog post might be in order. An interesting comment from a sewing blog I read made me think about how well blogging, as opposed to thesis/book writing fits into makeover culture as a whole, her comment that a blog is always a work in progress, much like the body in makeover culture (see Jones 2008) made me realise that my blog will never be finished, never be perfect, and will always benefit more from progress (i.e. actually writing something) than from perfection.

A while back I was set the task of translating my research for a lay audience, a 500 word summary of what I am looking at. I thought I would drag it out to have a read through this morning and here it is.

500 Words Revised for Public Audience

Over the last three decades our bodies have become increasingly important to our concept of ‘self’, so much so that it has become difficult to separate ‘body’ and ‘self’ in our minds. We see our bodies as enabling or blocking our happiness, our achievements. “I’m too fat too make friends, or get that new job”.... our bodies become an explanation and an excuse for our failure to achieve our goals and even prevent us from setting goals altogether. The thought that if only I were thinner, prettier and younger I would be a better, smarter, more successful, happier person nags in the back of our minds.
Where once to be ‘oneself’ was to be an individual today the majority of us want nothing more than to be ‘normal’. The body, as our most visible expression of ‘self’ has become a key tool of social acceptance, so it is not surprising that work to normalise the body has become critical to our perception of happiness and personal wealth. The 21st century body is not a natural thing but a man-made one. Modern technology supports us all the way as we attempt to make our ‘always already’ technologised bodies/selves over into clones of the images that we are bombarded with everyday in magazines and on TV. Make up, cosmetic surgery, expensive gym and beauty equipment are all today considered normal technologies in the creation of the beautiful self.
If the ‘me’ we want to be, is to be found through experimenting with and ‘making over’ our bodies it is not surprising that we are avid readers of women’s magazines and follow cosmetic surgery and weight loss programs with great interest on the television. The media both drives and enables conformity by dictating a modern feminine ideal and presenting us with the inspiration and encouragement we are looking for. Femininity is no longer measured through a woman’s relationship with her husband and children. Now, perceptions of a woman’s femininity are based on her body.
The increasing importance of the body in our society suggests that our body obsession will continue to increase over the next decade. As technologies such as cosmetic surgery become increasingly affordable more of us will take drastic measures to conform. Western women today may claim to be in control of their lives and their bodies. But is the pressure to conform to the feminine ideal still a result of patriarchal control as argued by the second wave feminists in the 1970s? Or is the toned, tanned and trim body genuinely the result of a self-imposed discipline? Many women see the feminisation and sexualisation of their bodies as a tool which enables them to achieve their goals. Through physical discipline they maintain control of their bodies and use them to their own advantage. But all too it often seems that the perfect body is always just out of our reach.