I Want a Perfect Body

“The worldwide pursuit of bodily improvement,” Photographer Zed Nelson claims, “has become like a new religion.”

In Love Me, Nelson turns his lens on the global obsession with obtaining perfect bodies. His photos depict in loving, if sometimes lurid, detail evidence of body fanaticism from around the globe: a preposterously muscled bodybuilder in Las Vegas, prosthetic nose implants in Beijing, a billboard in Senegal advertising a skin-lightening product, and the winner of a maximum-security-prison beauty pageant in Rio.

The pursuit of physical perfection as a new religion? There’s reason to think so.

Inner Goodness, Outer Evidence

Though it may be a global phenomenon, the roots of this fixation on the body may lie partly in American religion. We need only think of America’s many corporeal obsessions (from dieting to fitness crazes to cosmetic surgery) to begin to suspect that beliefs and commitments at the very heart of American culture are at work here. Harvard’s R. Marie Griffith argues that religion, specifically Protestant forms of Christianity, has been a key influence on the conception and creation of American bodies. Protestant ascetic expressions of Christianity, Griffith argues, promote what she calls “corporeal acts of devotion.” Griffith traces shifting Christian conceptions of embodiment from these early-modern Protestant roots through Christian Scientism and the New Thought Movement. The emphasis on manifesting the inner, spiritual self through disciplines shaping the outer, physical self has thrust the body to the forefront of the American imagination.

According to Griffith, the ideal of bodily perfection rose to general prominence toward the close of the twentieth century, emerging from the evangelical devotional diet movements that first cropped up in the late 1950s. Promoting the belief that inner goodness was apparent in one’s outer aspect, this vein of devotion was built on the doctrine that “fat was sin.” A thin, firm, beautiful body, it was believed, was the visible reflection of goodness and godliness. 

The idea that “fit bodies… signify fitter souls” permeates the American consciousness with anxiety about the body while shaping beliefs about beauty.

Today, as Zed Nelson wants to show in his work, the forces of globalization have propelled the American conception of the perfect body into the world at large, where it has merged with and inflected traditional Western ideals of beauty. Nelson writes, “The promise of bodily improvement is fueled by advertising campaigns and commercially-driven Western media, reflecting an increasingly narrow palette of beauty.”

Holy Anorexia

Anxiety and devotional attention to the body are, of course, nothing new in religious life. Scholars of medieval religion know that control over eating was, as Caroline Walker Bynum has said, “at the core of religious world-denial.” 

Today’s body disciplines extend well beyond attention to diet. The rigors of cosmetic surgery, for instance, are also anticipated in medieval practices—but with the aim of indulging in, rather than renouncing, the material world. In her 2006 New Yorker article “Proud Flesh,” Rebecca Mead compares the modern obsession with cosmetic surgery to Christian asceticism. The surgery addicts she discusses describe their fixation in “the language of religious experience, with its wretchedness and its sublimity and its consciousness of transgression.” They display all the “self-scourging rigor” of medieval ascetics. Mead speaks to women who regard cosmetic surgery as both “a passion and a pastime”; they are “beauty nuns, dedicated to the discipline of personal physical reformation.”

Like Christian asceticism, Mead points out, cosmetic surgery is predicated on the possibility of human perfectibility—although, as she writes,

the means of achieving perfection, and the rewards thereof, are the opposite of those in a Christian theology. If for St. Teresa perfection required transcending the allures of the material and the sensual, adherents of the cult of plastic surgery undergo surgical mortification of the flesh in order to embrace the sensual life more fully.

The sensual, corporeal life has always been one key focus of religious attention. But the new religion of body improvement shifts the aims of asceticism; the body is no longer a means to spiritual illumination but an end in itself. “The new idea offered by the contemporary culture of cosmetic surgery,” writes Mead, “is that it is the vessel itself that we must value, rather than the soul or spirit that it contains.”

Modern body perfectionists seek to transcend the limits of the “natural” body (if ever there was such a thing) through drugs, exercise, diet, and surgery. For today’s ascetics, transcendence lies within a form of bodily redemption; they seek to make of the mortal, corruptible body a perfect, youthful body. The location of eternal life has moved from the heavens to the material world.

Immortality and the Plastic Body

If religion evolves with the culture around it, we should not be surprised to find it dealing with all the hopes, anxieties, and ecstasies associated with the limits and possibilities of the human body and the emerging potentials for its modification. In this regard, Nelson’s book can be seen as a veritable catalogue of religio-aesthetic transformations of the body. And as Nelson intimates, the bodily modifications he documents are motivated by anxiety about death and a corresponding longing for eternal youth—a desire for immortality:  

As our role models become ever younger and more idealized, so our obsession with remaining forever youthful intensifies. Today average life expectancy in Europe and the US is 78. Fifty years ago it was 68. A hundred years ago it was 48. As a society, we simply cannot face the degeneration and indignities of extreme old age, and nothing in our culture prepares us for them. The signs of aging are reckoned to be so unacceptable that many in the public eye choose a strange, artificial appearance over a reflection of their actual years.

As the revulsion with age and the affiliated anxious desire for eternal youth or immortality increase, so too do technologies and techniques for restoring youth become more commonplace. In some sense, rituals like plastic surgery become rites of passage in the new religion of body improvement. The surgical breakdown and reconstruction of the body correspond to the symbolic dismemberment and reintegration of the body found in initiation rites across many religions. Today’s surgical rituals usher initiates from the imperfect to the more perfect, from the humanly mortal to the deifically immortal. For better or worse, there is something undeniably miraculous about such momentous transformations.

And to be sure, plastic surgery and other responses to the longing for immortality are attempts to effect the miraculous. “A miracle,” critic Roland Barthes once wrote in an essay on plastic, “is always a… transformation of nature.” Plastic surgery heralds a transformation of the very stuff of humanity. It portends a forfeiture of the “natural” body—a wish to transcend the mortal, aging body and a corresponding desire to be resurrected as immortal, like a god.

Scholar of comparative religion David Chidester acknowledges the increasing plasticization of the human body, noting that plasticity upsets the distinction between human and God. Treating the body as plastic—malleable, transformable, and perhaps even imperishable—is a form of “plastic religion” that gestures toward immortality. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the cutting edge of body improvement: intervention in the human genome. Treating the body as information, genetic modification proclaims a “new moldable, shapeable humanity [promising] the ultimate human perfection.”

Freud believed that humankind, with its manifold technologies of transformation, is “a kind of prosthetic God.” Through prosthetics, plastic surgery, and genetic modification, the corruptible “natural” body recedes, displaced by the plastic and incorruptible body. Subject to technological perfectibility, the boundaries of the natural body are being radically reconceived. We are witnessing the advent of the plasticized body, potentially immortal and “perfect.”

Hips Narrower Than Her Head”

That the desires, ideals, and technologies discussed here raise ethical questions could not be more clear. In fact, ethical misgivings were an important motivation for Nelson’s book. “I am again appalled,” Nelson has said, “by the commercially-driven export of questionable ideals. These photographs are my response to the insidious forces that exploit and prey on the weakness and insecurities that are perhaps within us all.” 

Nelson is referring to the globalizing forces that export and enforce “Western” aesthetic standards all over the world. So while body modification is certainly nothing new (consider, in addition to medieval ascetic practices, the histories of foot binding, scarification, piercing, neck elongation, tattooing, and so forth all over the world), today the standards informing body modifications are ever more those of the West.

The “questionable ideals” to which Nelson refers dictate racist paradigms of beauty and encourage conformity. In this connection, public speculation around the conspicuous transformation of Michael Jackson might come to mind. But consider, too, baseball player Sammy Sosa’s endorsement of the skin-lightening cream that so altered his own complexion, or the billboard from Senegal that Nelson photographs.

The sexist aspects of body obsession are no less apparent. It is a commonplace to observe that the mass media inundate us with images of preternaturally thin women—models of “perfection.” But it is not only cosmetic enhancement done directly to bodies that raises problems, for we all know that photographs of women’s bodies are digitally “enhanced” through Photoshop and the like. Kim Kardashian’s cellulite is erased; Playboy bunnies are airbrushed to uniform smoothness.

But some images contain not merely touch-ups, cosmetic varnishings of otherwise natural bodies. For instance, American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson’s full figure was digitally winnowed for the cover of Self magazine. And last year a New York Times article called attention to a Ralph Lauren ad that sparked controversy for featuring a “model with hips narrower than her head.” The bodies now appearing before our eyes are anatomically impossible. Such standards of beauty brought forth in the modern cult of perfection can only be oppressive.

And this is not to speak of the ethical problems plaguing the scientific horizon of genetic engineering, a field already haunted by associations with the horrors of Nazi eugenics. Genetic engineering unsettles the boundaries of the human body and, like prosthetics, disturbs the very grounds on which we create the classifications that order and give meaning to our lives: humans, gods, machines, etc. As David Chidester remarks in connection with the Human Genome Project, “the constant testing of… basic classifications renders human identity a plastic identity.”

In some sense, maybe this is just what it means to be human—and religious: to be ceaselessly engaged in the exploration of boundaries, the negotiation of categories, the experimentation with the possibilities of existence. “Whatever else religion might be about,” Chidester writes, “it is about limits.” If so, then today’s global obsession with exceeding the boundaries of the possible—achieving perfect, immortal bodies—is a religious phenomenon. Exalting and demeaning, liberating and lethal, godly and infernal, the pursuit of perfection still and always remains part of the religious project of testing the limits of the human.