New book explores culture's fascination with body modifications

Tattooing.piercing.anorexia.self-cutting.plastic surgery.body-building.the use of life extension technologies--these are all forms of body modification that have become increasingly prevalent in today's culture and mainstreamed in popular media.

A new book coedited by UC Santa Cruz professors Helene Moglen and Nancy Chen, Bodies in the Making: Transgressions and Transformations, explores our fascination with altering our bodies, offering a fresh perspective on the widespread and dramatic changes that have taken place over the past two decades in attitudes about the body.

"Is there anyone not at some time obsessed with aging?" asked Moglen, professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz and a former UC Presidential Chair. "Is there anyone over 40 who is not at least thinking about what it might be like to get some kind of cosmetic surgery? Is there anyone over 60 not interested in hearing about life extension technologies?

Drawing from a conference presented last fall by the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Advanced Feminist Research, the book features essays by 11 UCSC professors, six guest professors from around the country, as well as contributions from a photographer, a transexual author and actress, and a psychoanalyst.

Some of the essays explore ways in which media promotion of makeovers and reality shows that promote the achivement of desirable bodies may be linked to "deepening forms of medicalization that promote violence in the name of beauty." Other articles address issues of involuntary body modifications--such as aging and warfare--in the context of organ transplants, prosthetics, and anti-aging technology, raising questions of who deserves or who can afford a "normal" body.

A piece by City University of New York sociology professor Victoria Pitts, author of the book Surgery Junkies: The Cultural Boundaries of Cosmetic Surgery, focuses on cosmetic surgery and tattooing--examining what these practices tell us about self-identity and the values inscribed on bodies by the beauty industry. And an essay by University of Kentucky professor Virginia Blum contends that it is mainly through the "normalizing" effect of television that cosmetic surgery is no longer simply thought of as an expression of vanity.

The book also features several essays written in response to a posthumous exhibition at UC Santa Cruz of photographs, videos, and mixed media by artist Hannah Wilke. From the 1970s until 1993, Wilke produced work that examined the body and its representation--culminating with a stark, moving series of photographs of her face and body during her struggle and eventual death from cancer.

"This is a book that tries to take apart easy value judgments that name behaviors as normal or pathological, beautiful or ugly, and voluntary or compulsory," Moglen noted.

"There's nothing quite like it that is available now," she added. "The contributors are looking at a range of practices that aren't usually linked: tattooing, cosmetic surgery, life extension technologies, self-cutting. These are hot issues right now, and they are very relevant to people's everyday lives."

Bodies in the Making is the second publication of the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Advanced Feminist Research in a series titled "Feminist Provocations," published by New Pacific Press. For more information, contact the publisher at: