Biomedicalization at the Spa

Wearing only a heavy white bathrobe, I recline on a narrow bed, my kicked-off flipflops nearby. A group of women gathers to watch as a professional irons my neck. ‘Does it hurt?’ asks a nearby voice. I cannot see this curious consumer because my eyes are protected by goggles from the flashing light of the SkinTyte laser being dragged up and down my lower face and neck area. ‘Oh no,’ I lie expertly, ‘at first there is a tingling sensation and the laser becomes warm by the fifth pass over my skin, but it is never more than slightly painful.’ I am performing my duty well, having received a $500 skin-tightening treatment for free by agreeing to participate in a seminar at the spa where I get laser hair removal on my legs and underarms. (I go somewhere cheaper for the full monty; see the post called ‘Pursuing Pain’ for a vivid description of that delightful sensation). Declaring that I would be the perfect model, my Lebanese aesthetician—she trades her fattoush recipes for my weight lifting tips—had handed me this invitation:  

Obviously flattered [!], I had immediately accepted. My only regret was that another woman had been selected to have her cellulite zapped. She got to expose her rear end to the special guests, just like Louis XIV did during his operation in 1687. Instead of having an anal fistula surgically removed, however, the modern young lady had tried not to clench as a white-coated technician applied a pulsating laser to her dimpled ass cheeks. When we traded stories later in the dressing room, I showed her my puffy neck and asked to see her buttocks. I often make this request in locker rooms, and have seen plenty of moon pies in my day. Hers were red, perhaps from embarrassment.   

Oh lasers, how I love you. Is there anything you can’t do? Not only do you use selective photothermolysis to destroy the cells responsible for hair growth, you boil soft tissue, stimulating collagen contraction to create firmer skin. The publicity handed out at the open house described the SkinTyte laser as ‘the most cost-effective tissue heating device on the market,’ without mentioning that it deliberately causes harm in order to initiate the body’s healing process. The esteemed physician who oversaw the event assured the female audience at the spa that such laser technologies would make us ‘better.’

As I submitted to the skin-scorching method, I pondered my willing participation in this ritual of biomedicalization. Scholars now distinguish biomedicalization from the kinds of medicalization that have occurred since the late nineteenth century. During the days of plain old medicalization, such physical conditions as obesity and alcoholism moved from the category of ‘personal moral failure,’ into that of ‘widespread social but treatable disease.’ Now almost every conceivable physical sensation or activity is lablled a syndrome. Do you have restless legs? Are you distracted while sitting with 30 other children in a small classroom for 5 hours? Do you have trouble reading a road map? Not to worry, because we have pills for that. Biomedicalization goes even further. Instead of merely treating such conditions, we intervene by altering the body at the cellular level. Don’t like all that coarse hair on your hoo hoo? Just kill the hair-growing cells. Away with short-term solutions; let’s change the body itself. According to the authors of Biomedicalization: Technoscience, Health, and Illness in the U. S. (2010), ‘biomedicalization practices emphasize transformations of such medical phenomena and of bodies, largely through sooner-rather-than-later technoscientific interventions not only for treatment but also increasingly for enhancement’ (2). Biomedicalization shifts from directing nature to remaking it by, for instance, restoring bodies to life after complete heart failure, enabling post-menopausal women to give birth, or genetically designing vegetable, animal, and human life. 

That is some exciting and scary shit, mostly discussed in the media in terms of stem cell research, leading to fantasies of Gattaca eyeball scans and fields full of cloned babies. But we don’t have to look with fear to the future; we are swimming in a sea of biomedicalization right now. Well I sure as hell am. Just consider my last few months: in addition to having a wrinkle-free neck for about ten minutes, I completed my final laser hair removal sessions, used Latisse to grow my eyelashes longer, had another type of laser kill the broken blood vessel in my nose, and began tanning, all necessary since my figure competition is now less than three months away. I started with a spray tan, which involved standing naked inside a shiny shower compartment and obeying the voice from TellyTubbies that told me to place my feet on positions 1 and 3 before dousing me with dubious chemicals. I was a little disappointed with this mechanical event because I had pictured the 20-year-old girls who work at the local ‘Tanderosa’ spraying me down with hoses, but that must cost extra. Realizing that lying in a uv coffin might actually be healthier, I switched to the pods, wearing my goggles all the while.  

Even as I submitted to these body altering technologies, I sought to counteract them with encounters of the more touchy-feely kind. In addition to having deep-tissue massages, I paid for my first ever manicure. There the lovely young Vietnamese woman rubbed my hands and clipped my cuticles, performing these intimate acts while chatting with her workmate, without looking at me. I kept trying to catch her eye, wondering what she was experiencing. She was likely thinking: ‘I wish that smelly old white lady would sit quietly with her hands in the easy bake oven and stop looking at me.’ I have a hard time sitting still, espeically when ruminating about my continual movement between biomedicalization and its antithesis. I decided that the increasing application of biomedical technologies to our frames is being counteracted by an urgent increase in spa culture. Many businesses are hybrid, allowing women to recieve botox injections or laser treatments in a rather sterile room before relocating to a dimly-lit cushioned one for a hot rock massage, body peel, or pedicure. Searching for the appearance of health, we move forward and backward in time as well as space, mixing the old and new technologies, balancing the disembodied experience with the more human embodied one. In the end, though, some things never change: white male degreed professionals both sell and profit from the biomedicalized treatments, while underpaid ladies from ethnic minorities do the hands-on work, either accepting or rejecting the emotional labour that goes with it.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

1 thought on “Biomedicalization at the Spa

  1. I find this whole shift in medically creating the bodies we strive for interesting. When we were in Korea in December about 80% of the women there have had eyelid surgery, so that their eyes can look “western” and about 40-60% of women have also had some other type of aesthetic/plastic surgery, with the second most popular surgery being chin/jaw surgery, where they file down your jaw bone to make it less broad/more angular…i.e. once again “more western”. And they are also much more advanced in their use of “spa services”…tattoo eyebrows, eye liner, facials, botox, skin whitening/lightening, you name it, they’ve got it and not to worry…working late, no time, most of the spas I saw in Seoul were open until 10pm, even on a Friday night….which makes me digress and wonder, is this actually for us women, or just another way to bow down to the man, especially given the high rate of men that have a “mistress” in Korea (a societal norm there).

    It almost seems as our society becomes less fit or willing to put the time in to nurture their bodies, their health and build their muscles, people are getting fatter and fatter, but the ideals our society strive to be are thinner and thinner. In the 50’s Marilyn Monroe was deemed to an icon of beauty at a size 16 and now our models are considered plus size if they are over size 12.

    Anyways, sorry for the long rant…

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