‘Wow these bagel heads are geniuses!’ I proclaim, showing the digital photos to my LSP. ‘They are not geniuses,’ he calmly announces. ‘They have saline in their heads.’ ‘Yes, but in the shape of a bagel,’ I protest defensively. ‘Can’t you see how their clever act critiques the growing fashion for cosmetic surgery, linking it with other forms of contemporary consumption?’ I pause to take a deep breath, preparing for an extended oration. ‘These Japanese hipsters are playfully pointing to the randomness of body modification while invoking, however inadvertently, a longstanding emphasis on physical fullness. The significance of their faux-carb foreheads is potentially endless. They have even inspired me to think about bodybuilding in new ways. I freakin’ love these non-tomato heads [Aside: please consult Shonen Knife at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zyum3OfpLC4] and cannot wait to blog about them in my next post.’ My LSP sighs.
I am frankly puzzled by the negative reactions to bagel heads, reported by media outlets this past week as representing a new Japanese beauty craze. When I first posted the picture above on my facebook pages, various friends and followers commented ‘WTF?’ ‘Gross’ and then made cream cheese jokes that quickly became sexual in nature. Now these commentators are not opposed to body modification per se. Many of them have tattoos, either covering entire limbs or tucked discreetly into back pockets. They have piercings in lips, cheeks, tongues, and god knows where else. Some have breast implants, as discussed in a previous post called ‘Bad Tits,’ and also regularly receive injections of toxic substances, namely botox and filler, into their smoothly senseless foreheads and chins. If all of those artificial insertions are just fine, and well worth paying for, why the resistance to a New York donut visage? Once again, I call bullshit.
Bagel heads are good to think with. Most directly, they question rather than reinforce the beauty myth, especially the billion dollar face puffing industry, by displaying an anti-beautiful facial addition. In other words, they are like Orlan, the French artist who uses cosmetic surgery to re-create her identity, defying the increasing demand that all of us, but particularly women, should do just about anything to be considered attractive.
Remember that old fashioned form of cosmetic surgery, the face lift? These days, people under the age of 55 pay big bucks to get their hollowing cheeks and chins ‘filled in’ with such products as Restylane and Juvederm which slowly dissolve over time. Youthfulness and beauty are increasingly conflated with fullness. I find this fascinating.
The focus of the beauty industry has shifted from tightening and lifting, to filling and preserving. There is a long history of efforts to preserve flesh from the signs of ageing and decay. You have all heard of mummification, right? Though perfected by the ancient Egyptians, attempts to conserve human flesh after death by removing organs, replacing the emptied cavities with sweet smelling herbs and spices, continued throughout the medieval and early modern periods in Europe. When recently teaching a course on the history of the body in Italy, I requested a private viewing of the sixteenth-century mummified remains of the rector of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, and his wife. Denied. I made up for it later by visiting dried body parts in museums, and taking photographs of syphlitic severed hands floating in jars in Paris. Much better than the Eiffel Tower. Want to see my gruesome pics? While in France, I also sat for days on end in the Bibliothèque nationale, reading seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manuals about how to drain blood from dead bodies and soak them in vats of alcohol before replenishing them with wax and other substances. I was struck by the early techniques used by anatomists who injected coloured resins into veins and arteries, to retain as much as possible their original shape and form. The Dutch physician Frederik Ruysch is best known for his creepy fetal skeleton sculptures, but he was also the master of drying blood vessels and treating them with varnish, displaying dead bodies to provide viewers with medical as well as moral lessons.
These preservative techniques have in principal survived, but are now applied to living bodies instead of dead ones. Contemporary cosmetic procedures embalm people before their time, creating a master race of wide-eyed zombies. I will soon join them.
Hmmm, more thought-provoking stuff. You are succeeding, FFG.
3 things caught my attention:
– fullness & roundness vs sagging
– bodybuilding compared to mummification/preservation
– doing anything to be considered attractive
re: the first, injections to achieve this are temporary and exploitative imho, thus can be dismissed as invalid. I suppose there is no disagreement there. Botox injections are temporary and so, I hope is the saline the Japanese are using. The appeal therefore is likely just that of the exotic & novel.
re: the 2nd, BB promotes actual life through development of function as well as appearance of symmetry – an aesthetic consideration, form added to function. Mummification only mimics life. I think there is no valid basis for comparison here.
re: the 3rd, much more interesting, I think. Injections to create bagelheads and ridges, akin to the scarring of the Masai, also in Benin & Togo, is a new aesthetic in Japan I think, merely a passing fancy perhaps.
The distinction I wish to make is between “standing out to get attention” versus “modification to increase beauty.” Tattoos, piercings, paint, outlandish make-up that serve to attract attention, may be just for shock value, as in the recent (August 2012) Vogue, PP22-23, where Marc Jacobs gave us a zombie-look to get attention, but I don’t think anyone thinks that look is genuinely attractive, much less beautiful. Therefore I surmise it is just for the shock value to catch our eye, esp. since he is usually regarded as a more conservative designer. In contrast DKNY on page 28, ibid. gives us a much more contemporary, I want to say, classic, look of beauty on the man & woman depicted.
To put it succinctly, unusual, non-traditional face & body modifications may just be to attract attention, rather than being a genuine attempt at beautification. In my view bagel-heads are just the latest token of the type.
Thanks for your comment Geoff. I argue that bagel heads offer a cheeky critique of beauty culture, in keeping with the work of various performance artists including Orlan. Bagel heads are clearly not trying to be beautiful in any conventional or classical way. It would in fact be much easier (but likely less fun) for bagel heads to conform to dominant beauty standards, by getting yet another tattoo or something.
Eva, I lost your message. Please resend!
I love the idea of framing bodybuilding, and indeed all beauty-related body modification, as pre-death embalming. What are we preserving our bodies ‘for’, exactly? Most of us don’t want our corpses displayed, and anyway it’s more that the wider culture insists on the preservation of youth specifically, not bodies generally, but. Anyway. Interesting stuff.
Have you seen the BodyWorlds exhibit(s)? I saw one of its iterations in Boston in 2007, and while I have mixed feelings about some aspects of the displays, from an anatomy perspective I found it fascinating.
Do you see any connection between the trend toward equating fullness with youth and beauty and the HAES/fat acceptance movement? As the obesity rate increases, and as fuller figures are increasingly accepted among the rich and famous (i.e., the Kardashians, Christina Hendricks), I’m noticing that heavier people are being increasingly catered to in the marketplace – for example, a larger woman has many clothing options besides Lane Bryant these days as more retailers offer plus-size lines. Maybe our standard of beauty is changing (again) as well.
As for the bagel-heads, they look unpleasantly like large self-inflicted boils to me. Since I’m not an academic, I’m not inclined to read too much into them (also, as the Japanese are masters of the frivolous and ephemeral, I doubt much is meant by them), but I appreciate their value as a jumping-off point to a larger discussion. They’re not very nice to look at, though.
Hi Terra, What a great question about the increasing value of fullness. I notice that as I lean out, supposedly getting ‘hotter,’ I am pleased to see some muscle definition but displeased by the increasing hollowness of my face. On stage last year, I had never looked uglier or older from the neck up. I think that a fat face is a younger looking, cuter face. What do you think?
I would like to think so, too, since I still have a fuller (not fat!) face, and people who don’t know how old I am tend to assume that I’m in my 30s.
I also grew up with the notion that smooth, taut skin conveys the impression of youth (hence the old-school facelift) so I do have in the back of my mind the idea that this seemingly new emphasis on fullness and roundness is to some extent going with the flow as more of us are heavier. OTOH, I’m paying more attention, for example, when watching old movies or television shows, to take note of how actresses looked young early in their careers, and I think it’s true that a round face makes an actress look younger. The twentysomething Sarah Michelle Gellar could play teenaged Buffy the Vampire Slayer because she had that round, almost chipmunk-cheeked face. In contrast, when Brooke Shields was young she tended to play characters who were her own age but who grew up quickly. She had a more angular face and pronounced bone structure, and just never really looked young.
The pendulum does seem to be swinging back towards fuller figures as the standard of beauty, and I don’t see this as entirely a bad thing. We’ve had a few very thin female research assistants in the lab recently, which has made me wonder why anyone would want to diminish themselves physically like that (especially when they’re so bright and accomplished). Why should it be desirable for women to be as small as possible? The Kardashians might be a little too far in the other direction, though. I feel like being fit and muscular but “smooth” is a healthy, happy medium.
I guess the real issue is, what is it that we want to be full of?