A Tribute to Bagel Heads

‘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.

Mr. Potato Head is rumoured to be their leader.

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.

Orlan with her permanent horns, perfecting decades ago the nerd look that is currently popular.

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.

Before fillers

After fillers

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.

Fetal skeletons meant to tug on your heart strings. Now most of Ruysch’s collection is at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

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.

Andreas Vesalius, 1543

‘What does this insightful and engaging discussion have to do with bodybuilding?’ you might be wondering. Well it too emphasizes the preservation of the material body, drawing on a similar aesthetic of fullness, with muscles and veins enlarged, visible to the naked eye, and pumped with fluid. The practice of bodybuilding could be linked with a denial of mortality as well. Just the other day at the gym, SuperWoman, looking especially hot, leaned in to whisper: ‘I am deathly afraid of losing my muscle.’ I too shudder at the thought of being small, frail, and empty. This fear is based on more than vanity, though that plays its part. It is also about vanitas, an image causing reflection on the transience of life. A skeletal frame is no longer desirable. Instead, fullness is the dominant physical aesthetic, linked with beauty, youth, and health. That would explain a few things, including why people agree to have their dead bodies plastinated by von Hagens, preserving their materiality and musculature from dessication and decay. Bodybuilding draws on a belief in the plasticity of the human form, but could also be another version of pre-death embalming, insisting on round solid forms rather than slack and sagging ones. Of course, if you were a bagel head, you would already know that.

Can I get an amen?