Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Humanities in Public (HiP) programme is really hitting its stride. Professor Ruth Holliday, of the University of Leeds, presented the second lecture in the ‘Body Images’ series: Sun, Sea, Sand, and Silicone, and had plenty to live up to. The previous lecture – Dr Melanie Latham’s ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’: Scares, Scandals and Cosmetic Surgery Regulation in France and the UK – drew out an engaged and diverse slice of the British public.
Before the lecture, I spoke to a weight discrimination activist and academic working in the sciences who identified herself – for better or worse – as a battle scarred veteran of both NHS mismanagement and years of ineffective, debilitating dieting. She was just one number among the diverse crowd attending this series of lectures whose presence leads me to believe that the issues surrounding the body and its representation are very much ‘at stake’ in our current society.
Holliday followed up Dr Latham quite successfully, and certainly satisfied the HiP ‘public’ remit. Chatting beforehand, I met a post-graduate studying something closer to Social History. She is working on an intriguing PhD, entitled: Rationale, Identity, and Legacy: the Collection of Morris Egerton at Tatton Park (Expect something from her on this week’s Humans of HiP photo blog). Other interesting characters revealed themselves during question time. Holliday received queries from the various scientists, feminists, gothicists, and two teenage girls who made up the floor. The overall concern on the floor pointed to jawbones, vaginas, and breasts – issues very much of the body, and in particular, the female body.
The other big surprise in Holliday’s research focused on class issues. Academia and media alike have popularly characterised Cosmetic Surgery Tourists (CSTs) as members an aristocratic leisure class, flitting from depersonalised global space to depersonalised global space, indulging in expensive physical transformation and plunging funds into an industry that feeds ravenously off their ethereal postmodern condition.
A little research on the part of Holliday and her team blew this rather ‘literary’ approach to CSTs out of the water. She revealed to us that in the process of research, her team found that the vast majority of CSTs are members of a working or under-class, more interested in ‘fitting in’ than becoming ‘modified’ or ‘special’.
In question time Holliday expanded on these class distinctions by drawing on her previous research, which found that cosmetic surgery in Britain is very much a working class domain, “Middle class people, like us, are very quick to deny the body,” she said, adding, “We prefer to think of ourselves as minds – as purely intellectual creatures. Working class people aren’t like that. They live very much in the world of the body: service, delivery, transaction, social contact. A place where, say, a pair of breasts can function as a kind of social capital.”
After question time, a few stayed to chat with Professor Holliday, but most of the rest of us drifted away in completive silence. I like to imagine that we were all wrestling with the notion of capitalist breasts, which Professor Holliday had so expertly implanted inside our minds.
Professor Holliday made a demand of me on the way out: “Don’t tell your readers that I’m here to advocate plastic surgery! That’s not what I’m here to do!”
Fortunately, I never got that impression.
Holliday’s lecture was entirely devoid of value judgements. Her work – like much of the best in the Humanities – served only to describe, and it seems to me that the complex and ever-shifting world of bodies, breasts, change and transaction is a world more and more in need of close, impartial description.
The final lecture of the Body Images series will take place in Lecture Theatre 4, Geoffrey Manton Building, MMU, at 5pm on Monday 31st March, and will feature Professor Debra Gimlin of the University of Aberdeen.
You can learn more about Humanities in Public on MMU’s Institute of Humanities & Social Science Research website.
The next series of HiP events will be Encountering Corpses. Expect events, walks, lectures, and exhibitions. All free.
Angus is an aspiring writer, hobbyist photographer, and undergraduate student of English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is originally from Dundee, Scotland and has been living in Manchester, England since the summer of 2011. You can find all of his online hiding places here.