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Opinion: Ray O’Neill

Body Shame

No pecs, no sex – the culture of dating apps and a pervasive porn culture have separated us from our bodies by displaying them in a marketplace, and it’s not bringing us happiness. We need to rethink how we see ourselves and others.

In our contemporary culture, we are more likely to identify with our images, our photos, our Facebook profiles, than with our bodies. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argues that as infants we first recognise ourselves in our mirror reflection and “assume this image”. Our first experience of ourselves as a whole individual is outside of ourselves. This alienating paradox haunts our core self throughout our lives; trapping us in external identifications rather than enjoying living within our bodies.

So much body dysmorphia, perceived unattractiveness, physical disappointment comes from this. Are we thin enough? Built enough? Young enough? Beautiful? Desirable? All the answers to these questions never rest with or in ourselves, but through others’ perceptions. It is a terrible amount of power and authority to hand your body over so heedlessly and unequivocally to other people.

In my virgin forays into online app dating, people are more interested in photo album exchanges than conversations. I swipe and am swiped based on what images are uploaded, photoshopped, posed. There is no place to upload what my social values are, my personal aspirations, my drives, my principles. But I do have to identify my body type, and the ‘tribe’ I belong to, again based on physical image. And on these apps I am confronted, without apology or shame, by blatant and brutal homophobia and racism, dictating desirability grounded in appearances, ethnicities, and ‘straight acting masculinity’. It all inevitably makes me question either myself as a gay man, or the whole gay populace. It is painful.

The horrific increases in body dysmorphias, anorexia, bulimia, bigorexia in the last 15 years have saturated mental health services. The pressure, not just to look certain ways – size, glamour, weight, clothes – but for these ‘looks’ to be socially posted and externally ‘liked’ is horrific. Earlier this month the verdict of suicide was returned at the inquest into the death of 11-year-old Molly Tuomey who took her own life because she was so unhappy with her physical appearance. She had posted her plan to commit suicide on Instagram.

For decades women have had to negotiate and endure cultural and media pressures and expectations around their bodies. Advertising, cinema, marketing, ‘health’ and glamour magazines have dehumanised not only women themselves, but how women are viewed, treated and valued. And in our increasing contemporary globalised commodification of human subjects, men too, especially gay men are objectified, marketed and ‘produced’. The same media pressures, social and otherwise, virtually prescribe how men’s value, selfesteem, and personal wellbeing can only be validated through adherence to appearances that are dictated rather than chosen. No pecs, no sex.

Pervasive on-line pornography has not only created completely unrealistic sexpectations, around what we do, or expect to have to do in sex, but the ubiquity of porn off-line culture within advertising and the media reinforces what ‘sexy’ bodies should look like. Be it breast augmentation or body manscaping; be it Brazilian genital waxings or top/bottom performances, pornography has incredible power in shaping and deciding how we see ourselves, our bodies and others sexually.

There is a staggering film by Antonio da Silva called Pix, which is basically a porn movie constructed through a montage of over 2,500 Grindr profile pictures. Check it out online and see just how we have become the images. The sexual marketplace decrees not only our bodies, but how we think and feel about our bodies, how we perform and live them.

The physical is important. There are bodies and faces I like and am attracted to, but the image is two dimensional. The third dimension is one’s personality, personhood, self. It is this third dimension that give attraction and desire their depth. A fuck can often be one or two dimensional, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a coming together of two bodies; sometimes in connection, sometimes not. But relationships, love-making, intimacy these are grounded in explorations of other layers, dimensions, levels. These are the domains in which we have the opportunity to be seen, to show ourselves, to reveal, expose; to be revealed and to be exposed. It can truly be a naked place in which not even our physical bodies can hide us.

You can’t buy happiness despite everything that the consumerist sexual marketplace tells us. There is not one person who ever ‘bought’ physical happiness with their bodies, no matter what augmentations, surgeries, procedures, cosmetics, Botox they endured or embraced. In fact, all research shows such augmenting physical interventions only push people further down a cul de sac of miserable physical self-worth.

None of this misery, alienation, physical insecurity can ever change unless we change, and that change, individually and collectively, can only happen within. It is only in valuing people’s personalities, energies, minds, hearts, courage, persistence, labours, and talents that we can counter the total erosion of our humanity that our physical commodifying culture dictates. Until we look within and value that sexiness is internal, we will always be without.

Next time you’re online, be mindful of not just who you block, or indeed why you block, but bring your mindfulness to what you might be blocking in or about your own self. Whether we swipe left or right, something of our humanity gets swiped.

Ray O’Neill is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist specialising in individual and relationship counselling. Call him on 086 828 0033

This article appears in the 337 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 337 Issue of GCN