Dr Ginni Mansberg, Dr Sam Hay and Dr Brad McKay will be the presenters for the new Australian version of Embarrassing bodies. Photo: Giles Park
This Sunday cruelty television goes Down-Under. Literally. The top-ranking UK television show Embarrassing Bodies will begin its first Australian series guest-starring flaky scrotums, elephantine bum holes and of course, hair on women’s genitals (because this is clearly a medical disorder).
One big mystery that commentators have pondered is why participants choose to go on the show in the first place. How can you be too embarrassed to go to your GP yet be happy to go on national television?
It’s a good question, but I think it deflects from a more interesting issue: why do we watch them? What was it about the 10-stone scrotum that recently managed to pull 800,000 viewers? What is it about the promise of some poor person’s oozing genital regions that will keep you home this Sunday night with your fingers over your face, stifling your giggles and gawping at the television? In the 1940s we decided that freak-shows were sleazy and immoral, and so stopped going to them. But have they now returned in a more modern form, packaged for your plasma TV? What’s the difference between staring at a hairy woman in a sideshow alley and staring at a hairy woman in your lounge-room?
A scene from Kids Embarrassing Bodies in the UK.
If we’re to believe the show’s creators, Embarrassing Bodies is simply about making medical knowledge accessible and increasing awareness of preventable diseases. ‘There’s no shame, we’re all the same’ runs the by-line. And since it’s been running there have been positive spin-offs such as dramatic increases in people seeking treatment for ailments exhibited on the show. Tania Lewis from RMIT argues that Embarrassing Bodies can democratise medical knowledge and help people who are socially marginal. By extension then, we could argue that we’re watching it to learn and in the process we’re showing empathy for those whose unruly bodies are cast beyond the bounds of social acceptability.
I’m not convinced. Firstly, what’s with the by-line? If there’s really no shame then why call the show Embarrassing Bodies? What is embarrassment other than a physical recognition that you’ve breached a social rule? And is it true that we’re all the same, or simply that we will soon be all the same once the show’s cosmetic surgeons have knifed us into cookie-cutter form? The entire premise of the show is nothing more than a pervy, anatomically-explicit version of a makeover. It’s more about pathologising diversity than accepting difference. Hear the sighs of relief when those unsightly varicose veins are sucked out to reveal milky flawless ‘normal’ legs!
I’m aware that some of the ailments are real medical conditions. But far too many aren’t. In the UK episodes have focused on tiny red veins on someone’s face, big boobs, stained teeth and hair on women, as one of the doctors ominously informed viewers: ‘one in ten women suffer from excess hair.’ She explained that ‘it’s a genetic predisposition and sometimes it’s to do with your race.’ But don’t worry, for just a few thousands of dollars you can have lazer treatment or electrolysis, or why not chemically alter your body by going on the pill or take a new drug that stops hair growth? To my mind, if one in ten women is hairy then it sounds like it’s a pretty normal human occurrence. The problem lies with a society that tells women to look like children and that imposes a micro-fascist regime of bodily management on us from waxing and plucking to gym cults and starvation.
If the show is just about medicine, then why are cosmetic surgeons involved? Why did one cosmetic surgeon from the Gold Coast praise EB for ‘showcasing the Gold Coast as the place to go for good plastic and cosmetic surgery?’ Why does the Australian version promise to fix ‘bingo wings’? Having flabby arms is a profoundly normal aspect of growing old that serendipitously doubles as a portable head-cushion when you need to lie down in the park on your side. What’s not to like?
If you think that we’re watching these shows for education then you probably also think that we watched Jerry Springer to learn how to take ‘care of ourselves and each other’. These shows are nothing more than a brutalizing public mockery of deviant bodies cloaked in the language of health and acceptance. They’re not about embracing difference, they’re about enforcing conformity. They’re about wheeling out freaks to laugh at so that we can affirm our own normality.
You can create body-anxieties through bombarding people with images of hungry women and buff men or you can do it through showing them the opposite: quivering milky blubbery bodies thatched with veins and verdant with hair; give them the shock of a body imperfectly managed.
I think we watch show like Embarrassing Bodies for the same reason we watch swear-fests like In the Thick of It or gore-fests like True Blood. They let us fantasise about uncontrolled bodies and emotional excess, to imaginatively indulge in behaviour that is totally unacceptable in our quiet, well-mannered, well-gymmed, 9-5 middle-class existences. In Freudian terms, they’re the return of the repressed.
When we watch Embarrassing Bodies we can gape (in a way our mothers told us not to) at bodies that rebel against our thin, toned, sealed up, smooth, shiny norm. I like Embarrassing Bodies for the fact that finally, after three hundred years of seeing nudes without lumps or orifices, we get to see bodies that bulge, leak, sprout hair, ooze and discolour. What I hate is that we’re told that these bodies are anything less than miraculous creations.