Mimicking the non-existent

Anonymous student post

Body alterations are a strange thing. Just the words themselves—“body alterations”—make them seem so foreign to our lives, like they’re not something natural. Yet looking at people throughout my life has made me realize that body alteration has become the norm for many people, and desired by, perhaps, many more. If we were to look at how many people use make-up, have surgery, aim for a different body weight/composition, or even just get a piercing, we would see just how widespread this notion of changing our bodies is.

Yet, after reading Terry Kawashima’s (2002) article on racial indicators, I find body alterations strange in another sense. Kawashima discusses this idea of mimicry, in particular the mimicry of “white” traits by Japanese people, arguing throughout her paper that this is not the case for most of Japanese society. But it raised an interesting question about mimicry in relation to body alterations for me: When someone aims to alter their body, is it because they are trying to mimic something or someone else?

This can be a tricky question to navigate, as some will find it too broad a question while others will point out that there are as many reasons for changing one’s body as there are people. Despite this, I can’t help but feel that, at least from what I’ve seen and read, the answer just might be yes, but not in the way that the question is worded. The cautious reader will be skeptical, and thus, I suppose, explanations are in order.

Part of my answer is reinforced by some particular experiences of mine. Growing up with sisters can be difficult, especially when they are constantly attempting to put make-up on and dress fashionably, even when it makes you late for school. Anxiety, I learned, fueled my sister’s actions; she wanted to look “normal”, and thus she would groom herself constantly. For her, body modification was a way of becoming invisible. This resonates with my own experience growing up with raised bumps on my back. My mother, in all honesty, was more worried about them than I; she blamed them for the way I dressed and the activities I gave up when I was older, as well as for my shy and withdrawn personality. She went so far as to offer me a chance to have plastic surgery. Unable to explain to her (or myself) why my scars were not a problem to me, I consented.

After having plastic surgery on only two bumps, and after having grown up with more time to mull over that experience, I’ve realized that my mother believed I couldn’t think of myself as “normal” while I had something “subnormal”, especially when she saw the anxieties my sister held. Body modification, in this context, meant to her an attempt to elevate myself back to “the standard”.

Broadened to a larger scope, we can see in other’s experiences through things like blogs and academic literature that body modification extends across the board. It affects how people relate their body to race, gender, age, culture, health, and all these other touchy subjects that people seem afraid to address sometimes. And—again, from what I’ve seen and read—I think that all these changes that we make to our bodies has something to do with trying to obtain an ideal. In the end, it’s difficult to say that there’s some definitive “real” thing that people try to mimic, because most of the things I’ve listed are just social constructs. Race doesn’t biologically exist, health is relative, and age is reliant on different perceptions of time. In the end, perhaps all people are really trying to do is aim for something that’s not really obtainable because it does not exist in any measurable way. So in a way, we are trying to mimic something; it’s just not something that we can point to and say “there it is”.

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