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The Beauty Trap

I was born facially disfigured with neurofibromatosis – a spontaneous mutation in my case, the affliction usually being congenital – and an affliction it is believed that seriously deformed John Merrick, the Elephant Man. Being thus afflicted it was more or less evident that my trek through life was never going to be smooth and that I would meet with a fair bit of subconscious, inbred prejudice.

I was thus delighted to read in the broadsheets of mid-March, that after 150 years of debate, a panel of judges had decided upon the sculpture that will grace the fourth and hitherto vacant, plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. The successful artwork is Marc Quinn's marble statue of Allison Lapper, naked as the day she was born, eight months pregnant and disfigured with a condition known as phocomelia, the outward appearance of which gives armless Allison the form of a victim of the 1960s maternity drug thalidomide

As could be imagined, the decision met with much criticism, largely from those campaigning for the plinth to be given to a statue of the late parasite of Buck House, the Queen Mum, the Daily Mail included. Others, including the Disability Rights Commission, welcomed the forthcoming statue as a blow against the culture of perfection. From what I have read of the criticism, the choice of Quinn's sculpture has been slated chiefly on the grounds that the work is ‘all message but no art’. Undoubtedly much of this disapproval is rooted in uneasiness with the subject matter, a popular held belief being that representations of disabled people should only be deemed satisfactory when the significance relates to charity.

Being interviewed in the Guardian (17th March), Alison was quite upbeat about her deformity, commenting that there was not a single thing about her body that she would change. "If you told me I could have any bit of plastic surgery that I wanted, I wouldn't take it because I'm just fine as I am, thank you very much.” It is an exceptional and brave outlook to hold in today’s world – but there again Alison is an exceptional woman. She works as an artist and lives the life of a single mum, looking after her 4-year-old son Parys.

In a video that accompanied one of her exhibitions, in which her own disability takes centre stage, she commented: “Why do I use myself? That's a good point. My body isn't this ugly . . . I had always assumed it was because I'd been told it was . . . You are disabled so therefore you are ugly. So now, I think I almost throw myself at the public, if you like, for want of a better word, then say, well actually, look again . . . I don't feel ugly, and I forget that people become quite shocked by my nudity and by what I'm doing, but then great . . . if that's had an impact . . . good.”

Though Alison has found significant success as an artist in her own right, consider when you last saw a disabled newsreader, a crippled Miss World hobbling onto the stage in an ill-fitting bikini, a facially disfigured Club 18-30 rep or a compere at the Oscars fumbling as he passes the golden academy award to best supporting actor with his misshaped hands. You could think all night and not recall any such moments because, quite honestly, the general public would find them unsettling, having been conditioned to see them as inappropriate. Instead, we expect the above to look about as perfect as it is possible to look.

Of course Alison, and certainly myself and others not cast in the generally accepted human mould, are not that unique. Indeed, ‘normal’ people everywhere feel less than perfect and intimidated by society’s notion of what is and what is not beautiful and feel their expectations and opportunities are limited because of their physical appearance.

Every day of our lives, everywhere we go – whether reading a newspaper, watching TV, looking at bill hoardings or the elongated adverts on buses as they pass – we are constantly inundated with idealistic images of how we should look. Our opinion of ourselves is under relentless attack from the advertising and media industries and our insecurities sharpened and thus easily exploited by those who seek to make a profit out of our fears, whether it be from dieticians and food and clothing manufacturers, the cosmetic industry or the plastic surgery fraternity.

We are conditioned to aspire towards quite impossible standards of beauty and are exposed daily to the myriad miracle products and procedures that exist to refashion us. We are weaned on the benefits of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants, manicures, Botox parties, face lifts, lip collagen injections for a fuller pout, vibration beauty therapy – the list is endless. Our email is bombarded with penis enhancement spam. We buy products that remove hair from our legs, nostrils and crotches, restore it to our heads and change it to any colour of the rainbow. Just pick up any glossy-paged Sunday supplement and try looking for someone who resembles, in outward appearance, yourself.

Women in particular are bombarded with images of what the ‘perfect woman’ ought to look like. She is a stunning blonde, a sensuous looking brunette or dark, mysterious and exotic looking, aged in her mid-twenties, tall and slender with two rows of gleaming white, film star teeth, devoid of any visible flaws and with her clothes hugging her body like a second skin.

I know women who have spent a small a fortune visiting beauticians, sometimes for complete makeovers – all to enhance their own self-esteem and the fancied image of themselves in the eyes of others. Every external inch of our bodies are shown to be inadequate and in need of improving, from our eyelashes to our toe nails. If a woman has a rounded, shapely, Rubenesque body – perfectly acceptable in the 1950s – she has too much cellulite. If her breasts don’t measure up they require liberal dollops of silicone and if her face shows the lines of maturity she is made to feel like a wizen-faced hag. Meanwhile, men enter the dressing room with trepidation, the member they once felt comfortable about now derisory.

Under constant attack from the media and advertising industry, women are left feeling happiness equates only with looking beautiful, whilst men can only find contentment in being affluent and powerful, there being no generic look to male success. In short, today’s beauty culture creates needless anxiety for people, women in particular, maintaining that if you don't look perfect, or make some effort to improve your appearance, there must be something wrong with you, that you lack self-respect and have “let yourself go”.

All of this needless anxiety, stress and concern with, what is after all truly superficial, represents a terrible waste of human energy. How much good is lost to society for the want of a little confidence and self-esteem is anyone’s guess. Again, we can only speculate how far the working class have been steered away from their historic mission by the obsession with such false needs.

What a wonderful tool of suppression the master class have at their disposal – our opinion of ourselves. What marvellous instruments of counter-revolution are the insecurities we have and which they know they can target. What better distraction from the really pressing issue in life – how to establish a world free of waste and want and war and to displace from power our ruling elites – than to deflect any outward thoughts the workers have inwards and on to themselves.

There are many ways we can help shape the socialist society of the future in the here and now. One is to recognise that there are powerful forces at work night and day (the media and advertising industries, cosmetic companies and food manufacturers, for instance) with only one objective in mind – to profit by making us feel less than normal.

If Alison Lapper and many like her can feel good about themselves and challenge some of the most basic assumptions society holds head on, why can’t we all? As the final battle with the master class is to be waged on the battlefield of ideas, what better way to limber up for that offensive than to gain confidence in ourselves as individuals by liberating our minds from false notions of what it is to be perfect? As a class, united by the same basic needs and desires, we stand as perfect as any revolutionary class before us, and as much in need of a philosophy of beauty dictated from on high, as a medieval peasant was of his oppressive religion.

JOHN BISSETT