Their stories, our collections; how sifting through 850,000 museum objects with the community will inform our new Body Image gallery

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) is undergoing a process of redeveloping all of the permanent storylines currently displayed in its galleries. This is a part of the museum’s new development plans to make BMAG the Museum for Birmingham. Currently our interpretation of storyline regarding Body Image will centre on the question:
How are individual identities created by viewing one’s own body in the context of a wider world?
The plan is tolook critically at the representation of the human form in public spaces as evidenced by museum's permanent collection. The enquiry would look at: who created these depictions, for what purpose and what the legacies of these sorts of images have today. Through the museum’s collection we are able to explore these ideas through objects created for children and vulnerable people; objects used for advertisements; objects used for, and depictions of, purposeful body alterations; as well as historical and contemporary critiques and expressions of bea…

New Year, New You?

As a new member of the Beauty Demands Network, the inspirational, educational and always excellent posts have highlighted the increasing occurrence and variety of manifestations of Body dissatisfaction. 

Images portraying physical perfection are often used to provide motivation for exercise and weight loss. Body image issues are especially topical in the New Year, when the excesses of the holiday season are often followed by a renewed focus upon physical improvement.

As explored in a recent post by Heather Widdows, New Year resolutions often focus on changes such as weight loss.Sharp rises in gym membership, and adoption of healthy eating plans are common in January, and the drive for physical improvement also has an impact upon the number of people seeking cosmetic intervention. Some surgeons describe a rise in provision in these months, attributed to a range of factors including preparation for the summer, and the ease of masking post-surgical signs, under bulky winter clothes.The str…

Rupturing the General Self: A Reflection on Image

Oxford Street with its cold white chiselled structures has some kind of intoxicating effect on me, even when I have vowed to purchase more ethically (and minimally!). The high gloss smooth images of faces beckon away from the grey drizzle of the January streets. Each body curve a cue to come further in, through the double doors into the land of plenty. Later, reflecting on it, I try to pick apart more of what has happened. Whom am I responding to in these adverts, and who do I want to become in this exchange? It feels like a guttural response, like a longing of desire, to be fed and nourished, to participate in the plenty. To feel what it means to be welcome, to have plenty. But who is the person, what have I actually exchanged, in the encounter?
There is a lot that can be analysed in this example. The effects of consumption habits, the unconscious motivation, the capitalist strategies at play. However, as I critically engage with the givenness of this situation, I see how phenomenolog…

How breast size dissatisfaction affects breast self-examination

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United Kingdom. In 2015, 45,764 cases of breast cancer in women were registered in England, accounting for nearly 1 in 3 new female cancer cases. Women with breast cancer in the United Kingdom also have poorer survival rates than women in other parts of Europe. One reason for this is that British women tend to be diagnosed at more advanced stages of disease, which reduces survival rates. Regular attendance at mammography screenings is an effective way of detecting breast cancer early. In England, women between the ages of 50 and 70 are invited for breast screening every three years as part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme. Screening is intended to detect breast cancer at an early stage, when there is a better chance of successful treatment. However, most breast cancers are detected by women through breast self-examination, which involves regular palpation of the breasts. However, done on its own and without proper training,…

If you want to lose weight, ask yourself: is this really self-improvement?

Heather Widdows, University of Birmingham
After the feasting of Christmas, January is a time of detox and self-denial. It’s when people start new diets, begin new exercise regimes and make new year’s resolutions. We promise ourselves that we will do better – that we will better ourselves. But all too often – at least in the West – this means improving our bodies.
While losing weight or gaining fitness can be a good thing, these types of resolutions – “I will lose five kilograms”, “I will join a gym”, “I will stop eating sweets” – mark a significant change from previous generations.
Traditionally, new year’s resolutions were about improving one’s character – the inner self, not the outer self. For example, an extract of an adolescent’s diary, written in 1892, reads:
Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.

Beauty's neglected harms

In a just published paper I consider what beauty would look like if we changed the lens and looked at beauty not as a collection of individual choices, but as a public health concern. Would changing the lens transform how we regard the harms of beauty and the extent to which we think we should intervene to address such harms?
Changing the lens from individual choice to public health has been decisive in a number of debates. The classic example is attitudes to smoking. Whether or not to smoke was once regarded a matter of individual freedom and choice. The dominant view was that adults who know the risks should be left to make their own decisions. In an era where stop smoking campaigns are routinely promoted by States, health professionals and NGOs, and it is even regarded as acceptable to shame pregnant women for smoking, the notion that this is an individual choice which should not be intervened with is long gone. Sometimes intervention is justified on the grounds of 'harms-to-o…

Women, hair and anarchists

How often do you think about your hair? Every morning looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking is this going to be a ‘good/bad hair’ day? How often do you change the colour of your hair? How often do you substantially change the length or style of your hair? When is the time right for such a change? I have personally been quite unadventurous with my hair for most of my life and never really worried until it started to grow grey… I have always had long or longish hair and never even considered having a really short ‘boy’ haircut; not that I don’t like short hair but it never even occurred to me to try and have a short haircut — so established is the custom for many women to have their hair long. One of John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland (1865), which is part of the ‘visual’ of the GLAREproject I am working on, triggered a comment from a colleague: “love the Alice picture (very different from Disney princess — but still big eyes and long hair!”)so I set off for…