It's My Body And I'll Cry If I Want To

by Sharleen Jonasson

Published by Bold Books

232 pages, 2001


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Chasing Beauty

Reviewed by Sienna Powers

 

Imagine a world where getting an eye job was less painfull than having a pedicure. Where a diet pill was so effective, it not only perfectly reduced your craving for food, it replaced that craving with an appreciation for the way the food looked and felt and the shape it created on your plate. A world where plastic surgery was so common, it was uncommon to not have it done. All of this would likely result in an environment where chasing beauty was more than a societal pastime: it was an obsession.

With a pleasantly ambiguous where and when, this is the world that Sharleen Jonasson has created in her debut novel, It's My Body And I'll Cry If I Want To. She crafts her tale with delicate traces of science fiction and even a bit of intriguing mystery.

Jonasson's story takes place perhaps two decades in the future. The beauty industry has bypassed anything imaginable now and the contortions women go through to find their perfect selves is highly reminiscent of Katherine Helmond's performance in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. If you haven't seen the movie, rent it: it's a classic and Helmond's slavish devotion to what passes for beauty in her futuristic world is one of the subplots that makes the film really work.

Like Gilliam, Jonasson approaches her story with strong humor and a sharp eye for detail. Her writing is crisp yet generous and while some of her characters are broadly enough drawn that they look like futuristic cartoons, it's impossible not to recognize their basic humanity.

Jonasson's protagonist is Beth Middleton, a "lapsed feminist," lapsed journalist who has recently separated from her husband. Beth's mid-life is in a slump. The advertorials she's writing don't satisfy her soul and barely satisfy her financial requirements. As the tale begins, her own thoughts on beauty have been sorted out when she was much younger: or so she believes. She had decided "years before" that she'd "leave everything to age naturally."

Lots of women did, including some who could well afford not to. There were plenty of women letting their bodies age naturally as a "statement." And as they wrinkled and sagged they began to look as though they belonged to the legions of women who couldn't afford beauty treatment, a lot like when, during the 1960s and 70s, the offspring of the wealthy establishment denounced material wealth and dressed sort of like the homeless -- until they went on to embrace consumerism.

In the middle of her life, and with her husband recently departed, Beth reconsiders her ideals.

Sure, I still thought beauty was about the dumbest life-long goal a woman could have.

Sure, I still thought all that chemical, surgical, age-defying, beautifying artificiality was crap.

And I wondered if any of it really worked.

While she's reconsidering her options, a mysterious client appears with an intriguing offer. The client represents a beauty backlash group who consider themselves to be part of a Perceived Ugliness Syndrome and who refer to themselves as PUS. The organization wants Beth to go undercover at a posh beauty treatment center called The Beauty Institute to discover the nature of a secret new treatment that PUS has gotten wind of. The PUS representative states her case baldly:

"We want someone to infiltrate TBI and gather evidence for us. Find out exactly what this new treatment involves. Someone to expose something that could potentially harm millions of women. Someone to be a lifesaver for these women. For all of us."

Though Beth considers the offer carefully, she doesn't consider long: she needs the work. Before much time has passed, she's being whisked to TBI's island headquarters aboard a boat. Posing as a client, Beth subjects herself to various of the institute's treatments, including the aforementioned diet drug, Reducamine. One meal into the treatment has Beth waxing poetic about the contents of her plate:

Dinner was absolutely stunning.

"I've never seen red peppers this brilliant!" I told Georgina. "The red, like rubies, no brighter, it's like a sunset at that moment before the sun sets, at the climax..."

While she approaches all of the treatments thrown at her with the caution befitting her journalistic training and assignment, a part of Beth is enthralled and overwhelmed by the possibilities. Just as she's ready to get herself off the island and write an article for PUS that describes The Beauty Institute in terms that underline "both the allure and the absurdity of their claims," Beth practically stumbles over the secret new treatment she's been sent to uncover.

It's My Body is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. It is wry, intelligent and objective, poking fun at an industry where others might have been tempted to uncover a soapbox. If Jonasson has a political agenda with It's My Body it's agreeably masked behind the clarity of her prose. | August 2001

 

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.