Friday 19 October 2012

Guest post: Pygmalion and Galatea

by Jo Thomas

You might be familiar with the names Pygmalion and Galatea. In the classical myth, Pygmalion is the sculptor who scorned the women of his city as being imperfect of feature and character, and who created a beautiful sculpture, called Galatea in many versions. Pygmalion finally found a woman he could love and, after the sculpture was brought to life, they apparently lived happily ever after. That’s the short, short version.

What does this have to do with Outlaw Bodies? Well, several things can be taken from the idea of having a relationship with a perfectly formed statue that’s recently been brought to life but let’s go with image and perception. As the William James quote goes:

“Whenever two people meet there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him and each man as he really is.”

However the story is put together, Pygmalion and Galatea’s relationship revolves around one main point: Pygmalion is the creator who has made his choice, Galatea is his creation and honours that choice (or not, depending on the version). When it works, it is because their perceptions of each other match up.

In later versions of the story, like George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the statue either starts off cold and unfeeling and / or rejects Pygmalion. This was then inverted by adaptions like My Fair Lady. In these instances, doubt is cast on the relationship because Galatea perceives herself as something other than simply Pygmalion’s creation.

If we take the personal relationship away, everyone is three people that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, or even static: the person they think they are, the person society thinks they are, the person they really are. More precisely, we can say that there is self-image, public image and the truth. Ignoring the self-awareness required to grasp the truth, people are more content when the self- and public images are more similar.

In the example I’ve been giving, Pygmalion has a poor opinion of the women of his city, to the point where his opinion of himself means he thinks he can make better—with the aid of a goddess to bring the statue to life.

To bring this back to the Outlaw Bodies theme, our bodies are a strong part of our image, influencing how society sees us and how we judge ourselves. There is at least a “social norm” to stick to, both the current idea of beauty and the basic human form. Being very close to average—two legs, two arms, not a lot of mass in comparison to my other statistics—it’s pretty easy for me to feel happy with my body. Right up until I consider the fact that I have a few more wobbly bits than I did a decade ago.

It’s not so easy for someone who has difficulty seeing their own form clearly or who differs from the physical norm. Part of what makes it harder is that the public image and perception is not going to be positive. Human beings may be curious and fired up for innovation but we really have issues with difference.

The most obvious examples of this, especially since I’m writing this during the London Paralympics in August, are the Paralympians and specifically Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius had his legs amputated when very young because he was disabled and would have been unable to walk. As I understand it (able-bodied and without research), typical leg prostheses are designed to look as close to human legs as the technology of the time and available funds allow. Society values human form, looking “normal”, over function. People like Pistorius, who are interested in athletics, and others who’d rather spend their money on function over form, get blades.

These blades are obviously going to do a better job than the more clunky looks-like-a-leg-but-doesn’t-have-the-manoeuvrability of older or more aesthetically “normal” versions. Which leads to people protesting that Pistorius shouldn’t compete against the able-bodied in case he has so much of an advantage that other athletes might decide to go for unnecessary elective surgery.

The blade designs are not as good as the best, trained bodies. Not yet, anyway. So, the protest is just hyperbole. And I consider additional limbs more likely than replacement where the body is otherwise functional, should the choice ever become available.

However, I’m covering what happens now, and the same public in-take of breath still follows requests for elective surgery from people with restricted use of otherwise healthy limbs. The UK media has recently referred to a couple of cases involving people without full use of their hands following accidents—who want to have the almost useless limbs removed in order to have fully responsive, rather nifty looking prostheses in their stead.

Both of these examples involve a difference between self- and public image that hasn’t caused the individual to suffer from psychological distress and obvious low self-esteem issues. The societal view appears to be that these decisions are dangerous because they don’t conform to physical norms but it shows that these individuals’ drive exceeds expectation, that they see themselves as something more than society does.

Pistorius’s self-image appears to be that of an elite runner, regardless of what shape his legs are. The cases recently in the news are people who appear to see themselves as fully functional, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

(Aside: Apologies for the use of the word “appear” if it makes me seem patronising but I’m trying to convey the fact that I am not a mind reader and am making assumptions about how these people see themselves.)

So, how about a what-if? If we lived in a world where the human form was as changeable as human clothes, what would you change? Would you turn yourself into something dazzlingly different or would you prefer to stay the same? Or would you prefer to just fit in? Would you replace, add to or keep the basic form?

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