You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine (Fourth Estate, £8.99/Audible £12.99) is the debut novel by the Taiwanese-American author is an unsettling post-modern take on consumerism and identity and body image that’s been described as Fight Club for girls.
You write that since we are all the same inside it’s no surprise that we care most for surfaces that differentiate us. Why then are we becoming increasingly obsessed with conforming to a standardised image of beauty?
What I’m interested in here is inverting the cosy idea that each exterior shelters a unique and individualised private sphere within us: I take the (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) stance that the inside is over – it’s the realm of biological and psychological processes that have been systematised, categorised, comprehended, exhausted. That makes the exterior the new optimal site for differentiation, and the exterior is more plastic than ever before. You can exert your will on it in so many ways – with improved plastic surgery, vast product lines, new injectables and fillers, post-production editing on your smartphone. The surface of your body seems as though it could conceivably be controlled, used to create a perfectly accurate – and normatively attractive – representation of yourself on the surface of yourself. But if we locate ourselves on this surface and shape it using the same tools and standards other consumers possess, we risk mimicry, grounding ourselves in something dramatically communal. To me, that seems to be the big contradiction at the heart of the contemporary formulation of body image and personal identity.
Have pressures to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards increased as women have gained more freedom and power within society? And where does that leave your generation of women and the next?
I don’t know with any certainty that there’s ever been a time when women were not held to unrealistic beauty standards. But I think part of the difference now is that, as women are more empowered and informed, we’re familiar with the critique of the beauty industry and have managed to integrate that critique while continuing to buy as many or more products as before. I feel that I and many of the women I know are comfortable, say, critiquing the overly skinny body types we see in a magazine, and then going to the gym to try vigorously to work our arms into the proper slender shapes. We dwell in contradiction. It would probably be best to reclaim a good chunk of the time and money we spend on it – that time and money would be useful elsewhere.
Your characters are so consumed by their appearance that they have little time to dedicate to thought or action outside of this realm. What defines you as a writer beyond tackling these issues?
Tackling these issues is fairly new to me – before this novel, I wrote mostly stark, dreamlike stories that took place in a stripped-down world, like a Beckett play. But I’ve always been obsessed with eating, digestion, metabolism – it seems to me like a perfect metaphor for the ethical problem of being a living being. And I’ve always been obsessed with the difference between the natural and the unnatural, I was probably shaped more as a person by working in a genetics lab and a biopharmaceutical lab than by taking writing courses. I would freeze pine needles with liquid nitrogen and then grind them up to extract and analyse the DNA. It was a tremendously unnatural way to access a natural order.
Your protagonist recognises that from birth women’s bodies are never really their own. This is potentially going to become a more tangible threat for American women as a new president threatens abortion rights, yet white women voted for Trump in great numbers. Why do you think this was?
I think those who voted for Trump were motivated partially by the myth that all the social work there is to do in the US has already been done, that we’ve already achieved equality and freedom. They’re irritated by the idea that it could be otherwise, irritated to be asked to think about it. Even for women, I think, restrictions on reproductive rights can feel abstract unless one is actively trying to exercise those rights, actively experiencing the burden of being unfree. I think many women would give their reproductive rights up too easily, assuming they won’t be in a situation where they’d want or need to exercise them.
Why did you choose the television as the basis of your characters’ consumerism as opposed to the internet?
One answer is simply that the book would have been too big if I had dealt with the internet as well as television. Another is that the internet, which is deeply subjective and shaped by the user’s desires, search history, demographics, etc, offers up its own resistance to the kind of monoculture consumerism I’m interested in within the book (but also opens up onto a subtler, adaptive consumerism that could be much more intimidating). But most of all, I just find the sense of presence television offers completely enchanting and frightening – you can’t have the internet on in a room and feel as though you’ve got company. In the home I grew up in, the television was often left on after everybody else went to sleep, and it cast light and colour and sound and story all over the room, to nobody. There’s something awe-inspiring about a presence like that, which never ever needs to sleep.
Has writing the book led you to make any changes to your own patterns of consumerism and approach to beauty regimes?
I do buying fasts, for psychological reasons, and I try not to be satisfied or dissatisfied by my appearance.
Are the diet and fitness industries are becoming increasingly cultish?
I think they’ve definitely come to take on a more public role in people’s lives than they did a decade or so ago, and take up more time within the daily routine. They become more than a means to the end of a desirable body, they become a matter of belief, moral rightness, and – with all the contradictory information that’s out there – faith. Those are some things associated with religiosity, or cultishness.
Are female friendships condemned to being defined by consumerism?
I don’t think they have to be defined by consumerism – I think there’s usually a power dynamic involved, which can often be a destabilising or fricative one. But it’s possible also to have a power dynamic that’s ambient and in flux and impartial, like the weather. And wouldn’t it be frightening to have a day without weather?