Body Projects: The Killer Makeover in Recent YA Dystopias

As the Hunger Games begin, the makeover—that staple of reality television—is itself made over from dream into nightmare. Forced to fight to the death against other teens on live TV, contestants such ...

As the Hunger Games begin, the makeover—that staple of reality television—is itself made over from dream into nightmare. Forced to fight to the death against other teens on live TV, contestants such as sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen must first give themselves up to a team of stylists at the “Remake Center.” Rather than depicting this beautification process as a fantasy fulfilled, Suzanne Collins portrays it as an oppressive overture to the vicious Games, which are run by an authoritarian centralized government—the Capitol—to punish outlying districts for a prior rebellion. As the stylists rip out her body hair and sand away “at least three layers” of her skin, Katniss stands before them stark naked, mentally comparing herself to “a plucked bird, ready for roasting” and “a piece of meat to be prepared for a platter.”

Such scenes of enforced self-alteration appear regularly in twenty-first-century dystopian fictions aimed at adolescents. They attest, I think, to a widespread and growing concern that even the most private aspects of the self are currently under siege by powerful, well-organized forces driven by corporate greed. In their debuts on the Young Adult (YA) scene, Gennifer Albin and Kat Zhang both participate in this trend. Each has launched a series set in a dystopian world where young characters struggle against their cultures’ intrusive efforts to reshape bodies and minds. The different paths these two novelists take are symptomatic of a larger divide in the literature: in Albin’s “Crewel World” series (2012–) such interventions are aimed only at girls, whereas Zhang’s “Hybrid Chronicles” (2012–) inflicts them on all citizens. Yet in judging the staying power of these and other recent stories of teen selves under siege, gender specificity turns out to matter far less than whether authors portray the effects of inhabiting a toxic culture as easily combatted or insidiously persistent—and how thoroughly those effects are implicated in a larger web of geopolitical and socioeconomic issues.

The tarting up that Katniss undergoes seems like a cakewalk compared to the invasive makeovers inflicted on sixteen-year-olds in Scott Westerfeld’s bestselling Uglies books, the most obvious point of origin for the killer-makeover trend. This series too is set in a post-apocalyptic US, where the ruling powers have persuaded most people that only extensive plastic surgery can save them from looking grotesque. Trying to convince a peer to resist the pressure to become a “Pretty,” one “Ugly” explains, “When they do the operation … they grind and stretch your bones to the right shape, peel off your face and rub all your skin away, and stick in plastic cheekbones so you look like everybody else.” Eventually, the rebel forces discover that this procedure also inflicts tiny brain lesions on teens to make them more docile—which explains why the newly minted Pretties spend all their time purchasing, primping, and partying, anticipating the apolitical inhabitants of Collins’s Capitol.

Westerfeld’s series represents such brainwashing as an equal opportunity problem, yet our culture places more pressure on females than on males to conform to an exacting ideal of physical perfection. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 91 percent of all cosmetic procedures in the US in 2011 were performed on women. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that the number of women who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, and other associated disorders is roughly double that of men. In 1991, a US study found that 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner; in 2002, another one reported that 35–57 percent of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. Body hair removal has grown into a billion-dollar industry, one that—together with porn and bathing-suit styles—began persuading women in the 1980s to regard their pubic hair as problematic, despite warnings from doctors that this campaign against genital hair is hazardous to women’s health.

Consider, for example, the aggressive action that actress Cameron Diaz felt licensed to take when one of her girlfriends refused to trim away what Diaz described as her “’70s bush.” In an interview on Graham Norton’s talk show in November 2012, Diaz cheerfully recounted how she and several other female pals pestered this poor woman to depilate and, when she refused, took matters into their own hands. “We took her into the bathroom,” giggled Diaz, and “three of us were holding her down” while the fourth started “hacking” away with scissors at the offending hair. Amidst roars of laughter from the live audience, fellow guest Rod Stewart—unwittingly impersonating the Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman—chortled, “Is there any footage?”

How did we arrive at a moment when assaulting a woman’s private parts could be turned into a “hilarious” anecdote (Diaz again) for public consumption? In The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg traces how young women over the course of the last century have been spurred on by profit-driven groups to engage in ever more extreme forms of bodily self-policing. In the 1940s, for instance, “sanitary protection” companies persuaded girls that hygiene demanded they use multiple products while menstruating or risk being viewed as unclean. The advent of mass-produced bras in the ’50s prompted girls to feel inadequate if they did not fit into the new standard cup sizes and launched “a rash of commercial breast-development projects that now seem hilarious.” Around the same time, the orthodontia industry made perfect teeth a requirement; and dermatologists, drugstores, and cosmetic companies began viewing adolescent acne as “a physical and psychic calamity of the first magnitude,” ramping up the pressure on parents and teens to shell out big bucks to achieve flawless skin.

For American girls, the body has become an all-consuming project.

The female coming-of-age process, Brumberg observes, has now been reduced to commercial rituals focused on externalities rather than communal ones that allow older women and girls to discuss with one another the emotional, spiritual, and physical process of maturation. True, our nineteenth-century foremothers often failed to talk honestly with girls about their developing bodies and sexuality. But they were significantly more likely than we are to encourage young women to focus their energies on developing their moral character and contributing to their communities rather than on whipping their bodies into shape.

Brumberg finds disturbing signs of this shift in American girls’ diaries. In the nineteenth century, girls vowing to improve themselves generally wrote about their resolve to focus less on themselves and more on doing “good works” at home, school, church, and so forth. In contrast, twentieth-century girls pen passages such as this one from a 1982 diary, quoted by Brumberg: “I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can … I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.” For American girls, the body has become an all-consuming project, “something to be managed and maintained, usually through expenditures on clothes and personal grooming items, with special attention to exterior surfaces—skin, hair, and contours.”

Because Brumberg’s account might tempt us to deem contemporary girls more selfish and superficial than their historical peers, it’s worth noting that the Victorian ideal of female self-denial was problematic too. It encouraged girls to repress their own desires and ambitions completely in order to support those of others, whereas today’s rhetoric at least makes room for girls to invest energy in themselves. Too often, however, our society encourages girls to regard their appearance as the most salient aspect of selfhood. In a 2011 Huffington Post essay entitled “How to Talk to Little Girls,” Lisa Bloom challenges adults to notice how frequently we open our conversations with girls by telling them “how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are.” In so doing, we imply that we care more about what they look like than what they think, say, feel, or do. Inspired by Bloom, I started paying attention to my own conversational overtures and was shocked to discover how right she was.

By focalizing the “Uglies” series around a female character, Westerfeld indicates his awareness that the pressure on girls to look good is especially intense. Similarly, by dubbing his characters “Uglies” and “Pretties,” he evokes early feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s declaration that “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but nouns.” But he loses credibility as a cultural critic by portraying social indoctrination as effortlessly reversible. Although his sixteen-year-old heroine Tally Youngblood has been taught since birth that human beings in their natural state are irredeemably ugly, she requires only a brief sojourn in a camp filled with non-surgically-altered rebels to overcome this prejudice and fall for a free-range guy. This unconvincing turn of events reveals Westerfield’s refusal to acknowledge that cultural conditioning can cause profoundly harmful and sometimes irreparable effects.

A far more haunting indictment of how consumer culture infiltrates our consciousness can be found in M. T. Anderson’s Feed, which predates the Uglies series by several years. Set in a future when the overused earth is falling apart and people’s bodies with it, Feed chronicles the escapades of a wealthy American teen named Titus and his friends, who carry within them “the feed”: a computer device implanted in their brains that bombards them with advertisements and enables them to view and purchase all kinds of merchandise and entertainment. Whereas most YA dystopias allow readers to align themselves with the rebel forces, Feed keeps us in the head of a kid who prefers to remain uninformed about unpleasant topics such as the scattered protests against the corporations that run the feed (and the schools, and the American political system), raping the planet for resources and then neutering the news programs to play down ensuing controversies and disasters. “The braggest thing about the feed,” Titus declares,

is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are … Of course, everyone is like, da da da evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great because who knows what evil shit they’re up to … But they’re the only way to get all this stuff … Plus, they keep everyone in the world employed, so it’s not like we could do without them. And it’s really great to know everything about everything whenever we want …

Everything, that is, except what the corporations are doing and how the seemingly infinite options they offer actually foreclose the possibility of certain ways of being and relating to others. Once immersed in a market-driven culture, Anderson suggests, you cannot simply extricate yourself, because this experience shapes even the most intimate aspects of your life, from what you find attractive to what you dream about at night. As the feed burbles about “new techniques to reconfigure pecs, abs, and nipples,” Titus and his friends make themselves over again and again, adopting new clothes, new slang, new fantasies. The feed even manages to persuade people that the oozing lesions that have begun surfacing on people’s skin are cool, prompting some of Titus’s friends to buy into the fad for artificial incisions that allow red muscles and tendons to peek out at the world. “I was getting bannered so hard,” Titus says, describing the constant barrage of ads that have crept so far into his consciousness that he cannot endure silence or solitude, preferring instead big groups in which “everyone is leaning toward each other, and people are laughing and they’re chatting, and things are great, and it’s just like in a commercial for jeans, or something with nougat.”

What saves anderson’s novel from being a mere rant against commercialism or technology is that its climax hinges less on the evil allure of the feed than on how difficult it is to attend to other people’s suffering rather than taking refuge in distraction.

No one in Anderson’s novel manages to escape the influence of the feed, not even Titus’s girlfriend Violet, who tries desperately to keep her own mind clear, as well as to shock Titus and his pals into caring about the plight of the planet and its less privileged inhabitants. Nevertheless, when her feed malfunctions, it turns out to be so intertwined with her brain and body that she cannot survive without it. Before she dies, Violet realizes to her horror that even her bucket list, her vision of what it means to live life to the fullest, comes mostly from the opening credits of sitcoms she’s seen on the feed. Similarly, Titus’s narration often segues into snippets of advertising lingo, even when he is trying (and failing) to take in the meaning of his girlfriend’s death. Titus simply cannot bring himself to listen to Violet’s warnings or to remain with her while she dies. What saves Feed from being a mere rant against commercialism or technology—besides the kooky brilliance of Anderson’s imagery and prose—is that its climax hinges less on the evil allure of the feed than on how difficult it is to attend to other people’s suffering rather than taking refuge in distraction.

If Feed is reminiscent of Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange, Gennifer Albin’s Crewel evokes aspects of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Above the ruins of a war-torn earth, a group of nations have banded together to create a new world run by men, even though women called Spinsters do most of the work of weaving this Matrix-like environment called Arras into being. Sixteen-year-old Adelice Lewys finds herself ripped away from her family because she can see and manipulate the gleaming strands of time and matter that make up Arras without using a loom, which marks her out as that rarest kind of Spinster, a Creweler. This first book in a planned trilogy chronicles how Adelice comes to understand the extent of her abilities and the complicated power dynamics of her world, in which the all-male Guild attempts to control not only the Spinsters and Crewelers but the rest of the population as well. The plot—hello again, pesky rebels!—picks up speed as the novel goes on, and I am looking forward to the next installment, which I hope will explain why Arras evolved into a patriarchal realm in which males and female are mostly kept segregated, with girls being held to strict “purity standards,” married off young, and limited to low-status jobs such as secretary or maid.

Whatever internal explanation Albin comes up with, however, I am convinced that there is an extra-diegetic reason for this choice: Crewel represents a salvo against what Peggy Orenstein refers to as “the new girlie-girl culture,” the deluge of all things pink and princess-y that dominates the girl’s side of the aisle in toy and clothing stores across the US. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein points out that the pink-versus-blue binary that currently informs so much of children’s material culture is a relatively recent phenomenon. Marketers began pursuing this strategy in the mid-1980s, after they realized that they could double their profits by persuading parents that all the stuff they’d already bought for their boy (for example) just wouldn’t do for their new little girl. Among other fun facts, Orenstein notes that children’s clothes weren’t color-coded at all until the early twentieth century; all babies wore white clothes, which were easier to clean thanks to bleach. When pink did come into use in nurseries, it “was actually considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red.”

Far less fun, however, is the evidence Orenstein marshals to support her contention that the pink princess trend encourages girls to regard the pursuit of physical perfection as their primary goal in life. The new rose-colored Lego and Monopoly sets aren’t just pink: they also promote “narcissism and materialism as the hallmarks of feminine identity” by representing girls as avid shoppers who love spending money on clothes, make-up, and new hairstyles. Brumberg’s point that we are ratcheting up the pressure on girls to look sexy from an early age is fully supported by Orenstein’s account of the boom in makeover salons, revealing clothing, and a wide range of cosmetics targeted to appeal to little girls, not to mention the 2007 debut of Nair Pretty, a fruit-scented depilatory “designed to make ten-year-olds conscious of their ‘unwanted’ body hair.”

Paraded before the paparazzi in “pinpoint heels” and clothes that make her feel naked, Albin’s heroine twice compares herself to meat being served up on a platter.

In Crewel, Albin resists this trend by giving the traditional princess plot a feminist twist. Plucked like Cinderella to step out of poverty and into a powerful position in a grand castle, Adelice resents rather than adores the men who insist that she step into this new and unwanted role. One of the ostensible perks of becoming a Spinster is that, like a newly crowned royal, you get a lavish wardrobe upgrade and your own team of aestheticians. But Adelice regards being worked over in this way as a waste of time and resources and complains about how nightmarish it is to be “remade into someone else.” Paraded before the paparazzi in “pinpoint heels” and clothes that make her feel naked, she twice compares herself to meat being served up on a platter. Moreover, Albin’s most evocative language is reserved for describing what Adelice can do—her gift for manipulating the shimmering fibers that make up Arras—rather than how she looks. As in “Rumpelstiltskin,” men imprison a woman and force her to spin, but in this case our heroine needs no male imp to come to her aid; she can transform the material around her and weave her way out, into a new adventure.

If Crewel takes on the constraining norms of girlie-girl culture, Kat Zhang’s What’s Left of Me evokes the misery of having to hide your identity from a culture that deems it deviant. Collectively titled The Hybrid Chronicles, this series is set in an alternative version of the twenty-first century in which everyone is born with two souls; one of these is expected to disappear in early childhood, a process known as “settling.” Eva, our narrator, is a soul who has failed to fade away, complicating the life of her other half, Addie, who seeks to avoid being labeled a “hybrid” by pretending that Eva is gone.

Wary, perhaps, of inciting censorship of Zhang’s book, reviewers have not picked up on the obvious allegory: the social pressure on hybrids to become single-souled beings mirrors our own culture’s attempts to eradicate queerness.1 In Addie and Eva’s world, everyone from their parents to the so-called helping professions regards hybrids as “sick” and dangerous, prone to violence and liable to corrupt children. Taught “to hate ourself,” Addie-and-Eva remain closeted until they meet a brother and sister, both hybrid, who persuade Eva to slowly emerge. But the sister, Hally-and-Lissa, proves so desperate to get to know other hybrids in their community that she blows their cover and lands them all in the clutches of a mental health system willing to use any means necessary to “correct” and “cure” them.

While some of Zhang’s more poetic metaphors misfire, her premise is rich. Because she makes hybridity intersect in interesting ways with class and nationality, the series seems poised to explore how prejudice enables—or distracts our attention from—other forms of exploitation and domination. Zhang’s plotting is also excellent. What’s Left of Me is a real page-turner that comes to a satisfying close, even though the process of Eva’s emergence is represented as realistically slow and difficult, a negotiation between the two sister souls that remains ongoing by the book’s end. Hopefully, when Zhang tells us more about the underground network of hybrids that rescued their institutionalized compatriots near the end of Book One, she won’t neglect to emphasize that they too have been indelibly marked by years of ostracism and internalized self-hatred.

It is notable that many of these books form parts of series. So many multivolume sets are being launched right now in the world of YA that the act of confining a complete story between the covers of a single book suddenly seems like a radical choice. If YA novelists insist on writing trilogies and quartets, however, they should follow the lead of Suzanne Collins and do something structurally interesting with the format. When I first read the second novel in The Hunger Games trilogy, it struck me as tediously repetitive. Even though Katniss is supposed to be done with the Games for good, since victors are traditionally excused from competing again, she gets dragged back into another round, another hellish stadium. Only after reading the gut-wrenching final book did I realize that the whole point of the series is that Katniss and the other contestants will never make it out of the arena, both because they cannot get over witnessing and causing so much death, but also because the rebels—whose side they have joined—employ exactly the same tactics as the Capitol, from brutally mowing down innocent civilians to subjecting Katniss to makeovers when they deploy her as a rebel mascot in TV spots aimed at uniting the opposition forces.

Collins uses the long form of the series to perform a kind of makeover on readers: by the end of the third book, we’ve witnessed so much devastation that we can recognize how shallow our original investment in Katniss’s romantic quandary was, how unwilling we were to acknowledge that violence has real and lasting effects that might undercut the possibility of a happy ending altogether. The country Collins’s characters inhabit is called Panem, evoking Juvenal; as one of her characters explains, “Panem et Circenses translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people have given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.” Rather than condemn the inhabitants of Panem for allowing elaborate body projects and contrived “reality” television to distract them from far more pressing matters, we are meant to recognize how closely our own inclinations match theirs.

While in training for her first appearance in the Hunger Games, Katniss—who has just compared herself to meat on a platter—gets the attention of the Gamesmakers by firing an arrow into an apple resting in the mouth of a pig laid out for one of their lavish banquets. Doomed to be eaten, a pig with an apple in its mouth is posed to look like it is the one doing the eating. This image, which crops up in Crewel as well, encapsulates a central message sent by many of these YA dystopias: allowing consumer culture to dictate to you what it means to be fulfilled is not an empowering choice. It’s a poisoned apple—a dead end. icon

  1. The American Library Association’s top ten list of “most frequently challenged” books frequently features titles whose queer content in particular has incited protest; recent examples include Chris Crutcher’s Athletic Shorts, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Sometimes, censorship efforts begin before the book has hit the market. In her 2011 article “YA Authors Asked to ‘Straighten’ Gay Characters,” Guardian reporter Alison Flood lists some of the many contemporary YA authors—including Lauren Myracle, Scott Tracey, Jessica Verday, Sherwood Smith, and Rachel Manija Brown—who have been pressured by agents and publishers to “straightwash” gay characters (the term is Tracey’s).
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