In her book “You too can have a body like mine”, writer Alexandra Kleeman describes the absurdity and shame that is linked to our bodies and their perception. We talked to her about the ideal world of pornography, body perfection, and why she distrusts anyone who dislikes Adam Sandler movies.
How much time do you consciously think about your body or appearance?
It varies quite a lot. When I write, the page is completely distracting. I sometimes even forget to eat when I am writing because if I remembered that I had to feed my body, I would also have to remember all the other things that go along with it. It is a very unhealthy attitude but it is healthy to me because it helps me to stay productive and therefore emotionally balanced.
The human body and looks are central themes in your book “You too can have a body like mine”. The characters seem to be very conscious about their bodies and how they look and feel – up to the point of complete obsession. It got me thinking about my own body and how I perceive it and I would say that most of the time when I think about it, I do so unconsciously because it has become a habit.
A lot of my habits for taking care of my body, habits for making my body appear to myself as my body, are deeply engrained. Processes become automatic, we do them without deciding to do them, and then we naturalize the end result. When I see myself 100% unmade-up, I feel like I resemble myself less than if I had just the eyeliner on. Our body rituals don’t take up that much mental space but they do take up a lot of time. When I think about the time I spend doing my routine – scrubbing, exfoliating, etc. – I feel cheated. It is time I could have spent working on something else.
In the book you write, that it is no wonder we care so much about our looks because it is the one thing that sets us apart from each other. It is a very true and yet also a very superficial judgement at the same time.
In terms of our culture, there is all this rhetoric about how people are not all that different from each other. You can shape your inner self to become a different person, one that fits the social surroundings. Our insides are undifferentiated; you can mould them like a piece of clay. In some ways the materiality of our outer selves offers resistance to this idea of infinite changeability. This surface can be altered, but only through labor and only with some pain or discomfort. It refutes the myth of transformation as a painless and liberating process.
The protagonist of the book, a girl called A, is afraid that her roommate, B, is trying to copy her looks and behaviour in order to come as close to her as possible. But it seems like it is not B’s strange behaviour that worries A but the fact that she can be copied and is therefore not unique.
Even though A is the person who is on stronger footing in the friendship, she starts to feel her personality as a delicate configuration of traits that can all be copied or even done better by someone else. She is afraid to realize that her personality is not what she wants it to be and she is nervous that others are able to see it too.
“We are under constant production”
The book’s focus on our body shows how much shame there is involved when we are conscious about our body and its behaviour. A lot of what is very natural, are things we want to cover up or at least ignore.
Yes, we have a measure of control over our bodies so we take on the responsibility of presenting it in an attractive way. We carefully produce images of ourselves that are supposed to reflect our personalities, our inner selves. If you turn on the TV, you can see how the pressure to perfect, fill, and define faces has constricted facial expression, and therefore the expression of emotion. It is almost as if these famous faces are trying to transcend their personhood, turn themselves into a flawless personified brand. When we reckon with our own body, we reckon with a physicality that is in a constant rehearsal process. We are never a finished product. We are under constant production. But there is a lot of shame involved because artificial personalities have become the benchmark, professionalized, weaponized bodies with personalities to match. You cannot compete with perfection.
It seems to me that the body shame in the book is exclusively female. The male character, C, seems very at ease with himself – except for his porn addiction. Was that your intention?
There are probably more similarities between the female and male world of beauty than we might see at first. I think that the female way of dealing with body insecurities is more open and direct, whereas men absorb and internalize these concerns. Men also worry about their weight or their body hair but are trained to reflect on it less, and are definitely trained to keep that type of anxiety contained. Maybe a man’s body also has fewer problem areas than a woman’s – at least in public perception. Our eyes are drawn toward areas that we’ve been taught can betray us, and the female body is a minefield.
C’s fixation on porn is striking because it highlights a pressure that many men feel: to be a true stallion that can satisfy all the women. His fixation is also superficial but on a different level.
When they select men for porn movies, it is less often about types and more often about performance. Women have to fit a certain type or role, they determine the genre of the film. Both are being objectified but in different ways. I wanted to include porn in the book because it does so much nowadays to shape how we perceive the act of sex. With porn, you are transported to this virtual place where you can be anyone in any given scene. It is like a scaffolding for your own fantasies. You even have the luxury of getting bored. In reality, you are more restricted and under pressure. The pleasure from having actual sex with a physical body and the pleasure derived from the limitless, virtual world of porn are profoundly different and yet very linked. It’s maybe similar to comparing books and e-readers.
C takes fantasy – in the form of porn – and tries to put it onto reality by making it part of his relationship with A. He thereby glorifies it because in contrast to the real world, the virtual porn world is a place where no desire is rejected. It is the ideal world of fulfilled desires.
I understand that it is controversial to glorify porn because it is loaded with problems and hidden power structures. Accepting or even liking porn is surely a minority standpoint and as a writer that is interesting to me. I don’t want to focus on how deadening or flattening porn can be, I want to explore why we like it, because it is hyperreal. I think of it as a technologically enhanced imagination space, that helps you expand your fantasies. But as I write in the book, it can also have a very distancing effect. There is a very subjective mixture of fantasies and you might not occupy the same fantasy as the person you are physically engaged with. The situations in the book are designed to show A sharing the same experience with other people but highlighting her discomfort with it. She is maladapted to C’s porn obsession.
“Food now exists for aesthetic pleasure”
One of the sentences that stayed with me after finishing the book is when A says that the female body never truly belongs to the woman. Do you feel that way?
I really feel that to be true, but at the same time I want to assure you that I am happy with myself. It is a problem that has been of interest to me for a long time and especially while working on this book. Being female in public, is an invitation for other people to comment on your looks and behaviour. Your body is unavoidably open to engagement from others who expect you to also engage with them.
Especially with the main character called A, it is easy to draw the conclusion that a lot from the book is autobiographical. The writer Chris Kraus once claimed that as a woman, it is almost impossible to be a-personal and that everything you do is understood to reflect your own experience. Do you feel that too?
I can relate to that, yes. But to write autobiographically, to mirror myself in this way, I’d need to know more about myself than I currently do. Because many events in the book seem out of this world, it should be clear, that this is a fictional account. A is constructed from many feelings and fears that I have, but she is not me. In some ways she exhibits the raw version of fears that I’ve trained myself to metabolize, fears that society defuses. It’s true that most foods were once living flesh—animal or plant matter. At the same time, it’s not useful to society or useful for an individual to keep this fact alive in your day-to-day reality. With A, I wanted to explore life in the modern world without the desensitizing calluses and coping mechanisms I’ve developed.
Food is another central theme of the book. The characters either seem to develop an obsession with it or feel complete disgust. It mirrors how we as a society glorify food but don’t want to know where it comes from or what effect it might have on our bodies. I would argue that people love food but hate the act of eating.
If you check Instagram, you can see how food has become completely detached from its primary use. It now exists for aesthetic pleasure. In a way, we are always asked to define ourselves through our eating habits. Food is the best metaphor for the relationship between an individual and his environment; it is the thing that links our insides to the outside world. In this sense, it’s a problem when that relation becomes visual rather than primarily nutritional.
A refuses to eat anything that is not purely artificial because she fears that by doing so, she would integrate herself into the food chain and be swallowed by something bigger than her eventually. Her reasons are not moral but purely self-protective, it seems.
You could argue that. Have you heard about the research they are doing on extreme caloric restriction? They were feeding one group of monkeys a normal calories-diet and another group a very restricted amount of calories. Over the course of five years, they found that consuming far calories made the monkey appear youthful. They speculated that the more one eats, the more the body is remade using the new materials—which means more chances of making mistakes in the replacement. In short, the finding was that everything you eat in a way speeds up your demise. This makes sense on a technical level, but is the point of life really to resemble yourself for as long as possible?
“A strange world can also offer comfort”
The novel describes the typical anxieties and problems of millennials yet there is very little indicating this: the Internet is virtually absent, instead the characters are all obsessed with TV for example. Was that intentional?
People say that TV is a dying medium and it certainly no longer exists in the way it used to when I was growing up in the 1990s. But it is still a very communal thing, as opposed to the more solipsistic, fractured content of the Internet. When you watch a movie on TV, you know that many other people are also watching this at that very moment. There is a big difference between watching TV all by yourself and watching it with other people – especially when you watch something that is generally regarded as bad or purely entertaining.
Because in a group you could not confess that you actually like what you see if you watch something like Sharknado?
If you watch Sharknado with other people, you adopt the reactions of the group. It is hard to have a private, distinct emotional experience when it is in conflict with the emotions surrounding you. But it is possible to have real emotions in a fake or staged emotional situation. One of the first things that got me watching TV again after college was the TV-series The Bachelorette. I watched this personal drama unfold and sometimes I couldn’t tell real from fake. Obviously the scenery and everything was completely fake but some of the emotions were very real.
I feel like your book does a similar thing by portraying people with real human emotions and fears in a completely surreal environment – not comparing it to The Bachelorette though.
I’m fine with it being compared to that show (laughs). You are right, there are real emotions in the book that take place in an unreal world. The characters in the book struggle with their environment but they are not sure whether the outside world has really gone mad or if they are just unable to cope with it. Also, coming back to The Bachelorette, we have already created a world that is so strange that I as a writer felt compelled to go one step stranger and create this bizarre nature. The only way to de-familiarize an already strangely familiar world is to push it even further. A strange world can also offer comfort.
I know that romcoms are completely unrealistic and bizarre but I find great comfort in them. I distrust anyone that doesn’t like Adam Sandler movies. I don’t watch romcoms with other people because I don’t want to know what they think about it, I don’t want to hear their critique. I just want to watch the rightness unfold: the good guy getting the girl, the bad guy losing out. I feel that romcoms are modern day myths. They tell a story we aspire to, a pattern we find over and over in the stories we tell about ourselves.
In a way, modern myths are tricky because they are no longer set in a land of fairies or dragons, so it becomes harder for us to understand them in purely mythical terms. We think that a perfect relationship is possible and get frustrated if it does not happen to us.
Yes, we believe that perfect communication in a relationship is possible. There are guides and TV shows telling you how to achieve it but nobody knows what it would be like because it does not exist. I honestly think we need new myths and they should be as detached from reality as possible. Anything else makes it too easy to substitute the myth for a reality.