According to recent estimates, the soi-disant beauty industry is worth some $160 billion worldwide per year. Its prospects look good too: current research in the United States indicates that men are becoming increasingly vulnerable to its charms – apparently 38 per cent of them would like bigger pectoral muscles, (while only 34 per cent of American women want bigger breasts). Perhaps they would like to look like Ronnie Coleman as he first appears in Zed Nelson’s Love Me – standing strong, oiled, and improbably wide, muscles and veins bulging. Ronnie was awarded the Mr Olympia title every year from 1998 to 2005. He appears twice in the book; the second time though, he is on his knees, an oxygen mask strapped to his face – exhausted by dehydration, a punishing dietary regime and the rigours of competitive muscle-flexing. It is a devastating reversal of that staple of the body industry – the “before and after” pictures.
Love Me is the product of Nelson’s wide-ranging and long-term interest in the culture, psychology and industry of body improvement. It assembles pictures taken over the best part of a decade from over 15 countries, including the US, China and the UK, and – less predictably – Haiti, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Iran. As the succession of photographs of surgeons, bodybuilders, “aestheticians”, beauty contestants and trainee models suggests, the culture of bodily improvement is pervasive and entrenched. Besides those with a professional stake in the industry, Nelson has pictured some of its consumers: anorexics, overweight kids on fat camps, a housewife in the gym, a chest waxer, a nose jobber, and so on.
This is not achieved without a degree of irony. Witness Nelson’s juxtaposition of two portraits of a prepubescent competitor in an American beauty pageant: in the first she gazes expressionless and vacant, in the second she has adopted a schooled and utterly joyless rictus smile. Once again, the “after” undermines the promised improvement of the “before”. Elsewhere the often fascinating captions and accompanying texts perform a similar function. The unmistakeable visage of Jocelyn Wildenstein (once dubbed “The Bride of Wildenstein”) is accompanied by a terse quote, “The important thing is to find a good doctor.” Another example – an X-ray shows how metal rods have been inserted in a patient’s foot to shorten three toes. The owner explains, “I like to wear Jimmy Choos, 3-inch heels with a pointy toe.”
There is, though, more to Love Me
than the author’s wary irony. Through the mindful use of portraiture, still life, reportage and text – and through the global reach of his work – Nelson is able to allude to some of the industry’s ideological underpinnings. For example, he writes that the book was motivated in part by an awareness of the way in which Western ideals of the body and beauty are successfully exported around the world. So he photographs Japanese women shopping in Tokyo’s Barbie store; eyelid skin that has been removed during surgery in China to “Westernise” the eyes; and a Sri Lankan bodybuilder who idolizes Schwarzenegger. In Senegal he photographs the dark hands of a woman holding a portrait of herself in which her skin – and her face in particular – appear noticeably paler. Skin-lightening cream accounts for the disparity.
Needless to say, photography itself – or more precisely, its unholy complicity with an industry geared to the control and exploitation of self-image – plays a fundamental, and questionable, role. Nelson’s achievement is to use the medium against the tide, to destabilise the “before” and the “after”.