Embarrassing Bodies: There’s no shame…
Adele was born intersex; not quite female and not quite male. Her parents decided to raise her as a boy and she was given testosterone so she’d develop male characteristics.
She did – including male pattern baldness. Later, when she realised she felt more female than male, she had dodgy cheap hair implants put in to cover her sparse hair. She also had buttock implants done to create a more feminine silhouette.
It all went wrong. One buttock implant ruptured, causing her immense pain. Her hair looked like elephantine bristles, sparse tufts coming from scar tissue.
Enter the Embarrassing Bodies crew, with their slightly disingenuous tagline:
There’s no shame, we’re all the same.
The immensely successful and regularly grotesque show with its very normal looking stars traverses the UK and the world to find people with shameful deformities, disgusting diseases, and a terrifyingly diverse range of genital problems. Then they fix them.
The latest season opened with a splash; a close-up of a prolapsed uterus. It was a scene that raised eyebrows with its 9pm timeslot, but all is excused in the name of medicine.
Some viewers cower in fright. Not for them the no-holds-barred footage of operations, the popping of cheesy cysts, the exploration of the dark recesses of the human body.
But some of us just can’t get enough. Oh yes, it’s morbid. It’s voyeuristic. There’s the perverse thrill of the freak show, the carnival atmosphere.
With a gentle welcome (‘let’s just have a little look, shall we?’) the toothy Dr Christian, sultry Dr Dawn or perky Dr Pixie bring in the modern equivalent of bearded ladies or the Elephant Man.
I had a fairly simple answer for the appeal of this gorefest. It makes you feel normal. How can you worry about the weird shape of your nostrils or your gappy teeth when you’ve just seen someone with a hernia the size of a watermelon?
But there’s something deeper going on, according to Associate Professor Tania Lewis. She’s from RMIT’s school of media and communications, and one of the country’s top experts on reality television.
She says while Embarrassing Bodies certainly fits the tradition of Dr Phil and Oprah, where we tune in and turn on to hearing about people’s bizarre lives, there’s more to it than sick fascination.
“It’s actually quite informative, it’s got a self-help feel to it,” she says.
“Shows like this are about empowering ordinary people. So on the one hand there’s a freak show humiliation element, but there’s also a democratisation of knowledge… it’s often helping people who are somehow socially marginal.”
She’s right; the show and its website are actually filled with useful information on sex and safety and intestinal worms and testicles and everything in between. Hordes of blushing teenagers have probably found answers to the questions they dare not ask.
And, as Prof Lewis points out, restoring people to normalcy is a far better message than that given by the extreme makeover shows and their never-ending pursuit of an imagined perfection.
“There’s a real life story, a life transformation, a personal, confessional element – as well as a vicarious but slightly problematic pleasure in watching a man talking about his ejaculatory problems to the doctor,” she says.
So, dear Reader, if you are an aficionado of the grotesque but consider it a guilty pleasure, relax. Embarrassing Bodies may be macabre, but it’s also an exploration of human diversity, and its stories are of triumphing over bad luck or crappy hospital systems. And who doesn’t like to perve on other people’s misfortune?
There is no shame; we really are all the same. Right?
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