Identity deficit disorder - it’s so you

JENNY McCARTNEY’S hand-wringing about the preoccupation of the modern Western woman with vanity and consumption (on this page, 6/1) has a familiar ring to it. I am 34 now, and for as long as I can remember, responsible society has been exhorting me and my fellow female travellers to consider what we might have time to think about were we spending less time thinking about the shapes of our bodies.

While the description of the problem is accurate, the diagnosis is way off.

It is a shame that women invest too much time, emotional energy and money in their appearance. But the problem is not caused, as McCartney and others suggest, by the failings either of individual women or women as a gender.

For one thing, men are fast becoming as invested in their appearance as are women. The repetitive advice offered by men’s magazines about how to get an abdominal ``six pack’’ and slim down makes this clear, as does men’s fast-growing participation in plastic surgery. (They make up between 20 and 30 per cent of cosmetic surgery patients.) This is not a gender problem, but one belonging to all members of modern Western societies.

The philosopher Margaret Somerville describes such societies as multicultural, pluralist, individualistic, secular, post-modern and post-materialist. What she means is that Australians (and Americans, Canadians and Britons) are no longer bound by a collective culture, a common religion or a shared modernist belief in the capacity of reason and science to fuel inexorable progress towards greater knowledge and social and moral improvement.

We also are no longer primarily occupied, as were all humans before us, with the business of survival. What all these ``posts’’ mean, says Somerville, is that while we know who we were and what we used to believe in, we don’t know who we are and what we believe in now. This leaves us with a bit of time on our hands and a historically unprecedented lack of identity and sense of purpose to guide our use of it.

The same existential nasties still plague us – who are we and what is the purpose and meaning of our lives? – but there are fewer givens and minimal guidance to help us choose from an ever-expanding array of belief and identity choices. Should we become a Buddhist, or a Wicca Witch? Volunteer our time to save the environment or build a CV in pursuit of a career?

While existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre urge us to revel in our freedom to define the essence of ourselves and our lives, some experience such vast freedoms and the accompanying panoply of choices as distinctly unliberating. Confused and without the navigational compass provided by a core sense of self and purpose, we are vulnerable to the entreaties of any passing group or ideology that claims to have the answers.

In capitalist countries, the most extensively promoted and widely available answer is consumerism. A certain car promises jump-in-the-air exuberance and certain margarines claim to deliver mothers much sought-after affirmation and appreciation of their sacrifices. Particular perfumes or clothing labels pledge to make us feel ourselves to be a certain kind of person (dignified, chic, worth it).

The products we are told to buy change like the weather. The message that we must buy something to be something remains the same.

It was inevitable that the pressure to define ourselves by where we put our bodies, and what we put them in, would give way to pressure to alter them. Striving for a particular shape at the gym keeps us busy, gives us a certain self-defining look and helps us achieve the work success and/or spunky partner that contributes to a socially valued identity.

Plastic surgery can take us where the gym cannot, as well as delay the inevitable identity crisis facing those who have put most of their identity eggs in the young and pretty/handsome/fit basket. Of course, tying our identity up with our looks is not always a matter of choice. Many men having face-lifts say a more youthful appearance is essential to keeping or succeeding at their job.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Pollster Daniel Yankelovich says Americans yearn to break free of the boundaries and limits of material possessions, career and money and find some form of transcendence. Simon Longstaff, of the Sydney-based St James Ethics Centre, says the same is true for Australians. Generation X employees in particular seek meaningful work in companies in which they can feel proud.

The ultimately unsatisfying nature of the answers that consumerism gives to our existential queries also provides a window of opportunity into which more worthy and substantive solutions to our post-modernist dilemmas can be levered.

But the first step to embracing such opportunities is to stop viewing consumerist self-obsession as the peculiar moral failings of individual women or a peculiar genetic failure unique to those with two Xchromosomes.

Vanity is merely the symptom of identity deficit disorder, an ailment of our particular time and place that affects us all. To remedy it, we will need historically situated and socially based solutions.