Thanks to Snapchat and Instagram filters, and cosmetic injectables and other “treatments”, modern standards of beauty are perhaps more standardised than ever. Uneven teeth, lined foreheads, body hair, jowls – you need to look hard to find them, particularly in the mainstream media. Lee Kofman’s Imperfect is a welcome reclamation of “imperfect” bodies.
Kofman begins by outing herself as “damaged goods”. Her body is covered with scars from operations for heart defects and a leg damaged in a bus accident, and thanks to the practices of medical staff in Soviet hospitals who, tragi-comically, “smelled of beer and vodka” and who privileged “strong citizens” over “vain ones”. The author’s body fitted just fine with “Russian bodies in the mid ’80s”, but she relates how she became increasingly self-conscious upon moving to Israel – which espouses Americanised ideals of female beauty – and later Australia.
The book then shifts, perhaps a little starkly, from transcultural memoir to a series of interviews with people with “imperfect” bodies, supplemented with meditations on the cultural meaning ascribed to imperfections. Scars, for instance, differ dramatically in their significance according to gender. There are also interviews with people who deliberately change their bodies through practices including extreme body modification. Kofman’s subjects – some of whom surgically transform themselves to resemble non-human animals or supernatural creatures – are optimistically described as “escapists” and “visionaries”, who shape their bodies according to their transhumanist ideals (much like the Kardashians). However, Kofman doesn’t disguise her fascination. She is too honest for that, conceding the voyeurism lurking at the heart of her project.
Kofman wants to learn “how our bodies can shape our lives”, but the wisdom she provides is more wide-ranging. What has stayed with me is her honesty about her own complex relationship with a beauty ideal that may be oppressive but nevertheless remains compelling. As much as we may be critical of women “reproducing themselves into the one perfect woman”, and as much as we may long for self-acceptance, what we are often left with is a deep-seated shame, which Kofman describes as a “double shame, about our appearance and about our attempts to improve it”.
Imperfect may be largely about “body surfaces”, but Kofman’s writing, as ever, goes well beneath the surface of things.
Affirm, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Lee Kofman, Imperfect ". Subscribe here.