The B*easts – Monica Dolan at Bush Theatre
It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I sat, repeating my fake year of birth in a dodgy tattoo studio – trying to have that kind of swagger that I thought someone as old as sixteen has – desperate for them not to realise I was thirteen. The trip was successful in that we all passed the date of birth test; unsuccessful, in that I came out with a Celtic symbol on my hip, one of my mates is now forever marked with a blue dolphin, and the other one fainted halfway through, so couldn’t get hers filled in.
There’s a legal age for most ‘grown up things’, isn’t there? At fourteen you can work part time; at fifteen you could mess up and find yourself in a young offenders institution. Sixteen is the age for consensual sex, for choosing if you want to stay in school, for playing the lottery, flying a glider… buying liquor chocolates. At seventeen you can donate blood. Eighteen is when life really kicks off and yours is the power to vote, smoke, buy fireworks, watch porn without getting into trouble, place a bet, buy booze, drink booze, get a tattoo (I must be well old then, because that’s changed), pawn stuff and drive a lorry.
What do you reckon the minimum age to undergo cosmetic surgery is?
Amazingly, although the legal age to give medical consent is sixteen – there isn’t a specified legal minimum age to undergo plastic surgery in the UK.
In her critically acclaimed one woman show, The B*easts, Monica Dolan tackles this legal ‘grey area’ head on, and offers us a case of a girl who convinces her mother to allow her to have breast implants just after her eighth birthday. It’s extreme, you’d think highly implausible: a shock tactic from which to launch a play. However, at an early reading, Dolan was approached by an education representative who asked if The B*easts was a true story, because a common question that she is asked by the female children she works with is: How old do you have to be to get a boob job? Dolan’s idea highlights that perhaps we aren’t that far off things being so extreme. After all, Matalan and Primark stock padded bras and bikinis for kids as young as seven, kids’ shoes with heels have been around for a while now – and apparently, Tesco once stocked kids’ pole-dancing kits…
The story is told by Tessa, a psychotherapist who we meet during a quick ‘e-cig and a glass of whisky break’ in-between patients. We’ve caught her at a good time: she’s paid not to have an opinion, but she’s up for an off-the-record chat. What she is clear about though, is that she doesn’t want to pass judgement. And I’m also coming from a place of no judgement – cosmetic surgery isn’t up there on my agenda (although I did FaceTime my dad the other day and realised that my nose is morphing into his. I’m not going to lie, in that moment, the thought of a nose job did cross my mind). There are many people for whom plastic surgery is a momentous, life-changing and life-enhancing thing – an experience of which they are proud. This is not about what is acceptable or not acceptable when it comes to personal choice (notwithstanding the medical reasons that young people and children undergo plastic surgery on the NHS). Tessa says it categorically: “I’m not interested in right or wrong.”
What The B*easts questions is society’s reaction when something shocking happens that sits outside of the norm. The way in which, when society can’t blame a child for something, it blames the next closest thing – the mother. And in this case, Lila and her mother are part of something that society finds so disturbing: the display of what “adults read as sexual or sexualised behaviour.” The B*easts makes its audience consider how we cast blame without taking into consideration the way in which society itself is part of, and takes advantage of, the problem. The unhealthy influence of women’s magazines; the cliché that sex sells everything; that if there is money to be made – things will stay around forever; how MTV teaches kids about sexy dancing.
The play questions how society blames the mother for the sexualisation of her children without considering how far the mother has in fact been sexualised herself. Outside of the playtext, Dolan uses the example of Katie Price being vilified in the press for posting a photo of her young daughter in make-up, standing in a provocative pose. How quick the media was to judge, when Katie Price gave them “Jordan” – who was “rewarded in society in every possible way for the heightened celebrity sexualisation of herself”: now in the way she presents her daughter, we are surprised and disgusted by her behaviour.
The B*easts examines the role that the press has to play in creating a frenzy of blame. The way in which things kick off on the internet – before there’s the chance to assess things, before children are able to be protected; the way in which it seems “to ingest much of [its] news from social media before ruminating on it, spewing it back into social media and ingesting it again like a fly vomiting to nourish itself, soaked up as a matter for public interest”. And how the press always expects something from its subjects, regardless of the fact that it too is a source of “appearance expectation” giving reference points for what people ‘should’ look like: beach bodies, red carpets, fat shaming…
Social media is part of our everyday, everyhour. Tessa points out the “mental-health gap between everyone’s Facebook profile and themselves as they truly are”, that with the help of a few billion adverts, “we are getting frightened to invent unconsciously from within.” Body and self-image is rated on social media through likes and shares. There are filters where you can airbrush your face: people feel they need to compete with a society that values youth and beauty over other attributes. Social media has been related to a rise in unhappiness amongst children and young adults in relation to their appearance. In the play, Lila had thought that this procedure would change her life – she’d hoped for approbation and idolisation – she’d dreamed of “white fur coats…stepping out of beautiful cars, dancing, adoration from helpless grown men.” The Kardashians offer the façade that success comes from the ‘model image’ – for some, physical enhancement is a way of them showing the world that they invest in themselves. The Nuffield Council of Bioethics’ report on cosmetic procedures found that, among girls there is a growing lack of confidence with respect to their appearance, which is holding them back from wearing certain clothes, having photos taken, speaking out in class, socialising. Worryingly, a substantial number of young people in their late teens say they care more about the way they look than their physical health.
Experiments have been carried out whereby people count the ads on their way to work – how many billboards they pass by that serve to pile on social pressures and anxieties. It’s been found that paying for cosmetic surgery is up there in the top three reasons that people take out loans. Plastic surgeons offer packages such as the “Mummy Makeover”, aimed at women who have had their babies and want to achieve that ‘pre-baby bod’. There’s another package aimed at women in their mid-forties to fifties, who may be feeling self-conscious of their image (as if 45 to 55 is old). And it’s something to think about: how many women do we know who are openly happy with the way they look? I don’t know many: we are bombarded by signals telling us to be self-critical. One of the most worrying things that I have discovered is the emergence of cosmetic surgery apps, aimed at kids between seven and nine, that tell them how they could improve themselves and how much a boy will like them as a result.
In an hour, Dolan impressively investigates aspects of this complex topic. She plants points from which to consider the layers of the causes and effects of our society’s approach, in terms of what we do “with that bit of a female child that wants to be a woman”. How that bit of female child is exposed to things, primed for things, as she experiences more of that jungle out there which is changing by the day and targeting her sense of self from all angles. How we treat that bit of female child and judge her when her choices become ‘extreme’. Meanwhile, there are people and systems that have exploited her, that happily “go unquestioned.”
Social Media ain’t all bad and it is also a great medium for spreading counter-narratives that challenge prevailing ideals with tidal hashtag movements. The Be Real Campaign is determined to change attitudes to body image and help all of us put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies. It is a national movement made up of individuals, schools, businesses, charities and public bodies. Also check out Body Gossip, a charity that empowers every body by campaigning through Art and Education, and check out @AnyBodyOrg on twitter – sign their petition to Stop cosmetic surgery apps aimed at kids: #SurgeryIsNotAGame.