BBC Radio 4

    A woman poses in a funfair hall of mirrors, circa 1935

    I have always been fascinated by the results of a social psychology experiment in which a number of people with varying self-conceptions were asked to stand in front of a range of distorting mirrors (much as one used to find at fairgrounds) and report on the degree to which their body was shortened, lengthened, widened, or thinned.

    If I remember the results correctly, it turned out that those with the most uncertain sense of self reported the maximum degree of distortion. However, those with complete confidence in themselves and their bodies could stand in front of a mirror and report very little distortion at all.

    I've often wondered how much these results might be affected by age.

    Although I have no scientific evidence to cite, I've come to believe that the older you get, the more likely you are to think of your own body as just about appropriate. It's as though after many years and many attempts to influence your body shape with exercises and diets and even cosmetic tweaks, there arrives a moment when your proportions suddenly come to seem natural.

    You can check this out with the Auntie test. Do you have an auntie over the age of sixty? Could you imagine her having any other shape than that which she currently displays?


    I've certainly tried throughout my own life to improve my body in a variety of ways. There was the six-month abortive attempt to build my upper body strength with an expensive set of weights. And there was my thigh-building regime on the exercise bicycle and my stomach-tautening period on the rowing machine.

    During all these regimes, I had brief moments when I believed I was effecting some transformations - moments when my sweater seemed stretched across my shoulders, when my thighs snagged against my jeans, when I could tighten my belt by at least one extra notch.

    But when nobody else apart from myself and my mirror noticed any of these changes, I happily allowed my body to enter the process which statisticians, I believe, refer to as regression to the mean.

    It was an instructor at my local gym who gave the final nudge to this decision. After an hour's assessment in which I'd been variously required to run round an indoor track, try out different speeds on a treadmill, lift an assortment of bars and weights, and attempt to raise my prone body from the ground using only my arms, he asked if I had any specific objectives I'd like to achieve.

    As usual I mentioned the extra inches on my upper body, the strengthening of my thighs and the tightening of my stomach.

    He gave me what, for a young man, was a remarkably old-fashioned look. "Professor Taylor", he said glancing at my date of birth in the right hand corner of the assessment form, "I've made a careful note of your objectives and we can certainly work towards them. But," - and here he gave me a small but sympathetic smile - "I fear that time may not be on our side."

    But my sentimental notion of everyone eventually arriving at their proper body shape is already being dramatically undermined by the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery - the prospect of being able to mould your body to an artificial shape which accords with your own desires. And there's no need to stay at home for such improvements.

    In this week's programme I meet two researchers who have made a special study of that brand new form of holiday - cosmetic surgery tourism.

    Also in the programme is the author of a book which argues on the basis of extensive historical and anthropological research that our existing ideas about money and credit are quite simply, wrong.

    Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed


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