Sharleen Jonasson

"It's My Body and I'll Cry If I Want To"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUL 21, 2002)

It's My Body and I'll Cry If I Want To by Sharleen Jonasson

Beth Middleton is reaching middle age and her life is a mess. Her fourteen-year-old daughter, Paige, behaves indifferent at best, hostile at her worse. Her husband, Rusty has recently divorced her requiring more fun in his life. And, because she went too far on a research project, her freelance work has come down to writing "quasi-advertorials" usually targeted to appeal to one's vanity.

SRead excerpto when she receives a phone call from a baldheaded woman named Darby who explains that a secret organization would like to hire her for a sensitive assignment, Beth is curious enough to want to meet but, more so, is unwilling to turn down a chance at a credible research job. Although, it concerns her that they say she looks right for the assignment. Beth normally avoids jobs that require face-to-face interaction; she does not even own a business suit, preferring to work at home in her sweats and poodle dog slippers. And she hasn't had a bit of cosmetic surgery to slow down the aging process.

It turns out the assignment is to infiltrate a beauty clinic, and she's been chosen not just because of her research skills, but because she is so plain that she's practically invisible. Some asset. The organization that Darby represents is a group of women that are concerned about the image woman have in this society and are actively fighting what they call the Perceived Ugliness Syndrome (or PUS); they want to stop woman and girls from judging themselves against the unreal expectations of "beauts." Anyhow, Darby and the group believe that this clinic called the The Beauty Institute (TBI) - a subsidiary of BeautyCorp - are getting ready to roll out something that is going to be extremely damaging to woman the world over and it is Beth's job to find them out. But how does she convince TBI to take her as a client when its obvious she's not cared before?

As instructed, Beth takes the water taxi from shore to the island where TBI is located (the irony is that its a former leper colony), half believing she can still get out of this since she's not really taken on the PUS job yet. Checking herself in her own mirror on the way over, she feels she's done a fine job of camouflaging herself with the right makeup and the body shaper under her new chic pink-wool suit. She's fine that is, until she walks into the clinic. Checking herself in their mirror, she cans see that her suit faired better than her face - but, she's on to them, she knows it is their lighting... Then she sees the holographic image of a "TBI Girl: Under Construction." The girl is absolutely fascinating between her muscle definition and her "thigh-length hair, glossy blonde with Kaleidoscopic highlights; cantaloupe-sized breasts forming a deep cleavage between the plunging neckline of a white, sleeveless mini-dress; spherical buttocks hinting of an equally impressive cleft just below the dress' deep back. An extravagant stretch of body mass was given to long, lean legs. A beautician." Almost real, except she's missing the eyes, nose and mouth --- apparently TBI is still working on the universal perfect face.

So Beth meets with Mary for an interview. Not that this goes smooth since Beth is trying to play the role of someone who wants to improve her looks, yet in reality she is quite reluctant to sign up for any of their surgical treatment and humorously (for us) sends these mixed messages to Mary. Mary judges that by how long it took Beth to answer their questionnaire -- the computer times the applicants while they answer --- she lacks the key feature they need to make the program work: motivation. "Why a woman seeks treatment affects how satisfied she'll be with the eventual outcome." Sure, Beth thinks, they wouldn't want to take money from anyone with unreasonable expectations or judging by the next question, that has been unsatisfied with a previous "treatment." So catching on, she reveals her new status as a recent divorcée. Perfect, they have a slot for her to begin right away.

Once she gets involved with the program, it does get to be a little harder to stand on her own journalistic principles; the pampering some of these treatments provide is nice and the outcome is enticing. It is humorous as she subjects herself to the various treatments, always cautious, sometimes intrigued but try as she might, she never reaches the level of motivation that TBI clients are supposed to have. At least, not like TBI's good client Georgina, a woman Beth tries to befriend first to learn the ropes and then because she feels sorry for her. Fishing for information, Beth mentions to Georgina that if she took the advice of everyone there, she's afraid that "I'll look in the mirror one of these mornings and not recognize who's blinking back at me." With which Georgina responds, "That's my dream...It's what I'm waiting for, that total lack of recognition of who I've been up to now, that magic moment that means the transformation is complete."

Jonasson is a very polished writer, pulling off a level of humor that is a mix of self-debasement, cynicism and slapstick. True, she takes the subject of beauty and makes it into a light comedy, but the reality is, she's got a strong message. Darby's concern about the beauts and the perceived ugliness syndrome is not too far off the mark. My sisters and mother see nothing wrong with dreaming about nips, tucks and breast enhancements. They love the fact that my youngest sister is a hair stylist and can dye their hair any color that isn't gray. As I'm someone who has yet to discover the make-up department; who can't hold a blow dryer and a brush at the same time; and likes her well-earned gray hair, I find it all quite curious. It also may be why I enjoyed this book so much. And I am concerned with the going trend. This week while watching the evening news, I learned about Botox parties (think Tupperware or Pampered Chef parties but in this case you invite your friends over to be coerced into paying for snake venom injections to cure crow's feet, frown lines and forehead wrinkles). So, as far as I'm concerned, though this novel is set in the near future, it is spot on; perceived ugliness syndrome isn't all fiction.

The thing is, Jonasson's novel is not just a humorous reflection on the beauty industry and ad agencies, she's asking the not-so-obvious question that if we live in an age of affordable beauty (to quote William Gibson's Neuromancer) where does it end? Is there one perfect prescribed beauty? In case your were wondering, Jonasson does let our lamentable reporter Beth happen upon the secret project... and it's a good one, or let's just say, apropos.

As I mentioned, the novel is set in the near future, thus Jonasson peppers it with everyday objects that we would expect to see in future homes and our future lives. In fact, the novel reminded me of a Philip K. Dick novel in the way future conveniences sometimes hamper and annoy. The future gizmos aren't that original, i.e. telephones with vid-cameras; it is the ease with which they are integrated into the story that gives them credibility. At no time do you feel that she's throwing a piece of technology in your face so that you'll know its the future, instead, the props are so integrated into the story you'll wonder why we don't have the same such convenience already. I was strongly considering putting this on the Science Fiction bookshelf, but decided that like Laura Esquivel's novel The Law of Love, which is also set in the future and includes elements of traditional Sci-fi, it somehow doesn't seem to completely fulfill the requirements of that genre.

Another enjoyable strength of this novel is the depiction of the relationship between Beth and her daughter Paige. Beth, naturally, is trying anything to be in the same space with what she hopes could be a communicative, non-hostile Paige. Beth is realistic, she certainly does not expect to bond, after all, how does one bond to a kid whose idol is a popular rock star called Lalani who has had both breasts (and nipples) removed. See here it is again, an example of what Jonasson does in this novel: she takes a natural mother-daughter conflict and then rolls in ideas of a possible future and raises the question about how far can it all go. Only this time the question is in regard to what's left for the future generation's desire to distinguish themselves through self-mutilation. And yeah, it's funny.

I can see where this title or its cover might put a reader off. I was pulled into the novel reading an excerpt and I suggest that you do the same. If it's your kind of humor, I strongly recommend that you give it a try. I don't think that you'll be disappointed with this fast-paced, yet intelligent novel. Actually, if you are like me you'll find yourself thinking about it at the oddest moments, like while watching the evening news.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews


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About the Author:

Sharleen Jonasson is the alter ego of a business journalist who writes for publications in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The list of her publishing credits includes Office.com, Onvia.com, Backbone Magazine, Canadian Living, and Canadian Business. Her short fiction has been published in Mississippi Review and Blue Fiction. She lives in Victoria, B.C., Canada, with her husband and three children.
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