Voyeurism disguised as ‘public health’

With its saggy boobs and shrivelled willies, Embarrassing Bodies sends the message that it's wrong to keep secrets.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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I have, of late, been exploring a lot of strange orifices. As something of a late bloomer, I came to The Only Way Is Essex only shortly before its female stars’ passion for ‘vajazzle’ – a form of intimate body decoration – went from hipster craze to the subject of a fearsomely deranged debate on the BBC’s flagship current-affairs show Newsnight. Thanks to the wonderful One Born Every Minute, I have seen newborn babies leave their mothers’ wombs and enter the world in more ways than I ever thought possible. And on The Sex Education Show, a terrifying amount of body parts and crevices have been exposed.

When a friend informed me that Dispatches was planning to finger two Premiership footballers on Monday night, it was a relief to discover that they were merely having their drug problems exposed. Yet, fear not, properly probing investigations were readily available elsewhere on our screens this week thanks to the return of Embarrassing Bodies. Since 2007, this show has taken viewers straight into one of the most private arenas – the doctor’s surgery. And, like an obnoxious party-guest rifling through your medicine cabinet, it delights in the horrors that it finds.

We’ve seen it all on Embarrassing Bodies: prolapses (rectal and vaginal); droopy boobs; cracked nipples; flaking skin; engorged testes; gangrene (oh, the gangrene); shrivelled willies; bent willies; and a litany of anal dysfunction so severe it won’t just keep you on the edge of your seat, it’ll make you wonder why your seat isn’t a giant bucket of soothing ice. This week, we got to see an aggravated anus, a fused labia, a rictus grin and a whole load of carved flesh (a regular Friday night in for me etc, etc).

It’s a series which has become the jewel in the crown of ‘edgy’ Channel 4, simultaneously revelling in its gross-out appeal in presenting legions of real patients with various eye-boggling ailments while ostensibly offering the viewer high-minded public-health advice, lest anyone think it was some kind of Victorian freak show. A brief glance at some of its spin-offs reveals many of the preoccupations of the twenty-first-century public-health adviser. There’s Embarrassing Teen Bodies, Embarrassing Kids Bodies, Embarrassing Fat Bodies and Embarrassing Old Bodies. There’s now even a live, interactive version of the show, adding an exciting techno-dystopian twist to proceedings. No doubt, soon we shall have Embarrassing Bodies: Celebrity Sex Tape, where we can all join in diagnosing Paris Hilton’s inflamed vulva or the tumorous possibilities of John Edwards’ mole.

Once you get past the show’s initial stomach-churning spectacle, which is by no means easy given its late dinner-time and pre-watershed slot, you realise the premise is built on an almost Shakespearean amount of internal conflicts. There is the obvious and most-commented upon feature: that these patients have put off going to their GP for so long out of shame, yet apparently have no problem with displaying themselves fully to the eyes of the public. We are constantly reassured that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodily failings, while being bombarded with all manner of public-health advice reminding us we should be constantly on the lookout for signs of decay or decrepitude (which will occur earlier if you’re a slovenly fatty, if you sleep around, or if you’re just plain old). It’s all presented by the youthful blond beefcake Dr Christian Jessen, who never misses the opportunity to flex his ripped physique while informing us we’re all disgusting, but that we should be happy with who we are.

No doubt some of those involved in the show have sincere intentions: bringing embarrassing problems into the light of day and assuring us that the best of modern medicine can cure them are at least agreeable intentions. The gross-out aspects can be defended as a necessary evil to draw in the punters, especially the younger ones, to listen to an educational message. But the presentation of the show raises the biggest eyebrow in relation to its deeply confused, if not downright hostile, attitude towards privacy. From the transparent glass-walled doctor’s clinic and the endless pop-up clinics the producers set up in public places to the underlying sense that these unfortunates are being physically punished for their sense of pride, there is a distinctly modern paternalism at work here.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to seek advice from doctors about physical problems causing distress, but surely the most interesting question is why, in a twenty-first-century Britain so proud of its National Health Service, the stars of Embarrassing Bodies waited so long to seek help? Yet this is never asked. There is just an assumption that it’s all down to the greatest sins of all in the modern world: shame and secrecy.

All aspects of the modern medical profession are celebrated here except the one most increasingly threatened by the regulation of our lifestyles under the tyranny of public health: the intimacy and confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship. For all its apparently liberal non-judgementalism and caring attitude, it is difficult to dispense the whiff from Jessen and his team of Viz magazine’s classic characters ‘The Bottom Inspectors’. They were based not on doctors, but on the bullying bureaucrats of Newcastle’s metro system. It’s a useful reminder that while we may be able to gaze at every opening under the sun in the interests of keeping us all fit and healthy, without a meaningful sense of privacy then we are a long way from a free and open society.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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