It would be wrong to deny that there is of course a great deal of pleasure in the processes of bodily "maintenance", in the rituals and routines of self care. But it seems particularly cruelly ironic that in our contemporary situation, when women's (and men's) eating habits are monitored and regulated to such anxiety-inducing pitch, we are encouraged to take our pleasure through the wallet and onto the body rather than through the mouth.
The idea of the body as itself a product, expressing (or smelling of) excessive appetites for objects symbolising pleasure, is evident in the British artist Linder Sterling's photomontages from the mid-seventies. Sterling was involved in the subculture of Manchester’s post-punk scene, as a visual artist, feminist, performance artist and musician. She was interested in the media dichotomy from the 1950s onwards that restricted women's media presence into two very separate and contradictory spheres. The first arena was that of domestic lifestyle and fashion magazines directed to an audience of housewives, mothers and young women to sell cosmetics and new kitchen appliances. The second, was (and is) the female body as pin-up in pornographic magazines for men’s eyes only. The dichotomy of the centrefold and the housewife, two such disparate images of femininity, expressed the persistent hypocritical expectations that society placed on women.
This image is not in praise of the deliciousness of the feast of flesh or food: its sheer quantity perturbs the viewer as it spills out from the frame. Thus, the usually desirable contents of this collage become grotesque in their similarity to waste that repulses us. In her essay on the fear and fascination of the abject, Julia Kristeva writes that “food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection”. With her illustrations of excessive consumerism and hyper-sexualised female forms, Sterling is pointing out the grotesque nature of an over-saturated capitalist and misogynistic culture that force-feeds people negative imagery as inspirational desirability.
Claude Lévi-Strauss quite rightly said "to eat is to fuck" - sex and food both deal with the sensual, with desires and appetite; both are messy and full of the abject that is perhaps both gross and sexy. I came across this book Carnal Appetites: Food Sex Identities by Elspeth Probyn, which I thought was going to be one thing, but unfortunately turned out to be another. Probyn discusses the "exciting and diverse" middle-class food culture in Sydney and gives anecdotes about "hip and trendy" bars linking food and sex in the most obvious and silly ways; phallic shaped cakes that one must "go down on" to eat, then there's the pink triangle shaped pudding that is large enough to "share". This literal linkage of foods that look like genitals doesn't actually say anything about the experiences and pleasures of either food or sex, other than that both are sometimes funny-shaped and awkward. This again speaks of the way both sex and food are disavowed in certain forms: they are normalised, kept in place, remodelled, repackage and sold in safe packages.
Back to Sterling. Her photomontages are about putting objects in the wrong place, putting the sexual into the domestic sphere and making the everyday pornographic and obscene, in order to disturb notions of time and place and acceptability. Placed together, out of context and normal proportion, consumer items take on a sinister grotesque presence: they become fetishised in the same way as the pornographic images. The giant heads in the image above distort the pin-ups' archetypal focus on the body as object of desire by putting the emphasis on the face in a challenging confrontation. The too-large red painted mouth and the giant shiny phallic lipstick in the corner of the composition speaks (pretty loudly) of genitals. The garishness and vulgarity of the sexualised lipstick tube and the sneering mouth express disgust at a domestic sphere that is just as much a gendered space as the newsagents that sells grot mags or lifestyle magazines.