A lot of people worry about how the way they look ‘measures up.’ Each culture of course has its own standards of what ‘counts’ as attractive, but in a lot of cultures, there is a great deal of media pressure and sometimes peer pressure to look a certain way. That’s one reason that the cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, fitness, hair salon and diet industries are so lucrative. People spend any amount of money on trying to fit the media/popular image of ‘attractive.’
Of course, a sometimes-very-unhealthy focus on appearance isn’t new. The pressure to look a certain way has been there for thousands of years, and there’ve been some unusual and sometimes horribly dangerous ‘remedies’ for what was perceived as ‘less than beautiful.’ But body/appearance issues are still very much with us, and they can still have dangerous effects.
Anxiety about the way one looks has certainly found its way into crime fiction, and not just recent stories either. In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we meet sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She and her father Captain Kenneth Marshall are taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger, an upmarket hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With them is Marshall’s second wife, famous actress Arlena Stuart. She is, among other things, stunningly beautiful. So Linda has a great deal of anxiety about her own appearance:
‘She disliked her face very much. At this minute it seemed to her to be mostly bones and freckles. She noted with distaste her heavy bush of red-brown hair (mouse, she called it in her own mind), her greenish-grey eyes, her high cheek-bones and the long, aggressive line of the chin. Her mouth and teeth weren’t perhaps quite so bad – but what were teeth after all? And was that a spot coming on the side of her nose? She decided with a relief that it wasn’t a spot.’
Linda has in her mind an ideal image of what a young woman ‘should’ look like, and she doesn’t measure up to that image. That’s a bit of the reason she’s very resentful of her stepmother; Arlena makes it all look easy, and certainly doesn’t bother to be friends with Linda. So when Arlena becomes a murder victim, Linda has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she admits to herself that she hated Arlena. On the other, the idea of actually killing or being killed is frightening and horrible. Hercule Poirot is also at the Jolly Roger, so he works with the local police to find out who the murderer is.
In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a new client. An excavation on the Westmann Island reveals four bodies in a basement. It soon turns out that they’ve been there since a 1973 volcanic eruption on the islands. Markús Magnússon was only a teen at the time, but he was living in that house. So he might have some knowledge of who the victims are, who killed them and how they got to the basement. Then, there’s another death. Alda Thorgeirsdóttir, who was actually Markús’ childhood sweetheart, has apparently committed suicide. What’s more, she had some knowledge of the incident that led to those bodies being in the basement. Now it’s beginning to look to the police as though Markús may have killed Alda, and may have had something to do with the older murders. Thóra travels to the islands with her secretary Bella to do the best job she can to defend her client against the murder accusation. One important witness is Tinna, a young teen who saw something vital. But no-one really pays much attention to her account. Tinna has severe anorexia, and is so obsessed by avoiding every single calorie that she’s got real mental, emotional and physical issues. They’ve made her sick enough that she’s not taken particularly seriously, although her illness is. It turns out though that she has a critical clue to the case.
Body image issues are also often a part of the high-profit trade in anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers. On the one hand, they can seem very effective as muscle bulk increases and endurance seems to improve as well. And carefully-supervised medically appropriate steroids can help heal injuries. But as I’m sure you know, those performance enhancers also sometimes come with dangerous side effects, especially when they are abused. Yet, the ‘ideal’ image of the well-muscled, toned body is irresistibly appealing for those who’d like to change the way they look.
In Rita Mae Brown’s Hiss of Death, for instance, her sleuth, Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen has a frightening health crisis. She is treated at Central Virginia Hospital where she meets a nurse, Paula Benton, who’s very helpful to her. So when Benton is murdered, Harry is determined to find out why. Then, there’s another murder. In the meantime, she’s joined Heavy Metal, a local gym, to help her build her strength. That’s where she starts to learn how performance enhancers are made available illegally. And it turns out that that information is critical to solving this case.
There’s a similar sort of theme in G.A. McKevett’s Killer Physique, which features her PI Savannah Reid. Reid gets the opportunity to meet celebrity Jason Tyrone, who embodies the muscle-toned, fit look that you see on advertisements for performance enhancers and fitness clubs. When he is killed, Reid finds a connection between that murder and a possible performance-drugs ring at the famous gym where Tyrone worked out.
There’s also Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage. Dennis Dempster has been ‘out of it’ since his divorce from his ex-wife Louise. His sister persuades him to pick up his life a bit and audition to work on the Regent Theatre’s upcoming production of Ladies Night. He’s taken on as part of the backstage crew and soon gets into the routine of working there. That’s how he meets Cathy, who owns a gym called Intensity where she’s training the dancers for the show. When he fixes a computer problem for her, Cathy invites him to take a tour of Intensity, and even offers to work up a fitness plan for him. Dennis knows he’s out of shape, but at first, he’s reluctant. Still, he goes along with her idea, and even joins the dancers for their workouts. He and Cathy begin to develop a relationship too. Then, Cathy’s assistant Vincenzo Barino disappears. When he is found dead, the case turns into a murder investigation. It turns out that the victim had a lucrative ‘side business’ in illegal performance enhancers, where he had some unpleasant ‘business associates.’ What’s more, he had a reputation as a ‘ladies’ man,’ with no concern for whether his current love interest was involved with someone else. So there are plenty of suspects, including Cathy herself. Dennis wants to clear Cathy’s name and Cathy wants to save her gym’s reputation. So the two of them work together with the police to find out who the killer is.
Just about any responsible medical expert will tell you that it’s a good idea to stay fit. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, too. But sometimes, what starts as interest can turn into unhealthy obsession. And being consumed by a media/peer-hyped ideal of what we ‘should’ look like can have terrible consequences. That’s one reason I like Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman so much as a character. She owns a Melbourne bakery where she does what she truly loves: provide bread. Corinna is no sylph. But she doesn’t obsess about what the media says she ‘should’ look like; instead, here is her view:
‘I could not get that thin if I starved myself for ten years, and that is a fact. We are famine survivors, we fat women and ought to be valued for it. We must have been very useful when everyone else collapsed of starvation. We would have been able to sow the crops, feed the babies and keep the tribe alive until spring came. If you breed us out, what will you do when the bad times come again? At the very least, you could always eat us. I reckon I’d feed a family of six for a month.’
In my opinion, that’s a really healthy attitude.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.