Freakshow Television

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Currently airing is the new series of Bodyshockers: Nips, Tucks and Tattoos.This is a Channel 4 documentary (in the sense of the word that is only ever applicable on Channel 4) fronted by Katie Piper, herself the victim of an acid attack, in which she meets people who have chosen to take their body to extremes, be it through cosmetic surgery, piercings, tattoos, or other painful body modifications, and, most importantly, regret doing so.

The programme shows us the ins and outs of extreme aesthetics, in the most literal sense of the word. It regularly features graphic surgical scenes, and each episode is punctuated by pained groans and people adding to, or removing, their collection of extreme modifications. Bodyshockers is not the only television programme of this ilk. From Embarrassing Bodies (another Channel 4 creation) to TLC’s charmingly named Too Ugly for Love?, British television is full of lifestyle programmes that revolve around unconventional bodies, whether through biological disorders, botched procedures, or simply visible, glaring and brutally regretful decisions.

Bodyshockers paints itself as a semi-charitable enterprise, charting the reversal of the modifications made by its subjects (cue more graphic surgical scenes), as well as pitting them against someone intending to have a similar procedure done, in order to prevent them from making what was for them, a mistake. Often emotional, and always shocking, it would be unfair not to say that I openly admit to enjoying Bodyshockers, and similar modification-orientated programmes.

Where this ever expanding TV genre becomes alarming, however, is in programmes like Too Ugly for Love? or The Undatables, where people’s mental and physical health is paraded across British television under a façade of showing us that they’re ‘just like us’, when really we know that they have been put on primetime TV to tell us precisely the opposite. The Little Couple, Bodyshockers’ ‘parent’ programme Bodyshock and other similar aspects of the ‘documentary and lifestyle’ genre all set out to display the ‘freaks’ of the world: people with conditions that range from minor to completely debilitating. When you realise that Bodyshockers is alarmingly similar to programmes like this, the overall picture becomes much darker. Just because this was something they did to themselves doesn’t really make it any better, or more acceptable; it’s just how we legitimise another covert means of public mockery.

Surely the popularity of ‘freakshow’ TV actually reveals something fairly alarming about the mentality of the typical TV watcher, myself included. We will sit, by choice, taking an hour out of our evening, to watch people who have made irreparable and extreme changes to their bodies, or were simply born slightly different to ourselves, try and go about their daily lives. In reality, I think it boils down to the fact that we like to watch others suffer. We like to see people struggle, to feel intellectually superior to their poor decisions, or to simply feel fortunate that we are ‘normal’. TV like this is designed to make what is ‘average’ or ‘normal’ feel ‘superior’, and when you take a step back and look at it like that, an evening watching Bodyshockers just doesn’t sound so sweet.

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