Review: Lee Kofman’s Imperfect

Imperfect. by Lee Kofman. Affirm Press, 2019. Pp 336. A$32.99

Lee Kofman’s third book, Imperfect, examines our relationship to our bodies and the connection we have between the frailty of our consciousness and how it affects the way we see ourselves.

The book opens with a recount of her husband’s discovery and inquiry about a scar on her leg — ‘I thought he’d already known who I was’. 

It’s not an uncommon sentiment held by women — our bodies are made to be something that are valued and judged. A physical deformity is often made to feel like a personal failure. Shame is attached to parts of ourselves that don’t resemble ‘the norm’. Thus, our contemporary anxieties to fit in. 

Kofman was born in Russia to professional parents. The family lived there for 12 years before moving to Israel. Kofman was born with a heart defect and describes the constant anxiety felt by her mother with acerbic honesty. Both mother and daughter possess Herculean strength. The hardships and struggles were humbling to read, as Kofman reflects on how our bodies define us. 

At age 10, Kofman was struck by a bus and multiple surgeries and rehabilitation ensued. She was left with severe scaring on her legs, which has left her hyper-conscious since. At school, Kofman felt she had to cull her body to submission in order to fit in. She wanted to be ‘normal’. She felt ‘half creature, half human’.

The terrific blend of memoir and research takes us meandering through her youth in the 80s. Details of her relationship to her mother and grandparents are written with poignant veneration. She examines the ties between the surface of our bodies and the cerebral depths within — what we cannot see — and asks if there’s worthiness in trying to separate what’s inside from what’s outside. Ultimately, she tries to interrogate the question — what does it mean to be a human, and, how do our bodies help us answer that question?

Why do scars make us uncomfortable? We know that the bearer has felt some pain when they received that scar.  We’re taught to conceal our pain, and therefore, our scars. We internalise the fear that being close to that injury might bring us closer in proximity to that pain, that misfortune. Scars are indicators of internal bodily malfunction of some sort. And so, societal at large has taught us not to find them attractive — that a physical deformity indicates some internal form of aberration. This is not true, of course, but that is what we’ve been conditioned to believe. 

Mutilated or physically scarred characters are presented in Hollywood as evil villains. They are always the morally corrupt — think Darth Vader from Star Wars, Scar from The Lion King, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. There’s a correlation between scars (physical injury) and morality. 

Capitalist narratives that promote the trope of beauty = goodness and disfigurement = evil continue to fill our cinemas. Hollywood has also shown us that strength and wilderness, more often associated with masculinity, means that men’s scars are more acceptable than a woman’s. 

Kofman makes comparisons to Frida Kahlo and analyses the creative ways her concealment of her physical injuries and disability became iconic. In Kahlo, Kofman found an idol — the ‘possibility of glamour for an imperfect woman’ in the form of Kahlo, whose body was damaged when she was 18 in a horrifying bus accident. 

In her young adulthood, Kofman finds her own femininity through the style of fashion she chooses to wear (another ‘body surface’), indicating a measure of what it means to be human — that we find ways, whatever it takes, to fit in. However, there’s an emotional burden to concealing our scars, writes Kofman, and this call for vigilance and concealment can become exhausting.

Kofman’s mother struggled with her weight, and Kofman uses her mother as a platform to launch into a section of the book that examines the ways large bodies are ostrizised and excoriated by the mainstream public. Nefarious marketing strategies by companies capitalise on using sharp, visceral language — for instance, skincare products that employ military terms to sell products that lure us into ‘taming’ our bodies — ‘Body Attack’ and ‘Body Combat’ and ‘Rescue Blemish Patrol.’

Kofman also examines society’s contemporary thirst for cosmetic surgery, mostly by women, seen now as an act of proactive self-care. We hover between these two realities: holding an aversion to the culture of perfection, and the desire to look better — a desire that is often oppressive and somewhat paralysing. 

Reading Lee Kofman’s book was a refreshing journey into the world of extreme body modifiers and men who find larger women attractive. The latter group’s focus, however, looked only at the male gaze, and perhaps that is a limit which Kofman decided to draw upon herself. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that our own acceptance to our bodies is a quotidian exercise, one that never reaches a definitive contentment. 

The tenor of the third of the book diminishes its power only slightly, when she veers off to discussions about how there are now more ‘imperfect’ bodies being ‘accepted’ by the modelling industry. And this troubled me, reading it — because it insinuates that we still need the approval of the mainstream to allow our beauty to have credit. It’s still on society’s terms, regarding with which the kind of imperfection that is awarded with desirable attention.

Imperfect has shed light on something deeply personal to me. It’s made me realise why I’ve always fallen in love with or made friends with people whose faces fall outside of the conventionally good-looking. These individuals have not not had access to the privileges of looking ‘normal’, or ‘pretty’, and so, they’ve had to find interesting ways of being. They know what it’s like to be an outsider, and so I relate to them. I’ve felt like an outsider my entire life, because of my Asian face, and because of how unattractive I thought myself to be. (Low self-esteem caused in part by the fact that my mother and two sisters are absurdly and unusually beautiful) and so therefore, my own average looks pale in comparison.

Storytelling can afford us a measure of control. And to tell our own stories involves reclaiming a power independent of the mainstream, patriarchal gaze. As Kofman notes, ‘the stories we tell ourselves about our imperfections, to others as well as to ourselves, can be useful in seizing some control over the seemingly uncontrollable.’ 

Jessie Tu is a journalist and writer based between Taipei and Sydney whose recent work examines gender, race and culture across East Asia and Australia.

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