Just walking down the high street means being surrounded by images of bodies being used to sell everything from shaving gel to breakfast cereal. More often than not these bodies are airbrushed and altered so the women portrayed have inflated breasts, tiny waists, rounded bottoms and long legs while men are muscular with angular jaws.
The perfect body is equated with absolute happiness. Women in particular are encouraged to keep the looks and figure of a teenager. This is no longer seen as the preserve of the vain and shallow but as a natural desire for all women. More and more young women and men are developing eating disorders in order to attain the “perfect” body.
However, a large number of us suffer from “body shame”. So called “body shame” is not confined to the Western world. In South Korea 50 percent of young women are having surgery to give them westernised eyelids; in China women are having excruciating operations to make them taller. It is within this context that Susie Orbach argues that “bodies are becoming our personal mission to tame, extend and perfect”.
Orbach is a practising psychotherapist and she has noted that many of her clients with various emotional problems also have body dissatisfaction that is central to their story. These clients don’t believe that they are being unduly influenced by the images of perfect bodies that they are bombarded with but experience the wish for a more perfect body as their own desire. Orbach is arguing that we do not experience our bodies as integral to our sense of self, but rather as objects to be improved and perfected.
Experiencing our bodies in this way has not led to a healthier society (physically or emotionally). It has in fact led to progressively more unstable bodies and serious emotional suffering. In order to support her theory Orbach uses a number of case studies about industry and government policy.
Traditional psychoanalytical theory has argued that body issues are the manifestation of emotional issues. Unhappiness with our bodies could be seen as an expression of low self-esteem. Orbach argues that body image is a problem in itself and one that is causing increasing distress in our society. She wants therapists and others to support “people to become embodied” and asks that “we rethink the body in such a way that we can both take it for granted and enjoy it”.
In many ways Orbach’s theory should not really come as a surprise to Marxists. Karl Marx argued that capitalism is a system that causes human beings to become alienated. Under capitalism those things that should be harmonious become divided. Human labour should be a fulfilling activity. However, under capitalism we are separated from our labour and in this process we are separated from our human essence and in turn separated from nature. If we accept that the process of alienation exists it is no wonder that we have a difficult relationship with our body. In fact capitalism has actually alienated ourselves from our bodies.
This book is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ourselves and our bodies. However, in many ways it is unsatisfactory. The case studies and facts do not feel adequate enough to justify her arguments. In fact in some ways the book doesn’t feel complete, but it is still recommended.
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