Bodies: Big Ideas/Small Books

By Susie Orbach
Picador, November 30, 2008, $15.50

The works of seasoned feminist psychotherapist Susie Orbach were never part of the subversive women’s studies syllabus that I was taught. A quick scan of her credentials quickly underscores why. Not only did she treat the late Princess of Wales, she is also the consultant and co-originator for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Plainly put, Orbach’s writings were never featured on my course readings because she’s aligned with a brand of liberal feminism discordant with most of the more radical theoretical tendencies of women’s studies academics. They believe — as I do — that equality can only be achieved through a transformation of existing, oppressive structures.

Orbach writes prolifically about the body, eating disorders and women’s psychology. Her best-selling book, Fat is a Feminist Issue, explores women’s relationship with eating and food and aims to help women remedy vicious cycles of disordered eating. In her most recent book, Bodies, Orbach examines female and male body despair in the Western world, and how our bodies are “made” through the brain’s interaction with personal experiences and wider socio-cultural and economic arrangements. She explains how our corporeal distress — easily observable in patterns of obsessive body primping, widespread body discomfort, a retreat to online (“disembodied”) identities and inauthentic sexual desire — are formed through infancy and childhood. This distress is then irritated further by the narratives extolled by a consumer culture exclusively invested in prying open our pocketbooks.

Orbach’s accessible writing style — no obscure theoretical jargon here, thank goodness — makes Bodies an appealing read for academics and non-academics alike. Also, as a graduate student in women’s studies — a branch of the social sciences that centres its analysis on how socio-economic and political structures cause injury to people’s lives — it was refreshing to consider knowledge outside the discipline from someone who also identifies strongly with feminism. Yet the author stumbles in her analysis, sometimes forgetting to instil a feminist approach to the psychological research to which she alludes.

Orbach emphasizes findings that place an incredible importance on the mother-child relationship. She argues that a child’s relationship to her mother has tremendous repercussions on the ways in which this child will behave in and feel and think about her body later on in life. For instance, a mother may transmit unconscious anxieties along to her child in the process of rearing her. In light of such research, I was startled that the author did not also mention the possible implications these findings could bring to bear in the context of current cultural and economic conditions that already place an unfair share of childcare responsibilities on mothers.

Framed by a sexist culture, these findings could easily be used to justify regressive “blame-the-mother” narratives; for instance, to fortify ideas about “delinquent” individuals being traumatized by their mothers, at the cost of looking at the role of institutional oppression. Ought not the responsibility to raise healthy children also be the responsibility of supportive state legislation and programs and the surrounding community? What’s more, this research could be employed to re-inscribe traditional mother-as-caregiver roles, as well as ignore the ways male or same-sex spouses could participate in childrearing practices — and still raise a healthy, vibrant child.

Orbach explores familiar territory when she invokes the linkage between body insecurities and the financial stake of the beauty, cosmetic and fashion industries, or when she writes about non-Western women who undergo drastic surgical procedures in order to look thin, white and “Western” (since these are the usual images exported abroad via asymmetrical processes of globalization). This reminded me of a scholarly article I once read that researched the pro-surgery arguments of cosmetic surgeons; findings exposed how these arguments were steeped in racist discourses about non-European facial characteristics.

Orbach gets it right when she argues against absurd postmodern impulses that celebrate the new malleability of the body, or that hail a world so technologically advanced and open-minded that “embodiment is no more than a symbolic construct.” She also remains unconvinced by discourses of empowerment and choice that are deployed by abiding consumers and consumer industries. These are stances with which I am in total agreement: only by seeing how our desires to look a certain way exist within the parameters set by only a handful of options, can we come to understand that ‘choice’ is a primarily illusory claim. The “choices” to look “lean,” “cut,” light-skinned or have double eyelids are historically, politically and socially constituted. Those who simply associate these decisions with individual decision-making would do well by looking at changing images of body ideals throughout history, place and culture.

(I recently came across a tabloid story about Jennifer Aniston’s body, chronicling her metamorphosis from “imperfect” to “almost perfect” to “perfect” body. This article hit home the absolute arbitrariness of perfection, not to mention the fascistic tendencies of a media culture that prides itself on making templates of beauty so outlandishly narrow that, if it weren’t so tragic in its consequence, would be comical.)

The author does a good job of succinctly exploring the chaos that has become emblematic of North American diets. The lucrative dieting industry, she argues, can only thrive through the segmentation of the food industry, as well as through the shifting, competing truth claims that circulate about food, nutrition and health. It comes as no surprise that the fragmented nature of the food industry, in conjunction with confused public perceptions about nutrition and health, produces new opportunities for companies to market the next panacea. It also comes as no surprise that rates of disordered eating in Western nations are astronomical.

Her prescriptions to remedy this current body crisis include: creating programs for expectant parents around bodily issues, prosecuting the diet industry for deceptive advertising, and democratizing the range of presented body types in visual culture and the fashion industry. But this last point — the instinct and rush to change the representation of bodies (seen through the ostensibly progressive and feminist Dove Campaigns for instance) — elides what’s actually worth fighting for: the ability to experience the world in our bodies without the requirements set out by the volatility of the marketplace.

What has our world come to — how desperate have we become — if we need to redeem our bodies through programs initiated by soap companies whose slogans of caring are purely conditional on profit? What would occur to Dove’s self-esteem workshops and ad campaigns if revenues began to falter and corporate execs discovered that product consumption would rise only in formulating ad campaigns that retrieve a “back-to-normal” racial and bodily monolith? By refusing the overt link between capitalism and undue societal body concerns, Orbach — located as she is in her lofty position as a well-known psychologist living in London — may wish to avoid courting the type of controversy that poses an actual challenge to power, putting her prestige in jeopardy.

This book offers a prescription to the body crisis only within the ideological borders of a liberal, capitalist democracy. But watching in horror the current war being fought on “deviant” bodies in the media — the arguably unprecedented hatred launched against “fat” bodies on television is one prime example; the cultural sneering at celebrity weight gain is another — leaves much to be desired. In any sincere discussion of our bodies being in need of repair, it’s integral that we call attention to the ways in which bodily malaise is entwined with processes of contemporary capitalism. After all, this is a system that lives off the abuse of our bodies — be it by means of the exploitation of poor, working class and racialized bodies through unjust labour practices; war making and the assault on bodies from “undesirable” categories; as well as the manufacturing of bodily deficiencies.

A more honest attempt to tackle this issue would be to argue that — yes — while there are strategies available to us to relieve our anxieties temporarily, so long as we live in a world steered mainly by market forces and profit motives, body despair is, unfortunately, here to stay.–Cara Ng

Cara is a first year graduate student in the Department of Women’s Studies at SFU.She is currently a Research Coordinator for the Adolescent Voices on Eating (AVE) Project in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences.