From the Publisher
“Orbach provides a rich, nuanced context for the present moment, looking through time and across cultures.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A cogent, relevant look at the contemporary body in crisis.” Kirkus Reviews
“A smart and rich compendium of what is going on within and without our bodies today, its pages informed by Orbach's decades of clinical practice and research.” The Times (UK)
“A timely and powerful polemic . . . on the western obsession with achieving physical perfection.” The Guardian (UK)
“A timely entry in the current analysis of reality versus fiction that seems to be steadily encompassing all facets of American life.” Booklist
“Virtually all feminist debate on body image and beauty imagery owes its existence to Susie Orbach's enduring formulation.” Naomi Wolf
“Susie Orbach's pioneering work isn't just the first to expose the links between sexual politics and female dieting; it remains the classic work on the subject.” Susan Faludi
“Ms. Orbach extends feminist analysis systematically, convincingly, and movingly to portray the anorectic struggle as a metaphor for our age.” The New York Times Book Review on Hunger Strike
Noted psychoanalyst and feminist thinker Orbach, author of The Impossibility of Sex, Fat is a Feminist Issue and once-counselor to Princess Diana, takes a critical look at the modern notion that "biology need no longer be destiny." Rather than liberating individuals, Orbach contends that this has only made the body another competitive realm for personal achievement: "The individual is now deemed accountable for his or her body and judged by it." This "obsessive cultural focus" leads to a host of psychological problems, making "body anxiety" as fundamental a threat to the modern psyche as emotional anxiety (leading to self harm, obesity, anorexia, etc.). Body anxiety has also driven the beauty industry to become a $160 billion, fully-globalized industry with customers from the U.S., U.K. and other advanced sector economies traveling abroad for discount reconstruction (Nose jobs in Tehran, eye surgery in Asia). Orbach provides a rich, nuanced context for the present moment, looking through time and across cultures at (among other topics) child rearing regimes, body-shaping techniques (tattoos, bound feet) and standard mechanical activities like walking. Orbach makes a powerful case that, because people today have been seduced by a one-size-fits all Western (celebrity) body image, we deprive ourselves-body, mind and soul-of the body's most simple pleasures and rewards, up to and including sexual intimacy.
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A cogent, relevant look at the contemporary body in crisis. British psychoanalyst Orbach (Sociology/London School of Economics; Susie Orbach on Eating, 2002, etc.) has written extensively on women and eating disorders since the 1978 publication of her classic Fat Is a Feminist Issue. She finds the current obsession with the perfectibility of the human body deeply troubling. We are assaulted daily by promises to cure obesity, skin ailments, sexual distress and signs of aging, she notes. "Body hatred is becoming one of the West's hidden exports," as are such attempts to resolve it as Korean girls undergoing the procedure to insert a Western eyelid. Orbach advances two theories about the collective crises de corps. There is no such thing as a "natural body," she argues, since each of us is the product of a set of cultural and familial attachments that we carry in our bodies, "shaped and misshaped by our earliest encounters with parents and carers." Secondly, she believes this is the last moment in history that we inhabit bodies "which are familiar to us"; cellular, surgical, biological and pharmaceutical enhancements promise (or threaten) to let us buy the perfect body the way we buy flattering clothes. Orbach looks closely at several extreme cases of body-mind distress, such as a man who could not be happy unless his legs were amputated. Several essays emphasize the importance of touch in infant and child development, contending that youngsters instinctively pick up the bodily distress that their parents carry. Orbach also chronicles the "countertransferences" she assumed while treating physically uneasy patients. "Body difficulties" are becoming more prevalent in the consultation rooms oftherapists like herself, she comments. The demands we put on our bodies to perform and display produce "volatility and instability." Beware, she warns, or our bodies will bite back. The only flaw in Orbach's reasoned, wise essays is that they're so low-key they may not get the attention they deserve.
Read an Excerpt
Every day, my inbox, like most people’s, fills with invitations to enlarge the size of my penis or my breasts, to purchase the pleasure and potency booster Viagra and to try the latest herbal or pharmaceutical preparation to lose weight. The exhortations have fooled the spam filter and the popular science pages, which too sing of implants and pills to augment body or brain and new methods of reproduction which bypass conventional biology. Meanwhile young girls can go on the Miss Bimbo website to create a virtual doll, keep it ‘waif ’ thin with diet pills and buy it breast implants and facelifts. They are being primed to be teenagers who will dream of new thighs, noses or breasts as they peruse magazines which display page after page of a look that only ten years ago still had the power to evoke horror in us as we recoiled at skeletal models reminiscent of famine victims. Simultaneously, government pronouncements grimly warn of an epidemic of obesity. Your body, all these phenomena shout, is your canvas to be fixed, remade and enhanced. Join in. Enjoy. Be part of it.
As a practicing psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, I see the impact of calls for bodily transformations, enhancements and ‘perfectibility’ in the consulting room. People do not necessarily come in with particular body troubles, but whatever their other emotional predicaments and conflicts, concern for the body is nearly always folded into them, as though it were perfectly commonplace to be telling a story in which body dissatisfaction is central. Like many of us, the people I work with wish to and do reshape their bodies in both small and dramatic ways. They find fault with their bodies and say it makes them feel better, more in control, to improve them. Like most of us, they do not like to believe that they are being unduly influenced by outside pressures and may disdain such an idea, with its crude sense of manipulation. Whether followers of fashion or health trends or not, we take for granted that looking good for ourselves will make us feel good. And yet there is a subtle tracery of outside urgings which works on us, creating a new and often dissatisfied relationship with our bodies.
The sense that biology need no longer be destiny is gaining ground and so it follows that where there is a (perceived) body problem, a body solution can be found. A belief in both the perfectible body and the notion that we should relish or at least accede to improving our own body has not, however, solved the problem. On the contrary, it has exaggerated the problem and contributed to what we observe today – a progressively unstable body, a body which to an alarming degree is becoming a site of serious suffering and disorder.
Our bodies are increasingly being experienced as objects to be honed and worked on. Men are targeted with steroids, sexual aids and specific masculine-oriented diet products. Children’s bodies, too. Photographers now offer digitally enhanced baby and child photos – correcting smiles, putting in or removing gaps between the teeth, straightening out wobbly knees, turning little girls into facsimiles of china dolls. The web addresses of these conjurors show no sense of irony, since they believe that enhancing photos is a version of natural beauty, the real thing. Girlie-sexy culture now entrances more rather than fewer of us. Putting the body on show and making it appear ‘attractive’ are presented as fun, desirable and easily accessible. Body beautiful and the goal of perfectibility have been democratized: invitingly set out as available to every-one in any country whatever their economic situation, the right body is trumpeted as a way of belonging in our world today. This democratic call for beauty, disconcertingly, wears an increasingly homogenized and homogenizing form, with the images and names of the global style icons pressed on the lips and the eyes of the young and the not so young. While some people may be able to opt in and do so joyfully, a larger number cannot. For the democratic idea has not extended to aesthetic variation; instead the aesthetic has paradoxically become narrower over the last few decades. The slim aesthetic
– with pecs for men and ample breasts for women – bedevils those who don’t conform, and even those who do happen to fit can carry a sorrowful insecurity about their own bodies. A constant fretfulness and vigilance take hold for many from the moment they wake until the time they fall asleep. Their bodies are on high alert. The norm has become to worry. In another time, we would have called such anxieties an illness and, seeing how many suffer, we would have called it an epi-demic. But we don’t. We have become so implicated in variants of body preoccupation ourselves, and girls and women in par-ticular so colonized by it, that the preoccupation has become second nature – almost ‘natural’ and invisible.
If, however, we do look, we see that the preoccupation with the body is disturbing in its capacity to affect almost an entire life, from childhood through to old age. Young boys’ yearnings to emulate a great sportsman’s agility are now focused on the desire for the look of a six-pack. Girls as young as four have been made bodily self-conscious and are striking sexy poses in their mirrors which are more chilling than charming, while greater numbers of women in old age homes are showing signs of long-term eating disorders. Few would say that such concerns come only from outside pressures. We experience the wish for more perfect bodies as our own desire, as indeed it is, yet it is hard to separate out the ways bodies are seen, talked about and written about and the effect of that on our personal perception of our own bodies and other bodies. In essence, this kind of focus makes the body today no longer something secure or ordinary in itself. The body has become a new focus in both women’s and men’s lives. A new rhetoric of detox, weight training, brushing, irrigation, cleansing is pro-posed, inclining us to watchfulness and determination where our body is concerned. Those who had previously paid little heed to fashion or health now find themselves caught up in attempts to make the best of themselves and to take responsibility for their health and well-being. The individual is now deemed accountable for his or her body and judged by it. ‘Looking after oneself ’ is a moral value. The body is becoming akin to a worthy personal project.
Feature writers fill endless column inches with advice about how we should care for ourselves. Television programs focus on the bonuses, the necessity and the moral superior-ity of paying attention to individual health and beauty. Politicians urge us to take personal responsibility. Meanwhile our visual world is being transformed through an intensification of images which represent the body and parts of the body in ways that artfully convey a sense that our own bodies are seriously in need of reshaping and updating. Without even noticing we may willingly accept the invitation, eager to stay up to date.
The preoccupation with thinness and beauty which has been eroding individual self-worth for years has recently been joined by another fixation: the rising rate of obesity. An ordinary reliance on one’s body to signal its dietary needs appears to have evaporated, to be replaced by scrutiny and despair as one struggles to control a body now designated as rapacious. Diet companies are growing, with a newcomer, NutriSystem hitting the ‘Fortune 500 fastest-growing companies as it moved from profits of $1 million in 2004 to $85 million in just two years. New gyms and health bars keep opening. New foods keep being invented. Magazines devoted to weight, shape and health expand their circulation. A relentless desire to reshape the body is evident everywhere. Cosmetic surgical proce-dures are occupying more of our television screens and our purses (with a growth rate of $1 billion a year), implying that resculpting is easy and an expression of self-worth. On top of all this, reproduction is being reconfigured: young women are freezing embryos for future use, having access to IVF at ever-younger and ever-younger ages, and a new phenomenon, the transgendered man, is reproducing.
Late capitalism has catapulted us out of centuries-old bodily practices which were centered on survival, procreation, the provision of shelter and the satisfaction of hunger. Now, birthing, illness and ageing, while part of the ordinary cycle of life, are also events that can be interrupted or altered by personal endeavor in which one harnesses the medical advances and surgical restructurings on offer. Our body is judged as our individual production. We can fashion it through artifice, through the naturalistic routes of bio-organic products or through a combination of these, but whatever the means, our body is our calling card, vested with showing the results of our hard work and watchfulness or, alternatively, our failure and sloth. Where once the body of the manual worker could be easily identified through brawn and muscle, now it is the middle-class body that must show evidence of being worked on at the gym, through yoga or any number of body practices which aim to display what the individual has achieved through diligent exercise. For young people it is very much a case of take care or beware. Users of social networking sites often post unflattering pictures of individuals which are then ‘snarked’ and negatively commented on.
Commercial pressures delivered today by celebrity culture, branding and industries which make their profits by destabilizing the late-modern body have eradicated most of our prior feeling towards and understanding of the body. Our bodies no longer make things. In the West, robotics, mechanized farm equipment, pre-prepared goods from food to building packs, motorized transport, high-tech warfare and so on have replaced much ordinary physical activity and labor. We don’t tend to repair things either, for mass production means it is cheaper to replace them. Our relations to the physical and physical work are shifting. Where working-class bodies were shaped by the musculature of heavy physical work, low-paid jobs in the service industry and computer-based jobs across the class spectrum leave no such physical indicators. Indeed, many of us have to make an effort to move about during the day or as we work. In an updating and democratizing of the habit of the leisured classes (who didn’t do physical labor) of decorating themselves as amusement and social marker, we are invited to take up this activity too. Thus we can observe something new occurring. Our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself....
Copyright © 2009 by Susie Orbach. All rights reserved.