For millions of people, the way they view their bodies is governed by a set of rules about size and aesthetics perpetuated by billion-dollar industries and the visual culture. Susie Orbach, Britain’s leading psychoanalyst, on why our bodies are becoming endangered.
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The modern body is a construction site, constantly under pressure to be renovated. For millions of people, the way they view their bodies is governed by a set of fluctuating rules about size and aesthetics that are perpetuated by billion-dollar industries and the visual culture. When I met Susie Orbach, who co-founded Women’s Therapy Centre and has authored 11 books, she said, “Bodies are being made, they’re being manufactured, they’re not the place we live from.” Juxtapose her statement with the fact that worldwide more than 20 million people cosmetically altered their bodies in 2014, and it paints a striking picture of where our constant battle to perform our ideal selves has taken us. For the last five years, Susie Orbach has been working with Endangered Bodies, an international organisation that aims to tackle body hatred through campaigns and government initiatives. Here, she talks about the bodypositive movement, self-image and the ills of the food industry.
Beauty Papers: Let’s start with your work for Endangered Bodies. What have been the most remarkable achievements so far and what do you think still needs to be done on a governmental and cultural level?
Susie Orbach: Every time you make a move forward the avalanche of attack on the body just continues, so it feels very hard to make any assessment. In the recent coalition government, we had two incredibly good ministers, one of whom I went to UN Women with and put it on the agenda for the first time. That was with [then-Liberal Democrat MPs] Lynne Featherstone, and Jo Swinson, who became minister of equality and business, so she was quite important in understanding that these are political and economic questions, they’re not just cultural questions. I did a report for her with another group, called the Centre for Appearance Research, on the economic cost of this to women, to girls. We also did one on how to help new mums transform their relationship with their bodies so that they can actually not pass on their problems to the next generation, and [Swinson] supported that work. So would I think that those are stand-out things? They are, except that they haven’t been taken up nationally.
So how do we incorporate this into the wider culture?
You just need the kind of awareness that means that it doesn’t matter where you’re situated; it doesn’t matter whether you’re a school teacher, or a midwife, or a health visitor, or work in a magazine, a parent, an investment banker, there’s something you could do to change the situation, and the beauty industry is such big business, so you could withdraw your money from investing in, say, L’Oréal; you could prosecute the diet industry – there are so many different things that could be done at every level. You could do consciousness raising for teachers because they have the same problems and they pass this on. You could attack the whole obesity debate, because it’s so stupid.
In what way do you think it’s stupid?
Obesity is now a disease entity, as opposed to an expression of either troubled eating or rubbish food.
It’s victim-blaming in a sense.
Yeah, and fat-shaming, and terrifying parents, if you have children in school. They look at them and say your child is not okay; you go for contraception you have to have your BMI measured, it’s just ludicrous. So, everywhere in the culture, there could be engagement, and one of the things that Endangered Bodies has tried to do is to work with young people in shaping their culture.
People want to have the bum like this, the breast like that, the eyes like this, it’s a make-believe body. What I argued in Bodies is that bodies are being made, they are being manufactured, they’re not the place we live from.
When you think about the phenomena that you’ve observed in recent years, what would you say are the new trends?
South Korea is really interesting- the fact that people have plastic surgery to look like cartoon characters and dolls, and the fact that they produce those contact lenses so that if you put them in your eyes, you look like a baby.
I guess it’s to look innocent?
But also captivating.
It’s also changing in a way that’s not just about thinness anymore either.
It still is though. But it isn’t just. Thinness is the baseline.
What do you make of women getting illegal butt injections to emulate the Kardashian look then? Because that’s not about thinness
People want to have the bum like this, the breast like that, the eyes like this, it’s a make-believe body. What I argued in Bodies is that bodies are being made, they are being manufactured, they’re not the place we live from. So that’s the trend. It’s not like, ‘This is a body, how do I get comfortable’, it’s like, ‘No, this is what I could do for you, I could get your ears here, and your boobs there.’ I mean the jaw-shaving in South Korea is just horrendous.
But going back to the ‘thin versus fat’ debate, I’ve noticed something that I find problematic; some of the role models in the body-positive movement reclaim fat, which is great, but they kind of refrarne it as an element of attractiveness, telling us that any body can be ‘sexy’, and I feel like commerce has started seeing this as an opportunity to sexualise and commodify more body types.
Oh, absolutely. It’s still being commercialised, isn’t it? But that’s the problem with capital, isn’t it? That’s the problem with a neoliberal agenda that says you are what you produce.
So self-worth is placed on ..
On yourself as a production, and you as a commodity. You sell yourself, you sell a look, and you buy, and you want people to buy from you. People see themselves as profit centres these days.
It’s a more individualistic attitude in a way.
It’s anti-collective. It’s not an individual making a contribution. Everybody has to be a star.
I guess there’s too much focus on aspirational lives and selflove but not enough on finding your essential self?
Or not being connected, because you’re so bloody busy being on the whole time.