As a fan of Susie Orbach’s work ‘Bodies’ and knowing the impact that ‘Fat is a feminist issue’ has had on gender studies and psychology I was thrilled to see that she was talking at UCL, on my next day off work for the opening of the university’s Eating Disorders MSc.
Susie claims that we are losing bodies and body variations at the same rate that we are losing languages. She asks ‘Why are we thinking of the body as something external that we need to perfect’? Susie starts by discussing varying cultural occurrences which indicate the global symptoms of body anxiety. For example, in the USA girls as young as 8 are having botox; 50% of women in South Korea will have eye lid surgery; leg extension surgery in China, kids doing a ‘group vom’; photoshopping baby photos; she even puts an enormous picture of a woman’s labia on the power point presentation (which I thought was a great move as you could instantly see some people recoil in their seats which really shows how uncomfortable our world has become with natural bodies). The opening of her talk really revealed the extent to which there is a global epidemic of body instability, the rest of her discussion goes on to focus primarily on the West and our obsession with weight control.
She insists that bodies are relational, and that one’s body is the result of particular cultural transmissions from one generational touch, expression and anxiety to the next. She sees the main nexus of cultural transmission being the mother (she admits that this is a reasonably crude, narrow assumption but it helps reinforce her point quite neatly). By focusing on the mother-child relationship, some striking psychological facts come to life and we see that some stats never change: girl babies are held less than boy babies, girls are potty trained faster, girls are weaned off breast milk faster and girls are talked to more than boys. Susie says these are scientifically proven facts, which are really shocking! It seems that girls from a very young age embody ideas of restriction and control. Psychologically, girls are taught to expect less. From looking at psychology, Susie insists that there is a critical period for body acquisition and that health workers, governments, teachers and parents need to ensure there is a healthy, confident, secure environment for children to acquire their own stable bodies.
The mother-child relationship is further complicated by the fact that mothers inevitably experience severe anxiety when it comes to having children. For example, it’s not only celebrities who are encouraged to get their pre-baby bodies back, but ‘ordinary’ women too. Indeed, mothers are applauded for getting fit as quickly as possible after birth, removing any signs of having given birth at all.
However, she does concentrate only on psychological issues, she talks about the importance of touch and physicality. For example, Susie predicts if a baby is consistently held closely and lacks space to grow, or if the baby is made to fact a certain direction when carried, there will be certain bodily consequences. Unfortunately, these statements of hers seemed to hint to the fact that we are doomed, every action has an unavoidable and unpredictable impact on the body which may emerge in the form of adult anxieties.
At the end of the talk, I ask if she is hopeful for the future; she replies that the government needs to do something immediately to overcome what she sees as a public emergency and admits that she was in fact close to achieving this awareness just before the cabinet reshuffle. She then draws the audience’s attention to ‘AnyBody’ which is a website, forum, source of articles concerned with the physical representation of females in our western society.
Ultimately, Susie states that bodies are made socially, psychologically, physically and relationally. She sees bodies as the constructions of previous generations. The national global instability leads to us all obsessively seeking bodies, transforming our perceived ‘unacceptable’ body into a body that doesn’t have needs and that can be better controlled. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk and was pleasantly surprised to see there were actually quite a few men in the audience. As an anthropologist I would have liked to see hear more about how the relational nature plays out in other cultures, but I appreciate that this was beyond the scope and time frame of this discussion which did concentrate mainly on anorexia and the UK.
On the way home, I listened to Grimes.... pretty suitable song!