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Review: Susie Orbach's Bodies

The Times of London, January 2009

In 1989, when I was 20, I read the following lines from a yellowing paperback. “For many women, compulsive eating and being fat have become one way to avoid being marketed or seen as the ideal woman: ‘My fat says screw you to all who want me to be the perfect mom, sweetheart, maid and whore. Take me for who I am, not for who I’m supposed to be. If you are interested in me, you can wade through the layers and find out who I am’.”

My word. The author’s stridency shocked and confused me because I had attributed my weight gain at university and inability to lose the stone to my lack of self-discipline. I had turned to a self-help book figuring that since I had made a muck of my body, I had to fix it. The book was Fat is a Feminist Issue, published in 1978, and the author was the psychotherapist Susie Orbach - who later famously treated Diana, Princess of Wales, for her eating disorder. This book and Orbach’s subsequent works are framed by the second-wave feminist paradigm that “the personal is political”. The phrase, coined by the radical American feminist Carol Hanisch, expresses the notion that women’s private lives are inextricably linked to political forces. Orbach’s seminal work unequivocally helped me to see that perhaps there was more to this than my inability to say no to pudding.

Bodies, Orbach’s latest book, is 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 144-page volume is comprised of six chapters and in each one Orbach uses a multidisciplinary approach to explain the struggle with our physical selves. As a clinical therapist, she invites us into her office and through case studies we watch her work: a man wants to remove his healthy legs; a boy refuses to grow; one man has erectile dysfunction; and another prefers nudity. Why?

In the case of Herta, a talented violinist who despises her body, Orbach theorises that Herta’s ulcerating colitis was a symptom developed “paradoxically” by the body “as a means of self-care”. Orbach continues: “This troublesome symptom both allowed and forced her to pay attention to herself. In a roundabout way, a symptom is a mechanism (what analysts call a compromise formation) by which that which one wishes to disregard forces itself into awareness by demanding attention.” Perhaps a more ordinary application of this idea may explain any woman’s mystifying weight gain as she tries to lose weight; or how she immediately regains what she lost - the body may be resisting conscious attempts to change it; the body may have its own reasons.

In Bodies, Orbach unpacks Freudian ideas such as hysterical symptoms and explains the role of genetics, the brain’s mirror system, the culture of perfectibility, the global homogenisation of beauty and the postmodern rhetoric of empowerment and choice that encourages girls in Iran to have Nicole Kidman’s nose, American girls to whittle down to Keira Knightley’s size, Chinese men and women to insert rods in their legs to become taller, 50 per cent of Koreans to exchange their eyelids for a Western version and Brazilians to pad their bums.

Orbach pulls no punches with food conglomerates such as Nestl?, which owns Lean Cuisine, or Heinz, which makes WeightWatchers products, as they play fast and loose with the fashion of food and diet to ensure that you don’t know what, how or when to eat. The weight-loss industry relies “on a 95 per cent recidivism rate”. In our digital world, if Photoshop and airbrushing furnish only impossible visual goals, no matter. Join Second Life and choose the avatar of your visually altered dreams. She addresses the democratisation of plastic surgery, fashion designers who send clothes hanger-like bodies down their runways, the deceptive cosmetics business and the granddaddy of them all, capitalism - for surely, we fret ourselves witless in our discontent then turn to “the merchants of body hatred” for help.

Two decades ago I had unknowingly turned to Orbach for a “how-to” but discovered a “why”. Bodies goes beyond “why” and is ultimately proposing a “who”, inspiring a move away from a body separated from the self and toward a whole person inhabiting her body in peace. It was Heracles who killed the poisonous Hydra, and in this brave and significant book, Orbach does battle with a full quiver of her own fire-tipped arrows, her blazing firebrand levelled at self-hatred in all its forms.

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