Thirty years after the bestselling ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, Susie Orbach returns to the concept of culturally constructed ideas of the body. She argues that we no longer accept our bodies as they are, but see them as projects to be remade and perfected in line with mutable ideals propagated by the media and industries. Cosmetic surgery, diet pills, TV makeover programmes and other procedures are all advertised as means for ‘self-improvement’, but is this ethical? Orbach argues:
‘The clash between the new imperative to be beautiful and the limited and limiting aesthetic of beauty we imbibe means that bodies in our time are constantly in need of our attention. They have become less where we live from and more what we can personally manufacture…a fit body, a lithe body, a healthy body and a beautiful body have become both the ambition and the obligation of millions. The supersized, digitally enhanced images of airbrushed and photoshoppped individuals which penetrate into our public and private spaces…makes us super-aware and hypercritical of our own bodies. This has created a cultural climate in which improving the way the body looks and functions is seen as a crucial personal responsibility.’
Her global perspective and cultural knowledge reveal the idiosyncrasies of each culture’s beauty ‘ideals’, tellingly exposing how constructed and transient they can be. Her exposition of the changes wrought by globalisation and the dominance of Western images is particularly interesting and provides the most clear examples of the impact images can have. For example, she describes the normalisation of plastic surgery in Korea as over 50% of women have had their eye shape altered. She uses fascinating individual case studies to show how the body is experienced by different people and affected by their lives. I was shocked by the single-minded rejection of part of his own body that led a man to force doctors to amputate his legs. I was touched and compelled by the stories of children who had been physically hurt learning to gradually accept touch as potentially positive.
Susie Orbach’s argument has a clear evidence base and is academic in structure and foundation, but stylishly remains clear and readable. There is no need to know anything about the issues or the field of psychology before reading it: topics are introduced with accessible examples. Though I was less keen on the parts where she discusses her clinical experiences with clients, particularly when she writes about ‘wildcat sensations’ and ‘unconscious transmissions’ from her patients. I feel that she is strongest when discussing the issues as a whole.
She provides strong conclusions and sound recommendations, something some academics fail to do. I think this is definitely worth reading as it destroy myths around dieting, beauty and the body. However you feel about the issues, it gives a great deal of information worth considering. Essentially, she argues that physical beauty should not be the sum of our human worth.