Shaping the body – The crisis in our closest relationship

by Susie Orbac

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 10 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 practising 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 everyone 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 epidemic. But we don’t. We have become so implicated in variants of body preoccupation ourselves, and girls and women in particular so colonised by it, that the preoccupation has become second natured – 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 proposed, 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 programmes focus on the bonuses, the necessity and the moral superiority 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 procedures 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 ages, and a new phenomenon, the transgendered man, is reproducing.

Late capitalism has catapulted us out of centuries-old bodily practices, which were centred 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 endeavour 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. The rise of public bitching about the body is accompanied by the dissemination of images throughout the World Wide Web.

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, motorised transport, high-tech warfare and so on have replaced much ordinary physical activity and labour. 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 labour) 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. Susie Orbach is the co-founder of the Women’s Therapy Center in London and New York and she is the convener of She is a consultant and co-originator of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

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