Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Bodies by Susie Orbach
Profile Books
Pp. 145

Susie Orbach is a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist and social critic as well as an author, so when she turns her attention to a subject, she is going to do more than just skim the surface, even in a slim volume such as this. Here she is concerned between the disparity between the reality and the projection of our bodies. She would like to see us reclaim the body as a place in which we live and not as a thing which must be permanently altered to fit a shifting social acceptance.

Bodies used to make things; to build and farm; to clean and create. They were fit and active because they had to be. With Western robotics and mechanics this is no longer the case, and physical labour has been largely replaced. “Now those who work with their bodies many hours a day are a class apart. Millions of us work only with our fingers on keyboards. We admire the sportsperson or team for their physical skills; we may garden, walk, dance and swim for pleasure and health, but we are exceptional if we do not have to make an effort to ‘use’ our bodies.”

Our bodies are naturally formed in infancy and immediately shaped to fit the social and individual customs of the families into which they are born. Gestures, decoration and appearances all reflect the specific period, geography, sexual, religious and cultural aspects of the place in which they live. These differences were once obvious, but Orbach worries that globalism is challenging personal identity, even to the way people walk, speak and dress. She sees this clearly in Bhutan which received television only in 1999 so was protected from intense outside influences until quite recently.

This need to conform to a narrow body image is significant because it affects mental health and becomes a public health issue through self-harm, obesity and anorexia. People generate a sort of continuity and “aliveness” by creating and then surviving emergencies, which in effect provide proof of their existence. Orbach cites many cases in which clients traumatise their own bodies, to the extent of removing perfect working limbs to stand out.

Physical attraction and sexuality have become the new standard in relationships in which the visual predominates and the body is judged merely as a sexual surface. For women, even comfy clothing must convey sexy stylishness; women must always be on display and they must always appear to be sexually attractive, available and willing. 

Conversely, as sexuality is increasingly visible, many women are choosing to bypass sexual intercourse as a means of having children. Sexuality is, therefore, seen as a commodity we are encouraged to produce, but one which is separate from its biological purpose. As we sit in front of computers for many hours a day, we create on-line bodies that have nothing to do with our bodies as they actually are, and then try to make our ‘real’ bodies resemble these artificially designed avatars.

Orbach makes a heartfelt plea, based on her professional experience of people struggling to accept their physical form, for us to try to understand our bodies for what they are, rather than trying to make them fit a social norm. She argues that we should be able to take our bodies for granted, and just enjoy them, rather than trying to change them. It’s great advice, but, although easy to take to heart, it may be harder to put into practice; the indoctrination is too powerful.

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