Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Bodies under fire

Susie Orbach, the expert on eating disorders and people's negative attitudes to their own bodies, has written a new book* about what she calls "body distress".

In an interview in the Irish Times, she says that for many women (and girls) today, their bodies are no longer their own. Instead of just being something they live in, they've become public property, something that has to meet other people's expectations and images.

They have to be constantly upgrading and enhancing their bodies to meet these expectations, and they are never happy with their body as it is, as it was given them.

It's become increasingly normal to openly criticise women's bodies and make them feel inferior and inadequate. Every woman is fair game, from celebs to office workers to schoolgirls.

Rather than just enjoying their body and taking it for granted, they are on a constant quest for smoother skin, firmer flesh, thinness, shapeliness, or whatever other people see as female perfection.

There is an insatiable demand not only for creams, lotions and cosmetics, but for extreme measures like plastic surgery and gruelling workout regimes.

As Susie Orbach says, bodies have become another form of work requiring perpetual effort and commitment. We no longer treat them casually or naturally.

She says this distorted view is creating an impaired society, both mentally and physically, which is distressing and disturbing huge numbers of women (and increasingly, men too).

As a therapist who has helped many such women, she has profound insights into the social attitudes causing their distress. I shall certainly read this book.

A typical example of body-knocking: the Daily Mail concludes that Liz Hurley is looking old, that she is "haggard and wrinkled" with "saggy skin" and "is no longer fresh-faced".

* "Bodies", Profile Books, £10.99, €12. Her best-known book is "Fat Is A Feminist Issue"


  1. There is definitely be a lot more pressure for people to look good than in the past. The bad side of that is anorexia, psychological problems etc. That whole side of things is well documented.
    The positive side is that people are enticed into staying fit and in shape and eating properly. Not every person who wants to look good develops psychological issues. I train regularly and look after my diet, my wife is the same. That should mean that we look our ages or younger. There is a lot more temptation out there nowadays, it is very easy to let yourself go. The societal pressure to look your best is a trigger to counteract this. Some people misunderstand the signal and think that they need liposuction and plastic surgery to look like Angelina or Brad. However, you can only look 'your' best, not somebody else's best.

  2. Aidan - I think there's a difference between encouraging people to stay fit and healthy (as you try to do) and obsessing over our physical appearance and whether it meets some ideal of super-attractiveness. It's the latter that's doing so much psychological damage.

  3. Point taken Nick ... I for one am not overly impressed with my current slovenly state not so much because I have any physical loathing but it's damn hard to find nice clothes that fit or to feel comfortable in a cossie. And whether we like it or not, we're judged on many levels according to our appearance. It's no wonder more youngsters particularly aren't pathologically psychotic trying to hold to the magazine body image!

  4. Baino - Ah yes, the perennial problem of finding clothes that fit. But I have a similar problem with clothes-shopping because my arms and legs are so long! Indeed, it's a wonder this intense body-scrutiny doesn't lead to more serious mental problems than just permanent body-anxiety.

  5. There am I worrying about clothes to suit my age.... not make me look like mutton dressed as lamb, yet not matronly either.

    I can't do very much about the face, but thankfully I don't have to look at it! ;-)

  6. Thanks for writing about one of my favourite issues, Nick.
    The amount of energy (not to mention money) expended on this nonsense boggles the mind. It literally sucks the positive out of anyone invested in perennial youthfulness and the high cost of its maintenance.
    Again, the marketing gurus make it all possible.
    I literally scream when I see a headline about some unfortunate 'star' castigated for carrying extra poundage post partum or praised because she's lost her pregnancy weight in A WEEK. Or, gawd forbid, looks her/his age.
    Our values need a total 180 degree turnabout.
    I've always loved what Gloria Steinem said when told she didn't look sixty on her 60th birthday.
    "This is what sixty looks like" she responded.

  7. Grannymar - Of course we oldies should be able to wear anything we like, but unhappily there are plenty of tut-tutters ready to denounce anyone who "doesn't act their age" or "looks ridiculous in that outfit". What business is it of theirs?

    www - Indeed, the effort and money spent on desperately trying to look younger or more attractive is absurd. I love Gloria Steinem's remark. All this obligatory nonsense about people "not looking their age" really annoys me.

  8. My body, as it is right now, is not what was given to me originally, or at least what it was 20 years ago! HAH! I protest! But I do nothing about it, which is just as bad as obsessing and doing all the stuff listed up here.
    I think neither extreme is healthy anyways. The pressure on women in today's world is actually put on women themselves. Noone could make someone obsess about something they didn't want to obsess. And men actually have very little to do with it, as the worst kind of pressure put on a person is the one put on by self or by own gender. That's what I think anyways, but I am ready to be convinced otherwise.

  9. GayƩ - It doesn't make sense to me that women would all spontaneously obsess about their physical attractiveness. The obsession must be fuelled by other people - other women, men, parents, friends, magazines, whatever. Surely, left to themselves, women's only interest in their body would be to keep it fit and healthy, fed and watered.

  10. this kind of thing makes my blood boil. It takes a very very strong person to block out the constant stream of abuse directed by the media. And not just for ladies any more - men and even kids have to cope with it too!

  11. Guilt and shame are the main drivers of advertising. Until this changes we are still on the merry go round.
    I call it insidious.

  12. Conor - That's it, you might be able to ignore the criticism for a while but when it goes on and on you start to think, Maybe they're right, maybe I'm unattractive?

    Muddy - Yes, guilt and shame can play their part. But it's not just advertising, it's everyone we come into contact with. Even your mum saying "God, you're not going out like that, are you?"

  13. Ah, but where do all these prejudices come from if not the media? We are all affected by it.
    I saw the way young women dressed to go out with the fact that "dance culture" had gone mainstream about 1995 and it was on the radio and in all the clubs. Before then women din't go out in the skimpiest clothing they could buy. My sister in law was in The Netherlands a few years ago and she told us that no-one got dressed up to go out. Her LBDs had to stay in the wardrobe. I don'y know about the stats for female body dysmorphia there though, off to try and find out.

  14. Muddy - Oh, skimpy clothing came in well before 1995. I remember women in sixties London wearing boob tubes and hot pants. And even then wondering how they could make their breasts bigger or their bum firmer. Also, women can be far more ruthless about each other's appearance than either men or advertising.

  15. So sad. To think there was a day when to be tanned was a bad thing because it meant you were of the working classes!!

    That wasn't too long ago, either. What will the next trend be? Compulsory cross dressing perhaps?!

  16. K8 - We noticed it's become a bad thing to be tanned now in Australia, it shows you aren't slapping on enough sunscreen to ward off skin cancer.

    Compulsory cross dressing? The mind boggles. Mind you, if the trend continues for men to enhance their bodies as much as women....