In classrooms around the world girls swap tips on how to eat less, how to ratchet up their exercise and how to mimic those perfect bodies they see staring out at them from music videos, TV soaps, the catwalk, magazines and billboards.
Somewhere they know that these bodies aren't quite real – that they have been physically enhanced by surgery, lighting, camera angles and digital manipulation to make them appear to have longer legs, smaller waists, larger breasts and rounder bums. But no matter. The deluge of visual images that wallpapers our world has seeped into all of our consciousnesses. It has changed the way we view our bodies and what we can and should do to our bodies, including those of our children.
Bodies today have almost come to define the way our lives can be lived. Without a body that girls feel all right about, nothing much in their lives feels OK. Their bodies cause them trouble and worry. All the normal difficulties of growing up, dealing with the conflicts, choices and angsts of adolescence, get subsumed under a preoccupation to get one's body right.
Concerns about whether their still developing body will be like the current fashionable figure, whether they will be found acceptable, pretty, sexy and desirable, and whether the size, shape and way they look are good enough, consumes their thoughts and hopes.
Cosmetic surgery is now something too many girls anticipate; the much-wished-for sixteenth birthday present.They hope that the surgeon will resculpt their bodies and if they are deeply unhappy with their own looks, they can request the bottom, teeth, breasts, even the face, of their favourite celebrity.
From as early as five years-old, when little girls copy their favourite pop heroines, through adolescence, early adulthood, mothering, middle age and even old age, preoccupation with how the body appears has became a crucial aspect of female experience.
Increasingly women are not realising how quickly their lives have become dominated by these concerns. But while we are aware of the many efforts we make to look good, exercise, and eat well, the underlying questions about why and how we have come to be so concerned about our bodies is just taken as a given we all accede to.
We don't, however, just become passive victims; we actively make it our own cause. We embrace the challenge and in doing so we often make decisions which are not only damaging to our well being but inadvertently create and then reinforce an anguished relationship to food and the body.
Whatever point we choose in the lifecycle, we can see the evidence of our cultural preoccupation with food and body image. The latest celebrity craze for having elective caesarean deliveries at 36 weeks is designed to avoid the increase in weight associated with the last month of pregnancy and lose that tummy more quickly, although most women don't significantly gain weight in the last two weeks anyway.
Shockingly, the example is all too often followed by pregnant women who can afford this option. The impact of this kind of decision on the mother and baby extends beyond the actual pregnancy and birth; quite unintentionally, the woman's ability to breastfeed and nurture her newborn is clouded by her concerns about her own appearance and appetite.
Most new mothers naturally feel some nervousness about whether they can respond well to their baby's needs. Of course, every new Mum wants to give her baby a good start in life and if she had weight or eating problems she will be eager to make sure that she doesn't pass these on. But, sadly, the push to return to a pre-pregnancy figure and the premium on doing so speedily, brings eating anxieties right into the early feeding relationship.
Many children are now growing up confused about their appetites. They have little idea that eating is something you only need do when you are hungry. The basic appetite mechanism is undeveloped and gives way to the influence of emotional states on eating.
Ideas about body size predominate and influence the choice of foods so that some become designated good while those considered bad gain a special attraction. As children become more independent and have pocket money to spend they become interested in making food choices that veer towards everything a parent wishes they weren't interested in, partly because it is pitched to them as special and partly because they have an undeveloped sense of what and when and how they should eat.
Befuddling our appetites has been part of the food industry's aim for several decades now. Their profits increase when they sell us more and when they can reduce the cost of producing, transporting and storing the food.
Over the last few decades we have been accustomed to a wider availability of relatively cheap food, lots of which have stabilisers and artificial flavours added to them to increase their shelf life. If we don't like those foodstuffs then we can choose the fresher and more organic options. If we don't like mass produced food we can purchase the unprocessed or gourmet lines.
The food industry apparently caters to all of our appetites, whims and budgets and the latest in nutritional theory. Reduce fat? Sure, they say, we'll take it out or add water and just add some sugars and cellulose fillers to give it more texture and taste while we find ways of selling you back the fat we've skimmed off by promoting naughty, indulgent food: luxury cookies, extra rich ice cream, limited edition crisps and so on.
One way and another, our shopping baskets increase, the fast food outlets proliferate and that other great segment of the food industry, the diet industry, ratchets up its profits, safe in the knowledge that for every 100 people that go on a diet, 97% of them will be return customers whose diets have failed and who have already regained whatever weight they lost and then some.
A $40 billion diet industry makes itself fat on the pain and misery of those who have eating problems or imagine they are fat. This industry capitalises on the post-Christmas and pre-summer holiday market with unrealistic promises of instant weight loss. But our body has quite natural mechanisms for coping with the extra food we eat at different times of the year. It simply speeds up our metabolism until our weight restabilises itself.
Equally when we eat less food than our body requires, our metabolism slows as though it were protecting us from the effects of famine. Each of us has a set point which regulates our body size to within a few pounds or kilos. When we consistently interfere with it by continually eating more than our body can handle or when we choose to diet many times a year, if not almost permanently, the thermostat that resets our metabolic rate as our eating varies, gives up or gets stuck at the lower rate and dieting then produces its opposite result, weight gain rather than weight loss. In fact repeated dieting is one of the most effective ways to put on weight.
Dieting, as I argue in this book, is a recipe for increasing eating problems. It doesn't deal with the underlying reasons why people eat when they aren't hungry, and the solution it offers creates a bigger problem in its wake.
Dieting is even more popular than it was when Fat Is A Feminist Issue was first published 28 years ago. Eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement. Eating certain foods has become equated with moral value. To eat them is to wrong; to refrain is to accord oneself a sense of goodness. Thin is wise; fat is bad.
Dieting, the interfering with one's appetite to ensure that one is not eating too much, functions as a sort of guarantee that one is on the correct path. In an age of obesity, it is offered as the righteous alternative.
Undoubtedly, the explosion of obesity is a major cause for concern. We know that there are many more obese people in the west than 30 years ago. We know that certain fats and sugars, particularly of the long shelf life variety, coupled with a sedentary life make our bodies work less efficiently.
We also know that the extreme pressure on people to be thin in part creates a mindset that they are fat when they are not fat. This mindset, this sense that one is too large or too fat, has penetrated into our awareness so that girls and women, boys and men, become increasingly self conscious of their body size.
What is less clear though is why our governments are trumpeting an obesity epidemic rather than focusing on the rather more widespread and often more hidden problems of troubled eating which beset so many.
It is this hidden problem of troubled eating which is the true public health emergency and epidemic that needs confronting. The haunting belief that undermines the eating and well-being of those whose appetites and eating might otherwise be perfectly harmonious, is, as I have said, infecting the next generation too.
Before they even know about categories of fat and thin, their early life experiences are imbued with anxiety around food and eating, thus making them easy prey for the merchants of body insecurity.
Fat is no longer an objective word meaning adipose tissue. It is a word heavily laden with negative value and discomforting emotions. Even to have a book title Fat Is A Feminist Issue is to risk turning off potential readers. Culturally we find fat such an affront; negativity screams so intensely from the word that we are unable to sort out the facts from the fantasies.
We've become accustomed to training our eyes on the tobacco industry's nefarious doings, and the escapades of the food industry show that their methods for increasing revenue are equally appalling. But let's not let the other players out of our sight who are also responsible for driving the Obesity Agenda and categorising it as the number one health problem in the western world. Obesity isn't.
The new rise in obesity is not simple growth, it is largely also due to the Body Mass Index (the BMI) being revised downwards over the past six years. If you are Brad Pitt or George Bush, you are now considered overweight. If you are as substantial as Russell Crowe, you are obese.
As Paul Campos writes in The Obesity Myth, overnight 36 million Americans woke up to find that they were obese. In her book Dispensing with the Truth, Alice Mundy details the million dollar funding that commercial weight loss groups contributed to Shape up America, a group which was part of a strategy to turn obesity into a disease which can be treated by the pharmaceutical, diet and medical industries (medicine is an industry in the States).'Think of it' Mundy writes, 'as Obesity Inc.'
Evidence from the professional journals, however, shows that fitness, not fat, determines our mortality. You can be fat, fit and healthy. Body fascism and the tyranny of thin and the sense that we should all be one size is not only unrealistic, it is unhealthy and unattainable. But despite the fact that one size does not fit all, the desire to conform and to see reflected back in our mirrors an approximation of what we see on billboards, magazines and screens is compelling.
The uniformity of the visual imagery that we are exposed to reconstructs our relationship to our bodies. We may think it doesn't, we may think that ads are just a bit of fun, but now we have evidence that tells us that we have been seriously underestimating the impact that visual culture has on us.
In 1995 TV was first introduced to Fiji showing many imported US shows. In 1998, only three years later, 11.9% of the teenage girls were hanging over the toilet bowl with bulimia, a previously unknown behaviour.
This shocking fact reverberates in my mind when I try to understand the growth of eating and body image problems today and the factors that have accelerated them globally. It is not only key for the young women of Fiji, it is key for young women in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Europe, North and South America, and increasingly those countries brought into globalism.
When one considers the facts from Fiji alongside the phenomenon of 35,000 cases of women's noses being reshaped in Iran under the Hijab, and Chinese women's legs being broken and prostheses inserted in order to create a few extra centimetres of height, and Japanese women thinking they are too fat, a picture emerges of body insecurity, even body hatred, becoming a major export of the western world.
What binds people together in a superficial way in the enormous global village is an ability to identify with and recognise one another speedily through consumerism and specifically through the brands, clothes, food and music we wear, eat or listen to.
In this global marketplace a woman's body shape has in itself become a brand, her brand, her membership and entitlement to occupy space. Her body has to fit for the individual to feel she belongs and is recognised as belonging.
As women have fought to expand the ways in which they can act in and on the world, they have been given back a picture of femininity that is ever more homogeneous and diminutive. Yes, diversity appears to rule because models of all colours and ethnic groups now promote today's look, but the ethnic variations are all circumscribed within a small body variation whose main architecture is skinny and long.
In the last few years we have seen the idea of beauty democratised to include all people, not just the glamorous, or perhaps it is better to say that glamour has become more readily available and felt to be essential to more and more people. However, sadly and perplexingly, this idea of democracy has simultaneously arisen with a narrowing of the ideals of beauty, so that while people wish to include themselves, they are likely to feel inadequate if they fail to meet that narrow ideal.
If we read the zeitgeist and the research, we can see how unsatisfactory women find this state of affairs. They yearn for a wider representation of beauty, one which shows that beauty comes in many different sizes.
There have been some promising advertising initiatives which have been trying to expand and extend the pictures of beauty we see around us and these are being met by women with enormous pleasure.
It is refreshing and heartening to women all over the world. As these wider images of beauty become more commonplace, girl's and women's feelings about themselves and their bodies will change, and we can look forward to a reduction in those who try to manipulate their food to affect a lower than average weight.
It is not my argument that thin is bad and fat is good. That would be an absurd position. I am writing about the emotional meanings that we have bequeathed to fat and thin. More often than not, for the individual, fat isn't about the physical: it is in their own mind and in their articulation of what they believe fat to be.
For them fat is demonic and thin is wonderful and in accepting these notions we are missing more complex and contradictory meanings and ideas we ascribe to fatness and thinness which, if understood, can help the individual find ways to live in their bodies without constantly criticising them.
Fat Is A Feminist Issue helps us to encounter these richer meanings and, ultimately, aims to provide a model for a different kind of eating – a sustainable way to eat what one's body wants and needs and to be a healthy size. To all of you approaching this book, I hope it has meaning for you.
What do bodies and nationalism have in common and what is the link between beauty and consumption? Julia Korbik talked to British psychotherapist Susie Orbach.
The European: Miss Orbach, what do you see when looking at yourself in the mirror in the morning?
Susie Orbach: Well, sometimes I look energized, sometimes I look tired. I really don’t think that much about it.
The European: Your books are titled Fat is a Feminist Issue, On Eating or Hunger Strike among others. In London you are treating people who are generally dissatisfied with their bodies. Where does your interest for the physical, for the body, come from?
Susie Orbach: I don’t know! Before I wrote my latest book, Bodies, in 2009, I thought I would never again write another book about bodies. But I was so concerned about the way bodies were becoming commodities and objects. First for girls, and now also for boys. I felt I needed to address how we understand the role of our bodies in culture, in late capitalism. So I think my interests in the issue emanated from anguish and concern. As someone who is critical of contemporary culture, I have political concerns.
The European: In Bodies you deal with issues like hating our own bodies, eating disorders, delusional dieting and cosmetic surgery. “The natural body,” you write, “is a fiction.” What does that mean?
Susie Orbach: We think of the body as being natural. But it is actually more about embodiment.
The European: That you have to explain.
Susie Orbach: The acquisition of the body is something we learned within our intimate family. And the intimate family is an expression of the wider culture -- because our parents or those who raise us are intimate people, but they are also people who live in culture, who also have been brought up. They introduce us to ways of being in and apprehending our bodies, they show us how to relate to our bodies.
The European: For example?
Susie Orbach: We think it’s a very natural thing to kiss, but in other cultures, biting is proof of affection. We think it’s very natural to wear clothing in a certain way -- but we know historically that different types and styles of clothing have meant very different things to different cultures through the ages.
The European: What you’re saying is we learn how a body has to be.
Susie Orbach: Yes! It’s not like we sit down and get instructions. It’s about how we’re treated, how our bodies are related to. So in that sense it’s very naturalized. Because you can’t relate to a baby without relating to a baby’s body: you hold it in a certain way, you pick it up or cuddle it in a certain way. It feels very natural and personal. Which of course it is! But it’s also being given to us by the person who is looking after us.
"You are your body, you have to take care of it"
The European: The body is today at the center of our attention; We follow special diets, we detox and we push our body to its limits by working out excessively. We tell ourselves that we’re doing this because we want to take care of ourselves. The idea behind that is the one of a sound mind in a healthy body.
Susie Orbach: For me it’s not so simple. Sadly, that’s the kind of rhetoric, “You are your body, you have to take care of it! You’re the individual, you’re responsible. It has nothing to do with what’s going on in the wider society.” I mean, a lot of people go to the gym to get a worker’s body, don’t they?
The European: Where does this urgent need to “fix” our bodies, to show that we have worked for them -- that they are earned, not given -- come from?
Susie Orbach: There are different aspects. Of course it’s good to move, especially because a lot of us have very static jobs in front of screens. But there is also enormous commercial pressure, which works in many different ways.
The European: Which kind of ways?
Susie Orbach: On the one hand, it says that our bodies are the most important thing about us, that they’re signs to the world about who we are, what our expectations, our longings and our capacities are -- and that because of this we have to decorate, train and shape them. And then there’s another kind of ideological message: “It’s up to you. You are the person who can make you healthy. It’s not relevant what’s going on in the society. If you protect yourself and keep moving in a certain way, if you eat healthily, you won’t get sick. Well, maybe -- but probably not.”
The European: You are what you eat and how you work out.
Susie Orbach: Exactly. In Germany, in the pre-war period, one had lots of interest in a healthy body as part of what it meant to be a good German. With the beginning of the industrial society, I suppose, people started thinking: “How do I make this body do something different?” Now, in our post-industrial society, we’re doing this again: we’re producing a body that we think is okay. We’re actually producing our bodies instead of producing something else.
The European: What kind of body is considered to be okay nowadays?
Susie Orbach: Something that you buy, actually!
The European: That is to say: something not very natural.
Susie Orbach: Well, something that maybe a couple of people in the world have, but not lots of them.
"The norms have changed"
The European: We all think caring for our body is a natural thing to do. But where does “normal” behavior begin and where does it end?
Susie Orbach: I don’t know, I think we’re always redefining that. It’s very hard. Of course it’s a great pleasure to go for walks, get some exercice and eat really well. But I think there are a lot of people for whom the pleasure comes from having overcome the bounds of the body rather than being in tune with the body. And it’s an artificial version of what “being in tune with the body means” anyway.
The European: In Germany 10 to 20 percent of the population are suffering from an eating disorder. Most of them are bulimic, 20 percent are anorexic.
Susie Orbach: The figures are much higher than that! I mean, what is considered an eating disorder? It’s much more extreme than what used to be considered an eating disorder. If a young person is not eating during the week and is only eating on the weekend, that’s seen as normal now. The norms have changed.
The European: On the one hand, there are those who starve and throw up in order to become or stay slim. On the other hand, more and more people are overweight -- for which they are despised.
Susie Orbach: Yes, it’s very frightening. Those people considered to be overweight are exposing the very thing the “normal” people want to control. I think you could look at compulsive exercising or depriving yourself of food and compulsive eating as the same thing. The overeating shows, the other ways of managing food don’t show.
The European: In an article for The Guardian you wrote: “Our idea of a healthy body is so destabilized that insecure people have come to bolster their own bodies by deeming others -- those with fat bodies -- less worthy, less capable and less employable.” We despise fat people out of self-hatred. Why do we hate ourselves so much?
Susie Orbach: It’s a very big business: bodies.
The European: In what way?
Susie Orbach: Take the fashion industry: it’s not a nice little business, but a vicious one where people are engaged in making clothes in the most terrible circumstances to satisfy the streets of Berlin and London, New York and L.A. I think number three and four on the rich list are people who are in the fashion business or the beauty business -- take Estée Lauder for example, who is in the beauty business.
The European: But being big and having high sales figures does not make these businesses inherently bad.
Susie Orbach: No. But: these are businesses that thrive, that make their money by destabilizing people, by making them feel that their bodies need to change. Beauty has become imperative rather than pleasing.
The European: I read that you think our disconnection with our own bodies has to do with an incapability of managing our desires.
Susie Orbach: We are invited to manage desire in the terms of which desire is offered to us. We are invited to consume all the time as a form of meeting desire -- as opposed to desire occurring in a relational sense or in an artistic, cultural sense. I’m not against consumption, but that’s the place in our society where desire is supposed to be expressed.
"There’s a tremendous energy in feminism now"
The European: How can we change this consciousness? You for example helped to create Dove’s “Real women” campaign, you created “AnyBody”, a website encouraging women to accept themselves.
Susie Orbach: A very good question. For example, I work very closely with the British government to try to change the attitudes of mothers so that they don’t pass on their troubles to the next generation. I think we have to work with commercial companies to try to show them what’s really happening! We have to work with young women to enable them to have the confidence to contest and transform the narrow definitions of femininity and beauty.
The European: But does this work?
Susie Orbach: Well, political education takes a long time. The environmental movement started 40 years ago -- it takes time for the consciousness to change! We work with a lot of young women, trying to help them change their culture, creating a culture that feels edgy and inte resting and somehow artistic, rather than uniform and homogeneous.
The European: How can feminism be part of that? You as a self-identified feminist once stated that feminism has lost when it comes to body issues.
Susie Orbach: I probably said that at a time when I was very aware of the kind of feminism that was around.
The European: Namely…
Susie Orbach: …one where all was about individual women rather than about what’s possible at a level of collective action. Now we’re seeing an awful lot of young people practicing feminism or encountering it. I don’t know how it is in Germany, but there is a lot of activism in Britain. It’s exciting! Feminism, like any political movement, goes forward, then backward -- and then it has to go forward again! There’s a tremendous energy now.
The European: You’re in your sixties now. Does aging help to become more relaxed about body issues?
Susie Orbach: On one level: yes. But I’m made to be very aware of these things. It’s obviously part of my very personal quest to accept the changes in my body and to actually enjoy them. I don’t think that’s true for all women -- but there are some studies that show that women become more comfortable in general when they get older. They feel more comfortable about their opinions and expressing themselves. The body is not the central feature of who they are. But, of course, some women we know are still sadly very critical of themselves when they’re 80!