Single sentence synopsis: Bodies does for our visual culture (& our bodies), what The Omnivore’s Dilemma did for food.
And, as a matter of fact, just as The Omnivore’s Dilemma explores the disconnect between us and our food, so too does Orbach explore the disconnect between us and our bodies and its consequences.
Susie Orbach is a British psychoanalyst who has done much work for, and within, the feminist and women’s health communities, and this book is a social-psychological look at bodies, underpinned by the very feminist tenet that bodies are socially constructed and discursively materialized.
Ok, that’s a mouthful, I know, but let me explain: That is not to say that feminists are of the opinion that bodies magically materialize out of discourse, or are actually (i.e. literally) constructed limb by limb, organ by organ, out of “society.” This perspective merely holds (though there is nothing “mere” about it) that “a body…is inscribed and formed by the accretion of myriad small specific cultural practices… in certain respects, there has never been an altogether simple, “natural” body. There has only been a body that is shaped by its social and cultural designation.”
Did that help make any more sense to anyone? If not, perhaps this is a better explanation:
The point is that our very hand gestures, symbolic physical gestures, our facial expressions, our gender performativity, what we wear, how we speak , everything about the physical body— all of these material, physical aspects— are shaped by our social surroundings and cultural influences. This is what it means to say that the body is socially constructed and discursively materialized. In Orbach’s words, “Every gesture we make, the very way we move, our grace or lack of it, our physical confidence or unease, reflect both the country and local culture we have grown up in and the particular interpretation of our gestures that our mothers and those close to us have passed on.”
It is in this way that many feminists hold that there is actually no such thing as a “natural,” or “organic” body— because each body is informed, shaped, and defined within its particular social context. I think once you read the following descriptions of this book this may all make more sense… *spoiler alert: I cannot recommend this book enough*
Bodies is broken up into the following chapters:
- Bodies In Our Time
- Shaping The Body
- Speaking Bodies
- Bodies Real And Not So Real
- And So To Sex
- (&) What Are Bodies For?
She begins the first chapter by introducing us to Andrew, a case study of sorts. He wants to “do away” with his legs.
I found this book in my local library, read this first page of the first chapter, and immediately checked it out and bolted home. It did not disappoint.
This first chapter is an examination of people “in the wrong bodies.” Whether it’s Andrew, who cannot feel whole unless he has rid himself of his legs, or Michaela, a prison inmate who wanted to be/ felt he was a woman. In these cases, “Biology and psychology had not melded as expected,” says Orbach.
She also proceeds to give a really great overview of the rest of the book in showing us why Bodies In Our Time is her starting point:
“Our bodies no longer make things… Our relations to the physical and physical work are shifting… Our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself.”
In her words, “an obsessive cultural focus on the body” has resulted in “the search for a body, disguised as preoccupation, health concern or moral endeavour. Almost everyone has a rhetoric about trying to do right by their body which reveals a concern that the body is not at all right as it is…”
Chapter 2, Shaping The Body, is just as fascinating as the first chapter. It explores the hows and whys of the social physical world affecting an individual’s physicality. It’s about how one’s physical world/ physical upbringing can shape them, not just emotionally, but physically. There are some reeeeeally interesting case studies in this chapter, such as Victor, the boy raised by wild animals in France, found in 1799, as well Gina, a modern-day young girl who was moved from foster home to foster home. And don’t even get me started on her discussion of mirror neurons and how they play into all of this. It is insanely engrossing and does not require you to have a background in science in order to understand it (Lord knows I certainly don’t).
Speaking Bodies (Chapter 3) veers into a discussion of therapy itself, as well as the role the therapist plays. And, once again, there are a couple of very interesting case studies here.
Bodies Real And Not So Real ends up taking on a wealth of topics in addition to what I thought it would be about. Not only does she discuss avatars and computer-based relationships, but also, cosmetic surgery, dieting, pregnancy, the controversial French Artist, Orlan, and more. Did you know that, “Diets, it turns out, promote chaotic eating”? As a matter of fact, according to Orbach’s research, “Diets can cause people to gain weight. They are not a wise response to “overweight,” but are part of the destabilising of the ordinary processes of eating.” Furthermore, “overweight people who exercise have a lower mortality rate than thin people who do not. So [as Orbach postulates] one is led to wonder why thin has erroneously become the gold standard for health.” Another significant fact: “In 1995 the World Health Organisation, under pressure from the International Obesity Task Force, revised the BMI in such a way that 300,000 Americans who had previously thought they were “normal” weight woke up to find themselves reclassified. Brad Pitt and George Bush, for example, were now overweight… and George Clooney and Russell Crowe were obese.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg to this chapter alone. These are mere brushstrokes to the greater work she is painting with this book…
She begins the second to last chapter, And So To Sex, with an anecdote almost as galvanizing as the first story of the book (Andrew’s story), except, of course, this time it involves sex. I can’t help but think that this chapter should be read by every person on this planet that has sex. Maybe even those who don’t. But then again, I also think everyone should read this book. That’s just how much I loved it.
And finally, with What Are Bodies For?, she leaves us with the culmination of this work in its entirety. And it’s really relatable. I suppose that’s why I loved the book so much in the first place, and why I couldn’t help but think upon finishing it, “BY GOD, EVERY HUMAN BEING IN THIS COUNTRY NEEDS TO READ THIS BOOK!” It’s relatable. It’s about all of us. It is pertinent to our very individual and collective existence.
If I haven’t succeeded in making you want to go out and read this 179 page book yet, I don’t know what else to say except that… it’s intriguing, insightful, possibly cathartic, significantly relevant, and ultimately, if you have a body, it’s about you.
Now isn’t that worth reading?