What is a large and growing epidemic of global proportions about which little is heard? Could it even be there is an epidemic which is weakly addressed? Could it be that it is growing at alarming speed but with little alert?
According to Susie Orbach, British psychotherapist and social critic, there is indeed such a epidemic – and it is very real. It is what she calls body distress.
I could scarcely say I know someone in the global North who does not suffer from body distress, which may come as a surprise to those who know me. And having spent significant amounts of time in the global South, I could say quite definitely I have recognized and continue to recognize signs of this distress in nearly every place I have been.
But what is body distress? You may be saying, “I do not fuss over my weight or my looks and yet you are saying that I am likely suffering from some sort of body distress?”
Orbach argues in her 2009 book Bodies that until recently we humans essentially took our bodies for granted. Our bodies were shaped by each cultural moment, as they are today by this cultural moment, but we produced things with them. Now, in this era of what she refers to as late capitalism, in industrialized societies our bodies have become the production itself, and thus, our body “is judged as our individual production” (p 5). For instance, what used to be taken for granted as natural processes in the life cycle – such as body changes due to child birth or facial wrinkles due to aging – have become unwanted and in need of manipulation.
Other signs of body distress may be dieting (and the exploding dieting industry) or eating disorders (overeating, under eating, binge eating) or skyrocketing profits of the cosmetic industry or even psychosomatic disorders (like irritable bowl syndrome and eczema).
The signs are many but clearly this epidemic shows itself in the singularizing notions of beauty. Orbach argues that no longer is bodily transformation a part of social ritual, but rather it is about creating an acceptable body – and what is ‘acceptable’ is narrowing worldwide, especially for women (p 82).
Recently I went with a friend to a festival of short Egyptian films. One of the clips was about a young, single Egyptian man who recently returned to Egypt from abroad. He had a neighbor who talked non-stop about his lovely wife, and the young man was awaiting to see this beauty to whom his neighbor referred. A climactic moment in the film is when the neighbor opens the door to introduce his wife, a woman who is visibly large and who takes on a jolly-go-lucky persona. And at that moment the audience laughs hysterically.
The vision of the beautiful wife was apparently shattered at the site of a round woman with a double chin. When I express my dismay to my friend, she kindly tries to explain to me that in Egypt “we like women with a …figure.”
One of the theoretical arguments Orbach is making in Bodies is that body distress is not necessarily about compensating for something else, as is commonly believed, but rather reflects “the conundrum of how to have a body” (p 74) or “bodily disenfranchisement” (p 75). Her theory, in contradiction to what she refers to as the most current theory, is that situating the origins of distress in the mind fails to fully capture the dis-ease that pertains to the body. Rather, it is more challenging to understand body distress as “a signal of a body that is struggling to express itself and its needs, or even to exist” (p 76).
In this way, she is refusing to single out commercial interests as the problem, but at the same time fully recognizes that “fashion’s handmaidens in the diet, food and pharmaceutical industries a nefarious role, adding to a sense of our bodies being a battleground” (p 94).
In other words, it is clearly not enough to talk about “The Price of Beauty,” as the new VH1 series refers to cultural practices related to prescriptions of beauty. This is not just about diverse specifications of beauty but about growing pressure on women and men to have an acceptable body – and those growing pressures are largely informed by commercial interests or religious doctrines. Highly processed foods and drinks, same-same glossy and digitalized images on the tv and movie screens, damning prescriptions from religious sects.
And let us not be deceived that the distress comes from failing to achieve the standard. It may seem so, we may try to convince ourselves it is so – if only I had thinner legs, less freckles, lighter skin – but the point of the commodified body is that it is not attainable. It is not that you can’t thin your legs, but that the project of working and reworking is ongoing.
As someone who has spent most of her professional life promoting healthy bodies, Susie Orbach does not just stop at the critique. She urges us, as products of this cultural moment, to take our bodies for granted and enjoy them!