For young Australians, this past week has been all about the battle of the body.
It began with a report in the Fairfax Media that 25-34-year-olds were gaining weight at an “alarming rate.” A couple of days later The Hoopla reported that more young women than ever before are presenting at the hospital having self-harmed.
The response to the two issues could not have been more extreme.
The first report was presented as yet further evidence of the obesity “epidemic” and triggered renewed calls for a tax on junk food and more subsidies for fruit and vegetables – laying responsibility (and unspoken judgement) on the individual for their inability to control desire.
While the latter report arrived with almost a sense of inevitability – given the pressures and expectations that young women are inundated with today from “TV, media, everywhere.”
Cue the news that Sydney University’s student magazine, Honi Soit’s editor’s, attempt at female empowerment – a magazine cover showcasing the variety of women’s vulvas to contrast the unrealistic images created by the porn industry – had been removed from stands.
For renowned psychoanalyst and writer, Dr. Susie Orbach, who visited Australia this week to present lectures in Sydney and Melbourne titled Navigating Our Culture’s Body Anxieties, they are all examples of the extreme body distress she deals with in her practice regularly.
“I think it’s really scary. Lots of things that girls are doing today, whether it’s cutting or excessive running – and I believe obesity is, mostly, just an expression that shows, whereas most eating disorders are concealed – or obsessive body transformation through plastic surgery, is actually an attempt to find a body that they can feel safe in because they don’t have an original experience of that.
“They didn’t experience it as babies because their Mums have been messed over, and passed their own body anxiety on. It’s a completely bull**** problem that’s been created and now it’s deep inside of everybody.”
It’s thirty-five years and ten more books since her seminal work Fat is a Feminist Issue was published. Dr. Orbach (pictured below) has watched as the problems she described in her first book have mushroomed; a perfect storm of industrial manufacturing that began in the mid-20th century, created by the glamour, diet, food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic surgery and advertising industries, whom she calls “the merchants of body hatred”.
“They may not have set out to purposely do it, but over the years these industries have combined to exclude women from the right to take their body for granted. They’ve removed body variety from the visual landscape and created such a uniform, limited, yet unattainable beauty ideal that, globally, everyone, from a scientist to an artist, feels the need to fix some part of their body. You’re encouraged to see yourself from the outside as though you’re a performance.”
But women have always wanted to be beautiful.
“Yes, but there is a difference between a human’s capacity for beauty – and obsession. Once women wanted to be like Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren, but it was for a short period; one wasn’t constrained for life.
“Today’s beauty ideal is not only more difficult to achieve – skinny, tall, big breasts – but begins with girls as young as 7, 8, 9, dieting while women in nursing homes are still restricting themselves. It’s global, it crosses all classes, and means these industries are able to mine women’s (and increasingly men’s) dissatisfaction with their bodies for profit, for life.”
The challenge to change things is personal, political and psychological, says Dr. Orbach, who is also a convener of Endangered Bodies UK, and made even more difficult because most of us believe that feeling uncomfortable with our bodies, if not hating them, is normal.
“We must start by identifying what physical hunger is, and respond to that, relishing the food we eat until we’re full, and then stop. Rather than using food to cope with emotional problems till you’ve got an eating disorder. Chocolate won’t help when you’re feeling rubbish – it’s just chocolate.
“We must take on the food industry – which will be much harder than the tobacco industry. We can trace the rise in population’s weight to the segmentation of food, replacing fats with high salt and high sugar to find the so-called bliss point, basically the massification of rubbish. Once you strip food of something you create a complex desire for it. We have to get together with food activists on this because they don’t understand the psychological effect of image and advertising.
“We must take on, why not prosecute, the diet companies – who are owned by the food companies – for false advertising and failing to meet trading standards. If diets worked we’d only ever need to go on one, right? A documentary went to air in the UK last week where the finance director of Weight Watchers admitted what we have always suspected: that the company advertises to, and profits from, the 84 percent of those who are return customers. Their product just doesn’t work.
“We need to make public the real before and after results of the plastic surgery industry. And we’ve got to expand the range of body sizes and cultural diversity in advertising so that the grammar of our visual language reflects the beauty of the world we live in.”
Would prosecuting diet companies change the way women (and men) feel about their bodies? What is the single biggest thing you think would help change our obsession with beauty and body image?