I’ve just read ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach (of Fat is a Feminist Issue fame). Her main point is that in recent times we’ve got further and further away from seeing our bodies as a taken-for granted places that we live in, and more and more as a project, something to be remade and perfected through exercise, diet, cosmetics and in extreme cases, surgery. More and more techniques are becoming available through which we can, and are expected to, improve our bodies.
This is something that I’ve noticed myself. Take the example of bikini waxes. I remember when they first became available, they were marketed as a one off thing to try if you wanted to spice up your sex life, but now they’re just completely common place and loads of my friend are having them done all the time. It freaks me out a bit all the money, time and pain that is being spent on changing the look of something that is basically completely private. Other examples are the way anti-ageing creams are marketed to ever younger women (and men), and the emergence of new body parts to worry about – does anyone remember how were supposed to spray paint our ankles with fake tan to make them appear thinner last year?
Orbach argues that this development is in large part a cause of the parallel rise in body issues and disordered eating. When we’re faced with companies and the media telling us about ever new beauty things to worry about, we really should be going ‘How dare you tell me I look crap?’, but instead we go ‘Oh yeah, great idea, I’ll try this new face cream/beauty treatment/diet and I’ll feel good about myself for improving myself’. We internalise the implied criticism of our bodies, and hold only ourselves responsible for any so-called failures. We lose any sense that our bodies are just sort of there and fine as they are. And obviously that’s not great for anyone’s mental health.*
It’s not like the media pressure is out in the open, or explicitly oppressive. It’s internalised. This quote from the book explains it better than I can,he’s talking about people who come to her practice in her day job of psychotherapy:
“Like many of us, the people I work with wish to and do reshape their bodies in small and dramatic ways. They find fault with their bodies and say it makes them feel better, more in control, to improve them. Like most of us, they do not like to believe that they are being unduly influenced by outside pressure, and may disdain such an idea, with it’s crude sense of manipulation. Whether followers of fashion or health trends or not, we take for granted that looking good for ourselves will make us feel good. And yet there is a subtle tracery of outside urgings which works on us, creating new and often dissatisfied relationship with our bodies.”
What I want to talk about here is the way this relates to what I’d describe as the ‘look great to feel great’ argument which I often see on blogs about body image. This basically says that if you’re feeling bad about yourself and your body, you shouldn’t let yourself go, and throw on any old thing. Instead the thing to do is put on a nice dress, cut your hair and get a manicure (or go for a run, or whichever other self-improving beauty thing). The argument goes that if you look pretty, you’ll feel better about yourself, you’ll be more confident, be more outgoing and people will react more positively to you, further boosting your confidence. It’s a virtuous circle.
And obviously this is true. If I get lots of compliments on an outfit, I feel great, and I remember when I used to have my hair highlighted, I felt like a million dollars, and it probably did make me more outgoing and happy. So I can see the logic behind the ‘look great feel great’ argument.
But I just worry that ultimately this emphasis on not letting oneself go is counterproductive in terms of getting women (and men) to feel happy in their skin and accept their bodies. Because every time a woman tries to get over feeling crap about herself by buying a glamorous new frock or straightening her hair (or whatever), this raises the bar just a little and creates an expectation for everyone to wear glamorous frocks and straighten their hair. And if you don’t, then you have ‘let yourself go’ and it’s partly your own fault that you feel bad. What might be good for us as individuals, is ultimately bad for us as a society.
The ‘look good to feel good’ idea maintains and reinforces the idea that responsibility for body image lies with the individual, and ignores the social pressures (including beauty businesses and the media) that are to a large part responsible for the negative body image in the first place. It’s understandable of course, since the individualistic self-improvement is something to make us feel in control, something we can actually do ourselves, now, whereas changing social structures is bloody difficult and uncertain, can only be done through collective action and may in the short term actually make us feel worse.
I don’t have any answers for this conundrum – I just think we should maybe be slightly more critical and less enthusiastic in our support for self-improvement as a solution to negative body image and not ignore the strong social forces at work. What do you think?
Oh, and if you’re thinking about reading the book – which I highly recommend – read a review here.
* This may not be exactly what she says, but that’s what I took from it anyway.