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By Susie Orbach
Profile Books, £10.99
Most modern feminist thinking about bodies and body image would not be where it is had it not been for Susie Orbach’s brilliant Fat is a Feminist Issue, published back in 1978. This volume ties together two sets of thinking — the first, that how we think about our bodies has always been determined by the culture in which we live, and the second, that this might be the time, the generation, in which the “natural” view of the body will be breathing its last because modern science will lead to us changing our bodies deliberately in quite new ways.
Orbach’s first assertion, that our bodies have always been culturally determined in some ways, is not unique. Her second set of arguments, about how we regard it as normal to change our bodies in quite fundamental ways in this generation for the first time — genetic modification, cosmetic surgery, organ replacement, the growth of new organs form skin cells — is new, challenging, and in some ways deeply disturbing.
There is more here than simple scientific advance. As young people, mainly girls, starve themselves to create the perfect body, or mutilate themselves with razors, as children experiment with lipstick from the age of six, and mothers inflict their own problems with food on their daughters, we need to ask what we are doing when simple pleasures — eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, stopping when satisfied — are no longer the stuff of ordinary life. Though we still sit round the table on a Friday night, anorexia is common in our community and obsession with the body has affected us as much as any other community.
In all this, there are strong religious and cultural elements that got us here. In the work of Peter Brown, for instance, there are many discussions of how early Christian women deliberately rendered themselves disgusting so that they would not tempt the men but could take part in the early church as equals. The concept of the virtue of inflicting pain on one’s own body in some monastic orders is quite foreign to us Jews — yet what the mortification of the flesh says about body image cannot be totally unconnected with how bodies are now thought of in the west.
But Orbach really inspires her readers when she discusses the importance of touch. Children given little physical warmth as babies find human tenderness difficult. Adults want to hug elderly parents, but feel constrained from doing so because they were not hugged as children. We wither when we lose the touch of others, even if it is only a social kiss. Yet we are now so fearful of touching each other, and especially children, that normal gestures of affection, that allow children especially to flourish in the physical knowledge of love, are restrained or forbidden. If there was ever an argument that said we have gone too far in our fear of physical assault, this book makes it. The case could not be made more strongly and Susie Orbach, once again, has pointed out the obvious with great sensitivity and acuity.
Julia Neuberger’s latest book is Not Dead Yet: A Manifesto for Old Age,