This is my summary of “Bodies”, by Susie Orbach. It’s a book about the relationship to our body and how it affects us and our life. As this book is sort of similar to “Who are we” in the sense that there are several general points being made and most of the book are stories supporting or explaining those points, I’m not writing my notes about each chapter separately but doing a more “proper” summary. I’ve also written a mini-review below.
There has never been a “natural” body: bodies have always been the expression of a specific period, geography, sexual, religious and cultural place. However, today only a few aspirational and idealised body types are taking the place of all possible bodies. We’re losing body variety as fast as we’re losing languages. Again like with languages, there’s a critical period for “body acquisition”. We can feel alienated of our own body (for the rest of our lives) if we don’t learn to feel comfortable with it in that critical period.
The individual is now deemed accountable for his/her body and judged by it, turning “looking after oneself” into a moral value. A search for contentment around the body is a hallmark of our times, and a belief in both the perfectible body and the notion that we should accede to improve it has contributed to a progressively unstable body.
The body is becoming akin to a worthy personal object. Body transformation is today less of a social ritual, and more wanting to produce an acceptable body (wounded soldiers vs. TV contestants on p. 84-85). We seem to believe that almost anything about the body can be changed by the individual, turning plastic surgery into a consumer item: a treat, like a holiday. Sexuality has to be conjured and performed, it doesn’t exist or flow naturally.
The new grammar of visual culture, which is not even real (Photoshop), produces that even children photos are “enhanced”, generating frustration and even making people lose accurate records of their visual history (very interesting notes on p. 87-90). We fall into the trap of us “enjoying fashion and beauty”, believing we’re agents instead of victims, but we aren’t being creative with our bodies or having fun with them: we feel at fault for not matching up to the current, impossible to reach imagery. We take for granted that looking good for ourselves is going to make us feel good, find faults in our bodies and say that it makes us feel better, more in control, to improve them.
I generally liked the book, but sometimes I thought it was a bit too long. Many of the important points are already made in the introduction, and the rest of the chapters are more stories and references supporting the initial points. Worse yet, I sometimes found those arguments or stories not completely believable or convincing (eg. using controversial material like some Harry Harlow experiments or Victor of Aveyron‘s story to support her points). In other cases, some relatively bold claims were not backed up by references, which made me feel could be not representative or poorly-researched or, at least, made them weaker because of a lack of context.
However, the book is well written and made me reconsider several things, which is what books like this should do. Recommended if you’re interested in psychology or if you find it intriguing to learn about our relationship to our physical bodies. Although I skipped them in the summary, some of the stories (like the man who didn’t want to have legs) are pretty mind-blowing and interesting in themselves.