Susie Orbach in conversation about the book Bodies
Image: The ancient practice of foot binding in China - how far have we really come in 2009?
By Joanna Harrison, AnyBody member
Susie Orbach spoke about her new book Bodies (see reviews) at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 17th February, in conversation with psychoanalyst Darian Leader and chaired by Lisa Appignanesi, writer and editor. I went along to listen and wanted to share with AnyBody my experiences of the event.
Susie is saying something to us with her book that is the beginning of new hope and understanding for us about our bodies.
There was a moment in the talk that symbolised this for me. Lisa Appignanesi, when introducing Susie, said something about the how the quest for perfection in our bodies is something that anyone in their fifties like her will know is a daily struggle. Susie picked her up on this poignantly . She said it breaks her heart that that kind of language, that harsh way of talking about ourselves, is so normal for us and so accepted by us. And that even if it's not going to change, let's have an extra beat to pause on to think about it.
You could feel a kind of joyous relief in the audience at the idea that there might be room to discuss and think about that way we talk about ourselves, that body distress we are all in. At the same time, the very fact of that relief, shows how it is a big thing for us to contemplate challenging what is so firmly culturally rooted in us.
The discussion between Darian and Susie centred around the key themes in her book.
Susie explained that for the last ten years she has had a growing concern that there is widespread body distress, and not just in her private psychotherapy practice, but all around her, and in particular in relation to what she saw of her daughter's experience as she grew up. She said that even in her consulting room, even when a presenting problem is not body related, she still sees signs of body distress which are almost taken as a norm, and that there is really no room for discussion about them. It's just accepted that body anguish is absolutely something you should live with, whether it's dieting or running or cosmetic surgery or whatever form it takes. And it is a contemporary imperative that we have to be masters of our bodies; that our body is a personal project that has to be worked on to bring it to as close as perfection.
The impact of Susie talking in this way and challenging our deep rooted cultural belief that we should make our bodies perfect was something that was powerfully conveyed in a conversation I heard at the end of the talk when we were walking out. There were two girls, maybe late teens or early twenties, and one of them said to the other - "that really made me question something, I mean, it never occurred to me that to try and be skinny wasn't what you should do, you just don't question it do you?" "I know", the other girl said, "that was amazing." That conversation, to me, encapsulates the beginning of hope, the fact that there is room for us to change what has become so second nature to us.
Another key theme had particular relevance for Susie and Darian as clinicians. Darian explained how in the consulting room there is the idea that problems in tbe body are an expression of emotional anxiety. Susie gave the example of how something like ezcema is discussed and thought about in terms of someone who can't weep, who is not happy, whose body is weeping for them. However, she then went on to explain how in her book she is making a plea for a theoretical shift, which has implications for clinicians, to ask that we don't just translate body issues in terms of the mind but that the very distress we have around our bodies and corporeality is creating distress in our minds. And therefore the way clinicians think about bodies in their room, including the feelings they have in their own bodies and how they use them as indicators, is something that needs to be thought about in this context.
Before it went to questions Darian and Susie discussed whether there is a period when a body can be acquired or not. Susie said she thinks there is a critical period in our early development where the level of security in our bodies is set up and that she would love someone to do a PHD on when that period is!
The questions that were asked seem just the kind of questions that AnyBody is interested to explore and let's hope any-body can be a place to explore these questions even further. For example:
Q- What does Susie's book mean for people who work in advertising; how might it be possible to increase diversity?
Susie talked about how interested she was to make her arguments to the advertiser; and how, having failed to get the government interested, she had turned to the private sector. She mentioned the example of Rankin, who had made photographs that were so captivating even though with not the usual kind of models
Q- How can we build a society that does let us find our bodies?
Susie talked about the possibility of new initiatives with the fashion business (watch this space!!) and taking to the government and the diet industry about notions of health
Q -I don't not care about my body; are you saying that I should not?
Susie said that she was not saying that we should not care about our bodies. We have to make a relationship with our bodies. But what is different is the intensity; the commercial pressure is relentless
Q- I want to aspire to beauty and have it around me. Is that so bad, to buy Vogue, even though I know it is not something I can aspire to?
Susie said that she did not think that the experience of magazines was quite so benign. That there was something about an experience of a magazine that made one feel the need to update oneself, a felt inadequacy.
Q- How do we buffer our children from these issues?
Susie said she had thought about it so much when she had a child and had taken great care to protect her from negative ideas about body image. She had also had made it a mantra that food is there for when you are hungry. Which is something that is quite an unusual thought in our culture!
Q- A lot of what we have talked about is to do with children and young people, is this part of the fact that we are not allowed to get old?
Susie and Darian agreed with this - Susie said there is a cult of not growing up and mentioned the craze for labioplasty.
And AnyBody got a mention at the talk! Lisa Appignanesi said it's an absolutely terrific site which the audience should all visit. Susie reminded the audience how any-body had started after a talk she had given about a previous book of hers (On Eating) and how she hoped that this talk could be a new starting point for debate.
For me, an AnyBody contributor, this book gives me a new language for talking about our bodies and this gives me a sense of hope. Susie has articulated something about our bodies that up until now has been hard to feel in any other way than in our physical body distress. That is such a relief. It was poignant to me that on my tube ride home from the talk I read an article about a group of people who are defacing cosmetic surgery posters with slogans like "everyone is beautiful already." I know that there is room for change and Susie's book is that extra beat we can pause on to think about how we can do this.