Bodies: Big Ideas/Small Books
by Susie Orbach
Reviewed by Catherine Lacey
Since publishing the classic Fat Is a Feminist Issue in 1978, Susie Orbach has become the guru on why women diet, why they shouldn't, and why so many people have become compulsive eaters. Orbach's argument focused largely on the influence a mother has on her daughter: young girls learn to diet by watching their mothers, who often inadvertently send the message that junk food is the ultimate comfort, but also alluringly off-limits. The book was sorely needed as women attempted to starve themselves while both obesity rates and eating disorders were on the rise; Orbach's psychoanalysis of the impulse to diet freed many chronic dieters by exposing their bodily dissatisfaction as rooted in falsehoods.
Fat Is a Feminist Issue, along with Orbach's later books On Eating and Hunger Strike, are thoughtful looks at the troubled relationship that so many people have with food, but they are less applicable to people who haven't obsessively dieted. However, the underlying issue of the modern mind sabotaging its body is an enduring theme in literature, and Orbach has finally used her psychoanalytic skills on this broader subject. Bodies is her most universal look at bodily anxiety, and a much more compelling examination of those maladies, from minor to extreme.
Orbach kicks off the book with the rather extreme example of gratuitous amputation: "can you imagine living fifty years...with the thought that only through a double amputation above the knees will you feel whole and complete? Such was the dilemma of Andrew, who became enamoured with the idea of becoming free of at first one leg and then the other." Andrew's story is typical of the case studies found in Bodies -- a mind railing against all instincts of self-preservation. Since no doctor would agree to slice off Andrew's perfectly functioning legs, he proceeded to pack dry ice around them until he had damaged his circulation so irrevocably that they had to be removed.
Like Sigmund Freud and Oliver Sacks, Orbach uses case studies like Andrew's as a way to make the scientific work more accessible and novelistic. Orbach's writing is far less whimsical than Sacks's, but what she lacks in humor she makes up for in biting relevance. Through her case studies, she shows how subtle influences in childhood or even later in life can shape the mind's conception of the body to the point that it turns against itself.
While most of the chapters focus on a particular way that bodies can be molded, the chapter "Bodies Real And Not So Real" deviates from this structure. Orbach opens with a look at Second Life, a computer-generated world in which users create avatars -- virtual bodies that never have to age or sag or lose agility. Orbach quickly names bodily dissatisfaction as the culprit for such a phenomenon, but then goes on to examine the diet industry, action films, email, anorexia, television, make-up, and plastic surgery, without ever delving fully into a single topic. All thirty-three pages lack the case studies and stories that made the opening three chapters so compelling.
Fortunately, Orbach immediately treats us to a more visceral chapter, aptly titled "And So To Sex." Here she relates the story of a busload of eleven- to fourteen-year-old girls in Philadelphia who were discovered to be initiating oral sex on their male peers while on the way home from school because they thought it was expected of them: "The bus drivers spoke to the school authorities, who simultaneously learned that several boys had come to the offices of the student counselors feeling shamed and bewildered...Both sexes were confused." Even more interesting and surprising in this chapter is the case study of Jerry, an ex-marine who couldn't separate his sexual self from his combat training. Here we learn of the unexpected link between the trauma of war and a person's sexuality.
Throughout the book, Orbach brings us stories of people who are uncomfortable in their skin, something almost anyone who's looked into a mirror and said "that's me?" can understand. The seamstress who feels so unreal she scratches her breasts with a needle to remember her physicality. The person who can't have sex unless packed into a car or a public restroom. The body builders who spend hours in the gym to prove they are alive. Orbach illustrates how and why, in the modern world, our bodies have become the vessels of our hopes and dreams.