Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bodies--yours, mine, & Susie Orbach's

I'm almost finished reading Bodies by Susie Orbach. It's a mixed bag and reading it is an odd experience.

Orbach is the British psychoanalyst most famous for her book of 30 years ago Fat Is a Feminist Issue, and for her subsequent work around women's issues. I've always meant to read FIFI but somehow never have. Last night in a conversation at a dinner I mentioned that book, and someone who's had weight issues all her life said she did not like it. The conversation went elsewhere so I didn't get to hear why, but I'm guessing it's similar to my reservations about Bodies.

On the one hand, there are many worthwhile points here, having to do with the commodification of bodies under late capitalism (my characterization, not hers), women's bodies especially but more and more men's as well; with the terrible destructive effects of the fashion, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; with the alienation, the estrangement, from their bodies that is the experience of so many women as well as, again of late, men; and more. Orbach is in some ways quite astute about what's going on here. She incorporates recent findings in neuroscience, economic and social statistics, as well as psychoanalytic insights. The latter were eye opening for me. I've never had much interest in or regard for psychoanalysis--despite and also because in my job I am basically the secretary to 800 psychoanalysts. Many of them seem to be decent enough human beings but most of their work, which is done almost exclusively with those prosperous enough to pay their fees of $150-$350 per session for three to four sessions a week, appears to bear no relevance to what I'm interested in. That is the class struggle, the mass social struggle to build a better world as the most crucial means to redress the physical and psychic suffering of this world's billions of poor, oppressed and exploited. As opposed to their orientation, which is redressing the individual psychic suffering of people who profit from the exploitation. What Orbach writes doesn't change my class take on psychoanalysis as it is generally practiced, but it does make me see that a psychoanalytic approach can offer some meaningful and useful ideas about the underpinnings of psychic pain--could offer some help, that is, if it were ever to be made available to the unprosperous who are in such pain.

Which leads to the basic problem with this book. Orbach is not oblivious to the existence of social classes and she does make occasional explicit reference to it, and to people in continents other than Europe and North America. But it's clear that overall she is writing to and about the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois classes of white Europeans and North Americans. She is not oblivious to the economic system and writes a good deal about how various corporations and industries are profiting from body-related commerce. But she fails to say anything explicit about what's really going on here--that it's the capitalist market, the global capitalist market, that gives rise to all these horrific, ever-increasing profit-taking assaults on bodies, women's especially. It's the elephant--and that's a damned big body!--in the room of Bodies. Everything she writes about is a creation of capitalism, yet she declines to name capitalism as the problem or any kind of mass struggle as the solution. I've also got to note that this is a rather breathtakingly heterosexist book. Orbach makes an occasional comment including gay men in her analysis. Us lesbians, however, are pretty much invisible. Odd. One would think there would be rather a lot to say about lesbians in a book that is mostly about women's experience of their bodies and how the culture of late-term capitalism (again, my phrase, not hers) affects this experience.

One other note. I read, either in this book or in some news source, that Orbach is in the process of putting together a class-action lawsuit against the diet company Weight Watchers. The gist of her complaint will be, as it is articulated in Bodies, that Weight Watchers and all the rest of the diet industry are perpetrating a giant fraud. The fraud consists of lying to potential customers to persuade them that their diets work, whereas the truth, Orbach contends, is that not only do all these various diets not work but they actually contribute to body and nutrition problems. Furthermore, she says, the diet industry depends on its own products not working so that its customers will keep coming back over and over; they lose weight, gain it back, and get back on the diet desperate to lose it again. Weight Watchers in particular, she says, has a 97% recidivism rate! WW actually makes most of its money from its customers failing! Or at best, succeeding briefly, then gaining back what they lost or more, then coming back to start all over.

This last I know to be true. I've been going to Weight Watchers for about 10 months now. I've lost about 35 pounds and hope to lose another 15 in another few months. I am not unaware of the many contradictions, the many issues, at play. I am not unembarrassed to be paying this company money when I know perfectly well how to eat and exercise healthily on my own. I am not unconflicted about my own desire to lose the weight although I do maintain that it's much less influenced by socially mandated standards of feminity (have you seen me?) or propaganda about obesity, BMIs, etc., than by my own bodily experience that motivated me to try to get back to feeling more physically comfortable than I was feeling after amassing a rather stunning glop of adiposity upon the onset of menopause. My hope and intent is to finish getting back to a comfortable weight and then never set foot in another Weight Watchers meeting for the rest of my life. Regardless of my own experience, though, Susie Orbach is manifestly correct that Weight Watchers depends on serial failure for its profit. I've found this so stunning, so appalling, so poignant, that I recently wrote a story about it, featuring a scene (taken nearly verbatim from reality) in which a middle-aged woman says she's been coming to WW for 27 years and the WW leader gives her a gold star and urges the group to join her in a round of applause, cheering, "Way to go! Way to go!" exalting her as the exemplary Weight Watchers member.

At the same time, I also know that, however much the reports of an "epidemic" of obesity may be distorted, which is Orbach's contention, there is indeed such a thing as morbid obesity; its threat to the health and life expectancy of its sufferers is urgent and extreme; more and more people, mostly women, do suffer from it; along with the very real, devastating health efects, these women's psychic pain and the affronts, slights and humiliation visited upon them are enormous and constant. All of which constitutes a shame, a blight, upon this terrible divisive society we live in. Admittedly I have a certain subjectivity here, as many of the most loved women in my life have been fat, starting with my mother who eventually died at the young age of 65 from diseases caused by her obesity, and so I am perhaps a bit oversensitive to what they face. But when I step back and try to be objective, it seems to me that, evil though the diet industry certainly is, Orbach's approach of debunking what she sees as an overwrought hype about obesity fueled by that industry is not nuanced enough. She appears to argue from the perspective of sort of defending fat women from the moneygrubbers of Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, et al, and that's all to the good. She cites some studies showing that you can be fit and "overweight," and that's a welcome corrective to the nasty, ignorant stereotypes of lazy fat people. Yet I wonder why she isn't equally as hard on agribusiness, which in so many ways is demonstrably contributing to ill health including the rise of diabetes, heart disease, etc. I wonder why she doesn't condemn capitalist governments that spend tax money on war rather than on public health including nutrition services--why she doesn't demand a health care system that helps people take care of their bodies so they're not driven into the arms of the diet industry.

OK. Enough. What I wonder, what I guess it all comes down to, is why Orbach stops short. Like the man with whose strange, sad story the book opens, Bodies cuts off its own legs. As usual, I guess what I'm ultimately writing about is the book I wish this one had been, the unwritten pages that, for me, would have completed it.