Thursday, September 18, 2014

women and bodies

I have been reading Susie Orbach's Bodies.  She is also the author of the 1968 (I believe) book Fat is a Feminist Issue, which is, I understand it, considered to be the seminal (ha!) feminist work on women's bodies.  I happened upon reference to that book in an online article about...something I found interesting at the time (?), and recognized the title, and thought, "I might like to read that."  The next weekend I found myself at my local public library and found that Bodies was on the shelf, and checked it out.  I have found it absolutely fascinating

Digression: I am now working on a theory that one of the themes of my thirties is that for the first time, and unexpectedly, I find myself interested in non-fiction reading for fun.  Or at least, for my own edification.  Which I find is fun.  Who knew? 

Anyway, I will share with you a long-ish excerpt (fair use, I hope), to spare my poor attempts to convey to you the brilliance that is her thesis, and to show you what I am so enthusiastic about - this being the most direct way either to impel you to read it yourself (if you find it similarly persuasive) or to conclude that despite my enthusiasm, the book wouldn't interest you.  Ready? 

Until recently, we've taken our bodies for granted.  We've hoped that we would be blessed with good health and, especially if we are female, good looks.  Those who saw their body as their temple, or became magnificent athletes or iconic beauties, were the exception.  We didn't expect to be like them.  Like gifted scientists, historians, writers, directors, explorers or cooks, their talents extended and enhanced the world we lived in, but we didn't expect this beauty, prowess or brainpower of ourselves. 

But as I've shown, over the past thirty years the new grammar of visual culture, the notion of the consumer as empowered, the workings of the diet, pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic surgery and style industries, and the democratization of aspiration have made us view the body we live in as a body we can, must and should perfect. 

The clash between the new imperative to be beautiful and the limited and limiting aesthetic of beauty we imbibe means that bodies in our time are constantly in need of attention.  They have become less where we live from and more what we can personally manufacture. . . . Remaking the body, whether through exercise, spiritual endeavour, food regimens, genetic counseling or cosmetic surgery (and one gets the sense that all options should really be pursued), is tinged with moral entreaty. 


Now birthing, illness and ageing, while part of the ordinary cycle of life, are also events that can be interrupted or altered by personal endeavour in which one harnesses the medical advances and surgical restructurings on offer.  Our body is judged as our individual production.  We can fashion it through artifice, through the naturalistic routes of bio-organic products or through a combination of these, but whatever the means, our body is our calling card, vested with showing the results of our hard work and watchfulness or, alternatively, our failure and sloth. 

And as you may imagine, I have thoughts about all of these things.  First of all, I will note that I consider myself in no sense a feminist.  I avoided feminist writing categorically in college, when I would have had the easiest opportunity to study it, because the incursions of that discipline into my other courses made clear to me that the texts presented would be of the religion-is-evil/blame-the-patriarchy/all-sex-is-rape theme, and that I find simply objectionable.  I am, however, interested in the study of womanhood qua womanhood, as being an obvious avenue for inquiry into my own identity as a woman, which I think is an important project for the Christian (of either gender): discovering our created nature is part of the path of growing to know God.  With respect to reading feminist writing, without the harassment of a rabid professor, I have the leisure as an adult to select what titles I like, read such portions of them as I find edifying, and make the ideas my own as I consider appropriate.  And Susie Orbach in particular has now spent many decades counseling emotionally troubled women (and men), and frankly, I find people with hard-earned wisdom about human experience (whatever their political bent) far more compelling than people who don't really know what they're talking about (even if they happen to agree with my values). 

That said, I will offer a note for those interested that Ms. Orbach does not conform to the Catholic Church's ideas about the nature of the human person (as will become readily obvious), though I find her ideas agree at a deep level far more often than I expected; and that the amusingly-named chapter "And So To Sex" is, of course, explicit, and you might want to avoid it if you don't prefer that.  (I read it and found it extremely valuable, in fact.  Some things are inherently explicit; witnesseth, for example, the IF blogosphere!) 

So now, to my thoughts about her thesis, with reference to my quotes above.  To start with, I will simply gush: I am bowled over by how brilliant this is.  Its brilliance is of that most precious character - not the discovery of some dubious and inaccessible thing that nobody else has proclaimed because it is basically untrue, nor of some trite and obvious thing that everybody always knew anyway, but of some compellingly obvious thing that is absolutely staring everyone in the face and nobody has been able to recognize or describe properly before, but which, once described, is inescapably and obviously true.  It's that right, and that important to say. 

And to the details: the more thoughtful among us (IF-blogging set) often complain that topics that obviously bear strongly on our experience are explored "thoroughly" without mention of us, the invisible infertiles.  Not so here.  While she devotes no extensive discussion to the topic of infertility alone, she repeatedly mentions in her litany of increasingly-popular bodily modifications the fact of women's resort to artificial reproductive technology (such as freezing eggs, above).  She also mentions the culture's awkward treatment of the issues of women's sexuality as contrasted with women's fertility.  And she offers a general discussion of how things once expected and accepted - individual health problems, the overall deterioration of health with age - are now things we are expected to combat and, indeed, overcome.  This message should be proclaimed, loud and long, with respect to fertility treatment in particular. 

Possibly this sentence made the greatest impression on me: "Remaking the body, whether through exercise, spiritual endeavour, food regimens, genetic counseling or cosmetic surgery (and one gets the sense that all options should really be pursued), is tinged with moral entreaty."  If I didn't get the impression with respect to fertility treatment "that all options really should be pursued," I'll be a monkey's uncle.  And I am sure I am not the only one.  Caring secular friends - when they dare to broach the topic - are most concerned (clearly, compassionately concerned) with my failure to avail myself of ART.  As time allows, I will gently explain to each of them that "I can't because I'm Catholic" is only the shortest answer, and that while I believe ART is contrary to the right of a child to be conceived as part of the loving union of his parents, and particularly frightening when it results in the mistreatment or even destruction of "spare" human beings (both concerns important to Catholics), as far as I can tell it is contrary to the health of mother, child, donors, and all other involved persons on any analysis.  (I note that this does not mean that the humanity of a child thus conceived is in any way diminished, any more than that of a child conceived through rape, a premarital relationship, or a marriage of people who don't really love each other - but that is another topic altogether.) 

What I find more troubling is that faithful Catholics (those who know something about fertility treatment - that would generally mean infertiles themselves) are not only concerned if I have not pursued every available form of treatment sanctioned by the Church, but they rapidly make the leap to my not having conceived because I did not want a child badly enough (as evidenced by my failure to check a few boxes on the "available treatments" list), and, of course, it is from there but a small step to conclude that I don't have a baby because I don't deserve one.  The ardor of one's desire to be a Mommy, in the orthodox Catholic community, is a direct measure of one's holiness - apparently.  (What the Mother of God would say about this matter I can scarcely imagine.) 

As I've gotten a safer distance from my in-treatment years, and the emotions have abated enough to allow for reflection, I have become increasingly convinced that the impulse to pursue all options available was a profoundly destructive one, which probably did not reflect my true desires (as opposed to what I believed my desires should have been), and which caused me significant psychological harm.  It is absolutely beyond question that my imprudent pursuit of fertility treatment caused me permanent medical harm; right now, the question is only whether I'll dodge the hysterectomy bullet by going into menopause ten to twenty years early (!). 

In reality, I can blame no one for this but myself; I am supposed to have good values and a well-formed conscience and an ability to disagree with prevailing opinion if I believe that appropriate (which I have now done on this issue).  But I do think that, in a culture that (as Ms. Orbach so perceptively notes) is already steeped in the conviction that the natural capacity of one's body is merely a starting point, a young woman grappling with difficult questions about what is appropriate in one of the central projects of adult life is at a serious disadvantage in making healthy decisions about where to draw the lines.  (And while I certainly agree with the view that it is couples and not women who have fertility or infertility, the reality is that most of the weight of these difficult decisions falls on women's shoulders, not men's.)  Infertility commentators outside the Catholic world specifically (and here I'm thinking first of Pamela Tsigidnos at Silent Sorority, though there are others) have pointed out for some time now that the breadth of fertility treatments available is at first glance a blessing, but ultimately a curse - because it is impossible ever to be done.  Categorical failure might at least mean peace; in today's world, we have to define that failure for ourselves - the last bitter task on a generally bitter journey. 

Of course, there's so much more here than infertility.  She also observes that we are now (at least in the West) largely a world of knowledge-workers whose strivings for physical fitness require our extracurricular time.  Indeed, pronounced musculature used to be the defining feature of the laboring classes, while the leisured classes were not specially fit because their activities didn't result in as much muscle use.  Of course, now that "fitness" has become a bourgeois luxury rather than a natural product of one's daily duties, we demand of ourselves BMIs and six-packs and other achievements far in excess of what people typically had who were physically fit through hard work (by which I mean, for example, farming - not "hard work" on the treadmill). 

I find so many "a-ha!" moments here.  I was only really a laborer as a teenager (when I worked in a greenhouse for a summer), but I can easily draw the line between the "healthy" phase of my life and the "unhealthy" phase.  When I was in law school (not hard labor, and believe me, I know), I was busy, but I had time to cook all my meals (and could rarely afford restaurants), my schedule allowed me to be outside in daylight almost every day, and I often walked to school.  I was fortunate to get a desk job right after I graduated, but that was the end of being effortlessly and naturally active - probably until I retire.  Every year since then has been a battle with my remaining willpower (already taxed to keep me in my chair through boring assignments and deal with life's other challenges, IF not least among them) to get myself outside to run - after a full day of work when it is already dark - and to turn down the snacks I am inclined to consider a fair reward for drudgery (and, yes, this is the career I wanted). 

The problem, of course, is that desk work is wearing enough to make you both tired and bored, but not enough to burn off brownies, even when it seems it has earned them.  And of course, this is only a "problem" for me (and doubtless others) because I'm not OK with carrying 15 pounds more than I did when I graduated, which I claim is my personal preference (everyone has a favorite size for their bodies and that's mine - and I defend it on the grounds that it was a natural healthy size for my body when my daily rhythm was natural and healthy.  Which is absolutely true, but that is no longer how my days go, and it might be reasonable to take that into account when setting goals).  But if all the women around me - and I am not innocent here! - maintained a weight that was natural for their genetics and daily responsibilities, rather than constantly complaining about whatever they do weigh and aiming for some arbitrary number or body shape more consistent with what they think other people expect them to look like, then those extra pounds might not seem so important to me, either. 

What I find for myself is that, more and more, the most satisfying part of my week is doing things that seem to have no inherent romance - pulling weeds, painting walls, washing dishes, cooking, doing laundry, making beds (not mine - I never make mine), fixing things that are broken.  My hands become lost in the activity and I feel at peace.  I try to counsel myself to find achievement in the paid work I do, but it seems empty.  I have an unstudied conviction that my washing the dishes will be good for humanity.  I find that hard to believe about even the attorney work I do that anybody could easily tell you is supposed to be good for humanity (and, yes, some of it is).  Ms. Orbach's reflections give me something to tie that feeling to: namely, the benefit of returning to a more natural state of being not just in an economic or possibly spiritual sense, but in a physical sense (which seems to go further to explain the groundedness I feel in working with my hands). 

Her main thesis is that our current view of bodies as projects and as changeable has undermined our ability to be "at home in our bodies" or to allow our bodies to exist "as a body," phrases she uses repeatedly.  This certainly sounds right to me.  I don't have a strong felt sense that it is right, probably because I don't have any adult experience of actually feeling at home in my body that I can think back to (meaning she is very definitely right in my case, but I have a long way to go to make use of that knowledge).  I can, however, congratulate myself in a little way for my reflection (in a prior post) of learning to see my body in a different way. 

Like many women, I started out dabbling in anorexia in high school and college, which I imagine Ms. Orbach would agree is a surefire way to erode any authentic body sense even if you had one before that (I probably didn't.  One of my most pronounced traits in childhood and adolescence was being physically uncoordinated to the point that I walked into large obvious objects.  I was almost pathologically poor at sports and incredibly awkward and uncomfortable with anyone looking at me doing anything.  Even now that idea is still paralyzing at times.  Where something other than my body is concerned - speaking in public, for example - I am very confident and don't shrink from attention, so it's not shyness generally.  It's specifically physical.  And the awkwardness is not in my head - other people can plainly see it, and on occasion I'll see myself on a video of something and realize that I visibly appear far more awkward than I even feel). 

So by now I probably resemble the patients she describes in having no proper body "boundaries" (that doesn't mean you smack people; she means not having a comfortable sense of what your body is and an ability to live within that).  That no doubt made it easy to see my body as "other," an object, when it turned out not to accede readily to fertility treatments, and ultimately to feel that it was a useless failure (and I with it) when treatment continued unsuccessful.  Starting to do manual labor in the past few years has significantly redeemed my view of my body as I started to view it as capable, the opposite of failing.  More than that, physical work has given me many moments - even hours - when I am not busy thinking about my body as something that is wrong (not thin enough, not shaped right, infertile, etc.) because I am busy working with and within my body and I need to rely on it as the means of accomplishing whatever it is I am doing. 

Like most American women, I have become accustomed to being acutely aware of how I am sitting, how I am standing, what my hair is doing, how my clothes look, who is around who might be looking at me - at all times.  (In fact, I think I'm actually less aware of this than a lot of other women, but I am becoming more constantly aware over time.)  When I am weeding the garden or stenciling a wall, I actually don't notice what my body is doing; I only notice what I'm working on.  (I know this specifically because I will often wake up incredibly sore the next day unable to figure out what could have caused the strain, until I piece together that I was in a crouched position for a straight hour because I was too focused on painting to shift position and sit down - strange, but true.)  I don't think at all about how it might look to get myself into a 45-degree angle to shove something; I am only thinking of what leverage I need and how to get it.  I have even had the (BRIEF) thought that it's fortunate I now weigh 25 pounds more than in high school! 

Obviously what I'm getting at is that I should spend more of my time gardening and less at work :).  That will have to be a long-term project, but it's worth considering its value. 

I'll make one last comment before ending this ponderous reflection.  I mentioned that Ms. Orbach has a chapter (as, of course, she must) addressing the erosion of "body sense" or "body boundaries" as this pertains to sexuality.  She makes the point that, in a world in which we no longer comfortably live our bodies, and in which the body is sort of created for public approval rather than simply being allowed to exist as it is, we have trouble being natural in our sexuality - rather than our behavior in sexual interactions being a spontaneous reflection of our feelings, it is a performance of what we understand are generally considered to be appropriate sexual gestures.  ("What looks sexy from that movie?" or what-have-you - or, if you try not to watch those movies, it might be something you read or heard or overheard.)  Sparing you details you're not interested in - of course I do this.  I have no inclination toward exhibitionism, but darned if I haven't an imaginary jury in my head, telling me about what people think is sexy instead of - what I might spontaneously think is a good idea, utterly regardless of whether any other person in human history has ever behaved in that way?  I'm not sure it ever even occurred to me that a person could behave that way. 

And really, that's the most needful wake-up call of all - not the one that says, "Hey, you're doing X," but the one that says, "Of course you know you've always done X - but did you know that there is actually another way?"  I'm still digesting it all (and actually I have a few pages still to read), but I found her reflections extraordinarily eye-opening.  There are a few points on which I simply disagree, but on the whole, the book is extremely thought-provoking and one I clearly needed to read.  If these topics interest you, I heartily recommend it. 


  1. What an amazing post! I will be coming back to this to read it. Lots to think about and it 'feels' right to me .... yikes. Thank you.

  2. You raise some really thought-provoking ideas here. Thanks for the post. Orbach's book sounds like a fascinating read. It's going on the "to read" list.

    As for your new-found interest in non-fiction, it's been my go-to style of book for some time. There's something so tangible about coming away with new knowledge. That's not to say we can't learn and benefit from reading fiction, but I just don't have the patience I once did to let a story unwind on the page. I typically prefer fiction on the big screen. Go figure.