Susie Orbach

Profile Books, £9.99

Review by Carla Jenkins

An episode of The Handmaid’s Tale has just finished. The series, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s novel, reduces women to walking wombs in a dystopian, patriarchal USA. It is acclaimed for its portrayal of a misogynistic world some see as unrecognisable from our own.

Unrecognisable unless you google "Handmaid’s Tale protest", where you will find women donning the red robes and bonnets to protest laws that prioritise the life of the unborn over the living (even in the case of rape or incest) in places including Alabama and Northern Ireland. If you google "Kylie Jenner Handmaid’s Tale party", meanwhile, the cosmetics mogul’s themed party, complete with revellers clad in the same red gowns, sip cocktails.

Writer, psychotherapist and feminist Susie Orbach opens her revised version of the seminal Bodies – originally published a decade ago – with a statement that tells us something we already know: there is a war going on over our bodies.

In 2009, Orbach argued that our sense of self is bodily, and our afflictions and maladies are often tied to this. We are influenced from birth by our surroundings; our parents, what we see and do; how we learn to walk or toddle as in the case of double amputee, Andrew, or what and how we are taught to eat, in the case of beautiful, hungry Colette.

We are also influenced by forces outside our control: multi-million pound beauty and diet industries which have vast marketing budgets, cosmetic surgery, fashion and beauty "experts".

Using her patients as case studies, bolstered with statistics, studies and anecdotes, Orbach attempts to define and pick apart the reasons why our bodies are so much more than skin, tissue, wombs and genitalia. And yes, it is a war-zone.

In 2009, Orbach wrote: “The problems I sought to describe have mushroomed”. In 2019, there is no vegetable comparison that would suffice. So, what has changed in the debate over the last 10 years that makes Orbach’s text so timely?

Issues of fertility, bodily autonomy and gender identity are flooding into our everyday lives more quickly than ever before. These days we all have our own screens; our own tiny platform to elongate our 15 minutes of pleasure, pain or fame into 15 hours before the battery dies.

The aforementioned Jenner (who claims to be the world’s youngest "self-made" billionaire) made her money through lipsticks first used on her iconic, surgically enhanced lips. In a few clicks I can find a picture of Jenner’s pre-surgical lips, broadcast as they were to billions. There is no shame surrounding her surgery, but there is want: in the UK in 2018, almost 30,000 men and women paid for surgical procedures, including almost 8,000 having breast augmentations and 1,500 having "fat transfers", a la the Kardashian-Jenners.

In a few clicks I can also bring up an article I wrote on my own cosmetic surgery – a breast reduction I had when I was 19. I can also access shocking pornographic images; underwear clad models in the latest Victoria’s Secret fashion show; a woman veiled in a burqa with a nose job; websites where I can filter out my fat.

This is the "visual muzak" that Obach writes about and her extensive, encompassing study and critique of the way our bodies are used and abused is told with a sadness, perhaps even defeat. We need change, she says, but its not on her to tell us how. If I wish her text had more rage, that’s a projection of my own feeling. What she captures so chillingly is how commodified our bodies have become, and why this is proving to be such a difficulty for so many, particularly young women.

Orbach, author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue, knows what she is talking about, having spent the last five decades working as a therapist and writing about women. She's no saint, of course. She was a consultant on the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which many see as a positive thing. But, as Hilary Mantel notes, the brand is owned by Unilever, which sells both ice-cream and diet shakes.

In 2009, extreme bodily dialogue was reserved for feminists, academic papers and unseen psychoanalysis notes.

Now, it's everywhere. The only thing that is more fashionable and inescapable than our bodies, particularly in this time of identity politics, is talking about them. Online. And if you get hundreds of "likes" for it, you’re winning, right?

We know and recognise this. And we are getting bored of it, which is why it is more pertinent than ever to reinsert this revised and updated text into the debate.