Susie Orbach on the western beauty ideal

Susie Orbach – psychotherapist, speaker, author, feminist – spoke at the UN commission last year, on the status of women. I’ve copied the speech from here. For anyone, but particularly women, who feel under pressure to look a certain way: young, thin, flawless – this is well worth a read.


© Susie Orbach 2012

I’m very pleased to be speaking here today on this historic occasion.

It has been customary for the west to bemoan and critique the appalling forms of violence practiced against girls and women in the rest of the world – FGM, rape as a tactic of war, forced marriage.

In this focus what has been overlooked have been the vicious body practices that girls and women have come to take on themselves in the west in the mistaken belief that they are doing good for themselves.

These include:

Self-starvation and the often bulimic response–compulsive eating and vomiting

The surgical transformation of breasts, legs, stomachs, cheek bones to conform to the latest beauty ideal

The use of diet and pharmaceutical products to suppress appetite

The botoxing of 5 year olds

The west congratulates itself on its distance from Eastern practices of foot binding which constrained and limited women. It fails to see the links between toe operations carried out now to enable women to fit into the latest 4 inch high heels.

The west smugly criticises FGM while sanctioning labiaplasty and the remaking of the genital lips which has become a growth area for cosmetic surgeons.

The west makes appeals about famine victims in the southern hemisphere but has failed to notice the voluntarily insane food practices that exist in their own countries.

The west hasn’t noticed that these are forms of violence and constraint for women. And they haven’t noticed for three important reasons.

The first is that the idea of beauty has been democratised – extended to all. The second is that simultaneously, the ideal of what beauty is has narrowed.

Beauty is no longer seen as intrinsic to the individual. Instead the individual is judged on how well she can shape herself to today’s aesthetic which is tall, white, blonde, long haired and big breasted.

The imperative of beauty traverses class and age. From 5 to 80, girls and women learn they need to look at themselves from the outside whatever they are doing to make sure they look good. This demand can produce severe anguish, self-alienation, eating problems, body distortions and disturbing mental health issues.

The third reason is connected to the other two in significant ways. It is the engine which feeds the tyrannical hold that beauty exercises on girls and women’s energies, dollars and sense of self. It relates to those industries which grow rich on creating body distress and body hatred in girls and women.

These industries look like they are benevolent and helpful. In fact they are quite the opposite.

The beauty companies, the fashion houses, the diet companies, the food conglomerates who also of course own the diet companies, the exercise and fitness industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the cosmetic surgery industry combine together, perhaps not purposefully or conspiratorially, to create a climate in which girls and women come to feel that their bodies are not ok. They do this through the promotion of celebrity culture, through advertising on every possible outlet from billboards to magazines to our electronic screens, through the funding of media outlets which can only exist because of their economic support.

Taking on any one of these industries is difficult and will pose the same kind of challenges as taking on tobacco who also portrayed themselves as health giving and benevolent. The profits of WW’s for example were up 25.3% in 2011[1]. We are talking big money. We are talking about a company whose product needs to fail in order for it to keep selling. If dieting worked you would only have to do it once. There would be no repeat customers.

As immoral and unethical as the activities of these companies are in and of themselves, the economics of growth as we currently conceive it depends upon their extending their markets. L’Oreal’s growth rate in China is 26%. They achieve this not by marketing their lipsticks and hair products to Chinese women per se but by marketing the western body as the body to have to Chinese women. They and the other beauty, fashion, media companies promote the western body to the new economies as a way of finding a place to belong in the maelstrom and confusion of modernity.

Alongside the disseminating of western ideals of beauty to Asia, Africa and South America, is the export of the consequences of these ideals: body hatred and body anxiety. This is the emotional fallout from the endeavours of these industries and the basis on which they make their extraordinary and obscene profits.

This is a not an easy target to attack. These industries are not small and their damage is great. They are mining bodies as though they were a commodity like coal or gold. Women’s bodies all over the world are being designated as profit centres.

As the western ideal becomes plastered over the globe we bear witness to the loss of indigenous bodies. This is a new frontier of colonialism. Mad eating is normalised. Western style bodies are revered and local bodies are swallowed up as fast as demise of local languages. We must stop it. And now.

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