Study Says Good Body Image Is Bad For You; Susie Orbach Disagrees

In a study that raises more questions than it answers, researchers found that a majority of women felt they were at their ideal size. But therapist Susie Orbach says we're still too critical of ourselves.

The study asked 81 women to choose their current and ideal body size from a series of silhouettes. Two thirds of the women said their current body size was their ideal. And 20% of obese women chose as their ideal an overweight or obese silhouette. The study didn't measure the women's cholesterol or blood pressure, but, in a confusing leap, UPI.com says the results show that "an extremely good body image can also take its toll on a woman's health." One of the study authors says, "So the question for doctors then becomes, 'How can we effectively treat our overweight and obese patients, when they don't feel they're in harm's way?'"

Maybe by not "treating" them at all? In an interview with Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, therapist and Fat Is A Feminist Issue author Susie Orbach says we've become so separated from our own bodies that we don't even know what they need anymore. Aitkenhead paraphrases:

The simultaneous rise of anorexia and obesity is not a paradox, but rather two sides of the same psychological coin - both manifestations of our panic about hunger, in which normal appetite becomes pathologised as the enemy.

Even worse, says Orbach, we have a kind of dietary Stockholm syndrome, falling in love with society's drive for bodily perfection and even accepting it as our own. She writes,

We transform the sense of being criticised by becoming the moving and enthusiastic actor in our own self-improvement programme. We will eagerly repair what is wrong ... We see ourselves as agents, not victims. It is the individual woman who feels herself to be at fault for not matching up to the current imagery ... She applies herself to the job of perfecting that image for herself and so makes it her own, not assaultive or alien.

The way women often moralize food choices and describe dieting as "taking control of their lives" bears this theory out. But once we've so deeply internalized society's criticisms, how can we fix the problem? Interestingly, Orbach doesn't think we should get rid of the idea of beauty altogether. She says,

Maybe this is too pragmatic but we live in this world, we have got the democratisation of beauty, we have got the notion that we can, should, enter into the representation of ourselves in certain kinds of ways. We're going to do that. So the question is, can we do it and have joy about this, rather than only regarding ourselves critically.

Here Orbach deftly defines the line that many contemporary feminists try to walk, between accepting constricting beauty standards and creating their own fun and fulfilling expressions of beauty. The latter is difficult, but Orbach thinks it's possible, as long as we start early (even in the womb, by reaching pregnant women), and teach people to listen to their bodies' needs rather than outside messages of criticism. If everyone refocused on nourishing the body and giving it what it needs to survive, perhaps we'd have not only few were eating disorders, but fewer journalists telling us that good body image is a bad thing.

Good Body Image Can Take Health Toll [UPI.com]
The G2 Interview: Susie Orbach [Guardian]