Saturday, December 12, 2009

On bodies and capitalism

A few weeks ago, Shelley at Read Red had an interesting post about Bodies by Susie Orbach. She has mixed feelings about the book, some of her criticisms having to do with the absence of class analysis by Orbach, or any attention to the role of agribusiness. Here is Shelley:
[Orbach] 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.
In her defense of fat women against groups like Weight Watchers, for the false promises and for its reliance on the consistent weight fluctuation characteristic of long-term dieters, Orbach "cites some studies showing that you can be fit and 'overweight,'", which Shelley says is "a welcome corrective to the nasty, ignorant stereotypes of lazy fat people." Shelley shares a little about her own experience trying to lose weight, through Weight Watchers, while being conscious of some of the many contradictions involved. For her, she says, it's not so much about image as about how she feels inside her own body. The book, she says, has
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.
I think that all of this is very important stuff. Shelley's post reminded me of this slideshow I saw a couple of months back at Shapely Prose ("home of the mordantly obese" is the site's tagline) which shows pretty well the ridiculousness of the Body Mass Index standards. From there, I spent some time reading through the blog's archives. I found it very instructive, but at times I admit I was puzzled. The site is one of many "fat acceptance" blogs (the fatosphere). My puzzlement was primarily at the far reaches of this acceptance. That is, I think there's a difference between body acceptance, which I believe is important, and simply accepting without question poor diets, poor food choices, and excessively sedentary lifestyles, all of which we do not have complete control over--which I imagine is part of the point of the acceptance movement; so often fat people, as well as poor people, are attacked as if they only needed to make better decisions and they wouldn't be in their current position, as if our lifestyle choices are not substantially conditioned by exposure to mass media, and more generally by the larger problem of living in an unhealthy capitalist society. I had some questions, but I'm generally reluctant to begin commenting at a blog that's new to me, particularly if I'm about to ask a common question--surely such points are already addressed somewhere on this very site, right? And I especially despise the stereotypical male commenter who swoops in to tell it like it is, as if the bloggers and regular readership have never heard of dominant arguments. Masculine argumentation I can do without. So, I don't want to be that guy. Happily, many feminist blogs, of necessity we can be sure, have commenting rules and guidelines, and even FAQ sections. The excellent well-known blog I Blame the Patriarchy, for example. Anyway, if you're curious about these matters, I recommend taking a look at the Shapely Prose blog, if you don't already. For starters, here is the link to their FAQ section, which provides many links to interesting topics, such as Health at Every Size and The Fantasy of Being Thin.


Jacob Russell said...

Shapely Prose FAQ is priceless!

Smart people, indeed!

Becky said...

Great post! I am living proof that you can be larger yet still healthy. I just went in for a physical and came out with great bill of health. I don't enjoy being large, so I am trying to lose a few pounds [to fit back into my skinny jeans] by eating healthier... using the effective weight loss plan shown in Janice Stanger's latest book "The Perfect Formula Diet: How to Lose Weight and Get Healthy Now with Six Kinds of Whole Foods," and exercise daily for 30-45 min. I am hoping that something will pay off soon and that I will soon be in a smaller size, but am grateful to at least be healthy.

Paul Dorell said...


The FAQ section of I Blame the Patriarchy blog says:

• Commenters should exhibit advanced patriarchy-blaming skills. If you don’t know what this means, don’t post here. The degree of advancement expressed by any given comment is to be determined by me, entirely subjectively.

Although this may be humor on the part of the author, and although the "patriarchy" may indeed be responsible for countless misdeeds and crimes against women, the language is sexist. Would you encourage posters on your blog to demonstrate advanced feminist-blaming skills and then subjectively decide to accept their posts if they met your criteria for being sufficiently advanced in anti-feminism? I think not.

I don't see much value to blogs that dogmatically stick to one side of an issue, particularly ones that encourage blame. I think the fact that I am male doesn't obligate me to behave obsequiously towards those who have issues with the collective behavior of my sex.

Richard said...

Paul, seriously, don't be dense. They are trying to avoid the kinds of pedantic interventions by clueless men that routinely bog down discussions. As they say elsewhere, it is not their job to educate men in the finer points of feminism 101. I'm not going to debate this matter with you. This is a feminism-friendly blog. I allowed you to comment at length on the other post since I had addressed you directly and it seemed only fair. But I don't agree with your perception of the issues and this is not the venue for a debate on the merits of feminism, or patriarchy-blame, for that matter. There are countless other places for that.

In case you hadn't noticed, no, I am not a free speech absolutist. But then, I am also not the government.

Paul Dorell said...

The impression I have of blogs is that they're usually extremely one-sided and are operated like dictatorships. Actually, yours is the first I've come across that displays some tolerance and allows discussion of topics at some length with commenters. Most blogs are nothing more than the bloggers' posts with a few assenting comments at best and no recognition of dissenters. It would be preferable to have my own blog, but I find the idea somewhat repugnant.

I appreciate the fact that you were willing to discuss the feminism issue regarding Lorrie Moore, but for the time being I've had it with blogs as they are currently conceived and operated and don't plan to return in the foreseeable future.

Richard said...

Paul, I can appreciate your point about blogs. I've experienced that myself. On the other hand, I've also encountered many blogs with quite robust discussion sections, and I'm equally aware of blogs which, in my opinion, are overly indulgent of trolls and detractors. Really it depends on the nature of the disagreement. If a blog is devoted to x topic, and someone comes along and says x is stupid, well they aren't really adding anything. Or if someone comes along who isn't up to speed on the topic at hand and yet thinks their opinion is just as valid, well they're just a distraction.

Jacob Russell said...

I have a fairly open policy on Barking Dog when it comes to comments. Only person I've consistently blocked is a notorious free ranging troll who seeks out blogs with no purpose but to undermine the very possibility of developing a discussion. I don't call that 'censorship,' I call it being an editor with responsibility to my readers and those who would like to respond without the topic being subverted at the whim of someone to immature to respect the rights of others to be heard.

Shapely Prose in an entirely different kind of forum. They are right up front about their mission, to offer a 'safe space' to explore ideas and topics which, without that protection, as so polluted, so invasively corrupted in popular discourse that without the opportunity to develop sufficiently independent language and ideological ground, whatever is said or written on the subject is lost in reactive misreadings.

For a time I was part of a closed forum for those coming to terms with manic depression--there is no way participants could have discussed the kinds of personal issues that came up in any general 'normal' population--issues, I might add, not seldom, of life and death import. I have nothing but respect for what those women are attempting to do on Shapely Prose--and their humor and intelligence testify to seriousness and importance of their mission.

A. Ominous said...

I had a fantastic experience at Shapely Prose during the HL Gates affair (Gates Gate?): theirs was the only blog, in fact, I could find, where the overall drift of the discussion *wasn't* that Gates had been "stupid" by asserting his human rights in his own kitchen in the implicit face of authoritarian deadly force.

It was either a coincidence that a discussion being run by women was *not* exhibiting the spineless white Lefty-shrink I was shocked to find, almost everywhere else, on the topic... or not... but finding them was therapeutic. If blogs like Shapely Prose are "too militant"... so be it! All for the better. I won't commit the obvious blunder by mentioning "balls", but...

Richard said...

Thanks, Steven. That's good to hear.

My experience was that those identifying as left had a much better take on it than so-called liberals, who seemed in general all to eager to embrace the logic of the police state (to repeat something I said here at the time).