books about bodies

August 16, 2010 § 4 Comments

books ive been reading:

–marya hornbacher ‘wasted: a memoir of anorexia and bulimia’

written by a woman who is recovering from eating disorders.  very well written, her use of detailed descriptions is impeccable without be tedious. she has poet’s sense of language and diction.  and evokes the emotional through the material descriptions.

‘I remember what my hands were like: birdlike, papery, blue and numb.  They did not grip so well anymore.  When the cup got a little lighter I’d stand, keep walking.  Wait outside the Safeway across the street until dawn light began to come over the hills to the east.  I’d walk through the aisles awhile, pass by the cigarette stand, stuff three packs up the sleeve of my coat.  Buy a pack of gum, a pack of cigarettes.  Walk a while more, up the narrow road that hugged a steep outcropping of the hill. Sometimes in the narrow ditch between road and hill. sometimes on the other side of the road, along the barrier that held the cars in, the flying cars that whipped my hair up as they passed, headlights skimming by me, missing my figure there in the shadow.’

What I love about her story is how she interrogates the prevailing myths and theories around eating disorders and argues with them, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not.  also the ways that she refuses to blame her parents for what she has been through, while still being critical of some of their parenting.  she shows compassion toward their dilemnas while acknowledging the ways that those dilemnas were exacerbated by their own self centeredness.  she refuses to glamourise ed, esp. anorexia, but also refuses simple pathologizing psycho babble.  she sees her own selfishness and refuses to excuse it or make it a reason to be self punitive.  it is what it is.

after this, i read susie orbach’s ‘bodies’.

her analysis is impeccable.

i have been advancing two different kinds of argument.  the first is reasonably straightforward: that bodies are and always have been shaped according to the specific cultural moment.  there has never been a natural body: a time when bodies were untainted by cultural practices….globalism, which bits nature exposes the deep inequities of race and class throughout the world, simultaneously offers a story of belonging if one can superficially erase an economic poverty of background by expunging its physical markers and securing the right look, the right kind of body.  individuals, where ever they are from, inscribe their corporeality to express the cultural moment…

(our bodies) 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 counselling our cosmetic surgery (and one gets the sense that all options should really be pursued), is tinged with moral entreaty.

i have been suggesting that the body is made, not born. in the echo of both the writer simone de beauvoir’s famous aphorism ‘women are made and not born’ and the paediatrician and psychoanalyst donald winnicott’s oft quoted phrase ‘there is no such thing as a baby; there is only a mothering pair’ i hope i have shown that everything about our physical being is the outcome not of nature (although undoubtedly we feel natural and highly individual), but of the ways in which nature’s body is treated by those who raise us.

body instability is rife,  it is not only the dumping ground for emotional anxiety; it is a problem in its own right which needs addressing.  mostly we don’t see the body’s anxiety as bodily anxiety.  we misread the anxiety, misinterpret the wish to change the body as aspirational and as psychologically motivated — the outcome of an unfortunate emotional issue, such as lack of control or, more commonly, an inability to digest upset or conflict which is then visited on the body as a somatic symptom.  but body anxiety is fundamental as emotional anxiety and we need to recognize this.

1. i love her premise that there has never been a ‘natural body’.  bodies are made not born.  and that at this specific cultural moment our hegemonic imperial culture is destroying body diversity as it destroys cultural and language diversities on the planet.

2. love that she pulls out body anxiety as being an experience in its own right and not just a manifestation of emotional issues.  for me this was such a freeing concept and spoke to marya’s descriptions of body anxiety.  that while there are a lot of psychological and emotional reasons that her body anxiety manifested as it did — as bulimia and anorexia — that at some level she could see that her body itself felt unstable, without boundaries, unreal.   and that part of what she is learning is how to sense (physically feel) her body is a stable place, and that she lives from this stable body.

and that body anxiety increases in a population as body diversity diminuates and is replaced by the hegemonic western ideal body brought to the world through the media.  that body anxiety is the body’s response to the violence of cultural hegemony.


we need bodies sufficiently stable to allow us moments of bliss and adventure when, sure that they exist, we can take leave of them


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§ 4 Responses to books about bodies

  • prof susurro says:

    I teach this book in my introductory level courses. It always resonates with the white middle class women in the courses, so nice to hear it also resonates with some woc since they tend to be quiet in class when we read this & I am still working out why 10 years into teaching it.

    • mama says:

      huh. interesting. i assume you are talking about ‘bodies’. it really worked for me. but then i have been accused of liking white girl stuff…so you know… 😉

  • noor says:

    i love love love wasted. when i was going through the absolute worst part of my eating disorder, it was something i could read and feel like i wasn’t completely, totally alone. and the way she describes recovery resonates with me very well…because it doesn’t ever leave you, it’s always there. i haven’t read the other book, but i look forward to checking it out.
    – a’ishah.

    • mama says:

      yeah i thought the way she described recovery, and the sections on her present day life, were some of the strongest in terms of breaking through the myths of ed. like how the body is real and you can do stuff to it over time that it and she had to live with for the rest of her life. very very real for me.

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