Invasion of the body snatchers

The beauty industry steals women’s self-esteem and convinces us to spend unwisely in pursuit of phys

On the face of it, girls and women have achieved much over the past 30 years. It would be churlish to say otherwise. Women can now borrow in their own right, they can divorce without "fault", they can love other women, take pregnancy and parental leave, have pension rights and receive child benefit from the state.

But the past three decades have brought a reversal in women's liberty and equality. Two factors have contributed to this: the demise of the feminist movement and the post-Thatcherite legacy. The second ruthlessly smashed the collective sensibility that had been Britain's postwar legacy, establishing in its place the notion of individual aspiration. Feminism disappeared and the superwoman, the have-it-all woman, the have-little woman (Bridget Jones), the Sex and the City woman and the yummy mummy came in its stead. Femininity became characterised by notions of individual attainment, of emotional independence - an achievement that includes a focus on the transformation of the body.

The body, for young women, is not a place that they are encouraged simply to live from, but is presented as an asset. The democratisation of beauty - which encourages everyone from young girls to old women to be obsessed with their appearance - has sold women a peculiar pact in which beauty is spuriously linked to a sense of achievement and security.

The body has been commercialised. Today, industries convince women that their bodies are so inadequate that they need to transform them - from labiaplasties to cheek implants. Calculating the total worth of the beauty industry is difficult, but the cosmetic end alone is worth more than $160bn a year globally.

Newsweek did a beauty breakdown for the average lifetime cost of cosmetic maintenance for an American woman. Over the period that she is a pre-teen, or "tween", as the marketing category is known, she spends on average a staggering $7,000; as a teen and in her twenties, $66,000. The spend for the 20 years of her thirties and forties adds up to $158,000, and from 50 onwards she spends another $218,000 to keep looking "beautiful".

Public image

The cosmetics industry is only one player destabilising women's bodies. There is also the development of a visual aesthetic in which, on average, we catch sight of 5,000 visually altered images of women a week. The intensi­fication of these pictures is a prime driver in shaping how we see women and how we women look at ourselves. They insinuate themselves into our consciousness so that we do not feel disenfranchised so much as we wish to be part of them. We experience a gap between what is beamed at us and what we see staring back from the mirror. We don't experience being victims; instead we wish to update ourselves, to find in our bodies the modifications that can allow us to join the brand that is today enunciated as femininity.

Of course, the beauty industry couldn't do it alone - and couldn't get us to spend so lavishly on its products - without the help of the "glamour industries": the fashion magazines, the diet industry, pharmaceutical and food companies and the cosmetic surgery industry. The diet industry, which is part of the food industry - Heinz makes products for Weight Watchers; Lean Cuisine is owned by Nestlé - is a particularly canny operator. A relative newcomer, Nutrisystem, saw its profits grow from $1m in 2004 to $85m in 2006 and was named one of the fastest-growing companies by Fortune in 2007. To achieve such glory, all diet companies depend on repeat customers for their profits. Of 100 people who go on diets, only three will find that the diet helps them. For the remaining 97, the diet will fail to stabilise their weight at a lower level. For the majority, their weight will be higher after a succession of diets than before they started.

If we turn to the cosmetic surgery industry, we can see the medicalisation of body hatred turned into profit. In US TV shows over the past several years, such as The Swan or Extreme Makeover, contestants have competed for the right to have their bodies reshaped. Meanwhile the doctors have developed a rhetoric of libe­ration and entitlement with which to entice potential patients. Post-pregnancy bodies are seen as defective, breasts as too small, too large or too low; cheekbones are in the wrong place and lips too thin. In a grotesque act of theft, liberation is ascribed not to social change, but to the individual's right to do the best for her or himself, by reworking her or his body.

A couple of years ago, the Australian edition of Zoo magazine invited its readers to send in pictures of their girlfriend's breasts and those of their favourite celebrities. The winner would have his girlfriend's breasts remodelled along the lines of the celebrity.

Globally, the export of a western aesthetic eats into cultural differences. It is estimated that as many as 50 per cent of South Korean women have had cosmetic surgery (many request Caucasian-style eyelids). In Tehran, there are 35,000 nose jobs a year. In China, an increasingly popular operation is for the thigh bone to be broken and a 10cm rod inserted to provide "western" height. The west is now exporting its own body hatred around the world.

The underlying message of the glamour industries is that one's body is the means by which life and its offerings can be obtained. In this view, a fundamental aspect of our lives is to enjoy being preoccupied with reshaping the body. Life has turned from being a process to a set of accumulations. The individual body is a centre for consumption.

Only connect

Today, girls are educated in many societies. They are engaged in activities in large numbers in previously unimaginable ways. But their hearts are sore. They scan their bodies to make sure nothing is untoward and scold themselves if they judge that something is. They make promises about what and how they will eat or exercise. Their body distress is so much part of their experience that they don't expect it to dissipate. They expect to live with it.

Today's ideology of having it all has deprived many of seeing the value and necessity of fellowship, attachment and dependency. The ways and means to happiness have been subverted. Shopping, dieting, exercise and self-criticism attempt to fill the space where emotional connection and self-expression belong. We are inveigled to become citizens not because of what we offer society, but through what we buy.

But the offer of recognition through branding is no substitute for the depth of acknowledgement that emerges out of mutual understanding and personal and social connection. We need to question these commercially driven practices so that both sustainable bodies and sustainable relationships - in which emotional equality prevails - will become the commonplace compost from which we live, and so we can change what really needs transforming.

This is an edited version of the Richard Price Memorial Lecture 2010. Susie Orbach's latest book is "Bodies" (Profile, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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