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)

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