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

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood