Not since Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch have readers and critics had such a Rorschach test for their body issues as this year’s novel Wetlands. Charlotte Roche has said in interviews that she was horrified at how women were treating their bodies and wanted to shock readers into confronting their need for perfection — the waxing, the bleaching, the plastic surgery, the designer jeans. Critics have thrown fits, calling Roche’s tale of a sexually adventurous, body-loving, completely-oblivious-to-social-conventions woman profane and irrelevant and unladylike. Others are labeling the book’s protagonist a post-feminist heroine, which is also sort of missing the point.
It’s not a great book, to be sure. The plot is just a flimsy thing designed to link together one tale of (dirty, disgusting, disturbing — take your pick) sex and bodily exploration after another. She tastes all of her bodily fluids, smears her menstrual blood all over her and a man’s body during sex, eats dried cum as “a snack,” entertains sexual fantasies about her father, and masturbates with avocado pits. Roche’s protagonist Helen is not a real person; she’s the mouthpiece for Roche’s philosophy that we should embrace all of our secretions and smells and lumpy parts — or at least acknowledge that they exist and that we’re not made of plastic. But as you read the book, all of your own body hatred and disgust comes to the fore as you respond, sometimes physically, to Helen’s escapades. I couldn’t quite finish the book myself; I started to get dizzy while reading about Helen reopening wounds from her hemorrhoid surgery and decided to walk away.
But it is an interesting reaction to the culture we live in. Just a few years ago, we were in the middle of a plastic surgery craze. TV shows gave women the plastic surgery of their dreams, only for them to emerge looking like a disturbing Barbie/porn star hybrid. Women had Botox parties and planned recreational surgery vacations together. Plastic surgery had become normal. Since the economy has tanked, however, statistics are showing a severe drop in procedures, and those who are still going in are favoring face lifts or other surgeries that will make them look younger because they think it will help them secure employment. It seems that when you lose your job, that “vaginal rejuvenation” you wanted suddenly becomes less of a priority.
Just because we’re not currently remaking ourselves doesn’t mean we have suddenly started to embrace the weirder parts of our bodies. Studies are showing that up to 40 percent of women in college are suffering from eating disorders, and rates for male eating disorders are on the rise. Either rates of self-harm — cutting, burning, etc — by teenage girls are on the rise, or they’re just much more visible thanks to endless blogs, Web sites, and discussion boards devoted to the topic. Young girls are increasingly sexualized through thongs designed especially for them, shoes with Lucite heels sold in the kids section, and T-shirts printed with sexual messages and come-ons. We obviously have difficult relationships with our bodies, with some of us dying to be normal, and others dealing with their issues by punishing their physical selves.
We have always gone to extremes to occupy some sort of physical middle ground. It’s only recently that medicine could intervene in any real way. In the mid-20th century, doctors discovered they could control excessive height in girls medicinally, as opposed to the previous method of breaking and surgically removing sections of the leg bones. As Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove tell it in Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height, if girls were brought into an accelerated puberty with high doses of hormones, they would stop growing earlier and shave off a few inches from their potential height. News reports praised the breakthrough, and reporters interviewed happy girls who were able to stay under the height requirements to become ballet dancers and airline stewardesses, find a boy to dance with at prom, and wear heels without shame.
Girls were loaded up with DES, short for diethylstilbestrol — a synthetic estrogen primarily prescribed to pregnant women to help prevent miscarriages. Unfortunately for the pregnant women, and the girls who were too tall, DES had a bevy of side effects: vaginal cancer, breast cancer, sterility, blood clots, increased rates of miscarriage, and depression. (The babies in utero were not spared: Many of the girls developed problems like T-shaped uteri, sterility, and vaginal and cervical cancer.)
Laura, a girl profiled in Normal at Any Cost who was put on DES at the age of 13 despite her strong objections, became depressed, developed an eating disorder, and at one point had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency gall bladder surgery. Doctors discovered 63 gallstones (usually found in the elderly) in Laura at the age of 15. Later in life, she discovered she could not bring a pregnancy to term. All of this for just a few inches? This was pre-second wave feminism, so anything that seemed like it might hurt a girl’s chances of securing a good marriage — like being too tall — was considered a problem. There were other motivations, though. One doctor was quoted as suggesting that if a woman couldn’t find a good man because of her height, she might turn to homosexuality. But if a normal sex life is a concern, perhaps crashing a girl through puberty in one year, and then forcing her to have pelvic exams at the age of 13 is not the way to go.
Since then we have found many more ways to correct our flaws. As Susie Orbach says in her new book Bodies, “The sense that biology needs no longer be destiny is gaining ground, and so it follows that where there is a (perceived) body problem, a body solution can be found.” If you need help finding a body problem, our culture is here to help. Just turn on the TV, open a magazine, or walk outside your door. There will be someone telling you how disgusting belly fat is, how unwhitened teeth or an un-Botoxed forehead make you look older, how a man will not want to sleep with you if you sweat or possess body hair. There will be brave women interviewed, sharing their story of how they triumphed over their disappointing body and you can, too!
The problems, as Orbach sees them, are the growing gap between who we are as individuals compared to the ideal presented to us in the culture, and the availability of tools to try to reach that ideal. While obesity rates grow, the models pranced in front of us in fashion magazines or on the red carpet get skinnier and skinnier. While obesity is an incredibly complicated issue, with roots in our family structure, the diet industry, America’s long work hours, poverty, our food supply, and on and on, we mostly get newscasters reducing the issue to shame: “Look at how disgusting you are. Have you no self control?”
Meanwhile, it’s not just height we can now control. When you can manipulate every part of your body, it’s difficult not to see it as a work in progress. Why try loving your thighs when you can just have the fat sucked out or work them off in spin class? It creates a chaotic relationship between you and your self, a mindset of “I’ll love my body when it deserves being loved.” It’s an attitude that is passed along, as well. Laura’s mother from Normal at Any Cost remembered her days of being too tall and how awkward that was, so she ignored Laura’s objections to the medication. Many of the women profiled in Bodies also inherited their chaotic eating habits or sense of body shame from their mothers, whether consciously like poor Herta — who was forced to eat her own sick when she vomited up a meal — or one of the others who unconsciously absorbed their mothers’ neuroses by watching the way they responded to food or talked about their weight. If we want to raise happy, healthy daughters, it would seem we have to start with ourselves.
Orbach is writing cultural criticism in Bodies, but it’s such a deeply personal issue that one wishes she offered an action plan for women on how to navigate such a toxic environment with confidence. She has been writing about this issue for years, publishing her monumental book Fat Is a Feminist Issue in 1978 — surely she has some tips by now. Not that total body acceptance would look like Wetlands’ Helen, who wears her cervical mucus behind her ears as a perfume. But it might start with keeping quiet instead of stopping the cute boy trying to get into your pants to explain, “Oh god, um, it’s just that I haven’t shaved my legs in three or four days…” or not grimacing when you look at your naked body in the mirror. It’ll probably take a little time to work up to loving your thighs just as they are. • 10 March 2009