Body Image

It is a year since the pioneering Body Image Summit mounted by the Cabinet Office and the Ministers for Women, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Jay.

The summit was set up after it was discovered that eating problems and body image were the major preoccupations of adolescent girls. In a recent article in The Observer Susie Orbach marks the anniversary and draws some lessons:

“The overwhelming number of daily images foisted on girls means that they can’t register their own beauty unless they see a facsimile of it represented around them. If beauty comes in only one size and shape, then they will try to reconstruct themselves to measure up.”

“At the summit, there was a glimmer that those legal purveyors of misery would be exposed, caught and tried. The magazines, TV, billboard and print advertisements, the constructed girl pop groups featuring femininity as ever more skinny and sexy, were the legal routes by which the purveyors of an idea more deadly than heroin, which kills fewer people than anorexia, entered the consciousness of our female population.”

Anorexia and disturbances in body image were some of the main symptoms Freud found in his early investigation of hysteria. He thought that various unconscious phantasies or forgotten traumatic memories lay behind the symptoms and were expressed in them.

Some twenty years later he noticed a similar phenomenon in one of his male patients, the so-called ‘Rat Man’. Freud sees it as a kind of attempt at suicide:

“One day while he was away on his summer holidays the idea suddenly occurred to him that he was too fat [German ‘dick’] and that he must make himself slimmer. So he began getting up from the table before the pudding came round and tearing along the road without a hat in the blazing heat of an August sun. Then he would dash up a mountain at the double, till, dripping with perspiration, he was forced to come to a stop. On one occasion his suicidal intentions actually emerged without any disguise from behind this mania for slimming: as he was standing on the edge of a steep precipice he suddenly received a command to jump over, which would have been certain death. Our patient could think of no explanation of this senseless obsessional behaviour until it suddenly occurred to him that at that time his lady had also been stopping at the same resort; but she had been in the company of an English cousin, who was very attentive to her and of whom the patient had been very jealous. This cousin’s name was Richard, and, according to the usual practice in England, he was known as ‘Dick’. Our patient, then, had wanted to kill this Dick; he had been far more jealous of him and enraged with him than he could admit to himself, and that was why he had imposed on himself this course of slimming by way of a punishment.”

So Freud locates the slimming mania within a system of relationships.

It is not clear whether Freud or his patient understood the double ambiguity of the name ‘Dick’, but let us assume we are dealing here with an Oedipal structure rather than one of sibling rivalry. The Rat Man wants to destroy the ‘fat’ part of himself because it represents his rival in love; a rival more powerful than him and who possesses both the love object and the ‘dick’.

Adolescent girls also have complex internal lives and conflictual relationships. And if the unattainable images that surround them are part of the equation, Freud I think would maintain that they are not its complete solution.

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