In Bodies, Susie Orbach theorizes the body as the home in which the self must live. She asserts that there are authentic bodies and false bodies, the false bodies being the ones that we develop as early as infancy in order to please what we think are the wishes of other people when our own needs aren't being met (thus the infant that learns not to cry even when she’s upset). Authentic bodies, she posits, are the ones in which our selves can live comfortably, the bodies over which we don’t fret. Orbach’s theory, as I see it, poses some problems. When I asked her about the relationship between the body and the self in the authentic body, her answer was that they were the same, that “corporeal embodiment” would entail no difference between the two. If we reject the Cartesian mind-body duality altogether in favor of an integrated whole, this immediately seems to send us back down the road we have been traveling a long time, in which bodily markers will be “justifiably” read as signs of internal characteristics of the self. Or does the notion of authentic body require that we see the body as unreadable, unwritable?
This gets further complicated when we consider the question: can a body culturally marked (by cosmetic surgery or other body modification techniques) and in which a self now feels comfortable or empowered be an authentic body? When I posed this very question to Orbach when she presented the book's ideas at the London School of Economics, she pointed out that such cultural marking techniques were sold to women on the basis of their empowering results (which seemed to suggest that such a question accepted the premises of that discourse), but in the end she did not have an answer. Granted, Orbach had to field the question off the cuff, but the lack of a satisfactory answer to it points to a glaring problem: what’s the difference between an “authentic” body and an “essential” or “natural” body? Is Orbach inadvertently taking us back down the path to essentialism by another name?
Given the effort she makes in Bodies to show that there is no such thing as a “natural” body, using the example of wild children who developed internal regulatory mechanisms and other environmental adaptations from birth, it’s highly doubtful that reviving essentialism is Orbach’s intention. In her conclusion, she encourages that our bodies not be seen as “sites of labor and commercially-driven production” or “aspirations that need to be achieved” (145). But this again points out a conflict – she goes to such lengths to prove “that bodies are made rather than born” while enjoining us from participating too consciously in the making process.