Too painful to hug


The Body Snatchers
By Cyndi Tebbel
Finch Publishing, Sydney


Don't you think the concept of "diet" Coke is really bizarre? This is the rationale of a junk-dominated food industry trying to profit at the same time as a cosmetics and diet industry. Cyndi Tebbel touches on these crazy contradictions of capitalism (without actually ever mentioning the evil "c" word) in her book The Body Snatchers. She says, "This collective state of mind ... fuelled by the ... messages of food advertisements and supermarket shelves ... urge[s] us to fill up while, at the same time, offering daily warnings that just about everything we put into our mouth is a potential death sentence".

In April 1997, Tebbel, then editor of New Woman magazine, featured a size-16 supermodel on the cover of the magazine. It was a hit with New Woman's readers, but when a cosmetics company withdrew its advertising from the magazine, Tebbel was encouraged to stop promoting "unhealthy imagery". Later that year she left New Woman and began a speaking tour around the issue of body image, receiving much support. She was then invited to write The Body Snatchers.

The book is a limited but interesting description of the manufacturing of the "ideal" woman, and how women are trained by the media to see themselves as only bodies. It is a useful, constructive and intense critique of the media, but dangerously one-dimensional in about five different ways.

Tebbel sees the media as creating "one female role model" and constructing an image that will create demand for women's cosmetics, which is true. But the media and movie industries are more complicated than that. These industries also reflect broader ideals of women. This is why I think we are seeing some random blossoming of alternate heroines on TV (e.g., Absolutely Fabulous, Desperate Housewives, The Nanny, The L Word etc), and I don't agree with Tebbel that these are only token stunts.

"We've gone from corsets to bra burning and back again", She argues. "We've shelled out millions of dollars on ... slimming companies." Apparently we all diet, and we're all body conscious. Tebbel uses the royal "we" throughout the book — as though all women are of one mind and frustration, but worse — of the same economic position. Most women in Australia (let alone Third World countries) can't afford to even contemplate using the services of slimming companies, let alone plastic surgery.

Tebbel's unawareness of economic disparity leads her to her solution: She argues that the only way to change the status quo is to "vote with our wallets, our pens and our PCs", which inevitably means that richer consumers have more "power" than poorer ones.

Should we blame the fashion designers, she asks. "Not until we stop buying their clothes." It seems a consumer rebellion is the only solution. But what does that mean? When you work 40-hours plus a week, do you really have time to make your own clothes?

Whilst the menu change at McDonald's certainly suggests a health food trend, Tebbel exaggerates how health-obsessed we are, and I personally can't relate to her claims that "we" think eating for taste is seen as too indulgent.

Tebbel also exaggerates when she argues, repeatedly and tirelessly, that beauty is key to a woman's success. She never explains what she means by success, so we have to assume she means the career, money and fame kind.

Tebbel fails to analyse the media in a broader social and economic context. However, her "insider's" perspective on the industry gives transparency to a world we're not usually allowed to see. Her stories of what women have to do to be on the cover of a magazine and cringe-worthy quotes of various publishers as they try to justify their role in (basically) promoting anorexia are quite disturbing.

Her background also shows through in the style of the book — with its easy-to-read font and wording, shaded insets with statistics, quotes, and short commentary, and bold, attention grabbing titles for each short chapter.

The Body Snatchers contains a tiny drop of history, a little bit of an analysis of the racism involved in the beauty myth, a lengthy account of the bigotry larger people suffer from (she argues they receive less support than drug addicts — I'm not sure.) We learn about ageism in Hollywood, and how it's not just the cosmetic industry that profits from "thin fashion", but also drug companies and their diet miracle cures.

Tebbel successfully critiques the media and prosecutes its role in creating unrealistic female body idols, but if you're after a little more than this (such as understanding women's oppression, its causes, and if you want to understand what kind of society allows such magazines to flourish), then you'll be disappointed.

But, the reader will discover and come to know more deeply, a troubling world, in which some women feel so compelled to have plastic surgery, that in a survey that Tebbel quotes, 61% of women with breast implants found it too painful to hug.

From Green Left Weekly, September 28, 2005.
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