Eating Disorders Information (EDI)

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Marxism and the alienated body image

Posted by a.marlow on November 16, 2012 at 2:50 PM

When I'm not training to be a psychotherapist, I spend a great deal of my time doing a Masters degree in European Law at a French University. One of my (favourite) modules is called "Pensée Politique Contemporaine" (translated: contemporary political thought) and today's lecture covered the socialist thought of Karl Marx. Certain concepts arose in the course of this lecture that felt relevant to the psychological issues around body image, and I thought I'd share them with you.

Firstly, however, we need to detoxify the subject. "Marxism" and "socialism" have become dirty words to many people, so we need to define what we means by them.

We can crudely divide the thought of Karl Marx into two categories: the thought of Marx the critic, and the thought of Marx the revolutionary. Marx the critic would be the author of the four-volume work Capital, who provides an insightful and incisive critique of 19th century capitalism, both from an economic and a philosophical angle. Marx the revolutionary would be the author of The Communist Manifesto, who advocates, among other things, the abolition of family and religion, the setting up of a 'dictatorship of the proletariat', and the subsequent evolution of a classless, stateless society. It is perfectly possible to agree with the first Marx that capitalism has its flaws while disagreeing with the second Marx about what to do about them- and it is to the critical thought of the first Marx that we look today.

There are two key concepts central to Marxist thought that will frame this discussion: exploitation and alienation. Put very crudely, exploitation refers to the situation that occurs when a worker puts in 12 hours of labour and only gets 6 hours worth of wages (the remaining six hours making up the money re-invested in the company and the take-home profit of the capitalist). Alienation is the result of this process. There was a time, many centuries ago, when most workers were self-employed craftsmen who owned the means of their production. They took pride in their work. The labourer's work was an extension of himself, of his identity. (For Marx, man is nought but his labour. This can be boiled down to the more general idea that we are defined only by what we do and how we act.) By leaving this utopia of self-employed craftsmanship and becoming a 'wage-slave', this is no longer the case: one man's labour becomes the property of someone else (the capitalist) and, in a very real way, a key part of one's self-defined identity is taken away. The situation is not made any better during holiday time or retirement, since this time is defined by an absence of labour and, thus, by an absence of the self-edifying and self-defining properties that working on one's own project in one's own interest can bring.

This is the crux of Marx's thought and, though it has some holes in it, its general principles can be applied to the plight of the anorexic, bulimic and body dysmorphic who, perhaps, feels alienated from their body. Yet one crucial addition needs to be made to the above analysis before it makes sense: the role of the body, especially the female body, in modern society. Authors like Susie Orbach have made the case that modern capitalism has turned the body into a commodity by which one sells oneself to the world. This is especially true for women, who can seemingly go nowhere without being confronted by airbrushed photographs of models and celebrities whose very raison d'être seems to be their appearance, and little else (see this video for a powerful visual account of this fact). The effect is not lost on men, either, who are perhaps more likely to manifest the pathological effects of this phenomenon through muscle dysmorphia rather than anorexia.

So can we see conditions like anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia as some kind of response to a capitalism that alienates people from their own bodies, transforming them into images to be possessed for sale on the market rather than an integrative part of one's identity? Perhaps. If this were true, then women, presented with a social market where the thinnest, skinniest body sells, would do terrible things to their bodies in order to make them into marketable images, whatever the cost to their physical and mental health- for the body is viewed as an image, a possession, rather than an intrisic part of oneself.

Yet we must tread with caution. The picture is far more complicated that the one presented above, with genetic considerations and the practice of early family life to be thrown into the mix; and, while it may be argued that anorexia nervosa first appeared as a diagnostic label during the industrialisation of the 19th century, it would be rash to  jump to conclusions about potential links with capitalism, especially when similar behaviour in centuries before may simply have been presented as religious asceticism rather than a desire to lose weight.

Yet it remains a fact that certain people suffering from eating disorders may feel drawn to the explanation given above and may find it helpful in their recovery. It may even spur them on to join groups like UK Feminista or Reclaim the Night, choosing a path of activism against the system that alienated them from their own bodies- and this in itself can be therapeutic.  And it may be useful for therapists themselves to keep this possibility in mind as a way of understanding certain anorexic clients who come their way.

Categories: marxism, capitalism, culture

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