Susie Orbach and feminist issues – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

This afternoon I had the back of my head blown off (in a good way) by a psychotherapist.

Susie Orback
Susie Orbach: Image supplied

Susie Orbach is the author of a number of books, most famously Fat is a Feminist Issue which came out in the seventies and which Orbach refers to as “Fifi”, as if it’s an aggressively groomed poodle instead of a guide through the murky waters of how we feel about our bodies and food.

Despite the fact that Orbach has revisited the book in recent times, adding to it as our issues with our bodies, rather than getting better have only become more expansive and weird, she’s never re-read it because she’s not sure she’d be kind to her younger self. “I’m frightened of it”, she says. Is it a shame that we still need books like this? She thinks so.

Cover of Fat is a feminist issueFifi has unfortunately stayed in print.

The discussion ranged far and wide and touched on so many things – this is mainly what has caused the metaphorical gaping hole in the back of my noggin as all the ideas have tried to escape – but always was grounded in the basic idea that western culture, or more correctly “Vulture Capitalism” is grooming us to view our bodies in completely the wrong way, and making a nice profit out of it, thanks very much.

This session solidified for me, some of the vague disquiets I’ve been feeling in recent years about self-image, messages about food, the beauty industry, and the media.

Orbach is of the opinion that painting particular foods as “bad” or “good” isn’t useful when helping people to learn how to eat well.

Refined sugar isn’t that great, but it’s not poison…They’re making it as attractive as heroin.

Regarding the “obesity epidemic”, she points out that many people of all body types eat compulsively. Focusing only on people on the larger end of the spectrum isn’t really getting to the seat of the problem. Instead of dealing with the problem eating, what you’re really focusing on is the “problem body”, which when you think about it, is kind of the wrong way round of doing things.

She’s also not a fan of dieting and views Weight Watchers and their ilk with a cynical eye, given the combination of incredibly high recidivism rates (in the 90%+ region) and that it’s incredibly lucrative.

If dieting really worked you’d only have to do it once.

Hard to argue with cold hard facts like that.

Orbach herself was anything but cold and hard. She seemed genuinely embarrassed by the applause she received and listened with great patience (occupational hazard, I guess) to an audience question that was so long-winded people were beginning to shuffle in their seats and check their watches.

The session touched on so many big ideas it’s hard to squish it down into a meagre blog post – like globalisation and how that has hastened a merge towards one acceptable version of beauty (the kind that prompts Fijian teenagers to bulimia, Korean women to jaw-shaving surgery, and plastic surgery selfie-apps for 10 year olds).

This is something that Orbach is actively working against in her work with Endangered Bodies.

Orbach also talked about her BBC Radio show In Therapy, in which she has attempted to recreate “the intimacy of the therapy session”. I have never listened to it but it sounds intriguing. Completely unscripted, Orbach interacts with actors as if it were a real therapy session. All she knows about their characters beforehand is a few brief facts and then the rest is her reacting to what the actors create. There are plans a second series and for a book based on the transcripts of the show (due out in November).

When asked for thoughts on how to help young people avoid the unhealthy body obsessions that are so prevalent now that they’re not even considered real mental health problems any more, she offered that when her own children were growing up she made sure never to express disappointment or exasperation with her body because “I wouldn’t want them to think that the way you become a grownup woman is by hating yourself”.

Which, when you think about it, is bloody good advice and it’s a bit shameful that we need it. Challenge laid, Ms Orbach. I’m going to try and follow it if I can.

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