Maclean’s Interview: Susie Orbach

Author Susie Orbach talks to Anne Kingston about the retouching of kids’ school pics, the overhyped weight epidemic—and the Obamas

Maclean's Interview: Susie OrbachQ: You wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978. Now, in Bodies, you discuss how the thin, Westernized body is such a global brand, women in South Korea routinely undergo surgery to make their eyes appear more Caucasian. What surprised you most?

A: I find it quite interesting what goes on under the hijab. Throughout Saudi Arabia and the Middle East there’s an external view that is one thing and then an internal view around lingerie and fashion, which is a representation of the Western body, worn under the hijab.

Q: What do you see fuelling our body and size obsession?

A: A lot of things. There’s the commercialization of the body by the industries that make incredible profits on the back of body unease—the diet and the beauty and the cosmetic surgery industries, and sections of the food industry. Then there’s the intensification of visual culture in a way that has an impact on everybody’s relationship to themselves and the way in which self has come to be represented through the body.

Q: You refer to the diet and beauty industries as “merchants of body hatred.”

A: Yes. My ire and concern increases with every year as I see the evidence of more and more girls—and increasingly boys—captured by the notion that there is something wrong with their bodies. There was a new program last week in England showing 10-year-old girls, nine-year-old girls, not one of them felt that they were an okay size. They have already absorbed this idea that they have to transform their bodies, that they should mimic their moms or what’s generally in the cultural conversation and be dieting.

Q: You write about the importance of early development in establishing healthy body image. Yet you also write about 11-year-old girls in Fiji developing eating disorders after TV was introduced in 1995. How can parents prevail?

A: What I’m trying to put together is how visual culture is impacting everybody so the preoccupation with the body has infiltrated mothers’ experience. So not only are they stressing about their own bodies but they’re also stressing about the bodies of their children—whether they’re aware of it or not. You just have to eavesdrop on a conversation of new moms. This is not to blame moms: they’re a transmitter of what goes on in the culture, and they want the best for their babies. But inadvertently this is what’s happening.

Q: You’re critical of the focus on the so-called obesity epidemic.

A: Absolutely. It conceals what would have been considered troubled eating 30 years ago, but which has now become the norm for many people.

Q: How do you define “troubled”?

A: Eating when you’re not hungry, compulsive eating, girls not eating during the week but only eating on the weekends. It’s a bulimic, bingey and dieting cycle that a lot of people are caught up in—being frightened of food but surrendering to it, so that food takes on enormous significance. Those are far more troublesome problems. Obesity is just one manifestation of that, as anorexia is on the other side. If you were to eavesdrop on young women, so much of the conversation would be, “Ugh, I look so fat,” a fat-in-the-head symptom that affects very ordinary biological cues like hunger and satisfaction.

Q: You treated the world’s most famous bulimic, Diana, Princess of Wales. Do you think her illness and the discussion around it glamorized the disease?

A: The important thing to say is that she came out in around the early ’90s and gave a big talk about eating disorders. I think she helped bring out a problem that had been in the closet. I don’t really think that the issue was glamorization.

Q: Yet it seems so many of the role models for young women, particularly young female actresses, are notably thin.

A: Yes, and they’re also told that they need to be even thinner on the set. It’s the same with dancers: they come in skinny and they’re told they’re still too heavy because that’s the aesthetic, not because it’s got anything to do with how your body moves. So there’s a fetishization of the female form, which then encourages young women who are not that size by nature to transform themselves. So bulimia becomes the response: you eat but then you don’t feel entitled to keep it down.

One of the projects I’m working on is at a drama school [in the U.K.] where they’re having a real problem with young actors who won’t even have character shots, because they need to have glamour shots [for their publicity kits].

Q: It’s affecting even vocations where looks weren’t once important, like being a writer.

A: Yes. It’s “What’s the author photo like?” which is absolutely ridiculous. It’s also happening in classical music, where there’s talk about “What happened to the great operatic voices?” Well, they don’t come out of small frames.

Q: You write about how weight has become imbued with morality. What do you make of the fascination with celebrity weight gain as we saw recently with Jessica Simpson?

A: Celebrities have become stand-ins for all sorts of cultural conversations. The aspiration, particularly for young people, is to have fame and that kind of recognition, and they cannot imagine that if you had it that you would be stupid enough—with all those people looking after you—not to look perfect the whole time. But at the same time they absolutely hate and feel furious at this kind of imagery. So they also adore it when people are revealed to not be able to manage to maintain this. We call it “celebrity snarking” in England.

Q: You wrote about the scrutiny of Britney Spears’s post-pregnancy body as revealing of the pressures on women who’ve given birth.

A: Yes, it’s as though sexuality is there for others, rather than that the pregnancy itself is a result of sexuality. I think people are very confused about the maternal and the sexual and the reproductive. And what we’re offered as erotic is something that’s surface and polished and not really real, not really to do with the erotic that happens between people. And we forget that becoming a mother is something that happens between a parent and a child. In France, for example, mothers are offered exercise immediately to restore the suppleness of their vaginal walls. Now, we might think that’s okay. But the ideology is that this is about the provision of your sexual status to your man, when to me the critical feature is you’ve just had a baby. And you might actually want the support being there for your child, and for yourself.

Q: You discuss how technologies like Photoshop create artificial standards no one can achieve. One of the most chilling examples is children’s school photos now being retouched. How common is this?

A: It’s pervasive and really, really chilling. You’ll have no history of who you actually were.

Q: You live in England but spend time in America. Do you see a difference between the two cultures when it comes to body acceptance?

A: I think England is still more edgy. You can do fashion in different looks, different sizes. It’s more in your face, more provocative. It’s slightly less conformist than the United States.

Q: What do you make of the obsession with Michelle Obama’s body, particularly the furor about her exposing her arms?

A: We didn’t concentrate on that so much in England. But you have to wonder whether the focus on her biceps and triceps was a cover for concern that she’s self-involved. Or was it a cover for saying she’s so accomplished?

Q: Couldn’t you say she’s a positive example of using one’s body as a brand?

A: I think what’s important is that they both have this incredible physical presence that’s very contained and commanding but also very yielding. What was interesting in England was the way that she was with the girls when she went to visit a school. She articulated a lot of hope for them, and she hugged whoever wanted to be hugged and it was very, very moving. There was something about her assurance in her own physicality, very much like [Barack] Obama’s.

Q: Do you see them as changing cultural imagery toward beauty?

A: Absolutely. It’s not possible to have Michelle and Barack Obama on the international stage without it having an impact. I expect the artists, the art directors, the creatives to be able to play with these ideas and at least give us more than one aesthetic. I think it should really broaden diversity.

Q: We’re undergoing a huge economic shift currently in which Western hegemony is under assault. Do you think the economic downturn could re-establish the whole idea of thinness and class?

A: That’s an interesting question. I think the problem is that thin and class have achieved a sort of super-class so it’s as though you can surmount everything by having this body. But that may very well be challenged because capitalism as the success model has been shown to be highly problematic. There’s an opportunity to rethink issues rather than putting the broken pieces back together with the same old rotten glue.

Q: Yet we’re also seeing cosmetic surgery packaged as offering a competitive edge for an aging population in the job market.

A: It’s scurrilous, because you could see the ideology could be framed in terms of, “We’ve got all these skills we don’t want to lose from people who are really highly skilled, but let’s find a way to encourage them to work.” Right? There are many different ways that this could be marketed, but the fact is that it’s marketed for another industry that needs more and more bodies to go through it.

Q: Your book delivers the message that the body should be the place to live, rather than a constant reno project. But you also tell the story about going to a psychotherapists’ conference in Brazil where you were the only one who hasn’t had work done. Do you feel pressure?

A: I’m not a babe; I’m an older woman. I try to be curious about the fact that I, like everybody else, think the latest mascara might make a difference, or wouldn’t it be nice if this didn’t hang this way. But the next stage is to say: “Why not be amused by it; that even with your awareness you are like everybody else and are pulled to think that there is some solution.” Then I go back to ask myself: “What is the problem that requires this solution?” And the problem is something that I would not want to conceptualize as a problem, which is that I’m a woman of 62. And that isn’t a problem; that is just what happens. And yes, I am aging, and my life is pretty damn interesting. I don’t yet think I’m illegal as a person because I’m over a certain age.

Q: You sound like a lousy candidate for cosmetic surgery.

A: [Laughs] I do, don’t I?

Q: Yes. It’s supposed to be the answer.

A: Yes. They really don’t want me in their ads!