Kickback against selfie culture
Ahead of Dublin's International Literature Festival, famed psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach tells our reporter why fat is still a feminist issue
Not for nothing is Susie Orbach known as one of the world's foremost therapists; since releasing her first book - the seismic Fat Is A Feminist Issue - almost 40 years ago, she has turned her high powered acumen to a number of social and cultural malaises. Her writing on emotional eating, anxiety, lack of 'emotional literacy', sex and envy and competition in women's friendships has resonated down the years.
And there's plenty going on in today's society that has turned her head, too: "If I could do it intelligently enough, I'd really like to be writing about what is happening (politically)," she says. "We're living in dark times. There's a lot of fright in the world, in the Western World… let's not pretend there's not been any in other parts of the world. But I'm very concerned in the divisions between 'us and them', which seems to be between people on the same side. You can not say Trump has anything in common with the people who are supporting him, you just can't. We know he's a cheat and a billionaire who doesn't pay his taxes."
Tomorrow night, Orbach will turn her mind towards a different, perhaps gentler topic: 'why write?', which she will be giving a lecture on at the International Literature Festival Dublin. Now in its 20th year, the festival is a meeting of great literary and creative minds, among them Ruby Wax, Werner Herzog and Jonathan Safran Foer. Orbach will take to the stage with authors Danielle McLaughlin and Gillian Slovo, to talk not just about the therapeutic benefits of writing, but also about the many bestselling titles she has written.
"I wouldn't say I was primarily a writer… I certainly didn't start off being a writer," Orbach muses. "I think what's so interesting about being a shrink is that you hear incredible stories - none of which you can tell, of course - that are the fine-grain detail of everybody's lives and how they're struggling. You hear so much that you start to hear common experiences, and you want to have a way of sharing (those) with other people."
Since Orbach created the Women's Therapy Centre in 1976 (and later, the Women's Therapy Centre Institute in New York, in 1981) and still boasts a busy private practice, what has she learned from hearing those stories?
"We're all much more complex than we think we are," she smiles. "I've also realised how little emotional literacy there is, and how unschooled we are in being able to express our feelings. I don't mean opening up, Oprah-style to the world, but to ourselves. We don't have that vocabulary inside ourselves, and we can't distinguish between sadness and sorrow.
"It's not that I think everyone has to have therapy, but if we could help teachers and parents and educate them on this emotional literacy, we probably wouldn't have as many people going to therapy."
Yet such is the nature of current cultural climate that people are surely becoming ever more literate? Just recently, Prince Harry blew open yet another discussion on mental health challenges, paving the way, no doubt, for others. And as the therapist to his mother, Princess Diana, Orbach noted this recent development with interest.
"I think it's excellent," she says. "He's been able to open the subject up and use his own experience in trying to create a public conversation. He's very articulate and thoughtful in what he says. They're the leading family in the UK, so to speak, so it's really something for one of them to be prepared to talk about their problems."
With such an emphasis on examining our mental health, are we not becoming more 'schooled' in expressing ourselves?
"I think both things are happening," suggests Orbach. "We're a tiny bit more emotionally literate - no disaster can happen now without there being counselors on the scene - and our emotional life matters more, that's a plus. But we're not doing it, say, in schools. We don't help new mums manage the complexity of things, for very profound and challenging times that they might be having... we just say, 'this is tough'."
Despite the richness of her publishing output, it's Fat Is A Feminist Issue (referred to by Orbach as 'FiFi') that has been her most enduring and defining work. The 1978 book examined the culture in which women eat and consequently, gain weight. Referring to society's inclination to refer to overweight people as 'bad' and thin people as 'good', Orbach was one of the first commentators to highlight the thorny relationship that women have their bodies. She was also among the first to speak of "emotional eating", and how overeating doesn't equate greed or lack of control.
And in a world where celebrity culture, selfies, Instagram and bodyshaming are embedded into the DNA of the feminine experience, the 1978 book has turned out to be astonishingly prescient; subsequent editions of the book have included updates that reflect the more current cultural temperature.
"The problem is that most of what I wrote 40 years ago was a minority thing, and now it's a mass phenomenon of girls growing up and thinking that they need to spend their time fixing themselves; boys too," she says. "It's happening earlier and earlier too… there are cosmetic surgery games for six-year-olds, for God's sake. Kids are taught to think that bodies must, and should, transform. This isn't dress-up and playing: it's much more sinister."
It's clear that the current culture rattles Orbach.
"An awful lot of young people are obsessed with getting (social media) likes, and there's a lot of evidence that girls are spending hours preparing their photos before they go online. They're on the search for something elusive. And of course the fashion and beauty industries have totally intensified, where bodies are made entirely for display. Whether you're a sound engineer or a hospital cleaner, you're meant to look like a glamour model the whole time."
The media narrative, which also peddles the conceit that celebrities who have put on a few pounds are not really on top of things in their own lives, also grates.
"I suppose there's a bit of the gleefulness of 'oh I see, you can't manage this either, even though you sell this to us'," muses Orbach, "It's horrible."
Is there a way for young women to kick back against all of this?
"It's quite hard, actually, as an individual to stand up and be prepared to accept your body as the place you live from, not the thing you beat up the whole time," says Orbach. "I think the focus should shift toward what bodies do, and their functions, and how marvelous they are. From my perspective it's about helping the next generation take on these crazy values and for schools to remind young people that we come in different sizes, shapes, colours."
Orbach remains every bit as militant about the feminist cause as she was 40 years ago. Many of her successors - feminists like Caroline Criado-Perez, Jessica Valenti and Lindy West - have found themselves vilified on Twitter for being so outspoken, but Orbach has found herself largely immune to the wrath of the trolls.
"I'm very inured to it… I'm not militant when I'm on there," she notes. "I'm not there as an activist, I'm there with a handle that says I'm a psychoanalyst. It's not ever, thank God, all that vicious."
Susie Orbach speaks at the Smock Alley Theatre tomorrow at 7pm. The International Literature Festival Dublin runs to May 29.
For more, see ilfdublin.com.