One of the things that particularly attracts me about this year’s Auckland Writers Festival programme is the chance to hear some major feminist thinkers. Feminist Days, Susie Orbach in conversation with Carole Beu, was a joy.
Orbach has just republished an updated edition of her classic text Fat is a Feminist Issue, which she rather sweetly refers to as Fifi. Originally published in the 1970s, “Fifi, unfortunately, has stayed in print”. Unfortunately because, far from getting better, the problem of body hatred and compulsive eating has become radically worse.
Beu did an excellent job of interviewing, keeping her questions direct and her remarks pertinent and brief. Orbach spoke of the ways in which fatness can be an – often unconscious – “way of negotiating horrors and attacks on our bodies from visual culture”. To be fat is to “take up a different kind of space, to challenge ideas, and express discomfort with way femininity is represented” – although she noted that increasingly boys and men are suffering from a disordered relationship with food as well.
Orbachn (left), who works as a psychotherapist, is horrified by the ways in which she sees her patients accepting disgust of their own bodies as expected and unfixable: “We have normalised self-hatred”. She says, “The public health emergency we have is disturbed eating and disturbed relationships with our bodies … people are frightened of food … food becomes a complicated, magical site, both nourishing and scary.” The point of therapy, though, is “to find the words you never found before, to have someone who can absorb them and recognise their importance.”
Orbach is interested in the ways in which we acquire our senses of our own bodies: “The human body is made in human culture and relationships … Body-to-body relationships create the bodies we have.” She is concerned by the ways in which the distressed body can be transmitted from mother to child, and the rise of eating disorders and body image problems in very young children: “We carry distress in our embodiment”. Orbach spoke scathingly of the ways in which the diet and food industries are poisoning our relationships with our own bodies: “They’re increasing profits by selling us non-foods that are addictive rather than nourishing … it’s vulture capitalism.”
A huge crowd had come to see Orbach, and Beu left plenty of time for questions. Audience questions are always a bit of a crapshoot, but I have to say the standard of questions in this session was very high. Asked about what she hopes for girls growing up now, Orbach said,“To have a life of meaning and contribution, finding things that really interest you … this is very hard under [the] neoliberal ideology of success and money … one of the definitions of human beings is that we have dependency needs, but our culture is vested in us denying this … We need to talk about way of owning these needs and the struggle to be complicated.”
I was particularly struck by something Orbach said towards the end of the session: “We think there has to be a solution to everything, but a listening ear is the most powerful thing we have to give.”
Recently, Orbach has been working on a BBC Radio 4 programme called In Therapy, which is available for free download. I’m now looking forward to Gloria Steinem later tonight!
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Susie Orbach will also appear during the Auckland Writer’s Festival with Jeanette Winterson on Saturday, 14 May, at 3.00pm, as well as tonight at the Pop-up festival with Jeanette Winterson, at 9.00pm.
Fat is a Feminist Issue, published by Arrow Books Ltd, ISBN 9781784753092
Bodies, published by Profile Books Ltd, ISBN 9781846680298