They say you should never meet your heroes. What about talking to them by phone on a cold London afternoon, voice caught in your throat, heart hammering in your chest?
Susie Orbach, whom The New York Times has called “The most famous psychotherapist to have set up couch in Britain since Sigmund Freud”, has been an important stranger in my life. Her seminal books, Hunger Strike and Fat Is A Feminist Issue, not only informed my fledgling feminism as a teenager, but helped me understand my will to vanish as an anorexic 15-year-old. She introduced me to the idea that starvation might be a symptom of the social and patriarchal values in our society; that women respond to their own subjugation by clawing back control in whatever way they can and sometimes that means denying themselves food in order to shrink. That argument spoke to me all those years ago and gave me some of the ferocity I needed to start healing.
And so, here I am, chatting to Susie Orbach, a woman who has had genuine, lasting influence in my life, a woman who taught me resilience via knowledge. How does she feel, I ask, when people like me clamour to tell her how influential she’s been in their lives. It must have happened often throughout her career.
“I’m so moved and so pleased…” she says. “Writing is a bugger for me – it’s hard work. It’s not like I have to get up and write; I’m not somebody like that, so if what I’ve written has spoken to people and moved them, then I am very humbled by it and very grateful.” She describes the rather lonely process of writing a book as “writing a love letter to the world”. What love letters hers have been, too – so laced with anger and intellectual restlessness.
Fat Is A Feminist Issue – perhaps her most famous love letter to the world – is still in print 40 years later. Such is the perennial relevance of the issues she spoke about: feminism, capitalism, hunger, vanity, fear, perfectionism, the exploitation of women’s bodies. I ask how she feels about all those things now and I am, for some reason, relieved to find that Susie Orbach is still angry. Perhaps it’s because I think we still need her anger in the feminist movement; perhaps it feels good to still have her onside. I am not surprised to hear that she thinks we have even bigger problems to contend with as feminists than when she first started writing.
“I despair,” she says, clearly exasperated. “I feel very, very sad. I think it’s a very bleak moment. At the same time, there’s a lot of protest against it. In a sense, #MeToo adds to that, because it’s time to say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Couldn’t we have a bigger conversation about women’s bodies and the way that they’re being represented? I feel very down and angry that it’s such a commercial venture to make little girls and increasingly little boys to feel rubbish about their bodies – and old women, women of all ages!”
So, I ask tentatively, what do we do? Where do we take our anger, who do we fight, what’s the plan, Susie Orbach?
I’m supposed to look like I’m 40 even though I’m much, much older than that – but you know, I dress as well as I can and I try to get on with interesting work
“We need to take on the diet industry for false advertising, because it only produces eating problems. We need to take on all the people who are promoting the notion that there’s something wrong with being large. We need to take on the food companies for producing non-food foods and selling them all over the world, de-stabilising people’s appetite. There’s so many things to take on: the fast-fashion industry that produces clothes in slave conditions and creates waste, the beauty industry that makes everybody feel second-class… I could go on and on.”
I wish she would go on and on – I could listen to Susie Orbach set the agenda for feminist protest for days. She is, as ever, wise and fierce. But she is also busy and our time is up. We finish by talking about her own private approach to the perfection expected of women.
“I’m not as preoccupied with my body,” she says. “I still care about how I look, I still resent the fact that I’m supposed to look like I’m 40 even though I’m much, much older than that – but, you know, I dress as well as I can and I try to get on with interesting work.”
And, with that, Susie Orbach gives me my new favourite mantra: dress as well as you can and get on with interesting work. That’s precisely what I intend to do.