Lunch with the FT: Susie Orbach
By William Leith
Published: January 1 2010 19:46 | Last updated: January 1 2010 19:46
The writer and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, best known as an authority on eating disorders, wants a quick lunch. She has chosen Bradleys, a smallish restaurant near where she lives in Belsize Park, north London. It is sparse, with modern-looking pictures on the walls, and carries a powerful whiff of the 1980s – possibly the sort of place where the chef arranges the food into neat little towers.
She is sitting in a booth at the back, and when I get in, it’s a tight squeeze. Perhaps people were thinner then. Or perhaps I am fatter than I think. Orbach is gamine and petite. She is 63 but looks much younger, partly because she is so slender. She looks very good. Her black silk top by Ghost hangs off her small frame.
I have met Orbach a couple of times before. In fact, when I had a problem with overeating, she recommended a therapist, who was very good. Now she tells me she won’t have wine: “I don’t do wine at lunchtime.” Also, she has slight misgivings about being interviewed. “You know us shrinks – we’re really circumspect.”
Actually, she isn’t – she’s extremely bright and talkative. She still sees lots of patients. Her most famous patient, of course, was Princess Diana. But she feels she can’t talk about that. Still, Diana was her patient for two years and it’s been said that, without Orbach’s influence, she wouldn’t have been so open in her famous BBC Panorama interview in November 1995, in which she talked about her post-natal depression, self-harming and bulimia.
Right now Orbach, who is a visiting professor in sociology at the London School of Economics, is working on a paper for an academic journal about how parents transmit their body shapes to their kids. I tell her I’ve been looking at the effects of economic growth – one of which is that it makes people fat.
“Growth,” she says. “In growth, we don’t count the cost of repairing all the excesses, right?” She often says “right?” at the end of a sentence. Sometimes this makes you want to say “right” as well.
I order half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. She orders mineral water. We haven’t even looked at the menu, and we’re already into a conversation about greed in the modern world and the problems it’s causing. We agree that greed causes pollution. “All those chemical compounds!” Orbach says. “Obviously human beings can accommodate a certain amount of chemicals. But we don’t know that we’re excreting all this ... stuff into our water system, and double-ingesting it. And there are very strange effects.”
We both glance at the menu for a few seconds but get sidetracked into a conversation about thinness and fatness. Orbach’s first book, Fat is a Feminist Issue, published 31 years ago, was groundbreaking. In it, she tried to answer a simple question. Why do women get fat? Her research led to some fascinating conclusions. Some women get fat, she found, not because they were greedy, but because being fat made them feel safe.
Orbach realised that, for many women, being slim could get you the wrong kind of attention – not just from men, but from other women too. Slim women can be magnets for men and also attract envy, she writes in the book. This means that lots of women have an unconscious drive towards being fat, even if they think, in their conscious minds, that they want to be slim. That’s why people can find it so hard to lose weight – because they secretly want to be fat, and they don’t even know it.
But why are women so desperate to be thin? Not just slim but really, really thin. Why is being skinny such a powerful draw?
“We have a constructed aesthetic which we’re all inside of now,” she says. “It’s a visual aesthetic. Thinness is the desired object now. Whereas 40 or 50 years ago, there were Wate-on tablets at the chemist, right?”
“That’s because, in those days, the desired object was Marilyn Monroe, or Sophia Loren. So there was no desire to be thin.”
When did women start wanting to be thin? Orbach thinks that the change came during the 1960s. Before then, if you were thin, you looked poor, because lots of poor people couldn’t afford to eat. In 1966, Twiggy did not look poor, or pinched, or like she might be suffering from rickets. She looked new and challenging.
“This was a new culture,” Orbach says. “We were no longer thin from poverty. Finally there was excess in our society. We didn’t need to have our forms of plenty represented by bigness. Then there was a whole generation who grew up with that. Then they reproduced. And they have that aesthetic inside them.”
I tell her my theory that I think women like to be thin because it enables them to wear sexier clothes – and fashion designers are making women’s clothes skimpier and more revealing all the time.
“No, I think that’s nonsense. Here’s where you and I might disagree. Don’t you think Marilyn Monroe was sexy?”
I do, I tell her.
“But I don’t think she’s sexy per se. I think she’s sexy because of all those images. It’s the fault of the fashion designers, and the critics. But they are rethinking this, under pressure, thank goodness. It’s also the failure of art directors, I think. Because you can make anything look spectacular if you’re an art director, right?”
“Take Rankin. He’s a fantastic photographer. He’s shot women of different sizes, and they look spectacular. They have glamour, they have pizzazz, they have that sense of, ‘Oh, that’s me!’ He’s taken pictures of people who were paraplegic who were very very stylish. So art directors are geniuses. And something happens in the visual cortex. What these art directors do affects us, and goes into us.”
Something is happening in my visual cortex. It is the waiter. We need to order, and quickly. Time is rushing by. Orbach orders a soup of Jerusalem artichokes to start – and another starter, a plate of scallops. No main course. She also orders a green salad. I go for Dorset crab, followed by halibut on a bed of vegetables, and a side order of dauphinoise potatoes.
Orbach’s latest book is Bodies, in which she tells us what has happened to our bodies in the three decades since she wrote about fat being a feminist issue. “The problems I sought to describe have mushroomed,” she writes. The contemporary body is a battleground. In fact, people have never felt worse about their bodies than they do now. Makers of face cream are telling us we are too wrinkly; owners of gyms are telling us we’re too flabby; plastic surgeons are telling us our faces are all wrong. We are constantly being told that we look unattractive – and the terrible thing is that we believe it.
In the book, she talks about “the merchants of body hatred”. Her point is that, if people are anxious and needy, they make better consumers; if they are anxious about something as fundamental as their bodies, they are easy prey for marketers. And things are getting worse. “In my mum’s day”, she says, “you needed to be beautiful for a very short time to catch your man. It didn’t start at six and go on until you’re 75, right?”
Our food arrives. Orbach’s soup looks bland but she says it tastes fine. “I like Jerusalem artichokes”, she says, “but I don’t like the way you have to clean them out – all that scraping.” My Dorset crab is arranged in a tower, as I had suspected it would be. It looks jellified. I demolish it with a couple of deft jabs of the fork. It crumbles and lies in pieces on my plate. When I try it, it’s rather salty.
Orbach tells me she grew up in nearby Chalk Farm. Her father, Maurice Orbach, was a Labour MP until he lost his seat around the time of the Suez crisis. She remembers it from a young girl’s point of view: “There was a canal. Lots of double-crossing. My father was seen to be pro-Nasser [Egypt’s then leader].” Later her father was elected as the member of parliament for Stockport.
Her father’s parents came to Britain from Poland in 1899 to escape the pogroms, she says. She doesn’t know where in Poland. They were heading for America but got off the boat in Cardiff and stayed. Maurice was one of eight children. He started life as a chorister but, as a young man, became interested in the labour movement. He met Orbach’s mother on a speaking tour of America. She was “on the rebound”. He was, Orbach imagines, giving a “rabble-rousing talk”. He took her across the Atlantic and they married in England in 1936. They had a son, Laurence, who went on to run the publishing house Quarto, and, in 1946, Susie was born.
THE SHAPE WE’RE IN
Our bodies have been changing over the past few decades – on average, we have become taller and heavier.
● There have been just two national surveys of British body sizes. The first, in 1951 was done manually (only measuring women). In 2001-2002, a more detailed UK Sizing Survey by Size UK was carried out on 11,000 adults. In 1951, the average woman was 5ft 3in. Fifty years later, she had grown an inch and a half. In the same period, she had gained several inches around the waist, going from 27.5in to 34in.
● Men are also getting taller and heavier, having grown a couple of inches on average in the past half century. A 2002 American study for the Centers for Disease Control found that, between 1962 and 2002, the average male weight jumped from 11 stone 6lb to 13 stone 6lb. In the same period, the female average went from 10 stone to 11 stone 7lb.
● As well as getting heavier, women’s shape is changing too. The Size UK survey revealed that only 8 per cent of women had the classic Sophia Loren-style “hourglass shape”, which has given way to a more rectangular look. Busts and hips are bigger than they were in the 1950s.
● Mintel research published in 2008 showed that the UK men’s plus-size market had grown by 40 per cent in the previous five years (the women’s market grew by 26 per cent over the same period). The average UK woman is a size 16, and some 4.6m women are a size 18 or over – although Mintel points out that retailers have made clothing sizes more generous so that fewer women have to go up to a “plus sized” 18.
● But if the real shape of women is growing, the fantasy shape is shrinking. As the feminist writer Naomi Wolf pointed out in The Beauty Myth (1990), a generation earlier the average model had been 8 per cent lighter than the average woman. But by 1990, models were 23 per cent lighter. A recent survey by Wired magazine demonstrated that, between the 1960s and today, the body mass index of Playboy Playmates has, on average, declined from 19.2 to 17.6, while that of real women has risen from 22.2 to 26.8.
As a young girl, Orbach says, she was influenced by her mother’s fastidiousness around food. “She was very careful. And also, three times a year, she’d go on the Mayo Clinic diet [low in carbohydrates and high in fat]. So I think I grew up thinking that the grown-up thing to do is diet. I copied my mum. And there’s nothing like a diet to institute longings for food.”
The waiter collects our plates. The restaurant is, slightly surprisingly, one of those places where the waiter takes the wine away from the table and pours you some when your glass is empty. He pours me some wine.
Orbach says: “I had what now would be such a mild version of what I call bingeing, which bears no relation to what people are doing now. And also restricting – which also bears no relation to what people are doing now. It would mean not having supper.”
But the Orbachs didn’t have much fattening food in the house. “My dad kept his sweets in the car and my mum had her chocolates at the top of a cupboard and ate them in the middle of the night.”
Our main courses arrive. For Orbach, a smallish plate of scallops. For me, a chunk of halibut placed on top of some vegetables, with a layer of olive paste on top. It is the shape of a car park – several levels in an oblong shape. Orbach eats her scallops. She doesn’t strike me as a great foodie. Food is just something she eats, in relatively small quantities. She eats fish and chicken. She says she cooks pasta nearly every day, and if she had a favourite cuisine, it would be Italian.
She has two children – a son of 25, who lives in London, and a daughter of 20, who lives in New York. For years Orbach lived with their father, Joseph Schwartz, a writer and psychotherapist, but she has, according to newspaper reports, recently started a relationship with the writer Jeanette Winterson. I ask her if this is true.
“Yes,” she says, suddenly beaming with happiness.
She won’t have a pudding. Nor will I. Somehow, my two turrets of seafood feel slightly bulky in my stomach. We order coffee and get on to the subject of addiction. I tell her my theory about why smoking is so hard to quit – because it gives you something to worry about. When you stop, your other worries come flooding back. She agrees. She says she’s seen a German cigarette advertisement that worries her. “Be smart – wait until you are 18. Well, hey, is that an invitation to a 15-year-old?”
Orbach was, as you’d expect, very bright as a child. She got a scholarship to North London Collegiate, an academic private school, although she was expelled at the age of 15. She went on to read women’s history at the school of Slavonic studies at London University, and then went to New York to do a PhD in psychoanalysis at the City University of New York, the college her mother had attended. That’s where she got the idea of running therapeutic workshops for women. And that’s where she picked up her very slight mid-Atlantic accent.
Our coffee arrives. I wonder if the nature of her job as a psychotherapist has changed over the years. Do people have different problems? “No. You get more men not knowing how to make relationships than you did before. Let me revise my answer. It’s not a no. It’s a yes. I particularly get, from North America, a certain kind of referral – women who will come and say, ‘I’ve been to the best universities, I’ve got the best job, I’ve got the great body ... I’ve even got the boyfriend.”
But these women still feel empty. Why?
“It’s something about the whole notion of success and performance, and creating a whole notion of yourself that you can adore and admire.”
We finish our coffee – mine with sugar, hers without. And now it’s time to go. The lunch has lasted exactly one hour. “It was perfectly pleasing,” she says. “My scallops were juicy. They were perfectly cooked. I don’t agree with olives in the salad myself. Or green beans. But that’s just my opinion. I would just have green salad, like lettuce and rugola. And I would have liked to have drunk wine, but I’m going back to work.”
And with that, she walks away smartly.
‘Bodies’ (Profile) is published in paperback on January 7, £8.99
25 Winchester Road
Artichoke soup £6.00
Dauphinoise potatoes £3.00
Single espresso £2.50
Double espresso £5.00
Large sparkling water £3.50
Half bottle Sauvignon Blanc £11.50
Total (including service) £81.28