Dr Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue.
Pscyhotherapist Dr Susie Orbach isn’t one to back down from a fight. The therapist and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue and Bodies, has spent decades fighting the beauty, diet and fashion industries.
Now she has Dr Dukan — he of the famed Dukan Diet — in her sights.
"Dr Dukan was on TV this week being challenged about his products and all the chemicals and everything that is in them. He said “But I don’t produce them myself.” So that lets you off the hook for selling rubbish?" Orbach asks.
Orbach says that Dr Dukan’s admission tells you all you need to know about the cynicism of the diet industry.
"You begin to understand that this is a machine for making money, not for meeting the distress that has been created by other diets."
Orbach, who is in Australia for a speaking tour, comes face-to-face with the damage wrought by the diet and beauty industry every week in her consulting rooms. She says that many women now accept self-loathing as a normal part of being a woman.
"Whatever their other emotional predicaments and conflicts, concern for the body is nearly always folded into them, as though it were perfectly commonplace to be telling a story in which body dissatisfaction is central," she writes in Bodies. "It is also taken for granted that they are never going to get free of it. It’s almost as though people feel they are trapped with it," Orbach adds.
And it’s not just women who are at risk. Orbach says the fashion industry is increasingly pushing unrealistic images onto boys.
"What terrifies me now is that I look at the Abercrombie ads and the boys look exactly the way girls did ten years ago — skinny and vacant but sort of in power at the same time. And I think, 'God, the advertisers are going down the same damn route for the boys that they have been doing for the girls."
And Orbach doesn’t have much time for government and not-for-profit public health campaigns pushing messages that focus on shaming overweight individuals.
"It makes me see red", she says, "because who should be shamed are the food companies that are producing foodstuffs that aren’t even food. And the diet companies that really falsely advertise. Every diet makes you fatter. Who should be shamed are the corporate structures, certainly not the individuals."
Orbach accepts that taking on the merchants of body hatred, and the ideologies they foster, is much harder than taking on the tobacco industry.
"It’s a much more diverse issue, with questions of identity, sexiness, and self-control all caught up in it."
Nonetheless, Orbach is cautiously optimistic that we can change the culture and cure our body anxiety on an individual level. Advertisers and the media have a role to play in this by promoting healthier and more diverse images of bodies.
"It’s very important to influence visual culture. I thought it was very important when Benetton did pictures with people from different backgrounds and Gap did it with people with different ages," says Orbach.
"The more pictorial representations of different bodies, that are active and interesting, the better. What you want is every advertiser to use people in their images that girls can identify with."
Governments, policy makers and schools also have a role to play in reversing the culture of body hatred. She says that a good place to start is information and advice given to new mothers, via midwives and maternal and child health nurses, because you can tackle two populations at once.
"It is an outrage when people are told to put their kids on diets. Just think of the anxiety that that throws into the whole situation. It’s hateful."
Can parents inoculate their children, especially their daughters, against the culture of body hatred?
"Absolutely", says Orbach.
She says that there’s a lot that parents can do to instill a healthy relationship with food and eating in their children.
"Initially your child will mimic you and then they will reject you when they get older because that’s just part of the developmental story, but [you can give them] some base of feeling safe in their bodies rather than feeling that their bodies are a site of anxiety."
"Parents should reflect on their own eating, relationship to food, and their own anxieties because everything they do becomes a model for their children," Orbach advises.
"Your kids can hear you saying, 'Agh, this looks horrible, I’m too fat'. That’s really not helpful."
Instead, she advises telling children how gorgeous they are as well as focusing on the activities and capacities of children’s bodies. She also suggests encouraging intuitive, rather than emotional, eating by making food an ‘anxiety free zone’ that is separate from moral claims about good and bad.
Dismantling the culture of body hatred isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but collectively and individually, it can be done. We could start by rejecting the latest diet craze and the industries that profit from our body anxieties.
Susie Orbarch will be speaking about ‘Navigating our Culture's Body Anxiety’ on Tuesday 20 August at the University of Sydney and at the ANZ Academy for Eating Disorders conference on Thursday 22 – 24 August at Pullman & Mercure Melbourne Albert Park.