There are few women out there who can honestly say that they have never, at some point in their lives, had a problem with their bodies. It might have been as little as having a slight annoyance with the curve of your thighs or as extreme as an eating disorder. Negative body image is something that women live with throughout their lives - and the cycle never ceases. We overhear our mothers talking about it and then move on to discussing our own bodies with our friends.
While we may all be familiar with the notion of body image, in 1978 when psychotherapist and writer Dr.Susie Orbach wrote ‘Fat Is A Feminist Issue’ the relationship between self worth and body image, especially in women, was new and controversial. Today she is one of the founders of AnyBody. She co-founded The Women's Therapy Centre in London in The Women's Therapy Centre Institute in New York. She has also been a consultant to The World Bank and at the moment is a consultant to the NHS and Dove, taking part in the Real Beauty Campaign.
More and more we hear discussion about government being responsible for the obesity problems facing the Western World, but what about the other side of the spectrum? Is someone responsible for the high rate of eating disorders causing young women to starve themselves? The fashion industry? The media?
Figure: Why did you start AnyBody?
Susie Orbach: Why did we start it! Because the assault on women’s bodies is so unrelenting and yet is experienced by girls and women as ‘normal’ as just part of femininity. We wanted to make an intervention that highlighted and addressed the way in which the female body (and increasingly the male body) is a site for extraordinary difficulty. We want to transform those conditions and make it possible for girls and women to live from their bodies with a certain ease rather than the fear that can engulf them.
F: AnyBody engages with government to change cultural perception of beauty and women’s bodies. Why the focus on government engagement as opposed to other forms of activism?
SO: There isn’t a focus on government. That is just one of the pressure points. We engage with government to make a contribution where it can to changing the situation. So far we haven’t been that successful!
F: Most recently AnyBody protested at London Fashion Week about the organizer's decision not to ban size 0 models from the catwalk. What was the public response? How did the organizers react to the demonstration?
SO: We were delighted that we could raise issues that went beyond Size O, that our ideas were broadcast widely and that we could engage with the British Fashion Council to urge them to bring the creativity of the fashion industry to transforming the mono imagery and body fascism that now surrounds the presentation of fashion. Have we got far yet? No. But an AnyBody member is putting together a show displaying diversity at Toronto Fashion Week (see www.any-body.org)
F: The media industry's standard comeback for criticisms like your own about body image is that they publish what people want to see, and if people wanted to see more realistic figures, then they would, in turn, shift their focus. Others say that the media manufactures our perception of body image. Where do you weigh in on this "chicken or the egg" argument?
SO: Once you have a dominant and dominating image, then people will look out for it and even take a kind of comfort in it. Fashion is associated with the modern and being at the leading edge of design and once a style or a size has been identified people recognise it and want to embody it themselves. So it is that our eyes become accustomed to seeing images in particular ways and as an expression of our own enthusiasms and energies we want to see them and reproduce them.
F: AnyBody is aiming to bring a case against Weight Watchers as an example of exploitation of ‘the aesthetic ideal of slenderness’. Can you tell me more about what you hope to accomplish with this case?
SO: The diet industry needs to be put on notice. Its methods don’t work for most people. 97% of them. That’s the recidivism rate. That’s what they rely on for their profit. They need repeat customers.
Secondly, for many people, dieting and particularly repetitive dieting, mucks up your metabolism by reducing your set point. This means that your metabolism can slow down when you eat less. No help if you are dieting.
So the diet industry needs to be scrutinized against the Trade Descriptions Act and other consumer legislation.
F: You are a contributing expert and board member of the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, part of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. The campaign has been quite controversial: some hailing it as a revolutionary step for more ethical advertising and others seeing it as just another clever marketing gimmick. Critiques have noted that while Dove may be using more realistically shaped women in their ads, they are still selling products (such as thigh firming cream) that target women’s self-esteem. How do you respond to such concerns?
SO: That criticism is valid. They should be promoting the diversity of beauty not firming creams.
F: As part of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, they have helped engage consumers for donations to the Self-Esteem Fund, which in turn makes grants to organizations like the Girl Scouts (in the US) to provide their members with curriculum and activities that promote a healthy body image. How important was this piece of the campaign for you? Were you involved in this philanthropic effort at all? Do you feel like having a piece that reaches out to young girls is critical to the mission of the campaign, or perhaps unnecessary?
SO: There is the behind the scenes global studies I have done with Nancy Etcoff: one on Beauty in general, one on mothers and daughters and one on women over 50. Then there is the consciousness raising inside the company to get them to take up the ideas which then lead to different advertising. That is one set of activities I have been involved in. The other is working with other groups such as Girl Guides or the BEAT to produce material for use in schools – it is not a question of just giving them money - which focuses on body self esteem and media literacy, and preparing materials for Mums to help them with their daughter’s concerns.
F: Finally, what do we need to break the cycle of young girls falling into the same beauty myths that they always have?
SO: We need to help new Mums not pass on their difficult body image issues along with their milk. We don’t want them mimicking their mother’s upset about size, weight and shape and thinking that that is essential to being female.
We need to broaden the images girls see so that they can identify themselves in the world of images that they live in. We need to stop the crazy anguish around food so that it becomes something not dangerous and naughty but related to appetite and satisfaction. We can help young girls by eating like that in front of them instead of avoiding different foods and obsessing about our own size.