In 1976, Susie Orbach co-established The Women’s Therapy Centre in New York with Luise Eichenbaum. It was an innovation set to offer all women access to psychotherapy regardless of their sexual orientation, disability, cultural or social background, immigrant status, previous psychiatric history, age or financial situation. For the last forty years, the WTC has made extensive contributions to understanding the female experience of mental health problems.
Susie’s work with the therapy centre provided much of the research for her seminal first book Fat is A Feminist Issue, published in 1978. FIFI was a groundbreaking study into the complex psychology of women’s eating behaviour, connecting compulsive-eating with a broader societal context.
Susie also co-founded Any-body an initiative which, through its global campaign Endangered Bodies, strategically challenges the dangerous culture subjecting women and girls to the development of body-hatred. She has written twelve highly influential books all of which place her firmly as a pioneer in the field of psychoanalytical study.
“I started out at that moment in history when feminism burst onto the agenda,” she says, and referencing our publication, adds “You know, we didn’t even have heroines then, we were just co-creating things together. There were all these marvellous women who were actually nameless to me – these women who had done fantastic protests, like those against Miss World, there was the Our Bodies, Ourselves book in 1969, and there were women writing in a few magazines, but back then, it had to be much more about experiencing the power of women coming together to create influence.”
So where did her journey begin? “This field didn’t even exist when I started,” she explains. “I just ended up at a university that had a Women’s Studies program. I didn’t really know what Women’s Studies was. One of my best friends was the Course Co-ordinator – Carol Bloom. She told me about it and straight away, I was just fascinated.”
Shortly afterwards she, Carol Bloom, and fellow student Luise Eichenbaum decided to train to be psychotherapists.
“We did a lot of learning together,” Susie says. “We said: Right, who’s written about psychoanalysis that might be okay to learn from? Who can we go to from history who’s not steeped in a set of values that we can’t live with? What can we take from this? Yes, we found some stand-out women putting together certain kinds of ideas, but I think really my heroines were my own peer group and the new ideas we were developing together.”
When I ask her about the way in which she’s shaped her career, she reveals that she thinks less about herself as shaping something in a deliberate sense, and more about the natural progression of learning. “I don’t know if I think about it in those terms – I don’t think of myself as having a career. I think of myself as having worked and been really lucky to keep learning while I worked.”
But she does feel that creating FIFI was a hugely formative experience. “I think daring to write when I’d always avoided school essays was pretty amazing,” she says. “Writing FIFI was important, but I didn’t know what to do after I’d done that. I remember my piano teacher called me up and said “Oh darling, how wonderful, your first book!”. I thought it was strange to note it as a “first” because I’d never planned to write anything else again. And of course, I’ve written loads of books since, so while this wasn’t a breakthrough as such, it was extraordinary to write something and have it taken up so widely.”
It’s interesting, considering the depth and fluency of the writing in FIFI, that Susie had to overcome a fear of written expression. “I was so scared to write. I didn’t know how to. In the end, I just set aside Fridays as a writing day and got to it. I got stuck on the introduction, but the rest I just wrote as if I was talking, as though I was just putting forward challenging ideas – actually “fat” may not be what we think it is, “thin” may not be what we think it is, etc.”
She says she finds writing both easier and more difficult now. “Hunger Strike was my fifth book and it was only then that I used language in a particular way to express an argument. But FIFI wasn’t like that.”
I wondered what kind of response FIFI had received in her professional circles in 1978. “I’d go to speak at a psychiatric convention and there would be these guys who’d dealt with eating disorders in patients. I’d be so astounded when they’d talk about me as though as I was this cutie pie – they were really very dismissive,” she explains. “And then there was a rumour that I was dead. And I did think what’s that about? But I wouldn’t have had the word “backlash” in my vocabulary then. I didn’t think to put all the odd things together.”
But there were challenges Susie felt starkly aware of. “Initially, I found it difficult being in public spaces and having something to say because up until that point, it hadn’t been part of my female experience. Of course, this is what Luise and I were writing about in What Do Women Want and Understanding Women: How do women take up space in the world? How do we dare to have a voice? How do we challenge the confines of what we’ve grown up with? How do we move away from our internalised vision of how we should be in the world? Those were my struggles.”
And of course, too often today, the result of women claiming that space in the world is online trolling. Susie’s advice to women is to refuse to engage with trolls. “They’re hateful and troublesome,” she says. “It’s unwise to tangle with them. They’re desperate for recognition and that’s why they’re attacking you, so in my opinion, giving them recognition is not the thing to do. It’s important to call this out for what it is – it isn’t debating, you can’t find debate in 140 characters. It’s an attack. You need other platforms for debate. If you want to take on ideas that are worth defeating then do that, but I’d never recommend engaging with people who are attacking you.”
Disengaging with cultural influences that prevent peaceful relationships with ourselves and acquiring emotional literacy to help us navigate our psychological responses are obviously at the heart of Susie’s work. And she asserts that the younger we start, the easier it becomes to recognise aspects of culture that are toxic. Endangered Bodies has an off-shoot youth campaign called Shape Your Culture. It’s a brilliant website, full of excellent resources.
Susie is trying to push her campaigns into Parliament in an attempt to get politicians to take it seriously that our NHS money is going to private corporations like Weight Watchers which induce compulsive-eating in people. “When I published On Eating, I thought we needed an organisation to raise awareness about these industries and how they affect people. Luise agreed. We had a summit in Argentina and from there, groups popped up spontaneously across the world. We all have an international meeting on the phone every six weeks. We each give a report at these meetings. With our UK group, we meet every two weeks, then we discuss what we want to do, what we are doing, what problems there might be with certain campaigns, what we might say to the government, and we have often have an intellectual discussion as well. At the moment, we’re discussing the ways we can help new mothers avoid passing on their body difficulties to new generations.”
One of the projects the New York group have taken on is challenging certain ideologies in doctors. “They’re now challenging the use of the BMI in the school system and we need to take that up at congressional level as well. I absolutely see BMI as part of the diet industry.”
The continual pressure to diet is increasing and across her work, Susie points out the vast profits diet companies make out of teaching women to loathe their bodies. The fads are endless but Susie says they all have one thing in common. “All fads are about exclusion, doesn’t matter what it is, it’s all about how you can feel ‘safe’ through exclusion.”
Susie says the growth of diet companies is exponential in China, Japan and Korea. “We’re selling the ideal of ‘Western bodies’ to those countries. If you look at the cosmetic surgery story, it’s huge in Korea, China, Iran, Brazil. Women have tummy-tucks at the same time as a caesarian section – just think about the effects of that on the early mother-baby relationship. The same thing is going on in Argentina.” She says it was these global trends compelled her to write Bodies.
I was fascinated by her discussion of countertransference in Bodies – the theory that a client’s emotions can be passed to the therapist – but she maintains that countertransference is also something to watch out for outside of the clinic. “For young women, I always say: notice when you’re talking to someone and you suddenly feel inadequate and competitive when you weren’t feeling it before you spoke to the person. It’s worth examining whether you think the person was feeling inadequate and competitive, whether they were subconsciously pumping that out, and you picked it up. Okay, it slotted into your own insecurities, but it wasn’t an embracing conversation – it was a conversation where the other person was feeling negatively about themselves and put it on you, and you picked it up.”
She says the thing she says most to women with body distress is to work really hard at identifying hunger. “You may say I’m always hungry, but one isn’t. Know yourself and look after yourself in this way. Feel you know your body from the inside rather than from the outside. Look at a picture of yourself from a few years ago and you’ll probably like it. That’s a really good corrective.”
Throughout the interview, Susie is both strikingly driven and calmly accepting. I feel greedy for more of her wisdom – is there another book? She says she has one coming out in November called In Therapy. And she talks with great spirit about the general process of co-creating with Luise. “I love collaborating with her,” she says. “Our ideas are so in-tune and deeply connected – it’s a long-term collaboration.”
Despite her wearing a number of different professional hats, Susie says they’re all connected at one root. “I’m a clinician, I work in my practice,” she says, and then adds with a smile, “But I use that work to agitate political with the powers that be.”