Susie Orbach is known for being the first to say, loudly and in print, “stop hating your bodies and start listening to them.”
The London-based psychotherapist’s 1978 book, “Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide for Women” broke new ground with the message that women were subjected to tremendous cultural pressures about their bodies and are better off trying to listen to their bodies instead of hating them. In her eleventh and latest book, “Bodies,” Orbach looks at the current cultural expectations about appearances imposed on women and men, and the way self-loathing manifests itself through the things we do to our bodies, such as plastic surgery or, in extreme cases, even wanting to amputate perfectly healthy limbs.
Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert recently commented on the culture around women and weight perfectly when he had Orbach, 62, on “The Colbert Report.” He told her, faux-seriously, that she looks great, but that if weighed five pounds less, she would have been talking about the book on “The Daily Show.”
The Sisterhood recently spoke with Orbach about her new book, and the relationship between Judaism and body image:
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Do you think you’ve been successful in changing cultural discourse around body image?
Susie Orbach: When I wrote “Fifi” [“Fat is a Feminist Issue”], it was to share a whole bunch of ideas arising in women’s groups about food and its relation to the body. I thought that was it, but the situation developed and got worse, got more intense, which is why I got back to that now in “Bodies.” In terms of opening up a conversation, perhaps it has made a difference.
What’s your Jewish background?
I grew up in a very secular Jewish household in London, but my mother was a New Yorker. My family … didn’t keep kosher or go to synagogue, but was clear we were Jewish. At the same time, I was encouraged to pass for a nice little English girl — not to speak with my hands. When I came to New York in the late 1960s it was a Jewish, Italian, Irish, black culture, and kind of noisy. I understood it.
How do you think about being Jewish now?
It’s a completely central part of my identity, but what the hell that means is another question. Do I have a mezuzah at the door? No. Do I light the candles at Chanukah? Yes. I always either go or have a Seder. But that’s it —those are the two festivals. My children wouldn’t want to go to shul for Yom Kippur, but if they wanted to stay home from school they were encouraged to consider what they needed to forgive themselves for. It was done at that level.
Do we Jews internalize any of the prevalent stereotypes of women and Jewishness?
Yes, I think we do. It has to be rethought in terms of other ethnicities being represented these days and the fact that there are plenty of Jewish women who have refashioned themselves in the mode of the non-Jew. We have internalized it.
Are Jewish women more prone than others to the body anxiety you write about?
No. I thought that was true when I wrote “FiFi,” but was disabused of that by readers. It had become a universal currency. Part of the argument of “Bodies” is that we are exporting body hatred across the world. It’s one of the West’s hidden exports. Whatever kind of marker this anxiety might have been at one moment for a group like the Jews because of issues of visibility and invisibility, I think that’s no longer the case.