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Women, Body Image & Power
Bodies, by Susie Orbach

Whether you’re Michelle Obama or Meghan McCain or Jessica Simpson, laughed out of your Daisy Dukes, body image is a global superpower of an issue these days.

With nipped and tucked and Photo-shopped bodies beamed all over the world, no one is safe from impossible expectations and instant judgment.

Psychotherapist Susie Orbach says it’s driving us around the bend, leaving millions — even the svelte — as prisoners of “body hatred.”

Orbach counseled Princess Diana on bulimia. Now she’s taking on the world.

This hour, On Point: Susie Orbach on our bodies and our beleaguered selves.


Susie Orbach joins us from London. A psychotherapist and author, she has for years been a leading thinker on eating disorders, gender and body image, and is convener of the website AnyBody. Her books include “On Eating,” “The Impossibility of Sex,” and the bestseller “Fat Is a Feminist Issue.” Her new book is “Bodies.”  You can read the introduction here.

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  • Harris Roen

    As a father of two teenage daughters, I see body image issues as a huge silent epidemic. While childhood obesity is a problem, at least it is openly discussed and addressed in school health classes, etc. Body image issues, however, are rarely talked about, though I’m sure most High School girls relentlessly fret about it or worse. Why is this not more integral to Middle School and High School health classes?

  • Ellen Dibble

    Are these elements of body neurosis: (1) We see huge numbers of people whose impression is fleeting; (2) people are seen, bust only, through car windows; disguised, as by the internet.
    Result, if in a small group, the body and self evolve in the context together. Nowadays, the self is a designed impression, not a whole generated in situ.

  • Chris McEnroe

    They say that the Industrial Age created “adolescence” as we know it. As I’m listening I am wondering to what degree the Technology Age has created a permanent strain of adolescence in adulthood. The idea that we’re seeing our bodies as an enemy reminds me of adolescent self-loathing and self-consciousness. Popular culture glorifies that kind of thinking and when you give adult power to adolescent thinking it seems natural that we would have shows on TV glamorizing plastic surgery as a way of life.

  • Cathy

    It would be great to hear what Susie Orbach thinks about an article in today’s Boston Globe about the Massachusetts initiative to address childhood obesity:


  • http://www.erinjudge.com Erin Judge

    I’m a stand-up comic, and I deal with body image issues a lot in my material. I find I get an overwhelmingly positive response from male audience members who are horrified and bewildered by the way the women and girls in their lives are tortured by negative body image and enslaved by constant dieting. In my industry (comedy and entertainment in general), I find that my both my female and male peers often have shockingly negative and distorted body images. Average-sized comedians go on stage talking about how fat they are, which of course means they’re lazy, self-indulgent, and immoral. It’s terribly sad.

    I think the most important thing I can tell people is that the moment I stopped hating my body was the moment I went from being a generally unhappy, anxious person to a generally happy, calm, satisfied person.

    Susie Orbach is a brilliant social critic, and her analysis is complex and intriguing. I really thank her for everything she’s doing to liberate us all from this self-hatred.

  • cynthia

    Have we, as educated people, become somewhat less intelligent as we evolve? I wonder if we haven’t become “dumbed-down” due to the surge that has happened in advertising over the past 40 years.

    I remember what “thin” looked like in high school in the mid-80′s. Those girls would be considered chubby or fat by their female and male counterparts today.

    Have we allowed advertising and the MEDIA to take over a part of our rational thinking?

  • Beth from Rhode Island

    When my daughter was 8 years old, her (58 year-old) grandmother mentioned that she had a “cute figure”. I was shocked by her comment, and my response was “she has no estrogen!”

    Now my daughter is 12 years old, weighs 86 pounds, and told me the other day (while rubbing her belly), “I’m so fat – I need to lose 10 pounds.”
    Now I hope she doesn’t believe it, but statements like this are said just to fit in. Already! In the 6th grade!

  • Alycia

    As women we have denied what makes us beautiful. Not only have we allowed society to dictate what is beautiful but also what makes us feminine. As a feminist mother my self worth and view of myself comes from the POWER of natural child birth, the BEAUTY of extended breastfeeding and taking care of my children. During the last 6 years of being either pregnant, breastfeeding or both have been the happiest in my life. I don’t have to make excuses for the way my body looks or the way I go about my day, I am a vessel of life.

  • Heather Bellanca

    I remember hearing of the warning my dad gave my mother when they were married in the mid forties – “If you ever get fat, I’ll divorce you.” Imagine the feeding experience of their kids! This is very much a class-defining attitude – the tennis set were generally thin. It was a matter of survival for all those wives of professional men, to maintain their svelte shapes. In my teens, I (unconsciously) rebelled by becoming overweight – bringing shame to us all. I have finally reached a point where people find it hard to believe I was ever obese. Of course I’ll never have an acceptable body – to me. To this day, my now slightly disoriented, 89 year old father is transfixed by the sight of overweight people. Whenever we are out, he points out all the overweight people to me with a combination of scorn and wonder.

  • http://www.onceuponaloss.com Carolyn Stonewell

    Women are getting double messages–especially older women. We are told if we have too much belly fat we are higher candidates for stroke, heart attack, even some cancers. Also, it is widely known medically that older people who eat fewer calories live longer. Not to mention the health benefits of exercise.

    I know the points she is making, and I agree with all of them. However, it would be good to hear her at least address the issues I have mentioned above.

    Thank you.

  • Scott Hanson

    While this a problem for a great many people, I am witnessing an increasing proportion of the population that needs to have significantly MORE body awareness. The morbidly obese who can barely walk, the chubby young woman who doesn’t seem to realize that they are wearing clothes that would be tight on a person who weighs 20 lbs less. I don’t suggest that they need to conform to societal norms, but they are making very poor choices when it comes to their future health.

    There is a relatively narrow range of bodyweight that is healthy. Get active, eat real food, let your body naturally find its set-point, which will not be obese or even chubby.

  • Jorge Fernandez

    Is it possible that as regrettable as our society’s obsession with body image is, there is some “good” in it when compared with the alternative, if for many that alternative is a sedentary life style and a high fat diet?

  • Dona Jones

    My 6 year old son tearfully confided in me that his friend called him “weak” because his bicep doesn’t bulge when he flexes it like his friend’s does. He’s a long, lean,healthy normal 6 year old. I tried to explain that everyone’s body is different and that he IS strong, but I could tell he was not reassured.

  • Valerie

    As a therapist and someone who has always struggled with my own body image, I have come to the idea that to accept and maybe even appreciate ones body often requires a conceptual framework. A few years ago I stumbled upon the Japanese concept called “wabi sabi.” Wabi Sabi refers to a collection of qualities which includes the aesthetic of beauty in “imperfection.” To be beautiful in terms of Wabi Sabi, something must be simple, natural, unrefined–imperfect. When I look in the mirror and see something unattractive, this concept helps me to pull myself out of my own pit of self-loathing and help others find a way out of theirs.
    Boston, MA

  • Katie

    How did we get to a point where obesity is reaching epidemic levels, yet we still fret about body image anxiety and girls wanting to be “too thin”?

    As a country, we are fat, and voluntarily so. Let’s stop coddling obesity and describing it in terms of a disease. I can think of no other disease so easily reversible and so easy to avoid in the first place.

  • Aimee Gaffney

    Wow! What a wonderful show…we NEED this information
    out there. Ms. Orbach’s work is essential if we are to
    cure-if we can- this worldwide epidemic of “addiction
    to absurd perfection” (Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst)
    and our hatred of the embodied. Thank you so much…please bring her back soon. As a woman in my fifties and a therapist of many years, this is such a huge,core issue and a sad one. I so wish we could change the cultural imagination to include, like the Greeks, a polytheistic, or pantheon, of body images!! Thanks so much !! Aimee Gaffney

  • http://LoveRiverDance.TV Anastasia Crane

    I was born heavy, into a heavy family of athletes and farmers. But I was born with a soul for dancing, and I spent all my free time dancing. I was removed from all the local youth dance classes when the instructors decided it was time for ‘real’ performances; each one insisting my skills were excellent but my body was ‘incongruent’ and ‘unacceptable’. At 190 pounds – I’d gained a Frosh 20 – I was assaulted on campus, my attackers using the word ‘fat’ throughout the attack. I am 38 years old, I now have my own dance troupe made up of people hand-picked solely for their creative openness and knack for physical experimentation. My work honors the flow of the natural systems of the earth, our galaxy and even experimental choreography that discusses quantum physics and string theory. My work has met with great enthusiasm from audiences, but the local institutions of dance have condemned my shows again and again, no matter how many seats we fill. Being naturally ‘chunky’ has made me have to deal with an absurd amount of obstacles, bias and mistreatment over the years, and my skin is as thick as my compassion is deep. So even having the On Point producers making me wait 25 minutes and then hanging up on me just reflects that the world can be supremely callous and being heavy just makes you a bigger target if you let it.
    For a few years of my life – chasing love, fame and money – I starved myself and the attention I got was obscene. The same people who would have sneered at the 170 pound me were doing equally obscene things to try to sleep with the 110 pound me. I also experienced what your first caller talked about: a constant affirmation of my ‘thinness’, accompanied with nightly fantasies of all the food I was forbidden to eat. For nearly 4 years I lived on fruit, vegetables and distilled water, with the occasional soy frozen treat to keep me sane.
    If you’d had the decency to say you weren’t going to use my call, I could’ve written to Ms. Orbach about my unique point of view of being both heavy and svelte and my observation that women are under attack no matter what form our bodies take. We react in horror at the Muslim tradition of women wearing Burqha’s, but at least their society is honest about men’s uncontrollable urges at the sight of the female form.

  • Liz

    I am saddened, and not surprised to read some of the comments above; to paraphrase: “there may be some good in our society’s obsession with body image”! Lord, there is never any good in obsession; that is torment and is certainly not healthy, even when obsessing about exercise or diet. I have been one of these obsessed folks, and it did not contribute to my physical or emotional health, I can assure you.
    And someone above said “Obesity is voluntary and so easy to avoid in the first place.” I can hear all the non-thin people laughing hysterically. We need to get informed about how varying body sizes occur, which is fairly naturally. But this is not so easy, since no one is making much money informing us how to accept ourselves as we are while staying healthy.
    Thank you, Susie Orbach; your first book changed my life for the better.

  • Christine W.

    A comment for Anastasia: the On Point call center is ALWAYS very nice and courteous. Perhaps someone hit the wrong button by mistake, rather than “hanging up on you”?? The call center is a very important part of the show; they can’t control how many calls come in, or don’t come in. Perhaps there was just a slip of the finger? By the way, your dance troupe sounds great!

  • http://AmericanDanceTherapyAssociation Elizabeth Silveira

    I was so disappointed when the On Point screener did not accept my call. I wanted to let Susie Orbach know that there are psychotherapists who do deal with the body in therapy. Dance/movement therapists use the body as a psychotherapeutic tool. Suzy made a wonderful reference to babies who sense their mother’s (caregivers) nonverbal cues i.e. tension, anxiety. She later explained how this shapes the child’s understanding of themselves and the world around them. I hope Ms. Orbach reads the On Point comments. I would recommend that she reference the movement profiles of Judith Kestenberg for her research. The Kestenberg Movement Profile is a way to analyze movement based on the psychosexual stages of development. There are many studies about parent/child interactions. Let’s open the dialogue between dance/movement psychotherapy and traditional verbal psychotherapy. Thanks for a great show!

  • Liz Zoob

    I think a problem with Susie Orbach’s psychoanalytic orientation is the implication that it is all so delicately set in early infancy. This gives new mothers just one more thing to fret about: “If I don’t hold the baby just right, she’ll pick up my ambivalent feelings about my body, and she’ll be distorted in her own embodiment forever!” This at a time when there is already quite enough for a new mother to be anxious about……

    At the same time I think Susie Orbach is absolutely correct in her feminist analysis of the way we are disconnected from and obsessed with our bodies, and their real or imagined imperfections.

    Hunger becomes the enemy, food is described as “good” or “bad,” and our moral worth is measured in terms of what we weigh and what we eat, rather than who we are. Our bodies are seen as having the potential to lead us astray, rather than as sources of comfort, power, and pleasure.

  • JSH

    OF the many interesting aspects of Susie Orbach’s work and discussion, one was the implication that things that we have often considered as originating in the mind (defined as the ideas that we have the power to control) may originate in the body — either the body as a corporal entity or in selective aspcts. Thus, things, such as ADD, that have once been ascribed to character (“All you have to do is concentrate!!!”), with research become clearer as rooted in the body, specifically, some way in which the mind as a physical construction is organized (or missing pieces of its organization).

    As an amateur, I see that the field of psychology now sees physiological explanations for various psychological conditions. Is it possible, then, that alcoholism, for example, may turn out to have a very real physiological explanation?

  • Lynx636

    I think we are in some kind of cultural divide, but I think we are moving in a positive direction. I’m 43. I am surprised and heartened by the number of fat girls (and boys) whom I see among today’s youth. Not because they are fat, but because they dress and behave as if they feel “normal”. It was NOT as common to be a fat adolescent before the age of computers; in my 1980′s adolescence, the few fat girls in my class were reviled and mocked. In college, I learned of female friends’ terrible bouts with anorexia and bulimia. Now, I see quite Rubenesque young women walking around showing big arms, big bellies, etc. with casual grace. They seem to have a healthier attitude than we did. They seem not to see anything wrong with themselves; at least, they are dressing in bright colors, wearing catchy styles, wearing makeup that they like, getting tattoos and fashionable haircuts, and generally acting as if there is nothing wrong with being heavy, that it doesn’t disqualify them from being sexy or being loved. But there are other messages from the older generation. My mother and her mother were always plump, but active and strong. My grandmother lived to be 87, and my mother is now 82, still plump, and with no major health problems. My 75-year-old father, who starved as a child in Europe, seems to hate fat people, though he himself is pretty paunchy. He has taunted my mother about her weight for years, even while gaining himself. I walked out of their sick machinery a while ago, but whenever I visit, it bewilders me how much being fat or not dominates their lives and their fighting. What IS so important about this??? What is so morally repulsive about being fat? If the older generation thinks that fat people are lazy, they need to start understanding that many of today’s highest-paid jobs demand that people sit still for hours, in front of computers. I am not saying that this is especially healthy, only that hard work and being fat now often go TOGETHER! But, when some reasonable exercise is added in, you find that health comes in many sizes. Look at any other kind of animal and you will see it. Oh, and I should add that I was very thin until my mid-twenties, just by nature, and without changing anything I began then to gain weight. Seems to have been a good survival strategy for my family, judging by the longevity of my ancestresses. And, you know what? If you stop and look around a little, you see that no body is “perfect”, and that those you may envy are usually themselves unhappy with their bodies!! What a sad and stupid waste of our short time on earth, to make weight a major issue. I used to believe the myth that “if I only fixed this one thing” (about my body), I’d be happy and my problems would disappear. That’s never true. When I was a thin twenty-year-old, I thought my legs weren’t long enough, my breasts were too small, my eyes too narrow, whatever. This despite having a pretty good love life. I think I see the younger generation shedding some of the B.S. and just enjoying their bodies a little more, whatever their size may be. Lead on, I say.

  • http://www.pathfinding.com Louise Dery-Wells

    It was a cold winter and I ate more and gained a bit of weight. It felt good, it was comforting and I felt warmer and could lower the thermostat. Spring is coming and I notice my appetite is lower. My body may shed some of these extra pounds, especially after I go on vacation and relax a bit. I am middle aged and have a “muffin top”. It is here to stay, it will not kill me, and I will not miss waistbands.

    It is that simple folks. Stop obsessing.

  • Andrew

    I am confused about this interview. I agree that having a positive body image is critical. However when does one decide that change is needed? As an example, I did not have any problems with my body until my increased BMI accentuated my snoring. This intern caused my wife to loose sleep which lead to irritability. My physician recommended that I loose some weight. So to mitigate the nighttime stress I have started to exercise and eat better. And am happy to say it has worked.

    For me it was harmony in my marriage that caused me to take a critical look at myself, and a now I am snoring less, have better a better BP and have more energy.

    I don’t think that I have a mental disorder because I watch what I eat and exercise to reach my goal. Why does there have to be a disorder involved? Maybe I am missing the point completely. Can someone please clarify because now I am starting to obsess.

  • Tom Stickler

    When Tom Ashbrook framed the question, “There’s our very lean President now, and the First Lady Michele Obama with her sculpted arms….Do you see that as healthy, or do we have a First Couple that are prisoners of body image issues?” I might have veered off the road had I not been parked.

    What a fatuous implication that there is something wrong with the Obamas because of their appearance!

    Methinks there is a problem with the host, not the Obamas.

  • Tom Boyer

    While in europe and Russia I was constantly amazed at how svelte people were, starting at the Moscow airport. Finally I asked my interpreter why this is. She said, “Look. I love the taste of caviar. It is sublime. But I do not like the feeling of a kilo of it in my stomach.”

    In Paris I asked another woman. She said, “In America, you find comfort in food. Here we find our comfort in who we eat our food with.”

    I found both comments revealing.

    The poor mental health part of obsession comes from comparing ourselves to others and feeling lack.

    The healthy mental health part of keeping fit is the feeling that your body will do what you ask of it, perhaps even in an emergency where your life or others lives depend on it.

    There may be something in the Zen saying, “Pay attention!” To your mind and your body. (Crazy buddhists. They obviously did not invent potato chips.)

  • Julie Bissell

    I agree with many of the previous comments here about body image being an important discussion we need to be having with girls of every age. My comment is about a suggestion on the show that the Obamas might be portraying the image that being thin is the ultimate goal. To me, the Obamas look fit and healthy. I also see people who are not obsessively thin or are even overweight who look healthy and strong. Having a healthy and strong body is good for any size person. My point is: I don’t think we should confuse fit with obsessively thin.

  • Bonnie Pomfret

    Why is our image of beauty not related to health and fitness?

    Some years ago, I observed at the Olympics that the athletes were very attractive. They are active and have well-developed human bodies. They are the picture of health, and wonderful specimens of young humans. Why are they not our ideal?

    Today, if you look in our popular media, the ideal image is differentiated for men and for women. You see mesomorph men who would look healthy in any era. You see women who are ectomorphic and underweight. The women do not look particularly healthy, strong, resilient, or vibrant.

    When you are hungry, you do not think clearly; you become passive and self-absorbed; you do not challenge others. I think this is what our society wants the role of women to be. If a woman looks like an adolescent, she is treated like an adolescent, and not an equal partner in any type of human interaction.

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