We speak to acclaimed author Susie Orbach on the pressure women face as a result of the media's ever increasing obsession with body image...

It's not the first time we've been struck by the ever increasing pressure on women to conform to a certain size and shape... With the furore on Twitter and the internet about journalist Samantha Brick's recent article on her high self worth we though it was high time to delve a little deeper into the issues surrounding women's perception of themselves. 

With a decidedly female contingent here in The GWG office, we're incredibly excited to hear author Susie Orbach's empowering advice for boosting self esteem, letting go of body hang ups and becoming immune to the media's obsession with skinny women... 

Susie is the renowned author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue, one of the seminal works of the 1970's, she is also an advocate of Dove's Real Body Campaign, who have recently taken a 2012 Body Census, revealing that just one in ten women have the confidence to call themselves attractive, a sad but very real statistic...

Regarding the storm on ‘The Daily Mail’ and Twitter when journalist Samantha Brick wrote an article describing her rare self confidence in her looks... What is your opinion on the furore this provoked online and off?

It’s interesting that you ask that. I eventually came in and did a piece for The Observer on it. I think what interested me about it was that it was a piece which instead of being about her own confidence, was a piece that attacked other women and that’s what provoked the all the furore and made people want to then attack her back. But I think the deeper point it raised is that most women are not feeling confident in their body, despite beauty being something that we’re all supposed to aspire to, and most women do enjoy decorating themselves and making themselves feel or look as attractive as they can, there’s a lack of body confidence around. That is also borne out by the recent Dove census on body confidence that shows that only 1 in 5 women are able to feel confident about their bodies. Pretty shocking.

How do you think we as women can boost our confidence?

First of all we have got to say “This is preposterous!” Beauty is really important to all of us, we all spend lots of time looking in the mirror, fretting, thinking about ourselves, buying products all of those things. We tend to find most of our friends absolutely lovely, so could we take in the fact that if we find our friends lovely, they probably find us lovely? Instead of playing into the uniqueness that is strength for us all, we are all thinking we need to look the same. If we could help each other enjoy our variety that would make a really big difference.

Some good advice, take ownership really.

Yes really.

How important is a career to the way women view about themselves?

I think that having something to do that’s really interesting and challenging every day really builds your confidence. But if we look at most portrayals in the media, even if a woman is working in a lab, or she’s vet or a school teacher the images presented are always passive and kind of pouting to camera or vulnerable in a way. We don’t actually see lovely, vibrant pictures of women at work not preoccupied by their bodies. I think what happens is that young women grow up now thinking that it doesn’t matter how successful they are in their work or how intellectually challenging or interesting it is. Whether they’re a graphic artist, a doctor, a hairdresser or a mum, they have to look at themselves from the outside and always evaluate how they look because of all the negative images we’ve seen of women.

That’s why I’m such a supporter of Dove who have tried to show women doing things in all their variety and with their own energies, rather than either like they need to be rescued or are too tough to talk to.

Great answer... Women in the media seem to be getting ever-thinner how do you think that this impacts on young women and we can change this?

It’s not what I think, it’s what I know. Every survey result shows that young girls are getting more and more frightened by their ordinary appetites and then they are restricting themselves which leads to binging as a result. We need to start very young and talk to new mums to help them feel more comfortable in their own bodies. Then pass on to the next generation that their bodies are a place to live from and to relish rather than a thing to always be perfecting. We’ve got a very bad basic line which is that there is something wrong with us rather than something right. We have to celebrate what is right.

What can we do to help our daughters to be more self confident and less self conscious?

Number one is don’t look in the mirror yourself and say “Urgh I look awful, I’m too fat, I’ve got to go on a diet.” That doesn’t work. Daughters are mimics and if you are negative about your body it doesn’t matter how beautiful you tell them they are, they will think that when you grow up the thing is to be negative about their body. So the most important thing is to look at your own attitudes and make sure that you are really thoughtful about the things you say about yourself and eating in-front of your children.

What can we do to combat the negative images we see? Apart from sabotaging the magazines?

Well I think we can sabotage the magazines. We can say to the editors “For goodness sake don’t take these kind of ads. Get your Art Directors, who are really smart people, to do something more imaginative.” We can also look to the example of Dove because I think they have shown how to make really exciting ad campaigns using images of women of all different ages, across the class divide, across the ethnic divide and across the size and shape divide. We have seen its influence across other campaigns but we haven’t seen quite enough yet. I think the other thing is to help young women to make their own media so that they can transform it. I’m working with some school groups where we are teaching them not just to understand what media does to them but how to make the media that they would actually like to be looking at.

Do you think the high instances of eating disorders in this country are down to the unrealistic images of models and celebrities?

Well of course they are. When I started work as a psychotherapist Anorexia Nervosa was virtually unheard of and so was Bulimia. What you’ve got now is a whole generation of mums who were so under assault by industries that were making a lot of money by making women feel really rubbish about their bodies which then created a problem in the next generation and now were into a third generation. 

In my day, first of all we didn’t have the same penetration of media, and I was right on the cusp where I grew up when there was ‘Weight On’ tablets at the chemist one moment, that was the sort of Marilyn Monroe thing, and then there was Twiggy. The difference was, it wasn’t all pervasive you were only meant to be looking gorgeous for about 5 years of your life to catch somebody. Now you are supposed to be gorgeous from the age of 6 to women in old age homes. That’s what’s causing the difficulties. There is a lot of money to be made by producing the idea that women are not beautiful in and of themselves, that they have to spend money on products to be beautiful all the time. Of course we like products and do like to look after ourselves but let’s be sure we buy the right kind of products that support variety and diversity rather than the ones that attack women.

If the pressure comes from ourselves how can we change this?

Well I think the pressure comes from ourselves because of how the outside, gets inside. I don’t think it is that we are just kind of idiots. If your world is full of all these images and these images tell you that this is how you belong in the world then you are going to be drawn to those and that’s why I like campaigns that are counter to that, why I like the Dove campaign, but I think it also has to be young women saying to themselves “wait a minute you’re gorgeous, does that mean I might be gorgeous too? Perhaps we are all gorgeous.”

If we are all beating ourselves up all the time how can we help our family and friends?

I think we can talk about what goes into producing an image, how many people it takes to create one of those images. It’s about 20 people; the stylists, the lighting guys, the hairdressers and make-up artists then what happens post production. We need to show that actually it’s just an image. It isn’t real life. That’s one thing to do, and the other thing is talk about how lovely we are and what a shame it is we can’t feel it. Another thing that I think has been really effective is to look at pictures of yourself from a few years ago because usually you find them very appealing and yet, at the time you may not have, that can be a really good lesson to people, you can say to them, “Oh so you think you look gorgeous then? But you didn’t feel it then?” Don’t waste the time now. Dare to feel gorgeous now.

And finally what advice would you give to women out there right now?

Dare to be beautiful as you are.

02 May 2012 Interview by Alice Kahrmann...