Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

‘I’m always perplexed as to how heterosexuality happens…’

April 25, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

Homosexuality is the “natural extension”, for women, “of the first figure of love – the mother… You could say there is a primary for girls to be homosexual, just as there is a primary for boys to be heterosexual, given their own mother love.” In other words, girls are programmed to be gay. “Girls have crushes on girls at school, don’t they? That is undeniably their first experience.”

Susie Orbach certainly looks at ease in her new stage of life. She also looks a lot younger than 67, her figure trim, her curly hair down to her shoulders. Yet not everyone shares her self-confidence. Even today, I hazard, women who come out must face some difficult challenges. An expression of disapproval – the abbess confronting a recalcitrant novice – crosses Susie Orbach’s face: she’d warned me before the interview that as a therapist she could not discuss her own life, and she’s impatient with my clumsy attempt to draw her out. She neatly sidesteps the personal allusion: “Twenty‑five years ago, I’d have said they probably had a lot of internalised prejudice to overcome, but society really has moved on and everyone has kids and relatives who are gay. [It’s] no longer odd.”

Orbach breaks her conversation frequently to ask “What about you?”, “What’s your experience?”, her warm eyes compelling you to “share”. She positively trembles with sympathy and a desire to heal. The arguments may be more circuitous than cogent, but her sincerity burns through. Even the most stony-hearted will succumb to her spell.

Orbach’s latest book, though, fails to cast any such spell. Fifty Shades of Feminism reads like the essays of a not particularly promising women’s studies class. Clunky, self-righteous and hopelessly earnest, they cover well‑ploughed territory – domestic abuse, rape, breasts, men as beasts, porn. The authors plug individual campaigns and personal heroines. They quote one another. They seem to be addressing an invisible right-on bookclub in north London, rather than the world at large. Orbach and her co-editors, Lisa Appignanesi and Rachel Holmes, cannot magic this lacklustre material into a cohesive, let alone enticing, picture of feminism.

I suspect Susie Orbach knows this. When I say the book fails to strike a chord with me, she explains defensively that she and her co-editors had only five weeks in which to assemble their material. I find the authors in Fifty Shades as exclusive as a gentlemen’s club in Pall Mall: no wonder, I argue, that younger women are rejecting the label.

Orbach sighs: “That’s not a recent thing. We moved from feminism to [Shirley Conran’s] Superwoman [her 1975 bestseller], which… said it was all about you, it reprivatised woman’s life. Everything was suddenly about individual accomplishment. Young women grew up with the notion that 'I want to be a star’.”

They still do, as shows like The X Factor prove.

Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly a “superwoman”, I suggest. Orbach nods: “Her achievement was about 'me’, not 'women’.” Even so, she admits that by dint of being prime minister, Thatcher did change our mindset: “When John Major came to be PM, and stood in front of No 10, a child who was watching the news exclaimed: 'Mummy, you mean that men can be PM?’ ”

Thatcher provided Orbach with an interesting psychological study. “From my perspective, the most powerful figure in the world is a mother. That was what you got with Thatcher. Who’s the one you first fall in love with? A mother. Who first scolds you, restrains you? A mother. She is a fantastically powerful figure.” Thatcher’s Cabinet – almost exclusively posh males – saw her in this light: “A lot of those guys were packed off to boarding school. They saw her as mother: a love object, and erotic object [who] also encoded prohibition.”

It’s a tantalising image, even if it doesn’t match the experience of most mothers today – short-changed by the government and their boss while being under impossible pressure from the media to be “yummy”.

“The government shouldn’t have forced them to go out to work,” Orbach agrees. “It undermines the fact that it is a pretty big job to mother.” But she warns that: “I’ve met a lot of women who have stayed home from high-powered jobs. [They] bring such anxiety to mothering, they’re passing on their own distress with their milk.”

So neurosis contaminates a generation of mothers’ milk? “Well, it’s very hard for them not to be uptight and anxious when they have to see pictures of those women who look like they’ve never had a baby, six weeks on from having given birth.”

Bodies have long been the focus of Orbach’s work. She fulminates against the pernicious way the diet and beauty industries have taught consumers that a good body is an “accomplishment you work at” by slimming, exercising, tanning, waxing, and endless beauty balms and dyes. This notion is so pervasive, our children have absorbed it.

“They are brought up with the idea that bodies are things that are to be made, not to be lived in. Girls of five or six are playing games [such as The Secret World], where they can get plastic surgery tokens to get their nose or breasts… changed. There are children out there for whom there are no real photos – because they’ve all been photoshopped to perfection.”

In other words, parents are cooing over photographs of perfected, rather than perfect, children. “It’s tragic,” Orbach agrees. “When my daughter, now 24, was at school, there was the first case of a girl of nine throwing up in school. It’s now starting from [age] five and six.”

She has no doubt that our anguished body image affects our sexuality. “I think we still don’t understand what sex is, what sex does, and what sex means. Girls are encouraged to see sexuality, instead of something inherent, as an accomplishment. It’s become a performance.”

She blames commercial pressure for this. “We are seeing a massive assault by those industries who grow rich by breeding insecurity. The diet industry is so huge, it would be easier to take on the tobacco industry. The beauty industry is half the size of the steel industry.”

She urges parents to let children “enjoy their appetites, see life as an adventure, be curious. Above all, talk, talk, talk.” She sees a role for government here. “I think emotional literacy needs to be integrated much more, it’s another one of the three Rs. We should have feelings taught in school, as part of the syllabus. We should have questions like: 'Is that the real feeling, or the feeling behind it?’ It’s an essential part of learning and should be introduced at primary school.”

Our interview is over. As I gather up my things, I still feel under her spell. Once home, I realise what the magic involves. It’s her sheer ability to listen. Curiosity about others is highly unusual – in a high-profile figure, it is unheard of.

'Fifty Shades of Feminism’, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (Virago), is available from Telegraph Books for £10.49 + £1.35 pp. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

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