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Susie Orbach vs Tansy Hoskins

The author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue talks radical fashion and selfies with a fellow renegade writer

Tansy Hoskins is on a mission. For too long the fashion industry has hidden itself behind the mysterious shroud of a fragile and precious creativity that must be protected at any cost, be it life, liberty, equality or dignity. Her first book, Stitched Up! The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, seeks to critique fashion as the multi-billion-dollar industry that it is, taking on issues such as environmental resources, labour, cultural colonialism, racism and body hatred. Hoskins, an ardent fan of fashion's transformative potential, issues a passionate call for more responsible and revolutionary attitudes to the industry and how we consume clothes. As for Susie Orbach, the iconic writer is a psychotherapist, author and feminist social critic whose influential 1978 book Fat Is a Feminist Issue radically interpreted fat bodies as a protest against sexism, objectification and normative body ideals. Thirty-one years later, her book Bodies described how every aspect of our anatomy has been destabilised by capitalism, exploited like a commodity, using body-hatred to sell product. In 2003 Orbach established AnyBody, the UK chapter of Endangered Bodies, an initiative to challenge the toxic culture that promotes negative body image. Dazed met Hoskins and Orbach at the Stitched Up! book launch to listen as they talked commodifying bodies, airbrushing and why the fashion industry is "up there with telecoms and steel". 

Susie Orbach: I've only just started reading Stitched Up! and what really interests me is that, despite the fact that I have been critiquing the style industries for 35 years and I'm sure I've looked at the list of billionaires in the world, I don't think I allowed myself to realise positions three and four are occupied by the owners of fashion and luxury brands. People think these are small industries, but actually they are the size of the steel industry; your book really brings those figures to light in a fantastic way, so I'm very excited. I'm horrified, but excited.

“That's the price of entering modernity – you get to bind your bodies as opposed to binding your feet" – Susie Orbach

Tansy Hoskins: People often dismiss fashion and beauty as fluffy topics, which is a huge mistake; they are up there with telecoms and steel. What struck me when I was reading your book Bodies was the idea of the visual colonisation of the world, and I wondered what led you to that conclusion; you said that advertising is like the new iconography, that it's replaced religious iconography.

Susie Orbach: I've been trying to understand how it is that our bodies get mined like we're a commodity – like we're gold, or a diamond, anything you can make money off of, in every section of our bodies. I think the mining of our bodies is a new form of colonialism. To make money you've got to destabilise bodies. How do you do that? It happens because there's so little time when you have any images of diversity that represent you; you never find yourself in those pictures, ever.

Tansy Hoskins: Do you think the internet is making it worse? You talk about how people are becoming conscious of having to look good at a younger and younger age, and I think Facebook in particular means that every minute of your life is documented online, you know? People put up pictures of the foetus in their womb! And it's from that right up until funeral pictures. 

Susie Orbach: I think, sure it is the internet in one sense, but isn't it because people don't feel seen? So they are always striving to be recognised and seen. That's the savagery of mass society and consumerist society: the very values that we appreciate in each other and the things that we love, those things aren't represented in culture, what is represented is surface. 

Tansy Hoskins: But do you always have to be camera-ready? Even if you're going for a walk in the park it will be snapped and up on the internet.

Susie Orbach: It's two things: you always have to be camera-ready, but you also have to be able to look at yourself from the outside, so it's not just camera-ready, you have the eyes of the camera too.

Tansy Hoskins: Is there anything that has given you hope that things are changing for the better? 

Susie Orbach: I was just discussing that with my dear friend Luise Eichenbaum. She thought maybe there's a slight tipping point, because there's not just Endangered Bodies, there's a lot of campaigns going on, there's an attempt to refuse this. Do I feel it? I don't really feel filled with optimism actually. It's very shocking to go to China and see these huge images of western women projected on to walls, selling western brands that are made in China back to the Chinese at prices that are outrageous. And that's the price of entering modernity – that you get to bind your bodies as opposed to binding your feet.

“Men and boys are being given the same rotten solutions that girls and women were given to the problems of living this life" – Susie Orbach

Tansy Hoskins: What do you think about the idea of media literacy to teach women to think differently? Isn't it just giving women another thing to have failed at if they still feel bad?

Susie Orbach: I've become convinced that with media literacy – which is to deconstruct the ads, to show the number of people it takes to create an image, in production and post-production – the only interventions that are any good are the ones that make people take action. Media literacy could be mired in the problem that you're talking about, but if the young women or boys then write to a magazine or their MP or dare to talk about this stuff and stop 'fat-talk' going on – it doesn't matter what it is actually – I think that's really great. That's what we're beginning to understand now: you have to do this thing called 'take action'.

Tansy Hoskins: That's what I want people to do! To come out from behind their computers in particular and take action!

Susie Orbach: For example, a very small action  we took was to try to stop those cosmetic surgery games for eight-year-olds being sold, and we did that in the space of a few hours. I'm not an old hand at tweeting, but essentially we organised a tweet...

Tansy Hoskins: ...firestorm!

Susie Orbach: Yeah! If you're doing media literacy with young people, or with older people, and they can do something, I think that gives you an incredible sense of power. It doesn't mean the weight of it is any less huge, but it means you aren't quite as helpless.

Tansy Hoskins: Do you think it is getting worse for men?

Susie Orbach: Absolutely. When I go to the gym, I mean, the guys are absolutely obsessed with the construction and reconstruction of the body.

Tansy Hoskins: And so many male catwalk models are so painfully thin.

Susie Orbach: They look exactly like the women. And men and boys are being given the same rotten solutions that girls and women were given to the problems of living this life. I think particularly since masculinity has been under attack now for so long – I don't mean by feminism, I mean by changing labour markets – well, why not offer them the same crap, 'change your body' as opposed to 'challenge the life'! 

“If you've been good, you can get your hair done or get Botox or buy new shoes. I find that really worrying" – Tansy Hoskins

Tansy Hoskins: And with airbrushing and everything, I think it was you who said 'we're in the process of making reality unpalatable'.

Susie Orbach: The problem is that if you've got a game of cosmetic surgery going out to eight-year-olds, they're already transacting around what they are going to change. I'm not optimistic. Me and my girlfriends would find it very hard to have cosmetic surgery; we would rail against that, like, 'What's wrong with us? Okay, we've lived a long time, we look the way we look,' and we would struggle against feeling shamed by how we look, but it is a struggle, because of the overwhelming visual culture.

Tansy Hoskins: We've been taught that it's a treat. If you've been good, you can get your hair done or get Botox or buy new shoes. I find that really worrying, the way it's linked to rewards. 

Susie Orbach: It is. Doing 'good' for yourself is often doing bad. It's like, 'Oh, it's really, really good to deprive yourself of food.' No, it's not! It's really a terrible thing to do!

Tansy Hoskins: One of the things I found when I was doing my research for the book is that young women dismiss the idea that the advertising industry and the fashion and beauty industries have an effect on them because they find that insulting, like you're saying that women are stupid and easily influenced. 

Susie Orbach: But if that's the world you grow up in then it's not separate from you, it's a part of you. When I go into schools and show kids videos of Photoshopping, they say, 'Oh yeah, we know all that.' Well, okay, you know all that, but it affects you; how do you feel about it?

Tansy Hoskins: Everyone always thinks advertising works on everyone except them! I know I'm very susceptible to it.

Susie Orbach: It's an opiate, isn't it? I mean, consumerism is an opiate, but you could say advertising is the circuses of Marx's "bread and circuses".

Tansy Hoskins: My conclusion from all the research and the writing of Stitched Up! is that I'm more sure than ever that I don't want to live in a capitalist society any more. Is that a conclusion you've come to?

Susie Orbach: Well, I've lived under it or inside of it for a very long time; I just feel myself to be part of a long history of people who have tried to make trouble about it!

Stitched Up! The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion is out now, published by Pluto Press. Purchase a copy with 10% off here