Susie Orbach: Why fat is still a feminist issue

She's been campaigning against diets since the Seventies, but her new book is more Geri Halliwell than Germaine Greer. So, asks Joanna Briscoe, has Susie Orbach finally started counting calories?
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Susie Orbach needs the loo. "I must pee before I do anything else," she cries, arriving in a flurry of big hair and be-suited elegance. This is important, readers. She must pee, as she must eat. And we must all learn the same. Eating must be invested with the simple spontaneity of other bodily requirements. "Your aim is to get your hunger signals to work as clearly as the one that tells you when to pee," states Orbach in her new, slim volume, On Eating (Penguin, £4.99) – more of which later.

The Susie Orbach of public perception lies somewhere between Seventies revolutionary and beacon of the chattering classes. She's the woman who has defined, highlighted and battled against the eating disorders endemic to our society, most famously as the author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. More exciting myths were superimposed, cartoon-style, upon this worthy image when she became shrink to the stars. The star. Yes, our very own Princess Di!

Though Orbach has maintained the confidentiality of the analyst-patient relationship, never once confirming or denying the excitements ("There's nothing I would say. What would I say?"), the press were less discreet. Paparazzi camped outside Orbach's gracious north London home; neighbours were bothered; Diana was photographed emerging, once in tears; Panorama ensued; bulimia travelled first class from The Lancet to Hello!

Orbach is, to this day, both a professional psychoanalyst with private clients and a public figure. Is there not, therefore, a horrible clashing of worlds? A screaming disparity between planet pap, on which she is forced to make an occasional landing, and the hushed privacy of the couch? "Oh, it's an absolute nightmare," she says, quite simply.

Beyond the myths, Orbach seems to be a woman with a simpler agenda. Though highly guarded about her personal life, given to bristling at the faintest whiff of suspected professional criticism, she speaks with passion and the kind of cleverness that bathes life's conundrums in clarity. Committed to her causes, with two-and-a-half decades of work on eating problems behind her, she maintains the fire-in-the-belly of the Seventies activist, even if her rhetoric now takes the contemporary form of a self-help manual.

The fact that Labour's "Body Summit" two years ago (dealing with the problems of body image among young people) resulted in a lack of action made Orbach feel "disturbed and outraged. I thought, it's taken this long for an idea to come into conventional political space. We can't squander it. We do have to change social policy on this area. This is a public health emergency".

Figures show that 48 per cent of British women aged 25-35 are on some kind of diet, and 20 per cent of young women say they diet either all or most of the time. Two-thirds of young women would swap their body for somebody else's. Figures on Californian pre-teens, of course, put our problems in the shade; problems fuelled by a dieting industry that simply doesn't work.

"I can't believe I'm still talking about this. I can't believe I still care as much as I do," says Orbach. "The pain that this causes people seems to motivate me, and my rage. I'm still outraged. And I've got a whole kind of intellectual interest that's going on in the back of my head, which I'm working on at the same time: how does the body actually develop its own history and its own difficulties? How can it be that unstable? How is it that people can manipulate their bodies so extremely? I'm trying to understand, if you like, the construction of the body. So that keeps me interested on another level."

Politically impassioned, the author of several books, including Hunger Strike and The Impossibility of Sex, Orbach's work is rigorously intellectual, combining polemic with thorough research. Her latest publication will therefore surprise. On Eating sits somewhat uncomfortably between existing genres. Launched in the midst of the post-Christmas diet book bonanza (800 new diet books published, at a recent count), On Eating is handbag-sized. Slender. A concoction of handy nuggets. "Eat when you are hungry. Don't wait until you are very very hungry or starving." Or: "If you've been eating chaotically, every eating experience from now on is a chance to change that."

It resembles a calorie counter; its tone smacks more of Geri Halliwell than Germaine Greer. It's confusing: it's either a cop-out or the greatest revolutionary tool in Orbach's portfolio, a subliminal life-changer for the diet-obsessed. She is, however, unapologetic about its self-help format. "Fat is a Feminist Issue came out of a self-help group. With this book, after the Body Summit, I thought, actually there are ordinary people out there, and this is not a trivial form of suffering; they accept it as just part of their daily life, like gravity. And I do have something that I could offer to them, so I wanted to write something people could use at whatever level they were at.

"That's why I wrote it in a very clear, simple way. I also wanted to reach younger women with this. I'm really not interested in the issue of weight loss. I am interested in the issue of compulsive eating and distressed eating. I'm not responsible for the culture. I'm simply responsible for making an intervention."

Contrary to accepted wisdom, Orbach's drive is more political than personal. "Whatever you've read in the papers, I never had an eating problem, a 10-year eating disorder." Not at all? "No. Never." Less dramatically, she became aware of the ridiculous nature of dieting when she herself went on a diet.

Orbach, born in 1946, was brought up in Chalk Farm, north London, the child of Jewish parents. Her mother was American, her father a British Labour MP. Susie was expelled from North London Collegiate school (alma mater of such luminaries as Eleanor Bron and Esther Rantzen) at 15, when she became pregnant and had an abortion. She studied in the US, eventually taking and then teaching women's studies; she was briefly married, then met her partner of almost 30 years, the therapist and writer Joseph Schwartz, the father of her children Lukas, 17, and Lianna, 13. An impressive career as a writer, activist, broadcaster, psychoanalyst and mother, has followed (the CV stretches to 11 pages).

Warm, sympathetic, highly intelligent, it's easy to picture Orbach as the ultimate mother-confessor at the couch. The flaky fashioning of verbs from nouns, the "issues"-speak of the over-therapised, are not for her. We're not talking touchy-feely. She's sexy, youthful, yet as devoid of artifice as dowdiness. Her air of north London bluestocking incorporates nods towards the pond, with her vast quantities of American-style big hair, her faintly mid-Atlantic intonations. The warmth swiftly takes on a covering of frost when questions veer into forbidden zones. One inches towards them, then leaps back, chastised. For her, the political is more interesting than the personal. "In the last 10 years, interviews have been about me, rather than content, so that causes me tremendous grief. On the other hand, that is still a way that one gets ideas out into the public space. So, is it a contradiction? No. Is it miserable? Yes."

Yet we have clearly moved into a different era: the era of Popstars, It Girls, past-it girls, and a celebrity-focused culture. While there is no sense of Orbach as bemused idealist lagging behind – she is, as her latest book shows, adept at tailoring her message – she was formed and informed by an age of activism. Younger people, she says, are more interested in "being something rather than actually contributing something. It goes along with the whole celebrity culture, with consumerism. People think about careers now; they think about visibility. But I think young women are still very hampered by feelings of unentitlement, but covered up with the defence of 'We can do it, we're great, we're ambitious'."

What of the future? Orbach always maintained that "it would take three generations for those internal structures to change". She says: "I do think I'm responsible for bringing eating problems out of the closet." Whether we're talking the Queen of Hearts and her bulimia, or a shift in the attitudes of a generation who grew up with calorie-counting mothers, this is a pleasingly fat great achievement.

"Scales are for fish, not people," Orbach reminds us. Er, yes. We may be a nation of lardies obsessed with supermodels – but we know now, somewhere deep in our psyches, that the whole thing is a load of bull.