‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ by Susie Orbach- A Review

I’m not quite sure where to begin with this book. It has been sat on my shelf for a good 6+ months. I bought it at the same time I bought The Beauty Myth, but didn’t manage to get past the first few chapters until the end of last month. The book addresses compulsive eating, examining the causes that Orbach argues originate in our society. The book suggests that obesity caused by compulsive eating has roots in the socialization of women, before moving on to a self-help section about how to tackle these issues. I had very mixed feelings about this book, and felt parts of it were outdated (it was written in 1978…), and some of the arguments flawed- which I’ll talk about later in the review. Yep, I definitely have very mixed feelings on this one…

To begin with: what does Orbach argue?

Orbach argues that women within our society are expected to automatically take on the role of care-giver within a home, even if they have a career outside of it, when they become a mother. Part of the role of care-giver is providing food, and seeing the rest of the family is fed. This can place strain on the relationship of the mother with the children, in particular with daughters, due to a mixture of feeling they must meet this role of caregiver, but also resenting it. On one hand, the mother wishes the daughter to be like her; she wants to bring her up with morals, see she has opportunities etc.  On another level, the mother knows that the daughter will in all likelihood become a care-giver like herself, and so must be prepared for a life of not placing emphasis on her own needs, but on the needs of others. This ambivalent relationship can often be embodied in food.  In learning to be a giver and not a taker, Orbach suggests, women also learn to supress anger and resentment- it isn’t “giving” or “caring” or “feminine” behaviour according to society. This resentment then can often be expressed in eating compulsively, to in effect ignore the feeling of anger/resentment, and cram it down with food. Thus, a young female learns quickly that food is a substitute for emotions: you can use it to show that you care, and you can use it to cram emotions further down inside of you.

Society also teaches women, after perpetuating this eating, that to lose the weight compulsively eating can make you gain, a diet is the answer. This was one of the most interesting points I took away from Orbach: diets make us ignore our bodies own hunger signals. It seems obvious, but diets actually break the trust we should have in our body. We learn we should eat at certain times, eat a certain amount/ number of calories, eliminate food groups…and so on and so forth.

Another facet to this compulsive eating can be the subconscious desire somewhere in women to gain weight. This can be for a number of reasons, two of which being in order to take up the space, and be taken seriously by those around them- or in order to have enough of themselves to be able to “give out”. In therapy groups Orbach has noted that many women associate their being slimmer with being taken less seriously, and being viewed as a sexual object above all else. In this sense compulsive eating is a defence technique, which may be employed by women without their consciously realising it. Orbach’s argues that for some women compulsive eating is a way of de-sexualizing themselves through weight gain that acts as a physical barrier and protective shield (I’m sure the bo-po movement would have something to say on this one), subconsciously registering that our society generally labels “slim” as “sexy” (think of magazines, catwalks, makeup adverts etc).

All of the above, and so much more, causes the compulsive eating that the book then suggests exercises to help rid you of.  Orbach makes use of psychoanalytic theory (as in the above paragraphs) but don’t worry if you haven’t come across/ read this theory before; Orbach is great at making it easily accessible. I did approach this take with some scepticism, but found it interesting. But now, as I’ve already lightly touched on…

 

The issues with the book:

A lot of the theory does make sense in this book, but it was first published in 1978, meaning some reviews have noted that women are no longer occupying the same roles they did nearly 30 years ago. However, I would argue we do, to some extent, still occupy roles where pressure is placed upon us. Even if a woman doesn’t automatically relinquish her career to become a housewife, there is another pressure that could easily lead to compulsive eating: the pressure to “have it all”, and occupying all roles. Saying that pressures do not exist, and that men and women are considered completely equal, is us deluding ourselves; the pressures have simply shifted. Thus, pressures to eat compulsively still exist.

The other issue immediately obvious to me was the focus on fat as a negative at first glance. I have to address this. It’s a tricky topic, but though not worded the best in places, Orbach is essentially speaking about weight gain caused by compulsive eating. If rewritten I’d say that this needs to be pointed out more clearly, or a disclaimer added, as many other reviews I’ve come across have questioned what’s so wrong with being big? Essentially, the issue isn’t being overweight (though yes, obesity is an undeniable issue in the western world, and Orbach does- I think- mention this), but the torment compulsive eating causes, of which being overweight can be a symptom. This isn’t the case for all women, but it is the symptom many women turn to diets to fix, unsuccessfully. Orbach is writing what was applauded as an “anti-diet book”, and so yes her audience is people who want to lose weight, but by addressing compulsive eating as the root cause, and not consulting another fad diet. In line with this, Orbach doesn’t suggest dieting in any way. However, though I knew breaking compulsive eating habits was the essence of the book, being slim does appear to be touted as the main goal, which shouldn’t be the case. Being slim is no more of a guarantee of being free of compulsive eating. I experienced binge eating for many years, and wouldn’t have been classed as overweight; when my binging was at its worst, I was actually close to my slimmest.

In conclusion…

Having been a binge eater before, and still sometimes struggling with compulsive eating, this book did encourage me to examine my relationship with some foods, and my relationship with my body and food together. I didn’t choose to make use of many of the exercises in the final section of the book, but it did encourage me to reflect on my relationship with certain foods more closely.  My main takeaways were:

  • Allow yourself to connect with when you are hungry/not (very difficult if you’ve ever had ED)
  • Ask yourself if you wish to compulsively eat when not hungry: what is it that I need, that I’m trying to satisfy with food?
  • What is my relationship with trigger foods? Why am I more likely to eat compulsively when I eat these foods?
  • How can I learn to trust my body?

For example: I discovered that certain foods I have restricted in the past now carry the danger of my eating compulsively, even if it doesn’t develop into a fully blown binge. I tend to eat them faster, with anxious feelings- and then eat more because I didn’t taste them in the first place. I also tend to misinterpret what I need sometimes: I may need a nap or some time alone, and not food. I do eat when I am angry or stressed or upset. Noticing this means I can work through it.

Fat is a Feminist Issue is by no means a perfect read, and I did have issues with it.  My copy is covered in scrawled comments and question marks- but there’s also a lot of highlighter where I’ve found something interesting or useful. As someone whose binging was partnered with restriction I didn’t feel the latter was addressed completely, though an important part of compulsive eating for many people. It was touched on, but not as developed as I had hoped. Anorexia was also very briefly covered, but not in much detail in proportion to the rest of the book; I feel restriction may be an interesting element to develop on in the future, in relation to the rest of Orbach’s work.

So, you may find some useful exercises and things to consider in this book, and I have personally found it both useful and interesting. However, do take parts of it with a pinch of salt.

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