Fat is a feminist issue – Susie Orbach

As part of my exploration of weight loss through the use of self-help books/techniques I thought it was right that I read the seminal work on the topic ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ by Susie Orbach.  Originally written as just one book, which was predominantly theory based, Susie Orbach wrote a second book in response to the demand for practical solutions to the weighty issue of weight gain/loss.

The book is described as follows on Amazon and has many 5 star reviews:

THE ORIGINAL ANTI-DIET BOOK IS BACK – in one volume together with its best-selling sequel.

When it was first published, Fat Is A Feminist Issue became an instant classic and it is as relevant today as it was then.

Updated throughout, it includes a frank new introduction by Susie Orbach that brings this book to a new generation of readers whilst offering a current perspective for its original fans. With an increasingly dominant diet industry, costing the consumer millions of pounds each year, Susie Orbach’s best-selling classic is as important as ever in helping women to love their own body and face the demands of 21st-century living with confidence.

I did not get on at all with the first section of the book, where Susie Orbach set out to show that fat is indeed a feminist issue.  I did not relate to any of the descriptions of womanhood that she described and felt that the gender roles were very outdated and hopefully no longer relevant, at least not for me and my friends.  I came across this review on Amazon and it sums up my feelings perfectly (albeit a little strongly!).

A dated polemic, unscientific and unconvincing – By WeAreWhatWeRead on 13 April 2016

I didn’t have high hopes for this book, because I knew that it was based on psychoanalysis, therefore would have as much scientific value as, say, astrology. Given its title and the fact that it was written almost 40 years ago, I also fully expected it to be biased all the way. But even for a dated polemic, ‘FIFI’ is a shockingly bad piece of writing — which I am pained to say, since so many women seem to have been helped by Susie Orbach, both in person (as a therapist of sorts) and through this book. How can anyone call this a classic, I’ll never understand. It is a bunch of poorly constructed and poorly evidenced arguments, has a ‘one size fits all’ approach in spite of its protestations, and it provides no real help whatsoever unless you happen to fit in the niche categories Orbach uses as examples.

The psychoanalytical fallacy notwithstanding, ‘FIFI’ is based on an utterly absurd premise: all fat-related problems stem, Orbach tells us, from the mother-daughter conflict every single woman who has ever lived goes through. All mothers, Orbach says, feed their infant daughters less; baby boys simply get more food and attention compared to baby girls. ‘…early on, the mother must withhold a certain degree of support and sustenance from her daughter, in order to teach her the ways of womanhood.’ (p. 26.). Apparently, every single mother out there ‘…must teach her daughter to be concerned with feeding and nourishing others at the cost of not fully developing herself.’ (p. 27). There is no scientific evidence provided for these claims, and no admission that this view might be partial, and skewed. In other places, old and rather dubious studies are cited. Overall, solid evidence is practically non-existent; ‘FIFI’ is as empirically challenged as, well, the psychoanalytic babble it is based on. True, there are some credible ideas and useful insights here and there, and Orbach’s good intentions and deep sympathy for obesity sufferers shine through … but, for me, that’s not enough to make me take ‘FIFI’ seriously.

Furthermore, Orbach refers almost exclusively to women who are mothers and who must therefore be conflicted by that role. As if the rest of womanhood (i. e. happy mothers, or single, childless or undecided women, or women who were brought up by single fathers, or by same-sex parents, or with no parents at all) are all thin! The book is also full of contradictions. For example, it says repeatedly that each woman’s case is different, then claims repeatedly that the patterns — like the much-trumpeted mother-daughter conflicts — are universal, and shape the psychology of every fat woman out there. And, in the post-2006 edition I have, no real attempt is made to bring the discussion up to date, neither on the economics nor on the psychology of 21st-century life. I wondered, are there any statistics regarding the daughters of 1970s feminist mothers, and beyond? Are these daughters all perfectly slim and healthy, because if fat really is a feminist issue, then surely, nowadays, Emancipated Mother = Thin Daughter?

Finally, the biggest contradiction of them all. In passing, Orbach concedes in her 2006 foreword that men, too, suffer from being fat and judged as such. Only, she says, she is not dealing with men’s fat in this book. She ought to, though, because reality kills her argument dead. If we agree with the reality — that men and boys also can, and do, have problems with overeating and dieting … then fat really is NOT a feminist issue, is it?

I found the second half of the book more useful, Orbach gives the reader advice and techniques to use with the aim of ‘breaking the addiction to compulsive eating – to transform eating and mealtimes into pleasurable experiences that we can look forward to.’  There is the usual advice of:

  • Eating when you are hungry
  • Eating the food your body is hungry for
  • Finding out why you eat when you aren’t hungry
  • Tasting every mouthful, and
  • Stopping eating the moment you are full

Along with psychological tips and exercises to help you do this.

I found Orbach’s advice on ‘Breaking the Binge Cycle’ helpful:

One of the dreaded aspects of bingeing is its cyclical nature.  Giving up dieting does not mean that bingeing automatically disappears.  While you are working on the psychological motivations of your bingeing:

  1. Sit down, slow down and take a moment to register that you are bingeing.  Do you always go for a specific food?  Are you tasting the food?  Enjoying the food?  If not, stop and ask yourself whether it is the right food.  What do you want to eat?
  2. Identify the feeling that led you to eat.  What do you want as an end result to the binge? 
  3. What will happen if you sit with your feelings?  What are you exposing about yourself?  Why is that so shameful?
  4. See if you can experience your feeling directly, even if only for a minute or two.

For a compulsive eater, the only way out of the pattern is to get inside yourself – to trust that there is a voice, a part of yourself, that can inform you about what you want emotionally and what you want from the food.

Am I glad I have read ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’?  If I’m honest I probably wouldn’t have finished it if I wasn’t writing this blog.  The techniques that Susie Orbach introduces us to are useful and effective, however I believe that there are much more up-to-date, easier to read and ascetically pleasing books out there which would tick the same boxes.

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