Posts Tagged ‘fat is a feminist issue’

A Final Response to Orbach’s “Fat is a Feminist Issue”

As many of you know, I have been documenting my journey through Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach on Axis of Fat. Some of my previous posts have been in direct response to Orbach’s book, and this will be my final post about book one of FIAFI. (Although, I will probably refer to from time to time.)

Fat is a Feminist Issue has a mostly clear main idea: women become fat due to compulsive eating, which is a response to systemic sexism. This position has many determinants, the first of which begins with the relationship between mother and daughter, or as Orbach puts it, feeder and fed:

“I suggest that one of the reasons we find so many women suffering from eating disorders is because the social relationship between feeder and fed, between mother and daughter, fraught as it is with ambivalence and hostility, becomes a sustainable mechanism for distortion or rebellion.” (Orbach, 34)

This is not to say that all mothers are responsible for their daughters’ eating disorders, but that the relationship between mother and daughter is where the daughter learns what eating and feeding means for a woman. This relationship could be the beginnings of distortion or rebellion as the mother introduces the girl child to “what is means to be female;” that is, mother is the one who introduces the girl child to her gender role.

Gender roles prescribe many different “requirements” for womanhood, as many of us know. These include but are not limited to: thinness, passivity, purity, and self-sacrifice. As girls become women, a distortion or rebellion begins because these requirements do not validate the many experiences of being a person. Sexism requires that women fulfill these social obligations, lest a woman risks being ostracized. As a response, some women begin to compulsively eat as a means to rebel against or skirt these requirements.

The reasons why a woman turns to compulsive eating could range from desexualizing herself  to societal invalidation of women’s anger. Each meaning given to compulsive eating is documented via Orbach’s group work with compulsive eaters. You may remember my last post, “Fat as Rebellion: My Fat Says ‘Fuck You,’” in which I determine that one of the meanings I give my fat is one of rebellion against the norms of femininity, specifically the denial of female rage. Reading Orbach’s book will give you a list of possible meanings in which you may or may not see your fat.

This brings me to my response: although I found the book to be very enlightening and helpful to my particular body and mind, my biggest contention is that Orbach’s thesis demands that every fat woman has some “meaning” behind her fat. That is to say, every woman gives attributes to her fat that she unconsciously believes aid her in navigating a sexist world, and I don’t agree with that. While this is true for me, it is not true for every woman.

Another contention I have with the book is that, overall, Orbach does advocate for weight loss. Although it is advocating for weight loss without diets and is more a reframing of food, eating, and fat than a slimming of the body, the book still says that most, if not all, of the women who went through Orbach’s compulsive eating group did stabilize at a “normal” weight. Keep in mind that this book was written in the 70s, but this is still the main attitude about fatness and fat people: if they change some key aspect of their lives–whether food intake, exercise, or reshaping the way they think about fat and food–they can “stabilize” at a “normal weight.”

To be fair, I am simplifying Orbach’s arguments to only a few paragraphs; therefore, I am not really doing it complete justice. The ways in which Orbach suggests women get comfortable with their bodies as is (instead of imagining that one’s life will better or more fulfilling once one is thin) are some of the basic practices of body acceptance. The first suggestion offered is Mirror Work. Women, alone or in groups, use a full length mirror to look at their bodies without judging what they see. First, they look at themselves standing, then sitting, and finally from a side view. This practice can be done clothed or naked. “Start with what feels most comfortable and stay with that until [you] can have the experience of looking in the mirror [without] flashing to feelings of disgust” (Orbach, 75). The second portion of Mirror Work is about breathing through your body and feeling yourself in your fat thus excepting fat as your body. “Many women experience their fat as something that surrounds them with their true selves inside or, alternatively, that their fat trails them, taking up more room than it really does” (Orbach, 75). When one becomes aware of each part of the body, how its connected, and what it does for a person, it “provides a holistic view of [the] body,” which aids in the process of acceptance (Orbach, 75).

Practices like those mentioned above actually can undo years of self-hate and shame, and this is where Orbach’s book succeeds; however, it still seems as though the practices are used as a means to an end. There are, however, a few desired outcomes: acceptance of the body “as is,” discontinuing compulsive eating behaviors, and weight loss. I recall a few posts back that one reader commented that it would be interesting to see what I thought about whether Orbach’s book advocates for weight loss once I’d finished the book, and after reading it, I think it does advocate for weight loss. I don’t think, however, that is a reason to stay away from Fat is a Feminist Issue as a resource for overcoming fat shame and fat stigma. Most of Orbach’s work is insightful, meaningful, and well delivered; it provided me with vast insights into my own views on fat, fatness, eating, and food. The best conclusion one can draw from FIAFI is that dieting is not the answer to fat shame. Orbach throroughly examines the diet industry and the effects of dieting on the compulsive eater, finding conclusive evidence that dieting does not work, and 100% of diet industry clients return to diets.

Through Fat is a Feminist Issue, I discovered that I am a compulsive eater. Many, if not all, of the descriptions and practices of the compulsive eater that Orbach writes about have resonance in my life, and because of it I have suffered physically and mentally. The emotional struggle of living with fat shame day after day made me reclusive, depressed, anxious, and inhibited. In addition, I cause my body physical pain through compulsive eating because I suffer from IBS. After reading Orbach’s book, I realized the source of my IBS is compulsive eating. I want to alleviate my mental and physical aliments, so I am going to read Orbach’s subsequent book, Fat is a Feminist Issue II: A Program to Conquer Compulsive Eating. My hope is not that I will lose weight, but that I will stop compulsively eating, as it seems to be the source of physical and emotional pain I’ve been trying to stop for years via dieting and food restriction.

I recommend Fat is a Feminist Issue to any woman who feels that what I’ve written over the past few entries rings true. It’s ripe with insights for the compulsive eater; however, if you do not feel like you fit the descriptions offered of the compulsive eater in this post or my previous posts, FIAFI might not be right for you. There are plenty of blogs and books that can help a woman accept her body as it is without discussion of weight loss. If I could alter this book in any way, I would prefer that the weight loss outcomes of Orbach’s group session patients were left out or were an afterthought rather than a selling point of body acceptance. As it is with most feminist texts, Fat is a Feminist Issue isn’t a sacrilege or a holy text for the fat feminist.

 


Fat as Rebellion: My Fat Says “Fuck You”

In her book Fat is a Feminist Issue Susie Orbach proposes that some women have a subconscious desire to get fat as a response to sexism, gender roles, and misogyny. One of the reasons for response, Orbach suggests, is that women do not feel able to express anger, and feel invalidated when they express anger:

Women are actively discouraged from expressing anger, rage, resentment, and hostility. We are raised to be demure and accept what we are given with no complaints. We all learn how little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. So we try hard not to show our anger or even feel it ourselves. When we rebel and show dissatisfaction we learn we are nasty and greedy. Whether we realize it or not we are being taught to accept silently a second-class citizenship. Secondary status is further compounded by having our anger denied us. Anger provides a way for people to challenge injustices at whatever level. […] Little girls are encouraged to cry if they do not get what they are wanting instead of angrily protesting. Anger, as a legitimate emotion for many women, has no cultural validation. (Orbach, 49)

If I think back to my childhood, I can remember numerous attempts at anger, to which my mother responded with scolding. I learned very early that a much better way to communicate my upsets without bring scolded—but rather being coddled—was crying. I still cry when I’m angry because I am trying to reroute that anger, or because I feel I am not allowed my anger, and so tears come instead. As I got older, and my anger compounded, I had to find other ways to reroute my anger since there was no validation for it. Eating became a way to stifle my anger, to occupy the mouth that wished to tell everyone to fuck off, instead of actually saying it and risk being scolded or ostracized. As Orbach states, the fat that came from angry eating has a symbolic meaning: fuck you.

Getting fat was a great way of saying ‘fuck you’ to everyone in the world: my mother and father, my brother, my teachers, the kids at school, the media, society, even my friends; most people wanted me to be thin. To me, being thin also meant being all the other things that girls are meant to be: quiet, nice, simple, sweet, agreeable, ignorant. (Orbach also discusses this later on in her book.) My fat became a physical manifestation of my desire to say ‘fuck you’ to sexism and misogyny, to second class citizenry, to rape culture, to heterosexism. Of course, as a teen, I had no idea. I just kept my anger in and punished myself for feeling so angry with food (denying or binging), cutting, seeking out bad relationships, and holding back from doing the things I really loved.

As an adult, I have been trying to reach into my childhood and dig out the pieces that make me a poorly functioning grown-up. This makes me beg the question: does my fat still serve its function? Part of me says yes, it does. It still is a protest against the diet and beauty industries that tell me I am not right if I’m not thin. When I go to the beach in my bikini, belly protruding, thighs full of cellulite, arms lined with stretch marks, it’s a proclamation: I will not hide. I will not cover up. I will live in my body, and fuck anyone who tells me I shouldn’t. I enjoy the looks on people’s faces when I wear a tight dress, or a bikini, or a crop top. I will admit that I am not always comfortable in tight or revealing clothes because sometimes the judgment is just too much. But on the days when I feel good in my skin and want to show it, my fat body is my rebellion against anyone who would tell me that I don’t deserve to feel sexy, confident, and proud.

Another part of me, though, says no. As Orbach puts it, I’ve given traits to my fat that I possess because I am too fearful to express them vocally. Does the fat itself satisfy the expression of my rebellion against body policing? Or is the real rebellion something that happens in my mind? Orbach suggests that once I understand that I became fat as a “response to mother, to society, to various situations,” I can remove the judgment that it is “good” or “bad,” and accept that it just is. This takes me back to my post about the compliment “you look so small:” these judgments of “good” or “bad” are tied why I view “small” as a compliment, and “big” as an insult. If I learn to see my fat as a response—instead of something that I am—I can change the way I respond to the situations that start me on a spiral of binging, depriving, exercising, dieting, and depression.

Even if I change my response to the situations that create a subconscious desire to be fat, I will never be the ideal. That I understand the ideal is just that and not something I should strive to be comes from reestablishing how I see my fat. My fat is not me. I am not my body. My body is a physical manifestation of myself. I know that regardless of my fat, I will always want to say ‘fuck you’ to the patriarchy and all its functions. I don’t know that I’ll be any more willing/able to vocalize my dissent if I change my perspective, but writing here and on loveyourrebellion.com has opened up new avenues of expression. I honestly think that my body will always be a ‘fuck you’ because I will always have so much ‘fuck you’ in me. It’s not something that’s dictated by my body, but rather myself. As long as I’m in it, my body is my rebellion.


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