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.


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  • Patsy Nevins

    I certainly learned many years ago (I am 63 & therefore was an adult when this book was published) that Fat is a Feminist Issue is mostly BS to me. I read several books about compulsive eating & have seen a lot of the attitude that all fat people are compulsive eaters, which is definitely NOT true, & that overcoming an eating disorder will cause everyone to lose weight (also not true.) Plenty of thin or average-sized people have eating disorders, plenty of fat people do not. I believed in the early days that something was wrong with me, that I was eating ‘too much’, etc., but learned that I never had an eating disorder, have never binged, etc. Over the years I have learned that 80% or more of body size is genetic, that most of us can try & try to lose weight & not succeed, or lose & regain, that, on average, fat people eat no more & no differently than thin people, so I am not a fan of Orbach’s. To me body acceptance is accepting yourself as you are, not being more ‘accepting’ so that you lose weight. If I had never read any other books than Orbach’s & had never found the fat acceptance community, I would still be living in the diet/self-hatred cycle & would still believe that fat is evil, unhealthy, & unnatural & that it was all my own fault that I was fat.

    I wish everyone well & success on his or her own path, but I have never been able to see anything remotely fat positive in any of Orbach’s writings.

  • Angela

    Hi Patsy, thank you so much for sharing your experience. It was really important to me to offer both viewpoints on this book in my post, and I’m glad that you are letting readers know how Orbach’s book impacted you. As I said in the post, I’m not really sure how I feel about “FIAFI” because it has been helpful to me so far, but I also found it problematic for the reasons stated in your reply.

    I do binge eat and I have always known I am a binge eater, but have been very afraid to face it; I can even think back to one of my first binge eating experiences in my life when I was about 10 years old. “FIAFI” has given me the courage to face my eating disorder. For some women Orbach’s works are helpful, and for others they can be hurtful, insinuating there is a problem or flaw to be corrected simply because one is fat (I definitely do not believe that). I don’t believe that I have a problem per say, but I do believe my eating behaviors are harmful to me because of my physical ailments. I’ve had severe stomach problems for many many years, and no amount of accepting myself is going alleviate that. Diets and food restrictions only really make the problem worse, and doctors have no methodology for helping me (they always say, “You have IBS.” Well, yes, I know that, now how do I fix it?) It may take me many years to figure out my physical ailments, and I might find in the long run that Orbach’s books are more harmful than helpful, but again, I can’t shut myself off to the possibility of change because part of the message isn’t exactly what I want it to be. I can choose what works for me and what doesn’t.

    I’d love for more women who are familiar with Orbach’s work to discuss their experiences as well. It may help me to hear those insights more than the books. Thanks again, Patsy, for your reply.

  • Julia Sullivan

    8% of people in the “obese” BMI range are people who experience binge eating or compulsive eating, according to researchers on binge and compulsive eating. This compares to 3% of people in the “healthy” BMI range.

    Helping people recover from binge eating is a fantastic goal. It’s not going to do much to change the percentage of fat people in the world.

  • Angela

    Hi Julia — Yes! This is exactly what I think as well. As I said in the conclusion, I’d rather the weight loss bits were left out. I do wish there was more weight-neutral material out there as well. Thanks for reading and for your support!

  • Lynne Murray

    Hi Angela, Thanks for writing about this book. I’m in Patsy’s generation (64) and this book was a revelation to me when I read it in 1979. It helped me start to disengage from a life of dieting that had begun at age 9. I did have a problem with the book’s very clear message that weight loss would follow healing. I started on the path to intuitive eating by reading Fat Is a Feminist Issue and also Geneen Roth’s Healing the Hungry Heart a few years later (another book with a strong “do this and the ‘excess’ weight will melt away” message.)
    Two things happened when I gave up dieting and learned to give my body what it wanted (1) I stopped bingeing, which I now realize was by body/mind reaction to restricting food, and (2) I gained weight and stabilized at a much higher weight. According to Orbach and Roth this was NEVER supposed to happen.
    Unlike you, I wouldn’t want to see the histories of women who lost weight removed from Orbach and Roth’s books–frankly I’d like to see these books include histories of women who stabilized higher or gained weight and I’d like to have the authors indicate that THIS IS NORMAL AND OKAY. We’ll never see that, and there is a reason–commercial viability. I wish I wasn’t so cynical, but frankly, I would bet money that we fat women are left out for a reason. It’s a non-bookselling claim, and in a taboo to include weight gain of any sort as a legitimate outcome to non-dieting.
    The book that I finally found that validated my experience was from Nancy Roberts, who was involved in Orbach’s original program and did not lose weight. I really found her book on her experience very enlightening–it’s out of print, but available.
    Just my two cents.

  • Angela

    Hi Lynne, thanks so much for your response. I found it very insightful. I am definitely going to read Roberts’ book; thank you for pointing me in that direction.

    I actually like your rendition of Orbach’s book where both those who gain weight and those who lose weight are equally discussed. It validates both outcomes and might not send the message that weight loss should be the end result.

  • Kalamity Karen Hildebrandt

    For those who have not encountered it already, the book Making Peace with Food: Freeing Yourself From the Diet/Weight Obsession, by Susan Kano, is a wonderful book for dealing with troubled eating and body image, and does not have all the anti-fat stuff that Orbach’s work does.

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