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Diet doesn’t float your boat? You need to get your Orbach!

August 10, 2011

And thus a dreadful attempt at a pun became the title of a post – a pun which you’ll only ‘get’, and gawp in horror at (not even groan), if you’ve read or heard of the 1978 self-help guide for compulsive eaters which is called ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue‘ and is by Susie Orbach.  Younger readers, Orbach’s the one who tried to help Princess Di conquer her bulimia.  Even younger readers who don’t remember that, here’s some stuff about her via The Sunday Times (because Wikipedia says very little).

I’ve read this book a few times and each time it has failed to convince me of some of the core things it says.  I would love to hear from anyone who thinks/feels differently.  There may be something I’m just missing when I read it.

So what does the book say?  The inside cover does a kind of summing up and I’ll use that (in other words I’m lazy):
“Fat is not about lack of self-control or willpower.  Fat is about protection, sex, nurturance, mothering, strength and assertion.  Fat is a social disease”
This “disease” affects thousands of women.  The symptoms are compulsive eating followed by agonizing bouts of guilt and self-hate and then equally obsessive dieting.  In this practical and much-needed self-help manual, women can learn through case histories and a series of simple, straighforward exercises how to recognise the reasons for weight gain and break the “compulsive” syndrome.  Their bodies will eventually find – and remain at – their natural weight, and eating will once again become a guilt-free and pleasurable experience.

Orbach gives examples of women who self-describe or who have self-described as fat and relates their stories, suggesting that ‘Psychoanalytic insight helps us to understand what getting fat and overeating mean to individual women’ (my emphasis).  Psychoanalytic means Freud – a Feminist take on Freud but still Freud all the same.

Hence we hear of women under-feeding their female infants because they want them to not be selfish and thus be good wives and providers, women unconsciously choosing to be fat in order to not be seen as sex objects and to be taken seriously, women choosing to be overweight so they can blame their failings on their weight and thus not face responsibility and women afraid of being thin because they believe they will be seen as ‘cold’.  Maybe some of that is true for some women – I guess if I’m honest all I can say is that none of it feels true for me.

How to lose weight permanently without dieting? (take away the question mark and that’s the book’s subtitle).  Accept all of your body including the fat as part of YOU, rather than seeing it as a barrier between yourself and the world.  Find a voice and learn to be assertive and express your feelings instead of eating.  Get back in touch with your hunger and learn how to eat when you’re hungry; learn to distinguish genuine stomach hunger from other feelings and needs.  See that last sentence there?  I agree with that one 🙂

I remember a backlash to the book from women who were saying that fat wasn’t a feminist issue but fat liberation was.  One can be healthy and still correspond to what someone might describe as fat.  Sumo wrestlers, for example, have very little internal fat.  They work out and they work out hard.  Similarly I could reel off a  list of people I know who eat healthily and who exercise but who are more chubtastic than BMI charts would indicate they should be.  I agree wholeheartedly with the backlash but, more basically, I’m not buying all of the reasoning given in the book as to why women get and stay fat or why they compulsively eat.

It’s an old book, to be fair (when did a new paperback last cost 95p?) but there’s nothing that I can see about maybe some of us weigh more because we don’t get enough exercise or because the food we eat is high in fat and we eat it in front of the telly.  Maybe food was less high in fat in 1978 and people ate round the table more.  Highly likely.  There’s also nothing about genetic predisposition to being larger e.g. you’re larger because your parents were.

I can buy the bits where it’s suggested women eat because they’re annoyed, angry, frustrated, lonely or whatever – any addiction (like smoking) might be turned to during those times, including compulsive eating.  I’m not buying into women being fat because they’re scared of being thin.  They may be fat and scared of being thin at the same time but I don’t think that implies causality.

Accepting who you are, including what size you are?  Great!  All for it.
Learning to recognise hunger and eat only in response to it?  Fantastic.
Perhaps it’s like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she’s told at the end all she needed to do was click her slippers and say ‘There’s no place like home’ – it worked, but we still had to watch the whole film first.

You may now tell me the many ways in which I’m wrong.

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3 Comments
  1. Calum permalink

    > learn to distinguish genuine stomach hunger from other feelings and needs

    That was probably one of the hardest, and most effective learning points for me in losing weight. Its the one that makes the transition from “counting calories and exercise”, to “eating healthily” possible. But its tough, even now I find “depressed” and “hungry” hard to tell apart without some hindsight sometimes.

  2. Emily permalink

    I think it has interesting and useful things to say about how women feel about their bodies and about how their bodies are percieved by other people. However, I agree that the suggestion that women make themselves fat or thin seems unconvincing to me.

    I am an advocate for fat acceptance and I think there are a load of reasons why it is difficult to lose weight and incredibly hard to keep it off. I find it incredibly depressing that the media (and many doctors) can only see two reasons for this- that you are stupid or that you are lazy. This is reflected in how frequently fat people are mocked, ignored and accused of lying when they talk about what they actually eat and how much exercise they actually do. I don’t think adding “You don’t really want to be thin, even if you claim you do” to that list of reasons is helping very much.

    All three reasons encourages other people to shame and humilate of fat people ‘for their own good’, and, no matter what your stance on fat acceptance is, that is cruel and counterproductive.

    • You say things I agree with and far better than I could have put them. 🙂
      Thank you

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