Book review: Fat is a Feminist Issue

Disclaimer: It bothers me that I’m posting a review of this kind of book in January, when I know that the diet industry is at it’s most insidious and disgusting. Please don’t see this as a support of that. One of the good things about this book is that it attacks that very industry and although it might not do it as well as some others, that’s something I’d like to encourage.

It feels like a very, very long time ago now but I was briefly a member of a feminist book club which fell apart not long after it was formed because most of the members were undergraduates who had to pass exams at the end of the year (their exams turned out not to be about feminism). One of the books we had planned to read was Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, which I dutifully downloaded to my Kindle and then, when the club stopped meeting, never got around to reading. Until recently.

Book Review Fat is a Feminist Issue
Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach

Fat is a Feminist Issue is not the book I expected it to be. I should point out that this Kindle edition actually contains Volume I and Volume II, the latter of which was released several years after the first volume and contains some structured exercises for readers who are compulsive eaters.

I think what I expected was a collection of essays or analysis pieces studying body image and health issues that are common in women. Perhaps some comments on how the media, advertising, Hollywood and so on contribute to this problem, as well as the way we raise girls as opposed to the way we raise boys. Maybe something about the industries that have built up around diet, fitness and cosmetics and the ways in which these industries target their products at women.

What I suppose I forgot was that this book was written in 1978 – forty years ago. It’s of its time and understandably so. When it was released it was hailed as a revolutionary text and, with hindsight, it’s not hard to see why. It tried to understand the phenomena of over-eating, compulsive eating and yo-yo diets in a way that was respectful, and it aimed to pick apart the underlying issues, rather than simply telling women who struggled with these things that they should follow this diet or that exercise regimen and everything would magically be solved.

Now, that’s admirable in many ways. However, reading it now doesn’t quite work, at least not for me. The psychoanalysis applied seems to have little to support it except that, in some circumstances, the women who attended Orbach’s support groups and followed her instructions got better. Nowhere does Orbach suggest that this might simply be a result of having a support group at all, or spending more time thinking about food in a safe way to allow those women to later stop obsessing about it altogether, for example. To be fair, she may have considered these things, but that’s not what this book is for.

I should perhaps mention, that I do not suffer from compulsive eating. Although I’ve certainly been known to accidentally finish the odd packet of biscuits I’ve tended to shrug this off. I’ve dieted successfully when I’ve felt heavier than I wanted to, without ever having been overweight or underweight. I’m happily in control of my eating habits without feeling much like I need to control them, apart from feeling like I should probably try to eat relatively healthily. Lucky me, right?

So, because this is less a book of essays or analytical pieces, and more a self-help text (particularly Volume II) it didn’t do a lot for me. As a result, I had more criticism for it than I otherwise might have had. For example, Orbach points out that many women try various diets and exercise plans in order to lose weight but either fail or later put the weight back on. She seems to suggest that the weight is there to protect them psychologically in some way, implying that it is not an inherently bad thing and that focussing directly on weight loss is probably the wrong approach. So far, a little hand-wavey, but not awful or obviously wrong, right? Thing is, she then claims that many of the women who joined her support groups then went on to lose weight and keep it off. Well… ok. But if losing weight isn’t the point, why is this then displayed as a triumph of the programme?

Anyway, as I said, this clearly wasn’t the book I thought it was or the book I wanted, and it also clearly wasn’t a book written with me in mind as the target audience, so I shouldn’t slate it too much. There’s no reason I know of that it couldn’t help someone, although I suspect that there are more modern, up-to-date texts on the subject that would do a better job. Texts which have been written after the body positivity movement really got going and aren’t so entrenched in the habit of fat-shaming that they blindly engage in it themselves. Oops. I said I’d stop slating this didn’t I? Ok, I did learn two useful things from it:

1. I tend to clear my plate, probably because that was encouraged as a child. If I’m already full then that isn’t a healthy behaviour.

2. I tend to snack when bored. Also probably not healthy. I could stand to stop and think about whether I’m actually hungry before I get something to eat.

Maybe one day these lessons will be more important to my health – they’re certainly very sensible. They’re also a little bit obvious if you take the time to think about them. Maybe that was always the problem, though. Maybe the best thing Orbach did get people to actually think about it. In which case, she gets points for that.

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