This is Part I of the first in a series of Feminist Book Reviews. For Part II click here, and for other reviews see here.


On my recent surfing travels across the world wide web, I came across an article referencing the concept of ‘fat-activism’. I instinctively agree that a culture instructing women that they are nothing but a composite of ‘problem areas’ is obviously damaging and should be fought. What unsettled me was the line of argument that ‘getting fat’ is an active statement of feminist resistance.

Being broadly feminist, but young and apparently not so learned, I hadn’t heard of Susie Orbach before I saw her name cited in said article. However after speaking to a couple of older feminists, Orbach’s status and role in feminist folklore became clearer. Both suggested that the book was a ‘must-read’ for posterity, though they didn’t necessarily agree with everything in it.

I nabbed a second-hand copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue as soon as I had the chance, and paid particular attention to the thirty-five page introduction. I could’ve written essays, but for brevity, I’ve narrowed down my analysis to a few key points that jumped out at me.

Women, body image and consumerism

“Women are urged to conform, to help out the economy by continuous consumption of goods and clothing that are quickly made unwearable by the next season’s fashion styles in clothes and body shapes.” (21)

Orbach’s point seems particularly relevant in a time of global economic difficulty, when a key marker of national wellbeing is how much (mostly) women are willing to spend in glassy shopping centres. The economic paradigm we live in dictates that we must ‘buy more s*** or we’re all f******’ as I saw on a bag recently. Age of austerity anyone?

How my fellow commuters voraciously devouring Heat/Grazia/Vogue magazine don’t see the utter pointlessness of it all is beyond me. Weekly magazines will tell you in each edition what’s ‘in season’, with apparently no awareness of the dramatic shortening of ‘seasons’ from four a year to at least fifty-two.

The fashion-o-meter scale prophesises what’s no longer palatable – ‘You know that houndstooth print coat we told you about last week? You cannot be seen in it!’ – and what you must now invest in to earn your social capital.

Increasingly, these fickle ‘looks’ aren’t even so much about what outfit you wear, but what’s inside it. Conflicting messages about Alexa Chung’s fawn-like legs in ankle boots and army shorts, and the runner-up-prize of Gok Wan consoling you with how to ‘make the best of what you’ve got’, mean what’s being sold isn’t just the in autumnal cerulean blue, but bleach, liposuction, breast enhancement, diets and nose-jobs.

There are also other reasons for which this is kind of consumerism is an issue, as detailed here in this excellent blog post by Ruth Rosselson. Endlessly buying cosmetic products and fast fashion only contributes to global inequity and environmental waste – both of which aren’t necessarily solely feminist issues, but should concern anyone with an ounce of compassion.

Frankly, it’s all a load of codswallop, and it frustrates me that perfectly intelligent women literally buy into it. Trying (and probably failing) to not sound too self-righteous, it genuinely makes me sad that many women feel that the only the only way to validate themselves in our warped social hierarchy is to go out and get some ‘retail therapy’ – never mind that the dirt cheap clothes you didn’t need may well end up, tags and all, at the charity shop in a few months time.

It follows that denying this prescribed mantra is a perfectly politicised resistance to consumerism – much in the same way any boycott of any offending product is.

This is something that is still very relevant, and that I’d like to see more women subscribing to. Rather than being reduced to the sum of your body/wardrobe’s parts, refuse to submit to the merry-go-round of deliberately unattainable body and fashion ideals, and, in doing so, denying the unscrupulous exploitation.

The prescribed relationship between women and food

“Media preoccupation with good housekeeping and, particularly, with good food and good feeding, serves as a yardstick by which to measure the mother’s ever-failing performance.” (23)

“The food production in [Western] countries is largely in the hands of multinational corporations…Women, as the most important purchasers of foods, are presented with a seemingly vast choice. They must choose wisely for their families’ health and welfare.” (14)

Advertisers presume women ever do the shopping and food preparation. Consequently its women’s fault when food consumption goes wrong (or more broadly feminism, if you’re a particular Daily Fail writer). I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that women’s relationship with food can be an anxious one. It’s by no means definitive, but this chimes with the majority of women I’ve known.

In some part no doubt this is fuelled by the emotional blackmail of advertisers over women’s and their children’s health. Want your child to ‘study better’ at school? Buy our cereal. You know that ‘bad bacteria’ you didn’t know you had in your digestive system? Buy our yoghurt with a suspicious-sounding pseudo-Latin active ingredient. And so on. This seems to have heightened somewhat since a recent ban on advertising ‘junk food’ during and around children’s programming has forced food manufacturers to market to the next best thing after persuading kids – their mothers.

I’d argue that there’s also an additional contemporary pressure upon women – that of spending money in the most thrifty manner whilst going about the housewifely duties. This is particularly the case with real and perceived recession-related difficulties. After all, (good) mums go to mass-produced, nutritionally-void discount supermarkets, don’t they?

Whilst recent studies have shown that the balance of work in the household means that on average hours worked – including both paid and unpaid – have equalised out between men and women, the majority of domestic work, including food provision, remain women’s, and they tend to scale back their paid employment to make time for it. Food clearly remains a women’s issue – both for themselves and those for whom they provide.

This was Part I of the first in a series of Feminist Book Reviews. For Part II click here, and for other reviews see here.

One thought on “Book Review: Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach (Part I)

  1. Pingback: “Most women strive to be skinny and have good-sized body features.” « You Knew What I Meant

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