The perils of thinness
“I decided I did not want to be thin, there was not much in it. You were more hassled by men, you became a sex object…I developed a new political reason for not being then – I was not going to be like the fashion magazines wanted me to be;” (11)
Orbach quotes from one of the women she has counselled, and outlines the penalty of demonstrating the aesthetic qualities society prescribes for women – your abilities, intellect and independence are devalued. Anecdotally most friends considered to be ‘thin’ – as well as many who are not, it should be pointed out – have experienced street harassment, derogatory comments, inappropriate behaviour and discrimination.
However for me this is where the argument weakens slightly. There are two different positions here – either “I’m thin, but being thin attracts horrible behaviour from men, so I’ll get fat”, or as interpretations I’ve read online stray into, “I’m fat, but being thin attracts horrible behaviour from men, so I’ll stay fat and politicise it instead”. Here is the crux, and where my opinion departs from Orbach’s.
It seems to me that without critiquing the actual issue at hand – i.e. women being objectified by a largely male gaze – a wilfully open interpretation of this theory can veer towards post-fact justification for ill-health. This argument allows for cultural expectations to be used to justify individual’s status quo, but avoids addressing or challenging them in any tangible way.
By this logic, we should all get ‘fat’ in order to confound those who objectify women. I suspect this will fail in addressing the root problem – that currently ‘thin’ is considered ‘sexy’, that this ideal is deliberately established at unattainable level, and it is largely aimed at only women whilst being policed by both other women and men.
This is what makes me uncomfortable about the book’s theory. I’m sure in many ways what I’m most concerned about is beyond the realm of a self-described ‘self-help’ book. However it concerns me that may think they are being political activists through being fat – rather than for instance not addressing compulsive eating, sedentary lifestyles, poor diet, and/or shying away from challenging stereotypes about ‘thin’ women.
I don’t think everyone, their bodies, and their mental wellbeing should be a martyr for the glorious feminist cause, but it strikes me that as described fat isn’t a feminist issue, but a diversion from the underlying feminist problems. Without fat, there’d simply be some other impossible measure of women using the same power structures.
Fat as resistance
“The fact that compulsive eating is overwhelmingly a woman’s problem suggests that it has something to do with the experience of being female in our society. Feminism argues that being fat represents an attempt to break free of society’s sex stereotypes. Getting fat can thus be understood as a definite and purposeful act; it is a directed, conscious or unconscious, challenge to sex-role stereotyping and culturally-defined experience of womanhood.” (18)
So here we have the essence of the theory behind FiaFI, and the main question; is ‘getting fat’ is a noble cause?
Orbach doesn’t distinguish between conscious or unconscious acts, but I do; unconsciously over-eating to build up armour against social judgements is perhaps an understandable psychological defensive reaction. Consciously choosing to put your health at risk to make a political point – particularly when the two positions cannot be told apart by anyone but yourself – is self-harming and naive. Frankly, the cultural norms judging women for being fat will cast aspersions whether you’re overweight by accident or politicised design.
I question what political effect self-inflicting health problems upon yourself through becoming excessively overweight (i.e. enough to ‘make a statement’). And what happens in the unlikely event that ‘fat’ becomes ‘sexy’. Should we all then starve ourselves to make a point?
As the last few years have shown, a growing number of clinically-overweight women, men and children in this country has done little to remedy the ridiculous demands on women’s bodies (bar tokenistic commercially-driven anomalies) and on our current trajectory, nothing is likely to change in this respect.
“Fat offends Western ideals of female beauty and, as such, every ‘overweight’ woman creates a crack in the popular culture’s ability to make us mere products.” (34)
My contentions, which I have no doubt others will disagree with me on, centre mostly on the following:
- Should good health be a general aspiration? (I’d say yes, and by extension being drastically overweight is probably a bad thing)
- How fat do you have to be to make a political point? (I’m taking ‘fat’ to mean clinically overweight)
- How will this point be gotten across when the key issue is that, in the words of Berger, ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ (If the judgement is instantaneous and purely aesthetic, how can a nuanced political position be articulated?)
Clearly time has moved on since 1978, and in part that is what makes reading Fat is a Feminist Issue so fascinating. For the uninitiated, it’s a glimpse into another world; the state of affairs before culture and society trundled along to where we are today, with other feminists, and swathes of greater knowledge about the relationship between society and health, emerging in the interim.
As a result, I have some difficulty empathising with some of the experiences in the book, and similar opinions I’ve seen expressed on the blogosphere. I know I’m being harsh in conflating Orbach’s ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ with what we now know in scientific terms about the levels and effects of having a significant proportion overweight and obese people within the population.
Whilst women undoubtedly still feel unhappy with their bodies, ostensibly the country’s expanding waistlines suggest that this culture is not having the same effect on their lifestyle choices. To take this theory to it’s conclusion, there are millions of fat activists in developed countries across the world(!)
What concerns me though is that deliberately misreading the key issue – that in Orbach’s words “popular culture’s ability to make us mere products” is a hugely negative force, and we should resist it – can quite easily result in the vain infliction of self-harm in the belief that it’s making things better.
My critique is not so much of Orbach, who wrote a book relevant to her time, but of some of her readers. Taken out of context, FiaFI can imply that fat is only a social and psychological issue, when all the current signs show that it is a health one – and is becoming a more and more serious one. My personal opinion is that being generally healthy should be an aspiration for all people, and that’s across the board from eating to alcohol, smoking to exercise.
There are reasons for this – basic responsibility for one’s self and the associated costs to public healthcare. I think in light of what health science, data and policy tells us, it’s appropriate for the state to facilitate people in making better lifestyle choices.
More broadly I’d argue that basic skills like cooking, driving, sewing, orienteering, and the like should be universally-accessible across genders. As should care for one’s health.
This is not to say that it is acceptable that women are bombarded with utterly ridiculous, paradoxical and unrealistic expectations. The normalised idea of the female body absolutely must be broader and inclusive, if it need exist at all. (As the consumerism of the fashion and beauty industry isn’t going anywhere quickly, sadly I doubt the latter is the case.)
Just because we reject the size-zero trend, we should not automatically and simplistically go to the other extreme, and normalise obesity. Worse still is convincing one’s self that it’s empowering feminist activism, when it’s only that inasmuch as you are taking control of putting your health at risk for little or no gain.
Ultimately, I think that in Orbach’s book there are some truly fundamental insights to the feminist backlash against the consumerism-driven attack on women’s bodies in the 70s. At the same time, I think it’s crucial to take them with a proverbial pinch of salt, and acknowledge that we’ve moved on to different challenges.
It seems to me that women must not use social prejudice to ‘get fat’ and thus cease challenging the true problems of society. We should continue to push for greater diversity in culture’s aspirations and work to dismantle the formula of thin=sexy=vacuous and fat=ugly=intelligent from both ends, whilst making good lifestyle choices more accessible to help come to a better general wellbeing. How we do this in the twenty-first century is a question I don’t have an answer to – but I think it’s something that we can still aspire to achieve.
In short, fat IS a feminist issue, but it now assumes a radically different form; we’ve now moved onto and should address these different but equally-worthwhile challenges.
This is Part II of the first in a series of Feminist Book Reviews. For Part I see here, and for other reviews, see here.