Ironically, now that I’m not really fat anymore I’ve been reading more about obesity than I ever did when I was obese. Maybe I’m more willing to confront the issue now that it’s not so immediate and painful. My latest fat read was Fat Is a Feminist Issue, a phrase I’d heard thrown around without knowing it was also a book. I never took a women’s studies course, so I’m a bit out of my depth when it comes to feminist literature. Written by Susie Orbach in 1978, it examines why women become compulsive eaters, hypothesizing that they might perceive certain advantages to being fat, though they’re typically unaware of them. Orbach advocates forming discussion groups to help women explore and understand these issues so they can overcome them.
There was a lot of information in this book, far more than I could wrap my head around in one sitting. Reading about the different reasons why women may subconsciously want to stay fat was fascinating, if only to see how many different ways people can be fucked up. There were women with mommy issues, women who feared their sexuality, women who felt more powerful in a bigger body. We’re all damaged goods, just damaged in different ways.
I didn’t relate to every woman’s story, sometimes mumbilng “That’s not me. That’s not me either. Nope, not me again.” I particularly don’t relate to the diet/binge cycle because I never dieted, only binged. I was very anti-diet for most of my life. Still, there were some interesting insights. The most interesting theory to me was that we imbue fat with magical properties, for instance, thinking it will keep people away or make our presence more powerful because of our size. In reality, you can project these feelings and attitudes without the fat, you just need to learn how. Forgive me for the elephant metaphor, but it’s like Dumbo’s magic feather. Dumbo, the circus elephant, becomes convinced his magic feather allows him to fly. In reality he can fly all along because his ears are bigger than Texas. He has to learn to associate his power with himself and not his feather. Orbach says fat women need to learn to do the same with their fat. You can be powerful, confident or keep people away all on your own, no matter your size. Unlike an actor who always gets typecast in the same parts, you don’t have to play a certain role because of the way you look.
My library only had the original 1978 version of the book, though there appears to be a version that was revised in the 90’s. I’d be interested in comparing the two versions because the older one seemed out of date. It was published when my mother was only two years older than I am now, so it speaks more of society’s attitudes towards women from her generation than mine. While many attitudes are similar, like woman are supposed to be nurturers who feed their families, some of the workplace attitudes have improved since the 70’s. Orbach talked about a lack of powerful women role models, but I grew up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hillary Clinton on my TV screens. The section on medical attitudes on obesity was woefully out of date too, only talking about an old style of weight loss surgery. She also kept referring to anorexics as “anorectics,” a term I’d never heard before.
While I think the emotional issues behind obesity are well worth exploring, I disagreed with Orbach that it was the only way to permanently lose weight. The foods that you eat and your environment affect your eating habits in ways that have nothing to do with how screwed up you are in the head. If you eat a lot of sugar and carbs, you crave a lot of sugar and carbs. Once you detox out of that cycle, your mood levels out and you don’t feel the need to rip open a bag of potato chips every night. I’ve experienced this and I’ve known too many other people who’ve experienced this to dismiss it. In the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink showed that simply having large plates will cause you to eat larger portion sizes. While small stuff like that won’t lead you to become morbidly obese, it can pack on more weight regardless of how you feel about your mother.
While I don’t agree with all of Orbach’s theories, it was well worth the read. If you are stuck wondering why you got so fat, it may give you some leads on the culprit.