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Fat is a Feminist Issue

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.

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Rachel • January 17, 2007 at 11:11 am

When you discussed possible advantages to being fat I thought, “I can think of one. Getting to eat a lot!” I guess I still have a way to go, eh?


Bree • January 17, 2007 at 11:32 am

I’ve read all about the subconscious reasons we may be fat, but I don’t really feel they apply to me much. Yes, I’m an emotional eater. I eat for comfort, when I’m stressed, sad, happy, to celebrate and just because I like good food.

I am very miserable being fat, though. I don’t feel it protects me or pushes people away so to speak. I think it makes men not attracted to me so it keeps em away in that respect, but I don’t like it that way.

I honestly don’t find any advantages to being fat other than getting to eat the good food as Rachel said. But what advantage is that, there is a tradeoff …the misery. For me I’m still trying to make food unimportant. Trying to not let it have any value in my life other than to fuel my body and keep me healthy.

For me personally it’s all mental! This I know. I know I CAN lose the weight, I have before and felt wonderful. I remember looking over at the women’s size clothes (fat clothes as I always called em) and saying to myself …never again will I buy those (sizes). Now I’m back in them. It’s very humiliating. Having been fat for so long, then accomplishing losing it now going back is really rough.

Sorry, I’ve gotten way off topic. PastaQueen, you are a great inspiration and I will continue reading your blog as long as it’s available. I’d like to say Thank You! very much for sharing your wisdom.


Jenna • January 17, 2007 at 12:01 pm

First of all, I love your site, have been lurking now for about 6 months. You are a gifted writer as well as a model for the possibilities of change. I just wanted to recommend Susand Bordo’s _Unbearable Weight_ if you want to read something a bit more current (but still quite feminist and quite challenging) after Orbach. j


Eleonore • January 17, 2007 at 1:05 pm

Hey PastaQueen,

Short-time lurker, first-time poster. I just wanted to give a reaction to your second-last paragraph. For me, your arguments would be almost completely inverted. I would say: “While I think the craving cycle behind obesity is well worth exploring, I disagree with PastaQueen that it is the main way to permanently lose weight.” For me, I know it’s an emotional issue.

Like my little inversion says, I do agree that the physiological addiction is something that is missed by many people–especially since the companies who produce our food are specifically not interested in our health, but rather in the profit margin for their shareholders. (I say “specifically” because any business that has incorporated is, by legal definition, only and specifically obligated to provide profits for shareholders.) I liken trans-fatty acids and HFCS to nicotine: we don’t need them, we can choose to avoid them, but if we get started, really started, it’s damned difficult to stop.

(Incidentally, that’s part of what makes fat a class and poverty issue as well–when the cheapest calorie to feed yourself on is HFCS, and the most expensive is leafy greens, you’ll go for the HFCS.

Please read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan for an incredibly insightful take on the food industry today, and the choices that we can make within it.)

That being said, I think that more of our eating habits are linked to emotional emptiness, and a deeper kind of emotional emptiness, than we recognize. People who are unhappy (in the US and Japan, at least the studies I’ve seen) tend to buy more crap, and show more inclination towards addiction behavior, whether alcohol, shopping, or food. Here goes my revolutionary streak again, but I think there’s a lot in our society that is invested in our continued unhappiness.


christie • January 17, 2007 at 1:22 pm

I’m glad you shared this… I think it’s a book that would be worth checking into for me. I completely agree with you that is most likely isn’t NECESSARY to confront the emotional issues in order to lose weigh permanently. But I’m sure it helps. I have really only scratched the surface of what emotional issues affect my weight, and it might be interesting to think on it a bit.


lulu • January 17, 2007 at 1:34 pm

I was a tall thin teenager when this book first appeared. There was no obesity epidemic in England in those days and, as far as I can recall, not many very fat girls around (bearing in mind that we thought being fat meant having hips measuring more than 36″). We did go on diets (involving horrible saccharine sweeteners, neat lemon juice and a sort of fudge chew called Ayds which was supposed to reduce our appetites) to lose an inch or so at bikini-wearing time, and then returned to normal eating – although there were far fewer pre-packaged meals and fast food restaurants to tempt us. The diet guru was Dr John Yudkin; his pet hates were sugar and refined carbohydrates, which he said were cancer-inducing and addictive. Anyone who wanted to escape unwanted male attention just had to wear horrible clothes and/or talk about getting married, they didn’t need to get fat as well. As for role models, we had Mrs Thatcher (yikes!)for the conservatives, Germaine Greer for the brainies and Joan Bakewell for the arty. So Susie Orbach’s book seemed very bizarre to me and my friends. Fat probably was a feminist isue, but since we ungratefully thought that feminism was boring, dated and loserish we just didn’t care.

OK, we were airheads, but it was fun while it lasted.


Patty • January 17, 2007 at 1:49 pm

Thanks for sharing your insights pq on the books. I understand what you’re saying about losing wt by eliminating sugars and some carbs and limiting portions, that does work for me. But in the long haul and after several, several years of yo yo ing up and down in weight I have come to the conclusion that I really have to look at the emotional side of eating. Really examine that aspect and why I continue to lose and gain. It is something inside of me and I am dealing with my issues so for some of us I think it goes much deeper than just the food. Enjoy reading your blog!


crankybee • January 17, 2007 at 6:22 pm

I first read this book when I got to Uni, in 1993…I remember thinking it was written for me! But it didn’t help me stop putting on weight…I just wasn’t ready to deal with my emotional issues. I think the emotional side of things was what kept me hoofing on the lard, because I have always been a very healthy eater – I just eat waaaaaaaay too much! Anyway another great post, I love dropping by and checking out your pearls of wisdom!


Cynthia • January 17, 2007 at 8:07 pm

I am very skeptical of theories that start out “fat people WANT to be fat because…” Substitute a word like “gay” and it’s easier to see how offensive this line of thinking is. “Gay people WANT to be gay because…” sounds a whooole lot like “they were asking for it”. That gets society off the hook for how it treats fat or gay people, and attributes all blame for this supposedly unacceptable condition of gay-ness or fat-ness to the individual. Uh-uh, I ‘aint buying it.

And the specific reasons Ms. Orbach gives for why people supposedly want to be fat are laughable. Take the “fear of sexuality”. I’ve heard that one before, that women who were sexually abused accumulate fat so that they will no longer be attractive and won’t get unwanted male attention. That just takes for granted that fat women are — MUST be, by virtue of the fact that they are fat — so unattractive that no one would ever have sex with them. ZZZZZT! Thanks for playing, Mr. Orbach, but you have disqualified yourself from further serious discussion with that one. The perception that fat people aren’t sexy, aren’t sexual, is just utter bullshit.

I have had several long-time romantic and sexual partners as a fat person (I currently weigh 240 and my highest weight was 270), and zero when I was “normal” (around 145-150) in my late teens and early twenties. Many fat people have sex, and many thin people don’t. Gaining weight does not “protect you” from being sexual.

I don’t really care what Orbach “says fat women need to do”. All I have to do as a fat woman is not waste any of my time on assholes who will pre-judge me. I don’t need any psychotherapy, I don’t need to change myself, and I CERTAINLY don’t need to be told why I “want” to be fat.

But I do wonder why Orbach wants to be such a bitch.


Cynthia • January 17, 2007 at 8:10 pm

P.S. “Though they’re typically unaware of them” — wow, nicpatronizing touch on Orcbach’s part, to imply that SHE knows better than the actual people in question how they feel.


C. Froggenhall • January 17, 2007 at 8:43 pm

I wrote about finding the reasons behind addictions — in this case, food — last month here (http://eh-notsomuch.livejournal.com/164690.html), prompted by an interesting article in the NY TIMES. In sum, thinking about these things may be an interesting exercise (hurrr), but it may be more helpful to do your thinking on the treadmill!


Mymsie • January 17, 2007 at 11:02 pm

*added to wishlist* Sounds like an interesting read. I’ve thought a lot about this issue and am convinced that indirectly, I over-ate/eat to protect myself. I was/am seeking emotional padding (protection, comfort, safety) but in our society, fat (physical padding) pushes people away, keeps them at a distance, affording the bearer a protection of sorts. Totally bizarre and incredible to think that could happen without me consciously deciding it, but true nonetheless…at least in my case.


bazu • January 17, 2007 at 11:45 pm

I have to agree that it’s important to look at the environment that surrounds us. Fat and women’s bodies in general is certainly a feminist issue. But even more importantly, to follow Eleonore’s reasoning from above, we have to look at the food system (agrobusiness, corporations, restaurants, marketing, availability, pricing, etc.) in the Western world which has compromised our health (physical and psychological) so much in the last few decades. Women or men, overweight or not, we all have to stand up to corporations that stuff crap food down our throats!

Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I’m ranting here, but the issues you raise are close to my heart.


Holly • January 18, 2007 at 1:50 am

Hi there,

I just came across your blog and I am really blown away by how much courage you have to put yourself out there. I really admire that. Congratulations on all of your hard work! I am currently in the process of trying to lose weight as well. I have been pretty discouraged, but I just have to believe in myself because I know I can do it. I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to add your blog to my site so I can keep in touch and visit your blog as well. Keep up the fantastic work! You look great!


Jen • January 18, 2007 at 8:28 am

There has to be something like this going on for me, because I felt very weird when I was at my goal weight. Part of it, dumb as it sounds, was that without the fat to obsess about, my brain felt lost for something to take its place…. Nuts. I am just plain nuts. I am a Payday bar.

Also, there is something to the safety from creepy-guy looks. I think that it has more to do with how you feel about yourself and how you’re dressing, though, because Cynthia’s right that fat women can be very sexual too.

I think that Appetites: Why Women Want also has some interesting insights on weight, though the focus is more on anorexia.


v'ron • January 18, 2007 at 9:06 am

Jen’s comment really hit home for me: its the precise reason I have two blogs, a weightloss blog and a “regular” blog. Why? Because once I lose the weight, where’s my presence. Do I associate myself and my writing on that one topic, being fat? Will I have nothing else to write/kvetch about? No, that’s why I have this other presence, this other life that doesn’t depend on my fatness for its subject matter.

but I’ll agree with the creepy-guy looks scenario. When I was in college, and not fat, I was a 20-year old blonde with big tits trying to make it in a male-dominated profession. I had no clue that it was cliche to hit on the 20-year old blonde intern all the time. I just hated it. Can’t I freaking do my job without you leering at me? Put your tounge back in your mouth.

But I really don’t want to believe that I got fat to stop this from happening. Because even though as a 20-year old, I only weighed ~130, I thought I was fat. I ALWAYS thought I was fat. From the day I grew those big tits I thought I was fat.


Marla • January 18, 2007 at 4:03 pm

This was really interesting, reading your opinions on this book – I haven’t read it since it first came out, and I should probably revisit it. I would strongly recommend Gloria Steinem’s 1980 essay “The Politics of Food.” The connection between food, power and powerlessness, status, and women’s bodies is brilliantly described.

Also interested in your Buffy analysis – from my perspective (46 y/o) I see very little difference, or I should say little progress, from the 1970s. Despite some positive images, I’d say that women are even more constrained, even more controlled and defined, by their bodies and their perceived beauty. I see that being as prevalent in the workplace as ever. So it’s startling to me to see a younger woman write what you did; I’m not arguing with your experience, just surprised.

But this I do have to be insistent about, because it is one of my pet peeves: “anorectic” is the correct adjectival form. You can call someone “an anorexic” but can’t say “she’s anorexic.” :)


PastaQueen • January 19, 2007 at 12:29 am

Marla, the passage I was referring to was this:

“The few well-known examples we have of powerful women have either been equated with destruction, like Helen of Troy or Cleopatra, or they have been coupled with images of emasculated men, like maggie of Maggie and Jiggs.”

Growing up with TV shows like Buffy and Xena as well as real women like Oprah, I’d say that’s not entirely true anymore. Okay, Xena left a lot of destruction in her wake, but it was her own doing and she tried to redeem herself. I still agree with what you said though, that our bodies and beauty still affect how we’re treated in the workplace and in the world.


Andrew • January 22, 2007 at 9:55 pm

As a fat man, I have a hard time accepting the main tenant of the book. Ironically, I may be able to relate to some of the women in the book better than you — I have certainly experienced the diet-binge cycle you mentioned. I agree with your theory that weight is more related to your environment and the foods that you eat. I’m in the process of changing both, and so far so good.


Dana • August 5, 2009 at 2:34 am

It is not something that has kept me fat, but I dread losing this weight because there’s a guy in my life who I’m pretty sure will ramp up his flirtation of me if I start looking better. Unfortunately, I live with him. Even more unfortunately, he’s my little girl’s dad. I’ve already sworn off wearing perfume or makeup while around him because he’s already reacted to those even though I never said anything about doing those things for him.

I’m not sure whether it sounds worse than it is or is just as bad as it sounds. I do know it’s not a good enough reason to put off taking charge of my health. And hey, as I get thinner I’ll be able to do more things for myself, like put together a work wardrobe I can actually afford (since they have barely any plus-sized clothes at Goodwill) and get a job and, y’know, get the hell away from him. He isn’t keeping me here with physical force, mind you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want some distance.


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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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