Fat is a Feminist Issue: A Self-Help Guide for Compulsive Eaters
by Susie Orbach (c)1978

This is one of those books that I heard about for years and assumed I knew about, without ever having read it. I finally picked up a copy at a used book store the other day and I'm really surprised about what it actually says.

The words "Fat is a feminist issue" have been something of a catch phrase in the feminist movement since the book's publication. I assumed that the book the phrase came from would be a basic position paper of second wave feminism's stance on body image issues: Standards of beauty in western society are dictated by a patriarchal power structure and function to keep women powerless. This is a position I mostly agree with, but one I've heard so many times I just can't get too worked up about it anymore. I mostly wanted to read the book for its historical value.

But it turns out that isn't what the book is about at all! Not that the author would disagree with the above statement, she just doesn't address it.

Instead she starts with the observation that among her clients (she is a psychotherapist)

  1. Many women who are overweight are very unhappy about it.
  2. These women are overweight because they overeat.
  3. As rational, educated people they clearly understand the relationship between overeating and being overweight. Many of them have dieted and been thin for a while, then returned to overeating.
  4. ERGO: There must be a reason why so many women are compulsive eaters. This behavior must be serving some purpose in their lives.
The rest of the book is spent exploring various reasons for food obsession, how women often anesthetize their pain with food, the protection that fat can afford a women who is afraid of her sexuality or of being absorbed by a man, why many women who have been overweight most of their lives are actually afraid to be thin, and the power and control issues that are at the root of food obsession, binging and anorexia just being two sides of the same coin.

Note: I'm stating her views here, not mine. I know this can be a deeply painful issue for many people (myself included). And despite her excellent analysis on many points, she never gets away from the assumption that all women should want to be thin. Despite that, it's a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in issues of body image, feminism and food.

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