“Fat is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach

Why review this book? Because of its fabulous title? Or because, unlike so many other books, it:Fat is a Feminist Issue

  1. Has (largely) stood the test of time.
  2. Has an author who is still out there, committed, passionate and practising what she preached to us in 1978.

Many editions (and years) later, much of the message of ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ still resonates. One of the first books which openly discussed the complexities of emotional, compulsive and binge eating, FIAFI led the way for many to follow with its central message: that diets don’t work if we don’t first understand, and then deal with, the reasons for overeating.

Originally marketed as a ‘self-help guide for compulsive eaters…offering them a way to lose weight permanently – without dieting’, FIAFI ‘explained how women can liberate themselves from feelings of guilt and shame about food and fatness’.

However, this assumed  shame over a larger body and desire to reduce it which many (including myself) now find objectionable.

On the feminist front, FIAFI claims that gender inequality makes women fat. That ‘fat expresses a rebellion against the powerlessness of women’.  Orbach writes that one way for women to assert themselves was to reject the societal norm of thin by ‘gaining weight to de-sexualise themselves’. Her claim is still relelvant among health professionals, although not necesaarily for the reasons Orbach states.

On the same theme, when dealing with the anguish wrought on women by emotional and disordered eating Orbach claims that women, ‘subconsciously, have a desire to be fat’, and that they have something ‘invested in getting or staying fat’. (Try telling that to yourself as you read the number on the scales.) In FIAFI Orbach writes that ‘one of the theses of the book, not obvious,’ is that ‘Women fear being thin; fat has its purposes and advantages’.

Fat to the compulsive eater can be ‘protective,’ being thin can be a ‘fearful state’. She  points out that ‘losing weight is just losing weight’ and that it isn’t going to ‘change your life’.


Having said that, Orbach examines why so many women lose, and gain, lose and gain….over and over. She offers readers a variety of methods to escape the trap of binge-overeat-diet-self loathing. She doesn’t talk much (at all really) about men. (See her later books). There is an ambiguity over body size, assuming thinness to be what women desire. And, yes, more then a few statements are somewhat creaky.

I wish the whole book were out of date, on the scrapheap of discarded and irrelevant issues. But as we know that is not the case.

Today,the messages Orbach pioneered are louder and even more pressing, thanks to social media. On a personal level, Orbach’s advocacy of positive body image continues through her role as a social critic, and that of convener to
Endangered Bodies, where individual diversity is championed.

While we live in a world where – more then ever – your shape defines you, “ Fat is a Feminist Issue” will continue in print.

Orbach’s subsequent writings also help us to make sense of the weight debate:

  • Bodies:Big Ideas
  • Susie Orbach On Eating
  • Fifty Shades of Feminism (co-editor) .

Do visit the website Any-Body, the UK affiliate of EndangeredBodies.  Susie Orbach tweets at @psychoanalysis and is often in the media commenting on the issue of Fat.

2 comments to “Fat is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach

  • Our culture has overly-invested body size, food, and eating with meaning. We need to stop analyzing people and start looking to science. After reading extensively in evolutionary biology, I see how my body type and tendencies would have served me well in a hunter-gatherer culture. I would have fattened up quickly in times of abundance and my body would have served me efficiently through times of scarcity. I would have survived famines and arduous journeys. And I probably could have done it all while popping out a baby every year! But our civilization has advanced beyond what our bodies are best suited for and my traits are not an advantage today.

  • Rose

    The world has changed but not our-men and women’s- bodies. The messages in our
    genes are still there and one is asked to override them. As well as the food changes through
    the centuries.
    One must find a way that help’s oneself not all people. And accept some ups and downs-
    meaning a bit of cheating.
    Rose Boxer

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