...Feminism has taught us that activities that appear to be
self-destructive are invariably adaptations, attempts to cope with
Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue
When I moved in with my father, I think that part of what I was
acting out in my eating patterns related to the issue of inequality.
When I lived with my mother, it felt like living in a condition of
poverty in comparison to the extravagance of living with my father.
With my mother, food was controlled, portioned out, money was
stretched as far as it could go. With my father there was no keeping
track, there was wastefulness, a focus on immediate wants, no limits.
At my mother's, there were always siblings around, and my mother. At
my father's I was often alone, before and after school - I was left
to raise myself.
As for Freud's penis envy theory, my guess is that it was not about
the penis itself, but about the power in society that those who
possessed the penis seemed to have (and still seem to possess). As
girls learn about the world, it makes a kind of sense to me that
they'd notice that their mothers didn't have the same kind of power
as their fathers, and that this might result in a kind of resentment -
so it may have always been a feminist issue that Freud didn't
recognize because he didn't question all aspects of prevailing
attitudes of the times.
It seems like Freud's theories about castration also relate to the
state of feminism/sexism at the time, i.e., as girls get older they
begin to realize that the ones with penises have more authority and
power in the world. Such that a girl does not actually long for a
penis, but for its psychic equivalents - power, options, resources,
and that if she feels anger toward her mother, maybe it relates to
the mother's submission to male dominance.
My relationship with food partly represented the confusion that
resulted from the two different styles of parenting. My parents'
marriage had probably failed at least in part because their
approaches were at opposite ends of the spectrum. It was flattering
that my father thought I was grown up enough to make all decisions on
my own at age 13, but the truth was that I was having trouble
reconciling the extremes.
Feminism has pointed out (long ago, but I think these ideas are still
relevant) that men feel more important and entitled to more because
they earn higher salaries, have more power, respect and status due to
having more 'important' jobs. Women tend to defer to men's needs and
preferences above their own, channelling their energies into
supporting the one with the 'important' job and responsibilities. I
think this was probably the situation in my parents' marriage. When
they divorced, my father had things for himself, including horses,
which are fairly expensive to keep. His lifestyle differed from ours,
which always felt so pinched in comparison. When I moved in with my
father, I couldn't help but be confused related to issues of
equality. Why was my standard of life so dramatically different with
each parent? And when I moved in with my father, I probably realized
that my father didn't really understand what was involved with
raising children - he didn't put as much thought into my existence as
my mother did, and hadn't understood or valued her contributions.
My excessive eating filled me with guilt. I may have been saying:
give me limits, punish me, parent me. Or, I may have been
unconsciously trying to take more for myself, make things more equal.
I felt guilty that the others had less, but at the same time, may
have felt it was unfair that all of us had less, that he could be
allowed to be so extravagant. It hardly seemed equal or fair that one
member of the family should have more than all the others put
together. I was unconsciously questioning my father's fairness. I did
not consciously add things up, but when all of his habits and
extravagances were added up, there would have been quite a
At age 16, upon the death of my mother, I became a kind of housewife
with three younger siblings, three dogs, two cats and a father who
was experiencing a serious crisis regarding his responsibilities in
life. Most of the time, I was the oldest person in the house, the one
who was always there. I cooked and cleaned while taking Grade 12
through correspondence courses. For the first time I became aware of
my siblings as individuals, and I developed a sense of responsibility
not just for practical considerations, but for their emotional
It was partly about ideas I had been brainwashed into accepting
regarding female roles, but that is not the whole story. I was the
oldest, and there is a feeling of responsibility that goes along with
being the oldest in any given situation. When you are a babysitter,
there is a kind of relief when the parents return home and you can
let them take over responsibility again for the wellbeing, and the
survival of their children. Our father was not OK. There was nowhere
for him to go for help. I became aware that the others needed to be
'protected' from harm he did not intend to inflict.
My mother had divided our tasks mainly into male and female tasks. I
began washing the dinner dishes from a young age (about 7, I had to
stand on something to properly reach the sink) and doing various
cleaning chores, and didn't learn to clean/fillet fish like my
brothers, and they were the ones to cut the grass. When I moved in
with my father, I still had to wash the dinner dishes and do some
cleaning, but I also had to feed horses, muck stalls and mow the lawn -
however, expectations regarding these chores were erratic and even
My mother associated a too-noticeable fitness with fatness
or non-feminity (the problem might have been too noticeable muscle),
while my father seemed to expect me to be stronger than males, even
or especially those considerably larger than myself. I did very often
have to lift large bags of feed and shavings, as well as bales of hay
and straw, and for my size probably was exceptionally strong.
In my father's family, the sexism was pronounced. Males were more
important and valued. But my mother came from a family in which both
children were girls, and in which children were treated as special.
My mother may have been the favourite, which may have given her
something in common with my father, but maybe it was a puzzle to her
that he would not see her as his equal, because he had been raised to
see himself as more important than the women in his life and to
devalue their contributions.
While I don't think my father's mother was a natural nurturer, I
think it was fairly clear that she 'worshipped' him, and that her
attitudes had something to do with his own feelings of entitlement in
life. It may have also had something to do with his feelings of
dissatisfaction in all his adult relationships, or the tendency of
all these relationships to revolve around him and his needs, rather
than the needs and interests of his partners.
...Many of the changes thought to be intrinsically connected with
puberty are actually connected with the last struggles of the little
girl to retain her energy...
...If she cannot strike an equilibrium between her desires and her
conditioning this is when she breaks down, runs away, goes wrong,
begins to fail in school, to adopt forms of behaviour which are not
only anti-social but self-destructive...
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch
My mother wanted me to be petite and feminine, and reinforced this
message through giving me a subscription to Seventeen magazine,
giving me birthday and Christmas gifts of grooming products and
jewelry, and by criticizing my weight and appearance.
My father would have preferred me to be an athlete, a horsewoman, or
someone who was streetsmart. His attitudes regarding food were
unrealistic, not well-considered. It is one thing to admire a healthy
appetite in a woman, another thing again to think this is an area for
competition: e.g., that a woman should be able to eat as much as a
man. (My father was 6'1"+, muscular and athletic, I was
In school, one of the things that was 'exceptional' about me was my
ability to understand what my teachers were asking of me. In subjects
in which I lacked natural talent or ability, I could make up for it
by understanding the particular personalities of my teachers, which
helped me to deduce what information it was most important to focus
on. It seems odd that at the time I was at the 'peak' of such
abilities (age 13-15) that I'd have at the same time been 'out of
touch with reality' when it came to my parents' expectations or with
societal pressures. Instead, it makes more sense to perhaps conclude
that I had assessed things accurately, and did not see a realistic
path for myself in which I could 'succeed'.
In a highly competitive family, with all siblings competing for
parental love and attention, as I entered my teens I was realizing
that I could not offer what either of my parents most valued. I did
realize that I was more 'attractive' when I could attain a lower
weight, and that I did have some athletic potential, but it did not
actually come naturally to me to maintain in either situation, and I
struggled with my failure to do so. I was not at that time aware of
my own strengths and preferences, and spent too much time trying to
gain my parents' approval and love. I was in the midst of an
Women have gained many rights over the years, but appearance issues
very often prevent them from being able to take advantage or or enjoy
these rights. Women face constant pressure and judgement regarding
their appearance, and it can take a tremendous amount of energy to
deal with their appearance or take a stand against the pressure,
energy that ideally could be channelled into their interests and
Resources, support systems, ties to life, family, the community
affect a woman's potential to cope with the negative pressures
associated with physical appearance. And, if those in your family and
social group reinforce some of the messages that are 'harmful', how
do you 'educate' everyone? More energy is needed for that, as you
will inevitably face people who will dismiss you as an ugly fat
bitter chick (the physical becomes synonymous with the character
traits) who is jealous of pretty thin girls, you will be ridiculed,
or you will be seen as someone who constantly whines about the
unfairness of life, even when your intent is not to judge, but to try
to make change, or promote greater understanding. The trick is to
find others who support your views, but if you do not find such
people, or if you find those who think you are blowing it out of
proportion, you must find energy again to keep aiming at
..What happens to the female is that her energy is deflected by the
denial of her sexuality into a continuous and eventually irreversible
system of repression...
...The female's fate is to become deformed and debilitated by the
destructive action of energy upon the self, because she is deprived
of scope and contacts with external reality upon which to exercise
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch
At age 16, I became, through circumstances, cut off from the world. I
was isolated from the outside world, and the message that was
reinforced to me was that everyone had given up on me.
In spite of family tragedies and disruptions, I did continue to
perform actions consistent with a wish to attend university. After
doing Grade 12 by correspondence (and being cut off from the world
for a year), I entered Grade 13 and got a part-time job, managing to
save over $3000 (CDN) for university.
I needed to find situations in which there were other people I could
put feminist ideas into practice with. It was important to me not
only to achieve academically, but to eventually choose a career. I
could not imagine that I would not be able to support myself, and my
ideas about relationships revolved around the idea of equality - that
both partners would contribute, that they would be intellectual
equals as well as share important ideals, compatible interests and
hopefully some natural chemistry.
How do we educate men as well as women? And if men don't want to give
up certain kinds of power they have now, what incentive is there to
see things from a different point of view?
One thing that is difficult to articulate is the distinction between
a kind of unthinking acceptance of 'female' roles, and my own efforts
through the years to question every part of my own role/roles. It is
difficult for me to be lumped in to the category of not being aware
enough to rebel - and I think I have been put in this category often
enough. My questioning and rebellion do not have outward effects that
others can recognize.
Was I a 'female eunuch' already at age 16? Germaine Greer defined
castrates as 'cut off from their capacity for action' and 'divorced
from their own reality and sexuality.'
There are some men who cannot make a decision in a woman's presence -
everything depends on her preferences, likes and dislikes, and the
man bends over backwards to keep her placated. I would suggest that
telling a woman 'kind lies' to avoid hurting or upsetting her and to
preserve the peace or keep the relationship could be seen as ways of
denying men's selves and fostering/justifying their own dependency,
but also ways of reinforcing the idea that women are helpless or weak
and cannot handle harsh realities.
In my long-term relationships, I seem to have acted out the earlier
familial dependence. As time goes on, and I stop going out as much,
and I contribute less, it seems there is no way to ever address the
...Ultimately, the greatest service a woman can do her community is
to be happy; the degree of revolt and irresponsibility which she must
manifest to acquire happiness is the only sure indication of the way
things must change if there is to be any point in continuing to be
a woman at all...
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch
One of my later rebellions against this role had to do with family
occasions. I no longer wanted to be the one to wash up afterward. I
no longer wanted to be the planner, the baker of cakes, the one who
made sure the present was bought. I couldn't have that as my primary
identity. Once the window for the development of my potential had
closed, I withdrew further from these traditional roles rather than
cling to them. I had performed certain tasks willingly, of necessity,
in times of crisis, but I never identified myself with those tasks.
I think I am seen now as kind of cold or heartless, or irresponsible,
maybe shallow, but I think that my walking away had less to do with
being 'ill' than it did with an at least somewhat feminist and
individualistic agenda - I had done what I could to help the others
survive, and now the survival of my self depended upon me
questioning my previous roles.
I am getting older. In spite of knowing what I should or could do to
improve my situation, I still seem stuck.
...if up until now you have let events and people shape your
life and you find yourself alone/dependent/helpless, you can still
take control of your life, get an education, training, a job, you can
begin to support yourself...
Germaine Greer, The Change
I am still dependent. I am trying to understand why that is, and
this attempt at psychoanalysis represents that I am still trying to
However, just as those who have studied evolution would not suggest
that we are born blank slates, I would suggest that it's not as
simple as simply deciding to no longer be dependent. Each of
us has a complex history, and in some cases it may take a lot of time
and effort to figure out the best ways to most effectively combat our
experiences and conditioning.