Food and Body Image

...Bodies today have almost come to define the way our lives can be lived. Without a body that girls feel all right about, nothing much in their lives feels OK...All the normal difficulties of growing up, dealing with conflicts, choices and angsts of adolescence, get subsumed under a preoccupation to get one's body right...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

Orbach first published part one of Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978. Much of what she wrote back then is still very much applicable to the current state of things regarding body image and women's relationships with food.

Women's obsession with body image represents inequality between the sexes; gaining weight can actually represent unconscious attempts to gain size or power. Preoccupation with food and body image, or with presenting an outer self acceptable or desirable to men, saps women's energy, often leaving them with less (or no) energy for learning, careers, changing the world, living.

I am curious as to how many people are uncomfortable regarding the title of the book.

...Eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement...

...Fat is no longer an objective word meaning adipose tissue. It is a word heavily laden with negative value and discomforting emotions...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

Orbach said (many years ago) that rather than put the focus on the 'obesity epidemic' it is more important to look at the hidden problem of troubled eating. She proposed a non-dieting and self-acceptance approach. Modern eating disorder treatment usually revolves around a similar focus. And yet diet centres continue to attract many clients, new weight loss products continue to be marketed, new diet books are published every year, and fad diets circulate around the internet.

Women compete with other women for the men who will:

legitimize their sexuality. This competition between women is extremely fierce and painful even if only acted out on an unconscious level. It makes us assess each other so we can feel comfortable or uncomfortable when we engage with others...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

We are ranked by others, we rank others, and rank ourselves.

Orbach states that women's reasons for holding on to fat are largely unconscious - it is her aim to bring these reasons to consciousness so that they can be examined and dealt with. She asks:

Does the fat do what it is supposed to do?

For different people, the function of weight is different. For some people, it might protect them from having to deal with sexual intimacy. If a woman feels unattractive, she may send out signals to that effect, and therefore not attract anyone. For some people, eating may numb uncomfortable emotions, or even take the place of sex.

In my case, I think when my weight is higher than I like it may be an unconscious survival mechanism. I don't want to go out, because unless I am 'doing all I can' to change what I can, I don't think I 'deserve' love. I have less chance than when thin to attract anyone. If I am not thin and fit, I will have to face sexual rejection: I can see that no one finds me attractive. That is part of my history that became a pattern: at age 17, after almost a year of not leaving the house, I went outside for the summer. After a year of receiving no feedback, being socially isolated, recovering from family and personal trauma, and becoming something of a housewife, I went outside and was not invisible. I received a lot of attention regarding my appearance, and I was asked out continually. This was not a healthy pattern, but it became firmly established. When I first left the house again, I was not looking for attention, and had been taken by surprise. After that experience, I learned how to attract new social contacts in new surroundings where I had no connections - but it depended on me putting in effort to become thin and fit.

At present, it may still relate to sexual rejection: I can avoid having to face sexual rejection if I never go outside. I don't have to talk to new people about my (lack of) employment history, my ichthyosis, or that I have HSV2. I don't have to face sexual encounters in which others may be disgusted by certain angles of my face up close, or certain parts of my body. Also, there is now the additional factor of my age. And if I don't go outside, it is difficult to plan a suicide. My eating/alcohol patterns keep me subdued or preoccupied and prolong my life. I satisfy certain drives (food/pleasure) as well as possible with as little as possible risk to myself and my survival.

The 'fat' also keeps me in a state of perpetual self-loathing and non-acceptance. Perhaps I have unconscious guilt, and am punishing myself. [See: guilt.]

But it seems to me that the 'fat' also probably has evolutionary functions - and for some reason those are particularly difficult to override. It may have something to do with my body type, and how it was 'selected' more for endurance/ability to work than for aesthetic reasons, and that now the focus is on aesthetics I am not able to adapt - except periodically, in ways that might mimic the old pattern of feast/famine. My body does seem able to handle extremes without breaking down. (At age 44 I have never been hospitalized due to complications related to an eating disorder, even though I have experienced disordered eating now for 31 years.)

One problem I see - if people put the focus on non-dieting and self- acceptance - is that often people will look at what they are 'supposed to do' now, and aim at in order to be 'good' or 'authentic', and while they honestly may wish to achieve it, it may be more complicated than they realize. We now have tons of people all repeating publicly that they achieved weight loss or their dream relationship by aiming at 'health rather than appearance', and by 'finding out what I really wanted to do', and while these may be valid steps, they may also give misleading impressions, and these steps may still involve long years of hiding certain things from oneself, about being influenced by what they think they 'should' do, what society presently admires or rewards, and it may also give a false idea about 'finality' - that there will not be an ongoing discovery and readjustment, or more new relationships, or bad relapses. People may need to tell themselves (and others) that they are 'not dieting', when in fact they are, in part because there is such enormous social and peer pressure (not to be silly, superficial, or obsessed with one's appearance).

Many of the exercises Orbach recommended in Fat is a Feminist Issue (both I & II) I had tried on my own (or, more accurately, had created my own similar exercises) in the past, without having read her books. Also, at age 19 I had decided to stop weighing myself because I had realized that I was too irrationally affected by the number. I did not start again until my mid-30s, for a long time instead going by how clothes fit.

This brings me to another important point: I don't think BMI (or clothing size, for that matter) is a good indication of a person's health, fitness or appearance. There is a lot of variation in bodily structure, and just falling within an acceptable range does not give an accurate idea.

There is part of me that argues that while many women are affected by all the contradictory messages, many are never snowed under by them. They live their lives, they accomplish things that are important to them - they not only survive, they thrive. Is that only when women more closely fit the ideal? I don't think fitting the ideal is any guarantee of inner peace, but it may be true that the closer one is to cultural ideals, the more likely one is to feel content, and for others to treat one in ways that perpetuate the feelings of self- esteem. Taking a stand against the norms, and choosing to be content regardless would seem either to involve an almost religious disregard for the influences of reality, or a very strong sense of self, possibly supported in important ways by others. Once a person gets the hang of finding such supports, it may become easier. It may be possible to find effective ways of coping with others' outdated ways of thinking and behaving by structuring one's life around the sources and communities that reflect your own stance. tell a compulsive eater to control something she feels is out of her control has the effect of making her feel powerless and guilty; powerless for being so ineffectual and guilty for whatever food she does eat...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

This goes along with the 'official' stance: in order to lose weight, you have to burn off more calories than you take in. You have to take in fewer calories and/or exercise to the extent that there is a deficit when it comes to daily expenditure. Doctors/professionals usually focus in these terms, rather than on trying to understand the person's individual makeup, physical and psychological, that leads to weight gain. For the vast majority of people, weight loss is still about willpower, positivity, and determination to make positive lifestyle change.

If we all have a 'setpoint' weight that is determined by our genes, and which our bodies will strive to maintain within a certain range, how much control do we actually have? If we try to push our bodies too far, will there always be a backlash, which results in interference with the setpoint process, such that we gain back more weight than before, and find it harder to take weight off?

Does the setpoint vary depending on one's circumstances? It would seem that if setpoint is genetically determined, it would also be programmed to respond differently in different circumstances. Are there ways we can take advantage of, or simulate circumstances in which our body would aim for the lower end of the setpoint range? Without consciously realizing it, I think many of my own personal experiments have been about trying to work this out. In my case, I think that major change, e.g., moving from one country to another, had an effect which lasted for a few years, in which it was not as difficult to maintain a lower weight. However, over time, as I stopped going out as much, it seemed to become more difficult again. For me it seems that domesticity triggers the extra weight. This may represent a connection with a nesting instinct.

After age 21, I stopped dieting. I refused to approach it in ways I had in the past. At age 21, I had put in my very best effort to diet as healthily as I knew how. I could not have tried harder. And yet, I was not able to maintain my weight for long. In the years that followed, I would not go back and try the same approach. I had some time in which I was patient, in which I did a kind of meditation, with a kind of focus that my body would find a weight on its own that I could accept. Part of this process involved me giving up makeup and hairstyling for a year.

I later spent years keeping food and exercise diaries.

In my mid-30s I began to try to diet again in the old way. By the time I was 40, I was severely restricting calories when using that approach, at times.

I have to respect anyone who can stand up to societal pressure, to the competitive nature of life, and the comments of family and friends that reinforce ideals of female beauty, and judge extra weight as the result of sloth and lack of willpower and self-regard. I seem unable to tackle the problem at the root: no matter what I've read, or thought, or written over time, I have to admit that I can't seem to get rid of the idea that I personally am not likely to 'deserve' love if I do not do what it is within my power to do, and I am not really comfortable with other people - any people - as long as I do not do it.

This very likely, in my case, has a lot to do with my status in life. What I consider my work is not recognized as work. The effort I have put in in thinking and expression is not recognized or commented on as anything. It is not 'authentic' for me to 'think of others', help others, become involved in helping with the environment or something 'worthwhile' in the eyes of society - I am already doing what it is authentic for me to do. If I have anything to contribute, I am already contributing it. And if that has no value to society or the world, then I'm probably always going to have unresolvable issues regarding self-esteem. I cannot just decide that I am great as I am. I am not an island. The way that I am perceived by others affects how I see myself. Losing weight/becoming thin seems to be the only thing within my power to 'earn' even a minor respect. The rest of the time, it seems to make sense to protect myself from having to deal with how I am judged.

As things stand, my personal stand is that I accept that my body strives to be a certain weight. During those times, I prefer to hibernate, to gain energy, to express what I can, and eventually focus my energy in order to diet and exercise, such that I will have a period of going more confidently out into the world. I want to end the cycle, but I do not think it is realistic that I will ever maintain at the weight I prefer. However, it is better to occasionally have periods in which I am thin/fit. The period of preparation entails more 'hope' than an ongoing daily acceptance of an unpleasant reality ever could, and the period of thinness/fitness adds contrast to my life, which is necessary and an approximation of pleasure.

I understand that this is about the underlying beliefs. I cannot just make myself believe that every human being deserves love regardless of shape and size. Or, they may deserve it, and I may be able to see something lovable in more people than most people can, but I don't think the reality is that just believing you deserve love will bring love to you. I think we are going to find out that a lot of what we call 'love' is really very much dependent upon appearance and competition, and (when not naturally beautiful) those who try hardest to compete may be the ones who 'earn' love.

What if you spend years trying out Orbach's exercises, and similar ones, if you make every effort to address your possible unconscious reasons for compulsive eating or extraneous weight, and after all that still find that honestly you do not really enjoy being a weight that is natural or even considered healthy? And that it is worth it to you to occasionally put in effort that will not have long-term results, just so that you can have a bit of time in which you escape your everyday self? Or do you think of yourself as a 'failure', that you have obviously not addressed all of your unconscious issues and need to keep digging, and striving for a more perfect self-honesty?

It is perhaps a 'kindness' to help women to come to accept themselves in a harsh and judgmental world, a competitive world, but maybe that kindness involves a kind of brainwashing or blindness which includes an illusion of strength or surety. Reasons for weight gain or inability to maintain at the weight we desire might have more to do with genetics and environmental factors than with our unresolved psychological baggage, and it may be time that we examine or learn about those possible influences. We do not all experience the same degree of difficulty when it comes to maintaining a weight that is 'healthy' or that society rewards.

From a Freudian angle, I would think it would be about getting stuck at the oral stage, and later about being unable to cope with the adult sexual drive - which seems relevant in a society in which sex is everywhere, but there are a lot of conflicting messages, there is also danger (of death, disease, pregnancy), women are now expected to be 'sexy' as well as beautiful, and possibly sexually skilled or at least open, but still figuring out the line between that and 'slutty' and be successful in traditionally male occupations while appearing sexy - and advertising alternates between encouraging rewards for all their hard work in the form of treats like chocolate, then makes them feel guilty by advertising health products. Women's magazines which attempt to give a healthy or realistic or feminist perspective usually counteract their messages by having ads with opposite messages on the same page or opposite page.

A long time ago, I thought the 'solution' was to try to be part of a small alternative community. I had vague ideas that they existed in most cities, and might be composed of artists and people involved in various causes. I was never able to find such a place for myself or take steps myself toward bringing a group together.

[it is not about willpower]:

...Fat is about protection, sex, nurturance, strength, boundaries, mothering, substance, assertion and rage. It is a response to the inequality of the sexes...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

Women are usually the ones who 'give' or nurture. Men have not been taught how to do these things, and as a result women nurture themselves with food.

...emphasis on presentation as the central aspect of a woman's existence makes her extremely self-conscious...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

If you are fat, there is no way you can be seen as an ideal woman. Women feel pressure to present an image to the world that will be accepted and rewarded, as they are constantly observed and judged regarding their appearance. Your appearance stands for your personal qualities, tells others 'who' you are.

When appearance is given a primary importance, it is difficult to avoid obsessing about it.

One of Orbach's suggestions is to wear clothing that is personally expressive, no matter what your weight or size, rather than try to wear the current styles and not to put off wearing something you like until you are 'thin enough'.

Feelings may remain unexposed while a woman is fat.

A pattern of erratic caring can lead to a person treating themselves similarly - e.g., a gorge/restrict pattern.

Fat may be a way to keep quiet about angry feelings related to those who supposedly 'cared for' you.

When I was 16 and became a kind of 'mother' to my siblings, gaining weight could have been a way of making myself unsexual, or sexually unattractive, such that I would not end up pregnant with a family of my own.

...Being fat serves the compulsive eater in a protective way; being thin is a fearful state - the woman is exposed to the very things she attempted to get away from when she got fat in the first place...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

Once a person is thin, there may be a lot of pressure. If you look like you 'have it together', you may be expected to act like you have it all together. You may have to deal with the consequences of sexual attraction and its results.

One of Orbach's important recommendations is that people imagine the differences in scenes from their daily lives when thin as opposed to fat - what aspects would change in what you wear, how you carry yourself, how you communicate, how you are perceived, what is expected of you.

I think there is a kind of social unspoken issue: a person who is thin or emaciated is more 'entitled' to show neediness - there may be a kind of respect that goes with the self-denial or discipline necessary to become thin, thin people have 'earned' respect or the right to have needs met - may evoke a 'protective' instinct in others - people who are fat and needy are embarrassing, they lack self-control, they are inappropriate, selfish, self-involved. And yet, anorexia can be difficult to treat, and people do still makes jokes about it that invalidate the experience of the sufferer. I think this is representative of a significant issue: mixed messages. We all face them in different ways. While striving for thinness, we may also have unconscious negative attitudes about thinness. For example, my father verbally associated thinness with physical weakness.

One thing I would like to suggest is that if a person is thin, more people may see her in a sexual way, and flirt with her, and this may increase her own sexual responsiveness.

If you diet a lot and don't keep the weight off, you can't trust that your 'thin self' will be around long - the situation is precarious, which is not conducive to self-confidence or self-trust.

People with food and weight issues do not identify hunger mechanisms as readily as those without such issues as there are other meanings to eating. To get free of dieting, we need to relearn actual hunger cues/signals and figure out how to get past the idea that food is something to be feared.

...The struggle to know what you want or need to eat changes the way you respond to others' needs...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

There is a lot of stuff in the book about learning to distinguish between actual hunger and emotional eating - trying to ask yourself whether the emotional eating 'works', if it 'does what it is supposed to do', or if there is some other activity that might address the lack better. If it's about sexual repression, women have a dilemma: our culture enforces the idea that it's best to have sex with love, and supports the idea that if you haven't 'worked on' yourself enough, you will not attract relationships that are good for you. Also, if you lack confidence or somehow cannot attract a sexual relationship, what should you realistically do? A vibrator does not provide 'psycho-sexual release' - but I suppose men for a very long time have had to masturbate when they can't find willing partners. If the craving is for intimacy, or emotional interaction, and a person has no close relationships, it may be difficult for the person to find a solution.

In past agricultural societies the usual pattern was often one of feast and fast.

There might be some genetic influence that exerts a strong pressure - I wonder if certain genes increase pressure for the survival machine to eat more when in certain circumstances - it may be partly a response to plenty, or to advertising - but it could be that the original 'code' specified that in certain circumstances it was necessary to eat as much as possible - some people are more susceptible to this than others, and it is extremely difficult to reprogram this urge if circumstances remain the same. People with genes that contribute strongly to this pressure would have greater difficulty in using reason to overcome it.

Overeating occurs when a person feels unentitled to food and consequently is always trying to stop herself from eating. This self-denial goes hand in hand with its opposite, which is bingeing...

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

Any time I try to actively lose weight, 'diet', I am aware it's not for the long term. I do not trust my ability to maintain. In some circumstances, I can maintain for some time, though. However, I look forward to the idea of having a momentary reprieve from my everyday condition. I create contrast between my normal life in which I feel powerless/hopeless and the few moments I have 'earned' with a possibility of pleasure. When I think back over my life, I could not wish that I hadn't put in those efforts, and I cannot think they were not 'worth it'. They add to the texture and richness of my life, which otherwise would be a lot more flat, colourless. Maybe after intense effort, there is also the 'release' of breakdown, which could not be as pronounced if the effort hadn't been what it was. There is a horror attached to the breakdown aspect, but I wonder if there is not also some other psychological functions it fills.

It is useless to say that I have 'wasted' all my energy on this process. I have tried a lot of the things the author suggests in this book, plus more, and if I was going to find some kind of vocation or lasting interests in life, I think I would have found them by now - or I needed to be smarter, or more resourceful - things I could not will myself to be. The reading and writing I have done this year (2009-10) are just another example of my efforts to understand and connect with the world in practical ways. There have been many efforts which resulted in the alternative life which I now possess. Many or most of the ideas I have encountered this year, I have encountered before, and tried to make practical use of.

You can only change or attempt to change yourself - you cannot control other people. One of the biggest issues is not advertising of ideal images, but the pressures exerted by family and friends - comments made about your appearance, and competitiveness whether overt or unconscious - everyone is affected by the same concepts of what is ideal, and many of the people you know will hold the opinions or ideas that you are trying to escape from yourself. How does one 'educate' the others in one's life without preaching or judging, and how does one retain a sense of balance or belief in oneself if the others don't change their opinions - other than by distancing oneself completely from these others?

...Her attempts to decorate herself are not cosmetic or ornamental, but about disguise because she is disgusting, while she accepts all male imperfections...

Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

Women accept men's flaws, but not their own. As for myself, I think my attempts to decorate myself have been about toning down the repulsiveness, but that they have also been about creativity and attempts at self-expression. What I call 'face dancing' on my website can actually be 'fun'. It's not one or the other, but a little of both.

I don't think the solution is to focus in on men's flaws and put pressure there. It seems to me that pointing to people's bodies whatever their sex and calling attention to variations from the ideal and calling those variations disgusting is unhealthy and short-sighted.

See also: my thoughts regarding cellulite and vegetarianism.















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