Fat is Still a Feminist Issue: Susie Orbach in Israel

THE WOMAN STEPPING UP to the lectern is Dr. Susie Orbach, world-renowned author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue (1978), The Impossibility of Sex (1999), and scores of other publications in between. Orbach needs neither makeup nor high heels to assert her authority. She takes the mike to tell some 400 Israeli women about women, body image, and eating problems.

“We have on our hands a major public health problem,” she announces to her audience, largely social workers, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. “An epidemic which infects more people every single day, whose routes are neither mysterious nor genetic nor incomprehensible. An epidemic which we could stop for future girls and women and lessen for girls and women currently, if we had the will to do so. And yet we do not.”

Orbach is on her first professional visit to Israel as a guest of the non-profit Counseling Center for Women (CCW), a mental health organization established in 1987 in order to empower women in Israel through psychotherapy. As co-founder and chief executive of The Women’s Therapy Centre in London, “Susie” has long inspired CCW’s founders—eleven feminist therapists originally from North America and Europe—and its present, much enlarged staff. They have brought her to Israel, to a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean in Bat Yam, to raise the consciousness of the workers in the field, those who deal daily with what is overwhelmingly a women’s problem. Most of them are already aware of the alarming statistics. Ninety percent of Israelis with eating disorders are women. The number one cause of depression among young girls is a negative body image. One out of every 20 female teenagers will develop bulimia. One percent of all Israeli women will become anorexic. And some of them will die each year from the complications of their eating disorders.

One of many discussions now reverberating throughout the nation on the subject of eating disorders (two other major conferences will take place within a month of this one), this one called by the Counseling Center for Women addresses, in particular, the psychosocial context and impact of anorexia, bulimia, and related problems. How the personal is the political. What it means to own a woman’s body in a male-dominated world. Where the revolution must begin in order to solve women’s eating problems: in the psyche, the media, the global marketplace.

Susie Orbach leaves no doubt as to the roots of the problem. “We name what is in reality a social problem as a medical and genetic issue… If we lose sight of the cultural environment which makes these conditions [anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating] not simply likely but also within the norm for girls and women today, if we unduly pathologize the women who are gripped by these symptoms…we are going to be seriously on the wrong track.” The right track, she says, is to focus on the place of women in contemporary society. While Western women appear to occupy social roles and economic positions which categorically reject subordination, the modern constraints and restrictions that they are expected to place on their own bodies are no less debilitating than the traditional Chinese practice of foot-binding.

A psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, Orbach can and does provide ample psychological explanations for their existence. Women, for a start, are seared of their own needs. “Talking about food and dieting becomes a way to talk about aspects of women’s lives that are deeply troubling to them…instead of telling one another about our desperation and feelings of impotence, we say ‘If I were thin things would be so much better.’ Instead of telling one another we feel invisible and unrecognized, we become anorexic and force that recognition on others.”

The body itself, Orbach maintains, is a woman’s form of language. Tier investigations of the unconscious reveal a host of symbolic meanings in body shape and size, in the way people eat or refrain. Despite rank social prejudice against obesity, the female unconscious may equate fat “with power, with presence, with a demand to be seen…A way to keep private vulnerabilities hidden while requesting acceptance for who one is. It is about an attempt to give to self.”

Thin, on the other hand, may represent “fear, frailty, disappearing, conformity…the end of conflict, loneliness, or confusion.” This, Orbach says, is by no means a positive thing, ‘but rather the negation of an essential element of human existence. “Denying inner conflict, appearing to be alright because one looks as one should, actually renders the person too one-dimensional.”

Orbach quickly shifts back to the socio-cultural plane, outlining a theory of multi-generational behavioral patterns. For at least two or three generations now, with more or less subtlety, women of the West have been encouraged to curb their appetites. Large appetites bring up the specter of large bodies and large needs; society would rather not confront either. Unwitting females learn, even before they can speak, that their bodies are unsafe; their corporeal beings. complete with smells, desires, flesh, and most of all appetites, are undesirable and unacceptable. “What girls’ and women’s lips, stomachs, hearts, minds and hungers desire are ‘dangerous,'” Orbach notes. “They must be managed, they must be curtailed.”

Hapless mothers brought up in this tainted atmosphere, hating their imperfect bodies, insecure and unhappy about the food they consume, can hardly be expected to imbue their daughters with the sense that eating is a wonderful experience. Far more likely, according to Orbach, are the odds that the girls will grow up believing that their own bodies are worthy only of manipulation, correction, and attack from within and without. Far more likely that, anywhere from the age of three onward, they will expend more effort emulating the looks of female pop stars than cultivating mental or physical prowess.

“Ironically and most cruelly,” declares Orbach, “it is mothers today, who have suffered the bombardment of a mono-imagery of femininity… who transmit body insecurity to their daughters. [The latter are] then susceptible to the false offers of the fashion diet, fitness and advertising industry, to Hollywood…to give them a body, which of course cannot be done.”

Orbach’s first awareness of body issues, she confesses, originated in what she carefully calls “my own mishugas [craziness].” Without elaborating, she says simply, “My mother dieted, so I did, too. I thought that’s how you grow up.”

Now 54, Orbach was born and brought up in England. She attended proper English schools, lectures in a proper English accent. On her home turf though, she is frequently accused of being an American. “My ideas are simply too radical for the British,” she laughs. “It’s easier to blame them on America.”

In truth, her compatriots are not far off. Though her father was a British Jewish politician, Orbach attributes her own proclivity for political activism to her mother, an American Jew who was very involved in the socialist Zionist movement. And many of Susie Orbach’s ideas were actually conceived in the fertile ground of American feminism and radical politics of the 70s, when she was studying for advanced degrees in New York. “Everything was up for examination in those days,” she recalls. “Housework, careers, parenting. I thought we should look at our bodies, too.”

As a political activist, she became interested in the way women were cooperating in the manipulation of their bodies. The usual political and economic analyses failed to account for women’s internal oppression. A psychoanalytic approach, she felt, would be more revealing, and she began to delve into women’s inner worlds.

The result was Fat Is a Feminist Issue (“FIFl” she calls it, affectionately) —the benchmark book which made its way around the world more handily than the Hershey bar. Jerusalem therapist Janet Baumgold-Land, one of CCW’s founders, still cherishes a photocopy of the book that a friend in California sent her in 1979 when the original sold out.

“The book revolutionized thinking about body issues, hunger, fat, and eating,” Baumgold-Land states unequivocally. “As a social critic, Susie made it clear that women had internalized so many contradictory messages about food—from family, from the environment—that we were totally alienated from our bodies. We didn’t know the meaning of hunger. We never even knew what we really wanted to eat, if we were actually craving sweets or celery.”

Orbach herself saw hand-copied versions of the book being passed from woman to woman in Soviet Russia. Almost 25 years since the first edition appeared in English, she confirms its impact: “I am staggered that FIFI is still in print, still relevant today. And that—on the basis of all the pain in it— I’ve been given a voice.”

That voice reaches out, in well-modulated, authoritative clarity, across the packed hall in Bat Yam. “The collapse of civil society and its replacement with the global market and consumerism…has had a curious effect on how wc as individuals view ourselves and our place in the world,” Orbach says. “Branding—the latest ingenious idea of the advertising industry—has [become] the way to belong, to feel recognized and to acknowledge others.” Wherever in the world she is, in other words, the woman who identifies with the name brand blasted across her soft drink, her sneakers, the seat of her jeans, has become a member of the brand. The name of her land is irrelevant; so too is her native culture, her natural shape.

Orbach continues. “Girls and women who don’t have a secure body image try to belong by acquiring a recognizable body, a thin body, an admired body, in essence a branded body which…secures them a position and an identity.” In their efforts to remake themselves in the image of the Western media,

to conform to the thin aesthetic being irresistibly promoted all around them, females from Philadelphia to Fiji are still cooperating in the manipulation of their own bodies and their selves, perpetuating their own insecurities.

Orbach the social crusader calls. once again, for a social revolution. “Women today face continuing challenges to express ourselves and to define the expression of who we arc. In this we face formidable taboos, some internal, some external; some conscious— such as the diet, fashion, cosmetic, and fitness industries—and some of which we are unaware. To liberate ourselves… in our body, we need to risk the assertion of our own appetites. To recognize that they are great, that they relate to more than food and size, that we have an appetite to take up our space in the world and to celebrate and redefine the strict confines in which we have been seen and so have seen ourselves.”

Lunchtime. Susie throws off her black jacket and, over a plate filled with colorful salads, discusses food with the women of the Counseling Center. A few hours later, as the sun begins to sink into the Mediterranean, she has a revelation to make. “All these years,” she reflects, “I thought that I’m my father’s daughter. Today was the first time I thought that I’m my mother’s daughter.” Her face lights up for a moment, and it’s not just from the reflection of her bright pink top.

Barbara Gingold, a founding mother of Lilith lives in Jerusalem, she chairs the board of the counseling center for women, ccw@nelvision.net.il. 

The Cycle of Female Dissatisfaction  

I have been careful not to lay blame on those mothers who feel they are “helping” their daughters at a time of vulnerability by teaching them how to diet. But I am concerned about the impact of both their dieting advice and practices that serve to normalize the daughter’s dissatisfaction with her body, regardless of whether she actually begins to diet. Without education, this cycle of dissatisfaction with body shape and weight will more than likely be repeated once again as these daughters become mothers. Mothers need to instill pride in their daughters for who they are, not for who they may become [and] shifting the focus of the discussion from the individual to the cultural level might provide girls with a much needed perspective on their own attitudes and behaviors.

-From Fat Talk: What Girls and their Parents Say About Dieting by Mimi Nichter