Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Fat Is a Feminist Issue. "Fifi", written by Susie Orbach, is the revolutionary anti-diet guide exploring our cultural obsession with food and bodies. Orbach is a psychoanalyst, author and body activist who has spent almost five decades thinking about food and eating from a political and psychological perspective but when the book was published, feminism wasn't really considering these issues.
Although awareness of eating disorders and the body positive movement has grown in recent years, Orbach was pioneering these ideas decades ago, putting body politics on the socio-cultural agenda. “Forty years ago, body image, compulsive eating and bulimia weren’t on the table,” Orbach tells me. Such things were “specialities that only a few people knew about.” If people did struggle with body anxieties, it was assumed that they would suffer only for a few years. “It didn’t start at 6 and go on until 90,” Orbach says. There was not the “complete cultural obsession” with size and weight that there is today.
Orbach considers our contemporary obsession with body image to be “vicious and so accelerated”. We have all become powerless over ourselves, she says. Our bodies have become our own sites of production: “We don’t use them to make anything anymore”. Orbach believes this plays into the power dynamics of relation to self, evident in the rise of gym culture – we make our bodies in the gym. We are preoccupied with controlling our physical selves, with pressure to perform because we have all become our own brands.
Technology plays a fundamental role in this phase of capitalism; the birth of the internet and more specifically, the rise of social media encouraging us to be our own marketing machines. “Everyone has to be ‘on’ and self-promoting all of the time,” she says. We’ve become our bodies and are defined by the physical. It's an emotionally draining, destructive process – “people spend hours setting up selfies, they’ll be very anxious about the level of likes” – that leaves us unable to escape our own image.
As we talk, we explore the criminalisation of fat and the ‘obesity epidemic’, the narratives of which Orbach despises because “they are attacking, hateful and envious”. The media portrayal of obesity misses the point: fat is political and this is a class issue. “[The narratives] are anti-poor people and they don’t take on the food companies.” Orbach believes these companies should be held responsible but she is also discouraged by government attempts at intervention. A sugar tax won’t be effective; another couple of pennies "isn’t going to stop anybody” and Orbach feels people shouldn’t be personally demonised for being overweight when we have a food culture encouraging it.
Clean eating appears to be at the other end of the spectrum but Orbach believes it is intimately related to obesity. “The whole clean eating movement is a way of dealing with an eating disorder,” much like compulsive overeaters – both have troubled food relationships and are trying to gain control over their lives. Not only is this strict eating regime a way of managing a food industry dumping “more and more in the market”, Orbach also believes it is a reaction to the disparaging narratives surrounding obesity. “There is contempt for the part of us that has needs,” she says. For the clean eaters this relationship fetishises ‘bad food’, establishing boundaries that proclaim purity and aestheticism. Sadly, Orbach feels our eating has become so distorted and disordered that “we have divorced food from social relationship,” losing sight of the cultural nuances of eating.
I bring up the body positive movement and Orbach expresses scepticism: “[Body positivity] is bloody hard to achieve and [I find it] an outrage that we should have to have it.” Although she believes it was an inevitability, she is unsure of its impact and longevity. Orbach emphasises how these movements take years to get into the public conscience. She thinks viral body positive campaigns will have some impact, but admits she doesn’t engage with social media and doesn’t know “what it means to be political in this space at this point.” If the campaign could engage mothers so they don’t inadvertently pass on their bodily preoccupations to their children, she thinks it could be impactful. Disordered eating is part of a much larger political agenda made up of people “pathologically interested in thinness” – to be truly effective, the body positive movement must reach schoolteachers, nurses, midwives and doctors.
Fat is no longer a feminist issue in that it only concerns the production of female bodies. “They’ve managed to make a lot of money out of making women feel really shit.” But now men and even boys are being targeted and made to feel bad about their physical selves. To be effective, the body positive movement must be “bigger than itself”; body politics must link up with gender and anti-racist struggles too. Diverse representation is essential for improving our relationships to our bodies; different sizes, shapes and fluidities are helpful but Orbach believes we need to see bodies engaged and doing, if there is to be greater liberation. “Show me women looking down microscopes,” she says, for as long as we only see bodies looking to camera, progress will be limited.
We end by discussing the future of bodies. Orbach is concerned that emerging technology is normalising the idea that you can transform your body at any time, be it via chip or a cosmetic procedure. Technology has made our bodies our “personal fiefdoms”; the body has become one’s own object rather than somewhere to live from. “I think there is going to be such a revolution in what constitutes a body,” Orbach says. She expects to see an increase in external reproduction and artificial wombs – after all, women are already desperate to get back to their pre-baby body after childbirth. But however artificial our physical selves could be, Orbach qualifies, we will still require touch and intimacy.
Whatever the future of bodies holds, Orbach doesn’t believe we have greater control or power over our physical selves. In fact, she thinks the preoccupation has worsened since Fifi was first written four decades ago. “People aren’t thinking how do I solve poverty or this physics problem, they are thinking about themselves all the time.” We are tragically preoccupied with our bodies and this is a terrible thing. “The number of children, women and men hours spent on this is just crippling.”