At university, I became interested in women’s embodied experiences – considering how women’s bodies are not only passive entities, but a site of empowerment and activism. Hence, when I was introduced to Fat Is A Feminist Issue, an inquisitive nerve within me came alive.
Fat Is A Feminist Issue was first published in 1978 by Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist. During this time, women in Britain were becoming more conscious of the gendered issues that persisted in British society, seeking to overturn misogyny in all corners of their lives. This saw women joining trade unions and protesting for their right to equal employment benefits with their male counterparts. The feminist activists involved with the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) worked tirelessly to institute practical changes which would improve women’s lives. This came in the form of government legislation, the proliferation of women’s groups and women-produced and focused news. These tangible changes offered women a measurable improvement to their lives.
Consciousness raising groups played an immense role within feminists’ lives at these times. They helped to open women’s eyes to the layers of ‘everyday sexism’. Women were, and still are, consistently bombarded with messages on how they should dress, present themselves and what’s appropriate to enter their bodies. This preoccupation with women’s bodies has sinister motivations. It seeks to mould women into palatable beings who act in accordance with capitalist patriarchal standards. Such social pressures have produced generations of women with distorted views of themselves and their bodies. Fat Is A Feminist Issue was a practical tool, used by these groups to transform how women viewed themselves and their bodies.
Fat Is A Feminist Issue expresses the lengths women have gone to, in attempts to appeal to the male gaze. It rejected the societal standards that woman’s social value was determined by how attractive she was for the men in their lives. The socially acceptable expectation was that women would be petite and well groomed. This was all to garner male attention, the seemingly most important aspect of a woman’s life. 1970s women were told that their foremost priority should be securing a man for marriage. After this, everything else was insignificant. Women were instructed to change every facet of their lives, to appear more attractive for a man. For women’s bodies, this meant taking up as little space as possible.
Women’s own wants and needs became secondary in the pursuit of seeming palatable for man’s eyes. The 1970s saw the rise of women’s magazines and the popularisation of make-up and cosmetic activities. These all had a common aim of squeezing women into a one-shape fits all framework. Magazines offered columns on the new fad diets and glamorised how skipping meals and cutting out carbs would give women everything they’d ever desired. The intention quickly became impossible to miss, let alone escape. If a woman was skinny, additional problems in her life would simply cease to exist. Work troubles? Resolved with a salad for lunch. Relationship problems? These would simply fade away if more time was spent preoccupied with calorie counting and working out countless times a week.
The new pressures on women during the late twentieth century created a bigger divide between women and their bodies. Women became obsessed with the way they looked, how they could change this and how much better life would be if they could just drop the next few pounds. Orbach explores how women turned to food to gain control over their lives. Women during the 1970s couldn’t control how much they got paid at work, whether they could reveal their homosexual feelings nor express their sexual and domestic dissatisfaction. Food, however, was one thing that they could control.
Fat Is A Feminist Issue explains how many women could not deal with such pressures, both consciously and unconsciously. The focus turns to compulsive eaters and fatness. Overweight women often had very different worldly experiences than that of slimmer women. Whilst these women often wanted nothing more than to be skinny, such afflictions led to a diet-binge cycle. Orbach explained that women’s minds needed more attention, over their bodies. Food freedom became the unattainable dream for many women.
Fat Is A Feminist Issue offered women a way to understand their struggles, as well as a way to manage these, and resist society’s message telling them to starve themselves. It offered practical help on how to manage their mental struggles and how they could form a loving relationship with their own body. This could mean purposefully looking in a mirror, seeing your body in all its natural glory or leaning on other women and consciously discussing their feelings towards their bodies. This aligns with a central motivation of the WLM, which was bringing women together and uniting them by their shared experience. Women could, and should, bond over the pressures they’ve faced to change the way they present their bodies.
Whilst Fat Is A Feminist Issue was written over forty years ago, its message is ever relevant. Women still struggle with body image problems, perpetuated by new social challenges. This includes the rise of social media and the myriad of images of sleek, sexy and slim women accessible in every aspect of a woman’s life. Women are constantly reminded by every billboard, tube poster and Instagram feed that society, and again men, prefer slimness over fatness.
Yet there is also a growing rejection of such beauty standards. Women, and male allies seek to promote body acceptance and diminish the impact that body size plays in one’s everyday life. These strides are seen in the growing body positivity movement. Whilst this suggests progress, it expresses how women continue to feel unconnected to their bodies. The common theme is control. Women from before the 1970s to 2022 seek control in a male-dominated world. They attempt to resist the notion that weight determines worth. Individual women challenging how they view their own bodies have transformed how society perceives women’s bodies.
Orbach, S., (1978). Fat is a Feminist Issue. (Great Britain, Paddington Press).
Saffron Kricha is a university graduate of History and Politics. She focuses on women’s history and political thought. Her undergraduate dissertation followed these themes, entitled ‘How has the relationship between socialism and feminism changed in Britain, from the 1880s to the present day?’