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The Politics of Fat: We Have to Keep Struggling to Liberate Ourselves from Self-Hatred

“We claimed the agency, we granted ourselves the authority. But we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in our jeans.”

Last weekend when "Mad Men" aired its second episode of the season, viewers blanched to see character Betty Draper, a frustrated housewife with no personal or professional outlet, sink into a spiral of weight gain, self-loathing and emotional overeating, begging her doctor for diet pills. While today's viewers may find Betty's plight simplistic or pat, the idea that body image and weight were interrelated with feminism was revolutionary for its time.

In fact, it changed the way activists looked at their bodies and politics. Even as this intersection between food, body image and politics has been debated, critiqued and absorbed, how far have we come?

Psychologist Susie Orbach’s debut book Fat Is a Feminist Issue celebrates 34 years of providing theoretical and practical musings on the relationship between women and fat. The book is equal parts self-help advice, psychology journal, gender studies, and fat-acceptance theory. As feminist and fat acceptance movements evolved from second-wave protests to contemporary digital activism, Fat Is a Feminist Issue connected the dots between two parallel causes for human rights while championing the individual’s right to be healthy and happy at every size. Orbach’s pioneer insistence that feminists needed to talk about body image and compulsive eating, while fat activists had to acknowledge issues of gender and difference, united two notorious social-activist movements that made progress possible across a dual spectrum of civil rights.

The second wave of U.S. mainstream feminism appeared well underway when Fat Is a Feminist Issue came to prominence. At a time when feminist rallies and actions organized predominantly around the Equal Rights Amendment and changes in the workplace – as well as the emergence of fat-acceptance protests without a framework for understanding gender – Orbach wanted to explore the private lives of female compulsive eaters. For a fat woman operating in the public sphere, life “centered on food, what she can and cannot eat, what she will or will not eat, what she has or has not eaten and when she will or will not eat next… The obsession with food carries with it an enormous amount of self-disgust, loathing and shame.”  

In 1970, the Boston Women’s Health Collective published a 35-cent booklet that morphed into the classic tome,  Our Bodies, Ourselves . Eight years later, Fat Is a Feminist Issue showcased Orbach’s clinical, activist and often personal work battling fat oppression.  

Within a few years of Orbach’s debut release making the rounds in book clubs and classrooms, the feminist backlash of the 1980s became all too apparent. Critics claimed that feminism’s modest (read: staggering) social and political gains were more than satisfactory. They wanted the general public to embrace post-feminist gender equality. Mostly, the naysayers got their way. Gone were the days of Orbach’s group consciousness-raising sessions, where community members shared stories of fat shaming, body dysmorphia and eating disorders — a public space that exposed a common hatred of fat and frequently female bodies while fumbling on the path to liberation. But where the groups left off, popular literature became the outreach to disseminate the gains of activists.  

One of the author’s shortcomings in 1974 was the narrowness of her topic’s scope, particularly when it came to issues of race, genders other than cis women, sexual orientation, and disability. In the preface, Orbach noted that the groups of women she worked with were composed entirely of North American and European white women; similarly, discussions on queer fat bodies, trans* fat bodies, and disabled fat bodies (outside the purview of eating disorders) are not referenced in the text. However, as both feminist and fat-positive movements took their message to the Internet, conversations among various social justice-minded communities continue to expand.