02 August 2009

Conference Report: Susie Orbach at ASDAH

There is some back story to this post, I'll explain as much as I know.

ASDAH, the Association of Size Diversity and Health, is the dominant organisation for professionals and allies invested in a Health At Every Size paradigm (I say "a" rather than "the" because my research has shown that people interpret it in many ways, sometimes conflicting). I have been a member for about a year and have been following online messageboard activity and getting to know some of the players. The organisation's annual conference runs parallel to the NAAFA shindig.

I understand that there have been controversies over past guests, and this year was no different. ASDAH leadership invited Susie Orbach to keynote the gathering and a shitstorm ensued between those who do not regard Orbach as an ally to the movement in any sense, and those who think that she is a possible recruit. Amongst the bluster there were threats of a boycott, a walkout, and a prominent fat activist left the organisation in protest. ASDAH management responded by reformulating the keynote and offering a Q&A session.

My thoughts about the effect of Orbach's work on fat people in general and myself as a fat person in particular are mostly articulated in my book, Fat & Proud, and I am supportive of Corinna Tomrley's analysis of her work, some of which was articulated recently in this blog, and of other critics who have spoken about her over the years. I regard the psychological pathologising of fatness in Fat Is a Feminist Issue as part of the most damaging and long-lasting stereotyping that fat people must struggle against. It makes fat people feel like failures. What makes the psychological pathologising of fat people particularly pernicious is that although it is based on nothing but speculation, it is very difficult to refute, indeed denial only strengthens its grip. The influence of this particular kind of pathologising cannot be underestimated, it permeates not only anti-obesity 'helping' professions, but also stunted early feminist analyses of fat which could have been a powerful means of demolishing such oppressive structures, and went on to corrupt the nascent non-diet movement. This work is a big fat headfuck, Orbach has publicly ignored her critics and is now upholding fat panic rhetoric in her most recent work.

I was disappointed in ASDAH's decision to invite Orbach, I thought that it was a naïve decision, and I still do. I also thought that it would be a good thing for Orbach to be in a position where she was required to listen and respond to some of the criticisms I've mentioned above. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still had hope.

So, yesterday...

Orbach was not scheduled to speak until the late afternoon, and there was a peculiar sense of tension surrounding the day, not least in Linda Bacon's stunning NAAFA keynote, which was disturbed by unfounded rumours of another Orbach-related walkout. Throughout the day there were veiled references to the quarrels surrounding her invitation, and attempts to consider what it means to build bridges with allies across differences within ASDAH and Health At Every Size. Personally speaking, I felt stressed and anxious for most of the day. Orbach attended the first session, though left the room a few times and spent some time checking texts as people spoke. She did not attend or contribute to the bulk of the conference and I think this is a shame, a missed opportunity to connect with people as equals rather than only as star guest with books to sell.

The talk itself had a small audience. People seemed excited that she was there, there was a supportive fan-girl atmosphere, one person told me that Fat Is a Feminist Issue had been important to her. My fellow haters were either absent or in a minority.

I'm not going to record the whole content of the conversation, which was chaired with skill and dignity by Fall Ferguson, other than to say that there was a lot of the bewildering psychobabble for which Orbach is famous. I saw a woman asleep at the back. What I was interested in was how she might respond to criticism.

I kept notes and this is how it went:

When Fall raised the problematic and contradictory depictions of fatness in Orbach's latest book, Orbach started to say that it is reasonable to make contradictory statements, and then she gibbered for a few moments. By gibber I mean that she started to form words but they didn't come out. She righted herself and said: "But I'm a pragmatist and an opportunist," adding that she was working with the British and German governments. She said that she doesn't see obesity as a category and is purely interested in people being able to eat happily. She mentioned the "vicious" food industry and called the health industry stupid for reacting to it. She mentioned her daughter who was the only girl in her school to have a healthy relationship to food. Her response to the question was, in typically Orbachian style, all over the place, but she restated at the end: "I use obesity to slip it under in an opportunist way," and concluded: "I stand accused."

On her long-held and damaging classification of fat as a result of compulsive eating, Orbach said that out of control eating exists for some fat people and not others, and, confusingly: "I'm making a quick story there rather than making it an issue." She was – rightly! – flustered and nervous.

There was a question about the pathologising of fatness in Fat Is a Feminist Issue and Orbach replied: "I haven't read FIFI for 31 years" and added that the question was "fair criticism." She added: "I don't think that's what I was saying, but I think that's in there," and, "I've done the hurt that I've done." She also said that she rewrote sections in the second edition and that "Fatness is imagined protection for some people," referring to her contested argument that fat is an embodied pathological protection used by women against sexuality or power. She also said: "You write a book and other people read other things into it."

Deb Burgard, whose own presentation earlier in the day was full of vitality and the highlight of ASDAH for me, stated that Orbach was making arguments on the backs of fat people. Orbach responded: "I think these are difficult arguments to take in." She said that she does not think it is acceptable to scapegoat fat people and remarked: "If I've contributed to that, I don't want to do that." She seemed dismissive in that moment and I felt extremely angry, though unable to channel it usefully. Orbach's earlier assertions of her own opportunism made it clear that fat people are an expendable resource in her campaign and that this comes on top of the enduring legacy of her past mistakes that fat as well as normative-sized people continue to struggle with. The "If" made her response a non-apology, I wanted to yell "It's not If! You have done this!"

Kelly Bliss made a point about Orbach's collusion with the Obesity Mafia in her latest book. Orbach responded that she would like to look at the material and "might correct it," she said that she would "reflect on it". She said also, defensively: "I don't make the argument that you think I make," yet did not clarify the argument that she was actually making.

What is there to make of all this?

Later last night the consensus amongst a bunch of ASDAH delegates and organisers in the hotel pool was that the talk had gone well and that Orbach was "real" and "sincere". This was not my experience of the talk at all. One person said that Orbach shouldn't have to apologise for what she has written, but I think she does. There were partial apologies in the talk, but I didn't think that they were strong, or that Orbach fully understands how dreadfully her work has impacted on fat people, and how it has contributed to fat oppression. I think these problems need to be addressed in order to move on and become strong allies, I think that forgiveness is possible but it requires some attention on her part. Perhaps a deep understanding of how her work affects fat people could not be possible at this event, hopefully she will reflect and make some kind of reparation, she has said that she would do so but we will have to wait and see about that. I think it is good that she turned up to an event where she knew there would be criticism, she's bold, and although I am hopeful that she might still become an ally, I'm not holding my breath.

I remain unsure about ASDAH's decision to invite Orbach. I support the need for an organisation with an agenda that includes promoting a particular paradigm to seek allies who might not be completely on-message. This is professionally and politically necessary. But this invitation was a gamble and came at a cost; I think old divisions have become deepened rather than ameliorated, for example between conservative and radical, fat and non-diet, and so on. I was surprised by how tense, alienated, sad and angry I felt today.

Meanwhile, Orbach now knows what the rad fatties think of her, she knows, she knows.


The Rehab Worker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wonderful woman said...

Good golly Miss Molly. Well. My initial thoughts to all this are – big fat hugs across the Interweb to you for dealing with that. But I am so glad you were there to articulate it for those of us who weren’t.

My reactions to Orbach’s responses are mixed. I am a little stunned that it wasn’t more diluted and side stepped, all this critique – both by the chair and Orbach herself. Since the announcement of her appearance and the shitstorm, I have been trying to imagine how it might be handled and I could imagine how she could twist and turn things to her way of thinking - as she does so well. And of course she kind of did that, but I do think the directness of the criticisms in the questions from Fall and those from the floor meant that she couldn’t quite do that so thoroughly. Hence her flusteredness, I suppose. From her responses, I’m assuming that she’s had time to take in (if not take on) why her keynote announcement caused such an outcry and subsequent debate – and I’m so glad about that. But the fact that the way she half addressed things, left them hanging and didn’t really accept culpability – but that some people felt that she had – is kind of depressing. Not surprising at all, but depressing.

I too am so angry that she admits to using fatness and in effect, fat people as tools to make her points. How dare she! It’s not ‘brave’ or ‘honest’ or ‘sincere’ to make such an admission – it’s damaging and inexcusable. Let’s not forget that she is – as she puts it – a shrink. She’s not an abstract sociologist or theorist (not that it would be an excuse just explain the distance a bit). No, instead she’s someone who deals with people in one of the most fundamentally vulnerable levels. But she just uses them. Explains how she can use them as illustrative case studies to make her insulting points in FIFI and with shocking abandon in her new book.

Her statement that she hasn’t read FIFI for 31 years makes me laugh – a bitter laugh. So she’s basically admitting that the ‘updated’ edition that was released in 2006 was not updated by her. And clarifies that the only ‘updating’ was the simple things that an editor could find and do on her behalf – like the names of celebrities, which is the only difference I could ever find. This ’31 years’ remark also sounds like those who argued with me that it’s ‘historical’. If that’s the case then I say to Orbach and her publishers and her FIFI defenders - stop reissuing it, stop writing ‘new’ introductions for it and stop demanding that it’s continually one of the most important and relevant books for women.

technodyke said...

I'm so glad that you exist, Charlotte Cooper.

William said...


As a Fat Guy I have found Orbach's comments such as this one……"fat is an adaptation to the oppression of women’, male fat is difficult to conceptualize as anything other than an individual choice or pathology lacking in broader symbolic meaning or political connotations"…….. to be a slap in the face of every Fat Man

Because Orbach is so gender exclusive I am shocked that ASDAH would parade her in front of any Fat Male members that they have.


susanstinson said...

I've read this over a few times today. I want to say something, but, I do, I find this painful. It takes me back to myself as a young woman, in the early eighties, having my life transformed by some of the insights of feminism. One of them was something like, "Women have traditionally defined by our looks. That needs to stop. We are whole, complex beings." For me, as a fat woman, that idea held out enormous possibilities for hope, so I was excited to begin reading Fat is a Feminist Issue. Reading is was terrible, searing. My body was, as you say, pathology, absolutely defining me, including my inner life, until I was cured of it. It felt like such a betrayal, made worse by the way that this book continued to be brought up as a model by many who knew that I wrote about fat.

So, it's from that context, I feel the weakness of "if I did that," and, perhaps especially, I haven't read the book in thirty-one years." How can anyone develop without being accountable to their own work, without knowing what they've written and if and how their assumptions have or haven't changed?

And the comments about opportunism, about pragmatism, are also so hard. I'm a pragmatist, myself. I don't believe in purity tests, but I do think that fat people have to matter as fat people, not as potential thin people, but as who we actually are, in all our complexity.

Thanks for going, listening and letting us know what you're thinking.

wellroundedtype2 said...

It has taken me pretty much 22 years to unlearn what I read in FIFI -- I still have to fight against the thought that my fat "means something." Thankfully, I've found a therapist who seems very pro-size acceptance, and definitely pro-HAES, and often points out the things that I can do that he can't (such as swimming laps).
I also think that FIFI was largely responsible for my distrust of smaller women -- my assumption was that they would view me the way Orbach's view did. The book opened my eyes in many ways, but when I wrote a senior thesis for my bachelor's degree on Women and Body Image in 1990, I don't think I cited it much.

abigail.s.vines@gmail.com said...

I walked away from the dialogue with Susie Orbach thinking that she doesn't know anything about the lived experience of being fat, and being fat at one's natural weight, which, not parenthetically, is so central to HAES.

The one thing that I spent some time thinking about that Orbach brought to my attention is the idea that we inhabit different bodies according to the others we are in relation to. At first I thought that sounded right, but upon closer inspection, I thought it was a recipe for disaster. It's just a ratio that changes, and focusing so heavily on that ratio seems like a step backwards. It's always me, my body as it is, that is in relation to another.

It's helpful for me to read what you've written about your experience. I was suspecting that I couldn't understand a lot of what Orbach said because I don't have the necessary background. I don't think that's the case anymore. Wonderful woman was right & I'm sending pink light in your direction, even though it's a day late.

withoutscene said...

I appreciate everyone who was there to call Orbach out and wade through all that stress and drama.

I can't imagine how anyone could sit through that and think the outcome was fantastic, but I have never had warm fuzzies for Orbach.

I understand it can be really hard to hear not just a critique of the validity of your work, but that you have harmed people in a very real way. If that kind of realization is ever going to sink in, I think it will take a lot of time to process. If she refuses to take it in and internalize it, I agree, we at least know she has been confronted with it. She can not plead ignorance now, no matter what else she does. How long should we wait to send her a follow-up letter reminding her of her (few) promises?

That she uses fat people as disposable pawns--now openly so--is not necessarily surprising given that it's such a moneymaker, a big ole sexy keyword to put in your grant...but I agree that what makes it more painful is her claim to help fat people and the celebration of her 'help.'

Onward! I hope the rest of the NAAFAcon is less stressful for you.

SharonC said...

Thanks for the report, Charlotte.

Later last night the consensus amongst a bunch of ASDAH delegates and organisers in the hotel pool was that the talk had gone well and that Orbach was "real" and "sincere". This was not my experience of the talk at all.

Ew. That's "ew" at the consensus from delegates and organisers. Charlotte, your opinions about fat and fatness I have always found to be 100% spot-on, and I trust your evaluation of the talk. It seems rather sad that some people don't see the problems that exist and that need addressing. Being uncritical fans of Susie Orbach isn't going to help.

macskat said...

Hey Charlotte!

The only thing I perceived differently from you is the response: the people with whom I was talking were not at all enthused about Orbach's talk. On the contrary, we thought it was fairly nonsensical, difficult to follow (because, like you said, she jumped all over the place and half the time didn't even come up with the words to finish a thought). I left with some hope that some of what people had said would sink in -- especially Deb's remark about how you can't ride on the backs of fat people.

The whole "opportunist" thing was very disturbing, to say the least.

From my work in energy healing, I would say that Orbach has the energy of a schizoid -- in other words, she really isn't all here (or there). She is sort of a talking head without much connection to reality -- or even to her own thoughts. This is not to say that she lacks intelligence -- just that the practical applications of things could easily escape her.

And I totally agree with Abby that it's obvious that Orbach has no idea what it is like to live in a fat body -- or to face the sort of discrimination and stigmatization that she herself has played such a large part in causing for fat women.

Honestly, I don't know if she's even capable of grasping the damage that she's done. She can't get that grounded. She's out in space somewhere. How do people like that get to be in positions of power, where their voices are megaphoned?