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.
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.