22 February 2010

Revisiting feminist fatphobia and psychoanalysis

I came across a fierce account in a Québécois lesbian separatist anthology last week. Writing in the early 90s, Kate Moran explains how the ideology supporting Overeaters Anonymous basically decimated contemporary Fat Liberation in lesbian communities in the US (and presumably Canada). It's an understandably angry piece, I'm not sure how rigorous it is, and it's certainly of its time, but it still caught my eye.

You might not think that radical lesbians, and separatists in particular, are particularly relevant to fat stuff today. But they were the ones pushing for new ways of thinking about fat at the time, and I think their legacy in terms of fat activism has since become more mainstream. So it's interesting to me that there is this account accusing a movement, that was certainly influenced by feminist psychoanalytic explanations of eating disorders that conflate compulsive eating with fatness, for devastating fat politics. I would like to find other sources that discuss this theory.

The reference is timely because the publicity for a two day seminar celebrating and discussing Susie Orbach has just gone out from my university. The discourse that dismays Moran is still alive and well, and being perpetuated in the academy.

I must admit to a strange fascination with early 1980s feminist psychoanalytic accounts of fat women. Orbach, Kim Chernin and Susan Bordo are the Holy Trinity of academic discourse on fat in the social sciences. Bordo is less rooted in psychoanalysis, but I think her need to explain fat in terms of symbolism and pathology makes her fit right in with the others. Marion Woodman is also cited occasionally.

My training as a psychotherapist has led me to reject psychodynamic unconscious process explanations for how bodies look. I lean less on the supernatural and more on the practical, I think that fat bodies are part of the fabric of humanity, part of human body diversity, not evidence of disrupted inner processes. It is stupid to make universal claims about 'fat women' because this group is so diverse. We're normal, and what fat represents is dependent on time and place, it is highly contingent.

The Holy Trinity's works are repeatedly cited as evidence that feminism has a grip on fat, but I think they've got the wrong feminism, it was the separatists, and the groups influenced by The Fat Underground who provided the stronger analysis of fat, linking it more authoritatively to structural power, being explicit about fat, and writing from direct experience. Orbach, Chernin and Bordo don't really write about fat, they use slenderness, dieting, 'body image' and eating disorders as proxies. In the long term I think this has been very damaging, fat has been obscured by other topics, the discourse has been stunted, with real-world repercussions.

I temper my dismay about this sorry state of affairs by a) doing my work, b) hoping that Fat Studies will replace the Holy Trinity, and c) grim humour. Woodman's absurd claim had me giggling in the library last week. She pronounces: "Every woman haunted by obesity knows the agony of looking into a mirror and seeing an owl staring back at her" (p.9). And there's more, which I'm reproducing here, in full snark-o-vision, in the hope that laughing at such preposterous, condescending nonsense will help reduce its power over us.

Edited to add: Look what cleanskies drew

Personality Problems of Obese Women

1. Tends to live life in terms of other people's needs and reactions. May compensate by becoming fiercely possessive. Danger of becoming an automaton.

2. Convinced of her own unworthiness therefore hypersensitive to rejection. May be compensated by an inflated view of her own self-worth. The unconscious body mirrors this in size.

3. As an adult, still dependent on the mother or father, at the same time rebellious against them.

4. Life a desperate search for her own identity, physically and psychically. Wants to feel she is in control of her own body and own life. Without this, a gorwing sense of despair develops.

5. Fears social contact with her peer group, develops and overwhelming sense of aloneness and loneliness.

6. Weak ego leads to inability to cope with reality, and flights into fantasy with a princely father or his surrogate. Fantasies tend to be very inflated.

7. Unaware of own shadow. Feels herself manipulated and victimised by evil forces from outside (eg. parents, Devil, God), but blind to the personal reality of evil.

8. "Passivity" terrifies her. No understanding of positive feminine energy. "To surrender" for her means giving up, cowardice, loss of control, annihilation. Cannot understand "losing one's life to find one's life," either sexually or spiritually. Resultant fear of sexuality, spontaneous feeling, and orgasm.

9. Devoted to Appollonian order and discipline. Terrified of anything remotely smacking of the Dionysian, therefore prone to possession by it (eg. midnight binges).

(Woodman, 1982:40)


Chernin, K. (1983) Womansize: the tyranny of slenderness, London: The Women's Press.

Moran, K. (1992) 'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Fat Liberation and Overeaters Anonymous', in: Charest, D., Coulombe, J. & Turcotte, L. (eds.) Dossier: Oppression de la Grosseur. Montréal: Amazones d'Hier, Lesbiennes d'Aujourdhui, 103-112.

Orbach, S. (1978) Fat Is A Feminist Issue: How to lose weight permanently – without dieting, London: Arrow Books.

Woodman, Marion (1982) The Owl Was a Baker's Daughter: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Repressed Feminine, Toronto: Inner City Books.


Miriam Heddy said...

You make me want to reread Bordo, because I remember quite liking her way back when and I don't know that I would have grouped her in with someone like Chernin or Orbach, whose thinking (at least in my memory of them) pathologized fatness and fat women by suggesting that we are using unproductive ways of gaining power and subverting ourselves in the process.

In any case, I agree with your take that we are part of human diversity.

I tend to think we need to extend the category of normative body or even just get rid of it altogether and find ways of acknowledging that fat is a state of being that is like any other state (say, for instance, New Jersey, where I reside). You can come to be in New Jersey by way of having been born here. You can move here as an adult. You can reside here temporarily and move on or move out and then come back. You can be sick here or healthy here and New Jersey can make you sick or healthy. But seeing that I am in New Jersey tells you next to nothing about who I am, nor should it allow you to think you can look at any other New Jersey resident's life as one that defines my own.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Hi Miriam, thanks for this.

I was surprised by Bordo when I revisited the book last week. I find her account of her own weight loss troubling, and the emphasis on slenderness really bugs me because it's not a replacement for talking about fat. She places anorexia and obesity in opposition, which irritates me too, and treates them as extremes. Here fat is a "metaphor about internal processes out of control – uncontained desire, unrestrained hunger, uncontrolled impulse." (p.189) Sound familiar?

Along with Orbach, this is understood to be a foundational text in the body and in understandings of fatness, yet fat people are absented and stereotyped. It reproduces fatphobia whilst purporting to 'decode' it.

Meanwhile, your New Jersey analogy is pretty good!

buffpuff said...

"May be compensated by an inflated view of her own self-worth. The unconscious body mirrors this in size".

This is hands down quite the most ridiculous proposition about why somebody might be fat I've ever read. Firstly good luck finding a fat woman with an inflated view of her own self-worth anywhere in the western world; secondly, how much self worth would the author consider permissible before it spirals OMFGOUTOFCONTROL?!! ? Thirdly, surely having buckets of self-belief and self-esteem is a Good Thing when negotiating a thin-centric world as a fat woman? Fourthly, surely if large amounts of self-belief etc would cause the unconscious body to inflate, you'd never see a skinny arse in Heat magazine? And finally, why the unconscious body? Surely unconscious head is more likely to swell if one is seriously up oneself?

Rebecca said...

I see what you're saying, and agree for the most part, but, I have to say, those problems are eerily similar to those of a 'friend' of mine, who last year decided her size 18.20 body was unacceptable and started on a radical diet while simultaneously implying that her friends' fat/gay/internet lives were completely irrelevant. I'm convinced she has a personality disorder. I wonder how much her fat comes into it.

Charlotte Cooper said...

BuffPuff, you're only saying that because you are devoted to Appollonian order and discipline.

Rebecca, I think this sounds like your friend because they are Barnum Statements.

SW said...

I am being pushed to use the Holy Trinity in my PhD work. Can you recommend other writers/critics/theorists that can be used for PhD level work?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yes, maybe try Sam Murray, Katie LeBesco, The Fat Studies Reader, Fat Studies in the UK. I also like Jaqueline Gingras' work and Hillel Schwartz. You might like to try my own book, Fat & Proud, which has many flaws but has critiques of Orbach in it, and Shadow on a Tightrope for a historical analysis of fat lib. Paul Campos and Michael Gard get namechecked a lot in PhD level work, though they are highly critiquable, and I like the anthology from last year about Obesity and Biopower, edited by Jan Wright and Valerie Harwood.

SW said...

I have a couple of these, but I'm not familiar with most of them. Thanks a lot for the great ideas. Much appreciated! I will be looking these up.

Charlotte Cooper said...

A pleasure, but tell me more about your work.

sizeoftheocean said...

There's another critique of Overeaters Anonymous I came across a while back - "Let Go and Let God" by Rebecca Lester in Interpreting Weight, edited by Jeffrey Sobal & Donna Maurer.

It's been a while since I read it, so my memory is a bit vague - I think it was a bit problematic but raised some interesting ideas about OA as a sort of "technology of the self". Probably time I had another look...

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yes, I've seen other critiques of OA as well, including the Sobal and Maurer piece you mention.

I suppose my interest in this article was that it also referenced the fat lib movement, and the impact of OA on that. That seems like something that hasn't been addressed elsewhere.

sizeoftheocean said...

That's a really good point, about the impact of OA on fat lib.

I'm really interested at the how OA replicates dominant and pop-psych ideas about food and weight. I guess I tend to see both OA and FA as reacting to those dominant ideas in very different ways - but of course, that doesn't mean they don't interact with each other.

Full disclosure: I actually went to OA for a while in the dim and distant past, when I was convinced that any eating I did must be overeating because, well, fat. I think I feel a post coming on...

Charlotte Cooper said...

sizeoftheocean, I'd like to see that post, if you write it.

Also, great point about the different ideologies overlapping.

SW said...

I emailed you a while ago about an upcoming conference where we'll both be presenting. Sorry for using cryptic initials here! For my PhD I'm writing a novel with a fat female heroine. I also must write a 40,000-word critical piece about my novel and the issues it raises, which is where the research comes into it. As primarily a creative type, I don't tend to approach the issue of fat and related issues from a research/critical perspective, but more intuitive and feeling. It's just how I work. But now I'm beginning to work more on the critical part, so I need to familiarize myself with the field of research and sometimes it's difficult sorting the good from the bad. I have found your comments about Orbach, et al., to be helpful. I attended a lecture by her at a conference last year and was not impressed.

Charlotte Cooper said...

SW, I'm glad it's helpful. Good luck at the conf, I won't be presenting at the rearranged date, unfortunately.

Bri said...

Are you still coming to Australia later in the year, Charlotte? I hope so, I am dying with excitement about the Fat Studies conference.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yes I am Bri, I'll see you there.

Jessie said...

I'm curious--how would OA ideology kill Fat Liberation in dyke communities? Sheer volume? Cultural momentum? Subversion of possible allies?

Now I'm imagining ideologies as amoeba sliding across the landscape, sharing DNA and eating each other.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Jessie, yes. I think there was an evangelical zeal in OA at that time. Moran gives accounts of fat lib workshops being crashed and fat activists being shut up in social spaces by OA proponents.

William said...


As a Fat Guy active in Fat/Size Acceptance I fine a lot of the writings of Susie Orbach and her peers to be so wrong when you correlate them with experiences of Fat Men shared even during the time that Orbach published her best known works.

Doctors and therapists are one source of Fat Male experiences that Orbach and her peers must have somehow over looked.

Here is a good read


Recent statements by Orbach about fat people imply that she has either reversed her opinions on Fatness or was just trying to sell books back in the 1980s

I do like the Fat Underground writings from L.A. and New Haven, CT in the 1970s which often used the inclusive term Fat People and spoke of old Fat People as well as Fat Children.

This is a magazine article that is close to the original documents of the FU.


I think that the FU writings would be the best for Fat Acceptance of today to look back on as inspiration.

Still I would say that the divide that Fetish Model of the old Dimensions/NAAFA collaboration created is more of problem than the old high profile feminist writers like Orbach


Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your thoughts William.