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).
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.