Fat is a Feminist Issue Redux

// 20 December 2005

Following on nicely from yesterday’s post, today’s Guardian runs the revised forward to the latest addition of a mighty tome I must admit to never having read – Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach.

Her forward nicely brings together two concerns that often appear to be pushing in different directions – the need to counter the overselling of thin as the only form of female beauty, and the ‘obesity epidemic’ – or its lesser, more prevelant cousin. Namely the fact that being overweight and underexercised is becoming the norm, with negative consequences for everyone’s health. Orbach argues that the food industry has undermined the idea that eating is what you do when you are hungry – the key to staying healthy.

“Befuddling our appetites has been part of the food industry’s aim for decades. Their profits increase when they sell us more and can reduce the cost of producing, transporting and storing food. Over the last few decades, we have been accustomed to a wider availability of relatively cheap food, lots of which have stabilisers and artificial flavours to increase their shelf life.”

From my time covering the food industry beat, I am well aware that this is a fraught issue. Efforts to promote healthy eating and regular exercise risk reinforcing the ‘cult of thin’ – and the dissatisfaction with our bodies that so many women and girls feel. Doctors talk seriously about making being overweight as much a social faux pas as smoking. On the other hand, the food industry is weighted to advertise “unhealthy” foods – I was once shown a very interesting diagram showing how the level of food advertising was in inverse proportion to how good for you a particular food was. Advertising, taken in the round, is telling us to stay as thin as a cover girl on a diet of chocolate, fizzy drinks and ready meals.

“One way or another, our shopping baskets increase, fast food outlets proliferate and that other great segment of the food industry, the diet industry, ratchets up its profits, safe in the knowledge that for every 100 people that go on a diet, 97% will be return customers whose diets have failed.”

The important thing, I can’t help but think, is to keep trying to undermine those messages – and to remember that there are more forms of female beauty than the narrow mirror of society that advertising is acknowledges.

“From as early as five years old, when little girls copy their favourite pop heroines, preoccupation with how the body appears has became a crucial aspect of female experience. Increasingly, women are not realising how quickly their lives have become dominated by these concerns. But while we are aware of the many efforts we make to look good, exercise and eat well, the underlying questions about why and how we have come to be so concerned about our bodies is taken as a given we all accede to.”

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