Guest post: Body Image panel debate at the Women’s Library

// 19 June 2009

Chrissy D reports back from last night’s debate on body image at the Women’s Library, which featured Susie Orbach.

At the panel debate, “Body Image: the impact of magazines”, last night at the Women’s Library, it became apparent to me that life is probably easier if you’re on Susie Orbach’s side.

Luckily, I am, and so listening to three industry experts discussing the effect of magazine images on women’s interpretation of their own bodies was an insightful – if a little predictable – experience. Nothing particularly new was said, nor were any shatteringly bold statements made (if you discount National Centre for Eating Disorders’ [NCED] Deanne Jade’s revelation that, apparently, women’s magazines are not very much to blame for eating disorders as instead they provide us all with jobs…) but the banter, sharing of old (and recycled) ideas and questioning session was enjoyable to one with a vested interest in the psychology of women, beauty and food.

The debate began with Jade, representing the NCED, addressing the question of where women’s perceptions of their own bodies originate and a quick audience participation experiment involving recognising our default attitudes to our own bodies. Elementary as it may sound, the exercise did make me consider how amazing/frightening it was that, in a group of women confident and astute enough to show up at a debate on women’s body image, so few were able to automatically associate one positive word with their own bodies.

Following Deanne Jade was a representative of the British Medical Association, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, who spoke in more statistical and official-research-shows based tones about the current ‘obesity crisis’ and what we all need to do to (sigh) feel better about ourselves and live longer.

Orbach spoke for a shorter time, but her address was concise and unwavering from her official line on fat as laid out in Fat is a Feminist Issue, first published in 1978. She covered issues from Weight Watchers (who, she said, encouraged her to lose a stone in weight at her first meeting) to diet companies being prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act and then briefly to the ageism perpetuated by magazines for women in selling youthful (Orbach argues, pornographic) images as a necessity of life and worth to women of all ages.

When asked about the system of ‘traffic lighting’ on food labels, and the now seemingly intrinsic link between food and virtue, Orbach and her co-panelist Dr Nathanson expressed fundamentally different views on the subject, with neither appearing to understand the root of the other’s ideology on the issue. Orbach, a champion of the ‘hungry? eat, full? stop’ technique, agreed that the effect of such green-orange-red signifiers has not been and can never be a positive one on both our body image and our physical health. Nathanson, however, seemed to somewhat misunderstand this argument and instead flew the flag for the BMA’s ‘Change for Life’ programme, which advocates a ‘move more, eat less’ policy to tackle the widely-reported obesity epidemic in the UK.

It was above all a lively debate, with definite moments of tongue-holding by the members of the audience, particularly at the BMA rep’s complete misinterpretation of the whole situation. Sympathetic, however – for the most part – to Dr Nathanson’s good intentions, the atmosphere was one of collective support for the divorce of food from virtuous and sinful characteristics, and primarily for Susie Orbach and the maintenance of her original FIFI message.

I feel another Dove film coming on…

Comments From You

Claire // Posted 19 June 2009 at 4:13 pm

More than 50% of all women and girls receiving NHS care for eating disorders report childhood sexual abuse or other sexual trauma. I do not wish to exonerate publishers of fashion and lifestyle magazines from their responsibility for body image issues, but a debate that draws a direct causality between eating disorders and the fashion industry so doing the many survivors of sexual abuse and sexual violence with eating disorders a huge disservice.

Lara // Posted 19 June 2009 at 4:32 pm

I agree. I think citing images in magazines as a cause of eating disorders is completely undermining. I think women’s magazines are responsible for skewed body image and certainly don’t help girls teetering on the edge of an eating disorder, but to accuse them of giving girls eating disorders is very minimising of the seriousness of eating disorders.

Charlotte // Posted 19 June 2009 at 7:28 pm

Agreed with the above. This is a debate which has cropped up a few times on here recently. I think it’s fair to say that women’s magazines are part of a culture whose values and beliefs create a situating in which eating disorders readily manifest themselves- and that magazines play a significant role in perpetuating these attitudes- but to place “blame” on the magazine industry is to entirely belittle the problems and issues at stake behind eating disorders.

Not that this proves anything, merely a relevant anecdote- in 3 months of attending an eating disorder therapy group of 10 women aged from 18-40s, not once have magazines/fashion industry/ cultural values of thinness been mentioned by any of the sufferers as factors that have contributed to their eating disorders.

polly styrene // Posted 19 June 2009 at 7:37 pm

I’ve never had an eating disorder myself, but those women/girls I’ve met who have had eating disorders do usually want to be thin.

I think the point is that if I look at a size 6 model, I don’t think “oh I really wish I was that thin”, but that women who have issues in other areas of their life can see maintaining a low body weight as something both socially desirable and within their control, as well as a way of managing emotional distress. Particularly if you’ve experienced abuse and you feel control of your body has been taken away from you.

So although images of thin models may not cause eating disorders on their own, they do nothing to discourage them either, because being very thin is seen as a desirable goal.

It’s surely more a matter of the surrounding culture making an eating disorder an acceptable way to express your distress, part of the cultural language if you will.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 19 June 2009 at 8:36 pm

Plus anorexia is not a modern phenomenon; it has a long history and exists in periods where skinny is not the ideal body shape, and even where women’s magazines didn’t exist. There is even some interesting work on how medieval saints fasting (they do this for extensive periods of time) may even have been a form of anorexia in some instances. It may be more useful to think of it terms of control over the body, and through that one’s life, as much as a need to achieve a certain body image.

Chrissy D // Posted 20 June 2009 at 6:37 am

I think the intention of the debate was good, even if two of the three panelists at least partly failed to address the main issues.

hmc // Posted 20 June 2009 at 5:52 pm

I think it is important to point out that although eating disorders are not ’caused’ by fashion magazines/cultural values of thinness, these things do make it a hell of a lot harder for people trying to RECOVER from eating disorders. They may not have been among the original contributory factors, but it certainly doesn’t help women who are struggling with anorexia, for example, to be constantly receiving the message that ‘hey, losing weight and attempting to achieve an impossible beauty ideal should be the primary goal of every woman’s life’. Basically, if you’re an anorexic trying to recover, the ‘you must put on some weight in order for your body to be properly nourished and functioning’ is easily drowned out by all the people telling you ‘you’re so good, i wish i could eat as little as you, you could be a model!’.

polly styrene // Posted 21 June 2009 at 2:55 pm

There are interesting parallels though, Feminist Avatar, between the religious idea of fasting as a virtuous activity and the contemporary idea of certain foods as ‘sinful’.

So although the goal of fasting to get to heaven may on the surface be different from the goal of fasting to be size zero, both are actually based on notions of sin, purity, and the mortification of the flesh.

Remember the ‘naughty but nice’ campaign for cream cakes? This is the problem with government campaigns against obesity. If I personally knew my health was threatened, I’d have no difficulty eating a healthier diet probably. But when it seems that HM government are just telling me to be ‘good’, like a lot of people I have an irrestible desire to rebel.

corinna // Posted 22 June 2009 at 1:41 pm

I was at that talk and it was so naïve and full of assumptions about women as consumers, really othering as if no one in that room read magazines and therefore weren’t duped like those poor other women. Someone even said that we who were there were all ‘savvy’ – implying that anyone looking at a magazine and feeling crap was not informed. There is such a superior rescue mission attitude to this way of thinking that’s just insulting. As if that was not enough, it was also horrendously fatphobic from beginning to end. The usual double talk of hand wringing concern over a skewed body image was peppered throughout with talk of an ‘obesity crisis’. A thin woman with a ‘gorgeous figure’ wanting to lose weight was tragic, but we had to be told yet again that there is an ‘obesity crisis’ and fat women are disordered. Young children are worrying about their weight and that is terrifying but women need to be taught how to feed their children to stop the child obesity crisis. Again, massively patronising and so much double talk. The faux celebration of body diversity in the room was just insulting when anyone fat women were included in the assumption that we had an eating disorder ‘as serious as anorexia’ and the ‘other side of the coin’. Orbach applauded this idea of obesity being disordered behaviour – after all it’s the backbone of a lot of her work. Even so it took a while for her to throw in that the obesity epidemic data is massively flawed. Because she’s also made a habit out of appropriating fat political speech but still insists women are fat through eating disorders and that fat women are a problem. That she was the one in the room questioning ideas of an obesity epidemic speaks volumes about the massive assumptions around fat being banded about. But she still equates fatness with disorder. This is such a massive flaw in a lot of feminist body work – the concern is for thin women who think they’re fat. But if we’re constantly told fatness is a problem and a disorder then this is going to feed into fear of fat. But it also leaves no space for fat women, gives us no voice. Having researched celebrity gossip magazines for three years and actually spoken to women who read them, I could have contributed something to that discussion but quickly realised there was no point. Not least because there was hardly any mention of magazines throughout the whole thing. Too busy were they underlining that we can’t forget there’s an obesity epidemic, just so we didn’t think they were actually condoning being fat.

Charlotte Cooper // Posted 24 June 2009 at 9:35 am

I’ve written about this event on my blog, about Size Matters? too, about how fat people are marginalised in such presentations, and about how this can and should change.

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