July 21, 2016

Fat is still a feminist issue. So is feminism.

Looking back on Susie Orbach at AWF 2016, and forward to Andi Zeisler.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!

Carole Beu, usually the Festival’s most ebullient chair, went classic on us, almost reverent.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!"


I looked around to see if I could spot any men behind me, or across the vast reaches of the ASB Theatre which, as I had just noted down, was fully populated. I certainly couldn’t see any in front of me. Aha, two! And a group! And just further along from them, look, two more... and...and ... here you go:

What is it with men anyway? Women would go to a session with a male protagonist of the culture wars. Women would go to a Foucault session, were he still alive of course. I expect women would flock to a Foucault session. Women would go to hear any number of venerable male cultural critics or theorists, I thought, trying to come up with names of some live ones. It wasn't easy. I mentally saluted the life force and staying power of that amazing AWF 2016 trio Gloria Steinem, Susie Orbach and Vivian Gornick.

I clicked my attention back to the stage as Carole began chatting congenially about a certain Fifi. It didn't take me too embarrassingly long to identify Fifi as Fat is a Feminist Issue, Orbach’s 1978 book in which she used a feminist perspective to attempt to move people on from a blame-the-victim approach to weight “issues”.

Carole proposed, perhaps wishing and hoping, that the book “probably changed the lives of million of women”.

Susie Orbach’s calm response: “It didn’t change the world and the problem has actually amplified. It has now eaten into the lives of our children. There are women in rest homes being made to anguish over what they eat.”

“The book is actually most of all about compulsive eating”, said Carole, who was surprised to realise this when she reread it before the festival.

Orbach has never reread it -- she thinks maybe because she's frightened of it. When she wrote it, her insight was that “Largeness is a way of negotiating the pressures our visual culture places on us, about always having to look at yourself in a critical way. If you’re large, you’re exempt from that”. Today it’s different. “It signifies different things. It could mean being from the other side of the tracks or it could mean you have to look at the real me below the surface.”

But above all, largeness is not actually the issue. “You can be a compulsive eater in many sizes. You can be ‘normal’ and be a compulsive eater. I don’t think the real issue is obesity. It’s our relationship with eating. If we started with that instead of creating a stigma about being one size or another, that would address the problem better.”

The issue, in other words, is the notions attached to body size, the social judgments, the psychological feelings. I had never actually read Fifi, but I’ve now had a good look through it (thanks Auckland Libraries and Overdrive for having that available for me on my laptop in 60 seconds) (progress sometimes really is progress). As its electronic pages slipped past, it felt as though I were voyaging through an asteroid belt where the asteroids were big black words: all those angers, depresseds, turmoils, emptinesses, suffereds, swampeds, mirrors, defenses, and so on. It was a scary insight; what would it be like to live there.

The copy I had checked out was a reissue from 2006, for which Orbach had written a new introduction, in which she pointed out, “Dieting is even more popular than it was when Fat is a Feminist Issue was first published 28 years ago. Eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement.”

How well said, how sadly and disappointingly true. And side by side with that goes another of the dark sides of living in our “moneyed world”, as Vivian Gornick described it: those companies making money by selling the perfect body (“though they don’t call it that”) to vulnerable people, mostly but not always women.

For one, the diet industry, raking in billions of dollars for products which don't work and people (consumers) conveniently never stop feeling they need, since only 3% of people who lose weight through dieting keep it off, for all kinds of reasons, from physiological changes to psychological pressures. The cosmetics industry, for another.

“To encourage body-hatred all over the world is a gift of later capitalism. We export it all over the world.” Orbach pointed out. I think it was in one of her columns for The Guardian where she discussed research which found a mathematical correlation between the arrival of commercial television and its army of advertising in various countries, and the increase in eating disorders among the young girls in those countries.

“Now the body is a product we have to make, instead of where we are from. We are going to have the branded body. Not just clothes but our bodies will be branded. The brand will be Barbie-esque.”

More and more people's daily lives feed them a stream of images of celebrities photoshopped and manipulated into an unattainable ideal. How healthy a diet is that? “People come in to me for a problem like a job problem and they also have body hatred but they haven’t come for that. They just assume they’ll have that all their life.”

“What do you hope for young women?” asked Carole.

“What I hope for all of us -- to have a life of meaning.”

I was reminded of a passage I read recently in a memoir which might have been Angelica Garnett's, or possibly Jenny Diski's (I trust I'm not the only person who remembers the sentiment and the sensation of past readings but not necessarily the specimen ID). Angelica had received from her aunt, Virginia Woolf, or maybe Jenny had received from her foster mother Doris Lessing, a note expressing the hope that she would have a happy life. Angelica/Jenny wonders, looking back, at the choice of "happy", rather than "good", which she would have thought a better wish. A life of meaning is a pretty good life, for my money.

I am not sure if it were the psychotherapist in Orbach instinctively making sure that we would leave the 60 minute version of the "50 minute hour" with a good feeling, once the discontent had been aired, but that was how it went. There were some likable closing lines from her --  "What's really satisfying is relationships and contributions and finding things that interest you" was one I liked, and there was one about a good ear being the most powerful thing you can offer which was met with a round of applause, surprisingly to me. I found her line about body-hatred being a gift of later capitalism much more rowsing. "Know your enemy" is powerful stuff too.

Because I am not a psychotherapist, but a reader and a writer, rather than lend an ear, I'm going to plant something in your ear: a suggestion for further reading. Susie Orbach speaks about the body becoming a brand. Andi Zeisler, the cofounder of Bitch Media, has written a provocative book about feminism itself becoming a brand. It's called We were feminists once and I discovered it during the Festival while travelling in the Vivian Gornick, Gloria Steinem and Susie Orbach force field. If something seems not quite right to you about a company selling (and people buying) body-hugging little tees, produced by poor women in developing country sweatshops, with "Feminist" emblazoned on the front, this is your book. Who is appropriating feminism, and why, while doing nothing to progress the "unfinished business of the women's movement" -- as Susan Douglas calls it?

I actually went and bought myself my own copy when I had to return my borrowed copy to the library. A book which teaches me the so very useful term "marketplace feminism" needs to be able to be pulled out again and again.

The many aspects of marketplace feminism and the range of the book can be glimpsed by its entry in the book's index, which points you to the following:  "as appeasement, beauty and", "choice and", "fashion and", "feminism and", "as feminist branding", "Mad Max: Fury Road as", "media and", "movies and", "popular culture and", "as prioritizing individuals", "purchasing and", "Spice Girls and", and, "television and".

-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 16:38


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