Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Food, fat and feminism

I'm just back from the Progressive Women Resolution Party, where guest speaker Susie Orbach, author of 'Fat is a Feminist Issue' kicked off by saying that she didn't believe in 'resolutions' She pointed out that most women's new year's resolution is to diet and lose weight, something she herself decided not to do any more when she was in her twenties. (Please note: she is a very slim woman, or 'waif-like' as the only man in the audience commented).

Orbach argued that one of the West's biggest exports is body hatred, and she cited examples such as the rhinoplasty carried out in Singapore, where women undergo surgery to have 'western' noses.

Research has shown that women and girls 'check in with themselves' in a negative way about their bodies ever fifteen minutes. Orbach blames the diet industry, an industry, she says, which relies on failure. She said "we need to be exposing industries who are making money out of making us feel shit. And we need to challenge each other's complicity."

I asked her whether women are not, in many ways, their own worst enemies. Do we not 'police' each other's eating, appearance and weight? There was agreement that this is the case, but that we should always challenge this and make it clear that it is not an acceptable way to treat one another.

One thing Orbach said really stuck with me. It was about how girls learn to mimic their mother's eating habits, and how it is obvious that a daughter who sees her Mum has a fucked-up relationship with food will learn to have issues around eating, too. I think this is certainly the case for me, and something I have been very much aware of trying not to pass on to my own daughter. Whether I have succeeded or not remains to be seen.

A couple of audience members challenged Orbach, pointing out that there is an obesity crisis, and shouldn't we be advocating healthy eating? Orbach rejects the notions of Body Mass Index, saying that some of the people involved with coming up with it were from the diet industry. She said that when the school her kids went to 'banned' biscuits and so on in packed lunches, she went in to complain, saying that kids need foods with quickly-releasing energy, and that the school shouldn't be labelling foods as 'bad' as that actually makes them taboo, and as a result, alluring.

One idea she had which made a lot of sense to me was to train health visitors, midwives and teachers about how parents can pass on a healthy, balanced approach to food, rather than their own issues. She pointed out this would cost very little to do but would have huge benefits in terms of self-esteem and cutting down on the number of people with eating disorders.

As part of her campaign 'Endangered Species' (the endangered species being women who are completely comfortable in and happy with their own bodies) she is challenging the advertising industry to stop filling women's - and, increasingly, men's heads with messages saying that they must lose weight, adapt their appearances - increasingly through surgery - and spend a lot of money before they can be allowed to be happy with themselves.

I would completely agree. Just a couple of days ago, I was speaking with a female friend about the hideous messages we get from advertising. My friend cited the example of a Special K ad a few years ago, which had a song in it which said "Don't let your life go to waste!" In other words, if you are not skinny, your life is wasted. Nice.

I also recalled an ad I'd seen when I was about 5 years old - possibly younger. Again, it was for Special K (hmm...might be time to boycott Kelloggs...), which said that "if you can pinch more than an inch, it's time to eat 'Special K'."

"Mummy, what's an inch?" I asked. She showed me. I lifted my t-shirt and pinched my skin. I was fat. I need to diet. The TV had told me so - it must be true. I can honestly pin-point that moment as being the one where I became aware that my body was something to worry about, rather than just to live in, at ease. I'm hoping to delay my daughter's own 'Special K' moment for a good few years yet - though in an ideal world she would remain oblivious to such malign pressures, and be confident in her body for life.

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