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Is fat still a feminist issue?

FatfeministFeminist explanations for the development and maintenance of eating and body image problems and therapeutic approaches to treatment, have been largely discarded in favour of biological determinism and the medicalisation of mental health. But with more people suffering from body image dissatisfaction and the effects of disordered eating behaviours than at any other time in history, it’s time to revisit what second-wave feminists had to say about weight discrimination, writes Dr Naomi Crafti.

15 April 2012

When Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach was first published, the response was extraordinary. Well before the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ and at a time when eating disorders were barely on the mental health radar, Orbach wrote about ‘body image’ and eating disorders ?from a feminist psychoanalytic framework.

Orbach, co-founder of The Women’s Therapy Centre, London, was involved in women’s consciousness raising groups and her central theme was that “fat is about protection” – protection from gender-based stereotypes and the limited options presented to women. “Fat is a way of saying no to powerlessness and self-denial,” Orbach wrote, espousing awareness and empowerment as the alternative, from a feminist perspective.

Many women, myself included, found solace in her message. Fat had a voice and the voice was chanting for change. Contemporary feminists have countered, however, that Orbach’s original message has been translated and diluted into ‘fat acceptance’ rather than ‘fat protest’.

In feminist media studies, 30 years of sophisticated theoretical debate about eating disorders and body image issues are often reduced to complaints about lack of size diversity in the mainstream media and dismay at the emaciated state of increasingly young catwalk models.

This narrow focus, it is claimed, significantly limits the extent to which feminist cultural perspectives can respond to an increasing problem that affects large numbers of individuals, both male and female. Arguing for ‘fat acceptance’ does little to change a situation where class, gender, education and location not only contribute to who becomes overweight or obese, but also who suffers as a result.

Overweight people are targets of weight stigmatisation and prejudice. Weight bias occurs from employers, healthcare professionals, educators and even family and friends. Common to most studies that look at this phenomenon is the finding that fat women are more adversely affected by such discrimination than are men. Here are some examples:

  • When participants in a study were asked to rate ‘fictitious’ male and female job candidates, males reported significantly less desire to work with a fat woman than did females; there was no comparable gender difference in desire to work with a fat man.

  • A recent study showed that ‘obese’ female political candidates were evaluated more negatively overall and in terms of reliability, dependability, honesty, ability to inspire, and ability to perform a strenuous job, than were non-obese female candidates. Not only did this finding not hold for obese male candidates, but obese men were rated more positively than non-obese individuals in this study.

  • In a study involving actual sales managers, employees described as ‘extremely overweight’ were more likely to be assigned to undesirable sales territories and less likely to be assigned an important or desirable region. This discrimination was stronger for fat women than for fat men.

  • Longitudinal studies using large data sets (US) have demonstrated lower occupational attainment, lower hourly and lifetime earnings for fat women, even after controlling for education and socioeconomic status. This was not the case for fat men.

  • Whereas roughly two thirds of adult women in the U.S. are classified as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’, only 10% of top US female CEOs fall into these weight categories.

  • In another study researchers asked college students to rate the attractiveness of prospective partners and found that men were more likely to choose sexual partners on the basis of weight than were women. Male participants rated ‘obese’ women as less attractive than women missing a limb, in a wheelchair, mentally ill or those with a sexually transmitted disease.

  • Another study has found that male respondents to a personal advertisement were significantly more likely to respond to an ad in which the woman was described as being in recovery from drug addiction than one who was described as 50lb overweight.

  • In perhaps one of the most disturbing studies of all, physicians were sent three hypothetical case vignettes that differed in Body Mass Index (BMI) (BMI 25, BMI 28 and BMI 32, or normal weight, overweight, obese respectively). The vignettes were either all male or all female. For those cases with a BMI of 25 (normal weight), physicians were more likely to recommend weight loss, Weight Watchers or dieting when the vignette was female and more likely to discourage dieting and encourage appearance acceptance when the vignette was male.

  • And mental health professionals are not immune to discriminatory weight practices. In one study about 100 psychologists were mailed a self-description of a hypothetical female client accompanied by a fat or thin photograph. Psychologists who received the fat photograph were more likely to diagnose an eating disorder and to suggest either ‘improve body image’ or ‘increase sexual satisfaction’ as treatment goals. Female psychologists gave the fat ‘client’ a worse prognosis.

Compared to other forms of discrimination, weight discrimination is the third most prevalent cause of perceived discrimination among women in the US (after gender and age). Men are not at serious risk of discrimination until their BMI reaches 35 (well into the obese range), while women experience an increase in discrimination at BMI 27 (moderately overweight).

In fact, moderately obese women (BMI 30-35) are three times more likely than men to experience weight discrimination. The heart of the problem according to researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity , Yale University, is that overweight and obesity are linked to shame and stigmatisation and this can lead to depression and discrimination. Depression and discrimination are risk factors for binge eating, and so the cycle continues.

The negative effects of weight prejudice on women have been increasingly assessed and include; poor body image, reductions in psychosocial functioning and increases in unhealthy eating behaviours, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. According to Kelly Brownell at the Rudd Centre, “Organised efforts to reduce weight bias are needed.”

One organised effort against weight bias is the movement known as Health at Every Size (HAES?). HAES questions the relationship between fat and pathology and instead emphasises approaches to health that produce benefits independent of weight loss.

Proponents of HAES advocate the practice of size acceptance; listening to the bodies internal signals of hunger and satiety; engaging in pleasurable and meaningful physical activity rather than exercising for weight loss; and accessing size-friendly health care environments. These practices are healthy for people of all sizes, genders, ages, levels of education and income. They are neither stigmatising nor pathologising.

Feminist therapy approaches

There are a wide range of therapeutic approaches used and useful in the area of eating disorders and disordered eating. Counselling approaches compatible with a feminist theoretical perspective are found in psychodynamic, systemic, narrative, cognitive and mindfulness based therapies.

Feminist practitioners working within these therapeutic styles share a core idea: the personal is political. This ‘mantra’ of the feminist movement recognises that people with eating disorders are both shaped by the political environment in which they live and contribute to it. In this way feminist therapy can be seen as ‘an act of political resistance’.

Traditional ‘evidence based’ therapies for eating disorders, particularly those evolving from the medical/biological models of aetiology, tend to separate the personal from the social and political domains.

For example, eating disorders are the result of self-hatred and low self-esteem; eating disorders arise from negative thoughts and irrational core-beliefs; eating disorders are the result of sexual, emotional or physical abuse; or, eating disorders are associated with underlying personality disorders.

These formulations don’t include more recent theories associating, in particular anorexia, with structural or hormonal brain abnormalities. In contrast, feminist theories that attempt to explain the aetiology of eating disorders do not deny the aforementioned associations, but additionally attend to the social context that provides the unsanitary conditions in which these vulnerabilities can thrive.

Objectification theory, for example, proposes that self-objectification and the internalisation of cultural ideals of beauty can lead to a range of negative psychological consequences.

Women, taking an observer’s perspective of their own bodies, view their bodies as objects to be evaluated. Research has shown that women who self-objectify their bodies are more likely to experience disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, appearance anxiety, decreased self-esteem, depressed mood and even decreased cognitive performance as the result of a disruption of focused attention.

There is some empirical support for the notion that the more women subscribe to feminist attitudes, the less likely they are to evaluate themselves primarily on the basis of physical appearance. Marika Tiggerman from Flinders University, Adelaide, found that while middle-aged women with feminist attitudes had less concern about their weight, feminist attitudes did not affect the younger women in her study in the same way. Perhaps this generational difference points towards the diminishing influence of feminist thought on post- feminist women.

Nevertheless, research and clinical experience do suggest that feminist attitudes may help women develop a critical perspective and voice which they can use to struggle against the oppression they face in the body domain.

An important component of feminism that may be critical for counteracting the effects of societal objectification is empowerment.

Empowerment can be defined as having control over one’s life and influencing the organisational and societal structures in which one lives. Empowerment programs for girls (when introduced into the school curriculum) have demonstrated some success in influencing body image and eating attitudes in early to middle adolescence. And studies with college students have found that the more powerless a sample of undergraduate women felt, the more likely they were to have body image and eating disturbances.

The feminist approach to dealing with body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating involves consciousness raising and education (empowerment). It involves challenging myths about beauty and dieting and addressing weight and appearance discrimination.

Discussing these issues in group settings (rather than individual therapeutic settings) may be particularly empowering, as groups embody the cultural and social context of women’s lives. And part of this process involves thinking of ways to participate in challenging systems ‘out there’, rather than, as therapies focused on ‘individual change’ would suggest, learning acceptance within those systems.

An obvious problem with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), the ‘gold standard’ for treatment in eating disorders,? is that it locates within the thought processes of individuals – deemed ‘irrational’- sociocultural beliefs about weight, shape and eating behaviour.

Fed Up? Is a feminist agency in Melbourne, Australia, providing education, health promotion, small group programs and activist opportunities to the general community, those with eating and body image issues, health professionals and others. This agency has developed, in part, as a counterpoint to existing community based organisations that operate within the dominant biomedical paradigm.

Important principles of Fed Up? include; recognising the central role of socio-political and cultural contexts in the aetiology, maintenance and recovery from disordered eating and body image dissatisfaction, emphasising the role of gender, race and age in these contexts, locating support and change agents within the community, actively working for social change and empowering women to challenge the existing systems that promote discrimination and self-hatred.? If you are Fed Up? sign on.

Dr Naomi Crafti is a member of the Australian Psychological Society College of Counselling Psychology, with over 20 years experience working in the area of eating disorders, body image and weight discrimination. While an academic at Swinburne University Naomi developed, evaluated and supervised the Mindful Moderate Eating Group (M-MEG) program at the Swinburne Psychology Clinic and trained more than 50 psychologists to run this program.

Naomi began working as the Community Development/Education Officer at Eating Disorders Victoria in 2009 and has only recently left this position to start her own consultancy, Fed Up?Register for self-service experience. In this role Naomi enjoys the opportunity to speak with and educate a wide variety of people about understanding and managing eating disorders, enhancing self-esteem, developing a positive body image and celebrating diversity. Naomi is a member of the Association for Size, Diversity and Health (ASDAH) and promotes Health at Every Size (HAES?) as a sustainable paradigm for living a less stressful life.

Naomi presented a workshop titled ‘Is fat still a feminist issue? at the 2011 Feminist Futures Conference, in Melbourne, Australia, which inspired this article. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


0 #9 dave 2012-07-08 17:20
Size discrimination does occur against men as well. Have ever concidered men that are slight of stature? They are just as discriminated against as bbw's. Studies show that larger men are paid more than smaller men.Its sad that even in bbw/bhm community they are discriminated against. Just read a couple of personals ads. I am sure you will find that like most men who want the "physical ideal" the women are just as guilty.

If the the size movement is ever to grow it must be more incluive of all people of different shapes and sizes regaurdless of gender.
0 #8 Naomi Crafti 2012-04-18 19:15
Kath, thank you for clarifying your concerns. I just can't see where in this piece I portray fat activists as 'being powerless, or damaged, or not approaching their activism through feminist perspectives'. I don't believe I have said any of these things. In fact I haven't referred to fat activists at all!. I do use the term fat acceptance, but I use this term in a descriptive literal sense, not referring to any particular political group. Is this the area of miscommunicatio n? Please specify which section offends you so I can respond.
I might just add Kath, this piece was originally written as a fully referenced academic article and I modified it for this setting. You may also be getting confused between my own words and where I cite the opinions of others.
0 #7 Marilyn Wann 2012-04-18 16:51
Naomi, I'm suprised that you express surprise at the feedback Kath and I have offered here. Would you write about any other sort of identity politics where there is an active, international community of activists as if there had been no effective response for decades and the only source of help would be psychologists who are politicized on the subject? The points you offer in your comment here are not objectionable. Your erasure of fat activism in this essay (intentional or not) I would be happy to connect with you on activism that addresses weight prejudice and discrimination. I do that with all sorts of psychologists and with ASDAH (Association for Size Diversity and Health). But that coalition of course depends on whether or not you believe non-psychologis t fat activists exist.
0 #6 Kath 2012-04-18 00:56
Naomi, I've got no problem with the battle you're choosing to fight, I have a problem with the way you portray fat activists as either being powerless, or damaged, or not approaching their activism through feminist perspectives. I'm more than happy with your call for a feminist approach to the issue, I'd just appreciate that you don't assume that "fat acceptance" (or as I prefer, fat activism) does little to change the situation intersectionall y. Intersectionali ty is at the forefront of fat activism, particularly as many of us are marginalised by more than one aspect of our lives. Again, if you don't see this, you're not listening to us.
0 #5 Naomi Crafti 2012-04-17 21:36
I'm sorry that I seem to have unintentially offended fat activisits. This was not at all what I was trying to do in this piece and either I have not expressed myself well or my arguments have been misinterpreted. The point I am trying to make in this piece is that in my area of psychology (eating disorders and body image concerns), many of the sociocultural concerns of feminists in the 70's and 80's are currently being overlooked in favour of medical/biologi cal explanations. Those (outside of fat activists) in the mainstream health professions who do consider sociocultural issues are often 'stuck' on relatively minor concerns like 'banning thin models' or 'labelling images as airbrushed'. My point is that weight/appearan ce discrimination is far more pervasive and effects all people (mostly women), regardless of size. Eating disorder clinics, schools, universities and work places are full of people of all shapes and sizes who feel ashamed about their bodies and engage in unhealthy behaviours in response. Feminist therapy approaches can, I believe, help alleviate the distress for some of these people and are currently being overlooked in mainstream psychology.
Now please, if this message is somehow contradictory or offensive to the fat activist movement, can you please explain how? It is my belief that we are on the same side, but fighting slightly different battles.
0 #4 Kath Read 2012-04-17 04:09
Interesting Naomi that you are so dismissive of fat activism (which some refer to as fat acceptance), especially when you have met several of the most vocal Australian fat activists less than two years ago at the Sydney Fat Studies Conference - including myself. You heard our stories, experienced our passion and commitment to fighting for our civil rights as fat people... and yet you write this piece that portrays us as powerless, damaged and unwilling/unabl e to challenge the dominant paradigm around fat bodies. You're clearly not paying much attention to our work.

I seem to recall your focus was on "mindful eating" in a room full of fat people who had spent most of their lives obsessing over being mindful of what we eat, as if we were mindless about our eating habits. I feel like you're not paying much attention to fat people in general, particularly fat people with eating disorders.

What I'm fed up with is academics and "professionals" who are simply not listening to the everyday people who are devoting their lives to their own liberation from an fat oppression.
0 #3 Janie 2012-04-16 01:14
Yes, having your accomplishments dismissed so that you can be judged solely on your appearance is still a feminist issue.
0 #2 Marilyn Wann 2012-04-15 20:43
I have been a fat activist, author, and active participant in fat pride community since the mid-90s. I'm aware of fabulous people in Australia who are fat activists. I do not understand —?and frankly suspect the motives behind — this article's willful ignorance of entire communities engaging in fat politics from feminist and anti-oppression models. "Fat acceptance" is totally mischaracterize d here. What I call fat pride community is often also called fat acceptance community and it is centrally about protest. The fat political communities that I know about rely little on Susie Orbach and in fact find her writings to be unsupportive of truly radical fat politics, as she continues to pathologize weight diversity and handwring about the so-called "obesity" epidemic. Our activities are certainly not limited to critique of mainstream media!

I wholly object to the use of the fat-blaming obesigenic environment argument. This sort of blame-shifting is just another way of saying that fat people are too stupid or lazy to dodge fattening effects. It also fails to consider the ways in which increasing population weights correlate with improved, not worsened, health. If we weigh more thanks to the effect of vaccines and antibiotics, is it a bad thing? If we weigh more as a side effect of 60 years of weight-loss dieting, isn't it wrong to point the finger yet again at weight?

I also find deeply suspicious the mischaracteriza tion of Health At Every Size?, which fails to acknowledge that social justice and addressing weight prejudice is a central tenet of this approach. HAES encourages people to address their internalized weight prejudices and to celebrate weight diversity and the beauty of all body shapes.

Body image and eating disorders are important issues but they are absolutely not synonymous with fat politics. While fat politics and HAES can be incredibly useful for people who face eating disorders, weight is also a highly inaccurate predictor of who will experience an eating disorder. (I.e., not all fat people have binge eating disorder or any food issues. When fat people do have food issues, it's likely due to weight-loss practices, not to being fat.) Also, not all fat people have terrible body image. People who participate in fat pride community and who engage in fat politics may well have fabulous body image. Psychologizing fat people around body image and eating — when these may well be issues we have either overcome or do not find troubling — is presumptuous, stereotyping, and uncool.

Fat oppression is a real experience, as you rightly and usefully describe. Feminism and other anti-oppression models are super useful, but not synonymous with fat politics. I encourage people to learn more about fat pride community and fat activism. Even in the late 70s, Susie Orbach was neither a fat activist nor a particularly reliable advocate of fat pride.
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0 #1 Deb Lemire 2012-04-15 17:35
Naomi, you will enjoy exploring Susie Orbach's lastest book, Bodies. she has expanded her thinking beyond "fat is protection, therefore empowerment will result in losing weight" that is implied in FFI. In discussions with her, she clearly is open to where her path may take her, even if it contradicts what she may have previously thought.

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