Obsessive dieting and self-hate, compulsive eating and body dysmorphobia – all the handcuffs women placed on themselves and assumed, Houdini-like, they had to escape on their own. We weren’t just weak-minded, greedy, ill-disciplined; there were specific realities to the conditions of both fat and thin that we were all chasing or escaping through our eating. Being fat was a protection against sexual attention, but also against being marketed to, having one’s body appropriated as a commercial space. Fat was a statement of solidity in the face of motherhood. It was a defence against competition, a way to dance around the painful establishment of hierarchy within your own gender. Fat meant so much more than calories in and calories out. As did thin, which carried its own freight: that you would be seen as superior and cold; that you would be overcome by your own promiscuity; that you would be perceived as selfish; that there would be no buffer between you and the world.
This is a truly tragic thing: those vast insights – which ranged from the most profound drivers of problem-eating to the most achievable, real-time routes out of it – changed nothing. Public health still talks about obesity as a lifestyle or ignorance issue, an information deficit – people who don’t know about calories accidentally eating too many of them. The standards to which women are held are more extreme and more distant than ever. Bodies communicate more about status than they ever have and, as that conduit, are the site of more anxiety.
“People used to know they had problems with their bodies and their eating, and they would come for help,” Orbach says, her pessimism always belied by the magnetic atmosphere of reassurance, optimism and challenge she creates when she talks to you. “Now it’s just taken for granted. This is just part of how I have to live – feeling shit about my body, scared of food, either managing it this way or managing it that way. [People who come to see me are] not familiar with feminist ideas, they’re not familiar with anti-dieting ideas, they’re not familiar with the idea that you could actually have a personal solution to your body that doesn’t involve being obsessed by it. When I first started, not every woman had an eating issue; not everybody had a body dysmorphic problem. Now everybody does, but they don’t bother to talk about it. It’s beyond depressing. It’s hateful, really, what the culture has done.”
Of the cultural surprises delivered by the past four decades, few have been pleasant for Orbach. “I wouldn’t have predicted the international dimension. I wouldn’t have thought that you’d be going to China and seeing billboards of western women projecting that fey, fuck-me look, selling back to the Chinese the clothes that were made in their factories. It’s a form of imperialism, isn’t it? We’re exporting body hatred all around the world. That’s something I did not expect. And I suppose I hadn’t really anticipated the explosion of non-food foods – the chemicals, the sugars that don’t get metabolised by the body.”
It is fascinating to consider the new context for Fat is a Feminist Issue to be reissued: one in which feminism has been through the trough of the apolitical 90s but, if not peaked, certainly resurfaced. That’s positive, of course; it’s less thrilling to find that debates that, in the 70s, were fairly sophisticated are having to start from scratch.
“Feminism,” Orbach recalls, “was a very broad church. There were the women who were going after changing the law and fighting so you could get a mortgage, then there were the women who wanted to get into the banks. Then there were the revolutionary feminists, the radical feminists, the lesbian separatist feminists. Within the grouping that wanted equality in the workplace, we would have been arguing that it would be hard to achieve that on the terms that the workplace is structured. Most women don’t want to be working from seven in the morning until 11 at night. There was a feminist critique of that model. But neoliberalism took hold, and solidarity with other women got turned into a thing called ‘networking’, and that turned into the glass ceiling. It wasn’t meant to be that. It was about: ‘How do we change the workplace?’”
Orbach is often reluctant to make large generalisations of gender, while at the same time irresistibly drawn to the density of pressures and signals that make up its social construction. And yet, she persists. Last week, she broadcast In Therapy on Radio Four, five short programmes in which a different actor each day arrived on the couch for an unscripted conversation. Orbach is immovable in her faith in the mind. “A couple of Fridays ago, I was giving a talk at the Wellcome Collection. I arrived and there were 5,000 people queueing. They weren’t queueing for me, let me be clear. They just wanted to be exposed to sophisticated ideas. They are rejecting oversimplification – they want more texture in their lives.”