In the late seventies, fresh out of a traditional university education,I rolled up for my first job in one of the new polytechnics, armed with more knowledge of its etymology than anything it might actually teach. This is when, in my desire to embrace all those new –ologies and –isms, I read Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, a clear and compelling account of how women’s eating habits had become dissociated from physical need and emeshed in issues of self-esteem, self awareness and self-control.
It addressed questions we had all puzzled over and rarely articulated. In an affluent society why were so many of us in a vicious circle of dieting and over-eating? Why did we deny ourselves calories at the table then snack on leftovers or binge on biscuits? How was it that many of us no longer recognised or responded to true hunger, but ate according to mood? All of this has become a commonplace, but then it was new, and most of her observations made sense to me. Sadly, as she herself has remarked, the problems we have with our bodies (men as well as women) are getting worse rather than better, and now that we have so much medicine at our disposal, we expect that any problems we have projected on to our bodies can be fixed. This is the subject of her new book, Bodies. I don’t know yet what solutions, if any, Orbach (who later gained some notoriety as therapist to Princess Diana) proposes, but I still like her direct style and humane reactions to the plight of her patients.
Since my first encounter with Orbach, I’ve learned how our attitude to food can lead to real illness, as a family member has fought recurring anorexia. My niece is now a member of the anorexia group in Chanel Four’s current series of Supersize vs. Superskinny, and seeing a family member on reality T.V. has been a bizarre experience, but despite my initial trepidation, the group’s problems and the effects on their families has been treated in a sober and informative way. Now that I’v e seen it, I’m hoping that the series will help explain what to many people is still a baffling disease, and that the experience will turn out to be a positive one for all of those those who have taken part.
What I do find odd, is that part of the show involves presenter Anna Richardson investigating the cosmetic procedures (including surgery) that might improve what to me looks like a very healthy and attractive body. Maybe I’m missing some irony here (and she hasn’t shrunk from exposing the danger and discomfort involved) but I’m still not exactly comfortable with the idea we should all still be striving for unattainable and unnecessary ideals of bodily perfection. Maybe she should be reading Orbach instead!