On Eating
Susie Orbach
London: Penguin, 2002.
£4.99, 130 pages, ISBN 0141007516.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Susie Orbach is an internationally celebrated more or less Britain-based psychotherapist and writer. She is a leading authority on eating disorders, and the author of many books, including Hunger Strike (1986), What’s Really Going on Here?” (1994), Towards Emotional Literacy (1999), and The Impossibility of Sex (1999). She was once one of Princess Diana’s advisors (she helped her defeat bulimia). She was one of the founders in 1976 of the Women’s Therapy Centre in London. She is an itinerant lecturer, a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, and she has been an “agony aunt”, a government counsellor and a regular collaborator to The Guardian.

In 1978 she published Fat is a Feminist Issue, which remains highly influential to this day. And what a tremendous title that book bore! I used it recently as an essay subject, verbatim, in one of my Women’s Studies classes. It was rather radical, for its epoch, and in many ways remains radical. Basically, Fat is a Feminist Issue was the first anti-diet book. Who could possibly disagree with that pronouncement today? Fat is a feminist issue. As a therapist and a feminist, Orbach has always been appalled by eating disorders; and having listened to hundreds of patients, she has been in an ideal position to monitor the effect of our “fattist” and “lookist” society and of the media in particular on people, especially women, and even more especially on teenage girls (and more recently prepubescent girls).

Anyone who sees her in the flesh cannot help noticing that she is rather slim herself. So there are those who snigger, derailing her for her anti-dieting advice, as she cannot possibly imagine, they say, what it feels like to be fat. Besides, she is rather soignée in her appearance. At least you cannot lump her with some of those butch feminists who make a point of being as fat, hairy, grey-haired and badly-dressed as possible, even though some of their messages are the same.

Anyway, Fat is a Feminist Issue was not a feminist pamphlet, it was anAnti-Diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss”. Its aim was to help women fight their tendency to indulge in eating binges followed by spectacular diets, in extreme cases their bulimia or anorexia. The problem is, new generations go on diets all the time, and all you have to do to understand why is open a fashion magazine or watch a Hollywood film. A recent trend in Hollywood is to use fat as a horror and / or comic gimmick, using fat suits notably. Marisa Meltzer in Bitch #15 (Feminist Response to Pop Culture) calls fat suits “the new blackface” and speaks of “Hollywood’s big new minstrel show”, referring to the trend as “disturbing and offensive”. The examples she mentions speak volumes (pun intended): Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her, Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House, Mike Myers as Fat Bastard in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, Julia Roberts in America’s Sweethearts, and of course most recently Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal. On TV, Courtney Cox Arquette’s fat suit means guaranteed uproars of laughter for Friends aficionados. She and her colleague Jennifer Anniston have often been severely criticized by feminists for the anorexic look they promote in the sitcom. In recent interviews, Orbach has often spoken of the “well-rounded female population of Fiji” that has now fallen into the trap, because of the arrival of American TV and Friends on the island. Bulimia is now rampant in the South Pacific islands.

A look at statistics is enough to convince anyone that something ought to be done. The victims are not just adult women now, but children, and people in old age homes. Practically 2% of the population of France, the UK and the US have an eating disorder. More than 20% of women are on a constant diet. Obesity never stops increasing throughout the western world, and begins early in childhood. A MORI survey conducted in the UK in January 2002 showed that two thirds of young women would gladly give up their bodies for somebody else’s, like Jennifer Anniston’s. Yes, well, Brad Pitt can let me have his any time. So how can Orbach help? Her new book is divided into five parts, or five keys, rather. Its motto is “Eating is pleasurable. Eating is delicious. Eating is sensual.” Quite. Now how do I go about enjoying that delicious and sensual pleasure without gaining two trouser sizes every year? I myself have been on a diet since 1973, so this book was made for me too, no doubt, even if I am male. The first key is “Eat when you are hungry”. Well, I’m sorry Susie, but the last time I was able to tell apart hunger from neurotic cravings was so long ago I don’t remember, do what do I do? “If you are not used to recognizing your hunger, don’t despair. There are reasons.” Ah, all right then. The list of reasons that follows is actually convincing and interesting, so I’ll definitely try and see what I can do. The second key is “Eat the food your body is hungry for”. That’s a tough one. I know what my mind is hungry for: chocolate, sweets, jelly, carrot cake, cheese cake and apple crumble. Surely that’s not what my body wants. In that second section, Orbach very effectively describes the guilty processes at work in many of us, and the terrible “double punishment” we inflict upon ourselves. “Maybe what you are really hungry for”, she writes, “is a hug, a weep, a sleep, a break, a boyfriend”, “a chat with your friend”. Indeed. Logically, the third key is “Find out why you eat when you aren’t hungry”. This section I found most helpful and persuasive. Besides, it is not devoid of humour, intentional and otherwise. Here are some of the things you can do when you cannot determine what your “emotional hungers” are and you had better avoid the refrigerator: “write some sentences asking yourself what you are hungry for, take a bath, cuddle up and read a book, take a walk, phone a friend, draw a picture”. The fourth key is “Taste every mouthful”, and the fifth “Stop eating the moment you are full”. They are followed by various pieces of advice that are quite attention-grabbing, notably on body image. Now all I have to do is follow them and see if I can finally give up stopping every time I see a French boulangerie. On Eating may bear the phrase “self-help” on its back cover, but it is much more than that, and not just because Susie Orbach is a feminist heroine.