The FAT Issue

In 1978, a book hit the market that continues to be discussed from time to time, and I wish we were discussing it more often. “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” was written by Susie Orbach, and it’s still relevant today. Possibly, more than ever.

My mother was obese, which is defined as 20% over normal weight (or more), based on age, sex, and height. The fact is, she was 100% over healthy weight – 250 pounds when she should have weighed 125. As for me, I was pudgy, but only normally so at various ages, yet I was constantly criticized and put on diets, for fear that I might grow fat like my mother.

I lived in the shadow of her unhappiness. I watched her anesthetize with food when no one else was around. I was the brunt of jokes in the schoolyard, as her daughter. I sat passively by – absorbing it all – as she was the target of looks and remarks by relatives and strangers.

But fat as a feminist issue? Was it really – 30 or 40 years ago? And is it – still?

I believe it is. And so much more.

An excerpt from the book:

Without a body that girls feel all right about, nothing much in their lives feels ok… All the normal difficulties of growing up, dealing with the conflicts, choices and angst of adolescence, get subsumed under a preoccupation to get one’s body right…

From as early as 5 years old… through adolescence, early adulthood, motherhood, middle-age, and even old age, preoccupation with how the body appears is a crucial aspect of female experience.

A Woman’s Appearance is Her Passport

How much has really changed in three decades? Think about the parade of fad diets, the popularity of the Jenny Craigs and Weight Watchers, the trends in a specific sort of beauty – breast implants, lip plumping, Botox, and a hundred other “fixes” and procedures for natural body shapes and aging that need no such “fixing.”

Or shouldn’t.

All of it, generally, to feel accepted as attractive. To feel viable, validated, desirable, and worthy. Because we have warped views of what a woman should look like – at 20, at 40, at 60 or older.

I won’t say that a woman’s appearance is her only passport any longer, but it remains vital currency as she tries to make her way in the world.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look our best, to stay fit and healthy; on the contrary. Obesity and overweight pose serious health risks, and we’re increasingly concerned as a nation.

But the constant pressure to be thin? The expectation that stresses won’t impact the body? That child-bearing, sleep deprivation, money worries, midlife change, and aging in general won’t intervene in the perpetual Battle of the Bulge?

Fat and Thin AssumptionsAs for the woman who thinks she’s fat, whether she is or not, she never feels good enough. Is it any wonder we live in the land of eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia, overeating as an addiction – and not only the adolescents and young adults, but women of all ages?

Or do we all beg, borrow, or steal – to afford the body of our dreams – a little lipo here, a nip-tuck there?

Good Fat, Bad Fat

Fat is far more than a feminist issue; it is a health issue, a political issue, an economic issue – obese women are paid some $8,000/year less than their normal weight counterparts* – and obesity is an increasingly publicized problem of obesity in America. But if we set aside these aspects for a moment, are there underlying issues at play to do with sex, with power, with relationships? Yes, you could say these are feminist issues, or more specifically – sexual politics. But let’s release those emotionally charged terms.

Let’s talk relationships.

What about the men who complain that after marriage their wives get fat, and after divorce they trim down again? What about the men who complain that they’re no longer attracted to their overweight partners, and that’s the reason they seek sex elsewhere? Is a fat wife the get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to infidelity?

What about the women who make the same complaints about their husbands?

The fact is, fat serves a purpose. Many purposes.

  • Some of us overeat to self-soothe, overeat to self-sabotage, overeat to self-anesthetize. Fat becomes a place to hide when relationships are too painful to face.
  • Fat helps to cushion emotional isolation. Unfortunately, it also worsens it, when what we really need is emotional connection.

What other roles does fat play? Could it be a matter of taking control, an act of defiance, even an act of self-preservation? And are we going to dismiss genetic predisposition, along with the quality of the foods that we routinely consume?

Fat is not inherently “good or bad,” and “fat” is frequently in the eye of the beholder. I was heavy after I had my two children. It took time to lose the weight, and when I was overweight, I felt worthless. In hindsight, I’m sure I brought those feelings into the dynamics of my marriage.

Marital Fat, Divorce Diet

This week’s discussion at the Huffington Post continues – an unguarded conversation on marriage and divorce, the marital bed, expectations regarding sex, and over and over again – the F word.


Men complaining that women get fat after they marry. And stay that way. Men complaining that when they divorce, women pay attention to their looks again, and lose weight. Men who assume that the reasons are because the “fat wife” didn’t want her husband; once back on the dating market, she fixes herself up and moves on with a vengeance.

Maybe this is the case for some, but surely not the case for all.

Divorce is often so stressful that no matter what you eat (if you can eat), it goes right through you. Thus, the arrival of the “Divorce Diet” – as pounds come off with little effort.

So what is the real story behind the marital fat? Why do some women stay overweight after babies hit preschool and for years after? Might resentment play a role, if the woman feels like she’s having to do it all? Is the excess weight an unconscious act of defiance, or a manifestation of distance she feels in her relationship? Is it as simple as the fact that there’s no time to exercise, or take care of her own eating habits? What about midlife, when the body naturally changes?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but nor do I believe that fat is a simple marital issue – with or without the associations to motherhood.

Big Women, Changing Standards

The standard of beauty 50 years ago was Marilyn Monroe. By today’s standards – a “full figured woman” or to some, a fat one.

Enter Twiggy in the 60s, and Kate Moss in the 90s. Those who prefer women with some meat on their bones often have to pretend otherwise.

The women themselves? In white America – they’re often scorned or simply dismissed. In African American culture? A whole other story.

Moreover, the assumption that one is automatically unhappy if fat is false. I have certainly known big beautiful women who are exactly that – larger sized, gorgeous, self-confident, and sexy. They ooze comfort with themselves, and they don’t lack for a shortage of suitors.

So what do we do about Fat America when it comes to health issues? What do we do about our preoccupation with body size and shape when it comes to our women especially, and its role in our most intimate relationships?

Are you fat?

There is health, and there is fashion. There is obesity, and there is fat.

I’ve been fat, I’ve been thin, I’ve been “just right” – for me.

There are days, even as a size 4, when in my head I remain the pudgy child, the fat woman after pregnancy, the daughter of an obese mother – witnessing her pain, her failed diets, and her isolation by self-anesthetizing in the hope that life wouldn’t hurt so much.

Fat is more than genetics and behavior. Fat is a feminist issue, a relationship issue, a sexual issue, a political issue, a cultural issue. It is a human concern – and one we need to discuss with more care and specificity – not assumptions, and not dismissal.




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  1. says

    Good morning! I am a huge fan of your blog, and your writing. Brilliant. It’s like listening to a friend talk. I think this one today is so important, I want to repost it on my blog, if you don’t mind. That is

    This is such an important issue.

    Thanks for the great viewpoints.


    • BigLittleWolf says

      Nice to meet you Jan. It is an important issue – critically important. Please feel free to post and link back.

      I hope you’ll stop by and comment again.

  2. Linda says

    I have struggled with weight my entire life. At 10 years old my mother took me to Lane Bryant to “show me” what my future was going to be if I continued to eat. It’s one of those memories that will not fade. My daughter is beautiful, yet by today’s standards would be considered “chubby.” Where we live, the teen population is thin, blonde and buxom. We talk about these issues and her concern about her weight and try to make conscious choices about food and exercise. Just like me, she will probably have a life long struggle with weight, but unlike me, she will have a mother who enforces her inner beauty.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Oh Linda, I feel for you and your daughter both. I, too, recall the Lane Bryant visits with my mother, and at the time, her need for me to forcibly zip her into something in the dressing room as tears would run down her face. I don’t wish that sort of pain on any adult or any child, much less the jeering and assumptions that are made about those who are overweight.

      Your daughter is fortunate to have you to reflect back a healthy, caring, and beautiful person. I believe it makes a difference, as would a more rational view in certain segments of American culture.

  3. says

    My sweet wife has been working on her weight every since she hit her 40s. Now she has reduced carb intake by over 80 to 90%. Me, I eat like a pig and stay thin. Life can be one strange puzzle. I can’t even imagine giving up bread, which is like cake to me, even the multi-grain I luv so much. And sugar, omg, sugar is sooo addictive. My wife, as you can imagine, is one tough lady.

  4. says

    I was always thin naturally until my early thirties and then probably 10 pounds over and then after an emergency hysterectomy at 39 I have been about 25 over. To me I look okay. I feel comfortable but I must confess just recently at age 59 I had lipo and a tummy tuck. Both made my clothes fit better and took off that mound of stomach fat. My weight hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years with or without the tummy tuck. It is just my stomach doesn’t have that pouch that comes with aging. I still weigh myself everyday and have for as long as I can remember. It doesn’t keep from my gaining or losing but at least lets me know. Weight and women is a losing battle and colors our lives for life in my opinion.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I keep thinking weight and women shouldn’t be a losing battle. It isn’t everywhere. Why / how have we done this in our culture, in particular in the past century or so?

  5. says

    For the first time in my life about a year ago I decided I genuinely did not FEEL healthy. And that is when I started making real lifestyle changes. I have lost thirty pounds – I think. I didn’t own a scale until a few months ago. But I’m in a 14 now and I FEEL great.

    I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid that when I approach my ‘goal’ weight, the voice in my head that says I need to lose a few more pounds is still there, undermining my self confidence.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      It really is about FEELING good. (We forget that.) Kudos on the work it takes – and not just the physical work, but the emotional adjustments. (Those voices in the head. They’re tough – and sometimes noisy.)

  6. lunaboogie says

    Ah. body image! I have been thin all my life, and tall (5’11’) and weight never was an issue (until 5 years ago, more about that in a sec), but I was constantly made to feel abnormal because of my height. Endless comments about playing basketball, or insisting on knowing just how tall I was. Heads still turn when I come into a room. My best friend tells me it is because I am “stunning” but during my early life, when I was uncomfortably shy, I felt like a monster. It took me many years to feel at all comfortable in my skin, and many more to feel that my brain was at all connected to the rest of me.

    Then, menopause came and so did extra weight around the hips and middle. My muscles wasted and instead of looking a decade younger (as I had all my life) , I suddenly looked my age, and older. After trying diet changes, supplements, running, walking, the gym, yoga etc. (and getting bored with it all) I found my movement practice – NIA. After one year of JOYOUS aerobic dance, I have muscle definition and strength. I actually have a rounded butt that feels so much sexier than no butt. I am probably heavier than last year, because of the muscle, but I don’t weigh myself anymore. My clothes feel good. I look good and I feel good. And here is my point.

    For the first time, ever, I am proud of my body because I have actually had something to do with creating it. Having new found strength, agility and flexibility and energy (and a flatter belly) boosts my mood. I love the mental challenge of catching onto the pattern of steps and the physical one of pushing deeper into the movements. I have found a community of glorious women (and a few brave men) to dance with. I have found a way to integrate my body with my mind and spirit, and to be happy with what I have accomplished. I wish that for everyone.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      So glad you joined the conversation! What a story – including how height made you uncomfortable at an early age and, the way you rebuilt yourself – literally – through joyful physical activity. Wonderful!

      (Any suggestions for those of us with injuries that make this sort of body sculpting more problematic? Oh to have that sort of experience physically – as well as the good effects for the spirit. Hello? Any Personal Trainers out there?) :)

      Fabulously inspiring. Thank you, Lunaboogie.

  7. says

    There is health, and being healthy is important. Feeling comfortable in our bodies is important too. But, we’re not all built the same, nor are we supposed to be!

    I remember looking at a group of beautiful moms a few years ago as they talked about the work they would have done. Tummy tucks, breast changes. One mom, due in a few days was so excited about being able to get Botox again. I felt sad. Why do we hate our bodies? These bodies that are the stories of our lives – the maps of our experiences, lines of mirth and pain and the amazing growth of our bodies to allow new life to form. Why?

    My personal battle is not with bulge, but for strength. I want to be strong and easy in this body that I have. That doesn’t come in one size.

    I was just thinking about the fervor over changing our bodies as I read the Sneetches by Dr Suess to my girls. The near madness to be right, whatever right may be. When in truth, the outsides are only so important.

    And, in response to your last comment, my mom, who has some movement problems adores NIA too.

  8. says

    All of those men complaining about fat wives…fat wives who sacrificed their bodies to bring their children into the world…boo-hiss. I still don’t have my body back, and it’s been six years. Stuff just “shifts” after you pop out a couple of kids…

    • BigLittleWolf says

      It does “shift” Kitch. But some men get that, and see us as whole beings, and don’t sabotage our efforts to improve the situation by getting healthier or stronger. I know very few women whose bodies magically go back to pre-pregnancy state. I know there are some, but for most of us… even with all the work in the world – it’s never quite the same. And as Kate said – that’s part of our story. And I think giving life is a pretty incredible story. Why shouldn’t it leave its signature on our bodies?


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