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From the NS archive: Why women deny their bodies

14 February 1986: The very food a woman is expected to give others as an expression of her caring – and duty – towards them, is forbidden to herself.

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*Content warning: this article extensively discusses eating disorders*

Second-wave feminism in the 1970s went a long way in emancipating women from traditional ideals. But counter-attacks to it meant that by the 1980s women found themselves subjected to a new type of scrutiny. Women’s bodies were highly sexualised and under increasing pressure to be the right shape and size. Here Susie Orbach, writer of the seminal 1978 book “Fat is a Feminist Issue”, explores how these conditions exacerbated cases of bulimia in the 1980s, and examines the complexity and intensity with which women relate to their own bodies. In the edition of the New Statesman in which this article appears, the article is contextualised:

“An emaciated model no longer has the power to shock as Twiggy did 20 years ago. Today she is the model of femininity, though tomorrow her shoulders may be too broad, her breasts too low, her bottom too high. Susie Orbach, who has pioneered understanding of women’s tortured relationship to food and their bodies, here explores the 1980s problem of bulimia and argues that it stems from an attack on women’s space in the world.”

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As sex was for the Victorians, so women acting on their desire for food is now an area of great tension and repression. Millions of women in the industrialised world have come to feel and act as though food is somehow impermissible, Bulimia and bulimic episodes, when a person alternately binges on and purges herself of food, are not uncommon features of many women’s eating. Bulimia has now followed anorexia out of the closet of secrecy; the two are but the extreme ends of the epidemic of eating problems which express women’s psychological response to their current conditions.

Three factors press women towards a preoccupation with their bodies and with their appetites as part of their self-definition. These factors intersect to create the eating problems from which few women in the West between the ages of 15 and 50 are entirely free. The first is the staggering acceleration in the rate of change in women’s body types during the last decade. The second is women’s position as the family feeder and nurturer.

The conflict between the two is made even more taut by a third factor, an invidious counterattack on feminism and the movement for women’s liberation. During the last few years, the meagre space that women won in the 1970s has been being undermined in every area. At its height, feminist energy made it possible to contest the need for a feminine aesthetic – an insistence on looking “right”. Women today are again seeing their bodies – albeit in a new “liberated” 1980s form – as an area for concern and struggle. It is the way in which these social forces act on each other that leads me to argue that bulimia, anorexia and compulsive eating constitute a metaphor for our times.

Deciphering the psychological symptom of bulimia yields disturbing information about women’s experience today. Just as hysteria and the hysterical response was a stand in, a psychic representation of the social paralysis that affected Victorian women, so decoding the bingeing and purging characteristic of bulimia lets us see aspects of women's experience today that are as much an indictment of contemporary society as hysteria was of Victorian society.

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At first glance, the bulimic woman appears to have an unremarkable eating pattern. Unlike the compulsive eater she doesn't visibly stuff herself, unlike the anorectic she is not seen to refuse food. Her shape may be unremarkable, neither emaciated like the anorectic nor large like some compulsive eaters. Consequently there are few clues to what either her body or food mean to her. But the hidden nature of the behaviour hides eating patterns which are extremely distressing.

Several times a week – or for some women, several times a day – she either plans or is overtaken by a binge. During the course of a binge she can consume vast quantities of food, few mouthfuls of which she is actually able to savour. By the end of a binge she may discover that she has eaten several cakes, a couple of packets of biscuits and crisps, raw vegetables, a pot of ice cream, barbecued chicken, a plate of pasta, a tub of taramasalata and so on. Such a binge may only be contemplated with a plan to bring the food up.

The bulimic woman becomes preoccupied with a ritual of bingeing and vomiting. It can extend over several hours starting in the evening and gradually taking over the whole night. Her binge is an intense experience. In it she may feel like a wild animal foraging, searching, desperately looking for something to soothe and satisfy her. She may travel from one take-out joint to another eating a meal at each, or she may shut herself up at home with bags of supplies. She alternates between eating and throwing up or eating and ingesting large quantities of laxatives to help evacuate the food. The bingeing and the purging become a major activity, a way of spending time with herself; a private pleasure and a private agony.

When examined in therapy, the tension between in and out, the rhythm of ingestion and expulsion reveals some of the emotional texture of the woman's life. We discover how terribly threatened she is by food, that she feels she is not entitled to it. We discover what it symbolises about the legitimacy of her physical and emotional appetites. We discover that she cannot keep something first perceived as good and comforting inside herself because she sees herself as undeserving and bad. We explore the process by which the taking in of good feelings and supplies quickly turns poisonous. She reveals her fear of fatness and the exposure of need that it represents to her. She feels impelled to curb her needs or at least keep them strictly to herself.

The binges and the purges are attempts to cope with the emotional ebb and flow of daily life. She has no confidence in or experience of dealing with her feelings. She lives a split life in which she appears to be coping but inside she feels explosive. Typically, the feelings that lie undigested all day long lay siege to her as soon as she is alone. She is unable to embrace them or examine them. They terrify her and she goes towards the food in an attempt to  stuff them back down.

But she finds very little solace in the experience of eating, for eating, like her feelings, is impermissible too. She will not feel better until she has emptied herself out. She needs to cleanse herself, to deny the need for soothing, to repudiate her need at the same moment as she is attempting to recognise it. The process of not being able to keep inside her and digest what she wants is constantly reiterated. The bulimic behaviour continually short-circuits the discovery of what it is that is troubling her deep down. These episodes are deeply painful and humiliating; dark and messy expressions of an inner turmoil she can neither eradicate nor expose.

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While the bulimic’s eating behaviour may at first seem incomprehensible, it is similar to the eating patterns of many women in the UK today. Central to the bulimic's relationship to food is the playing out of the conflict between desire and restraint. Her response may be an exaggeration of how many women act towards food but it exemplifies typical feelings women come to have towards food. The theme of restraint and desire permeates much of almost every woman’s relationship to food.

That relationship is extremely complex. The ability to provide nourishing, appetising food is an important source of self esteem for women. Giving food is a symbol of caring for others. Women nourish new born human life. But what characterises women’s own eating is the feeling that taking food and the desire for it must be controlled.

Thus contemporary notions of femininity make the cruel demand that the very food a woman is expected to give others as an expression of her caring – and duty – towards them, is forbidden to herself. It is forbidden twice over. Historically women have been accustomed to restrain their own food needs on the spurious grounds that, in a situation of scarcity, men and children come first. Although the rationale for such a behaviour has long since passed in the West – if indeed it ever was justifiable – it is still the case that women routinely select the choicest morsels for the father and children.

It is forbidden again for a yet more capricious reason, this time to do with the present aesthetic of femininity. Over the last 20 years an aesthetic of increasing thinness has been popularised. It is now the dominant view of what a woman “should” look like, and has come to represent femininity itself. In the past, such images were of limited concern to women outside the haute bourgeoisie; now fashion and style affect the mass of women.

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At the same time as thinness has been presented and taken up by women as the aesthetic motif of our day, the image of the full-breasted woman of two generations ago (Marilyn Monroe) gets a new lease of life with page 3 and Samantha Fox. But before we celebrate such diversity let’s be clear about how these opposing images affect women. Rather than providing her with a choice of images to identify with, they become the way women should look and there are few women who don't strive at some level to incorporate both the explicitly “sexual” image and the thin aesthetic.

But since both these presentations of women are simply that, ie culturally permissible images of women with no sexual and social complexity, they imprison rather than express women’s personalities. Women judge their bodies from the outside, to check up on the image they are creating. Like food, women's bodies have never been neutral territory. They have carried significance for the culture as a whole, symbolising nurturance, sexuality and fecundity. Our bodies become not the place in which we live but the Achilles heel of our sexual identity. It is no wonder that a woman can feel an uneasy separation between “her body” and “her self” and find herself wanting to act on her body to reverse the feeling of being acted upon. Body insecurity, which is in effect what these feelings boil down to, is like a second skin we wear, an aspect of grown-up femininity.

From the late 1960s, the feminist movement took up the questions of beauty, sexual objectification, slimming, diet, the role of food in women's lives and so on. (The disruption of the Miss World contest at Atlantic City was the opening move of the second wave of feminism in the US). We uncovered the phenomena of compulsive eating and compulsive dieting, we made it possible for women who binged and purged themselves to begin to be able to talk about what that meant for them and we were able to shed a new light on anorexia nervosa, to read in it a desperate attempt to say something about women’s life experience. For a while, looking at these painful topics from a sympathetic woman's perspective unleashed a tremendous energy and many women, including women who did not identify themselves as feminists, began to question the preoccupation they had with their bodies and the continual stress of trying to press them into shape.

Gradually women began to challenge the assumptions of the diet industry, began the process of learning to eat with their hunger, and put their own food needs on the agenda. Women of all sizes began to feel more comfortable in and with their bodies; the media images were temporarily muted.

I say temporarily for in fact during the last few years there has been an assault so total that the “ideal” women's body size is entirely elusive and yet insistently demanded. Changes in body fashion are now so rapid that no woman can feel secure that the body she has will fit in with what is acceptable this year. Every woman is potentially on the line. It is almost as though there is a campaign – unconscious or maybe conscious – to encourage women to make their bodies yet smaller and smaller. The fashion models who display the clothes we are meant to wear, still get skinnier and skinnier, indeed the clothes in the shops seem to start in ever smaller sizes. The movie stars we have watched for years – Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Sophia Loren, Mary Tyler Moore – seem to deal with ageing with the loss of weight. They are all several sizes thinner than they were a decade ago. In other words, a thin aesthetic (with seasonal variations to do with legs, shoulders, breasts, large or small or pointed or floppy etc) is being promoted with an increasing vigour. These phenomena have the effect of continually undermining women’s attempts to discover what body weight or size might be right for them.

Women who once found enough strength collectively to disdain the explicit messages of the merchants of body insecurity in favour of their own aesthetic have themselves felt swamped by the image makers. Many feminists find themselves caught up once again in the search for acceptability through the look of the body.

The trend towards an aesthetic of emaciation coincides too comfortably with the emergence of the feminist movement not to cause suspicion. It is hard not to see in it a (conscious or unconscious) response to women's demands to take up more space in the world, to ourselves define the parameters of our lives. As we fight for more room in the world, the purveyors of body insecurity would have us divert our attention back to an area that has assured them profit and control for years. They encourage us to take our body, not the outside world, as the site of change. Cleverly playing on women’s demands for more activity in the world, the 1980s version of self improvement for women, subverts this message: we should exercise more, become “fit” in order to have the right lean and athletic appearance. But for every woman who finds new freedom through fitness, there are a dozen for whom the requirement to “exercise” is merely another tyranny. As feminist concerns continue to move on to the political and personal agenda, so a pernicious counter view is propagated in an area in which women are still extraordinarily vulnerable: our bodies.

As long as real changes in the world are slower than we need them to be, as long as the attitudes women have to encounter reflect a derogation of women, women are bound to use their bodies and their food intake to express the conflicts that we all have to live with. Individual women who choose to, will be able to overcome their eating problems but the conflicts that create these problems will continue through to the next generation.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)