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Your client wants to lose weight, but have you considered that they might really want to stay exactly as they are? Olivia Hubbard explores fat as a feminist issue.

According to the National Centre for Eating Disorders, by the age of 10, most girls have established a fear of becoming fat.

Young men are troubled, too. In 2016, advertising ‘think tank’ Credos surveyed 1,000 18-year-olds, 53% of whom revealed that they felt pressured by the media to look a certain way1. Negative body image is nothing new and, for most men and women, how they see themselves and how they feel begins in adolescence and can last a lifetime.

Early theories of body image seem to originate from the 1930s in the work of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Ferdinand Schilder. Schilder believed that body image was a reflection of attitudes and interactions with others. In short, it is socially constructed. He was particularly interested in the ‘elasticity’ of body image, reasons for the fluctuations in perceived body size, feelings of lightness and heaviness, and the effects of body on interactions with others. Schilder defined body image as, “The picture of our own body that we form in our mind, that is to say the way in which the body appears to ourselves2.”

In the last 100 years, British women appear to have been under considerable pressure to conform to a particular body type. A century ago, the idealised female form was perhaps the opposite of what is depicted in the media today – dimpled flesh and today’s cellulite was viewed as beautiful. Back then, fatness was regarded as a sign of energy and health; the thin silhouette was considered sickly. At the turn of the century, slenderness became more fashionable, although it would be considered fat by today’s standards3.

By the 1920s, the Victorian hourglass gave way to the thin flapper who bound her breasts to achieve the washboard profile that looked good doing the Charleston; and the 1960s saw the arrival of Twiggy, who weighed in at 91lbs3. “Slimness came to exemplify unconventionality, freedom, youthfulness and a ‘ticket to’ a jet-set life in 1960s’ Britain, and was adapted as the ideal by women of all social classes,” says psychotherapist, feminist, activist and author, Susie Orbach4.

Our clients’ relationship with fat

A client may say that their goal is to lose weight. As a personal trainer, have you considered precisely what being overweight might really mean to each client?

In Susie Orbach’s book, Fat is a Feminist Issue (FIFI), Orbach suggests that being fat – and each individual’s socially constructed view of themselves associated with this – can mean many things. She says, “If an individual is fat, that may well be a statement of self-dislike, a desire to be distinguished from the crowd, a test, a rebellion5.” In other words, what does ‘being fat’ represent? Does it mean loneliness? Emotional hunger? Protection? Substance?

Orbach continues, “Body image and protection are very important. In our self-help groups, we try to address these two problems; group members are encouraged to accept the physical aspects of being fat. Self-acceptance is the key task in the group; without it, weight loss and breaking the addiction can only be temporary5.”

What Orbach tells individuals is that they first must own something before they are able to give it up; they must own their fat. She notes that most compulsive eaters are very aware of how their face looks, but not in relation to the rest of their body. Orbach tells FitPro, “Weight loss is only weight loss. It isn’t a new life. It can be good for you, if you have learnt to eat in a way that reflects your hunger and satisfaction. It gives you a basis for knowing about other needs that might be struggles in your life.”

The self-help techniques explored in Fat is a Feminist Issue are interesting. Orbach reveals the importance of seeing your body in its entirety when conducting self-help mirror-work exercises, instead of focusing on the little bit that you want fixing. The aim of the self-help exercise is to alter the sequence from me:fat:world, and replace it with me:world.

Professor in health psychology at the University of Surrey, Jane Ogden, who conducted the study Successful weight loss maintenance and a shift in identity: From the restriction to a new liberated self, told FitPro, “It is difficult for individuals to permanently change habits that are often entrenched from their childhood and to sustain any changes in the longer term. Yet, factors that may help are devising coping strategies that don’t involve food. There is the sense of hope that there is a new future for individuals, a sense of investment and a recognition of the struggle involved in any initial weight loss – rather than still being the old person inside a temporary body.”

Susie Orbach would seem to agree. She describes a number of self-help exercises in FIFI that she believes can help, including:

  • trying to detach the body state from the emotional issue
  • exploring the emotional issues in their own right
  • experimenting with different body sizes – do they actually conform to what you imagined?

The feminist website ‘AnyBody’ aims to give women a voice when it comes to body image. One exercise asks women to imagine themselves as fat and describe: a) the positive impact; b) what emerged about aspects of personality; and c) how they would express that part of them if they were fat. One woman says, “Because of my weight, I’m loud and tell a lot of jokes. I want to be perceived as the smart, witty person that I am, I don’t want people to make other negative assumptions about me because I’m curvy, but I also feel a very heightened sense of self-consciousness, I feel like an actor in a play, not a real participant6.”

Another adds, “I definitely express defiance through my fat, no doubt about that. What my fat expresses is that I really only want to be with people who want to be with me. I use my fat to screen people – it’s a test6.”

There is a strong theme in many of the comments on ‘competition’, with several saying that if they were fat, then they wouldn’t feel in competition with other women. Yet, when discussing personality traits, words such as anger, disgust, anxiety, protection and worthy of love are used. One woman commented that she “felt enjoyment through her fat by having a larger territory of enjoyment.” Some said that being fat made them invisible, while others responded that they need to feel nurtured because of their fat.

Losing weight is not just a simple physical act; it often reflects a complex and dynamic mix of mental, emotional and psychosocial interactions, all contributing to body image. As a personal trainer, how well do you really understand each of your clients, and what skills might you need to develop in order to help them achieve their goals? This short article has merely scratched the surface in viewing the challenge of weight loss and good mental health in modern society. Below is some suggested further reading.

Suggested reading and resources

  • Cash, T. and Pruzinsky, T. (1990) Body Images. Development, Deviance and Change, New York, Guildford Press.
  • Allen, P., Katzman, M. and Wooley, S. (1994) Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, New York, Guildford Press.
  • R. (1988) Body Love – Learning to Like our Looks and Ourselves, New York, Harper and Rowe.
  • Grogan, S. (1999) Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women, and Children, Oxford, Psychology Press.
  • Information on body image, National Centre for Eating Disorders
  • Men Get Eating Disorders Too
  • AnyBody, an online voice for women
  • The Body Positive, a healing community that is said to offer freedom from suffocating societal messages
  • Beat (beating eating disorders), a national eating disorder charity that also provides for a wide range of professionals
  • Mind, the mental health charity with resources and training for professionals

Body image

  • In our society, the ‘thin is beautiful’ and ‘beautiful is good’ belief prevails
  • Some psychologists view body image in girls as an expression of rebellion at being too closely identified with the ‘mother figure’
  • Some feminists believe the association between women and appearance allows society to continue its male-dominant structure and prevents women from becoming too powerful
  • Body image for some women began as teasing by family members or peers
  • It’s been said that when images of beauty change, female bodies are expected to change
  • A girl may learn to mistrust and disapprove of the needs of her body, which will translate into poor body image in later life
  • The inordinate emphasis on women’s external selves makes it very difficult for women to appreciate their internal selves; when women are so focused on their body, they are unable to devote as much energy to other aspects of their lives


  1. BBC (2016) Body Image, a problem for boys, says advertising think tank, last accessed: 9 May 2018,
  2. Schilder, P. (1950) The Image and Appearance of the Human Body, p11, Abingdon, Routledge.
  3. National Centre for Eating Disorders (2012) Body Image, last accessed: 9 May 2018,
  4. Orbach, S. (1993) Body Image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women and children, Chapter 2, Abingdon, Routledge.
  5. Orbach, S. (1982) Fat Is a Feminist Issue, 5: 238-245.
  6. AnyBody (2006) Exercise 1: Fat Fantasy, last accessed: 9 May 2018,