Guest post: Body Image panel debate at the Women’s Library

Chrissy D reports back from last night’s debate on body image at the Women’s Library, which featured Susie Orbach.

At the panel debate, “Body Image: the impact of magazines”, last night at the Women’s Library, it became apparent to me that life is probably easier if you’re on Susie Orbach’s side.

Luckily, I am, and so listening to three industry experts discussing the effect of magazine images on women’s interpretation of their own bodies was an insightful – if a little predictable – experience. Nothing particularly new was said, nor were any shatteringly bold statements made (if you discount National Centre for Eating Disorders’ [NCED] Deanne Jade’s revelation that, apparently, women’s magazines are not very much to blame for eating disorders as instead they provide us all with jobs…) but the banter, sharing of old (and recycled) ideas and questioning session was enjoyable to one with a vested interest in the psychology of women, beauty and food.

The debate began with Jade, representing the NCED, addressing the question of where women’s perceptions of their own bodies originate and a quick audience participation experiment involving recognising our default attitudes to our own bodies. Elementary as it may sound, the exercise did make me consider how amazing/frightening it was that, in a group of women confident and astute enough to show up at a debate on women’s body image, so few were able to automatically associate one positive word with their own bodies.

Following Deanne Jade was a representative of the British Medical Association, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, who spoke in more statistical and official-research-shows based tones about the current ‘obesity crisis’ and what we all need to do to (sigh) feel better about ourselves and live longer.

Orbach spoke for a shorter time, but her address was concise and unwavering from her official line on fat as laid out in Fat is a Feminist Issue, first published in 1978. She covered issues from Weight Watchers (who, she said, encouraged her to lose a stone in weight at her first meeting) to diet companies being prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act and then briefly to the ageism perpetuated by magazines for women in selling youthful (Orbach argues, pornographic) images as a necessity of life and worth to women of all ages.

When asked about the system of ‘traffic lighting’ on food labels, and the now seemingly intrinsic link between food and virtue, Orbach and her co-panelist Dr Nathanson expressed fundamentally different views on the subject, with neither appearing to understand the root of the other’s ideology on the issue. Orbach, a champion of the ‘hungry? eat, full? stop’ technique, agreed that the effect of such green-orange-red signifiers has not been and can never be a positive one on both our body image and our physical health. Nathanson, however, seemed to somewhat misunderstand this argument and instead flew the flag for the BMA’s ‘Change for Life’ programme, which advocates a ‘move more, eat less’ policy to tackle the widely-reported obesity epidemic in the UK.

It was above all a lively debate, with definite moments of tongue-holding by the members of the audience, particularly at the BMA rep’s complete misinterpretation of the whole situation. Sympathetic, however – for the most part – to Dr Nathanson’s good intentions, the atmosphere was one of collective support for the divorce of food from virtuous and sinful characteristics, and primarily for Susie Orbach and the maintenance of her original FIFI message.

I feel another Dove film coming on…

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