Over the New Years weekend, I was lucky enough to spend time away with a group of women who are out there in the world kicking the proverbial asses with gusto. As might be expected, talk turned to resolutions and plans for the year on more than one occasion. As might further be expected, that talk turned to bodies, diets, weight loss, and exercise. This left me reflecting on how, as a feminist, I should approach these conversations — reflecting on how body image, diets and feminism all interact. Which led me to share those reflections with you.
One of the top articles this morning on the Washington Post’s webpage was “Gyms Prepare for the Influx of Newbies,” a fluff piece that centered on the following premise:
Across the region, health clubs and fitness studios are preparing for peak season. The largest percentage of gym memberships are purchased in January, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
Another top article in the Washington Post over the past few days? An “In-Depth” reporting on five different diets, plus a promise for an ongoing review on which worked best.
Now, I understand that going to the gym can be an important part of life for many people. For many, the gym is where people can spend time on themselves and spend time on their health. For some of those same people, working out at the gym can be an essential release for the stress and emotional turmoil that might otherwise fester inside them. So, to be clear, working out is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, for many people, working out in a gym can be a strong positive force.
But. For others, the gym can be about hating one’s own body or can be a manifestation of a serious eating disorders. And there is mounds of research that “Diets” don’t work.
To set the stage just a touch further, I am all sorts of curvy. So curvy that our society would label me as fat.
In fact, a friend recently decided to voice her concern that it seemed to her I had either gained more weight or my weight was sitting differently and more visibly. Had I noticed? Was it something I wanted to work on? Yes, this was fucked up. But it wasn’t coming from a malicious place.* You see, I am one of the only women in my group of friends who is not stick thin, rendering me a very visible outlier. And this dear friend was giving voice to a concern about something for which she, herself, would face steep censure. In fact, I’ve seen her be on the receiving end of chastising comments about her eating and exercise habits. And yes, that is all sorts of fucked up too.
Unfortunately, this fear of fat and the speaking and acting out against it isn’t uncommon. It’s everywhere. I’ve heard my 10 year old niece worrying about her weight with her 13 year old sister, the two of them comparing what they were going to eat, how much they were going to exercise, and how “fat” or not they were getting. I have friends who, in their thirties, have already had plastic surgery, and others who, in their thirties, talk about saving for it. I’ve seen family and friends suffer from eating disorders, both run-of-the-mill and damn-near-killed-them. It’s in everything we consume from the media and pop culture. Fatphobia is a real and dangerous thing.
Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” gives necessary context for understanding how this obsession with thinness fits into feminism: “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” In short, rejecting an obsession with diet and thinness and refusing to tie gym habits to measures of worth (for others or ourselves) are deeply feminist endeavors. If you aren’t convinced, check out Everyday Feminist Melissa Fabello‘s video on why work on body image is central to her feminist activism:
Going back to Naomi Wolf for a moment, the next line in that quote is particularly key for understanding how all of this plays out: “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” In other words, if we are all too busy worrying about our weight and appearance, we won’t have the time or energy to get involved in the real issues of the day. This stays true even when we replace words like “thin” with “fit” or “healthy.”
Jennifer Weiner’s beautiful “Try a New Year’s Revolution,” riffed on this idea. You should read all of it, both because it is great and because she includes an Ann Coulter tweet that illustrates more perfectly than seems imaginable the ties between body image, fatphobia, and political involvement.
Weiner’s piece also includes feedback on New Years Resolutions that is worth noting:
Christopher Wharton, a professor of nutrition and sustainability at Arizona State University, isn’t a fan of resolutions. “They come from an idea of, ‘Here’s this thing that’s flawed about me. I haven’t done it right, now it’s time for me to do it right,’ ” he said. “It puts you in a negative place.”
I personally like the idea of planning — of resolving — to accomplish certain things in the upcoming year. I like it so much I endorsed it in this post on Getting Ready for 2017, Feminist Style. But there is some wisdom in Professor Wharton’s perspective on the ways in which resolutions can come from a negative place if we aren’t careful.
The key seems to be in keeping all of these factors above in mind and in making sure that when setting priorities, the less important stuff (how we look) doesn’t overshadow the more important stuff (how we help our families, communities and country). Weiner, in closing her piece, really said it better than I could:
I will take up space in a world that tells women they shouldn’t and be loud in a world that tells us to be quiet and compliant. I will work toward better days for myself, for my peers and for my daughters. May their Januarys be about self-acceptance, not self-improvement; may their leaders appreciate women for their talents, not their appearance. May they always understand that, of all the things in the world to change and to fix, the least important will always be their looks.
May this be true for all of you as well.
One of my goals this year does have to do with my health. But that goal is articulated as (1) taking the time to see the medical professionals I might historically have missed (due to other obligations) and (2) establishing a routine to regularly go to the yoga I find so enjoyable and replenishing but have only done sporadically in the past (again due to other obligations). I refuse to allow myself to tie health with weight or appearance at all; I know that science tells us they aren’t inextricably linked, and I know that research also tells us conflating them has all those really dangerous implications addressed above.
It has taken years of work to get myself to a body image place that is truly body positive. But I’m really there at that body positive place. Like, really really there — so there that yesterday, I spent a few minutes jiggling around in front of a mirror and having an absolutely wonderful time while my husband rolled his eyes and wondered when he would get time at the bathroom sink. And I honestly told my little nephew (who had been running around pantless, as toddlers are wont to do) that I, too, love running around naked. It wasn’t lost on me that my niece was there too, listening. I’m happy that she heard me — a big, curvy, fat woman — loving myself enough that I am comfortable and happy in and with my own body.
* I give the following not to excuse, but simply to explain.