Hating your body is for losers*

I think it was a New Year’s Day party that my parents were holding; I would have been thirteen or fourteen. It was near the end of the party and all my mothers’ closest friends were talking, trying to get up the energy to round up their kids and leave. One of the women started explaining this great diet she was about to go on and even though it was fifteen years ago I can still remember the details she described. But what I remember more was noticing other people’s reactions. None of the men cared about the conversation, and my little sisters and their friends just kept on playing, but every single woman in the room was treating this as important information that deserved respect. Then I noticed that I was paying attention to the conversation – did this mean I was a woman?

Jill from Feministe wrote a really good post on the proposal to print children’s BMI on their report cards. It’s not her argument that I want to respond to (although I agreed with 99% of it), but the position from which she wrote. She starts: “When I was in elementary school, we had annual weigh-ins. I dreaded weigh-in day more than just about any other day of the year,” and continues:

From there, I spent most of my life engaging in restrictive eating behaviors, and volleying back and forth between extremes of “being skinny will make me happy and so therefore I’m only going to consume 800 calories a day” and “this is ridiculous, I’m a feminist and I’m not going to buy into this shit, so I’m going to eat whatever I want, even if that means binging and gaining 10 pounds in a single month” (that’s where I was at last month, and now I’m miserable). Even at 23, I still feel completely out of control when it comes to my weight, and I still go back and forth between a desire to be thin and an ideology which conflicts with that desire.

What I think is so important in what Jill wrote is that for many women feminism does not solve our relationship between food and our bodies, it just helps name the problems. It’s also a lot easier to talk about food and body politics in the abstract, which can leave everyone feeling that they’re a bad feminist for not figuring out this stuff by themselves.

A lot of women on this heartbreaking, rage-inducing, thread that piny started, talked about the conflict between feminism and their feelings about their body. Or going further, that feminist analysis just adds a level of guilt to what they’re doing, that they should be strong enough and smart enough not to let this society get to us.

Which is bullshit, we do the best that we can, but none of us are strong enough and smart enough to deal with all of this on our own. (I say “all of this” deliberately, because I think body and food issues are about society’s image of women, but they’re also about so much more. They’re about control and losing control. They’re a way of conforming with what women should be, and a way of resisting.)

If we’re going to do anything that allows us to take up space, we’re going to have to do it together.

As a feminist, that much is clear. I’m just not sure what I do with this analysis; what it means for the way I talk to other women. I am reaching the breaking point in terms of listening to the female dialog around food and our bodies that exists among the women I know. If I never again hear someone insult her body, or what I’m eating, it’ll be way too soon. I don’t want to listen anymore for me, and I don’t want that to be around for other women to hear.

That doesn’t get me anywhere much. Being comparatively noisy about the fact that I think the common discourse about food and our bodies is really fucked up makes that noise a little quieter when I’m around. Which is great for me, but it doesn’t help build anything new.

But I’m not sure we can build anything new within this environment. I’ve seen how activists can make mainstream diet advice look alternative. It’s a hegemony so perfect that we can’t say anything about food and our bodies that doesn’t reinforce the status quo.

More than that, I don’t know how to have this conversation without hurting other women, without hurting myself. I’ve been told that the reason I hold the views I do is because of my size, so challenging a woman who is smaller than me on what she says feels really risky. Food and our bodies are systems that are left to women to police, which works only too well to give us extraordinary power over each other.

I write about collective action, but I don’t know how to get there on this issue. I don’t even know how to get from where we are now to a point where we can have the conversation that would help us take the next step.

I’m still angry with the women who were at the party that day (feminists all). I’m angry that their feminism didn’t even stop them hating their bodies in front of us. I want the generation of feminists I am part of to at least recognize the harm we could do to our daughters (and each other). But I want to go further than that, I want to find a way to stop the harm we do to ourselves, and I don’t know how to do that. I’m worried that if we start by asking that women stop degrading themselves and the foods that nurture us, we’ll never get any further, because we’ll just drive those thoughts underground.

* From a commenter on feministe.

This entry posted in Fat, fat and more fat, Feminism, sexism, etc, Gender and the Body. Bookmark the permalink. 

47 Responses to Hating your body is for losers*

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  2. 2
    Jill says:

    Fantastic post, Maia. I think you make an excellent point about how feminism isn’t creating the guilt, it’s just giving us the tools to analyze and discuss these issues. What I think is hard, as a feminist woman, is the underlying idea that because you have these tools, you should be able to go a step further and actually change your thinking and behavior — to be able to live out the feminist ideal in a world that isn’t anywhere near feminist.

    I think you see this with reproductive rights also. Feminists who have accidental pregnancies, in my experience, feel quite a bit of guilt simply for being “stupid” enough to have gotten pregnant in the first place, when as feminists we’re supposed to know better when it comes to those issues.

    It’s an unfair standard, and it’s not what feminism is supposed to be about. But it’s often difficult not to internalize it that way.

  3. 3
    Maia says:

    Thanks Jill

    It is really difficult not to internalise the idea that we should be able to sort this stuff out. It worries me that this means that often feminist women feel they can’t talk to each other about their feelings about their bodies and food.

    I do think that it’s really useful when feminists can make it clear that we struggle with these issues, which is what I thought was so strong about your post. I think it makes us feel less alone.

  4. 4
    curiousgyrl says:

    Well, but–part of the fear of talking with other women, even feminists, is the drift from suportive feminist conversation into supportive body-hating dieting conversation. I can really go either way depending on the day.

  5. 5
    M says:

    Fantastic post. I’m trying very hard to persuade my strongly feminist mother that continually talking in degrading terms about her weight, and my weight is not helpful. There can be this strong disconnect – “we’re not talking about part of the patriarchy, we’re talking about *health*”

  6. 6
    Isabel says:

    I’ve been told that the reason I hold the views I do is because of my size, so challenging a woman who is smaller than me on what she says feels really risky.
    Yet another example of thin privilege at work?

    I think feminism has definitely helped some conversations I’ve had about body image though. When I talk to female feminist, one that’s done some thinking in her day about feminist issues, about body image, I get a pretty understanding response, with some empathy and also some nice things said about my own appearance (I do the same when they talk to me, saying “but you’re so beautiful” regardless of what size they are, cuz what can I say, I think people are beautiful. Go people! The only time I brought up body size was a very very close friend of mine who was convinced she was medically overweight and OBVIOUSLY WASN’T, she was obviously just trying to qualify her own body issues as a health concern, so I dug up a BMI calculator and made her calculate her BMI–flawed method, yes, but it sufficed for my purpose at the time. My friend is also much more athletic than I am so probably had a lot more muscle mass than I do. Of course so do most nine-year-olds so that’s not saying much).

    When I talk to a not-very-feminist-aware girl, or to a boy (with a very few exceptions, even the feminist-identified or feminist-in-my-book-even-if-they-don’t-like-the-word boys respond this way) I get, “*blink* But you’re so thin!”

    *headdesk* DUH. BODY IMAGE HAS ZERO TO DO WITH REALITY. Even the boys I know who’ve had body image issues themselves don’t get it (though, that’s pretty much one boy, and he is legitimately chubby–but TOTALLY FINE LOOKING if you ask me–so who knows. For him, maybe losing weight really would lead to self-acceptance. Maybe).

  7. 7
    Ed says:

    I am confused. Truly confused. Why don’t you just “not care”? Body image, probably as much as anything on the planet, is extrodinarily personal. It is your body…noone elses. You talk about older women MAKING you care. I don’t get that. I constantly hear about trying to alter your body for acceptance. I don’t get that either. It isn’t wrong for men to want thin women or women to want thin men. It isn’t wrong for people to want to be thin. Both of those are personal choices, very personal, and not anyone elses business really. It isn’t different from a man wanting to be stacked and spending 2 hours a day in the gym…or a woman wanting big breasts and getting surgery. Those are all attempts to feel good about yourself or look good to others which makes you feel good about yourself. If you want out, just get off the train. Stop caring. Changing how other people think is intrusive and unfair to them. Simply not caring what they think solves your issues and allows them the freedoms they deserve just as much as you deserve yours. Most of what I read on this subject deals with how to change the world or change society to fix the problem when it really isnt society’s problem. It is internal. I know this isn’t going to be a popular view, but why are people so wrapped up in what other people think if they are truly convinced they are wrong? Let them be wrong then, and live your own life.

  8. 8
    Robert says:

    Why don’t you just “not care”?

    Gender difference. Maybe inherent, maybe learned; I don’t know. But it’s rare to find a woman with the same ability to internally shrug off someone else’s thought as a man typically has.

    You may disagree with this post, but I’m really not interested in what you think. ;)

  9. 9
    Lu says:

    Thanks for this post, Maia — every time I read a post here about fat acceptance or HAES or the studies showing that weight loss is more likely to be unhealthful than healthful unless you’re morbidly obese, I feel guilty — because the truth is that I would like to lose 15 pounds. I would like to 1) not have to buy new jeans 2) feel better 3) look better, in that order. By the BMI charts I’m maybe just a smidge overweight, certainly nowhere near obese.

    Part of me says “it’s my body, dammit, I have a right to make decisions about it, including losing weight if I want to, and I don’t have to make excuses to anyone” — and of course part of me mutters about internalizing pernicious societal ideals of beauty, etc., etc. — and then the first part pipes up again and says I am way past the disqualifying age for that ideal anyway (that is to say over about 26) so what the hell difference does it make?

    Am I not just as much a slave to the patriarchy if I go against my own inclinations in order to flout patriarchal norms as if I were to adhere to those norms religiously?

  10. 10
    Angel H. says:

    Why don’t you just “not care”?

    Gender difference. Maybe inherent, maybe learned; I don’t know. But it’s rare to find a woman with the same ability to internally shrug off someone else’s thought as a man typically has.

    I totally agree. My mom spent hours putting my sister and I in frilly dresses, maryjanes, and those tights with the little hearts on them. (Remember those?) Then we couldn’t go run around and play because we’d get messy. She liked to show us off like little made-up dolls.

    Then you have the Disney princesses: Snow White’s stepmother was jealous of her beauty, and Cinderella didn’t get the man until she put on a ball gown and got a new pair of shoes. (BTW, for the best unofficial Disney princesses pic, click here.) As a matter of fact, Mattel didn’t want to purchase Barbie until the creators convinced them that it could be used as a tool to teach little girls how to find a husband.

    All of this fussing over our bodies is part learned, part inherited, part societal. Some days, I say “Fuck them all!” Other days, I wish it could be as easy as taking a knife to slice off all this excess fat. Sure I might me a bloody, scarred mess, but I’d be thin!

    I’d love to expand on this further, but they actually want me to work at work now! ^_^

  11. 11
    BStu says:

    FYI, attempting to lose weight is still harmful and extremely unlikely to work if you are “morbidly obese”. For all the effort to define our bodies as morbid, the plan facts are that weight loss doesn’t work. Not for people who “need” it, or for people who “want” it. Our bodies aren’t issues of choice. The chances of weight loss working are so limited, that treating our bodies as a product of personal intention (or even a lack of initiative to change) simply isn’t fair. We need to stop accepting blame for our bodies by excepting the notion that there is any element of choice involved. The reality is that there simply isn’t.

    And Ed, you are either being naive or dismissive to suggest that acceptance can be as simple as just deciding not to care. For all your insistance of how rude it would be to ask anyone else to change, fat negativity is pretty damn intrusive into the lives of fat people so your scenario is anything but fair. In truth, it simply privlages the status quo of fat hatred and attacks the notion of support systems and advocating for respect and acceptance from society. If a 40 Billion Dollar industry can adovcate for fat people to hate themselves, how is it rude for a fat person to respond with “Accept it”. No one thinks we can change the world overnight, but to suggest that trying to change the world at all is intrusive is bizarre. Would you level that charge at those who fight for racial equality, gender equality, or gay rights? Are they being rude to speak out for what they believe in? Or, is it only fat people? Or rather, only people who oppose oppressive standards of beauty? Even if it were as easy as “not caring”, what good will that do if you still have to suffer from other people imposing their expectations and standards on you? No one’s “right” to feel hostile towards their body will be threatened by people arguing for a different path. Shutting up those who challenge the status quo only serves to further entrench the status quo. It can hardly be described as equalizing act of subjectively endorsing everyone. In truth, it only emboldens the stronger objective standard. I’m going to speak out for what I believe in. And I’m not going to apologize for that if someone thinks its rude that I disagree with the cultural mandate.

  12. 12
    jon says:

    every time I read a post here about fat acceptance or HAES

    Why stop at Health at any Size ? Why not propose Health At Any Blood Pressure Level ? Or Health at any Blood Sugar Level ? Health at any Glomerular Filtration Rate ? Health at any level of arterial blockage ?

    or the studies showing that weight loss is more likely to be unhealthful than healthful unless you’re morbidly obese,

    I would suggest reading original studies, well conducted ones, rather than relying on distortions. The one time I remember seeing an actual reference to such a study, I went and looked up the study and it largely dealt with people who had undergone chemotherapy !!

    Obviously, weight loss can be harmful if you’re malnourished and is unnecessary if you’re normal weight or slightly overweight.
    But even people who are obese (not morbidly obese) can gain from even modest weight loss as long as its done in a healthy fashion. For instance, The Diabetes Prevention Program, for instance, showed that even a modest weight loss (rought about by diet and 150 minutes/week moderate exercise) could dramatically delay or prevent diabetes.

    I feel guilty — because the truth is that I would like to lose 15 pounds. I would like to 1) not have to buy new jeans 2) feel better 3) look better, in that order. By the BMI charts I’m maybe just a smidge overweight, certainly nowhere near obese.

    If you’re just a smidgen overweight, there is really no need from a health perspective for you to lose weight at all as long as you don’t have many other risk factors. But just about everyone would benefit from a healthy diet and some exercise.

  13. 13
    Lu says:

    Sheesh. Is it OK with you if I exercise more?

  14. 14
    Lu says:

    Oops, that (comment #12) was in response to comment #10.

  15. 15
    jon says:

    FYI, attempting to lose weight is still harmful and extremely unlikely to work if you are “morbidly obese”.

    Nonsense. Yes, you can try and lose weight in an unhealthy manner. But what the vast majority of health professionals and nutritional experts would tell you is that a sensible healthy diet and a moderate amount of exercise would benefit just about everyone. And weight loss would definitely benefit the vast majority of morbidly obese. There is good evidence that obesity is a risk factor in and of itself, so a non-obese, sedentary person has a lower risk than an obese, active person. And of course, the highest risk is to be an obese, sedentary person.

    For all the effort to define our bodies as morbid, the plan facts are that weight loss doesn’t work.

    Why stop there with the objection to “morbid” ? Why not say:

    “For all the effort to define our bodies as hypertensive”

    or

    “For all the effort to define our bodies as diabetic”

    or

    “For all the effort to define our bodies as a failure by saying we have renal disease or congestive heart failure ”

    And of course, weight loss does work. Even modest weight loss has been shown to help greatly with preventing diabetes and other diseases.

    http://www.obesityonline.org/slides/slide01.cfm?tk=32

    Not for people who “need” it, or for people who “want” it. Our bodies aren’t issues of choice. The chances of weight loss working are so limited, that treating our bodies as a product of personal intention (or even a lack of initiative to change) simply isn’t fair. We need to stop accepting blame for our bodies by excepting the notion that there is any element of choice involved. The reality is that there simply isn’t.

    The notion that there is some “set point” for weight and there is no element of personal choice involved is total nonsense. With the rare exception of a few people with hormonal disorders (and even in that case, maybe 5-10% of the weight can be attributed to the disorder), your weight is heavily driven by your own actions.

    Genetics plays a major role, but genetics is not destiny. In any case, its irrelevant. Biology is not going to give you a pass on the harmful effects of obesity simply because you were unlucky enough to inherit a tendency towards obesity, any more than biology will give you a pass on the harmful effects of hypertension or diabetes simply because you inherited a genetic tendency to be fat.

  16. 16
    Jill says:

    Moving away from the highly predictable “Fat is unhealthy! Let me come in here and explain how unhealthy it is because you have probably never, ever heard this before! I’m doing you a favor!” conversation, I think a similar analysis can be applied to reproductive rights — that is, for many feminists, having a feminist ideology can make you feel like you have a greater obligation to make the “right” choices and not screw up.

    I’ve never been unintentionally pregnant, but some of my feminist friends have. And the reaction I see most isn’t guilt over abortion or inability to decide what to do, but feelings of foolishness and stupidity. These same women would never judge anyone else for getting unintentionally pregnant. They understand that birth control fails, that things happen, that we’re human. But when they get accidentally pregnant, they feel like they should have known better because they’re feminists and they have all the tools to know better. That’s what they beat themselves up over.

    As I said, I’ve never been pregnant. But if I were to have an unintended pregnancy, I imagine I’d be thinking along the same lines: How did this happen to me, when I “know better” because of my feminist and reproductive rights work? How could I be so stupid?

    I see a parallel there to the body image conversation, and the individual frustrations that feminists face when they have body issues. It’s not a perfect comparison, but perhaps one worth discussing. Thoughts?

  17. 17
    Ampersand says:

    Moving away from the highly predictable “Fat is unhealthy! Let me come in here and explain how unhealthy it is because you have probably never, ever heard this before! I’m doing you a favor!” conversation…

    Indeed.

    Jon, your comments on this thread have been off topic, and are attempts to move the conversation away from the topic of Maia’s post. I’m not saying that you’re the only one, but you’re the worse offender; you don’t even pretend to show the slightest interest in what Maia was posting about. There are a dozen or more posts on “Alas” that would be more appropriate for you to comment on, for the subject you’re talking about.

    I’m also not a big fan of your condescending tone.

    For the above reasons, I’m banning you from “Alas” for the next week, and from this thread permanently.

  18. 18
    BStu says:

    That was directed to me, Lu? How is that a relevant remark? What comments did I make about excercise, exactly? I reject the idea that a fat body is in a state of failure. That being fat is a choice. It simply isn’t. I cannot make you think differently, but don’t act like I have an obligation to endorse that line of thinking. Its wrong. We don’t choose to be fat and we cannot choose to be not fat. The myth of choice fuels fat bigotry and I’m not goint to give it a free pass just because so many people want to think people are morally responsible the size of their bodies.

    Weight loss isn’t a choice. It isn’t an option. Virtually everyone who attempts to manipulate their weight downward will not only ultimately gain back what they lost, they’ll gain back more than they lost. The studies Jon cites to prove his point do anything but. They show that a healthy and moderately active lifestyle only has a nominal impact on weight. Its absurd to conclude that they tell us that a 5lb weight loss is beneficial. The benefit is in adopting a healthy lifestyle. The fact that doing so carries so many benefits while impacting weight so little shows the error in valuing weight as a useful diagnostic tool. It isn’t. Even if it were, there is still nothing to lead one to believe there were any meaningful way to do something to make a fat person into a not-fat person.

    It shouldn’t matter. Fat people should be free to be fat whether its a choice or not. Even the most fat critical studies show extremely minor health implications. Especially when compared to other things which can be realistically changed, like access to health care or quitting smoking. But being fat isn’t a choice and not being fat anymore isn’t a choice, so I see no reason to concede the most common tool of body hatred.

  19. 19
    BritGirlSF says:

    OK, moving back to the actual point of the post…
    I think that it’s inevitable that feminists feel some conflict on this issue, because what we believe on a political level is so very much in conflict with the programming we received. We’ve been trained to hate fatness since birth, especially in ourselves, so it itsn’t too surprising that we feel the conflict. I’m not sure that it does any good to beat ourselves up for feeling that way.
    There are a few things we can do, though. You already seem to be doing most of them. We need to be aware of not participating in the “I hate my body and food is my enemy” conversations. We need to tactfully interject an alternative viewpoint whenever we can. We need to support others around us who are struggling with this issue, try to alleviate their insecurities rather than reinforcing them.
    I hate the body conversations. I’ve always hated them, and avoid them whenever I can. I have a good friend who constantly tries to pull me into those conversations because she’s convinced that the BMI calculator it telling her she isn’t thin enough. She’s 5ft1, 125 pounds, and wears a size 2. If she thinks she’s fat then it’s pretty clear that we’re all nuts when it comes to this issue.
    The internal conflict never goes away, though. I’m a size 8 and I think I need to lose 30 pounds. Logically, I know that this is not the case – my BMI is “normal”, my health is fine, I hardly ever get sick, in fact my only health issue is that I have rather low blood pressure (genetic I suspect – my mother had the same problem). The programming gets to us all. Heaping guilt that I’m not fulfilling my feminist obligations by wanting to be thinner on top everything else isn’t going to help me, and it’s not going to help anyone else either. I think this is an issue where we all need to cut ourselves, and each other, a little slack.

  20. 20
    BStu says:

    There is a difference between not beating oneself up for having body negative thoughts and approving of those thoughts. Accept that you will have thouse feelings, but don’t accept that they are right. No one should expect themselves to be perfect all the time. Fat hatred is an extremely powerful force in our culture and even the most fat accepting people will have moments where it gets to them. Absolutely, that’s okay. Its not a failing or something to feel guilty about. Its something to feel angry about, but not towards ourselves. Rather we should take those moments to feel angry about the cultural conditioning. We can accept that we will have times that we will feel we need to lose weight without affirming those feelings. No one is perfect all the time and no one can expect to be. But that shouldn’t be a barrier to try to learn how to respond internally to those feelings as well as to respond to those sentiments when they are directed at us. I think the most important thing to do is to never fall into a pattern of going along with body hatred, in ourselves or in others. We shouldn’t endorse it when others try to pull us into these coversations. Not even slightly. I’m not saying we need to be confrontational whenever it comes up. That’s like beating ourselves up for having those feelings. Its just not productive. But that doesn’t mean we need to assent to it, either. We can walk away. Be non-responsive. Or we can try to steer things in a different directions. There will be opportunities to challenge things, and I don’t think we should shy away from those opportunities, either. Ultimately, though, I think the most important first step is to stop the tolerance our culture demands of body hatred. We don’t need to be a party to that. We don’t need to congratulate body hatred or cheer it on. That doesn’t mean always attacking it. It just means never endorsing it. Its not a solution, and I don’t mean to present as one. But I do think it can be a first step that a lot of people still need to take before collective action can take hold. Our culture demands that we all approve of body hatred. That we shower it with praise and that failing to do so is mean or uncivil or rude. But opting-out is an important step to take. While it shouldn’t be as radical a step as it is, opting-out for body negative discussions alone can be very dramatic and difficult.

  21. 21
    Maia says:

    BStu – you are taking this thread off-topic. I appreciate your perspective, and agree with most of it. But this is specifically a thread about women’s experiences, and the interaction of feminism.

    Men have wondered why women feel the way they do, and I’d like to suggest that possibly listening to what women have to say (in this thread, and the feministe thread), would be a good start. I’m not saying that men can’t participate in this thread (this isn’t a moderation demand), but I am requesting that men consider listening to what women say, before speaking themselves. If you’d like to discuss this further e-mail me (capitalismbad@gmail.com), rather than taking the thread further off topic.

  22. 22
    Maia says:

    One of the things that I’ve been thinking, and I don’t know what other people think. I move in circles where women talk almost exclusively about health, food control is always for health reasons, and people who mention weight loss do it to be healthy. I’ve become really frustrated about that, and I’ve come to think it’d be much better if we came straight out and said ‘I want to be skinnier because I hate my body’. I think it’s much harder to fight that body hatred when we hide it among a layer of all this other stuff.

    curiousgyrl – oh absolutely – although I think that’s less common in the circles I move in, because wanting to lose weight is kind of unacceptable, so it gets subsumed under the ‘health’ umbrella instead. So saying ‘actually it’s not about health it’s about weight’, . Or maybe people feel self-concious having the conversations around me, I don’t know.

    M and Isabel – I’ve so had those conversations with women who just don’t understand, and I find them so frustrating. I find that anything I say can be further fed into the ‘health/skinny’ model.

    Lu – it is really hard – that conversation in your head that you have, over and over again.

    BritSFGirl – I agree – one of my problems is that I don’t know how to cut people some slack and at the same time opt out of the body conversations. I do believe that body conversations aren’t just annoying, they’re harmful – eating disordered behaviour is really catching. I also think it’s a lot easier to maintain if you get the sort of support most women get for weight loss. So how to stop the conversations that I think are both dangerous and , without coming off as if I think I’m better than everyone else because I don’t have body image issues (which is of course, completely not true, I just keep them to myself).

  23. 23
    BStu says:

    Fine. I quit. I’m sick of caring about something no one wants. I’ve got mine, and I guess I’m not supposed to care about anyone else, so fine. I quit.

  24. 24
    Maia says:

    One of the things that I’ve been thinking, and I don’t know what other people think. I move in circles where women talk almost exclusively about health, food control is always for health reasons, and people who mention losing weight talk about it for health reasons. I’ve become really frustrated about that, and I’ve come to think it’d be much better if we came straight out and said ‘I want to be skinnier because I hate my body’. I think it’s much harder to fight that body hatred when we hide it amongst all this other stuff.

    Curiousgyrl – It’s one of the reasons I hate the Dove campaigns and the like so much. The fact that they co-opt body image issues to try and sell cellulite cream, makes it that much harder

    Angel H -I hope they don’t maintain the unreasonable demand that you work at work and you can post some more of your thoughts.

    M and Isabel – I know the brick-wall you’re talking about, I’ve come up against it many times. Sometims I think I’ve been able to get through, but other times I just end up being frustrated and upset.

    Lu – I’ve been around those thoughts in my head and it’s really frustrating. I do think the feminist goal can only be achieved by stopping food and weight meaning so much. But how we can get there I’ve no idea.

    BritGirlSF – I agree about cutting each other some slack. But I don’t know how to cut each other some slack and opt out of the body/food conversations. I don’t know how to stop having people making degrading comments about their bodies and food around me, without coming across as though I think I’m better than them, and have got beyond their petty concerns (which is of course not true).

    Jill – that’s a really interesting comparison – none of my closest friends have got accidentally pregnant, so I don’t have much experience of that. The fighting for a right that people can feel deeply ambivalent about when it comes to themselves is certainly true in both examples.

    The question is how to deal with that – which is of course where I come up blank.

  25. 25
    La di Da says:

    I definitely get the “But think of your/fatties’ health!” thing if I try to bring up body image issues most of the time. It’s often *shocking* to people (especially other women) that a fat woman is trying to NOT hate her body and is not on a diet or planning to be on one. As a fat person, I am obviously trying to “justify” being fat, and as a woman, I am obviously crazy to not want to be model-slim to get a man. My opinion therefore holds no water.

    In the archives of feminist-reprise.net there’s an essay by a radical feminist lesbian discussing fat prejudice, body hatred, and perceived attractiveness. She describes being told “I’m just not attracted to fat women” and “Well, fat is just unhealthy, we’re worried about you” by other feminist lesbians and her response is along the lines of “Is it really my health you’re worried about or is that in the back of your mind somewhere you think I’m obligated to meet some patriarchal standard of beauty?”

    The co-opting of positive body image and size-acceptance language by diet-peddlers and others is also very frustrating. As in, “You should be happy with yourself and love your body! … So you can lose weight!”

    I’m rather at a loss with how to deal with it too.

  26. 26
    Charles S says:

    Maia,

    Was your moderation of BStu in response to comment 17 or comment 19? While comment 17 was participating in the derailment, comment 19 seemed entirely on topic. Dealing with negative thought patterns that you can’t control by accepting them but not validation them is a really important part of “cutting yourself some slack.”

    Does a concerted campaign of doing small-group consciousness raising count as collective action? It seems to me that this is a topic that is probably only susceptible to collective action of that sort.

  27. 27
    Rachel S. says:

    I routinely get pissed when the conversation is women and body image. I feel like, when it is about weight and thinness, the women all jump on the bandwagon. Then, when I put up a post like this or this, the body hatred is so deeply embedded that people don’t even want to acknowledge that there is a problem.

    You know how many bullshit comments I had to read this week about big breasts (on the Ashley treatment threads). They were like “We may as well just lop em off.”  I have big breasts, and it’s not bad.

    You know this body stuff is all interconnected–whether or not we are talking about hysterectomies, periods, big breasts, thinness, fatness, pubic hair, breastfeeding, or whatever part of our bodies.  But feminist or not, many women are completely oblivious to this interconnection. They can jump on the weight bandwagon easily, but the other issues bring out a different conversation.

    BTW this rant is not direct at Maia :) I just had to get that in because some of the women (and men) were pissing me off on the Ashley treatment thread with the useless uterus/breasts talk.  I can’t wait until we talk about how useless testicles and penises are, how scary ejaculation is………..(enough of the snark LOL!!)

  28. 28
    BritGirlSF says:

    Maia – It is hard to know how to bow out without coming across as condescending or preachy. I usually seem to settle for saying something along the lines of “I really don’t that beating ourselves up for not being perfect is productive”, or just try to steer the conversation in another direction. The second alternative is kind of a cop-out, but it’s hard to know what else to do with women who you know aren’t going to listen to feminist arguments.
    The thing I think we can do is support the women we know on a personal level rather than playing into their body anxieties. For example, the friend I was talking about is convinced that her butt is too big and she needs to diet to make it smaller. Thing is, the reason she has a big butt is that she runs marathons. I always point out that she needs those muscles to run with, that strength is a good thing, that she’s incredibly fit and if anyone has a problem with the fact that that fitness tends to build muscles in the butt and thighs, well, f#$k them. She’s perfect just as she is, and if running makes her happy, so why stop? That’s just my lame example but I think you get the idea. If we try to build the people around us up rather than helping them to tear themselves down, or passively sitting and listening to them do so (which they may interpret as agreement), we’re moving in the right direction.
    What to do about the conversation on a macro level as represented by the constant barrage of diet spam, that’s a tougher question. All I can think of to do is keep chipping away on a personal level at the people we actually have some influence over.
    Now I’m going to go check out the thread Rachel was talking about because…women with big breasts should just have them lopped off? Huh? Why?

  29. 29
    Mickle says:

    Rachel

    People questioned whether big breasts could be an inconvenience. Other people with big breasts said they could be. (whether that justifies what the doctors and parents did is another issue)

    Yours may never bother you, but mine can be downright annoying at times. (When I run, when I sleep, and most especially when I eat and stuff falls on them instead of my napkin.) That’s not “I can’t accept how I look” that’s “gee, my body doesn’t always work the way I want.”

    I’m not saying I don’t ever think the former, or that you don’t bring up an important issue, but I don’t see how dissmissing other people’s experiences is really conducive to the good point you are trying to make.

    Especially since some of the stuff about “how my body works” is as important to feminist discussion as “how I think about how I look.” It would be really nice if the people who made seat belts thought about how they worked on women with breasts as large as mine – cuz they really don’t. It would be nice if comfortable bras for breasts my size weren’t so expensive. It would be nice if there were more options for buying clothes – especially dresses. A lot of these things can be changed, just like body image.

    OT: I had an argument with (I think) my doctor once in high school about BMI. I told him it was stupid because it didn’t account for muscle. He disagreed and pretty much said that complaint didn’t apply to me anyway. :p..

    As far as “but what about people’s health!” goes – the skinniest I’ve been was the summer before sophmore year of college. I’d been eating healthy because my dad was on a special diet for health reasons. (Note, however, that it was simply healthy food – the portions were whatever I felt like.) More importantly, though, I had nothing to do all day but wander around downtown walking from library to bookstore and back again.

    If all these people worrying about people’s health really wanted to make a difference, they would make fresh fruit and veggies cheaper and give everyone more leisure time. Obsessing about every calorie and giving people complexes just makes everyone more unhealthy.

    Unfortunately, that’s the route my aunt is going with my cousins and it drives me crazy. Sad thing is, my cousin probably thinks it’s working – even though if anything is helping it’s more likely to be her daily walks than anything else. (yes, I am very much for encouraging people to get out more, but more because most people I know think it’s fun, but have all kinds of other stuff they “have” to do instead. not because I think everyone should think it’s fun.)

  30. 30
    Maia says:

    Just so people know – the Ashley treatment is off topic on this thread. I understand why you bought it up Rachel – but I think further discussion would derail the thread completely.

    Charles – It was BStu’s comment #17 that I considered off-topic. But it was his comment #19 (along with earlier comments from Robert, jon and Ed) that lead to the second paragraph of that post.

  31. 31
    Rachel S. says:

    I just referenced the Ashley thread. I don’t want to discuss it here.

    Mickle said, “Especially since some of the stuff about “how my body works” is as important to feminist discussion as “how I think about how I look.” ”

    And on top of that, I think the other issue is how were are taught to think about our body works.

    Mickle said, “It would be really nice if the people who made seat belts thought about how they worked on women with breasts as large as mine – cuz they really don’t. It would be nice if comfortable bras for breasts my size weren’t so expensive. It would be nice if there were more options for buying clothes – especially dresses. A lot of these things can be changed, just like body image.”

    Yep, this issue only feeds the body hatred. You can relate is back to the weight example, society isn’t made for bodies that diverge from the standard (whatever) that is). I think this is partly related to the standardization that comes from mass production; supposedly as we move into the post modern era this is suppose to change with the development of the niche market. My grandmother used to make clothes for me, and she would go buy a pattern. My body didn’t realy fit any patterns, so she would adjust it accordingly (take out a few inches in the waist and add a few inches in the hips. I always remember her saying they needed to make the pattern better because my big butt would fit in it. She wasn’t insulting me; she was mad about the pattern. Why can’t more women be like that nowadays–mad at the pattern, and not the body? Mad at the seat belt design and not the big breast, mad at the chair and not the butt….and so on

  32. 32
    Sharon says:

    Maia, have you tried asking them directly how they think we could move forward to stop hating our bodies so much? If they are particularly pro-health you could add that loving our own bodies must surely be a positive thing when it comes to health – after all, what do you take care of better? Something you love or something you loathe?

  33. 33
    jennie says:

    Part of what I’d like to see is a push for more performance-based metrics of fitness and physique at a social level. Can we avoid talking about “toning” and “shaping” or “sculpting” our bodies, and talk about personal achievement goals: “I’d like to be able to go on a day hike without feeling wiped out.” “I’d like to be able to do this yoga series.”

    And we need to encourage people to look at what they want to do, and whether their bodies will let them do that, and not shame them for having goals that we may consider modest—if what someone really feels they need to be able to do is climb the stairs without wheezing.

    It won’t be enough to counteract the societal messages. Health, fitness, and thinness are pretty inextricably linked in people’s minds and the message that “thin=healthy” provides a justification for women to fall into those body-hating thought patterns. But it’s another metric, which I think might help.

  34. 34
    BritGirlSF says:

    Rachel S said…”My grandmother used to make clothes for me, and she would go buy a pattern. My body didn’t realy fit any patterns, so she would adjust it accordingly (take out a few inches in the waist and add a few inches in the hips. I always remember her saying they needed to make the pattern better because my big butt would fit in it. She wasn’t insulting me; she was mad about the pattern. Why can’t more women be like that nowadays–mad at the pattern, and not the body? Mad at the seat belt design and not the big breast, mad at the chair and not the butt….and so on ”
    I think this is an incredibly important point. There’s this idea out there in the culture that bodies are supposed to be standardised, and it’s nonsense. Even if we were to ignore the weight issue and look at women who were all in the same weight range they still wouldn’t be the same shape. Bodies come in infinite configurations, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we really were standardised it would be very boring. I’m lucky that I grew up with a grannie and mother like Rachel’s – they both made it clear that the fact that some clothes didn’t accomodate my boobs was a fault on the part of the manufacturers, rather than something wrong with me. That was what I was trying to say earlier – we need to support the other women around us in the idea that bodies aren’t actually meant to be standardised, that variation is actually the norm, that hating our bodies because they don’t fit the “pattern” is pointless because in nature there IS no pattern.
    Slight divergence from the topic since a few people have mentioned the issues with getting clothes to fit if you have large breasts – check out this website http://www.bravissimo.com/bravissimo/. It’s devoted to serving women with large breasts. It’s mostly bras, obviously, but they also make fitted button down shirts, tank tops with built in bras ets that actually fit women with big breasts. You order them by both bra size and overall size, so a shirt that fits at the bust also fits at the waist. Why didn’t someone think of that sooner, huh?
    Sorry if this isn’t allowed, I just think this is such a good idea that I wanted to share it. Also, the overall tone of the site is pretty body-positive. Now if only more manufacturers would get the same idea wouldn’t that be something?

  35. 35
    Maia says:

    Sharon – the specific problem among most women I know is that these discussions happen in a context where people don’t talk about weight that much, and primarily talk about food in the context of healthy eating. This isn’t because weight isn’t an issue, but because within an activist community it’s not cool to care about your weight (it is still cool to be skinny). So when I’ve tried to talk about the body image issues of the way people talk, people have felt defensive and it hasn’t got very far. I might try that with some of my non-activist friends though.

    Rachel – Too often I’ve had conversations with people where they’ve shownt he opposite reaction to your grandmother. If the clothes are too big it’s the lothes fault – but if they’re too small it’s the woman’s bodies fault.

    BritGirlSF – that site is awesome (I have long rants about how they can cup-size bras but not shirts or togs), only wish I could afford it.

  36. 36
    BritGirlSF says:

    Maia – Think of it this way, if a shirt actually fits when you buy it then you don’t have to pay to have it taken in at the waist. That’s how I justify the prices to myself, anyway. That or just wait for the sales!
    I’m interested in your comments about the food issues in your activist circle. I live in the Bay Area and spend a lot of time in Berkeley, so I’m probably encountering a similar set of people. I guess my question is, are you sure that for all of these people it’s really about weight and not about health, or at least their very specific ideas about health? The reason I ask is that I encounter a lot of people who really do seem to think that if they take the right supplements and only eat organic produce then they’ll live to be 100. I’m not sure it is a weight thing in some cases as much as it is a hippy/environmentalist thing, ie that in some cases it’s based on the idea that the government can’t be trusted and the conventional food supply is toxic and full of nasty chemicals rather than that conventional food will make you fat.
    I’m not sure if that will make any sense to anyone who doesn’t live in the Berkeley bubble.

  37. 37
    BritGirlSF says:

    About Jennie’s point about performance based goals – the other advantage of that way of looking at things is that you can actually tell when you’ve met the goal, which tends to make people feel good about themselves. If your goal is “I want to be able to hike up (name your local mountain)” and you actually do it it’s pretty clear that your goal has been met, but if your goal is “I want to be toned”, well, how do you measure that? How do you clearly define yourself as having met your goal? You’re setting yourself up to fail, because you can ALWAYS be more toned. You’re like a hamster on a wheel. It’s inherantly an unhealthy way to look at things. The reason most people are taught to look at things that way is because it makes them good little consumers and keeps them buying stuff. Or at least that’s my theory. I think the whole point of the diet industry is for people to fail, because if they ever succeeded why would they need to buy any more stuff?

  38. 38
    trillian says:

    Awesome post, Maia, and you completely made my day by quoting my comment for your title. (I hope it’s understood that that’s not really what I was saying.) I don’t think I have any wisdom when it comes to helping others break these patterns on an individual level, and if I do it’s already been put better above than I could have – but I really hope that the sort of meta-awareness of this issue that your post comes from is itself a big step away from our and the next generation perpetuating this.

    BritGirlSF: The reason most people are taught to look at things that way is because it makes them good little consumers and keeps them buying stuff. Or at least that’s my theory. I think the whole point of the diet industry is for people to fail, because if they ever succeeded why would they need to buy any more stuff?

    That is exactly my take…I think our constant bombardment of advertising is meant to sell – more importantly than any specific product – the perpetual notion that we are lacking something (and can buy the something). At the same time, we’re being taught that our worth is all tied up in our physical image, because an ad has to boil down to image. And the message is always that what we already are is not ok.

    Maybe in some way that’s part of why body issues seem compartmentalized from our feminist thinking – it’s ingrained on a non-verbal level, the part of us that just sees and wants (reptile brain?), and everything that counterbalances it comes from a much more rational place. It’s unfortunate that instead of our logic taking over, that contradiction so easily becomes a way to hate ourselves on two levels instead of just one.

  39. 39
    Mickle says:

    If your goal is “I want to be able to hike up (name your local mountain)” and you actually do it it’s pretty clear that your goal has been met, but if your goal is “I want to be toned”, well, how do you measure that?

    Not only can you always be more toned, but the real point is to have the magic mirror tell us we are the fairest of them all. The goal is centered around other people’s (the patriatarchy’s) approval. Which is never going to work for obvious reasons.

    Finishing a day hike is not only a finite goal that isn’t based on the subjective and often sexist opinions of others, it’s often it’s own reward. Getting in shape enough to climb a mountain means you get to climb the mountain.

    And hell yes about consumerism and the diet industry in particular. At the very least, it sets people up to be dependent upon the products. If you needed that special diet pill to get skinny, you’re going to need it to stay that way too.

  40. 40
    Maia says:

    BritGirlSF – Unfortunately the exchange rate, postage, and the fact that I have a friend with a sewing machine means that maths doesn’t work for me, one day maybe.

    I don’t think you need to live in a Berkeley bubble to understand what you describe. It’s hard because I really don’t like the ideology that if you eat rightyou’ll live to be 100 anyway, it’s not true, it’s individualistic, and it’s victim blaming. But more than among the women I know I really feel that for a lot of people ideas of healthy eating are tied up with the same food, control and body image issues that drive so many women. Among men the ideology seems to be much more uncomplicated.

    Trillian – absolutely I knew what you meant. I was worried that other people wouldn’t.

    I agree with what everyone is saying about goal base vs image based aims. I resent how long it took me to learn to use my body, and the reason it took me so long is because using my body was always framed as changing my body.

  41. 41
    debbie says:

    Having spent time in activist circles, it’s amazing how often people hide their food issues behind concerns about their health. I’ve seen some pretty extreme food restrictions, fasting, cleanses, and diets. None of these things are bad (or necessarily about unhealthy attitudes towards food), but it’s frustrating to constantly listen to women talking about the latest “bad” thing they’ve cut out of their diet in supposedly feminist or feminist-friendly spaces.

  42. 42
    trillian says:

    Thanks, Maia. I wasn’t so much concerned about you misunderstanding – you’re clearly a ‘smart cookie’ – just people who hadn’t read the post. And I feel ya about being resistant to learning to use your body. In my experience, to whatever extent it didn’t seem tied up in looking better, physicality was about competitiveness and being good or the best at anything. Meaning: gym class was torture. It honestly never dawned on me (until I could get college credit for a yoga class – yay theater school – that using my body could be its own reward and not something that was all about how other people saw me.

    If you needed that special diet pill to get skinny, you’re going to need it to stay that way too.

    I was in Vitamin World last weekend, buying my two huge canisters of Spirutein (bc of the sickly lil me/trying-to-put-on-weight thing), and two girls in their older teens or young twenties were getting sold on some diet pills behind me in line. The saleswoman was stressing that because the regimen of the store’s pills involves eating three times a day and drinking lots of water, it was the only “surefire way” to lose weight. I wanted to turn around and ask, Why not just try the eating regular meals and drinking water thing first and see how that goes?, and frankly I’m not sure why I didn’t. But I also wanted to tell those girls that they didn’t need to lose any weight and were certainly far from needing to spend money on snake oil to do it, but I couldn’t come up with a way to phrase it so I wasn’t implying that anyone else does. I’m not sure how we got to where ‘three square meals a day’ is commodified and sold as extraordinary measures, but it certainly hasn’t been by being ok with ourselves.

  43. 43
    Mickle says:

    I agree with what everyone is saying about goal base vs image based aims. I resent how long it took me to learn to use my body, and the reason it took me so long is because using my body was always framed as changing my body.

    I always found the study that inspired Nike’s “If You Let Me Play’ ads fascinating for that reason. The numbers all seemed to indicate that what playing sports did for girls (more accurrately, high school aged girls) was give them a solid experience in how false the idea that “my body is all about how it looks/what it can do for others” that’s gets fed to women really is. The girls seemed to gain a sense of respect for their own physical accomplishments that was extremely helpful in making all kinds of choices that kept them happy and healthy.

    I thought the ‘I’m more likely to leave a boyfriend who hits me” line was especially revealing. It makes sense to me that it’s much easier to leave an abusive boyfriend if your relationship with your body is centered around what you can make it do rather than how much others desire it. For people who believe the latter, leaving an abusive boyfriend can be a catch-22. Leave him and what purpose does the body he’s abusing serve? For someone who believes the former, it’s a much clearer choice. When you not only feel like you own your own body – but also feel proud of what it can do, it’s much more obvious that an abuser is showing disrespect and not love.

    That isn’t to say that high school girls playing sports is a cure for abuse or that other factors don’t pay a part in such cases, just that a goals based health focus is more in line with feminism in a variety of not immediately obvious ways.

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  46. 44
    Kiki says:

    In terms of feminist analysis, I think the issue of body hatred and a desire to be thin runs a lot deeper than just “we’re taught thin is good/healthy/attractive and fat is bad/healthy/unattractive” and therefore we’re obsessed with being thinner. The solutions are also a lot more complicated that saying our culture should depict a broader range of body types as beautiful or impose a more “realistic” standard of beauty.

    For me, it all boils down to the highly sexist notion that a woman’s worth (both in her own eyes and in the eyes of society in general) is measured by how attractive she is — to potential partners, to herself and to the world at large. As it stands, beauty and sex appeal are the only real currency women can exchange for what passes as something that at least resembles cultural or individual power. Until we as a culture begin to value women for their accomplishments, abilities and contributions first, and beauty becomes a secondary, if not largely irrelevant, factor in what makes a woman powerful and successful, it will remain extremely difficult for us make peace between our feminist belief that patriarchal standards of beauty are bullshit and our desire to be beautiful (and therefore powerful and relevant).

    As long as appearance remains more valuable and more useful to women than substance, it doesn’t matter how thin or how fat or how curvy or how athletic or how large-breasted or how slim-hipped the “ideal” is — the underlying imperative that women exist as public property to be looked at and judged according to how successfully they please the gaze of the world hasn’t changed. Obviously, no matter what the ideal might be, not every woman will be able to achieve it and therefore the cycle of self-hatred and dissatisfaction will continue.

    Sorry for coming to this thread late. It’s been awhile since I’ve had the pleasure of reading this blog.

  47. 45
    littlem says:

    “’m lucky that I grew up with a grannie and mother like Rachel’s – they both made it clear that the fact that some clothes didn’t accommodate my boobs was a fault on the part of the manufacturers, rather than something wrong with me.”

    A lot of skinny, prominent (and I’m talking third wave, not second) feminists don’t do this.

    I understand part of that has to do with “work” and “achievement standards in the workplace” and “appropriate professional dress”, but I’m wondering what middle and upper middle class feminists are willing to look at the class issues bearing on that.