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.