“Fat is a Feminist Issue” – Body politics beyond the looking glass

In her blog, A Year Without Mirrors, fashion student Kjerstin Gruys is chronicling her commitment to avoid looking at her reflection for a year. Shunning mirrors for a year is only one half of her plan to resolve her body image issues: she is dedicated to monitoring her food and exercise, as an advocate of the ‘Health at Every Size’ movement (which stresses the importance of healthy behaviours but rejects the idea that there is a universal ‘healthy weight’). Her self-proclaimed goal is to ‘consciously re-engage in healthful eating habits and joyful activity’ and consequently ‘accept my body size and shape wherever it settles’. However, she records her conflicted feelings on dieting as a feminist:

“Dieting can also be understood as a type of ‘patriarchal bargain’ (an individual woman’s decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women-as-a-group, in exchange for whatever power she can wrest from the system).  By strategically losing weight, we accept the THIN = BEAUTIFUL * GOOD equation (which implies FAT = UGLY * BAD), and propel ourselves into positions of greater social advantage. On an individual level, having ‘thin privilege’ feels empowering. Frustratingly, given the patriarchal bargain of weight-loss, being radically anti-diet as a political stance doesn’t always fit comfortably as a personal stance. Because we live in a society that punishes women for being ‘fat’, even the most dedicated feminists report struggles with body image. The threat of becoming a martyr for this cause (i.e., by voluntarily giving up ‘thin-privilege’, if we’ve got it) can be terrifying. Add to this the personal fact that I’ve gained an (subjectively) uncomfortable amount of weight in the past year by neglecting to care for my body, and suddenly I’m facing a conundrum.”

She shares her experiences of anorexia and how her recovery made her a feminist:

“While battling for my sanity and health, I became increasingly pissed off at the THIN = BEAUTIFUL * GOOD environment we live in. Our culture’s valorization of thinness caused well-meaning friends to compliment me on my rapid weight-loss, literally up until the weeks that I entered treatment. Even after entering treatment, some people didn’t think I was skinny enough to be ‘really’ anorexic. Worse, my awful then-boyfriend hinted that it would be great if I could recover without gaining any weight, “since you’re not, like, scary-thin.” In the end, I got better, got angrier, and ultimately re-arranged my life so that I could stay healthy.”

Feminists typically view dieting – not least, the diet industry – as an expression of patriarchy that damages women. I get their point: diets fail 95% of the time and drain women’s energy and happiness, not to mention our wallets, and even run the risk of damaging our health. Thus, ‘riots, not diets’ has become a popular rallying cheer for many feminist activists. So what should a good feminist do? If ‘fat is a feminist issue’, can a feminist diet?

The Guardian has recently published two relevant articles, authored by India Knight and Zoe Williams. Both allege to be about feminism and dieting – but both make Linda Hirschman’s feminism read like an undergraduate essay. In ‘You’re Vain and Stupid’, Zoe Williams asserts that “women who fixate on their weight should relinquish their right to be taken seriously.” I would hesitate to categorise Zoe Williams as a feminist, given that her answer to the question of why women fixate on weight read as follows: “because they’re stupid”. Now, I am not a self-tagged feminist, but I am woman enough to realise that her answer of “because women are stupid” is not feminist. The fundamental tenet of feminism is that women’s problems are structural and political, not individual.

India Knight’s response came in the form of her article ‘It’s not anti-feminist to go on a diet’. When India Knight – once a UK size 22 – lost five stone and wrote a book about it (called Idiot-Proof Diet), she was criticised for ‘letting the side down’. Her response runs as follows:

“Are you letting the side down if you stop being fat? Is it somehow ‘unfeminist’ to concentrate, sometimes obsessively, on what you eat (or don’t eat)? Is a preoccupation with weight loss equal to wearing a placard round your neck announcing that you are vain and shallow? I have to say, these are some of the most asinine and women-loathing questions I’ve heard in a long time, but they have been levelled at me recently, and at other women I know who have lost significant amounts of weight.”

She continues:

“I’m really quite hard pushed to see how regaining control of your life, and not wishing your thighs to rub together when you walk, instantly turns you into a simpering air-head. One of the things about being fat – and I’m talking about being stones overweight, not about ‘needing’ to shrink from a size six to a size two – is that, after a certain point, it makes you invisible. It’s hard to understand how this might be considered any kind of achievement, feminist or otherwise.”

Along with her book, Knight has set up an accompanying blog and forum (at http://www.pig2twig.co.uk), which gets up to 30,000 hits a week. She questions how anyone could possibly think that the women who comment there could be seen to be doing harm by confronting an issue which infringes their live.

The thing is, India Knight didn’t just go on a diet; she wrote a diet book. At least part of her living now comes in telling other women how to lose weight. If this article is anything to go by she drums up business by making fat women feel worse about themselves. After all, she does ask: “Why is it good to be pleased that you look like a pig?” She exudes a rather ‘anti-feminist’ tone when she relates her own narrative:

 “You may occupy a great deal of physical space if you’re very fat, but in everyday life, it’s as though you weren’t there. Sales assistants stare blankly through you. Men pretend you don’t exist, or start calling you ‘mate’. You wonder whether your children are embarrassed to be seen with you in public (the answer to that one is yes, probably). You wish you could go for a bike ride with them, but you’re too self-conscious, because you look like a potato balanced on an ant. You can only buy clothes in specialist shops, and these clothes are as undesirable as you have started to feel. Your self-esteem – well, I was going to say ‘plummets’, but it’s hard to plummet when you’ve reached rock bottom.”

She might have a point; it is not pleasant to be overweight in our society, but her narrative is less about being fat as it is about reactions to fat people. What she seems to suggest is that the solution is to stop being fat, and that is hardly a feminist critique. She reaches an especially low point when she suggests that weight loss may be a solution for abusive relationships:

“I cheer for the woman whose husband puts her and her weight down every single day. One of these days, he’s going to have to stop. One of these days, she and her new-found confidence aren’t going to take it any more.”

These articles might appear to some as trivial; however, they are on the cusp of a more fundamental issue. How do we define feminism? It seems to have got itself confused by ‘feminists’ proposing the individual as the solution for collective problems.

I would never criticise anyone’s desire to lose weight; I’ve been there myself. I do not, however, see why my desire should affect society or reinforce societal ideas about the relationship between ethics and food. The actress, Emma Thompson, hits the nail on the head when she spoke of her own experiences:

“As an artist, you can choose not to sell women down the river. When I decide, for instance, not to diet myself into a starved condition to play someone like Dora Carrington, then that’s a political act. And I was being lampooned by male journalists, saying: Who would want to sleep with her? She’s not that kind of shape. So I paid the price, but I would never betray other women in that way. I just wouldn’t do it and I’ve never done it… God, I’ve gone on every single diet under the sun, but I’ve never got slender in a very particular way for any role.”

Feminism is not an escape route from a world that is obsessed with the body but it would recommend that we refrain from intensifying those pressures. For Emma Thompson, it means not losing weight to play a role; it is a little different for the rest of us. We should stop talking about food and our bodies in such a manner that might reinforce the hatred other women have for their bodies. I would suggest that India Knight, as a self-claimed feminist, should have considered this before writing a diet book or saying that fat women resemble pigs, for that matter.

What Knight misses, in her defence of dieting (whereby she says that her desire is to help ‘unhappily fat women’) is the question of why weight should be an automatic source of unhappiness for women. She does not seem to account for the way in which having your sense of self-worth bound up in weight and appearance might be conceived as problematic. Instead, Knight introduces a new straw-feminism:

“There exists a very bizarre, inverted kind of feminism (invoked by critics of dieting) that isn’t about what you can achieve, but what you mustn’t achieve. It’s about not being things – not making any effort to improve yourself, not celebrating, or even noticing, what you look like and what your body can do.”

I can’t think of who she is referring to here, but she seems to misrepresent feminist objections to an obsession with weight and physical appearances. It might be empowering to master your own desires, but her strategy ignores the way in which a cultural emphasis on dieting and weight loss could have negative effects on women who do not have a self-motivated desire to lose weight. Knight insists:

“We are thinking about our own gaze, about what we want, and about what it does to our sense of ourselves to want things – weight loss, in this instance – and not to blame or punish ourselves for wanting them.”

In this, she minimises the cultural emphasis bound to the ‘instance’ of dieting and weight loss. Dieting is a contentious issue because it is not an ‘instance’ – it forms a part of a historical account of the female body, to which many pressures are integral, like femininity and desire. Dieting is not a simple issue: it cannot be conceived of as essentially good or bad. Instead, it requires a more nuanced approach and analysis that recognises that an emphasis on weight is not universally or simplistically empowering, especially since the female body is regulated. If the only demands being made of your body are those that you make yourself, there is no problem, but it becomes more complicated when those demands are the product of external pressures. Similarly, while personal choice is liberating, becoming self-policing does not equate to self-liberation.

With this issue asserting itself so prominently in recent journalism, I was reminded of a book I encountered as an undergraduate literature student several years ago: Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, published in 1978. In it, Orbach argues that fatness and compulsive eating (with their correlatives, thinness and other eating disorders) are linked to the way in which women (and even men) see themselves perceived by society. As a resistant and impulsive teenager, I didn’t give Orbach much attention. I didn’t think of my life as being defined or affected by the expectations of others, nor was I encouraged as a child to grow up, be silent and marry. (That and I never did ally myself with the feminist project.) However, her work serves as an interesting framing context in light of these recent articles in its critique of how thinness can be understood as a way by which to fit in and conform to societal patterns while fatness can be seen as a way of rebelling against them and exercising the right to stand out.

Since the birth of materialist criticism, the body has become the most prominent site of cultural inscription and, as far as feminists are concerned, this is particularly true of the female body, on which the oppression of patriarchal norms are not only imposed from the outside, but are internalised. The body is the place where hegemony is both made and resisted. Standards for acceptable bodies vary culturally and historically, but current fashion in the hegemonic culture prescribes that a woman have and maintain slender bodies. Therefore, women constantly engage in various disciplinary practices that are aimed at producing slender and shapely bodies, including diets and exercise, supported – naturally – by all media forms. As a result, there is a rather clever dialectic in play between cultural norms and disciplinary practices.

Recent feminist critics are ambivalent about whether feminism and weight loss can co-exist. Is it really possible to be a feminist and simultaneously want to lose weight? In an article bearing the provocative title, “‘I’ll Die for the Revolution but Don’t Ask Me Not to Diet’: Feminism and the Continuing Stigmatisation of Obesity” (1994), Esther Rothblum argues that feminists have failed to recognise fat as a feminist issue, in part due to deeply embedded popular associations between feminism and physical unattractiveness (not least among fat-positive feminists since the 1960’s during second-wave feminism). At the same time, she suggests:

“To recognise the social control of women’s appearance does not mean that we cannot act and look in ways that make us feel beautiful. We have long been made to feel guilty and immoral because we do not meet unattainable and debilitating standards of attractiveness. It takes time to take control of our bodies. As we do so, we must tolerate differences, for other women may make other choices.”

Similarly, Susan Bordo, in her influential monograph Unbearable Weight (1993), offers an analysis of the body’s situatedness in Western society. She relates her own experience:

“In 1990 I lost twenty-five pounds through a national weight-loss program, a choice that some of my colleagues viewed as inconsistent and even hypocritical, given my work. But in my view, feminist cultural criticism is not a blueprint for the conduct of personal life (or political action, for that matter) and does not empower (or require) individuals to ‘rise above’ their culture or to become martyrs to feminist ideals. It does not tell us what to do – whether to lose weight or not, wear make-up or not, life weights or not. Its goal is edification and understanding, enhanced consciousness of the power, complexity, and systematic nature of culture, the interconnected webs of its functioning. It is up to the reader to decide how, and when, and where (or whether) to put that understanding to further use, in the particular, complicated, and ever changing context that is his or her life and no one else’s.”

Like Rothblum, Bordo recognises that the same action can be motivated by different factors, and interpreted in many ways by different women.

I do not underrate the pervasiveness and power of cultural practices that impinge on, subordinate, and control women, but I think feminist scholars are too absolute in viewing resistance as an all-or-nothing reaction, and to classify women as resistant or accepting based on whether or not they diet. Perhaps feminists need to reconceptualise resistance as well as feminism itself. If they did, they might not get so confused by the apparently contradictory figures of women like Nigella Lawson and Michelle Obama. Nigella Lawson has been called a hypocrite for advocating low carb diets after building her career on extolling the virtues of carb rich foods. Similarly, responding to Michelle Obama’s promotion of healthy eating, Rush Limbaugh referred to the first lady as a ‘hypocrite’ for ordering short ribs while on vacation in Colorado. This form of response to Michelle Obama’s campaign displays the sort of policing that surrounds eating in our socio-historical zeitgeist.

As interesting as this issue is to me, I am bored of choice feminists who claim that every choice they make is feminist because they wanted to make it. Yes, everyone makes choices, but those choices are always, in some way, conditioned by the circumscribed agency stemming from being a woman (or a man, for that matter), as well as cultural environment and dominant ideologies of society takes. Not every choice a woman makes can be exclusively defined as a feminist choice. They keep saying we live in a patriarchal / kyriarchal society: if this is the case, it is simply impossible for every choice to be feminist choice. Returning to the question: can feminists diet? Of course they can. Is the decision to diet a feminist choice? Not necessarily. Does it actually matter? I don’t think so. Weight is just one of many ways your body gets judged on a daily basis. So long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else (or yourself), do what you want with your body. While you do so, I ask one thing. Please stop telling me that every single choice that you make is a feminist one just because you are a woman or identify with feminism.











Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Beliefs, Morals, Health, Medicine, People

Author:Mary-Ellen L

Lives at www.animadvert.co.uk. Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy, Poet and Professional Cynic.

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