In this blog I often talk about the mistakes of people who confuse requests that they respect other people’s rights and choices with their being oppressed, confusing their values and choices for “the correct” values and choices, and believing that they should get to dictate what constitutes healthy choices for other people (though typically without any interest in being told by others what constitutes healthy choices for them.)
In a recent piece for The Feminist Wire [all the trigger warnings], Laila Pedro makes all of those mistakes on an epic scale, then laments about how horrible and dis-empowering to women it is that everyone won’t just do what she thinks is the right thing to do. Poor Laila. Let’s break this down. (The indented text is the original text from Laila’s piece, it may very well be triggering, you can skip it and still understand the post if you choose.) I’ll tell you now that this is one of those really long blog posts, I tried to make it shorter but her piece is so completely ridiculous that I wanted to address all of it.
I have been at a weight I was uncomfortable with, and I worked hard — still do, every day — to change it. I’ve been at the other end, too: at a weight that was unhealthy, unsustainable, draining, and exhausting. I frequently find myself in the position of defending universally reviled, supposed mean-girl types like Gwyneth Paltrow and Maria Kang. And I find myself increasingly bewildered, and a bit depressed, at the responses of otherwise brilliant, driven, confident women to any suggestion that more exercise is good, that dieting becomes increasingly something to be considered as we get older, that, in short, perhaps the standard American body—overfed, under-stimulated, ready for heart failure at any moment — is not inevitable. That it is, in fact, anything but natural.
It sounds like Laila might want to do some research into Size Acceptance. To be clear I have no problem with Laila’s choices as they pertain to her body (because, hey, underpants rule) Let me try to un-bewilder her. Nobody I know is saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to exercise or diet. What we are saying is that exercise is an option, not an obligation, and different amounts are appropriate for different people for various reasons that are none of anyone else’s business. As far as dieting, when one looks at the actual research, there isn’t a single study that shows that more than a tiny fraction of people will succeed, and the research we have says that almost everyone regains the weight, and a majority gain back more than they lost.
Nobody is required to have evidence backing their choice to diet or not, but let’s be clear that what she is suggesting should “become increasingly something to consider as we age” is not supported by the evidence, so the fact that some people choose to opt out really shouldn’t be that bewildering. Also, trotting out the tired trope about the “American Body” is simply stereotyping stated as fact.
I don’t know about Laila’s thinking, but sometimes what people who make this argument are actually saying is “I think that I should do whatever I think will give me a body that looks a certain way, and in order to feel okay about that I need everyone to agree and if they don’t I need their choice to be wrong. I’m completely bewildered that people don’t agree with me because of course I’m right about everything.”
Women of my age and education in America (Lisa Frank folders submitted in lieu of D.O.B.) grew up in a culture of self-help talk and D.A.R.E. programs, of dialogue and interaction cues metered by the Very Special Episode. The Gothic fetish-specter of eating disorders haunts our collective psyche. It is socially acceptable to mention, with beatific concern, the (statistically much lower) possibility that a friend is not eating enough, but beyond the pale to suggest that she is (as the vast majority of Americans are) eating too much.
Lisa Frank has been around for a while so maybe Laila and I are the same general age but I’m not sure. To reduce confusion, rather than use office supplies as reference, I’ll just say that I’m 37 and I would suggest that the comparison of a body size with eating disorders is a serious issue that we need to stop. Eating Disorders are a complex mix of mental and physical illness and symptoms. Body size is just body size. These are not comparable and saying “I”m concerned that you have the most deadly mental illness” is not, to me, the same thing as saying “I don’t think you should have another piece of pizza.”
It’s up to each of us to decide if and when we want to intervene in the health and choices of those in our lives, but it’s definitely not up to Laila to make that call. Again, where is she getting this “vast majority of Americans are eating too much”? She has two “footnotes” to her piece but none of them address the sweeping generalizations that she seems so fond of making about Americans. When people who, like Laila, are defending doctoral dissertations think it’s ok to throw phrases like this around, it makes me really concerned for our education system.
Let me be clear: I am not into fat shaming. I am not into disparaging people based on their bodies. I am not a fan of Hot-Or-Not, or Best-and-Worst Beach Bodies fashion magazine issues (unless I am on a transcontinental flight, in which case I will do what I want and all bets are off). My reason for being opposed to these things, however, has nothing to do with fat acceptance. I don’t like fat shaming because I dislike shaming, not because I like fat.
And here we have the crux of the issue. First the idea that she’s not into disparaging people based on their bodies, except when she is, and of course that’s ok. From my perspective you either think body shaming is ok, or you don’t. I have been on the record since I started writing this blog that I am anti- body shaming including those with thin bodies. I don’t think that the road to self-acceptance is paved with hypocrisy, and so I don’t do to others exactly what I don’t want done to me regardless of what privileges society might bestow upon them. But the idea that it’s ok to be against fat shaming, even though she may be against fat bodies is deeply problematic, as exemplified in the difference between these two phrases:
Thin people have the right to exist in thin bodies without shaming, bullying, stereotyping, or oppression. It is not ok for the government to have a war against thin people for the purpose of their eradication.
Fat people have the right to exist in fat bodies without shaming, bullying, stereotyping, or oppression. It is not ok for the government to have a war against fat people for the purpose of their eradication.
More simply, think of the difference between the phrases “I’m proud to be thin” and “I’m proud to be fat.”
Statements that suggest that, while people don’t support shaming fat people, they also don’t condone our existence, draw the need for a Fat Acceptance movement into sharp relief.
A few months ago, the internet lost its collective rage-mind at a woman who posted what was clearly intended to be a provocative photo on her basically run-of-the-mill, midlevel life-and-fitness website. Responses to Maria Kang ranged from the class-based (“She MUST have nannies”) to the quasi-racist (“She’s shaped like that because she’s Asian”). I admit, while I (a veteran of gym culture and long runs and hot yoga and boot-camp style workouts who has benefited tremendously from this type of aggressive motivational language) found it inspiring, badass, hilarious, and delightfully third wave, it was also simplistic, tone deaf, and sure to attract ire.
I discussed the Maria Kang thing here. What I’ll say today is that to discuss the classism inherent in people suggesting that “she must have nannies” without discussing the classism inherent in suggesting that there is “no excuse” for not making the same choices Maria Kang has made (including, for example, working three jobs and taking care of your kids, a lack of access to safe movement options, etc.); and to discuss the racism inherent in assumptions about her as an Asian woman without discussing the racism inherent in holding Women of Color to beauty stereotypes often developed by and for white women is at best irresponsible and at worst a blatant attempt to distract us from the issues that exist with Maria Kang’s original picture and subsequent “defense” thereof.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is in a collision of equally valid but mutually incompatible discourses: the motivational, no-excuses, ONE MORE REP liturgy of traditional gym culture (now resurgent in CrossFit, Tough Mudder, and the like) and the self-accepting, non-judgemental, nominally supportive discourse of progressive, yoga-inflected feminist-ish female friendship. At their worst, the former sees the latter as hopelessly weak and indulgent, while the latter sees the former as sexist and borderline fascistic. So it’s not surprising that these two rhetorical camps, enriched by images of Kang’s six-pack or Gwyneth’s everything, explode in the semantic powder keg of the internet.
These discussions are only “equally valid but mutually exclusive” if we feel that there must be competition between the two, with one eventually “winning”. If both dialogs exist and women are allowed to choose what works for them, then we have no problem. Part of the problem, I suspect, is in people’s unwillingness to respect other people’s choices as they want their choices to be respected.
I think that this often comes from a deep lack of confidence which leads people to not feel good about their decisions unless others make the same decisions, ultimately ending up with a piece like Laila has written suggesting that her choices are in fact obviously superior and that she is literally “bewildered” and “befuddled” that anyone could make a different choice. The inability to understand that there are many options, and that it’s ok to choose what works for you regardless of what others choose – the need to be validated in our choices by insisting that everyone must make those choices and that we are somehow superior to those who make different (and therefore obviously incorrect) choices – as Laila perfectly illustrates in her piece – is one of the main things that fosters a culture of body shaming, where women are judged first and foremost based on how we look.
What is surprising, and, to me, disappointing, is the misappropriation of empowering critical inquiry to bully, demean, and hate other women. That, to me, is insidiously, and fatally, anti-feminist. Why then do demonstrably smart, feminist women who are supposedly all for sisterly solidarity so loathe one type of woman? A simple answer is that feminist discourse is a) not monolithic and b) not always as subtle and informative as we might like. Enough has been written about how troubling much of Jezebel’s approach is that I don’t need to cover it here, but the comments on that site, and others, are hardly paragons of sisterly love. Kang and Gwyneth are seen as a kind of fifth column, as inside traitors in a culture war. This reading is superficially logical but, ultimately insufficient and disappointing. There is a specific dimension having to do with bodies, with our right to do with them what we want, and to participate in the cultural practices that we want to, without invoking feminine ire.
Maria and Gwyneth aren’t being criticized or loathed for their choices as they pertain to their own bodies. They are being criticized for trying to suggest that everyone should make the choices that they have, and ignoring the fact that many people made the same choices that they did but got different results. They are being criticized for responding with superiority, condescension and shame to anyone who makes different choices, or who isn’t able to attain what they think we should attain, including those for whom it is outside of their control. They are being criticized for calling themselves oppressed simply because they aren’t able to contribute to the oppression of others without being called out on it.
Upon inspection, then, the vitriolic rage seems to me to derive not simply from the fact of being on the “wrong side”, or as the cattier among us might say, simply being luckier, prettier, richer and thinner, but from something much more troubling: the intensely self-loathing, self-defeating, internalized misogyny I see in much of feminine American discourse today.
And that self-loathing, self-defeating, internalized misogyny is most successfully supported by the suggestion that all women should try to look the same way. It is supported by the ridiculous insistence that we should use body size as a proxy for health and behaviors, and that instead of allowing women to make our own choices out of the options that exist and based on our understanding of the research, we instead need to insist that there is “no excuse” for not looking a certain way, and that not only is our body size completely within our control (and you have to ignore quite a bit of research to believe that) but the only acceptable choice is to seek out the current societal stereotype of beauty at any cost.
More and more, I am fascinated a major question facing women (really, everyone) in America today: Why do we hate those who we perceive to be healthier (and in many cases, more attractive) than we are? Why do we look for excuses and make ourselves complicit in our own physical dis-empowerment?Many of my peers seem much more ready to come up with a dismissal than they are to believe that they have the power to change their bodies and themselves.
I think that the key to the perception displayed in the initial questions can be found in the absolute bias shown throughout the rest of the paragraph. Note that in her supposed feminism Laila does not ask the question “why aren’t the choice to try to make our bodies look a certain way and the choice not to change them equal options?” No, she characterizes those who don’t make the same choices as she’s making as looking for “excuses”, “complicit in dis-empowerment” and “ready to come up with a dismissal.”
May I suggest that perhaps what we loathe are not those who are benefiting from deeply flawed, often misogynistic, views around weight, health, and beauty. Rather, what we hate are the social constructs that support the notion that body size is the same as health, fitness, and attractiveness and that we have an obligation to be “healthy” and “beautiful” by someone else’s definitions, and that is why we take issue with women, like Laila, who try to perpetuate those constructs and call it feminism. My question is, why are women perpetuating the oppressive idea that we should be judged based on how we look?
This power — the power to make your body and mind fitter, faster, stronger, to be in charge of yourself — is real power. It is serious power. It is probably scary power. I argue that obesity is more than a disease, that fat is more than a choice, and that we use weapons of misogynistic defensiveness (in the case of Kang) and class (Gwyneth Paltrow looks like that only because she is rich) to remain complacent in a society that is set up to make us weak, lethargic, complacent, and unhealthy.
First of all it shouldn’t even have to be said, but making our bodies and minds fitter, faster, and stronger, does not necessarily mean making them look a certain way. The incessant suggestion that it does that runs through Laila’s piece, as well as her need for the things that make her feel powerful (largely the ability to control how she looks) to somehow be the only “true power” are very deeply problematic.
Laila and I make very different choices, but the true difference between us is that I respect her right to make choices for her, and she does not respect mine. As someone who doesn’t choose to “work hard every day” to try to manipulate my body size, as someone who doesn’t substitute folder art for my actual age, as someone who feels powerful and complete with my goal of making choices for myself and engaging in activism that gives people information and options rather than suggesting that everyone needs to make the same choices that I do, I celebrate that Laila and I can make different choices and I submit that is where the real power lies. I suggest that true power is not to be found in complaining that those women who suggest that their choices are the only valid ones are criticized for doing so.
We turn what should be our most potent weapons — our intelligence and critical thinking skills, our ability to parse precisely the inflections of class, race, and physical power that conspire to occlude and diminish women — against other women, and, consequently, inevitably, against ourselves.
Fit women are strong women; strong women make demands and change conditions and take on the world. Fit women, in other words, are terrifying. By hating other women who talk about fitness in a serious way, who reject “fat acceptance” and choose to change, we are really internalizing a cultural, social, and capitalist construct set up to keep us docile, weak, and self-loathing.
Holy false dichotomies Batman! Talking about fitness in a serious way and being fit is not the same thing as rejecting Fat Acceptance. There are many, many fathletes who are fat acceptance activists who talk about fitness all the time. There are Fat Acceptance activists who are also fit women. There are fit women who don’t make demands and change conditions.
A big part of the issue here may be Laila’s complete lack of understanding (I imagine perhaps due to a complete lack of research) about the Fat Acceptance movement. Women like Laila, Maria Kang, and Gwyneth Paltrow are terrifying - not because they perceive themselves as more fit and attractive, but because they insist that everyone else must perceive them that way, and judge ourselves and everyone else by their standards. They are terrifying because they actually believe that there are only two choices – succeed at manipulating your body size, or be docile, weak and self-loathing. Meanwhile, those in the Size Acceptance movement make demands, change conditions, and take on the world for the right for people to exist in their bodies of all sizes without being treated the way that Laila, Maria, and Gwyneth would have fat people treated under the guise of feminism. It seems to me that fat women who insist on our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on our own terms are the women who Laila represents as being actually terrifying.
We use stereotypically “feminine” weapons — gossip, side-eye, cliques — couched as “concern” and “critique” to put down other women. Only by seeing each other as role models in a shared struggle do we begin to transcend these issues and empower ourselves. A healthy body, just like a body that is loved and accepted on its own terms, unconditionally, is not an unattainable privilege of the rich or genetically blessed. It is not a weapon to use in judging and diminishing other women. It is a source of empowerment. It is a philosophical statement. It is political. It is a choice. And sometimes, it is — quite literally — all you have.
The idea that the key to empowerment is that we all make the same choices as Laila, Maria, and Gwyneth – that we all buy in to an obligation to health and beauty and that we judge those things based on body size – would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. The only perspective around bodies that is actually feminist is to respect bodies of all sizes, and to respect the choices of the women who own those bodies. Health is not entirely within our control, body size is not entirely within our control, but even if they were, it is blatantly anti-feminist and patriarchal to suggest that a woman should conform to a specific idea of the “correct” body size, and that her body size should be seen as a philosophical and political statement. This serves only to perpetuate the idea that women should be judged not by what we achieve or who we are, but by how we look, and I think that’s about as far from feminism or empowerment as we could possibly get.
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