body image · weight loss

On feminist philosophy and weight loss

There isn’t a lot of feminist literature on the experience of losing weight and keeping it off so I was very happy to read Ann Cahill’s paper “Getting to My Fighting Weight” published in the Musings section of the journal Hypatia (25 (2):485-492, 2010). It’s a very gentle piece of philosophy, light on prescription, rich in personal experience and narrative.

I love the idea of  “fighting weight” as a concept that goes beyond boxing and martial arts though I admit that’s what I originally thought Cahill’s piece would be about. I expected a piece on “making weight” or “weighing down” the way one does for fitness competitions, races in light weight rowing, and martial arts competitions.

Cahill also notes there isn’t a lot of feminist work out there that is positive about the experience of losing weight and staying at the new weight.  One possibility of course is that this phenomenon is so rare. Estimates vary but most agree that only about 1 in 20 people who lose weight keep it off for more than five years. Most feminist literature looks at weight loss as part of the larger effort to control women’s lives by imposing an impossible regimen of dieting, self monitoring, and self regulation.

The philosophical literature which Cahill cites will be familiar to many of us. Most feminist philosophers of my generation will have read, in grad school, the two B’s: Bordo and Bartky. Bartky’s 1990 book Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression and Susan Bordo’s 1993 book Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body were the first feminist philosophy works that discussed the political dimensions of women’s efforts regarding our appearance and the high cost we pay for this concern.

Bordo’s book came out the year I graduated but I read some of the articles that went into it along the way. Bordo’s writing about eating disorders was the first time I’d thought about dieting’s effect on women’s lives in the context of feminist philosophy.

Maybe for younger scholars, Cressida Heyes’ work will have played this role. Heyes’ terrific 2006 paper, “Foucault goes to weight watchers” is also published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia (21 (2): 126–49).

Cahill is a beautiful writer and I love her language when she talks about reconciling her decision to lose weight with her feminist values:

“I realized that maximizing my ability to move, quickly, effectively, strongly, was entirely conducive to my feminist aspirations and
activities. I wasn’t aspiring to skinniness or frailty, just the opposite: I wanted to bring strength and vigor to whatever struggle I chose. I wanted to get to my fighting weight.”

I don’t know of any philosopher who has set out to write principles that ought to guide our efforts at weight loss. Cahill doesn’t do that exactly either but she does describe the principles she chose and why they mattered to her. I admire the guidelines she adopted, on feminist grounds, to guide her weight loss journey. In short, there were to be no changes that couldn’t be permanent, no classes of foods off limits, no special or different foods, and no displays of food denial. I liked reading about her choices and how she approached them as a feminist and as a philosopher.

Instead, Cahill dropped weight through the methods of food journaling, calorie tracking, and exercise. Both Tracy and I have blogged about our different reactions to food tracking here on our blog. Tracking and the Panopticon was Tracy’s post on this subject which I followed up with Another Perspective on Tracking. It was interesting in the weeks that followed that post to hear which side of fence our friends lived on. “I’m with you, I track everything,” said one friend, while another agreed with Tracy that the process was “nasty and oppressive.” Everyone had done it and we all had a view.

One of the more philosophically interesting parts of Cahill’s project was how others saw her results.

“I might have called it getting stronger, or deepening my bodily flourishing, or becoming more intentional about the intersection of my material existence and my material culture. But in the context of contemporary culture, what I had done was ‘‘lost weight,’’ and people’s reactions to that weight loss were a fascinating part of the experience.”

Cahill strikingly writes about the downsides of losing weight. Like me, she isn’t so happy with the phenomena I call “skinny face.”

One thing that may have made Cahill’s experiences different from those of many of us is that she came to her plan without a history of body loathing and dieting. Prior to this it sounds like she didn’t even weigh herself regularly. And even now she doesn’t dislike her former, larger body. That’s so lovely and rare.

“I don’t look back at photos of myself from a year ago and shudder. That was a different body that I lived, with its own set of possibilities, practices, and abilities. And there are certainly cultural contexts where that body would be more useful and conducive to my survival than the one I’m living now. Come the apocalypse, those extra pounds would come in handy.”

I did wish Cahill spent more time addressing the dreaded D word, “diet” and I wanted to hear more about how she’s been keeping the weight off. I’ve been down her road of significant weight loss (a few times actually) but I’ve never succeeded in staying at the lower weight. At times I also wanted to hear her draw more general conclusions and principles but Cahill sticks wisely with philosophical reflections on personal experience.

If you’re a feminist interested in the phenomenon of weight loss and you have access to the holdings of a university library, I strongly recommend that you go read Cahill’s Musings piece. For the rest of you, well, this is why I care so much about open access publishing. The beautiful and important work of feminist academics ought to be more widely available, not locked away behind the firewalls that guard the ivory tower or the paywalls that guard the publisher’s websites.

And if you’re like Cahill, someone who has lost weight and kept it off, do her experiences accord with your own? I’m both personally and professionally curious.

11 thoughts on “On feminist philosophy and weight loss

  1. I am so sad that I will not be able to read that essay, because it sounds relevant to my life. Last year I lost about 15 pounds as part of my training to become a faster endurance athlete, and I felt pretty conflicted about it, as pretty much all feminist theory/opinion I’ve read has been very anti-weight loss (and understandably so) and I couldn’t help but feel in some small way that I was betraying my ideals, even though I’m glad I did it. Anyway, I’m going to have to harangue one of my friends in academia to see if they can get me a copy of that essay.

  2. As someone who is (relatively) fit, feminist and somewhat over fifty, I find this fascinating – these are issues that I’ve been grappling with for, well, a very long time, and I look forward to reading through your previous posts, and to future ones. Thank you!

  3. I’m 58 year old woman with an incomplete spinal cord injury. I walk with crutches. Twenty years ago, before I broke my back, I wasn’t particularly bothered by what I weighed. I was healthy and active, had three young children and a career. But as I got older it became important to manage my weight so that I could continue to walk. When I put on weight I became fatigued when walking, my joints were suffering, any side effects of misalignment were magnified. So, as part of enhancing my lifestyle, I reduced my weight by changing my diet and increasing appropriate exercise. I did this knowing that these changes are permanent. Changing what I ate, and how and when i ate wasn’t easy at first, but now it’s my life and its a great life! I feel strong and powerful for having made a decision and followed through. Cahill’s philosophy resonates with me.
    What concerns me in this debate about being overweight is when I see and talk to older women who are overweight and struggle to walk, it is often because their joints cannot carry the weight, they lack muscle strength and it becomes a vicious cycle of less exercise, greater loss of mobility … Is it anti – feminist to encourage younger women to exercise and be healthy?

    1. I’m glad that losing weight worked for you and helped with your health. It’s so nice to hear success stories.

      But the issue of offering advice to others is complicated. First, it’s usually ill advised to offer other people advice they haven’t explicitly asked for. Second, many overweight people will have tried and failed to lose weight and keep it off. Third, other overweight people may be happy at the size they are. These aren’t explicitly feminist principles but I think they’re consistent with a feminist approach to other people’s lives.

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