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Does Feeling Good about Weight Loss Make Me a “Bad Feminist?”

EqualityMy post the other day about reasons for losing weight besides body hatred generated a great discussion about my implication that appearance-oriented reasons aren’t “consistent with” feminism.

This world has lots to be sad about, including the phenomenon of healthy disagreement among feminists (a good thing) turning into accusations and finger-pointing and the charge that someone is either a “bad feminist” or not a feminist at all. I don’t like to participate in that.

And yet, I don’t think that just anything is consistent with feminism. It’s a political ideology with a clear agenda. That agenda aims first and foremost at promoting gender equality and eradicating gender oppression. Recognizing that women are a diverse group, most feminists either implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that you can’t just isolate gender — race, class, disability, sexuality, ethnicity are also significant dimensions of oppression, and these can interact with one another and with gender to create unique forms of oppression–that is, structural patterns of systemic disadvantage and inequality (forgive me if this is pedantic — I am after all a philosophy professor).

In short, feminism is not just a simple matter of promoting choice for individuals. We need to be keenly aware of the way structures can create social arrangements that privilege some and disadvantage others, not on the basis of individual skills, talents, or means, but rather on the basis of membership (or perceived membership) in visible social groups (be the marked by gender, race, class, sexuality, disability or some combination of these and other social categories that people use to classify people and create social hierarchies).

So while I don’t like all that slamming of one another for not being feminist enough, I also truly believe that there is usually room for improvement.  It’s a simple fact that some behaviors and attitudes do contribute to and promote those patterns of inequality.  And that means that individual choices can have consequences beyond the individual who makes them.

Someone commented that she didn’t really like the implication that it was un-feminist to want to lose weight for the sake of appearance only. I’d suggested in my post that there may be other reasons — health, performance — that were “okay,” but wanting to be thinner for its own sake wasn’t among them.

The fact is, I have unsettled views about all of this as it plays out in my own life. I spend a lot of time trying to re-train my reaction to weight gain and weight loss. For decades the scale determined how I felt about myself. Daily, it either gave me permission to feel okay about myself (if the number went down) or not (if the number went up).

In other words, losing weight has always made me feel kind of good, gaining has always made me feel kind of bad. And at a meta-level, my self-awareness about this fact about me makes me feel a little hypocritical, as if I’m a “bad feminist.” Natalie commented about this and we agreed that there is a lot to say about this issue still.

Intellectually I believe 100% that I am not my weight.  I’m 110% behind the view that no one else’s worth or worthiness is determined by the number on the scale. And yet in my own case, at some level, I still think of weight loss as an achievement of sorts.

Now, why should that make me a bad feminist?  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that we are anti-diet, anti-appearance focused in our approach to fitness. I have a strong conviction that this is the right way to go, that dieting and the obsession with getting thin is not only self-defeating at the individual level, but oppressive to women more generally. It buys into normative femininity, promotes a narrow view of what an acceptable women’s body is like, and supports a fat-phobic point of view.

The saving grace in my life over the past couple of years has been my slow and steady evolution from a chronic dieter and slave to the scale to a triathlete who cares dramatically more about getting stronger and faster than getting thinner.

And so when I feel that twinge of disappointment, as I did when I got back from my vacation and had gained four pounds, I feel bad twice. Once from the disappointment and once from judging myself for being disappointed. Bad feminist!

When I reflect more fully on this state of affairs though, I don’t actually believe that it makes me a bad feminist. Instead, I think it means I’m having an understandably difficult time fully extricating myself from oppressive social attitudes. My gut still reacts in the way it always has, in the way I’ve been conditioned to react — as if weight loss is a good thing, weight gain a bad thing.

But upon reflection, I know that it’s just a thing — not good, not bad. And I know too that there are lots of other more productive ways we, as women, can spend our time than embroiled in our typically fruitless attempts to change our bodies.  Weight loss can be empowering, but so can all sorts of other things.

Maybe the real issue is that I’m weighing myself at all. Whether that makes me a bad feminist is not so much the point. The fact is, I’ve had times in my life when I swore off the scale completely, and at those times, I was able to turn my attention to other things.  Whatever our view of weight loss, for most of us there are more important things in the world that we can spend our energy on, and without compromising our health.

Those things might actually contribute to social equality. And that’s something any feminist can feel good about.

24 thoughts on “Does Feeling Good about Weight Loss Make Me a “Bad Feminist?”

  1. Oh I do love your posts when you have fire in your belly!
    Thank you for this, it was a great way to start my day, thinking about feminism.

  2. personally thinking about about ones weight makes does not make a person less of a feminist. Men and women are both being pressurised by the media to have ‘the perfect body’. I, myself have reflected whether or not thinking about ”weight loose and gaining the perfect slim, figure’ makes me any less of a feminist. I hope it does not.

    1. I guess the issue I’m trying to raise is that we need to check our motives. I’d be interested to know what your reflections have yielded!

      1. i agree, we need to check our motives, and if possible, keeping it at the health reasons rather than otherwise. However, I also think that dieting and the obsession with getting thin is not only self-defeating at the individual level, but oppressive to women more generally. It buys into normative femininity, promotes a narrow view of what an acceptable women’s body is like, and supports a fat-phobic point of view but I’m talking about in terms of appearance.

  3. I enjoyed how honest this post was. It’s less important to accuse someone else than to reflect on yourself and decisions and at least try to be aware of the reasons for your choices.

  4. Love this. Great post. But I’m curious. If you hadn’t weighed yourself after holidays would that have made a difference? You seemed happier without the scale and you were maintaining a steady weight. Are you tempted to go back to that?

  5. I felt kind of awful after the holiday anyway because I mostly ate crap food (out of lack of availability, not out of desire for eating crap), so I’m not sure if not weighing myself would have helped. I was actually hoping that weighing myself would “tell me” that everything was “okay.” I’m sometimes tempted to go back. Generally, with or without the scale, I stay within about a 2 pound range anyway. I’m fairly sure I’ll settle back after a week or two of eating the way I normally do.

  6. Thank you for this. Do you have any other blogs or resources that delve into this similar topic?

  7. I’m glad that you wrote this. I hate that the scale has so much power. I saw your comment about going back to normal after feeling yucky from vacation eating. It sounds like it’s safe to say it’s your own effort and desire–not some kind of compulsion–that gets your weight back to what you call home, so I would challenge that you don’t even need the scale. I sometimes want to feel better about having had a week of “vacation eating” or whatever, hoping that I’ll weigh less if I get on it and it will all be okay. But it really is okay–we eat junk food while we are on vacation. And it’s okay to learn from that–and next time maybe choose differently while we’re there so we feel better when we get home–no weighing required. Just my two cents! Thanks for posting on this. I like to hear where other people are at to make myself think about where I really stand/what I really think!

    1. Lots of wisdom in your comment. Thanks. I am feeling motivated by this, your post, and Sam’s comment to set the scale aside. But it also scares me. This is something to explore as well!

    2. I’m with you, Cheryl. Tracy, I totally hear you about the vacation crap, but I think back to the way I feel about food on holidays and I realize that I often self-police during pleasurable times (like Christmas, or a beach vacation) because the scale looms in my mind. What you said to Sam is correct, though: because your metabolism is trained and healthy, after a week or two of back to normal your weight gain will disappear. This would happen with or without the scale to spank you! Why can’t we remind ourselves of this more often: weight gain can be, and is often, temporary, normal, and healthy? Especially when it’s connected to the fabulous hormones that treating ourselves to a well earned break can induce!

  8. It’s useful to weigh oneself occasionally. I’ve gone through times where I only weighed myself once a month. Other times, such as now, maybe 1-2 times per wk. Most of the time I even wonder if my bathroom scale works. I know it’s not a good as my doctor’s old fashioned scale. Oh well.

    So if your bathroom scale wasn’t working perfectly, would that bother you a lot?

    Weighing occasionally is tied to my own benchmark of my own health. It works for me. But I could never weigh myself daily. It would drive me insane. Another useful benchmark is, clothing fit for favourite garment pieces I’ve had for the past decade.

    Dumb as this may seem, another mini benchmark, is daily bowel movement. Exercise and reasonably healthy (may not be perfect) food dishes, help. I start to worry beyond 2 days of nothing and do feel lousy/toxic. To me, as one ages, the more important this body function becomes. But then, I’m in a family with several health care professional siblings…

    Looking after one’s own health and fitness for ongoing self-propelled, independent mobility plus having full control over good healthy choices we make, can be a feminist act. We just take it for granted here in North America and Europe.

    We need to find little ways to help ourselves occasionally to stay on track with our health. We need to remind ourselves that though Internet photos help track for interested readers-strangers, about weight improvements (or not), in the end, there’s no one else, who deeply cares except ourselves about our own bodies and our face to face loved ones who care about our health.

    I rarely think exclusively on feminism in this area of food, weight loss. It’s inextricably intertwined for me, with cultural diets/food dishes and personal choices I’ve made not in the name of feminism, but retention of cultural heritage and racial identity: for Asians who have lost their mother tongue fluency, then for some folks, cultural food knowledge and health philosophies are 2 other things they have left in the end, to hang onto and to “practice” for life.

    So here is my diversity angle of how one woman lives it daily. (Thank you mother, for your peasant Chinese healthy food dishes).

  9. I feel like the one of the best aspects of “choice feminism” is that it trusts women. So, in a related issue, I consider myself pro-choice, which means that I do not support any laws restricting abortion, even for things like sex-selected abortions. This stems from trusting the woman to know what’s appropriate for her body and her circumstances even if it’s not something that seems appropriate to me. I don’t live her life.

    Weight should be the same without losing a discussion about how our culture is strange about food and bodies. I think we can acknowledge the cultural toxicity without admonishing women who are happy about losing weight as ‘bad feminists’ or ‘triggering’ without distrusting their actions simply because they follow capitalist, patriarchal norms in this particular instance.

    I struggle with how to operationalize this, because it’s really hard to challenge culture without making people feel defensive, especially if they identify in some way with the particular practice or attitude being critiqued. But it’s still a worthwhile goal to critique culture, while maintaining a trust in women’s personal agency.

  10. I agree! When you make a decision about something like weight loss, you can’t help it but notice how it affects multiple parts of your life – health, perspective, and yes, appearance and self-esteem. It’s great that people like you are aware of this. Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

  11. This is such a great post. So much to think about. I think that you hit the nail on the head by saying that losing weight is nothing against feminism, but rather when we get so caught up in the number that it defines us it can get contradictory. You shouldn’t let anyone make you feel bad about your weight loss success. Anyone that does do that has their own story about weight loss that they need to deal with, and anyone who makes you feel bad about weight loss also isn’t a very good feminist either I’d say.

  12. I love your articles on the subject! I personally think that it depends entirely on what your goal is. If it is your goal to achieve society-dictated standards of beauty, then obviously, your motivation for losing weight might qualify you as a “bad feminist,” whatever that is. However, if you are an athlete and take your endeavors seriously, then the situation is entirely different. On the contrary, if feminist dogmas regarding how you are supposed to look at your body actually police you, even though you are trying to reach a goal that would in fact leads to a more fulfilled, healthy life, then this can actually be considered anti-feminist. Not many people would question a man who is trying to shed some weight in order to be more athletically competitive. Do I make any sense at all?

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