My 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.