This ad just came across the FIFI social media outlets (thanks, Nicole, for bringing this to our attention). It shows a bunch of 46-year-old white women in an ad for Geritol. The fact that all of them are the same age is supposed to be shocking to us. What separates them, the ad tells us, is that some of the women “take care of themselves”, while others apparently don’t.
This vintage ad came across the FIFI social media feed (thanks, Nicole for bringing this to our attention)– it’s for Geritol (a vitamin and iron supplement later pulled off the market; more on this below) featuring a bunch of 46-year-old white women. The ad singles some of them out, although it doesn’t say which ones. But it’s got some concerns:
I don’t know about you, but these women all look around the same age to me. But, the ad implies that some of them clearly look older, and it’s THEIR OWN FAULT. Why? Because they are not “the ones who take care of themselves”.
(Parenthetical comment: props to the woman in the blue jacket for pioneering resting bitch face in a good way. She’s having none of this.)
(One more parenthetical comment: the product in question, Geritol, was marketed as an iron and B-vitamin tonic in the 1950s. It was supposed to relieve tiredness, and was 12% alcohol. It was pulled off the market because of risk of diseases associated with too much iron, and also because Geritol engaged in “conduct amounted to gross negligence and bordered on recklessness”. The FTC ruled them as making false and misleading claims and heavily penalized with fines totaling $812,000 (equivalent to $4.96 million in 2021 dollars). See their Wikipedia page for more details.)
Back to the main rant. According to the fine folks at Geritol, women who “take care of themselves”:
Never eat too much or too little;
get a good night’s sleep every night;
exercise every day;
do all the things that women leading busy women’s lives in the mid-20th century have to do, regardless of income;
and of course take Geritol every day.
But how, pray, can we tell which women are “taking care of themselves” and which women aren’t? By how they look, of course! Aren’t you silly…
I have to say that just writing about this nonsense is getting me a little worked up.
Okay, I’m back. Here, in no particular order, are some problems with a culture in which this ad is just one little horrid illustration:
“Looking your age” or “better yet–younger!” is assumed to be a universal imperative for women.
The markers for “looking your age” or “better yet– younger!” are based on classist, racist, misogynist and (I might add) boring and bland criteria, which are unattainable by most women (even the ones who made it in into that ad, for goodness’ sake).
The notion of “taking care of yourself” (subject to same influences as “looking your age”) censures all women whose busy lives involve burdens of family care, domestic labor, paid work, and endless waking and working hours, with no time for bridge club, facials or golf.
Geritol was harmful alcoholic snake oil, marketed by lies, targeting consumers with money but also vulnerabilities.
The idea that “taking care of yourself” is, for women: a) a lifelong obligation; b) something whose success can be read off women’s faces and bodies is false and also vicious.
How can we take back the notion of “taking care of ourselves”? I think we’re doing it already– right here on this blog, out in the working and playing and political world, in our homes, and with our friends and families. And what are we doing in this updated version?
We prioritize ourselves as best we can, given our constraints and connections and interests. That means choosing– as we can– the aspects of our lives to focus on. And, in cases where we currently can’t choose (e.g. reproductive health and safety in the US right now), we speak up, fight back, disobey, organize, and act. Oh, and vote, too.
We set boundaries– again, as best we can– so to protect time and resources for activities of our own choosing. Where the boundaries aren’t there, again we work to change them.
We dare to love ourselves as dearest members of our families (sometimes, families of one). We do this all the time– or as much as we can.
But who am I to go on and on about self-care? Let me step aside for someone who said it better.
Readers, how do you understand the phrase “taking care of yourselves” these days? What do you do? I’d love to hear from you.
It is summer swim season! I know this because I see on my Facebook feed “beach body” memes and a dramatic uptick in swimsuit advertising.
I normally don’t pay much attention to swimwear ads because swimsuits are not that important to me. However, I can understand the appeal of shopping online: no store assistants, no dressing rooms, no drama with wrestling with ill-fitting suits.
But this year, I have noticed that a few swimwear ads that feature either 3D-drawn images or the actual suits put on photoshopped-out mannequins. I don’t remember seeing before ads with these hovering bodies that are legless, armless, torsoless.
Tracy has noticed how the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated gives women equal opportunity to be objectified. Obviously that’s not good. If sexified suits objectify women regardless of age, and if a steady diet of these images still perpetuates body ideals, then is no body in the swimsuits our inclusive and evolved solution?
The decision to dis-embody models in these ads is likely far more economic than activist: I’m sure it’s cheaper to use realistic pictures or torso mannequins than to hire real people, and shoppers may have an easier time imagining themselves in the suit without a real body in it for comparison.
And maybe I’m making too much of these ads, but they weird me out. They make me think of Kevin Bacon as the Hollow Man in a tankini. The disembodied swimsuit model–as imperfectly resembling a human being in a way that causes “uneasiness and revulsion”–should be added to the graph visualizing the uncanny valley hypothesis.
From my feminist perspective, the no-body in these ads is not equivalent to everybody: it removes the one thing people need to wear these suits in the first place. These ads may avoid replicating images of so-called ideal bodies, but they also remove the bodies people have–complete with colour, fat, wrinkles, blemishes, scars, and hair. Ironically, the absence of real bodies features the ultimate normative body, one that is stripped of all uniqueness of size, shape, and mobility differences. In the case of the leaky, hysterical cis-female body so feared and scorned by patriarchy, what body is more “perfect” than the one that does not exist at all?
I tried to find answers to my questions (except the last one, which was rhetorical) with more Internet. While many web articles give advice on purchasing swimsuits by size, fit, fabric, style, cost, coverage, quality, versatility, quality, and “features” (like pockets), none described whether I should buy online a suit modelled by a real but photoshopped body or by an invisible but perfect fake body. I did notice that a few articles–such as Teen Vogue and TripSavvy–used these body-less swimsuit images in their feature banners as well.
For the record, in all this web searching I did notice more body-diverse swimwear than I have seen in the past. After staring at row upon row of swim-suited no-bodies, I was comforted and excited by these all-too-human ads.
Then, I realized that online shopping has its own trappings, and I closed my laptop altogether. Maybe going into an actual store to try swimwear on my own body is looking not be so bad after all.
From the Bike is Best campaign, ‘There has never been a better time to ride a bike. In so many ways. Cruise past the congested roads, free yourself of crowded public transport, and contribute to a greener planet that gives you cleaner air.
Two-thirds of all journeys are less than five miles. You don’t need to ride far or fast to make a difference. Half an hour of cycling is enough to improve your health, reduce your risk of illness, ease your stress levels and benefit your mental well-being.
Switching to cycling for short journeys means skipping queues and enjoying your own personal space. Bike is best for you, your community and the environment.”
I love the campaign’s emphasis on everyday riding, short distances, and everyday people. It’s good for health and for the environment, as well as mood. Bike rides make me happy and I hope they do for you too.
I was already bored to tears with all the phrasing around burning fat/calories, trimming inches, and sculpting parts of our bodies. That stuff is so common that aside from the occasional eyeroll, I usually just skim over it when I see/hear it. I hate it but…meh.
However, as I have been seeking out more challenging videos lately I have been, to use the local vernacular, absolutely drove by the vocab that is supposed to motivate me.
I don’t want to ‘crush’ anything. Nor am I interested in a video that has the word ‘attack’ in the title. I don’t want to ‘destroy’ my abs or my glutes or my biceps. I don’t want to leave any of my muscles ‘screaming.’*
And despite being a martial artist who loves to practice punching and kicking, it bugs me that a lot of videos that incorporate those movements are called ‘body combat.’**
When I read titles with those words in them or when I hear the instructor use them during a workout, I don’t feel charged up and motivated, I feel tired.
And, shockingly, that is NOT what I am looking for when I’m exercising.
I want to be encouraged to work hard. I want to be told that I can do it. I want to be guided to forge ahead, to persist. I don’t want to feel like my exercise is supposed to be painful or punishing.
I thought we had left the whole ‘No Pain, No Gain’ thing behind but all of this language of destruction makes me feel like that attitude has snuck back into the party wearing different clothes and is waiting to see if we catch on.
And, as Tracy noted when I mentioned my irritation with these words, it’s frustrating and sad that we are all assumed to be in battle with our bodies all the time.
I am not fighting against my body in the quest to increase my fitness level.
My body and brain are working TOGETHER to move toward increased mobility and strength and a feeling of wellbeing. Any video titles or peppy encouragements that invite me to pit my brain against my body end up sapping my energy and leaving me feeling defeated.
I know that, culturally, many people’s bodies are seen as problematic and unruly – always being relentlessly human instead of a perfectly managed creation. This vocabulary thing ties into that, of course – an unruly body must be managed and defeated so it will look and behave in acceptable ways.
And I also know that the phrasing I am describing will seem like no big deal to some. In fact, I’m sure lots of people would tell me to just ignore it’ but I can’t do that.
I’m a writer and storyteller and I spend a long time making sure that the words I choose serve the purpose I want them to serves.
Words matter. Words have power. Words carry messages above and beyond their direct meaning.
And these destruction-themed words can drag all kinds of social expectations into my exercise time. My workouts are hard enough without also lifting cultural baggage at the same time.
How do you feel about these words? Do you find them motivating? Frustrating? Or do you not even notice them?
*If those words help you to power up, please feel free to completely ignore this post. I’m talking about my feelings and frustrations. not laying down a law about what can and cannot be said in a workout.
**The combat part I totally get but calling it body combat really makes it sound like you are fighting your own body. Ick.
Out cross country skiing the other morning, I came upon this mother-daughter scene at the intersection leading to one of my favourite trails, a winding climb:
Frustrated daughter, who looked about nine-years-old, laying in the snow across the classic ski track (that’s the two parallel grooves), scuffing one ski into the track. Exasperated mother on skis, standing a couple feet away on the corduroy groomed trail.
As I made the right turn onto my favoured trail, the mother shot me a look of complicity, saying, “…” I don’t know what. I couldn’t hear her, because I wasn’t expecting her to speak to me and my ears were focused on the podcast in my ears. On another day, I might have just smiled, as if I’d heard and carried on with my ski. Instead, I felt myself in the girl’s insistent scuffing. The intensity with which she was destroying the track resonated with my own inner girl’s desire to be and do more. I stopped.
Me: “Pardon me? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
Mother: “I just don’t understand why she’s upset. She can’t ski up this trail. It’s too steep. I can barely ski it.”
Me (interior monologue): “The trail’s not that steep. Oh Mina, stop being so judgy. Also, the trail is actually pretty steep right at the top.”
Me: “Couldn’t she do the herringbone?”
Mother: “No. She can’t do it. It’s only her third day skiing.”
Hearing this, the daughter’s ski scuffing gets more vigorous and defiant.
Me (interior monologue): “What’s the harm in letting her try?”
Me (to the daughter): “Great skis. Look, they’re the same design as mine.”
I extended one leg and put one ski next to the daughter’s much shorter one, highlighting our matching black and red Atomics. The daughter glanced at me briefly with curiosity and then continued scuffing. With that, I smiled in what I hope was a consoling way at the mother and carried on with my ski.
For the rest of my time on the snow, the feminist brigade inside my head talked over each other in increasingly louder voices.
Why can’t the daughter at least try? What the worst that will happen if she tries and fails? That she will be discouraged? That she will never want to ski again? Never want to go outside again? Well, that seems unlikely. And why do I feel certain that this scene would not be playing out this way if the daughter was a son? Or if the mother were a father? A father would tell his son that he could climb the hill. Yes, true, sometimes that goes too far in the other direction. I don’t think the whole boot camp desensitization approach is the right way either. But isn’t there a supportive, middle ground? Somewhere between get-the-fuck-up-the-hill-on-the-double and oh-no-this-is-too-hard-to-even-try. Are we so fragile as girls that we can’t even be allowed to attempt something seemingly insurmountable? Why can’t she be allowed to try and be frustrated and defeated and supported in that struggle? How will she grow her resilience?
I so wanted to encourage that little girl to take on the hill. I wanted to contradict her mother, take the girl’s hand and let her know that she had all the courage she needed to take on this hill and that I’d be right behind her. And if she didn’t make it, so what, she’d have tried and that’s what counted and next time she’d probably make it.
There were other voices in my head, who told me that I had no right to even weigh in on the topic, because I’m not a mother, so what do I know about daughters; plus the just plain civil voice who pointed out it was not my place to say anything.
I still know a little something about girls. I was once a girl who encountered frustrations. And I am a woman who has learned a lot of new things, some of which I’ve failed at and some of which seemed insurmountable when I took them on, and at which I did okay. I don’t have specific memories of my parents preventing me from or encouraging me to take on difficult tasks. There was a general ethos of try-and-try-again throughout my childhood. My parents also sent to me to an all-girls summer camp, run by a fierce woman who both cared about our safety and encouraged us to try hard things. I balk at lots of things, but I want to make my own decision about when I choose not to try or to stop trying. When I look around, I see how, even now, boys have bigger self-confidence than girls. Boys are quicker to claim that they are good at something (even when they aren’t really). I really (really) want this for girls, too.
I dream of a world where all genders are offered equal opportunity to fall down (literally and metaphorically) and be supported as they get back on their feet. So, I dare to write this piece, as a non-mother, to ask mothers: “Please give your daughters a shot at the hill, even if it feels too steep, even for you.”
Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett’s new book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in our Lives is coming out this summer. Curbing Traffic argues for an end to auto-dependency and supremacy, through the lenses of equity, well-being, resilience, and social cohesion.
It’s also part of their case for a low car city that a low car city is a feminist city. It‘s better for our mental health, it fosters social trust, and it enables people of all ages and abilities to travel in an independent, safe and comfortable way.
It feels like months ago. Maybe it was. I’ve lost all sense of time in the pandemic. I was interviewed for a new podcast, Peace by Piece.
What’s Peace by Piece all about? “While we don’t always see it, gender-based violence is all around us. At Anova, we believe in a future without violence. But what does a future without violence look like? How do we get there? Peace by Piece is a bi-weekly podcast hosted by Dr. AnnaLise Trudell. In this podcast, we have meaningful and educational conversations with experts and innovators about what makes a world without violence.
In each episode of Peace by Piece, we identify tools and approaches that breakdown gender-based violence, unpack the systems that perpetuate violence, and piece together how we can confront and stop gender-based violence all together.
Episodes range between 45 minutes and an hour and are available on all major podcast listening platforms.”
Here’s their blurb about the episode I’m in,” Tune in to our chat with @SamJaneB, co-founder of @FitFeminists about feminism & how fitness can & should be for everyone, no matter their age, size, gender, or ability! Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or visit: http://anovafuture.org/podcast/“
The blog has been going for over eight years now and on Sam’s prompt, we are reblogging some favourite posts. I don’t have one favourite post among the more than 700 of mine that I have to choose from. But I chose to reblog this one because even though it’s a bit “meta,” and not about fitness, it’s a meaningful (to me) reflection on what we are trying to do here and the limits of what we can control. It was also a real turning point for me because it required an awareness and admission of my own bad behaviour, calling myself out for having conducted myself in a way that was decidedly NOT conducive to “what we are trying to achieve.” Thanks for your continued support of the blog! Tracy
Diet culture. It’s not something I’ve thought about much lately. Indeed, it’s not something most of us think about much unless and until someone draws our attention to it (and even then, that drawing attention isn’t always welcome). It’s like that story about fish and water, memorably told by the brilliant, now deceased, writer David Foster Wallace in a 2005 commencement address entitled “This is water”:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
What’s the moral of this little story? When you are immersed in something, when it’s all around you, you might not even be aware of it. But that’s the only respect in which water is to fish as diet culture is to us. Because unlike water, which is life-sustaining to fish, diet culture is harmful to us.
When I first saw the article in Good Housekeeping, “The Unbearable Weight of Diet Culture,” I was set to rant. I wanted to rant about diet culture itself. How normalized and oppressive it is. How it individualizes our weight loss failures when in fact “98% of diets fail.” Think on that: 98%! How it promotes the idea that there is something wrong with a body that is not thin or lean. How it demonizes certain foods and moralizes ways of eating (like, desserts are “sinful” and we give into temptation when we eat them). How it stigmatizes people on the basis of body size.
There is space for ranting about all these things and more. I even wanted to rant about how Good Housekeeping, a mainstream women’s magazine, gives us this informative and insightful article about diet culture, while also having a whole section of their website, called “Diet and Nutrition,” devoted to endorsing diet culture with articles like: “The Best Diets of 2021,” “How to Find the Best Diet for You,” “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” and “What J-Lo Eats in a Day to Look So Good.” [I’m not linking to that content but it’s easy enough to find}
Instead of faulting them for the contradiction, I actually want to applaud them for including any sort of counternarrative at all. The editors are well aware that they are walking tightrope. The diet culture article starts with the following qualifying statement:
“Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful, and healthy.“
Where better to start a conversation about diet culture than in the very magazines that women flock to when they are seeking “solutions” to their “struggles” with weight? And the first question someone might ask, like the fish swimming in water, is “what is diet culture?” The article opens with rough account: “it’s a set of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it with health and moral virtue, according to anti-diet dietitian, Christy Harrison, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., author of Anti-Dietand host of the Food Psych podcast.” It is, says the article, “the lens through which most of us in this country view beauty, health, and our own bodies.” As such, it colours our judgments about ourselves and others, moralizing some food choices as more virtuous than others, causing people to praise others’ weight loss or adherence to restrictive diet regimes, and giving credence to such scientifically vacuous notions as “detoxing” and “clean eating.”
It’s also generated a billions of dollars industry where people seek a miracle. Why is it a miracle? Because, back to that alarming statistic: 98% of diets fail over time.
Here on the blog we have been critical of diet culture since the very start, while also being aware that we are immersed in it. We are critical of it because it is harmful, built on fat-phobia and self-loathing. From the GH article, here are some of the ways that it’s harmful (some already mentioned above):
It promotes discrimination by normalizing fat phobia and promoting as normal the attitude that being overweight (or weight gain at all) is a sign of failure.
It fuels a business designed to take your money.
It’s a set-up for feeling like a failure.
It distracts from larger social issues like walkable cities, wide availability of good quality foods, and other social inequities.
It normalizes disordered eating.
I would add a few of my own here:
It makes way for people to use restrictive food plans to “virtue signal” by posting about their strict adherence to the latest food fad (e.g. no carbs, no sugar, keto, paleo, “cleanses” and “detoxes,” blood type diet, mediterranean diet and all the diets from the 80s and 90s named after doctors — Scarsdale, Atkins — or fruits — banana, grapefruit — and then of course the diets promoted by celebrities like Suzanne Sommers, Oprah, Adele…). It is amazing how much applause is dished out when someone posts a photo of their brown rice and steamed kale bowl.
It infantalizes adults by encouraging the view that, left to our own devices, we will always make poor choices.
It saps the joy out of health and fitness activities because if those are your only goals, and if the healthy choices don’t lead to weight loss, they’re not worth doing. But they are worth doing. We can get fitter and healthier without getting thinner and lighter.
It creates obsession around food. Ever since the Minnesota starvation studies after World War II we have known that food deprivation generates food obsession.
It also makes it almost impossible to have a pure, mindful eating experience that is unmediated by thoughts of “is this a ‘good’ choice?” “Should I be eating this?” “Is this on my plan?”
The article offers a couple of ways to work your way out of diet culture. One of their suggestions is to consider intuitive eating, which is an approach designed to combat diet culture, challenge the food police, and let your hunger be your guide. I like that approach myself, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We have had some discussions of it over the years on the blog, as champions and detractors.
It also suggests becoming informed about Health at Every Size (HAES), “a movement that recognizes “that health outcomes are primarily driven by social, economic, and environmental factors,” not weight, to encourage the pursuit of health without a focus on weight loss.”
I’ll add to this my own suggestion, which is not to applaud people for their diets and weight loss, and not to talk to people about their weight or weight loss efforts. I know that a lot of people are very public about their desire to lose weight (that’s diet culture for you! Making it normal to talk about something that really is no one’s business and, if you think about it, most people don’t care much what you’re up to in that department unless they’re judging you). I’ve often heard people say that they only compliment or comment when they know that’s what their friend is actively attempting. That’s endorsing diet culture, and diet culture is harmful. So I don’t do it even if my friend would like me to notice and compliment their weight loss. I like and love my friends regardless of their size or their food choices.
That said, I also try my best not to “get into it” with people who don’t want to hear it. I don’t always succeed in this. I have friends lately who are all in the “sugar is evil” trend. I have been through that one myself, and it caused an uproar that resulted in talking me off that particular ledge (not in the most pleasant way, but I still feel grateful as I look back), so I know how easy it is to rationalize this or that plan to dump sugar. All this to say that I dipped my toe in the water of asking questions, which I thought were gentle questions, about a friend’s quest to stop eating sugar, and it turns out that I had to learn the “it’s none of my business” lesson again. I’m public about being an anti-diet feminist fitness blogger. Friends know where to find me if they want that perspective. I need to learn to leave it at that and put my thoughts into a blog post once in awhile. Hence this!
Even if Good Housekeeping is sending contradictory messages when they write articles about diet culture and its harms, on the one hand, and provide ample information to those who wish to partake in it, on the other hand, I like their 2021 commitment to raising awareness. If no one points it out, we’ll never know we’re swimming in it.