The other day Sam and I were reflecting on how for some reason our feminism has gone from “rage-y” and ranty to reasonable and moderate. Maybe it’s because we are both university administrators, so we can’t afford to be rage-y and ranty at work (for the most part…), at least not overtly so, if we want to get stuff done. But it’s spilled over into the blog. I can’t remember the last time I unleashed some good old feminist rage about something.
Her playlist was a collaborative effort among friends on social media. She put the call out for feminist tunes for cranking and feeling that surge of strength and solidarity. And the suggestions started rolling in, and rolling in, and rolling in. I shared her call on my timeline and again, more ideas. In the end, she put together an amazing and varied 13.5 hour playlist. I highly recommend it.
Not all the tunes are good for running, though many are. I tapped into it when constructing a new playlist for the upcoming season (I say “upcoming” because here it is spring in name only). As I said the last time I shared a playlist, it’s really idiosyncratic to me. I don’t measure beats per minute. I start off a bit slower and pick up the pace. But I’ve not yet test run it and it’s possible that I will need to double click on my ear bud chord a few times if a tune comes on that is not well-suited to where I’m at in my run. It will take a bit of tweaking for order and adequacy.
Feel free to follow it, suggest additions, or register suggestions and complaints (not promising to honor all of them, since my main goal is to make a playlist that works for me. I have tried it out at personal training twice this week, and it’s great for that. Paul (my trainer) complained (in jest) that he didn’t feel represented. I take that as a good sign that it’s hitting at least one feminist mark. And when my friend Alison showed up at the tail end of my session, she remarked that the music was fantastic.
Is it disordered eating? Is it unfeminist? Is it rationalization? Does it run contrary to the ideals of the blog? Is it dieting in disguise? Does it demonize sugar? Is it unscientific? Is it pleasure denying? Obsession-promoting? Am I a traitor? Troubled? A hypocrite?
But what I hadn’t prepared myself for was the level of snark and self-righteousness. So okay. I get it. The idea of trying to dump sugar strikes you as ill-advised. That’s fine and to those who expressed concern, thank you. Whatever else, it’s a flash point.
In the past, this sort of response (which at times felt harsh, like an attack, but I can handle that, being over 50 and a feminist this is not new to me–in fact, the last time I took this kind of heat was on this very blog, when my post about why putting “ladies” on the locker room door does a disservice to women fell into the hands of 4chan and some woman-hating subreddits) might make me dig in my heels.
But the sugar thing was meant to be a journey (possibly a short one). And part of the purpose of this week is to reflect on my motives and reasons and whether I even want to do this. And though it hurts when other feminists attack me, even more so when they call my feminism into question, I am positively disposed to taking other feminists seriously. So instead of writing a “back the fuck off, bitches, I’ve had a rough year, month, week, day…” post (which is what I might have done when younger), I’m trying as hard as I can to keep an open mind. My plan here is to consider each challenge on its own merits, doing my best to set aside the snark and self-righteousness because in the end I don’t think that’s any way to get someone on your side if you have a legitimate point to make. Apologies in advance if some sarcasm and snark of my own seeps in.
Is it disordered eating? This is a tough one. I’m no stranger to disordered eating and I know first hand how it can shrink and ravage lives. Is dumping sugar (or any food) necessarily a sign of disordered eating? Not sure but I can see why it might be a red flag for some since it’s clearly something that lots of people with eating disorders do. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t about to get all fanatical about it. I’ve engaged in disordered eating in the past. But cutting out desserts doesn’t strike me as necessarily disordered. If it involved obsession and hyper-vigilance I’d be worried. But I was not planning to be hyper-vigilant.
Nevertheless, I can see how the idea of restricting a food group (not that sugar is in fact a food group) might trigger those with a history of eating disorders. I can also see how it could have some appeal to those with a history of eating disorders, which is why I needed to take this week of “planning” to try to get clear on my motives, which could easily be out of whack (a point I’m willing to consider and take seriously, though I must admit it’s easier to do that without shaming fingers wagging in my face).
I’ll get to the point about obsession in a minute.
Is it unscientific? Probably. I wasn’t proposing a research paper or study on it. I was engaging in some self-reflection about the role of sugar in my life and whether that itself was unhealthy. But in came the questions about what counts as sugar. Do I only mean refined sugar? What about maple syrup? Don’t we need glucose to get through the day? Don’t I realize that it’s impossible to get rid of sugar because it’s naturally occurring all over the place? All good questions that challenge the very basis of the idea that anyone can actually give up sugar. I find the charge that the a personal narrative post is unscientific to be kind of odd. But hey, if that’s your worry, mea culpa.
Is it pleasure-denying? I said:
There is just no really solid reason why these need to be in my life. If life would be sad without them, then that in itself says something kind of sad about the rest of my life.
This, among other things, offended people because of the implicit suggestion that if enjoying dessert is an important source of pleasure, I must be experiencing deficits in other areas of my life. Instead of seeing it that way, people suggested a different way of looking at it: dessert is an enjoyable thing that no one, especially feminists, should choose to live without. I can see wigging out over that if you’ve fought for the right not to have your food choices policed by friends, families and strangers. I have fought for that right myself, and other than what happened yesterday, have not experienced much policing of my food choices in recent years. And I don’t police the food choices of others despite that I’m an ethical vegan and have all sorts of views about carbon footprints, agribusiness, and unnecessary animal suffering and exploitation.
Is it unfeminist and contrary to the goals of this blog? I’ve blogged before about whether trying to lose weight is an unfeminist goal. I’ve blogged about why I will never, ever talk to anyone about weight loss again. I’ve thought a lot about the way it’s possible for individual women to betray women more generally by their choices. We can do this in all sorts of ways and feminists disagree about where to draw the line.
Some would reject make-up. Others might say we shouldn’t go in for marriage. Some will take issue with choosing to be a stay-at-home mother. Others will deny that sex workers can have any agency at all. Still others will stand on their heads to defend women’s right to choose to be sex workers. I do hope that for anyone who thinks choosing sex work is bad for women, your way of expressing that is not to lash out with verbal attacks on sex workers. Then there are those who will say that any explicit attempt to restrict women’s choices (as perhaps the suggestion that someone might choose not to eat sugar) is anti-feminist because … here I think the argument is complicated and has not been articulated well by any of the commenters on the original post.
I’m going to be charitable and say that these readers have a strong view, as do I, that dieting is part of an oppressive set of social practices that keeps women preoccupied with shallow goals and chasing after normative standards of femininity that ought to be rejected.
They ought to be rejected not only because they are impossible for many to attain (as if, if it were possible, that’s where we should be putting our attention), but also because guess what? There is a huge range of bodies and diversity matters and restricting that range has a negative impact on the value of equality. Compromising equality is definitely not consistent with feminist ideals. Therefore, the thought that anyone should restrict sugar must be contrary to feminism because there is no other reason to do it except dieting.
I’m not sure that’s true. I am not and do not intend to be on a diet any time soon. But I can see how people might link any kind of food restriction to dieting. And what if I were? Does that justify aggressive (yes, I do feel that some of the comments were unduly aggressive) policing of my choices? I’m going to go out on a limb here: no.
It’s even had the negative affect of “confirming” (to some of my friends who are perhaps more quiet, less public and less activist about their feminism) that feminists are scary people poised to lash out. As one friend said, only partially tongue in cheek, “Hugs. Don’t sweat it. Those damn feminists get offended about just about anything.” Great. That’s all we need.
I also don’t feel as if I should need to pull out my feminist resumé to prove myself here, on this blog, the blog that I co-founded, that has provided a feminist space for discussion and disagreement that we hope on our most optimistic days will be kind and constructive, not rife with personal attack.
Don’t even get me started on the stealth judgment contained in “you do you.” Seriously? It’s just passive aggressive bullshit that is code for “you do you, but before you do, let me make it really clear why I hate what you do when you do you. Carry on.” Does “you do you” really make up for the strong staring down of feminist disapproval? For the people who are “disappointed” and “surprised” and see their “red flags waving”? I’m 51 fucking years old. I don’t need anyone’s permission to “do me.” [again, thank you to those who reached out with concern instead, it felt much more helpful and genuine]
[stage direction: regain composure then continue]
Here’s my partial diagnosis of what happened (not complete, because I’m sure it was more complicated than this, but this is a start): After reading and re-reading the comments on the blog and the FB page, the overwhelming feeling I get is that at least some readers feel as if the post (and the project) was a betrayal of sorts (perhaps even evidence of my hypocrisy).
What I have to say about that is…maybe you’re right (though I won’t say I’m a hypocrite, I will say I’m not always perfectly consistent. Crucify me now. Oh, I almost forgot, you already did that on Tuesday.). It’s not at all consistent with my general approach to eating to even consider restricting foods for anything other than ethical reasons (as noted, I’m an ethical vegan). I do not demonize foods, do not believe that some foods are evil, and certainly do not go in for fads. I spend a lot of time publicly rejecting diets, cleanses, weight loss talk (and programs), and have strongly feminist reasons for doing so. I promote body positivity and an inclusive approach to fitness.
And though some of the comments did sting (like the one that said what a waste of time to be spending energy journalling about sugar. For one thing, I feel that posting those journal entries was kind of exposing even if you think it’s a waste of time, and for another thing, it only took me 20 minutes and, as I said defensively in the comments after the onslaught had been under way for most of the day, I’d already spent several hours before and after writing about climate change and collective responsibility, so I think I’m actually making more valuable contributions in other spheres thank you very much), in the end I take the point while also still feeling fairly confident that food is a feminist issue.
To the person who said to Sam’s post that this whole thing is a “first world problem.” Yes. That’s true. In fact, the whole topic of dieting as a form of oppression is a first world problem. If you think about it in the context of global food systems and issues of real food insecurity, food sovereignty, and food justice, the choice to diet or eat whatever the heck you want, the choice to eat or not eat sugar or anything, oozes privilege. I have a paper on that coming out in the yet to be released Oxford Handbook on Food Ethics. Abstract here. But first world problems are still problems. Just because there may be worse problems in the world doesn’t mean we can’t talk about things that aren’t as horrible.
Before I concede entirely, I do want to address the one point several people made about restriction breeding obsession. I’ve had mixed experiences with this and I’m not the only one. As someone who has completely stopped consuming alcohol, I can attest that when I was moderating alcohol I was obsessed. After I quit, I no longer have to think about it anymore. It doesn’t even enter my mind because it’s basically off the table. I don’t read wine lists with a sense of longing and deprivation, or feel I’m missing out on anything when I toast with club soda instead of champagne. And more importantly for me, I don’t seek comfort in mind-altering substances anymore. Sure, continuing to use them would be exercising a freedom of choice that no one has the right to police, but that doesn’t mean it would be a good life strategy for me.
I have also engaged in seriously disordered and restricted eating in the past, and that did generate food obsession. But it seems to me that it is also possible that removing something completely can get it out of your head altogether (another case in point: I do not think about eating meat or dairy anymore — these are not on the menu for me and I do not obsess about them in their absence). So I guess I thought that perhaps sugar might go that way. The thought that it could go that way is not a totally ridiculous thought.
But I can see how it was a mistake to voice that here. People expect more, or perhaps, expect different, from this blog, from me. Even though sharing my plan and my journal made me vulnerable to criticism (and in other ways, but it’s a blog and I often make myself vulnerable here), it also opened me up to input (let’s be charitable) from a feminist community that I generally respect and that I realize doesn’t have a whole lot of spaces that welcome their comments as much as we usually do here.
And it made me aware that I can still get caught up in what I call “old ideas” even if I try to dress them up in new ways. Don’t tell me you’ve never grasped after something in the hopes of making you “feel better” and found all sorts of good “reasons” for why doing that might “work.” Again, if you ever have, I hope that those who were concerned you might be making a mistake could find gentler ways of nudging you in a different direction.
So I’m just going to put this out there and be totally frank. I really can’t stand it when people talk about their weight loss. I don’t care what the reasons. I don’t care if you’re trying or not trying. I don’t care if it’s for performance or for looks or just because that’s what friends, family, and strangers like to talk about.
You know, you can dress it up any way you like. But to me it’s such a personal thing that our social world has made into a public thing. And I’m always stumped about what we’re supposed to say. “Good for you!” even when someone is trying just goes against everything that feels right to me. It’s like encouraging something that I see ruin the lives of perfectly excellent people who think that weight loss will afford them something they need in order to feel good about themselves (or better about themselves). I just can’t have the conversation anymore, with anyone.
You know what? This week’s sugar dump response made me realize lots of people feel the same way about food and food restriction. It just reeks of “diet” to them. They just don’t want to hear it. And I agree. From here on out, I don’t either.
How about we eat what we eat and get on with our day? No need to write about it or talk about it or make big pronouncements about it.
Thanks for the feedback. Even though I don’t think it’s simply a choice between patriarchy or cupcakes, I’m dumping the sugar dump.
Awhile back I joined the Facebook group Pathetic Triathletes. It’s a fairly large, closed group. You need to be admitted into it by the admin. But there’s no screening going on, and it’s got over 7000 members.
With a name like “Pathetic Triathletes” you can imagine that the purpose of the group is to give triathletes a place for mutual support, information-sharing, encouragement, and so on, while also keeping it light. The “pathetic” is meant to be ironic and funny. A little bit self-depracating, a little bit of a reminder not to take ourselves so seriously.
People post about their successes. People post about their failures and mishaps. Failures, mishaps, questions that we assume we should already know the answers to but don’t — all of these are followed by the hashtag #pathetic.
So far so good. I myself have been known to take things too seriously. So what harm could it possibly do to be part of a Facebook group that favours the lighter side of triathlon?
Well, this past weekend I got the answer to my question when I waded into reading the comment thread after someone posted a link to Ragen Chastain’s post “When On-Line Trolls Become Real-Life Stalkers.” As if the title of her post isn’t harrowing enough, the contents is downright frightening. She’s harassed daily by haters on-line in comments on her blog, her Facebook page, on reddit, in fat-hate forums (which, in my naivete, I didn’t even know existed but why should I be surprised).
The on-line stalking moved into real life when she attempted an Ironman 70.3 recently. Here’s some of what happened:
The short story of the IM 70.3 is that I took 2 minutes too long on the swim and got pulled off the course. After changing out of my wetsuit I got my phone and posted to my FB wall:
IM 70.3 was a Total disaster, way worse than my worst case scenario. 2 minutes over the time in the swim, didn’t even get on the bike. Thanks to everyone for your support. Sucks to have a setback like this, but now I have a year to get ready so I don’t feel like this next year at the full ironman. I’ll post a race report in ironfat.com at some point.
My family and I decided to go grab some lunch and by the time we got to the restaurant my FB page was trollapalooza – party at Reddit’s house and everyone’s invited! They were also engaging in one of their very favorite pastimes – lying to accuse me of lying.
But the creepier part of it was an athlete sidling up to her before the race to ask if she was bothered by what was said on reddit that morning. They had a brief interaction and she suspected he was a troll because he didn’t agree when she made negative comments about people who spend their time dissing her on reddit. After the race:
After the race I would find out that prior to the race the anti-me website had posted a minute by minute schedule of where I would be, including updating the site about my choice to wear my wetsuit and my 7:45am start time which I had talked about on my blog.
After my race ended, various forums and websites posted pictures and video that were taken of me and my family, some taken by people standing just feet away from me. Many of the pictures were taken after I had gotten out of the water and exited the athlete area, meaning that they couldn’t have been taken by someone competing in the race. People online bragged about stalking me and my family, saying horrible things about my partner, my mother, and my best friend and his husband.
This may or may not have had anything to do with the guy who chatted with her before the swim. She has a point when she says she:
…tried to calculate the odds that someone who just happened to stumble upon a reddit forums about me ended up standing next to me in a group of 1600 athletes, recognized me in a wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles, and thought it was appropriate to ask about a forum devoted to hating me, in a way that assumed I both knew about it and checked the forum.
Now, enter the Pathetic Triathletes Facebook group. You’d expect a group that is supposedly supportive of all levels of triathletes from beginners to veterans, and who tries not to take itself too seriously (#pathetic!) to rally round a triathlete, any triathlete, who is brave enough to get out there and attempt at 70.3 distance event.
And some people did. But an alarming number of people jumped in and started saying similar things to the sorts of things she says are said by the haters and trolls on a regular basis. And the meanness just kept on coming. And coming. And coming.
Where were the admin in all of this? I do not know. I think they eventually took it down. Either that or it fell so far down the page that I couldn’t find it when I went to show it to Sam because I was so astonished. But not just astonished, also incredibly disturbed.
The vitriol just seemed so out of place for a group that presents itself as a welcoming community with a sense of humor. The fat-hate just kept on coming. And personal attacks on Ragen Chastain, accusing her of lying, of not really having the goals she has or the doing the training she does. The assumption is that no one her size could possibly be doing what she is doing. It’s a caricature of all the most entrenched prejudices and misguided assumptions about the relationship between body size, body fat, on the one hand, and health and the capacity to participate in athletic activities, on the other hand.
The comments also have a misogynistic gendered element to them that make them even more difficult to hear. Who but the most entitled and privileged members of our world think they have the right to say shit like that openly and earnestly in a Facebook Group?
I’ve struggled with the irony from the beginning because I guess in some ways I don’t actually think that claiming to be pathetic, even if meant to be ironic, is the best way to bolster confidence and feel good about what you’re doing.
But there was no irony in the hateful comment thread that followed Ragen Chastain’s post about her trolls and stalkers. Pathetic in the truest sense of the world. Like, what’s it to them that this woman wants to do triathlon? Why can’t she just do her thing and be left alone? It’s astonishing that people would have such a violent reaction when her efforts have literally no impact on their lives at all. Like, nothing. It’s sad.
So I left the group. And I have to say that despite the presence of lots of supportive and encouraging members, I cannot in good conscience recommend the group to anyone with an interest in body-positivity and feminism. You may as well go straight to reddit if you want read abusive hate against women who don’t conform to the narrow standards of femininity deemed acceptable by self-appointed gate-keepers.
It’s not that Ragen Chastain can’t stand her own against these types of people. She doesn’t need to be rescued. And thankfully she’s got more supportive fans than vocal trolls and stalkers. But I’m not about to stick around in a group where people feel entitled to talk that kind of fat-hating, misogynistic shit.
And I wish Ragen all the best in her quest to compete in an Ironman next year. You can follow her journey at IronFat.
One of the best things about being a feminist philosopher in Canada is getting to go to the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy conference. We just got back from Regina, where the conference was held this year. There were lots of great moments, and one of them was the panel Sam organized on women’s bodies and athletic performance.
Four out of four of the speakers have written for the blog: Sam, Audrey, Sylvia, and Moira. As if that alone wasn’t awesome enough, Kate and Alice were in the room too! And those are just the feminist philosophers who have blogged for us. Besides them, we were surrounded by awesomeness all weekend!
Megan Dean, the PhD student from Georgetown who won the essay prize, presented her winning paper, “Fat Shame Is Not Moral Shame” (and yes, she will be guest blogging for us sometime very soon).
But back to the panel Sam organized. Here’s what they talked about.
Audrey took Iris Marion Young’s feminist analysis of feminine body comportment and “throwing like a girl” into the realm of the relational by extending it to the martial arts. Not all throwing is as individualized as what we think of when we think of what it means to “throw like a girl.” In martial arts training, girls and women often have to overcome a lot of “I cannot” self-talk before they can throw and hit and kick other people, even though throwing and hitting and kicking other people are exactly what they’re there to do.
She made the point that even when we have the skills training so that we can control our own body, that doesn’t always or necessarily translate into being able to act on another’s body. This led to a fabulous comment from Alice, who said we need to turn our “fleshy embodiment” into “fleshy agential embodiment.” (yes, we are indeed philosophers!)
Next up was Sylvia on femininity and athleticism. She introduced an interesting scale of sports that are associated with the feminine (like figure skating and synchronized swimming), sports that are kind of (but not really) gender neutral (running and cycling), and sports that are more masculine in their representation (like hockey and basketball). Then she (depressingly) pointed out how difficult it is for women to negotiate the double bind. If they’re participating in so-called feminine sports, then they’re not taken seriously or recognized for their athleticism. If they’re participating in the so-called masculine sports then their femininity is called into question. In neither case is it easy to get taken seriously.
She posed the interesting question of whether sports mirror or magnify what happens in other realms. In my view (mine was the first hand in the air for the Q and A), the whole thing is depressingly true to life. When pressed, Sylvia said that the situation in sports magnifies, not just mirrors, what happens all over the place. And while I agree to some degree, don’t we also think that sport has promising liberatory potential? Of course it does. So we need to continue to find ways to navigate and challenge the norms of mandatory femininity through participation in sport.
Moira considered the way that a focus on the external goods of sport can be harmful. Instead, she said, we need to focus on internal goods. External goods are things like winning, pleasing others, looking good, earning money, getting prizes. Internal goods are the goods internal to the practice, particular pleasures and skills and meaningful experiences.
She applied her analysis to fitness as preparation for physically transformative life events like reproduction, ageing, disability, and even death and dying. Fitness ideology is usually about avoiding many of these things rather than being better prepared for them. But the internal goods of sport–endurance, pain tolerance, courage, working through exhaustion–are actually transferable skills that we can bring to bear in these other areas of our lives. Moira talked about childbirth, but at the break a couple of us talked about how sport has prepped us for menopause!
Finally, Sam presented about the tension between the norms of sport performance and “ladylike” values. She coined a phrase that I’d never heard before and love: “the play gap.” That’s the gap between boys and girls with respect to time devoted to physical activity. It starts young and just gets worse as we grow to adulthood. She reminded us of all the sad facts about women being socialized not to be athletic, to recoil from athletic clothing because of poor body image, to work out in sheds for fear of being seen, to hesitate to spit and shout and do all those things that sporty men do without the least bit of self-consciousness.
She also talked about the blog and I just felt so happy about the blog and the bloggers and the attendance at the talk (because we have not had great luck populating sessions on feminism and fitness, so this was a real turn to the good). It was really a fantastic session!
Here’s to CSWIP and to all the fabulous colleagues we have who are taking these issues seriously!
We spend a lot of time on the blog talking about body positivity and self-acceptance. But sometimes we also talk about weight loss. Whether it be for performance reasons, as I’ve discussed (with some skepticism that it makes it “okay” to have it as a goal) and as Samantha thinks about re. her cycling or to get the blood pressure in check, as Natalie has done, there are reasons other than normative femininity to lose weight.
But some people think that as a feminist blog, we should never ever talk about weight loss as something to aim for. Weight loss is associated the the pressure to be thin, oppressive norms, and a generally negative opinion of fat, fat bodies, and fat people. I
Not only that, but we have always taken a strong anti-diet position on the blog. Diets don’t work. The staggering statistics in support of their inefficacy speak for themselves. Almost everyone who successfully loses weight with restrictive dieting gains most (often more) of it back over time. Sometimes it takes a few years, sometimes just a few weeks. It depends on the method — fad diets and highly restrictive approaches to weight loss have the worst outcomes.
We reject the whole BMI thing. And both Sam and I promote the idea of finding activities you enjoy and getting out and doing them, no matter what your size and without having weight loss as a focal point.
We care about metabolic health, and are more likely to encourage everyone to eat more, not less! In fact, I’m not sure we have any posts that encourage people to eat less.
We’ve written about all of this and more. And yet sometimes we talk about weight loss. And a few people have let us know that it disturbs them. That it indicates to them that we’re not “feminist enough.”
I’m not big on defending myself as a feminist, either to anti-feminists or to other feminists. But what I want to say here is that Sam and I aren’t just feminists. We’re actually feminist philosophers.
Now, not all feminist philosophers believe exactly the same things. But one of the things that makes us fairly compatible is that we’re both fairly moderate and open to other ways of seeing things. This means that on our Facebook page, for example, we’ll sometimes post content that we don’t agree with,. We might do that just because it makes an interesting point worthy of consideration OR because it’s clearly getting something wrong in an interesting way.
But the real question for me when we post about weight loss, at least where feminism is concerned, is: are their any legitimate reasons for wanting to lose weight, reasons that have nothing to do with hating our bodies, trying to fit normative ideals, or even worse, hating and punishing ourselves.
And I think the answer to that is pretty clearly “yes.”
I think we’re right to be skeptical about medical reasons even though in some cases it could make a difference. The fact is, so does getting active and developing healthy eating habits. Weight loss could be a by-product of that, but setting it as a primary goal is probably going to be self-defeating anyway.
Then there are the performance reasons that athletes obsess about. I blogged about racing weight not too long ago. And Sam has talked about wanting to weigh less so she can fly up hills more quickly. In my post, I worried that after a couple of years of liberating myself from weight loss as a goal, aiming for “racing weight” or any kind of weight-related performance improvement could take me back to old bad habits associated with dieting: poor body image, weight obsession, worrying about food all the time, berating myself for eating.
I also worried that you can dress it up anyway you like, but aiming for weight loss for whatever reason is going to have the same results. Wanting to perform better doesn’t mean your weight loss is going to be any more lasting than if you did it for other reasons. Athletes don’t even expect to maintain their race weight or the weight they will compete at on game day through the entire year. It’s seasonal.
So I guess I have my worries about that too. Yes, we can have non-body-hating reasons to want to lose weight. And in the end, I think those reasons can be consistent with feminist ideals. But having different reasons doesn’t change the facts about sustainable weight loss.
Sam has blogged about weight loss unicorns before. They’re the people, and we all know some of them, who lose weight and keep it off. They’re unicorns because they are rare.
And even if someone has reasons for wanting to lose weight that are consistent with feminism, I myself avoid entering into any conversation with anyone where my expected role is to praise them for their weight loss efforts. I pretty much never do that because, as I blogged about here, I do not believe “You’ve lost weight, you look great” is a compliment in polite society. Rather, it bespeaks a kind of body policing. It’s really hard to be explicit about noticing someone’s weight loss (or gain) and not be engaged in body policing.
Weight loss and dieting have long been considered as oppressive tools, contrary to the liberatory goals of feminism. Besides blogging about it a lot I’ve also done a bit of philosophical work on the topic. For me, I know weight loss is a dangerous goal. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why some people might want to lose a few pounds for reasons that are consistent with the aims of feminism, among which, of course, are the freedom to make our own choices without being condemned for them.
Michael Rowe shared this on Facebook with the following comment: “I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if a male author who had sold 30 million copies of one book (in this case, THE THORN BIRDS, which was made into the second-highest rated miniseries of all time) was eulogized as being “plain of feature and certainly overweight,” especially in the first paragraph of his obituary. I’m still wondering, because I just can’t picture it happening. (Photo by @vanbadham, via Twitter.)”
Sam wrote about “Nipple Phobia and Padded Sports Bras” way back in the early days of the blog. There she lamented the ubiquity of the padded sports bra (indeed, the padded bra more generally). Where we used to be able to find lots of unpadded bras and sports bras, nowadays it’s a real search.
Part of the reason for this, hypothesized Sam, is that we are caught in the grips of nipple phobia. We don’t want to see them or show them. As Sam said, they’ve become what the visible panty-line used to be — an unsightly reminder of the natural bodies that actually live under our clothing.
Enter the Tata top. This bikini top got a lot of press last week on-line. From a distance, if you’re a white woman with an average sized chest wearing the light-tone Tata, it looks from afar as if you’re going topless.
I say if you’re a white woman because the medium tone and dark tone Tatas are not yet available. They are expected to ship in mid-August. I say if you’re “average sized” because at present the tops are only available in small (A-B) and medium sizes (B-C). Anything larger than a C-cup is also on backorder, with this apology to larger women from the creators: “LARGE CHESTED LADIES…WE UNDERESTIMATED YOU BUT IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!”
The Tata top is supposed to help fight breast stigma, topless inequality, and nipple phobia. According to this Daily Beast article, it’s meant to help fight gender inequality. That makes it sound like a feminist statement if there ever was one. The article continues:
The underlying goal of the bikini, however, is meant to desexualize the idea of female nipples and eliminate gendered double standards. Why should it be laughable, or even uncomfortable, for a woman to bare her breasts in public?
“By censoring an image of a woman’s chest and not a man’s it doesn’t end with removing that image from your platform,” Graves and Lytle conclude. “Whether you like it or not you are confirming that YES, a woman’s nipples are indecent and are something that need to be kept covered. You are endorsing that train of thought. You take yourself out of the business of providing a forum for free thinking and place yourself in the position of deciding what is immoral and what isn’t.”
So why, then, is there such an outcry among some feminists about this top? Well, there are a number of reasons. The most common is that the first iteration — marketed to and for women with bodies that are white and slight — sends an unmistakable message about normative bodies.
The Jezebel article ends with this remark: “Like many aspects of modern-day feminism, right now, this one’s only available to women with light skin and disposable income. But the inventors of the Ta Ta Top promise that more colors are coming soon.”
The various attempts on the website to apologize, first to the “large-chested ladies” whom they “underestimated,” and then to women with “medium” or “dark” skintones don’t really succeed in overcoming the oversight. To the women with different skintones, they offered not so much an apology as a promise that the medium and dark tops will arrive and an excuse as to why they aren’t yet available:
Will you have other skin tones?
Absolutely but first we need to prove a market! Investing money and ending up with one TaTa Top is funny. Investing money in three tones and ending up with 2,000 TaTa’s is slightly less so. The more we sell the more tones and more styles we will able to offer. Take our TaTa Top poll to help us decide which direction to take next.
The “What’s Next?” poll on the Tata website focuses on extra small and extra large sizing and the turns to fashion, with four different piercing choices.
I also heard some people raising the usual questions about initiatives that raise their profile by aligning themselves with charities to support the already over-supported cause of breast cancer research. It might sound callous to roll one’s eyes whenever yet another thing promotes itself by raising money for breast cancer research, but the pink ribbon thing has many detractors, who complain about “pinkwashing”:
The term “pinkwashing” was coined by Breast Cancer Action in reference to companies that either promote breast cancer awareness without donating at all, are deceptive or not transparent about where any funds raised go, or put a pink ribbon on a product with known or suspected links to cancer.
By far the most interesting comment came to my from fellow feminist philosopher Kristin Rodier, who took issue with the claim that linked body exposure to freedom, and who very quickly asked about the range of sizes available. In order to further elaborate the point about exposure as freedom, she sent me Kelly Oliver’s paper, “Sexual Freedom as Global Freedom.”
The paper focuses on the Western “rhetoric of liberating ‘women of cover.” Oliver argues that we in the west have reduced women’s freedom “to freedom to to dress (especially in revealing clothes for the eyes of others), governed by market forces of fashion and consumerism.” She further claims that “this view of women’s freedom is used to justify military action elsewhere, and to reassure Western women of their own freedom at home. The rhetoric of liberating women elsewhere conceals women’s oppression here at home while at the same time reassuring us that we are liberated.”
How does the Tata top fit into this picture? By purporting to address the issue of women’s oppression through a top that mimics maximum exposure of women’s upper bodies. We may not (yet) have a achieved full gender equality because men can go topless while (for the most part) women cannot, but the Tata top is here to save the day.
I think the original limited offerings of this item only to light skinned women with pink nipples and A-C sized breasts demonstrates well whose nipple freedom “we” as a society will tolerate. Not everyone’s exposed skin is equally welcome, and when non-normative bodies are exposed, there is a different social meaning, a different kind of statement being made. It’s not just “fun.”
I get the impression from the website and different articles I’ve read that the company is not quite sure how to market the top. The equality card is one angle. But they also claim to be wanting to normalize the breast and nipple so that they’re de-sexualized. Somewhere on the site it talks about normalizing the sight of women breast-feeding in public, which certainly is a worthwhile cause.
But the website isn’t wholly on board with the desexualization of the breast, and in fact when I first went to the website last week it included a “warning” that said: ““Disclaimer: Wearers are cautioned to be prepared for the onslaught of pick up lines it is sure to elicit.” That message, which seems to celebrate the top as an expression of sexuality, has since been removed (or at least I couldn’t find it when I went back).
I also think that the top is likely to have more applications as a novelty item than as an item that plays a huge role in achieving gender equality. I think the size and skintone gaffes, as well as the more pointed perspective expressed in Oliver’s paper about how Westernized this idea of freedom through revealing clothing, raise serious questions about the top’s capacity to promote an inclusive feminist agenda.
However, I also find the medical condemnations of women’s cycling fascinating for what they tell us about what people thought (and maybe still think?) about women’s athletic capabilities and potential.
Many physicians held that women’s bodies simply weren’t suited to cycling. They thought that the bicycle was a sure path to sexual depravity (given the motion of the bike and the proximity of the seat to women’s genitals) and infertility (given the shaking the womb obviously endures while riding a bike). Also, our weaker natures made us prone to exhaustion.
Reading their medical reports on the dangers of cycling–one can’t really call it ‘research,’ more a mix of armchair meanderings and anecdotes–you get a clear picture of what doctors of the day believed to be true of women’s bodies.
In “The hidden dangers of cycling” by A. Shadwell, M.D published in 1897, in the journal National Review, the author advises women against “attempting a novel and peculiar experiment with their precious persons.” That “novel and peculiar experiment” would be riding bikes. He writes that the risks to women’s health include internal inflammation, exhaustion, bicycle face, appendicitis, dysentery, nervous attacks
I love this description of why biking tempts women to self-injury.
“A vice—from another point of view a virtue—peculiar to the bicycle, that I do not remember having seen noticed, is that the ease and rapidity of the locomotion tempt to over-long rides by bringing some desirable objective within apparent reach. Going to nowhere and back is dull, going to somewhere (only a few miles farther) is attractive; and thus many are lured to attempt a task beyond their physical powers.”
I love the temptation to go just a few kilometers farther and often suffer from exhaustion myself after!
Back to the list of physical ailments associated with cycling. I’ll be writing another blog post about sexual depravity and bicycle seats, but what interests me today because it’s unexpected and unfamiliar are the worries about ‘bicycle face.’
Bicycle face was an actual medical ailment of the day. In the 1890s “bicycle face” was one of the “allegedly possible ailments” of riding a bike. Anti-bicyclists of the time claimed it was “the product of excessive worry over maintaining balance while riding.” And of course, given our wobbliness and worry prone natures, women were especially likely to suffer from bicycle face.
When I first heard of bicycle face, I instantly thought of the look fierce concentration and effort that’s associated with bicycle racing. Here’s the most famous race face, Jan Ullrich. Below Jan is my race face! But I was sad to find out that bicycle face is something else altogether.
Earlier this week, when Jennifer Lawrence accepted her (much-deserved) Golden Globe Award for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the first thing she said was, “This means I beat Meryl.” I cringed (not knowing at the time that this is, apparently, a reference to a line from the 1996 film The First Wives Club). I cringed because that’s not what you’re supposed to say.
You’re supposed to say something gracious and generous about the strong field of women with whom you were nominated. You’re supposed to say, “You like me, you really like me.” You’re not supposed to talk about winners and losers. Remember when, at the Academy Awards, they switched from “And the winner is…” to “And the Oscar goes to…”?
Some say competition runs counter to feminist ideals, making the very idea of competition “un-feminist.” In 1972, volume one of Ms. Magazine included an article by Letty Cottin Pogrebin entitled, “Competing with Women.” And in 1987, Valerie Miner and Helen Longino co-edited a collection of essays, Competition: A Feminist Taboo?It opened with a re-print of the Pogrebin essay.
They suggest that feminists have had difficulty talking about competition—hence, the taboo—because it they consider it a key feature of the patriarchal social structure that feminists criticize. The default assumption that competition is not just un-feminine (though it is that too), but actually un-feminist. Why? Well, it’s sometimes bad, and sometimes downright ugly.
Competition isn’t just suspect for being masculinist and patriarchal (and capitalist). It’s divisive and hierarchical. You can’t have winners without losers. And aren’t winners superior to losers? The gold medalist stands at the top of the podium. What about feminist solidarity? What about equality? How does a good feminist reconcile competition with that?
This unease with the idea of competition means that many women who consider themselves feminists are loathe to admit to their competitive tendencies. We compete with ourselves. We support our sisters. We hold hands as we cross the finish line.
And yet, feminist or not, don’t we all like to win?
A few months ago I played Scrabble with a friend who didn’t care about winning. She just played any old word, not striving to lay down all the tiles, land on triple word scores, or get the most out of blanks and Qs and Zs. That’s not how I play Scrabble. Where I come from, you play to win. You challenge words. You play by the rules. You do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstances leave an open triple. I won that game. But I didn’t feel like a winner because we weren’t both competing.
If competition is bad because it is unfeminist and creates winners and losers, it can also be downright ugly. Valerie Miner has an essay about competition among feminist writers called “Rumors from the Cauldron.” The cauldron, that bubbling brew that cackling witches stir, cursing their enemies and wishing them ill.
She talks about the ugly side of competition: envy, jealousy, resentment. She talks about wanting to feel happy for our friends who succeed, but instead feeling envious of their success, wishing it were ours. And then we feel guilty for feeling that way.
I’ve been on both sides of the envy, and neither feels good. If we care about our friends and know that our successes in some way hurt them, then it’s easy to feel hurt in turn (why aren’t they happy for us?), and also to then have to downplay our victories and successes.
When I was a PhD student in a stressful doctoral program in philosophy, my housemate and I used to take time out from our studies by playing backgammon. When we were learning the game together, we had a splendid time. It was loads of fun. At certain point we turned a corner with it.
Instead of being a happy outlet from a difficult day, it became a complicated context of emotional management (what some might call co-dependence). The winner couldn’t just play her best, most strategic game and win. Instead, we started to try to gauge how the other was feeling. Was the trouncing making her upset? Would using the doubling cube just be an added cruelty? (We actually banned use of the doubling cube.)
Sometimes, the winner felt the need to apologize for winning. Sometimes the pending loser had to bow out, apologetically, because she’d had a rough enough day already, thank you very much. No one got to feel good.
Around that time I developed an aversion to competition. It wasn’t just about the backgammon. Competing was emotionally draining. If I won, I felt a mixture of joy and guilt. If I lost, I felt inferior and unworthy. I recognize that none of this is healthy and that it reveals at best that I was a bad sport, at worst that I needed lots of therapy. But my competitive nature led me to take myself out of competition as much as I could. It just felt ugly.
All this, and I haven’t yet talked about sports. It’s become part of my public “narrative” about myself that I do not enjoy playing competitive sports. I’m more about yoga and running (for my own satisfaction) and resistance training for strength. And even when I run a race, I’m only going for a personal best, not actually trying to place.
Mostly, I have to confess, I don’t like competing in sports because of the combination of two factors: I’m not all that good at sports and I can be a poor loser. When I say I’m a poor loser, I mean I feel badly about myself when I lose, and I am apt to need at least a little bit of time before I can feel happy for she who beats me (unless I, like my Scrabble friend, wasn’t actually competing to begin with–then it’s okay because I wasn’t trying to beat her anyway).
And yet I recognize sports as perhaps the one domain where women can compete against one another in a healthy, socially acceptable way. It’s the area where we don’t have to be nurturing and cooperative and concerned about how our opponents feel about our success.
I see it as a domain where we should be able to go for the win because we can (if we can). We can feel empowered at our own accomplishments while at the same time applauding the success of those who train harder or have done better in the genetic lottery than we have or both. We can set ourselves personal goals and, as Samantha says in her post about who she’s trying to beat, look at ourselves as our fiercest competition. We can admire champions.
Sports and athletics are where we can find the good in competition. Mariah Burton Nelson has a wonderful book, Embracing Victory: Life Lessons in Competition and Compassion, New Choices for Women, where she explores and develops, with much depth and eloquence, a feminist theory of victory in sports. It’s really about winning with grace and compassion, about developing your own criteria for success (and not necessarily shying away from winning as a goal), about attending to the process, about being willing to lose.
We need to give ourselves permission to compete. Lift the taboo. And lighten up.
She cites a lovely quote from the tennis champion, Chris Evert: “If you can react the same to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment.” I love how Evert shifts the idea of accomplishment away from “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” and towards the attitude with which you accept the outcome.
We don’t have to hold hands across the finish line. But we can go for the group hug when we all get there!