Is Body Fat a Feminist Issue?

There’s a recent post over on Womanist Musings that slams the TV show “The Biggest Loser.” The main argument in the post is that shows like “The Biggest Loser” promote unhealthy views about weight loss and self image. While I agree with the general crux of this argument, I also have to add my two cents about obesity, weight loss, and the connection to feminist politics.

I have a very complicated relationship with dieting and body image. I was an anorexic throughout high school, but I am now currently overweight. I would love to be able say that feminism has helped me learn to love my body, but that isn’t the case. There is no outside to patriarchy, and as much as we would like to believe that embracing feminism means that we will learn to love ourselves exactly as we are, that has not happened for me. I am learning to love my body every day, but this will be an ongoing struggle for me until the day I die.

I joined Weight Watchers several months ago, because I want to lose weight and feel better about my body. I am not doing this because I think that I have to fit into some patriarchal standard of beauty. I am doing this because I want to make healthier choices about my food and create a positive self-image. So far, I am doing well. I go to my meetings every week, and meet other people who are facing the same challenges that I am, and I have lost an average of two pounds a week since I joined. This post is not meant to be an endorsement of Weight Watchers. But it is meant to give an explanation of why I feel like weight loss is a feminist issue.

There are many feminists who embrace their body fat, and I applaud them for it. I think women are fabulous at any size. But I also think that we should support people when they choose to make healthier eating decisions in order to improve their overall well-being. Dieting is not anti-feminist – even though I have taken many Women’s Studies classes that would have me believe otherwise.

What’s your experience been like? Do feminists have just as many problems learning to love their body as anyone else? If you’ve gone on a diet, have you felt like a sell out to the cause? I’d love to hear your voice.

Comments

  1. i think this is interesting Serena. Wanting to change yr body or yr body type is alright and is totally in congruence with most tenets of feminism be it problematic or not. Now while I am sure plenty of ill-informed feminist would talk about how dieting is fat phobia; my point is similar but is more or less that dieting per se does not work. Companies like Weight Watchers may permanently work for some people; however, those are outliers and are thus irrelevant. There are plenty of studies out there proving this thesis. Most people lose a shit ton of weight on these programs and then gain it back in under 5 years. They are a company, their goal is to make money not to help people develop healthy relationships with their bodies. These companies DO prey on the body anxieties of women or all body types and at it’s core IS fat-phobic. I would seriously talk to some of the fat-activist queer feminist out there about health issues and not dieting issues and you will probably glean a lot about what it means to be healthy in a profoundly unhealthy world.

  2. I think your post is completely right on. I thank you for writing this!

    Though I would agree that most multi-million dollar companies prey on the insecurities of people, and are at their core, fat-phobic. I think that weight watchers takes a different approach and encourages their members to look at their relationship with food, and teaches members to create healthy lifestyles. The statement above is 100% accurate, diets don’t work, but if you want to lose weight for health, and you’re dedicated to improving your life, then you’ve got to learn how, when, and what to eat- That’s what Weight Watchers can help you with. Now I sound like a spokesperson for the program :) Maybe what I’m trying to say is that in the hierarchy of fat-phobic diet companies WW is less bad. Bottom line improving one’s health and quality life is not an anti-feminist statement.

    • freewomyn says:

      Kate, I think you make a good point about the desire to alter one’s body. If you think about the connection to other types of body modification, like sex reassignment surgery, hormones, tattooing, and piercing, then I think we can easily say, “yes. Feminists believe that people should be able to change their bodies.” However, would we say the same thing about circumcision, and/or boob jobs?

      To bring it back to the issue of Weight Watchers, they are, as Erin concedes, absolutely a business. I know that. And I take everything about going to meetings with a grain of salt. But there is value in taking classes to learn how to eat. I wouldn’t have a problem paying a company to teach me how to write, how to water ski, or how to sew a dress. I need help learning how to eat. Weight Watchers doesn’t inspire the same kind of self-hatred as other diets that I have tried. They are all about positive self talk, and they don’t cut you off from any particular foods, the way that Atkins, Jenny Craig, South Beach, or any of those other fad diets do. I love food. But I also love myself enough to admit that I need to make some changes to improve my health.

      Can you recommend some of the writing that you mentioned, Kate? I am definitely interested in reading everything I can about body image. It is something that I struggle with every day. I would love to say that I believe that I am beautiful, but I’m just not there yet.

  3. Kate Harding has a great roundup of evidence against dieting.

    I also want to emphasize the difference, which is usually obscured in discussions about body size, between eating healthfully (which will improve the health of many people) and restricting calorie intake to lose weight (which, as the links at Shapely Prose demonstrate, often does a lot more harm than good).

  4. As long as there are other bodies in this world and we have the ability to sense them and compare them, we will always want to change our bodies. It’s natural. And we should strive for a healthy body and not be happy if we are overweight, because, well, it’s not healthy.

    Where feminism comes in is that we should have realistic expectations of what our body can look like and then be happy with that. Unfortunately, mass media makes us want longer legs, blonder hair, bigger breasts etc. It makes us want the body of someone who works out 6 hours a day and then we wonder why we can’t get it off our our 2 hours a week (if we’re lucky).

    I’ve been on weight watchers. Three times. It’s like abstinence, it works until it doesn’t. I can never stick to it. Although, of all the “plans” out there, I think it’s good about promoting self esteem, self-awareness and better habits. I don’t see it flaunt stars who have lots of time and money on their hands to stick to a plan or plans that are about selling you food so you never learn how to cook or eat healthy.

    As far as feeding on the poor body image, yes, I wish marketing were more feminist in that sense. But I’m cynical in thinking that won’t change. We feed off germaphobia for cleaning products and drugs, etc.

    In the end, I would like to ignore all of that and just support people making healthier decisions and striving to be healthy. If “weight” is what your gauge is fine, if it’s just exercising more, fine. But it should not be about meeting some ideal body shape and size. That doesn’t exist.

  5. Excellent post Serena, and thought provoking. Reading the comments i’m struck by one thing: the ‘body’ is a living, breathing, ever-changing thing. I ‘change’ my body just as much by keeping the same patterns of eating/activity then if I were to choose different ones. We eat, live, breathe and move our bodies AS change. I think a better paradigm for body image is not change v statis, but nourishing v destructive. In thought, and deed :)

  6. Excuse me for joining this discussion, but I would like to say something that we see almost daily in our work with women. We, women and men alike, come in our own body sizes and shapes and that is wonderful. For decades, we have urged women to eat healthy and exercise according to their own feelings to build confidence, self-acceptance, and to prolong life. If you were to succumb to the patriarchal image of woman’s body, then it becomes unhealthy, both physically and mentally. But, everyone knows that.

    The major push we see in women and dieting is to live up to some erroneous image and to live by man’s dictates. We have encountered this for over 50 years and it doesn’t seem to change from generation to generation. And we don’t have the answer, other than to talk, explain, and try to educate. It works for some and not for others.

    As to body fat, not to the point of frank obesity, this is a god-send when women enter menopause, for if they follow the female sex paradigm, this “wicked, unwanted, uninvited substance” is the estrogen producer they need to vanquish all symptomatology without medical intervention. There are reasons women are designed with body fat and distribution and this is one of them.

    All I can say, is that to me, feminism is all about self-acceptance, self-reliance, self- esteem, and not about what anyone else tells her what she should look, act, or be like. Lose weight if you are truly discontent with your body image, but remember as all have said in this discussion thus far, dieting doesn’t work. Just make sure that it is what you want and not because society paints you in a corner.

    Believe in yourself and your innate abilities. Work to gain your maximum potential. Excel in your femaleness and don’t be led by some false images. Remember, woman is, in form and function, Nature’s most beautiful creation.

  7. A few months ago I decided to take charge of my somewhat out of control eating habits. For the past 8 years, my size didn’t bother me. My mother harassed me to lose weight and I refused. Then one day I decided to start eating better. For me it was mostly portion control and learning to say no when I wasn’t hungry. The only real alteration in my diet is to substitute sweet potatoes for regular potatoes because they are much better for you. I believe I am just as good a feminist even when I watch what I eat. Importantly, this is NOT a diet, I have made a lifestyle change. And I did it for me, not for my mother, not for society; for me..

  8. freewomyn says:

    Thanks for all the positive feedback. I want to stress that I joined Weight Watchers because I want to be healthy, not because I want to look like Nicole Richie. I totally agree – we need to love our bodies, no matter what size or shape they come in. I am learning to do that, but it may take a lifetime.

  9. Lyndsey says:

    Hey Serena-

    Just a shout out for writing this and being both thoughtful and honest. I, like nearly every woman (and many men) I know, has struggled with body image, diets, and self-esteem. I think this in itself makes it a feminist issue, if it is a reality for so many, it is clearly still an issue. Also, I’m glad to see that many people keep coming back to health. I believe another place that our diets intersect with feminism is looking at the influences of capitalism on our food–fast food, factory farms, and extremely processed foods. These are feminist issues as well, and have a direct connection to the issues of obesity and unhealth throughout the US (let alone the issues that our own food-related lifestyles inflict oppression and suffering world-wide). Let me put it this way, I think that Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” is a feminist read, even if Michael Pollan would make no such claims.

  10. freewomyn says:

    Great points, Lyndsey. I think that the politics of food is inextricably linked with feminism. Vanda Shiva makes the argument much better than I can, and so does Carol Adams. Obviously, there are so many different angles to this issue.

  11. Shanman says:

    This is an interesting and difficult issue.

    1. I worry that criticism about body projects can transfer to criticism of trans people. Some people argue that trans people should love their body the way it is, that those who make body alterations are buying into the binary gender system. I don’t think this is useful. I think there are similarities between this argument and critiques of those who wish to change the size of their body.

    2. This issue is important for thinking about how we negotiate dominant ideology and dominant discourse. Personally, I believe that there is not an outside to discourse. We all contest and buy into norms in a number of ways. I believe that we can change discourse but not by condemning those who wish to change their bodies.

    I believe that we are always already haunted by ideology. We face a number of hails. We answer and reject hails in a number of ways but we can never get away from them. Additionally, to refuse to answer a hail does not mean that we are able to turn from ideology because ideology is already waiting for us. It has recuperative functions. For example, a cop hails me on the street at ma’am or Miss, if I refuse to turn (which I do) then I inadvertently answer another hail (criminal, fucking dyke, disgusting tranny, or something else).

    3. So what do we do? I don’t think it is useful to tell people that that the desire to lose weight makes them less feminist or unfeminist. I actually think that this is not a feminist move at all but rather a policing of feminism and bodies. I do think it is useful to educate people about the work of ideology and discourse. At the same time we need to find a way to change the discourse around bodies. This strikes me as a possible conundrum. We need to change discourse without blaming or policing individuals.
    We need to value bodies and desires of all shapes. We need to respect people’s decisions. We need to recognize that all of us are haunted by ideology and that we negotiate this in ways that make sense to each of us.

    4. We need to be careful. Prescriptions for how feminists should feel about their bodies seems eerily similar to second wave arguments that marked butch/femme couples as not feminist.

  12. Celia Jane says:

    Serena-

    I belonged to Weight Watchers for two years. I ended up gaining 20 pounds when all was said and done. Weight Watchers is a diet. Diets don’t work.

    I have made progress by thinking real hard and choosing to make small changes in my eating habits (i.e. stop buying sweets but buying as much of the best quality fruits I want, oddly my grocery bill hasn’t changed – junk food is expensive).

    Determinig how much of my daily activities are aerobic and slowly increasing that amount by making small changes. One change is to walk up and down all isles of a supermarket twice before I even star shoping.

    The results are slow. The first year I stopped gaining weight, the second year I lost twenty pounds.

    I don’t know what the furture holds. I have some handicaps when it comes to losing weight. I take medication that causes weight gain or slows the metabolism and I am past menopause, which also slows the metabolism. I hope there is something my doctor and I can do about the meds.

    I urge you to skip Weight Watchers and go with small changes in eating and activity habits. The weight will come of agonizingly slowly, but it will stay off and you won’t be subjecting yourself to weight gain-plus when you go off of the diet.

  13. “I also think that we should support people when they choose to make healthier eating decisions in order to improve their overall well-being.”

    I believe that everyone should have access to and real, impartial knowledge about healthy food. However, dieting cannot be conflated with “healthier eating decisions.” In fact, just about every weight-loss diet I’ve ever seen is incredibly UNhealthy.

    And you’ve also left out one of the biggest points that annoy us fat-positive people the most: what about all those people who’s bodies are seen as “normal,” “thin,” or even “skinny,” yet have incredibly poor eating habits? Why aren’t we going on about them? Or does eating low-quality food only cause you harm when it brings on Teh Deathfatz?

    “Dieting is not anti-feminist”

    Yes, it is. It’s also anti-human. It may be a deal that a feminist woman has to make to get by in the world (so please, don’t get on me about how I’m trying to revoke your official feminist cards), but that does not make it any less anti-feminist.

    Dieting DOES NOT equal “healthy eating habits.” It sure as hell does not equal “healthy overall lifestyle.” It is also, as many commenters above have already pointed out, a waste of time for about 85-90% of all people who try it.

    You want my experience of dieting? OK: every single diet I’ve ever been on has either resulted in no weight loss, or some weight loss, followed swiftly by weight gain the second I began to eat like enough food to keep my body functioning properly again. I know now the mechanics of that cycle, which any of you who think you want to go on a weight-loss diet should look into.

    And no matter how much weight I lost–and I did get down to the point where my hip bones jutted out even when I was standing up–I never liked my body, I never felt more secure and confident in myself, and it never, ever made me happier.

    The only that’s made me happier, in fact, has been accepting who I am, learning the truth about dieting and other “lifestyle change” lies, and making a conscious decision to change my relationship with food.

    That’s a road I’m still on, but at least I don’t agonise over every mouthful of food, the way dieting teaches you to. If I want to eat the fucking bar of chocolate, I eat it. And you know what? I eat a hell of a lot less of them than when I was dieting. Simply because I don’t beat myself up over them, and do not spend my life obsessing over food I “shouldn’t” eat.

    Nor do I live constantly looking into that future where, when I just get that weight off, I’ll suddenly be fixed and my life will be better.

    Look, I know I don’t know you, and I’m certainly not a psychologist. I also know I’m going to catch about 10 kinds of hell over this, but, wtf, you’re the one who mentioned your experience with anorexia in connection with this issue, so I’m damned if I understand why we shouldn’t take it into account: I’m very bothered by the fact that you chose to illustrate this post with the typical headless, anonymised, depersonalised female body (which I’m guessing we’re supposed to find disgustingly fat). God knows I get the body-hatred we get pounded into us, but it seems to me that you’re still really struggling. And, if weight-loss diets aren’t advisable for someone without a history of eating disorders, how much worse must it be for someone with a history?

  14. Rachel Sherwyn says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Serena! I was anorexic during my last two years of college and first semester of grad school. I have been in recovery for the past 4 years and for the last year have been a therapist at an outpatient eating disorder treatment facility. Thus, I have quite a bit to say on this topic considering I work with not only anorexics and bulimics, but binge eaters/compulsive over-eaters as well. Our motto is similar to yours, Serena. I consistently tell me clients that it is not about one’s weight, but about one’s behaviors. Ultimately, it is about mental and physical health, and we work with registered dieticians and psychiatrists to help us give those gifts to our clients. I think that being healthy and happy is the most feminist statement a person can make :)

    • freewomyn says:

      Rachel, thanks for your comment. I think that offering people the support they need to work through their issues is really the feminist thing to do. While I agree that people are beautiful at any size, if someone wants to change their eating habits in order to make positive, healthy changes in their lives, then they deserve support – not chastisement. It sounds like your clinic is pretty amazing.

  15. Hello –
    Thoughtful post! My take on it is that actions we take to improve our health (eating better, exercising) do not need to (and often don’t) result in weight loss to do the job of making you healthier (this is backed by much research). People who improve their health habits and don’t lose weight *still* benefit from increased exercise and eating better.

    The dangers of tying weight loss to improved health habits, in my opinion are:
    -losing touch with our hunger and satiety signals…using prescribed diets to determine how much and when we eat can increase our distrust of food and our ability to monitor our own food intake.
    -when weight loss is tied to healthy habits, there is a danger of the healthy habits being abandoned when the weight doesn’t come off…or doesn’t come off to the extent that the dieter would like. Then, the health benefits of the new habits are lost.
    -we lose the message that thin people *also* need to exercise and eat better! I know many thin folks who have bad health habits, but because health is so tied to weight in our minds, many thin people assume they have it all covered without eating well or exercising.

    As to your question about feminism and intentional weight loss…I am of two minds. One one hand, I do think there is a connection between our fear of body fat and the oppression of women. On the other hand, I fully support women in making their own decisions about their body. There very few simple yes or no answers in feminism, since making blankets statements for all women is tricky. You are (obviously) the best judge of what your body needs!

    cheers,
    Sydney

  16. androgyne29 says:

    sorry, but there is nothing ‘feminist’ about trying to make your body into something that men enjoy consuming more. they get an orgasm, you get a urinary tract infection. you give up foods you like, they gorge on the cheeseburgers and get to look as fat as they like while critiquing women’s bodies. you take pills so they can stick it in and mess up your hormones (so you possibly get even fatter) so they can get further pleasure from porking you without a condom. you spend hours shaving and plucking and polishing and saying “I do it for ME!!!” while, in reality, if you went out without all of those ‘beautification rituals’, both men and women would be nasty to you, while men get to walk around in all their baggy-clothed, hairy, bald, un-made-up glory and still be considered “attractive”, while not having their “attractiveness” matter that much in the first place. just think about why so few women are brilliant artists, musicians, writers, athletes, CEOs…sure one of the answers is sexism, but another is the fact that they spend most of their time trying to look beautiful for men (and getting preggers when they finally ‘achieve’ the ‘goal’ of ‘landing’ one of these prized creatures) while men pursue hobbies, interests, careers, and artistic goals. to me feminism is about leveling the playing field between the miserable world of being female and the wonderful world of being male, and dieting is NOT the way to do it. until men care as much about the way they appear to women as women care about the way they appear to men, ‘feminism’ doesn’t exist except as a reviled, failed ex-movement (ie “bra-burner jokes). There is a happy medium out there, and it is performed by GAY MEN, who care about how they look but not to the exclusion of the rest of their lives. They care about how their partners perceive them, but not to the point of faking orgasm and taking dangerous hormones and putting up with covert and overt abuse just so they can have “their man”. They often help each other out, as opposed to women, who treat other women like shit, comment on their looks (if you’re hetero why the hell should you care what other women look like?) and commonly say stuff like “all women are bitches”, “I don’t get along with women”, “she’s fat and ugly euuu i’m going to steal her boyfriend.” In other words, one doesn’t have to be a repellent bald hairy self-serving troglodyte like most straight men, but one doesn’t have to be a pedicure-obsessed vapid stuck-in-high-school bore of a straight woman (whose conversational topics are limited to babies, shopping, and weight loss) either.

  17. come on. let’s be honest here.
    of course fat is a “Feminist” issue (and I despise the word feminist, because i’m not trying to make the world better for feminines, i’m trying to make the world better for all genders that aren’t misogynist masculine cissexual hetero males or their misogynist gay male counterparts). But forgive the digression…it is an issue for those of us not born males because people who go through female puberty NATURALLY DEVELOP what our society considers ‘fat’ in the hips, ass, tits, etc and mushiness in the arms and legs instead of the “lean musculature” that most men have even if they eat ten cheeseburgers a day. Also, many women are SHORTER THAN MEN and the shorter you are, the more body fat you have, generally. Look at little people, particularly the women–ever see a little woman who is skinny? nope, of course not. Given that the idea for “women” in this society is basically the body of an adolescent male with a bit more fat in the chest area (through implants perhaps or genes) as well as the hatred for fat in this society and it is easy to link hatred for women and hatred for fat. Most men who like women who AREN’T skeletons with tits see them as smushy weak jiggly receptacles to be abused. The female body is despised, fat is despised, it all goes together. And sorry to all of you annoying women who find the Venus of Willendorf to be a great role model, not everyone born female who isn’t a six foot tall model-type WANTS to be “fertile” or some knd of mushy submissive. Let me also add that trans men who aren’t skinny suffer as well, because they aren’t seen as “real men” (and therefore not as “real humans who aren’t just around to have babies and be smushy and pliable”) unless they too are tall and skeletal. The world worships the tall and skeletal because they–duh–look like what the world worshps in general–men in the prime of their lives.

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