Sunday, November 27, 2011

How Motherhood, Feminism, and Self-Respect are Complicating My Views on Weight

As a few of my previous posts have hinted, I'm having a hard time unwrapping some complications of weight loss and body image. Though I can't say that I've arrived at an answer, I have at least found some other people who are concerned with the same issue and--with the help of their perspectives--feel prepared to better articulate the problem. 

Some background: just about every single woman (and most of the men) in my immediate and extended family struggle with their weight and suffer from diseases that have been correlated with weight: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, arterial blockage, sleep apnea. I grew up on pretty standard "down home" cooking, heavy in starches and butter, light on the veggies. I've listened to women I respect and love shame themselves and others over how they look. I've watched them starve themselves, drop fifty pounds, and gain back sixty. 

I have struggled with my weight since I was 14 or 15. I wasn't very active as an adolescent, and--though I did in some abstract way want to weigh less and look "better"--I didn't really put much effort into changing my habits or my appearance. When I was 17, however, I threw myself into losing weight with a (perhaps disturbing) vigor. It's a long story, but I was struggling with a lot of emotional issues and felt like I was losing control over everything--my body became the one thing I could control. I didn't starve myself, but I did subsist primarily on Lean Pockets and Special K cereal. I spent many afternoons running on a treadmill, and I dropped down to 120 pounds, far less than I've weighed at any other time before or since. In college, I cultivated healthier eating and exercise habits, both of which I maintained with varying degrees of success. I'd go through periods where I ate really well, but hardly worked out; times where I worked out regularly, but ate nothing but junk; and fleeting moments where I maintained the balance consistently. My weight would fluctuate about 15 pounds, but I was never thin. 

Motherhood has sharpened the complications present in this relationship between food, exercise, and my body--not because I need to lose the "baby weight." I actually weigh less now than I did when I got pregnant. No, I'm more attuned to this tangled mess because of two things: breastfeeding and having a daughter. Breastfeeding made me much more aware of what I put into my body. Food took on a different purpose; I wasn't just feeding myself, but my baby. If I decided to eat nothing but junk, I was making that decision for someone else, too. And if my baby deserved healthy food, then didn't my body deserve the same treatment? Knowing that I have a daughter who is going to get bombarded with messages about her looks and her worth and how the two are intertwined has placed a great sense of responsibility on my shoulders. It is important to me that my daughter sees me as a role model who respects her body, both by treating it right and by loving it for what it is. 

On top of these personal complications come the more general philosophical questions of how weight and body image are tied into feminism and patriarchy. I've heard (and listened to, honestly) the Fat Acceptance arguments that say attacks on obesity are attacks on people who are obese, that our culture is one full of fat hatred and intolerance, that this oppression is uncalled for and prejudicial. I agree with a lot of these claims, and--even when I don't agree with all of the details--I sympathize with the people who feel victimized by this oppression and would never want to feel like I was supporting a system that helped oppress them. 

So, it is with these complications that I approached the following articles, looking for some answers:

Can a Feminist Diet? Kjerstin Gruys asks this question as someone who identifies as a feminist, a recovered anorexic, and someone on a diet. She discusses her own struggles with the intersection between feminism and body image and talks about embracing the Health at Every Size philosophy, but not without problems: 
 I’m going to try to judge my “success” based on my behaviors, instead of my weight.  My goal is to consciously re-engage in healthful eating habits and joyful activity, and then accept my body size and shape wherever it settles.  As much as I’m still tempted to “get skinny,” I know I can live with this, and (more importantly) I know my body can live through it.But I still hope I lose some weight. 
I love the honesty here, and I think that it gets to the heart of my problem with the whole thing. If I tell you that I'm working out and eating healthier without any regard for the way my clothes fit or what the number on the scale says, I'm lying. Is that wrong? And--if it is wrong--does that motivation (however slight) negate the benefit of the healthy changes I'm making in my lifestyle?

Don't You Realize Fat is Unhealthy? Kate Harding of Shapely Prose lays out 10 principles that inform her fat acceptance philosophy. Here are some that seemed particularly important to me:

Obesity is not synonymous with "eating crap and not exercising":
There are thin people who eat crap and don’t exercise — and are thus putting their health at risk — and there are fat people who treat their bodies very well but remain fat. Really truly. 
7. Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Fat people are human beings.
8. Even fat people who are unhealthy still deserve dignity and respect. Still human beings. See how that works? 
I've seen a lot of comments about this topic that bring up health as not being a moral imperative.  And I agree. I don't think that I have the right to judge someone else's worth or beauty or anything else based on their health and habits. But does that mean that my own health can't be a moral imperative for me? Aren't my own eating and exercise habits not only my own to judge but also an important part of my discipline and self-care? If I choose to eat a certain way or exercise a certain amount with the goal of losing weight, am I participating in a system that oppresses other people? Even if I have no judgments about what those other people are doing?

An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement- Greta Christina crafts a letter to the fat positive movement that takes to task some of the short-comings of the general tone of the movement and suggests a better fat-positive manifesto. I haven't had anyone comment on this blog about the fat-positive movement with anything other than respect and sincerity (hopefully we can keep that up on this post, too!), but I have seen some conversations about fat-positivity get downright ugly in a hurry. Christina felt dismissed and attacked when she wanted to lose weight after a knee injury. She felt like her concerns over her quality of life weren't heard. Her entire post is worth a read, but here's an excerpt from her suggested manifesto:
We understand that there are health risks associated with being fat. There are health risks associated with many things -- things we have control over, such as playing rugby; things we have no control over, such as carrying the breast cancer gene; and things we have limited control over to differing degrees, such as where we live. We think it is reasonable for people to decide for themselves whether they are willing to live with these risks, or whether they want to take action to reduce those risks -- whether that's by quitting rugby, having a pre-emptive mastectomy, moving, or losing weight. Both fatness and weight loss can involve health risks and loss of quality of life, and each individual must determine for themselves their own cost/benefit analysis of those risks and that quality. No person can decide that for another.
The Quest for Healthy Body Image  This is from Erika Nicole Kendall's blog A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss. I just found this blog the other day, and I am loving the intelligence and perspective. In this particular post, Kendall (who promotes a very practical and health-based method to losing weight) discusses body image:

First of all, I don’t punish myself for not being where I want to be. I don’t look at myself as less than, because I have a goal that actually requires work to obtain (and maintain, at that) and it won’t happen overnight. I can be realistic about what I want to change without thinking there’s something wrong with who I am today… especially to the point where I use words like “hate” against myself. My body also isn’t enough to make me look at the person I am as being “a less than,” because there’s more to me than that. I’ll put forth the effort toward making me the person I desire to be – because I am worth that much – but I still embrace who I am as an amazing, loving and caring woman. It’s ok to have a goal with change in mind, but I’d never tell a little girl that she was unappealing or add to her insecurity because of it. And really, deep down inside, we are all just that fragile. It’s ok to admit that.

So, what have I learned from these perspectives? 

I think that we live in a world where we are simultaneously bombarded with airbrushed models who portray an unrealistic and unhealthy standard of physical beauty and messages that the obesity crisis is dooming us. I think that taking care of our bodies is important, but that we have the right (and the responsibility) to make the decisions about what that means for us. I think that, as a parent, I have the duty to be kind to my body so that my daughter might learn to be kind to hers. I think that eating real food and getting exercise makes me feel more alive and alert, and I should listen to that response. I think that my body is mine, and--while I should (and do) respect and appreciate its strength and abilities--I have the right to alter its appearance without being forced to feel like a representative for an entire subsection of the population. 

What do you think? 


  1. The main thought that pops in to my head when I read this is that, particularly in the USA, this really only becomes a problem when it comes to healthcare, and who will pay for it. I can certainly see an argument for "you're very welcome to, and I won't judge you, but I won't expect to shoulder the burden for your medical bills either". I realise that this argument covers a lot of things other than obesity, but I do understand the argument. In a country which is more socially democratic, you can be generous about providing support (incl healthcare) for unwed mothers, and drug addicts and all sorts of "judged" people, but in a country where support of all kinds is scarce... yeah, I can understand the argument.

  2. For me it boils down to this, why do you want to lose weight? Once you can answer that (not necessarily to me but to yourself) then you can start to unpack it all and examine the elements that need examining and challenging.

  3. Bri, it's so funny that you say that. My husband and I were talking after I wrote this post and trying to answer that very question. And I didn't really find any answers that were satisfying. I have some vague notions of "wanting to be more fit," but that's not specific enough to motivate me. Anytime I get to an answer that's connected with physical appearance ("I want to be smaller" "I want to fit into a size 8 jeans"), I feel guilty and like those reasons shouldn't matter. But you're right, until I can answer that question in some satisfying way, I'm going to continue to struggle with this.

  4. For what it is worth, I don't think you should feel guilty (but you do and your feelings are always worth acknowledging and sometimes critically engaging with). It is difficult being a feminist and living in our body conscious/size conscious/fat hating world. You say your reasons shouldn't matter but obviously they DO matter to you. What would be worth examining would be WHY they matter. Why do you feel the need to be smaller? Why is size 8 more acceptable to you than size 12 (or whatever other size)?

    I have been a Fat activist for 5 years and I still battle with this stuff. It isn't easy and it doesn't come quickly for most people.

  5. As a feminist, I definitely struggle with body image and weight issues. In 2007 I lost 20 pounds by making healthier substitutions in my diet and doing Pilates - something I love - every morning. I felt really good and energetic and healthy.

    Then I had a baby, which triggered Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, a type of hypothyroidism that is an auto-immune disease. I will be on synthetic thyroid hormone for the rest of my life now. No matter how much I exercised or watched what I ate, the weight just would not come off, and I was faced with the question: can I be happy as-is? If I still feel more energetic and healthy, but no longer wear a size 6 and probably never will again, can that be enough motivation for me to keep exercising and eating right?

    The answer varied depending on my mood. Now I'm pregnant with #2, and wondering what will happen after this one is born. Will I be too busy and distracted with two kids to care about what size my jeans are? Will I have the energy to be a good health role model for my sons? And, again, can I maintain a healthy lifestyle for its own sake, even if I never lose another pound? We shall see...