Quote of the day: Classic edition

The representation of unrestrained appetite as inappropriate for women, the depiction of female eating as a private, transgressive act, make restriction and denial of hunger central features of the construction of femininity and set up the compensatory binge as a virtual inevitability. Such restrictions on appetite, moreover, are not merely about food intake. Rather, the social control of female hunger operates as a practical ‘discipline’ (to use Foucault‘s term) that trains female bodies in the knowledge of their limits and their possibilities. Denying oneself food becomes the central micro-practice in the education of feminine self-restraint and containment of impulse.

–Susan Bordo, “Hunger as Ideology” (from Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body)

I first encountered Susan Bordo’s work during my first stint in grad school, when I was 23 and teaching composition to first-year undergrads. Her essay “Hunger as Ideology” was included in the composition reader I used, and I assigned it to my students. Bordo, a feminist philosopher, analyzes numerous food advertisements in close detail (reproducing the print ads in the essay) to show the cultural messages that underpin the selling of food. Given that ads rely on pre-existing cultural tropes to get their messages across, they can tell us about the ideological underpinnings of our culture. Some of Bordo’s findings:

-Voracious hunger is considered a sign of manliness.

-Hunger for food and desire for sexuality are constructed as analogous, but this is a gendered analogy. When women are targeted, “their hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for their sexual appetite.” When men are targeted, the metaphor goes in reverse: eating delicious food is depicted as a sexual conquest. (The examples for this include hilariously awful ads of men whispering sweet nothings to their Betty Crocker desserts.)

-Female hunger is represented in terms of misogynistic fear: sex is imagined as a form of eating in which the woman consumes and destroys a male object of desire.

-The only acceptable female desire in ads is the desire to provide food for others.

-Women are depicted eating in private, secretly, and this act is explicitly represented as a “substitute for human love.”

I can’t speak for my undergraduate students, but this essay blew my fucking mind the first time I read it. The reason it was so affecting was that these messages were so obvious once Bordo pointed them out, glaring even, but I had not even seen them as “messages” until then. That’s just what ads do! Even as a committed feminist who had been through periods of fat and thin throughout my life, and who had experienced both self-loathing and self-acceptance to some extent, I hadn’t yet taken the blinkers off. The connection between hunger and desire, especially, can be subterranean: the ideal of thinness, of course, depends on you having the goal of a certain kind of fuckability — but even eating itself is depicted as an act of sensual abandon instead of a necessity for every living thing on earth. As such, men are commended for having hearty appetites — boys will be boys — and women are told to keep their mouths (and their knees) shut.

The quote I highlighted above is the one that was most illuminating to me, because it says (in my non-theory translation) that dieting is the ultimate act of repressive femininity. Essentially, what Bordo argues is that not eating when your body needs food is participating in your own marginalization — but it’s marginalization dressed up as a sexual ideal. This, I think, is why trolls and anti-FA jerkwads are so obsessed with the idea that we want them all to have sex with fatties: fat is, on some unacknowledged level, about sex in our culture.

Not incidentally, this is one of the reasons I suggested on the stop dieting thread that buying a new dress is one way to keep yourself from dieting. As I said there: because part of “feeling fat” for me is really about feeling unfeminine, it often helps me to remember that femininity is an act — and it’s an act I can access in ways that don’t require me to be thinner… even though you don’t have to be pretty, it’s okay to want to be pretty. If part of wanting to diet is feeling like you’re ugly and unfeminine, then putting on a dress and heels and a bright red lipstick can remind you that femininity is an act that you choose whether to perform, and not an intrinsic quality that you desperately lack.

I didn’t know it at the time, but teaching “Hunger as Ideology” was my first step toward FA. It hasn’t always been a smooth road between that moment and this, and I needed to examine a lot more of my own assumptions and start paying a hell of a lot more attention to the rhetoric of beauty culture and the obesity epidemic, but that essay is what got me started. To borrow from Liss borrowing from The Matrix, it’s when I took the red pill. It’s when I started to see “the social control of female hunger” as something that was more than just personal, about more than just my one unshrinkable body. It made me angry. And it made me hungry.

87 thoughts on “Quote of the day: Classic edition

  1. I totally have been rereading the library copy, which actually has xeroxed pages in it because somebody ripped some out! So I need to buy it for realz too.

  2. Have you read “The Edible Woman”? It is a novel by Margaret Atwood that explores some of the issues surrounding control, sex/relationships, and women…I read it quite a while ago, so I don’t remember everything, but this post reminded me of it.

  3. “…not eating when your body needs food is participating in your own marginalization — but it’s marginalization dressed up as a sexual ideal.”

    Yes, yes, and again yes. This is getting pasted somewhere, especially the first part, for me to read to every day. Every time that wicked voice in my head tries to get me to diet (especially so I look hotter for Mr. Yorke *eyeroll, I know*) I will remind myself not to participate.

    Thanks for this. And what a great defense to the jerwads you speak of – I don’t have to be sexually attractive to them (read: hungry, deprived) to be.

  4. *gleeees @ nerdpost*

    Yes, yes, yes. I am too brain dead to add anything since I am currently reading Anthony Synnott’s “The Body Social”, but yes!

  5. Oh, yes yes yes. I have such an academic crush on Susan Bordo. Thank you for this. I got into a comment war with a stupidhead on another blog (not Bitch Ph.D — one that I don’t think many people here read) and I needed this dose of sanity.

  6. A Sarah, if it makes you feel any better, someone on Shakesville just accused me of plagiarizing from Wikipedia! I’m choosing to believe that it’s because my comment was just so darn informative.

  7. I have been meaning to read Bordo for eons… and whaddaya know, I’m not busy at work right now. *sneaks over to the library*

  8. This, I think, is why trolls and anti-FA jerkwads are so obsessed with the idea that we want them all to have sex with fatties: fat is, on some unacknowledged level, about sex in our culture.

    You could also turn this around to say that these same idiots are obsessed with the idea that we accept ourselves as we are, which means that there are less “hot” (according to them) men and women for them to lust over. Like, “how dare you be a gross, disgusting fattie—now I can’t find you attractive enough to screw!”

  9. AS someone who’s fallen into this whole feminism thing sidways, I’ve never heard of her. Now have to go read her…

    Very cool post/quote

  10. dieting is the ultimate act of repressive femininity

    Frankly, I think this is putting it mildly. Starving and denial of pleasure which in this culture = virtue (for females) is the ultimate act. Dieting is only a shadow of that act.

  11. Right here. I think it’s a cheap shot rather than a serious accusation. *eyeroll* My original comment is here, which I posted mostly because someone implied that Jonathan Swift was a Victorian, and my Norton Anthology was offended.

  12. I love Susan Bordo, so much. Sadly, she teaches at the University of Kentucky, which doesn’t even have a full gender/women’s studies department. Such a waste! Move somewhere awesome, so I can be your student, Susan Bordo!

  13. Faith, you’re right; it would be more accurate to say that dieting is the most pernicious and widespread act of repressive femininity. The “goal” is starvation and denial of pleasure, but the way most women actually live that goal is through the less extreme version, dieting.

  14. What a pile of AWESOME. Even my cat agrees it’s awesome (or I guess she does, because otherwise, why would she be pawing my leg?).

    Oddly enough, the professor I studied Swift with was also a gender-studies-in-literature teacher, so she’d probably love the comments in this thread.

  15. Thanks for this.

    I really, really didn’t realize how ingrained this idea is in me until I gave birth to my daughter just a few weeks ago. My son is 4, and I remember being frantic when he was a baby about his gaining enough weight and eating enough. Moreover, when someone would make a comment about his being “a big boy” some such, I would beam with pride and feel all happy inside that my milk was making him so big and strong. With my daughter, I get defensive when people tell me how big she is. I want to say, “She’s not eating too much!”, as if a baby even could. It’s insidious and makes me doubly freaked out about how I am going to navigate this minefield with her as she grows.

  16. Another great quote (this one from the book’s introduction) that is relevant to our recent HAES discussion (among others):

    in my view, feminist cultural criticism is not a blueprint for the conduct of personal life (or political action, for that matter) and does not empower (or require) individuals to ‘rise above’ their culture or to become martyrs to feminist ideals. It does not tell us what to do [...] — whether to lose weight or not, wear makeup or not, lift weights or not. Its goal is edification and understanding, enhanced consciousness of the power, complexity, and systemic nature of culture, the interconnected webs of its functioning. It is up to the reader to decide how, when, and where (or whether) to put that understanding to further use, in the particular, complicated, and ever-changing context that is his or her life and no one else’s.

  17. Must…read…
    Actually, I was just re-reading “The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness,” by Kim Chernin, and it touches on the same issue. It’s framed more as a fear and resentment of the female body rooted in the universal human experience of infantile helplessness and neediness, with the mother in the position of power. Her theory is that everyone – men and women – wants control of the mother’s body.

  18. I know what I’m requesting from the public library this week . . . .

    This post blew my mind on a number of different levels. Best thing I have read so far today.

  19. I wonder if I can stomach reading Bordo alongside some Pollan, or if my head would explode from too much consciousness about how The System Fucking Sucks.

    Awesome post, as usual.

  20. Yup, definitely one of those clicking “AHA!” moments here. And it’s timely, too. I didn’t participate in the “Call of the Diet” thread because I’ve been crazy busy lately but I am really there and this is the kind of smart, insightful dissection of the issue that snaps me right out of it.

  21. “Even my cat agrees it’s awesome” Hahaha!! Cute!! My cat agrees too!!

    Too many books to read!! I’m a newbie to the FA thing and I just started reading Fat!So? I’m looking forward to it. Reading about Bordo’s work makes me miss my college days. I took a couple Women’s Studies classes dealing with pop culture, which obviously focuses a lot on women’s physical appearance and desirability.

    I think the fat on a female body is intimidating because it emphasizes our bodies’ most “sexualized” parts–boobs, butt, legs, hips. The female body is mysterious and powerful no matter what size, and then you add fat to the equation, and misogynists react with fear. I wish I could go beyond that, but my brain is tired from crunching numbers all day!!

  22. Heh, I’m reading “The Fat Jesus” right now.

    Let’s just say “Thank the Lord” for washable paint…my head keeps exploding with every chapter.

  23. Awesome.

    And totally right.

    One of the things that disappears when the body is malnourished or undernourished is sex drive. Starvation (self-inflicted or not) diverts your attention from other physical drives because the body is not being sustained and can’t waste that kind of energy. People who are hungry all the time think about sex less and enjoy it less. That should logically lead to the conclusion that people who are healthy and not suffering from food scarcity would be more interested in sex and enjoy it more, but in our society sexiness is practically carved in stone as equating with thinness, regardless of the medical truth that food hunger takes away from sex.

    I have… a lot of thoughts on this subject since my body issues are intimately tied to sex, but I’ve tried to compose four different comments and none of them are coming together. *sigh* But this is a hugely important connection and one I’d love to talk about more.

  24. DRST, that’s because the male ideal is the sexual conqueror, and the female ideal is the passive vessel for the male seed.

    A woman that is half-starved and artificially keeps herself unhealthily thin through restricted diet etc, subsequently having diminished sexual desire herself embodies the sexually passive woman, especially as her sexuality is limited to striving to match an ever changing idealised image, and trying to be a perfect receptacle for the male gaze.

  25. Amazing post, and I am on my way to the library right after now to pick up that book. The topics of popular culture, consumerism, and beauty of fascinated me for years, and it has increasingly become more obvious to me as I sit and watch tv how unrealistic and dangerous it is to be sucked into that way of thinking. Or as you put it, marginlizing yourself by buying into the messages of dieting and suppressing your hunger.

    Brilliant — truly.

  26. Ooh! Forgot one!

    She also embodies the “virtuous woman” out of the virgin/whore thingymajiggaty, because the ability to diet excessively and control physical urges of hunger is seen as virtuous.

  27. Bunny Mazonas – yes, I know that our culture creates the idea of conqueror and conquered although that’s a Western ideal that was put into place later on in time, when in earlier eras the power and the drive for sex were greater with the female (sacred). It’s not inherent in men, though, so I wouldn’t say it was a universal “male ideal.”

    And thinness was not part of the self-abegnation expected of women until the early 20th century. Up until then the beauty ideal was voluptuousness. It was at the same time that women were fighting for the vote and beginning to work outside the home for wages and beginning to fracture the economic structure that left them totally dependent on marriage to avoid poverty that suddenly the beauty standards flipped 180 degrees into figures that resembled a teenage boy’s.

    It wasn’t until then that the sexual purity and control of wanton urges required by society to contain the inherent lust of females expanded to include limitations on eating as well – another way to contain women who were earning their own money and therefore could buy their own food. Western culture shifted into a model that convinces women to feel powerful when we don’t spend our own hard earned and still unequal pay on good food solely for ourselves. Self-denial has long been held up as an ideal for women, but it’s been pushed to terrifying heights in the last 40 or so years.

    Eating is about power. Food and hunger is about power, just as much as sex and sexuality in our culture are about power, and our relationship with food and denial of our drives is closely tied to denial and abrogation of female sexuality. Which is the point Bordo is making in her writing.

    “If we can’t bring ourselves to order dessert in a restaurant, how are we going to bring ourselves to ask for a raise?” – Susan Jane Gilman. *g*

  28. “The “goal” is starvation and denial of pleasure, but the way most women actually live that goal is through the less extreme version, dieting.”

    *nodnod*

    We’ve talked about it here before, yeah?

    About how troll-type men like smaller/thinner women because they appear more easily controllable. (Highly amusing when they are proved wrong — the examples of Mean Asian Girl and Dolly Parton come to mind.)

    About how as more women entered the workplace as a result of the feminist movement (although some o f us have always been there, movement or no), the thinner the classic working woman icon became to please. “Oh, we’re not threatening you because we can out-earn and outwork you! Look how skinny we are! And look how we’re willing to starve to please you!”

    About the relentless bang-on of the “smaller” woman as “more feminine”.

    About how your willingness to deny yourself (for their future children, I guess, since they’re automatically such worthy dads *eyeroll*) is emblematic of your female virtue/giving nature blah blah blah … and that your willingness to diet and be small is emblematic of your willingness to please them at the expense of yourself.

    Plus, literally? If you don’t feed yourself (and frequently if you don’t keep the muscular/Cv system in OK condition — notice how resentful some men/trolls get when women get too good at sports — I have a horrible anecdote about a remark a short trollish attorney pretending to be my friend made about my modern dancer arms when I had them) enough to put up a real fight if they start some BS, or don’t fulfill their own relationship/family/societal responsibilities — they get to do what they want while you sit there, too weak to deal.

    Yeah. This is all familiar.

  29. Ah sorry DRST, I didn’t mean to imply “male ideal” as in what men actually like, but as in what men are expected to like. Remind me not to write stuff when that sleeeepy.

  30. I totally have been rereading the library copy, which actually has xeroxed pages in it because somebody ripped some out!

    My library copy is missing pages too. Really poor binding? Or some vendetta against its contents?

  31. Susan Bordo is amazing.

    Another book to read is Caroline Knapp’s Appetites: Why Women Want. Knapp (RIP) was definitely not a fat activist, though she interviews one in the book. Her description of her personal battle with anorexia and the psychology behind and culture of deprivation, restriction, anhedonia, and ascetism are wrenching and cogent.

  32. And thinness was not part of the self-abegnation expected of women until the early 20th century. Up until then the beauty ideal was voluptuousness.

    Bordo talks about that some in other chapters, how the extreme hourglass figure prized in the 19th century (and achieved mostly through corsetry) seems to symbolize a heightened commitment not to sexiness but to fertility, which emphasizes (in that context) the woman’s role as a mother. Whereas once women gained a foothold in the working world, the ideals changed such that women are supposed to have the “masculine” qualities of self-control and discipline (which they supposedly need to succeed in the workplace) but retain their “femininity” in the form of their shrinking figures. Bordo also notes that the last time the hourglass was idealized in our culture was in the 50s, which was an era in which women were supposed to LEAVE the workplaces they had entered during WWII and return to the role of mother and wife.

    One of the fascinating (and, I imagine, controversial) things Bordo discusses is the differing ways “female pathology” has played out in the latter 19th, early 20th, and late 20th centuries. She particularly examines the symbolism that seems to be at stake in hysteria, agoraphobia, and anorexia nervosa as illnesses that are seen primarily in women and around which the medical discourse is heavily gendered.

  33. Thanks for this post! I love the book and essay recommendations I’ve been getting here lately :)

  34. Great post AND comments.

    I agree with your hypothesis about trolls snarking on how they don’t want to have to have sex with fat women. It also seems to me that any time a marginalized group starts getting power certain dudes start screaming that they don’t want to be forced to cope with the sexuality of that marginalized group.

    Fat women, athletic women, business women — women who aren’t cracked out of the Budweiser mold — but also GBLT folks (from “don’t want guys hitting on me” to every Lola-fied shame joke out there), folks of different races, ages, and status levels (although there are special rules for class and gender and sex). I don’t notice the same thing with abilism per se (they’re going to get rights and start hitting on me/”our women”), but at the same time I wonder if that’s not because there’s already a inherently marginalizing sexual dialogue around people of different abilities.

  35. “femininity is an act you chose whether to perform” HOLY CRAP! Why in four years of college (including at least 2 women’s studies classes) did nobody phrase it that way to me before?

    That unpacks so much stuff in my head! THANK YOU!

  36. someone implied that Jonathan Swift was a Victorian

    I dunno why but the idea of Swift as a Victorian cracked me up. I’ll have to go read your clarification before I go on.

    fat is, on some unacknowledged level, about sex in our culture.

    I agree, but I think it goes further than that. I think another reason trolls and rabidly anti-FA people focus on sex is that heavy women are giving themselves permission to exist as something more than a sex object.. I think there’s truth to Susie Orbach’s idea that fat can give a person weight in the symbolic sense – presence, gravitas. A woman who refuses to play the dieting game is a threat because she expects people to take her ideas seriously, and because she demands the right to her own sexual pleasure instead of being merely the instrument of his.

  37. “fat is, on some unacknowledged level, about sex in our culture.” What is fat? Abundance, plenty, traditionally (but not so much now) wealth, all things that, when you have them, make you harder to control.

    And sex is about control in our culture, as Arwen points out. Who’s the top and who’s the bottom, regardless of the pairing? Who puts the moves on and who submits. Men, who have benefited for eons from being in control of sex, understand on some level exactly how much it has gained them; which is why they’re terrified by non-het-male people claiming their sexuality, and their appetites.

  38. My absolute favorite line of Bordo’s when dissecting media/advertising images of food and eating was “Men eat, and women prepare.” I read this book a few years ago, but it still resonates.

  39. Bunny – no worries, I just didn’t want any of the fat accepting guys who might be lurking to feel unfairly cast in the role of the caveman. (Though, hey, if that’s your thing, folks, go for it ;)

    I think there’s truth to Susie Orbach’s idea that fat can give a person weight in the symbolic sense – presence, gravitas.

    shiloh – I agree with that. After all, powerful people “throw their weight around” which is harder to do when all you’ve eaten all day is a Slim Fast shake and a Luna bar.

    I was thinking about this while I was exercising this evening and really, there are three things connected here: food, sex and speech. In the most repressive forms of patriarchal culture, women aren’t supposed to open their mouths except to sing lullabyes or suck cock. A woman who opens her mouth to speak up for herself, or to eat food she has gained for herself without male money, or do anything but serve a man and his children, is transgressing the lines. That’s why the trolls and misogynists of the world lash out with the “You’re too ugly to fuck, nobody will marry you, you pathetic fat dyke I hope you get hit with a rock and die alone” crap. It’s an attack premised on their conception of why women exist, and they think saying those things cuts to the heart of what they mistakenly think women really are supposed to want. I’m being extreme in my generalizations here, but really I think that sheer terror of their paradigm of what women are supposed to do with their mouths underlies a lot of hatred towards women (and LGBT folks, if you extend the metaphor slightly).

  40. If we’re talking about books that blow your mind, then Kathleen LeBesco’s Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity must be mentioned. It is, in my opinion, the most spot on book about fat bodies, and begs to be read alongside her co-edited anthology Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression.

    Unlike Bordo, Orbach, and Chernin, these books focus on fat people exclusively, and for me, that makes a big difference. I’m a huge fan of Bordo, Judith Butler, and all the feminist philosophers who caused a sea change in how we view bodies of many identities, but I also wish scholars who have a more specific focus on fat bodies got as much attention as they deserve.

  41. I *love* Bordo!!! I taught a gender and sexuality course a million years ago, and she is relatively easy for undergrads to access, and fun to teach. Thanks for this post.

  42. It also plays out in physical dynamics, doesn’t it? Like someone said above, the appearance of strength is excluded by the current feminine ideal (perhaps this is why women who weight-lift in the course of their exercise are derided as unfeminine?).

    I think the common observation that dieting and thinness are a way of making a person disappear, become invisible, both as a physical person and as a person with a personality and individual thought is spot on here, since others have also commented at length about the mental havoc dieting plays in your head, how obsessive it becomes, how dull women’s lives become when they are centered around the denial of food.

    It’s another way to deny women as individuals in terms of personal presence, by which I mean the force that you, as a person, can exert in and of being a person in your own right, rather than an appearance or a set of ovaries or whatever.

    When you can’t think about anything but food, the food you’re having and most especially the food you’re not having, I think your personality does diminish. It becomes clouded, weaker, and other than irritating everyone around you by constantly talking about your diet (‘nagging wives’, ‘can’t shut her up’, anyone?), you also become easier to ignore, to tune out. It’s easier to look at a thin, heavily-dieting woman and think, ‘I’d hit that’ and move on satisfied with their acceptable figure, complete ignoring their personality (which, to be honest, isn’t really supposed to ‘interfere’ with their physical appearance), than it is to ignore a fat woman who doesn’t fit that acceptable image and has a commanding, confident, self-aware presence.

    It’s women as disembodied objects, it’s women as parts of a person, to separate and disconnect body from mind and body from thought, and as parts of a body — ‘good spots’, ‘problem spots’, to take a picture and decapitate them at the neck.

  43. the brains of the shapelings are filled to the brim with the most radical awesomeness!

    now, that i’ve gotten that outta the way….

    this post is spot on! i have both the bordo and chernin books and they have given me many an “a-ha!” moment…..i always thought i was “losing it”, when i thought that “controlling” food intake correlated with “controlling” women’s bodies, and thus who they intrinsically are…..

  44. First, Sweetmachine, I think I love you even more than I did before.

    Second, the first thing that leapt into my mind when I was musing about various examples of how this plays out in our society was Scarlett O’Hara, being forced to eat a meal BEFORE she went to a freaking barbecue because “classy ladies don’t eat like a hog” (seriously paraphrasing here). Then she got cinched into that barbaric corset that gave her the 17″ waist and had to pretend to be some wilting waif who didn’t eat, instead of the strong willed, intelligent woman she was. Totally playing into the stereotypes, because being herself was considered “trashy”.

    Follow that kind of logic right on up through history to my own early dating experiences where eating “too much” (i.e. anything more than diet soda and a bite or two of food) while out at dinner with a boy was a sure sign that one was a “pig” and guaranteed (according to common teenage girl wisdom in the 80′s) said boy would never ask you out again. Pretty, feminine girls didn’t eat. Eating too much, having an opinion, being smart, loud, big, openly sexual…the kiss of doom. Funny how no one ever noticed all of those attributes are intertwined.

    God. I spent the better part of my life sinking into the quicksand of this idiocy. The sad part is, girls are subjected to it even more now that we have Photoshop and half-witted “women’s magazines” to bombard them with what’s feminine.

  45. Funny how no one ever noticed all of those attributes are intertwined.

    Right! That’s why reading Bordo blew my mind — I was like OH OF COURSE as soon as I realized their interconnection.

  46. Okay, so, I hope this isn’t too off-topic, but I’ve been thinking for a while now about the many parallels between the Mom Olympics/mommy perfectionism/santimommy phenomenon and dieting/weight loss/physical fitness. And about how something like HAES would be a GREAT antidote to all the parenting manuals and philosophies and methods.

    Don’t have time to explain everything, but some of the parallels I see are roughly:

    Biological hunger = Biological instinct to protect one’s young. (I’m trying not to give in to gender essentialism here or to say that only female parents or biological parents have this instinct — just that, on a species-wide level, there’s some evolutionary/biological basis to being protective of one’s young.)

    Threatening aspect of female hunger = Threatening aspect of female caregivers wanting to protect their young (e.g., could spur mothers to be violent or angry, or to otherwise claim power for themselves in ways not socially permitted for women)

    Women’s hunger being permitted only in measured, dainty amounts and in private spaces = protecting one’s young being reinscribed by “experts” such that its appropriate outlet is to rigorously follow the dictates of the thus-and-such method and to do so only in spaces coded as domestic and private.

    Surrendering one’s hunger to weight loss experts = surrendering one’s relationship to one’s child to parenting experts.

    Splitting of food into good/bad = Individual mothers and children being looked at as all good or all bad.

    Moral panic over obesity = moral panic over mothers being “selfish” (always the criticism, no matter which parenting “camp” is issuing it)

    Classist aspects of obesity moral panic = classist fears about being one of “those mothers” whose child doesn’t achieve, who looks sloppy, who feeds their kid fast food, etc., and ending up with one of “those children” for whom the rest of society – not mothers – has to sigh and begrudgingly step in and help.

    Het-identified women pleasing “their men” by being skinny and therefore nonthreatening = ditto, except by being maternal and therefore nonthreatening.

    Okay, that’s all that I have time for. Just running this up the pole to see if anyone salutes, but if it’s a topic that interests only me that’s okay too. :)

  47. Oh, also, forgot to mention another important parallel I see — the “scienterrific!” aspect of both dieting and designer parenting, wherein any kind of self-restricting, self-sacrificing behavior is legitimated through oft-repeated, oft-inflated, but rarely-cited claims about what “studies show is better for” HEALTH!! or THE CHILDREN!!

  48. Hem. Sorry. Last post-post qualification. I just wanted to say that I MEANT to introduce these ramblings by saying that the reminder about Bordo’s unpacking of female hunger and its representations got me thinking about the following (insert initial long-ass comment).

    We haven’t been sleeping too well in our house these days and I’m incoherent! Blargh!

  49. Bwah, Kate, mrf… THANK YOU, but not right away, I think, as I’m still kind of blushing that I got my own thread the other day. Maybe as an incentive to finish up this chapter of the dissertation I’m working on currently?

  50. Whenever you have time, A Sarah. :) I think that’s a really interesting parallel, but since none of the SP writers are mothers, we’re probably not the people to tackle it.

  51. Another book to read is Caroline Knapp’s Appetites: Why Women Want. Knapp (RIP) was definitely not a fat activist, though she interviews one in the book. Her description of her personal battle with anorexia and the psychology behind and culture of deprivation, restriction, anhedonia, and ascetism are wrenching and cogent.

    I was really shocked to see this book mentioned here – I am the fat activist Caroline interviewed for that book, nine years ago now. I didn’t know folks were still reading it!

    And of course I share the Susan Bordo love. She’s a primary reason we have fat studies in academia at all now, in my opinion.

  52. I am the fat activist Caroline interviewed for that book,

    NO WAY! One of my besties sent me that book about a year ago, so yes, people are still reading it –but I still haven’t gotten to it yet. Top of the list now! (Well, alongside the Bordo, which I ordered yesterday.)

  53. Haha, it’s true! She interviewed me at the Trident on Newbury Street. I had an omelette! (My memory is so weird.)

    I was actually very selfishly unhappy when the book first came it – it was published posthumously and thus I never had my promised chance to look over my quotes, some of which are kind of inaccurate. Also, my damn name is misspelled. But these ridiculous little personal details aside, I thought it was a very powerful story and I’m pleased to have been a part of it.

  54. How cool is Shapely Prose!?

    That aside, A Sarah has some excellent points, because yes, yes, YES, and it is no coincidence that the rise of designer parenting coincides with the diet frenzy, and it is no coincidence that the mothers who are most-often dieting heavily and restricting themselves are also the mothers told off for being ‘selfish’ if they don’t restrict themselves further, and yes, it is no coincidence that the class forces at work are the same as the ones in dieting, and it is no coincidence either that the recent foray into ‘protecting the children from OBEEEEEESITY’ is a form of shaming mothers in regards to their children and themselves: see talk about how it’s ‘easier to feed kids junk’, etc., with the implication that the mothers are taking the Lazy Way Out and thus OMG KILLING THE CHUUUUULDRIN.

    And yes, there is such an institutional presumption that mothers can and should be criticised for How They Parent, and that does cross over deeply with patriarchial* dynamics and the repression of female sexuality and expression through food etc. It’s probably not also a coincidence that claiming children as wards of the state is the ultimate patriarchal move to invalidate mothers’ agency, and that doing it on the basis of ‘OMG OBEEEESITY’ is a double-slam: why can’t you just starve decently, for fuck’s sake? THINK OF YOUR CHILDREN.

    Ahem. But yes! This is fantastic thought, A Sarah. I’m looking forward to that guest post.

  55. I was really shocked to see this book mentioned here – I am the fat activist Caroline interviewed for that book, nine years ago now. I didn’t know folks were still reading it!

    AWESOME. I am a Lesley, too, and she spelled your name as “Leslie” in the book, I think. I would have possibly made the connection otherwise–or at least I would have wondered about it.

    I picked up the book in 2003, and I pick it up every now and again because Knapp’s writing is so damn thought-provoking.

  56. Uh, I was so excited to “know” the person in the book that I didn’t see your next comment before posting.

    But yeah, cool!

  57. Both Lesleys, as someone who spent half my childhood saying, “Katy with a Y!” before I switched (almost) completely over to Kate, I feel your pain.

    Uh, drift? What drift?

  58. I love the Trident on Newbury Street!

    Also, sometimes I have major beefs with feminism, especially many of it’s modern incarnations. It’s quotations and sentiments like these that remind me that I Am A Feminist, no matter how many other feminists disagree with me on no matter how many points.

  59. And about how something like HAES would be a GREAT antidote to all the parenting manuals and philosophies and methods.

    I can’t speak to the general parenting market, but the Christian submarket books generally endose a parenting style that is shockingly controlling, IMHO, and I know one of the Christian authors (Gary Ezzo) “de-Christianized” his books (pulled the Bible verses) and the secular version was at one time a hot seller as well. Since I agree with whoever it was who pointed out that the whole dieting thing ultimately is all about controlling women, that parallel was the one that immediately stood out to me once A Sarah brought up the subject.

    Looking forward to your article, A Sarah. Most of my parenting friends have largely avoiding the whole “perfect parent” thing, and, interestingly enough, they’ve avoided the whole diet frenzy, too, although that may be because most of them are thin anyhow. But I don’t think so, because they don’t sweat the whole make-up and dress thing much, either. Either way, my first thought is that you were right; obsessive parenting and obsessive dieting are tightly connected, and if you can avoid the one your odds are better of dodging the other.

  60. The connection between sexual desire and appetite is an ancient one that held strong influence over early and medieval Christians monastics (yes I am a history/religion geek.) See Teresa Shaw’s, The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity. And then for a more contemporary context try, R. Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. (Her last two chapters on Christian weight-loss programs is worth the price of the book alone.) Though these studies are specific to the History of Christianity, I think this discourse had a deep impact on our contemporary, non-religious views of eating and sex (and I’d love for someone to help me prove that!) What is not clear, to me at least, is how this connection became so incredibly gendered. Food and sexual asceticism was central to the spiritual lives of both men and women. I just though of another article by Heather Hendershot called “Virgins for Jesus” in which she also connects the abstinence movement with gendered expectations of bodies. Her analysis of focus on the family literature finds examples of the organization attempting to control both the sexual and food appetites of adolescent girls.

  61. You know, the image of the female of our species being tiny and frail by nature has always confused me anyway. If you use actual nature as a model, in most instances where the female has to produce, carry to term, and safely bear young, she is rounder than the male, especially in pertinent areas like the abdomen.

    In many instances, in fact, the female is blatantly, grossly larger than the male, not just in terms of relative roundness but in actual length, breadth, etc. Think of orb weaver spiders, lantern fish, queen bees and ants, sharks…

    Even in our closest relatives, the great apes, the only significantly larger males are the dominant ones, and they’re usually too busy fighting to protect their status to realize that the females are having trysts with smaller males and their “mighty” genes aren’t as likely being passed on as we all first thought…

    So, while I guess I can see where it would make sense for a man to be taller, until his body evolves to give us a hand in the childbearing, it doesn’t make sense to me that my waist and hips should be smaller than his.

  62. I don’t feel like I’m performing femininity when I wear a dress and lipstick. I feel like I’m an incompetent transvestite. I’ve been ugly all my life — I want to know what being pretty feels like.

    And if I need to destroy myself to do that, well, maybe it’ll be worth it.

  63. Makes perfect sense. All of it. Especially the discussion point where the last time womanly figures were in vogue was in the 1950s.

  64. What is not clear, to me at least, is how this connection became so incredibly gendered. Food and sexual asceticism was central to the spiritual lives of both men and women.

    Sara Moslener, I have some non-expert thoughts regarding where the great gendered double standard originated: I think the split came when the idea of personal ownership was introduced into human culture.

    At some point, human beings realized that, while you could verify a child’s maternity so long as somoene was present for its birth, paternity was something nebulous and impossible to prove or see beyond a reasonable doubt. Once defending one’s own land and resources became an issue, making sure you’re working for your own offspring becomes really important. Since you can’t see it or prove it, it’s easier to restrict the movements of those whose parenthood you *can* prove (the women).

    I think this is how most cultures turned from worship of the earth (feminine/mother) to worship of the sky (masculine/father), and in turn, where all the control-the-women ideas of patriarchal religion came from. So long as you can control the females of a species, you’ll know exactly who they’ve had sex with. While this does mean you know you’re protecting your own offspring (not someone else’s), it also has the charming side effect of allowing people to take motherhood completely for granted. If maternity is easily seen, just as the earth is easily *stood on*, why would you value it above (or equal to) something that’s impossible to see but obviously necessary for the formation of life?

    When that shift came (and I’m sure it came over time), the normal habits of male and female humans came to be seen in completely different lights. Especially if you’re trying to find ways to bully women into following The Rules that protect the paternity of one’s offspring.

    Okay, that was rambly and possibly made no sense.

    In other news, this post completely blew my mind, too.

  65. What is not clear, to me at least, is how this connection became so incredibly gendered.

    In the US, at least, there was a shift somewhere between the Puritans and the eighteenhundreds from a position where men and women had equal sex drives and were equally expected to exercise self-control (with maybe a slightly greater burden on the man to hold the line) to the idea that “proper” women have little to no sex drive and thus are responsible for controlling, not just themselves, but the male sex drive.

    I have seen it argued that this shift was related to the frontier, where societies were more fluid and it was easy for a guy to be gone before it was clear he’d fathered a child. Women were held more responsible for sexual restraint because they were the ones who gave birth and over the years this imbalance was “justified” by the idea that women’s sex drives are lower than men’s. I meant to track down the book that explored this theory (all I’ve read was an interview with the author), but unfortunately I seem to have lost the title and author info, which is most aggravating.

    Supposedly this led to confusion in WW II, when American men who expected the woman to “hold the line” discovered that English women were far more willing to have sex with them – but the English women were often having sex under the assumption that this meant marriage, since in England it was the man who was expected to hold the line, and any man who didn’t was expected to marry the woman he’d had sex with.

    Ancient Jewish law also put the responsibility for restraint on the man when it came to courting couples, while the Medieval Christian attitudes were that women were the more sexually driven sex, so I have often wondered how it got flipped around. I am guessing that the idea that women should be controlled and restrained eaters followed on the idea that women should be more controlled and restrained when it comes to sex, but I really have no idea.

  66. Andrea, I’d agree that this (and maybe most/all of the patriarchy) is totally rooted in patrilineage and heredity. I don’t know if there would be any way to test whether or not patrilineage became the way of things because it worked better or was easier (especially if matrilineal societies might have been prominant for a long time first) – I’ve certainly read arguments that that shift was the slow result of politics and wars instead. In any case, it sure sucks now. With paternity testing there should no longer be a question of only one gender owning and passing on property. But of course, change is slow…

  67. Fabulous post. I’ve had similar thoughts on this subject but never really brought them together the way you and Bordo did. Thank you.

  68. great QOTD. Here’s another one I found very interesting today. It’s from a Newsweek article entitled Weighty Matters.

    “Particularly disturbing are indications that the quest for perfection is reaching into younger age groups. Kids form their body images almost as soon as they can form words, and girls are now thinking negatively about their shapes in grammar school. Today, 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner, while 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of getting fat, according to a 2004 global study by the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. “What we’ve seen more and more is an increasingly narrow image of beauty, not just completely defined by physical appearance, but a particular body type–tall, thin, maybe blond, with very little diversity,” says Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard psychology professor and author of “Survival of the Prettiest” (Random House). The effects of that are striking. The Dove study found that just 2 percent of women and girls said they would describe themselves as beautiful, while two thirds said they avoided basic activities on days they felt unattractive. Those activities ranged from going to the beach or a party to showing up for work or school–even voicing an opinion.”

    Just goes to show what the media is cramming down our throats from the minute we’re born. This sucks to see that the effects start at such a young age. How about we forget “No Child Left Behind” and go for “No Child Feels Like Shit About Themselves”!

  69. “Those activities ranged from going to the beach or a party to showing up for work or school–even voicing an opinion.”

    Ow, ouch.

  70. Wow, some incredible convos going on over here!

    As I mentioned before, I am reading Anthony Synnott’s “The Body Social” for my diss, and I came across this bit (1996:93) today in his chapter on Beauty and The Face which I felt loosely related to this thread:

    “Thonstein Veblen in 1899 offered the first sociological theory of beauty, suggesting that ‘the utility of articles valued for their beauty depends closely upon the expensiveness of the article’ (1953: 94)…Of the ideal feminine beauty, he observed:

    The ideal requires delicate and diminutive hands and feet and a slender waist. These features…go to show that the person so affected is incapable of useful effort and must therefore be supported in idleness by her owner. She is useless and expensive, and she is consequently valuable as evidence of pecuniary strength. (1953: 107)

    This relates to the idea that the thin ideal is not only a way to distract us from usefulness, it is a way to render us useless or inanimate, like an object to be owned, supported, and maintained and used by a man.

    On another related note a sex blog I read made a note of how sex-positive articles always throw in that sex burns calories. I commented that it’s occurs not only because people are obsessed with weight loss and calorie burning is *always* considered a perk, but because both food and sex are considered pleasurable, sinful, and bodily desires to be disciplined. If by partaking in sexual pleasure, you are also disciplining your body (by burning calories), it’s like the pleasure/guilt conundrum evens out. This is particularly the case for women, who are held most accountable to keep their bodies pure of sex and food, to discipline themselves. Oh, the way the system works to control our bodies is endless.

  71. Bordo’s Unbearable Weight blew me away when I first read it in undergrad.

    The piece of this post that interested me the most was the end, linking anger and hunger; when I worked in a small residential program for women with eating disorders, I found my feminist anger was kindled on a daily basis and I would come home and eat more than I wanted — as if I could feed these women by taking in more calories. Or to prove something — I can eat whatever I want with this imperfect body and nothing catastrophic will happen. It didn’t help that I didn’t get supervision at that job and had to carry a lot of shit around with no outlet for that year or so.

    Lately I’ve been feeling pressure to diet and coming here is really helping me recommit to taking care of my body and loving it for what it can do, not what it might look like to advertisers. Thank you!

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