101, Dieting/WLS, Fat, Feminism, Fillyjonk

What Women Want

One of the most frequent criticisms I see lobbed at anti-dieting proponents — after, of course, “fat is unhealthy and there’s only one right way to eat and I know because I am an expert” — is “how dare you question my right to eat the way I want.” On the face of it, that’s a great question. Part of our whole premise, after all, is that your food intake should be determined by your desires, not by anyone else’s preconceived notions of what it’s healthy or moral for you to eat. It seems contradictory — how can we promote autonomy with regards to body attitudes and food choices, yet not leave the door open for the choice to hate your body or starve it?

By way of an answer, let me tell you a story. My cousin (we’ll call her Eleanor) is, and always has been, very small and young-looking for her age. Her mother is also a tiny person, maybe 5’1″, but when they told her that Eleanor might not hit five feet, she freaked. Short was fine, but THAT short? MORE THAN FOUR INCHES below the national average? Would she be able to function?

I think Eleanor was about ten when they started her on growth hormones, though she may have been even younger. It wasn’t clear that she had an HGH deficiency, but she was short, so it was apparently the obvious path. So picture this: a ten-year-old who looks like a seven-year-old injecting hormones into her stomach every day, because otherwise her body won’t be acceptable. Do you find this image objectionable? I did. But when I objected, I always heard the same thing: “Eleanor wants the hormones. The kids at school tease her. She doesn’t want to be small.”

Well, of course, I said. The kids at school tease her, like they tease pretty much everyone for being even a little different, and when she comes home, her parents say “okay, we’ll fix you, whatever it takes.” Not “those kids are being idiots.” Not “you’re great how you are.” No, they say “there are technologies to fix you, and they’re unpleasant and cost money, but we’re all willing to suffer a little if it means making you normal.” Is it any wonder she felt like a freak, enough to voluntarily shoot herself up with growth hormones even when it became clear they weren’t working?

Can a choice in such a situation really be called a free choice? It would have taken strength and self-reliance far beyond the average ten-year-old for Eleanor to reject the HGH option, and she would have had to make that decision unsupported. Naturally she clung to the choice she thought had a chance of making her normal — nobody had told her she was normal already. Of course her parents wouldn’t have forced her to take hormones against her will, but they didn’t have to. There was only one choice that made sense, given the natural human desire to be loved and accepted, and her unchallenged conviction that her size made this impossible.

The context for weight-loss decisions, at least for women and at least in middle-class America, is much the same. Certainly people make the voluntary decision to diet, after a certain age (I’m sure many of us, including me, have experienced involuntary diets during childhood and adolescence). But in the morass of “privation is morality” and “only thin is lovable” and “eating makes you a sinner” messages we’re steeped in, can we ever really make that choice freely? Even if you’re supposedly making the choice to restrict “for your health,” can you dabble in dieting without calling down an avalanche of cultural associations — superiority, deprivation, sexiness, femininity, control?

I realize I’m mixing my geological metaphors here, what with the swamp and the avalanche. But my point is that no choice is made in a vacuum, and in this case our culture is pushing so incredibly heavily towards one option — often hiding or ridiculing the others — that I question whether the choice is ever freely made.

This may sound like I’m saying “women who choose to diet are too dumb to realize their options.” (By the way, as always I’m focusing on women here because I’m a woman and a feminist and most familiar with women’s issues and experience, but, again as always, I’d love to hear from men/male-identified people.) But I’m not saying that, any more than I’d say that the people in Plato’s cave are too dumb to realize they’re looking at shadows. Societally-ingrained prejudice, including fatphobia, is one of the greatest con-jobs ever pulled, since so many people mistake it for objective reality. We here at SP are really, really good at rejecting that illusion, and even we get sucked in. All the time. If you’re getting messages from all sides at all times that obesity is unhealthy and fat is immoral and food is sinful and diets work and exercise makes you better than other people, nobody can call you an idiot for thinking that maybe you should try to drop a few pounds. You’d be an idiot not to think that, in context. We just happen to think you’d be the kind of idiot who’s right.

If you’re making a choice to diet, I understand. I understand food issues, and I understand the Fantasy of Being Thin. I don’t think you’re a sucker. But I think you’re being done an enormous disservice by a society that makes you think you’re broken and an industry that says “whatever it takes, we’ll fix you.” When we reject your diet, we’re not rejecting your choice — we’re rejecting where that choice came from, and all the baggage it brings. It’s not your diet but your need to diet that we condemn — and that need is not about you.

68 thoughts on “What Women Want”

  1. Excellent post, Fillyjonk. I feel so sorry for your cousin. I have a cousin (whose mother, by the way, is 4’11’ and a freakin’ steamroller) who inherited the family fat genes. Her mother (who smokes like a chimney) is always on her case about her weight. My cousin isn’t fat, she’s just not svelte. When her father (a wonderful man) died, she put on about 20 pounds, a lot for her height. Her mother, rather than keeping her mouth shut because my cousin’s father HAD JUST DIED, gave her grief the whole time she was home for the funeral. Of course, said aunt considers me beyond all redemption.

  2. Thank you.

    I think the concepts of choice and freedom and individuality are so idealized in this country that oftentimes even the suggestion that, as you said, no choice exists in a vacuum, will elicit angry responses.

    Where I run into a problem is trying to explain that my thinking that people’s choices are influenced by social pressure, familial pressure, cultural narratives etc… doesn’t mean that I see myself as smarter than people who make choices which are more in line with what society demands. As I’ve heard a lot of times in feminist circles, we all make our deals with patriarchy, but people still get pretty defensive (which I get, but wish I could avoid.)

  3. Your cousin’s story is so sad. What a fucked up world we live in.

    Sometimes I think the only thing that keeps me from drinking the diet kool aid is the fact that I’m such an independent-thinking weirdo in every other way, too; fat hysteria is just one more way I think people are being snowed.

  4. I think the concepts of choice and freedom and individuality are so idealized in this country that oftentimes even the suggestion that, as you said, no choice exists in a vacuum, will elicit angry responses.

    Yeah, people really don’t want to deal with the prospect that their free will is not as free as all that. I understand it but I think it’s kinda irresponsible to deliberately ignore cultural and historical context. Plus, it’s great ammo for privileged people to say “there’s no problem here; they [for whatever value of ‘they’] made a CHOICE to live this way.”

    In fact, I’ll make a confession: This post was partly brought on by two frustrating conversations I had in two days. One was with a coworker who said “I don’t mind buying things made in sweatshops, because people choose to work in sweatshops.” One was with a woman on IndieBride who said “the sex industry is de facto unproblematic because people choose to do sex work.” (She said I was patronizing and antifeminist for bringing up the context in which those choices are made.) I got frustrated by those conversations and their relevance to “people choose to lose weight/have WLS/get cosmetic surgery,” and I thought I’d hammer on the CONTEXT! drum in my own subletted sandbox. :)

  5. I wish I had something more profound to offer than just to say:

    I’m glad there are people like you in the world. People who can see beyond their bubbles and can talk about it clearly so that we all benefit. It can be so hard to feel like the only one who sees “fat” as a construct…but we’re not alone.

    thank you.


  6. She said I was patronizing and antifeminist for bringing up the context in which those choices are made.

    Wow. I mean, just, wow. It’s sad to me that that mindset exists in so many places, and that not holding it is the exception and not the rule.

  7. People are really invested in believing that they are a completely unique, unalterable being whose beliefs, tastes, and desires come from within. Even when people acknowledge the affect culture has on people’s actions/beliefs/tastes, they are desparate to believe that they have escaped it.

    Like the millions of conversations I’ve had with other feminists about things like makeup and feminine dress. Everyone admits that the culture dictates these things, *but* now that they know that, their decision to wear makeup and heels is a totally individual thing. (I wear makeup so I’m not criticizing, just pointing out that the idea that without outside influence I would suddenly decide to start drawing dark lines on my eyelid seems farfetched.)

    It reminds me of people who claim that they are completely immune to marketing.

  8. Societally-ingrained prejudice, including fatphobia, is one of the greatest con-jobs ever pulled, since so many people mistake it for objective reality.

    Want that on a throw pillow.

    And maybe, “I’m the kind of idiot who’s right” on a T-shirt.

    Great post, FJ.

  9. Kate, “the greatest trick patriarchy ever pulled is convincing the world it doesn’t exist” would look better on the pillow.

    And now I wish that’s what I’d written.

    attrice, I love the makeup analogy. I wear makeup too, and I really love it from an artistic perspective — I took makeup design in college, and I started out as a goth, so makeup has always been expressive rather than pretty-making. But I can’t pretend that my continuing to buy products intended to make women look pretty in a certain kind of way has nothing to do with the patriarchal imperative for women to look pretty in a certain kind of way.

    You do pick your battles, but none of those battles would seem worth it if you ignored the fact that patriarchy affects so many aspects of your life.

  10. Oh man. When I was 10, if there had been a pill to make me “normal” (mentally and physically) I so would have taken it. I wouldn’t have cared if it cost me 30 years off my life. Who cared, when it was blindingly obvious to me that 30 extra years of being a FREAK was just going to suck out loud?

    Now, of course, I have enough perspective to know that since changing my body wouldn’t make me mentally “normal,” there’s no point in dieting for approval. I suppose it’s a lot harder to give up that incentive when weight is the only thing that makes you “different” at all.

  11. I think when I was younger I thought weight WAS the thing that made me different — that if I were thinner I’d have more mainstream interests and know how to get along with people (I only stopped having Aspie-type social backwardness in high school) and dress normal and think normal and act normal and not be so depressed. The whole FoBT thing, but for nerds.

    Having to come to terms with all those other idiosyncrasies is probably part of what primed me for FA.

  12. Great post. You almost made me cry.

    I had a sociology professor who damn near blew my mind and that of everyone in our first Soc 101 course by walking in and holding up one of our textbooks and had a conversation that went:

    Prof: “What is this?”
    Class: “A book…”
    Prof: “How do you know?
    *momentary silence*
    Classmate: “Because…that’s just what its called. We were all taught that.”
    Prof: “But why? Why isn’t it a widget or a flugenflagen or a pen? Its a book ONLY because someone looked at it and decided that’s what it was and convinced everyone else they were right. Nothing that you know is anything real or true at all. What makes it real or true is only the driving force of a society or a group behind it, willing it into reality. Welcome to Soc 101 and learning that everything you take for granted only exists because of the societal structure around you.”

    I’ve held on to that whenever I start thinking about what I “should be” or “must do.” I always bring the but “But who got to decide it had to be just so?” into my head to help put my focus on whether I’m doing something I genuinely WANT to do or if I feel like I’m SUPPOSED to want to do it.

  13. Yeah, I think I thought that if I was only cuter, I’d automatically be more “normal,” wouldn’t cry so easily, be more likable and acceptable even to my own family, etc. The “normalcy” thing was definitely a package deal.

  14. While I mostly agree, I am uncomfortable with this line of reasoning exactly because of the parallel with femism and sex work and choice and the context of those choices. I’m the one in the sex work arguments who gets upset when it sounds like feminists are saying that women who choose to do sexwork are stupid pawns of the patriarchy who can’t make free choices because they’re brainwashed by the culture.

    I think that there’s a lot of black and white thinking in both arguments. Can there be healthy erotic expressions (tasteful nudes, women running their own sex/nudie cams, etc.) that women can make without undue cultural pressure? Can women make ANY kind of change to what they eat and have it come from a healthy (HAES) place and not from a place of self-loathing perpetuated by a fat-hating culture?

    It’s hard for me to make that call for anyone else.

  15. There’s a difference, SarahMich, between acknowledging that societal pressure exist, and blaming every single action on them.

    I don’t believe every action every human being makes is entirely determined by society. After all, if that were so, how would this site exist?

    Besides, no one is saying people are “pawns.” The Patriarchy isn’t about people having no choice in the matter, it’s about people being limited by the choices they and others make every second of every day. A woman choosing to be a sex worker is probably doing the most rational thing she can consider in her situation, but only because the choices of others make that the case for her. She isn’t a “pawn,” weak or stupid. She is a victim of a system designed to oppress her.

    Also, sex work in most circumstances and healthy erotic expression are generally two different things. I am not saying that a woman can’t involve money and commodity exchange in a healthy sex life, I just think it’s terribly difficult to do.

  16. FJ, wonderful work, as usual.

    The funny thing is, when I first found myself here and started reading about being anti-diet, anti-WLS, I just instinctively KNEW that what you wrote above was the reasoning behind it. No way could I have said it as clearly as you have, but I just felt it in my bones.

    Which is why coming here daily is such a good thing for me. I purposely constantly remind myself that it’s not such a crazy thing that I’ve given it up. That yeah, MAYBE the next diet I went on would have worked, but for how long? And then I’d be right back where I started, with even more pressure because I FAILED.

  17. Kate, I just hope those are *sweatshop-free* T-shirts.

    Fillyjonk, yet another amazing post. And in case anyone ever forgets how fucking brilliant you are, you go talking about the shadows in Plato’s cave. Taking it to another level there.

    And while I’m completely derailing the conversation, another tidbit: I live very near the U.S.-Mexico border and was considering working just across the line in ‘maquiladoras.’ Maquilas are the sweatshops in Mexico in which a great many of our widgets and electronics and the other cheap things we think we need are made. These factories are staffed almost exclusively by women, most with children, who are just trying to get by. If that conversation you mentioned comes up again, consider suggesting the documentary “Maquilopolis.” It may not change the mind of anyone who doesn’t want to hear it, but it’ll certainly make you think twice about women who supposedly ‘choose’ to work in a sweatshop, and what they give up in order to do so.

  18. My eldest daughter started to “develop” when she was about 9. What the doctor was concerned about was whether or not she had a petuitary tumor. He offered us injections which would stop her hormonal development until we would want to “turn it on” again – she would not be so short.
    I’m 5’2″. My husband is 6′. I have a sister who is 6′ tall and very thin. It was a real quandery because it meant daily injections. No exceptions.
    I asked the endocrinologist if they knew the long term effects. No one knew because at that time, the treatment had only been used for about ten years. I asked him if he’d use it on his kids. He said that since he’s a pretty short guy and so is his wife, the chances of his kids being really any taller were pretty slim, even if this was used.
    We did not use it. I don’t think my daughter ever felt that it was a mistake – she dressed a little sloppy for a while and the next year there were girls who were starting and so on. My sister thought we should have forced the issue and used it; I did not feel that anyone could make the choice for my 9 year old daughter at that point, particularly when the doctor himself would not use the treatment on his own kids. And I also did not feel that a 9 year old could really make that decision either. I certainly did not want to have to face her in her 20s or 30s with her having developed something horrific because a treatment had been used that no one knew the effects of.
    My daughter’s final height was 5′. Her sister is 5’3″. Her brother is 5’8″.
    Sometimes, you go with what you’ve got.

  19. riddlebiddle, I think I’ll watch it myself! My objection to sweatshops is less of an informed position and more of a fierce pro-labor sentiment passed down in the blood. More actual information could be useful.

  20. I meant to say this yesterday in reply to Kate’s post (which seemed to mirror the chaos that erupts in my head every time I try to figure out what to eat), but…

    I love this blog. I love, love, love, love it. I spend a lot of time lurking because I’m not entirely sure what I can contribute to the already-unheard of levels of amazing here (self esteem issues much?), but seriously.

    You guys are teh awesome.

  21. I’m not saying that feminists are calling all sex -workers “pawns” (that’d be a strawman argument), just that that’s the vibe I get from some of the arguments I’ve been involved in.

    I have a friend who is a strong feminist and was a Nevada prostitute who would bridle at being called a “victim” of any stripe.

    I also think that the line between healthy expressions of erotica and unhealthy “porn” is pretty darn fuzzy, and it’s hard I think for anybody to separate when they’re exercising and changing their food habits for their health and when they’re being unduly influenced by culture.

    Anyway, this is exactly the kind of debate I’ve had before that drives me crazy so I’ll leave it at that.

  22. A friend of mine going for a duel cultural anthropology degree had a debate with me the other night. Her professor asked the class, “how many of you, in observing or recording a young girl being held down by her people, screaming in mortal terror while they ritually cut her genitals without anaesthesia, could stand by and watch without interfering?” Those who did not raise their hands were told they were not cut out to be an anthropologist. My friend went on to argue that those girls were given a choice because they had the “option” of refusing the circumcision or being forever ostracized by their friends and family and dooming themselves to a life of complete isolation or trying to survive on their own outside the tribe. I argued that when your entire life as you know it would end if you chose against something you don’t want to do, that did not constitute a choice.

    That example is extreme, of course, and definitely imperfect. But the question of choice under extreme social pressure is kind of a button issue for me because I DO consider myself a person who doesn’t care what consenting adults do between themselves in their lives unless it directly harms my ability to do the same. I believe that everyone DOES have a choice in every action they take, but also that the choices they make might be different if they have different information to base it on. If they’re going on what they call common sense, Samuel Clemens once said that “common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18.” No one, not even the smartest, self-aware empowered individual is immune to the influences of family, friends and mother culture.

    So to relate this back to the diet issue…I believe that children should not be put on diets, and as they are not consenting adults I don’t feel guilty about protesting that actively. I believe that dieting is harmful behavior, but I don’t believe it is anyone’s business to tell a dieter what to eat any more than I would want a dieter to tell me what to eat. Obviously there’s some grey area around ED’s there, but I have to choose my own location to draw lines.

    I don’t think diets should be banned, not even diet ads, because I think that it’s too slippery a slope between banning certain ads, and a world like Fahrenheit 451. I DO believe, however, in holding people accountable. If someone makes a claim about a diet, they should, like drug companies, be completely transparent about typical “success” rates, 5-year results, side effects, and calories typically consumed in the diet. I think that anyone claiming weight loss results by a certain method must be able to defend that method against a lawsuit when/if it fails. If the data is readily available to make an informed choice, and someone still chooses to diet, then they have the right to control their own body. If they expect me to do the same, however, I will assert my own rights over MY body. In the meantime, neither of us has the right to judge the other’s food choices, exercise patterns or appearance.

    Yes, that’s all in the vacuum of theory and real life is much, much messier. But I’ve never claimed to not be a hypocrite, and am not so wedded to my beliefs that I can’t change or suspend them if given enough reasons to do so. Definitely a state of imperfect humanity :-)

  23. This is a great post, FJ, and I might follow up on my own blog with something about motivations for dieting.

    I’m always amazed at people who go on these crazy crash diets or stick with WW (and inevitably gain it back, of course), because I simply have never been able to “diet.” I do all kinds of things where I say “I won’t eat x today” (even though I want to) but I have never been able to say “I’m on a diet now!” and actually do anything for more than a few days.

    A year or so ago, I figured out that this was because I couldn’t bear to tap into the feelings of self-hate that being on a “diet” requires. Constantly depriving myself of food that I want means that I have to keep reminding myself why I’m on a “diet”, which means thinking bad things about myself and my body.

    As a naturally really confident person, these feelings of self-loathing just feel wrong and prickly, and I rebel against them. I can do it for a while, but soon enough, I have a good day or a great moment or I feel really hot and I am like “goddamnit, am I really right that I’m fat and awful and need to lose 10,000 pounds? No..”

    The only way you can succeed at a “diet”, even only temporarily, is to constantly remind yourself that being the weight you are is more unpleasant that the unpleasantness that comes from dieting. And I just haven’t been able to convince myself of that.

    So, until I can really and truly convince myself that I’m eating better and exercising regularly for some other reason than “I look horrible and am a fatty”, I guess I’m destined to stay the same. I’m working on it.

  24. Thank you for this post. This post and Kate’s Food: The Other Great Equalizer post have really helped a few more things click inside my brain.

  25. fillyjonk, I got the impression that your cousin was young when you were much younger, so if that’s the case… do you mind sharing what happened to her? Did the injections work? If she’s extremely short as an adult, how does she feel about it? This reminds me of that post from a little while back, when an article someone posted here almost seemed to suggest that short people should try to grow taller if they want to be healthier.

  26. “there’s no problem here; they [for whatever value of ‘they’] made a CHOICE to live this way.”

    This sort of idea gives people the right to turn a blind eye to any number of problems people may struggle with daily. Many people see poverty as a life style choice. I am not trying to compare being fat to living in poverty. But having this sort of mindset allows you to believe that everyone is free enough to chose their predicaments in life. Therefore if their poverty is a choice, why should I help them? I made the choice to go to a good college and get a good job. I made the choice to have a savings account and prepare for my future. Some people don’t see that sometimes your choices are limited and you can’t easily escape them.

    I liked this post. It’s nearly impossible not to succumb to the pressure society places on women in particular. Being overweight, fat, chubby for most of my life I didn’t escape ridicule from society, from peers or from my family. I don’t always escape it now. The pressure doesn’t manifest itself in dieting or disordered eating, but more in self hate and dispair. I have a hard time accepting a compliment from anyone and brush any off with a sarcastic indifference. I’ve been fed the crap that I am too ugly/fat to love and I sometimes hold my husband at arms length because I believe the crap more than I believe him. This pressure has created a pretty big gap between he and I sometimes. As a man, he will never really understand the self loathing that can be involved when you’re a woman raised to believe everything about you needs improvement.

    I keep repeating this and I’ll type it again. Reading this site, sites linked from here and various feminist blogs has helped me to see and hopefully remove myself from the Catch 22 of striving for physical perfection. There is no crossing the finish line and it will always be out of arms reach. You’re not suppose to accept yourself as a woman, but I say to heck with that. I cannot continue to live life in a semi-permanent state of misery. One day, I’ll be old enough to look back and really really regret the amount of time and effort I would have wasted wishing for a phantom me.

  27. Sue, she’s still pretty young — she’s in high school now, but not necessarily finished growing. She doesn’t look unusually short because she looks unusually young — she actually looks a LOT like the Olsen twins, so picture them at high-school age. When she’s older she may strike people as short, but now she just looks younger than she is. But I would guess she’s about 4’11” or 5′, just a teeny bit shorter than her mom. Hard to say if the injections worked, because it’s hard to say if they were necessary — she didn’t have a known HGH shortage, they just extrapolated her growth and said she’d be small.

    She’s definitely had continued problems with the kids in her school, even going to a boarding school for a year before she decided those kids were even worse. But I don’t think she primarily feels ostracized because of her height. I think she primarily feels ostracized because high school basically sucks. :)

  28. Thanks for writing that. My daughter is small for her age, and I tend to over worry about it. People constantly comment about it, and really she is very healthy, intelligent and growing.

    I asked her father the other day if he was concerned, and he was like, what? You’re short.

    Right. He’s right, I am short and just fine.

  29. But I’m not saying that, any more than I’d say that the people in Plato’s cave are too dumb to realize they’re looking at shadows.

    I love that you invoked this quote. I often use this and the Myth of Sisyphus to characterize not only the futility of dieting, but eating disorder recovery illustrations.

  30. I could not have chosen not to diet, at any point in my life. It’s why I’ve done so much of it. Having found this site, I am being given choice for the first time – I need the social modeling to step away from society’s ED. My choice has been constrained to picking the first train out of CrazyTown that came by – I couldn’t find the way out by myself.

    So when it comes to diet, it’s NOT dieting that is the choice for me. To make that choice, I needed supportive social models.

    But I know I don’t need social models for *all* my behaviour: there are certain things I’m perfectly comfortable believing on my own without any help from anyone.

    My spiritual beliefs would fit in this category; I have also never, for whatever reason, felt particularly pressured into wearing makeup. I do it occasionally because it amuses me that all us monkeys go out with lines around our eyes; I don’t feel any consistent shame or moral pressure to be regular about the practice, and when I do participate it’s sort of like wearing a costume. Like wearing scrubs, or something. I don’t inhabit it, and I often feel like someone will call me on it and we’ll have a good laugh. (The only time I wore consistent makeup was in my Goth days, actually.)

    I’m feel most pretty without makeup, although makeup does relate in my head on some level to “really, REALLY fancy and rich.” Amusing, but there you go. I would feel class-marked without makeup at a party of millionaires. I also think that old faces are beautiful. I did one of those psychological associative tests: I seem, for whatever reason, to subconsciously choose older and darker faces as beautiful and trustworthy. So my “facial recognition and valuation” software hasn’t been influenced too greatly by society.

    My mom, who definitely absorbed the beauty myth in all permutations, managed to repel like Teflon all the sexual shame of her Catholic family’s upbringing and stand rather calmly in the face of what she saw as her family and church’s unreasonable freak-out. It stuns me that I had more Catholic baggage than she did, and I was not raised Catholic.

    With diet, I imagine the majority of dieters are doing it because all the other monkeys do: but I also imagine that there are those special folks who, raised on a desert island by lions, would still mark down their intake and exercise on their spreadsheets in the sand. I’m one of those who loves exercise for exercise’s sake, for example; it is a construct of my chemistry that I heart the endorphin high. I’m sure there are unique chemical and physical systems, and people who like the high of the diet.

    So I think that it can be both/and. That SarahMich’s sex worker friend can be making a choice, but only if she’s one of those who has managed to have certain societal messages roll past her.

    Most of us hear bullshit societal messages and would harm ourselves in order not to be seen as “freakish”, but maybe most of us also have a place or two where we’re Teflon.

  31. Charlie, I think you make a good point: each of us is better able, for whatever reason, to resist some cultural messages than others, and that affects how much of a “choice” we think of a particular coercive situation as.

  32. I love the blog.
    And this doesn’t have to do with this particular post, but I was hoping to ask a question. I’m new to Shapely prose and it’s been making me think a lot. Specifically about how to talk about health and weight. I think that the Shapely ladies here are RIGHT. Most of the discussion about weight in society is pretty vile, and it’s pretty vile the way people try to make their bigotry into sweet concern. That being said, weight does have an effect on health, right? So do A LOT of other factors, don’t get me wrong. (I’m trying so hard not to sound like an bad “what about health!?” troll, because I’m really not!) I guess I just want to know- what is the best way to talk about health and weight? Without all the shame and baggage and false blame.
    How do we create healthy dialogs?

  33. Also! I am quite surprised at your cousin’s doctor.

    This is anecdotal, of course, but check out this picture (I’m the one on the far right front, and bear in mind that I am close to a year older than my classmates)

    I am now 5’5″.

  34. How cute are you!

    And how cute is it that you have your… first grade?… picture scanned.

    I’m surprised at my cousin’s doctor too. AND both of her parents are doctors! But people do crazy things when it comes to kids who might not turn out normal.

  35. Kate, “the greatest trick patriarchy ever pulled is convincing the world it doesn’t exist” would look better on the pillow.

    Must. Have. Right. Now.

  36. Gee, can I send your link to the fuckwad Australian “doctor” and government who decreed today that all pre-school children will be weighed and their bmi taken?? There is also a proposal that childrens weight and activity will be added to their SCHOOL REPORT CARDS. Save me please from these dickheads. I am so panicked that my daughters will have this done to them (my permission which I assume will be required will NOT be given). My 10 year old already tells me the other girls in her class talk about their “number” (their weight in kilo’s) – she doesn’t know hers – we don’t have scales. Where are the voices of reason? Parents, don’t you give a fat rats arse that your children are on a steep descent into eating disorders!!!

    Love your site, by the way!


  37. As a man, he will never really understand the self loathing that can be involved when you’re a woman raised to believe everything about you needs improvement.

    Buffy, I can’t fully respond to that statement here, but as someone who once identified as a man (now genderqueer) I have to say that my experience does not reflect that. When I ate only oranges for six months my freshman year of high school, it was my failure to live up to (or down to) social standards that drove me through each moment of self-starvation.

    The larger point, though, is not that self-loathing is in “men’s experience,” but that there’s no bright line dividing “men’s experience” from “women’s experience” or from everyone else’s experience.

    All that aside, here’s the real reason I’m commenting: I was strongly reminded of “‘Opening’ Faces,” an article by Eugenia Kaw. Kaw talks about the rhetoric of individual choice cosmetic surgeons use when they talk about procedures to remove the epicanthal fold. No one seems to get that when Asian-American people have surgery to look more white, racial prejudice might be involved. The people who get the surgery often do so out of internalization of racist ideas.

    That’s the evil genius of hegemony. When an oppressive idea gains sway, even the people who are oppressed buy in. They may use, interpret and navigate the idea in powerful ways, but the oppressive dynamic of the idea itself leaves them at a disadvantage.

  38. Great post! I’m from India and we don’t have these issues in such a big way here but I can see the first signs. It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when perfect 10s stare out at you from magazines all the time. So far, the emphasis has been more on working out than on dieting, I think. But I hope it won’t get as obsessive as it has in the West. We, of course, have our own issues to deal with — like an endless preoccupation with fair skin.

    By the way, a bunch of us Indian feminists have a collablog called Ultra Violet. Check it out some time if you feel like. Don’t want to leave the link in case my comment is mistaken for spam but it’s easily google-able and available from my personal site as well.

  39. OMG YES. This post, along with Food: The Great Equaliser and TFoBT have really clicked with me. I’ve been lurking for about a month now, ever since discovering Fatshionista and Manolo for the Big Girl.

    I’ve been fat for as long as I can remember, at varying levels, and have been on some semblance of a diet or food restriction since I was at least ten. Now I’m at my heaviest weight ever, but also my happiest time, since discovering HAES and trying intuitive eating (v.v.v. difficult, but I’m trying).

    I’m a young Australian woman living in Japan, which is seriously living hell for buying clothes. I’m technically an in-betweenie in Australia (size 14-18 Aust, or 10-14 American) but I’m a massive blimp by Japanese standards. Although one awesome thing they have going is that their jeans are usually done by waist size. YES.

    Anyway, enough rambling from me. Just wanted to say thanks to KH, FJ and SM for the fabulous blog you have here. :)

  40. Hurray for resisting this national obsession with the “Fat Crisis.” Overweight folks have become scapegoats for everything, and I’m tired of hearing about it. Some people are big-boned, and some are waifish, and some are in the middle. Why can’t we all just feel good about it? Why can’t we appreciate variety, and (as one of the previous respondants does) the faces of old people?

    Not too long ago I went to a wedding where there was an 80+ year old woman who’d had a lot of plastic surgery. It was the stuff of nightmares. She might have been the cutest little old lady you’d ever seen, but she’d transformed herself into something out of Planet of the Apes. The idea that a woman that old would be that vain was even more disturbing.

    Let’s get old and fat, for crying out loud. People have been doing it for ages. And if we’re serious about loving ourselves, and being fearless, let’s toss those televisions out into the backyard.

  41. As long as we compare us with others, as long as we allow others to decide what´s good or bad (for us), we´ll always feel like a ping pong ball.
    The only valuable parameter is what we want, what we think is right, what makes us feel good. And then live with whatever consequences it may cause.
    In the end we are responsible for our lives anyway, not a doctor, not a diet, not any hormones and not even any genetic preoccupation.

  42. Eyelinerpirate. I agree with you regarding experiences and how no two are alike. My husband may experience a different type of pressure to conform to a male ideal: successful, rich, muscular..etc.

    My point was, and perhaps I didn’t make it clearly, is that because he’s not me, or a woman, it is sometimes difficult for him to understand why I would look in the mirror and say hateful things to myself. Why when we would prepare to go out, I’d get more and more anxious and depressed. He may brush it off, or make light of as something all women do, without looking at a larger picture. Alot of women live on a roller coaster of attempting to find acceptance within themselves and being faced with a force that will tell them they’re wrong at every turn.

  43. So this isn’t quite related, but I was shopping yesterday and need to vent.

    I was in a store dressing room trying on my twentieth sweater when I heard a mother/daughter pair next to me discussing how the daughter looked in this and that… Mom was waiting outside and the daughter was stepping out of the dressing room to show her the clothes. I had just stepped out to get a look at myself in the 3 angled mirror at the end of the hall when the daughter stepped out to show her mom the latest. She must have been maybe 15-16 and she looked Adorable in the skirt and sweater that she’d put on. Behind me I hear the mother tell her how nice it looked and then…of course…asked what size it was. The daughter hesitated and replied, “Well, the sweater’s a large and the skirt is a 16…”

    Her mom almost shrieked! “What! How’d those get in there! No daughter of mine is going to wear clothes that big! Go take those off, NOW!” Now…the poor girl looked like…maybe a size 12 because the clothes were so flattering and she looked absolutely mortified at her mother, trying to explain that she really liked the outfit and what did it matter what size it was…I wanted to go hug the poor thing. And the best part was that her mother was no small woman, by any means. Living vicariously much?

    Mom went off in a huff as the girl went to change and when she came back out of the dressing room I told her to pay no mind to her mother, that she looked great and she should get her dad or a sister or friend to bring her back and buy the outfit herself. At least that made her smile and even laugh a little.

    But it made me wonder again how much fat-hatred is perpetuated by fat people…and how much of that comes from believing that they are “supposed” to hate fat – their own and everyone elses.

  44. Luckyliz, gah! Guess what, folks — NOBODY ELSE CAN SEE THE TAGS ON YOUR CLOTHES! All they can see is whether it fits you and looks adorable!

    I’m not saying I haven’t struggled with the same thing — am I really that size? — a million times. But it really is one of the most ridiculous fucking things we worry about, considering A) no one can see what size you’re wearing, yet B) everyone can see exactly how fat you are. Like they’re going to somehow perceive you as less fat if the label says 14 instead of 16? (In fact, if the 14s are too tight, they’ll probably perceive you as more fat. Although of course clothes that are too big will achieve the same effect.)

    And it’s just fucking outrageous that that woman put all that on her own daughter.

  45. I really like this post. It reminds me of Linda Hirschman’s arguement against “choice” feminism. Hirschman discusses (and condemns) uber-educated women who choose not to work and excuse their decision as a post-sexual revolution feminist choice. Same thing seems to be going on here. “I choose to diet myself down to a size 0 and you can’t argue with that because my body is my business.”

    it’s scary what women do to themselves in the name of individual freedom and choice.

  46. oh and if you want to take it to the logical Hirschman conclusion: We all have a social responsibility TO NOT DIET in order to demonstrate to society that fat is not immoral or wrong.

  47. That’s “Hirschmanian,” of course. It must be past time to eat–I can’t even spell my own made up words right.

  48. Heh, sumac, I can get behind the social responsibility thing. :) Although I don’t buy Hirschman’s argument 100%. (Maybe just ’cause I don’t want to get a real job. Though I don’t particularly want to stay home and take care of babies, either.) I absolutely agree that until men ask themselves if they want to work or stay home just as frequently as women do, it’s not a free, unrestricted choice for women. And we’re a long fucking way off from that. But I also don’t think women have a feminist responsibility NOT to stay home with their kids, if that’s something they genuinely feel they want to do. Whether they genuinely want it because they know in their bones they’d be more satisfied by full-time momming than any other career, or they really want it because the patriarchy has told them they should — or, more often, an inextricable combination of the two — the want is still real. And I’m not much into any philosophy that says, “Hey, don’t follow your heart. Take one for the team!” (Of course, nearly every woman I know who’s genuinely wanted to stay home has gone mental from the lack of adult conversation in under a year and gone back to work. There’s that. And thank feminism they’ve all been able to!)

    And in all seriousness, I don’t think people have a responsibility not to diet, either. I think it would be fucking AWESOME if no one dieted anymore, and all the weight loss corporations went tits-up, but living in this culture, I really can’t condemn anyone who chooses to diet. I can tell them I believe it’s folly, and I can tell them to STFU about it on my blog, but I can’t say they’re stupid or wrong for doing it. As Fillyjonk says, when it’s not a free choice, making the socially acceptable can arguably be the less idiotic thing to do.

    But we’re still The Kind of Idiots Who Are Right. :)

  49. “Maybe just ’cause I don’t want to get a real job.”

    Dude. Why I Became a Writer, Reason #3 (just behind #1: Because I Must and #2: Boys Think It’s Hot)

  50. Yeah, I do think it’s possible to be a full-on feminist and yet recognize that most jobs suck flaming hemorrhoidal ass, and if you’re in a position not to have to do them you should thank your lucky pasta. I think most men know that too, they’re just not culturally permitted to say so.

  51. Sure. Hirschman’s idea of “work” is something that involves the world outside the domestic sphere, but it doesn’t literally have to be a job where you leave your house (I tend to find jobs like these much less pleasant than the ones I get to perform in my pajamas from my home office).

  52. Okay, totally off topic here, but about those sweatshops…

    Here’s what an economist friend of mine had to say about them:
    “So-called sweatshops offer people an opportunity for income in countries where they would otherwise have nothing; the poverty level in third-world countries is so severe that it’s almost impossible for Americans to imagine the hardship.”

    This was his considered pro-sweatshop statement. He said it was an important part of economic development for poor countries.

    It was scary as hell to hear him to say that (and it changed our friendship), and I wonder if there’s a comparison that can be made to the choices we make here about how we live our lives and the way we see our own (and each other’s) ability to choose.

    The popular culture that’s telling us what, when, and how to eat (and what size clothes we should wear, and when we should hit puberty, and how we should look at a job interview) is downright Babylonian. Our colonial, patriarchal, racist, sexist, ageist, ethnocentric, materialistic, classist (getting redundant here…) culture defines progress, health, and beauty for our society.

    The same popular culture says that sweatshops might actually be a form of economic outreach.

    We may be captives, but we’re not going to lay down and weep.

  53. Amandarea – 80 year old women are human! They are as easily affected by societal expectations as anyone else. I would expect that she did not want to be “the cute little old lady” with all the patronizing that goes with that stereotype. She was trying to remain young and “acceptable” just as someone who diets is trying to become thin and “acceptable.” I personally would not choose cosmetic surgery any more than I would diet or have WLS but I definitely understand the motivation. I have been fat most of my life and I dealt with prejudices from that. The prejudices about aging are as bad or worse.


    Unless, of course, you forget to take off the stupid 3X sticker and walk around for hours before someone is kind enough to point it out. I’ve done this a couple of times. Fortunately, I’m able to see the humor in the situation and genuinely laugh at it rather than dying of mortification. :D

  55. Oh, and speaking of the tags on your clothes: If you are ever in a position where paramedics or ER employees will have to remove your clothing, they WILL NOT HAVE TIME TO LOOK AT IT TO SEE WHAT SIZE IT IS. Just thought I’d get that one off my chest.

  56. Kate217 – I hate those damn stickers!! No matter how many times I check my clothes for size stickers, I always ‘effing miss them! To the point that, even if I get them all off, I will inevitably drop one on my bed or chair and sit on the blasted thing…

    Meowser – Oh my god, my mother used to say things like that. “But in an emergency…” And I can’t believe I never thought of that. Its an ‘effing emergency! Who the hell is going to study tags?? Unless, for identification purposes, they believe you’re in kindergarten and have your name written in your clothes…

  57. Unless, of course, you forget to take off the stupid 3X sticker and walk around for hours before someone is kind enough to point it out. I’ve done this a couple of times.

    Hee! I’ve totally walked around with “XL” on one of my boobs. Which… yeah, fair enough.

  58. I’m 4’11 and fat! *laughs*

    I LOVED being short growing up. I got lots of attention–especially from the opposite sex. The jokes get annoying–mainly for their lack of originality, I still love the nickname Speedbump, simply because it was unique!

    And I LOVE being fat and free from the brainwashing that this is a shameful thing.

    Like you said, we’re never truly free. I still find myself every now and then saying something bad about my body or referring to food in the “good/bad, moral/immoral” paradigm.

    But when I see smart, confident women of all shapes and sizes in diet mode, I’m just overwhelmed by how pervasive the diet mentality is and so thankful that I don’t live worrying about every meal that way.

  59. Although the thread is dormant, I really want to address the debates over whether things like sex work and sweatshops are empowering or not. Because of the complexity of interaction between individuals and society, it can be both depending on the direction in which you approach it.

    Addressing the example of sweatshop workers, they do represent a chance to earn an income far and above what is available in so-called “under-developed” countries (which really means countries ravaged by capitalism and colonialism). It does not offer a chance to work in clean, safe conditions without being exploited by multi-national corporations. It also does very very very little to change the structural inequalities installed by global capitalism and colonialism that limit the options for women (and men) in those countries. The best choice in a bad situation is not a *good* choice.

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