Good Feminists Don’t Diet (At Least, Not in January)

We’re midway through January now, gang, and that means two things:

1. Every media outlet is running or has run a story about how to achieve your New Year’s Resolution weight loss goal — because obviously, you made one — like, this time for real. This article suggests it’s just a matter of staying organized. Gwyneth Paltrow, in her infinite wisdom, is pushing a 21-Day Elimination Diet (argh… post to come on how I hate the whole concept of detoxing with every fiber of my being). The Special K Challenge wants you to consume just 829 calories per day, most of them via Special K products.

2. Feminist writers and bloggers are dutifully carrying out the annual backlash to weight loss-related resolutions. Feministing’s Chloe reminds us, “it’s the time of year when women are told, by every mainstream women’s media outlet there is, that we must lose weight” in her post about Isabelle Caro (the French model who died a few weeks ago after a long and terribly tragic battle with anorexia). Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams is upset about Carrie Fisher joining Jenny Craig. Jezebel eye-rolls the resolution-fueled trend of “get Natalie’s Black Swan body” workouts. And lots of folks are in a lather about the Florida woman who resolved to look better and then died in the middle of cosmetic surgery.

So, here’s my thing: I’m a feminist. And I made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight.

Here’s the previously on, in case you’re just tuning in. I went to Beauty U, gained twenty pounds, spent months hating those twenty pounds because I thought they kidnapped my body, then realized that my body is still pretty rad and good at back bends, no matter what the bathroom scale says.

Which was a lovely and positive conclusion. But it’s not quite the same conclusion that I’m drawing day-to-day. I’m still sad that my favorite jeans don’t fit. Also my favorite sweaters and dresses and skirts and even boots — did you know that knee-high boots don’t zip up so well if you gain twenty pounds? True story. My small-calved sister is making out like a bandit right now.

At the same time, I really and truly believe that we need to get away from the notion that thin always equates health. So if you’re eating well, exercising regularly, and are free from/able to successfully manage chronic disease and debilitating health problems, then I count you as healthy. Period. No matter what you weigh. Which means I count myself as currently healthy. And so I just have to own it and say: I’m not worried about my health. I want to lose weight solely for aesthetic reasons.

I figured this out right before the holidays and I’ve been seriously mad at myself for a few weeks now. Because I feel like a big traitor to the cause. Women do need to stop judging ourselves so harshly by a completely arbitrary and punishing set of beauty standards. It’s making us crazy and sick and distracts us from getting on with our lives and saving the world and sh*t. All the feminist bloggers getting mad about New Year’s Resolutions are pretty dead-on. Natalie Portman has said she worried she might die while training for “Black Swan” — so why, exactly, is my inbox filled with press releases promoting the ballet-based workouts that will give me her hungry little body?

But then my very wise friend Amy reminded me that there are shades of gray in all of this. “You are allowed to want to look differently for aesthetic reasons,” she told me. “Just not if it’s making you miserable!”

Oh. Yes.

Of all the beauty standards running rampant in our culture, weight is hands-down the most powerful (or at least, tied with age and well ahead of other standards, like blond hair, tan skin, and impractical footwear). We’ve built thinness up to equate health and a good work ethic and a whole host of other non-beauty-related character traits. Which means subscribing to this standard takes the biggest toll.

But why give it that much power? Your weight is just one of the thousands of ways your body gets judged every day! (By the way, that is meant to sound chipper.)

In a perfect world, we’d all be picking and choosing amongst all of these standards like so many paint chips, testing out the ones we like and rejecting the ones we don’t, checking how they look in different lights and then going about our business without a care in the world. In that world, deciding to lose weight because you think, rather arbitrarily, that you look better at 145 pounds than at 165 pounds would be no more fraught than deciding to start wearing jeggings because you really like the whole jeans-tucked-into-boots trend after all. That being the other most recent beauty-standard-related (and thus, slightly ridiculous) decision I can recall making.

It’s not a perfect analogy — losing weight is way more difficult than just buying the damn jeggings. I’ve signed on to be more mindful about what I eat, exercise regularly, and weigh myself with some frequency to track my progress. And since losing weight sustainably means shedding no more than a pound or so a week, I’m going to be doing all of these things for the next five months. Whereas once I bought the jeggings, I got to wear them that same day. Plus, if I decide this 145 pound trend has real staying power — if it is in fact not jeggings, but more like the new little black dress of my wardrobe — then I’m going to have to continue to be mindful of food choices and exercise in order to maintain it.

Still, I think there’s something to this idea. And “Just not if it’s making you miserable!” is the whole key — in fact, it may just be the key to whether or not you should let any beauty standard into your life. So far, I’ve lost two pounds in two weeks that also included several glasses of wine, a brownie or two, and a delicious pasta dish, alongside mountains of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. I’m pretty far from miserable.

But I’m also keeping tabs on that. Because just like I stopped highlighting my hair when $200 hair appointments every six weeks made me miserable for a whole other set of reasons (expense, smell, the fact that I just do not work as a blond), I’m reserving the right to opt out* of this standard any time I feel like it. The are-you-miserable math isn’t going to add up if I have to go to impossible lengths (and for me, skipping meals or living without chocolate would constitute impossible lengths) or invest an endless amount of time to attain this standard.

All of which is to say: “Black Swan bodies” aside, I’m rethinking my position that all diets are by definition punitive and dangerously anti-woman. After all, telling women they shouldn’t want to lose weight is just us imposing yet another external beauty standard, when it’s all far more personal and more complicated than that. So I’d like to propose that I can make a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and keep all of my feminist street cred intact.

What do you think? Is it possible to lose weight without giving it so much weight (see what I did there with the word play fun)? Or is losing weight for aesthetic reasons just too loaded in our culture?

*When I say “opt out,” I mostly mean “stop weighing myself” and striving to attain a certain weight. Because again, this isn’t about health. Eating well and being physically active are important for your health and I want to live a super long time, so I’m on board with doing that stuff more or less indefinitely. At the moment, I also happen to be on board with the beauty-related (not health-related) idea that I should weigh less so I can fit into my pretty clothes, and thus, I need to pay attention to what I actually weigh in order to do that.

Filed under Beauty Labor, Beauty Standards

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19 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s such a cycle of beating ourselves up about one thing (need to lose weight!) and then the other (stop playing into society’s hands and being so shallow by thinking you need to lose weight!). I think you’ve thought through the balance quite nicely here. I just injured my back and won’t be able to work out for a few weeks, and I’ve found myself in a tailspin thinking, “WHAT IF I GAIN WEIGHT?!” But now, I’m taking a deep breath, relaxing, and focusing on doing what’s best to make my body feel healed and healthy. Thanks for getting me back on track.

  2. Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I think folks should do whatever they want to their bodies for whatever reason they want: even if someone lives on rice crackers or wants risky cosmetic surgery or a controversial treatment like skin lightening (or, conversely, decides to stop bathing and/or changing her clothes), even if someone is making herself demonstrably less healthy, I don’t consider myself in any position to judge — it’s her body, after all. I’ll offer an opinion (or help) if I’m asked for it, but otherwise it isn’t any of my business. I see being against beauty standards as similar to being pro-choice: I don’t think everyone should have an abortion or that everyone should have a baby; I think each individual should be able to make up her own mind without threat of judgment or censure, no matter what she chooses to do.

    That said, though, since you are soliciting opinions, I’m not really sure what the bathroom scale has to do with this. If you’re losing weight for aesthetic reasons, won’t you notice if your clothes start fitting better, for example? Because to me, weighing yourself — rather than checking out how cute you look in a certain outfit — seems more misery-inducing, at least to me.

    • Posted January 17, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      HMMM. That is a super good point.

      I think there are times when I’ve found the bathroom scale to be motivating — it gives you that same sense of accomplishment as crossing off items on your to-do list. And it can also offer me a more healthy perspective, because sadly, I can’t always trust my eyes and brain to deduce whether my clothes are fitting better — I’ve had times in my life where my clothes fitted just fine, but I was convinced that I was roughly the same size as a baby elephant. If you’re prone to being unrealistic (in a negative way) about what your body really looks like, then the scale can provide a useful reality check (“No eating two brownies did not cause you to gain 57 pounds over night”) to rein in that kind of thinking.

      That being said, there are obviously about a thousand reasons why bathroom scales make people MORE unhappy and obsessed with their weight. So I probably should spend a little more time assessing whether I can use it for good or for evil, so to speak, or if, as you say, I’d be better off just seeing how my clothes fit.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        I’ve had really negative experiences with the bathroom scales and I think the sense of ‘accomplishment’, as you put it, is equally part of the problem as being more unhappy when the scales say you’ve piled on the pounds. I speak from personal experience here, I really do think there’s something disturbing in turning losing weight into a project. I fear that what may lie behind that sense of accomplishment, of ticking of the to-do list, is essentially women validating themselves for living up to an ideal imposed upon them. I know I’m happier when I’m thinner but I must question why this is the case. As you say, it’s nothing to do with health. I know my efforts and energy could be better spent elsewhere, but still, I deeply want to be thin and will devote a disproportionate amount of my thinking into achieving this. Where does this really come from?

        Really enjoyed your honest approach to the subject – it’s not often writing women’s issues even acknowledges that their might be grey areas.

  3. Posted January 17, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I recently posted a blog about focusing more on health rather than weight and I agree with all you said.

  4. Posted January 17, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Well said. Such an incredibly touchy topic. I feel like I have to tip-toe around it, and I love the way you just laid it out (diplomatically, elegantly, and humorously, of course).

  5. Jodi
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Actually, I think not fitting in your clothes to the extent that you have to buy a new wardrobe is a good enough reason. Clothing is expensive.

    I knew I had to do something when my apple shape made it difficult to tie my shoes, so am working out a little more and consuming a little less. I need to be able to bend over without pain.

    When something interferes with your life in a way that makes you stressed, be it weight, another person, a job, the place you live in…then you should look at making changes. Some people find life less stressful with the extra 20 pounds that you are carrying. You don’t, and that’s OK. You don’t shame others for their weight…so really, I don’t see a problem.

  6. Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    What an interesting and thought-provoking post, Virginia. I agree that dieting–even for aesthetic reasons–isn’t uniformly negative. And if we turn our will over to the feminist movement, and deny our own voice and responsibility, then we’ve defeated ourselves and missed the point. So you’re on to something about misery being the differentiator. I think it’s good to continue to evaluate what our motives are for losing weight, but it’s definitely not a black and white issue. The book Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders has a great chapter called “I’ll die for the revolution but don’t ask me not to diet.” It’s such a hard issue because what we want on a global scale, and for others, doesn’t always overlap with what we want for ourselves.

  7. Kate
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Per Jodi, above, I also agree that losing weight to fit back into your clothes (given that your clothes are a reasonable size) isn’t a ridiculous and anti-feminist reason to lose weight. I, for one, was highly motivated to lose my baby weight by the stack of designer jeans staring at me from my closet. What, I’m going to drop hundreds of dollars on denim and then never wear it again? No thank you. Plus, I’d been the same happy size for the previous decade before I got pregnant, so I saw no reason why I couldn’t be the same happy size again.

  8. J
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I agree! The idea that “omg you’re BAD at being a MODERN WOMAN if you want to lose weight!” is totally redonk to me. If you, like myself, have gained weight after being one size for a loong time (hello 30 pounds I gained after getting married!) and cleaned out your closet of clothes that don’t fit or flatter anymore – you find you don’t have a lot left and you have to buy new clothes. Which is expensive and not-green. If you were healthy and happy before (you know, because you had clothes that FIT YOU) and you wanna get back there, well, the feminists need to get offa’ your back and let us do our fitness-thing.

  9. Posted February 13, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Hey,
    Yeah – I hear what you are saying. I am a die-hard advocate of Health at Every Size and a anti-diet feminist type. However, I cannot help but see the similarities in your argument to the one I make defending my right to be a good feminist and still wear make-up…. or dye my hair. What it comes down to, is motivation and as you say…’does it make you miserable?’. Naomi Wolf says pretty much the same in her book The Beauty Myth.

    I also use india arie’s song ‘Video’ as a bench mark for these complicated questions exploring the line between healthful pursuit of attractiveness and being held under the thumb of patriarchal beauty ideals. As long as it feels good in your soul you know what is best for you and your body.

8 Trackbacks

  1. [...] and you won’t need to worry about losing weight for health reasons. You might still want to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, but that’s a whole separate [...]

  2. [...] the beauty industry just goes there. January is a month of uncertainty. And it’s not just diets. We’re all filled with hope and excitement and burning questions about what the coming year [...]

  3. By More on That Bathroom Scale. | Beauty Schooled on February 1, 2011 at 11:29 am

    [...] up! A new version of this post about feminists and diets is up on AOL’s MyDaily.com. So you can go check that out [...]

  4. [...] face up to how the current definition doesn’t work. I went into a lot more detail about this over here and [...]

  5. [...] And then there was the diet I started in January to lose my twenty pounds of beauty school weight. I lost ten-ish (some weeks it’s more like [...]

  6. [...] I did this in January and I still feel good about that choice. It wasn’t about hating my body at that size in the “being this size means I have no value and nobody will love me” sense. It was about admitting that yes, I was applying the thin beauty standard to my body and thinking I would be more attractive to myself if I lost some weight, goddammit. As much as I question beauty standards around here, I will never, ever deny anyone their right to subscribe to one. We get to pick and choose. At the same time that I was buying into the weight standard, I was breaking up with a whole bunch of other standards that I didn’t want to apply to myself anymore because they didn’t seem important or contribute to my overall happiness. [...]

  7. [...] season, just because it makes us happy — as you might recall, I made the conscious decision to diet purely for aesthetic reasons last January — and maybe we can. I absolutely do support every person’s right to pick [...]

  8. By Why I Quit Dieting on May 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    [...] What was the last diet you were on? VA: January 2011 after I gained 20 pounds in beauty school and couldn’t fit into my pants. I mostly made up my own — but it was a sort of hybrid of [...]

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