Thursday, April 12, 2007

nothing but a number?

body image is a feminist issue, no doubt. sometimes it is tempting for us to relegate it to the back burner, given the myriad other problems facing women in our society; we often feel that there are "more pressing concerns" than how we feel when we look in the dressing room mirror. But the societal bombardment of dysfunctional aesthetic ideals is a real problem and a big one - i don't think i've ever met a woman unaffected by it.

all this said, yesterday i read this post on feministing and its varied comment thread, and something about it has been needling me ever since. not needling in the sense that i necessarily disagree, but needling in the sense that i find the whole thing complicated and kinda exhausting.

the article, in sum, cites a study proving that most people who "diet" eventually gain the weight back. the intro paragraph:

The world's largest study of weight loss by a group of researchers at the University of California has proven, once and for all, that two-thirds of those who diet gain the weight back and put themselves at risk for a host of scary side effects—like heart attack, stroke, and diabetes—in the process. Diets also commonly lead to eating disorders, afflictions which affect 10 million Americans and rising.

not surprising, right? of course. and i even agree with the post's assertion that we, as a society, are continually and blatantly duped by a diet industry that has zero interest in helping us lose weight and every interest in separating us from our paychecks.

but wait - that's not exactly the post's point. it concludes, in bold lettering, "It is your emotions about those numbers [on the scale], not the numbers themselves, that have the power to make or break you." and here's where the rubber hits the road in the comment thread.

there have been many a feminist blog post about weight and body issues, and many have resulted in the same sniping arguments about fatness, thinness, health, and acceptance. i don't mean to rehash it all in detail here. but i'm troubled by assertions like these, made after a few commenters chimed in to say of course yo-you dieting is insane and beauty standards are wack, but there are more holistic, lifestyle-based ways to lose weight if you need to:

"I'm sorry, but any conscious restriction of food intake with the goal of losing weight counts as 'dieting' under any reasonable definition."

"So when researchers say that dieting doesn't work, they literally mean that any effort to restrict food intake is likely to be unsuccessful, or even harmful."

and this is where i start saying, out loud, to myself, wait, what?? you're trying to tell me that "any effort to restrict food intake" is probably a bad idea? newsflash: we do that every day. does this commenter actually know a living person who eats whatever they want, whenever they want all the time? because that's absurd. there are things called biology, and physiology, and nutrition - they are important! they matter! i "restrict" my food intake at a baseline level because it's proven as the healthy thing to do.

maybe you can say i'm stretching the meaning of these arguments past what they were supposed to mean. in parsing them within their context, i could cop to that. but i think the argument you see play out in the rest of the thread is that same old binary of "fuck beauty standards, total fat acceptance!" versus "fat is not healthy!"

of course, the "fat is not healthy" crowd does themselves no favors by often vastly overgeneralizing and thus donning the strawman suit. (hey, i'm all for health as a realistic and worthy goal as far as one's weight, but there are women who've got 30 pounds on me and could slaughter me in a 5K. so, your premise sucks.) and i dunno, the whole thing is so tiring, and you start to feel like whatever you think and however you feel must be wrong somehow. wanting to eat healthier? well, you're obviously "restricting your food intake" and thus a failure to the feminist movement. want to tell the world to kiss your fat ass and bring you another slice of cheesecake? well, society knows full well how to shame you for that one.

and for most equality-minded women, we just ping-pong in between the two arenas of guilt. different scenery, but essentially the same place. and this is feminist discourse, feminist thinking! how is there ever any hope for rehabilitating mainstream media? i dunno. i just came away from the whole thing a little sad about this state of affairs.

sigh. pass the ben & jerry's.


papertiger1978 said...

There is a bizzare tendency among gay men to brag about how they can eat anything they want and not gain an ounce.

Its complete bullshit. Its true, metabolism varies, and some of us are lucky. (I can't help but hear "Some Girls are Bigger Than Others" by The Smiths, in my head).

I'm as guilty as anyone. I have the appetite of a pig, but sometimes I'm the first to make a fat joke. Other homos have serious body image issues. Genetics aren't something to be flaunted... that's like bragging about being tall. What an accomplishment. Hooray for you.

One of my best friends in college had an eating disorder. She never announced it, but it was obvious. Nothing could be eaten without chopsticks. She sprinkled Equal on salads. Tomatoes were evil. Weird stuff like this. One day, another female friend of hers and I ended up driving her to the hospital, where she was admitted. She's been well, since, but never what I would call "healthy." She stayed with us during the last Inauguration, and was still waifish.

Why society values radical self-punishment over moderate restraint, I'll never understand.

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Toast said...

Why society values radical self-punishment over moderate restraint, I'll never understand.

I can do serious dieting when I put my mind to it. Stick to a program, track calories, crack the whip and all that. I can also completely let myself indulge. Both of those avenues are comparitively easy. The middle ground? The "moderate restraint" you speak of? That's the hardest damned thing in the world. It's six beers or no beers for me. Fish and a small side of veggies versus snacks, pasta, bread, and dessert. I simply cannot locate the middle of the road when it comes to food & drink. The switch is either off or on.

Is that a social/cultural thing? Some outgrowth of our weirdly schizophrenic culture (repressed/indulgent)? Or a defect in individual psychology that happens to be fairly widespread?

kate.d. said...

the irony of that second comment is delicious. and equal on salads? really? god, that is so strange and so sad!

toast, i think it's Door #2: Some outgrowth of our weirdly schizophrenic culture (repressed/ indulgent). and that schizophrenia is based in dollars and cents.

a commenter in the feministing thread (which is now up to 76, by the way) said it really well:

One of the things that enabled me to move past the yo-yo dieting mentality I had in college was realizing how much of it is fueled by capitalism. I mean, Nestle makes those delicious crunch bars and hot chocolate and markets them like porn, and then turns around and gives us slim-fast or whatever...
When you start to really consider the fact that these huge conglomerates want you to binge your misery away and then hate yourself and buy diet products, it makes it easier to stop doing both, I think.

i agree with everything except her final point about realization equaling easier resistance! i haven't found that to be the case personally, at least.

dorothy rothschild said...

I didn't go and read the original thread you're writing about, but I'm wondering, just because I have read widely and obsessively about eating disorders and body image, if they mean restrict in the way you are reading it, which seems more like restraint. Often in the lingo of eating disorder literature, they use restrict as in "I will eat no carbs at all" or "I will only eat five cherries for each meal for five days," and in reference obsessive calorie counting and all those diets where you restrict certain foods.

kate.d. said...

that's a good point, dot. i think in the context of this particular post, which was not eating disorders per se but the phenomenon of "dieting" overall, the people referencing "restriction" probably meant it in a more general sense of the word.

but then again, those are just my rusty textual analysis skills :) i could certainly be wrong.