When Body Issues Attack, Turn to Feminist Theory

Ah, the beginning of summer. Freedom, warmth, sunshine, fresh green
grass…and a certain kind of hell for women with body issues, which
is to say, pretty much all of us. Yes, it’s "bikini-season", and in the few moments when
women are not being exhorted to blast off our newly-exposed cellulite,
the swelter equals street harassment paradise. To make it worse, ice
cream, verboten by conventional diet wisdom, beckons around every corner. 

Fortunately, for everything that makes us feel bad about ourselves,
there’s a piece of feminist literature to help remind us that the beauty
culture does not evaluate one individual’s relative worthiness, but rather
acts as a system that afflicts and controls women as a group.

And we are a group.

I’ve listened to fifteen year old girls from impoverished
sections of the Bronx and from fancy buildings on Park Avenue alike who refuse
to eat breakfast because of the calories, but then can’t focus in class
because they’re starving. For all of us, as Courtney Martin says so
well in her book,
Perfect Girls, Starving
body anxieties
are a waste. Think of the positive energy women young and old alike
could be exerting instead of calculating the calories in our breakfasts
or counting the dimples behind our knees.

Sin and Redemption 

As women deny themselves more and more, junk food starts to beckon like
a forbidden doorway. When we splurge, we often simultaneously calculate
the number of miles we’ll need to put in the next day — or perhaps, just
the number of times we’ll berate ourselves. It makes it hard to enjoy
that cupcake

This process  is described by Naomi Wolf in
The Beauty Myth. Wolf posits that for women, the dichotomy
of food consumption and denial has replaced the process of religiously-informed
sexual sin and atonement that once kept women in their place. That moral
control over women’s bodies faded away but it has been replaced with
new set of judgments about what comes in and out of women’s mouths.

If we don’t believe women should be punished for "impure"
thoughts or actions, we shouldn’t buy into the modern edict that eating too
much equals a kind of wantonness. Instead, we should work to avoid
labeling food behaviors with any moral judgment whatsoever. 

Complicit in Capitalism

Popular diet regimen Ultra Slim-Fast is made by Nestle, purveyors of
Crunch bars and other candy. Nestle wants us to have it both ways–eat
crunch bars, feel bad, buy Slim-Fast and then go off the wagon and eat
more Crunch bars.

In other words, capitalism wants us to hate ourselves.

In her book of media criticism, Where the Girls Are, Susan J. Douglas has a chapter about
how capitalism manipulated the rhetoric of feminism to suck women into beauty culture, by advertising beauty products as creating strong,
firm, bodies, and through the rise of the hyper-technical, foreign-word enhanced
labels on skin products (for instance, "advanced biotechnique micro-bead technology
from the doctors at the Weripyouoff institute in Zurich").

The diet industry is a racket, and there’s been great pushback against
it in the blogosphere. If diets worked, we’d all use them, be skinny
and then the companies would go out of business.  They’re not that benevolent.
We shouldn’t be going on diets, buying their books, or otherwise indulging
the cycle. 

Women’s Bodies as Public Property

"Lookin’ good!"

What woman hasn’t heard these words as she
hurries down the street on a hot day? We all know that
being harassed has little to do with whether we are, in fact,
lookin’ good (it happens when we’re wearing sweatpants and tube tops
alike) and all to do with the fact that we appear to be female.  In reality,
this kind of behavior is about power and entitlement, not about our
individual bodies. But it can feel humiliating to be singled out in
public that way.

There’s little we can do to combat street harassment on an individual
level other than
holla back or ignore it. But it does help to contextualize
what’s happening to us — to remember that in the eyes of many,
women’s bodies are public property. That is why we struggle against violence
and rape, and for our reproductive rights. The idea that a woman’s bodily
integrity is not a basic right is mind-boggling — but then again, street
harassment gives us daily proof.

So the next time someone whistles, we should get mad on behalf of ourselves,
along with the women who have been denied their right to choose and
live freely, who are all suffering under the same weird conception that
our bodies are NOT our own. As the public service announcements on the Boston transit system proclaim, in the voice of a woman who has been harassed on the subway, "I’m not the one who should feel ashamed." Righteous rage feels better than shame. 

A Concession to the Patriarchy

Truthfully, it would be hard for many of us to live if we fought off
every single expectation about our appearances. One idea Amanda Marcotte
and Jessica Valenti have articulated in their
feminist primers is that instead of castigating ourselves and
each other for occasionally capitulating to the beauty/diet industry,
we have to accept the concessions we make to the patriarchy in order
to survive. For some women, it’s extra time at the gym. For others,
it’s high heels or mascara

But why not see our choices for what they are — little things that make
us more comfortable in a superficial, sexist world — instead of as "empowering"
or "selling out" or anything else with a value attached to

So this summer, let’s ditch our issues of Shape and Glamour, and pick
up our dog-eared feminist manifestos instead, and help
train our minds to reject the ridiculousness of our image-focused

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  • invalid-0

    Thank you.

  • invalid-0

    I am a feminist, and I happen to wear high heels because I find them aesthetically pleasing, not because they make me more comfortable in a “superficial” and “sexist” world. I also swim (probably less than I should admittedly) because I like to feel fit, confident and good about myself. That’s not superficial or sexist; it’s human nature.

    Your assertions imply that our body images, style of dress and workout habits are driven entirely by men and our patriarical society, and have nothing to do with health or women (and their prejudices). It also ignores the fact that today, there is a wider spectrum of body types deemed as “desirable,” from Beyonce-built cover girls to Kate Moss-a change that is driven more by today’s celebrity-obsessed culture than patriarchy.

    In giving men all the power, especially aesthetic control, you take the power and responsibility completely out of our hands and land us back in the Ibsen era.

  • http://www.stopstreetharassment.com invalid-0

    Thanks, this is a well done blog entry on many important summer-related topics for women! And I’m happy to say I’ve read nearly all of the books you cite :)
    I just wanted to share a link about strategies for dealing with street harassment from my website: http://www.stopstreetharassment.com/strategies/index.htm. I wrote my master’s thesis on the topic last year and am continuing to research it more. I think there is more that we can do at an individual level to stop street harassment, particularly by raising awareness of the issue through sharing our stories, writing or talking about it (like you are here), and educating men that women don’t like it.

  • http://www.ditch-diets-live-light.com invalid-0

    I’m thrilled to know that the blogosphere is contributing to the message that diets don’t work. This is what my entire website is devoted to…. but I thought your readers might like to read more about what experts say about this at: http://www.ditch-diets-live-light.com/diets-dont-work.html

    We seldom hear though that not only do they not work, but fad diets in particular will actually help us GAIN weight. It’s also what I’ve written two books about.

  • http://myspace.com/saynathespiffy invalid-0

    I think you misunderstood the point of the article entirely. You can wear high heels and enjoy excercise and still be a feminist, and I believe you when you say that you just like the style of heels and the feeling of being physically fit. But I don’t think you can rightfull call yourself a feminist when you look down on women who don’t conform to traditional beauty standard and go from solely your own experience without even considering what other women may experience. What you’ve ignored is that sometimes beauty standards go beyond just being physically fit and wearing the things that you like and that you feel you looks good in. Sometimes the standards are absolutely ridiculous and have to do with things completely beyond your control.

    From “Beyonce” to “Kate Moss” isn’t exactly a broad spectrum. They’re both young, thin, and genetically gifted. They’re also both wearing lots of makeup.

    And no, women reinforcing the sexist, patriarical standards does not make them any less sexist or patriarical.