the personal is political: feminism and weight loss
On 1 January each year, many people wake up fully motivated to achieve the usual round-up of New Year’s Resolutions: meet someone special, quit smoking, change careers. By 1 February, most of these have been abandoned as we return to the comfort of ex sex, unshakeable nicotine addictions and our steady, if unexciting, jobs.
Among women, one of the most common New Year’s Resolutions is – of course – to lose weight; the siren call of various scams promising better body image and to get you back into “those” jeans is almost impossible to ignore. But what if you’re a feminist and find yourself seduced by the “new year, new you” slogans that are suddenly everywhere? Can you resolve to lose weight and stay true to your ideals?
The idea that there could even be a conflict between weight loss and feminism might be surprising to some. However, women get a lot of (usually negative) messages about their body on a day-to-day basis, so from the beginning a woman’s weight loss is about more than just losing kilos.
When you add feminist politics, the battle of the bulge becomes even more fraught. Feminism is ultimately the movement to have women and girls treated as full, equal people, and an obvious corollary of this is to stop them being judged by their appearance. To opt out of society’s preferred weight range therefore becomes a powerful statement. Conversely, to opt back into it might feel like pandering to the patriarchy – not to mention shallow. Why spend time on our appearance when we could be, say, advocating for safer childbirth practices in the developing world?
The same is true when we consider fat acceptance and the idea that ‘fat is a feminist issue’. These concepts preach, basically, that women should not apologise for taking up space, and that we can be healthy and beautiful at any size. Consequently, a conscientious feminist may feel that her weight loss attempts could be seen as undermining these worthy causes.
A feminist may also take issue with the fact that the diet industry makes billions from telling women their appearance isn’t good enough, selling them impossibly restrictive regimes and then shaming them when they somehow don’t turn into a supermodel. Our girl might be especially disheartened to learn that 95% of people who attempt to lose weight fail to reach their goal, and that the remainder quickly discover that kilos alone are not the difference between themselves and Miranda Kerr. To “diet” then becomes an unfortunate endorsement of these shame peddlers.
Each of these views is perfectly valid, and no one should feel forced to lose weight. If you believe, for example, that you are a better ally to the fat acceptance cause at your current weight, that’s awesome. But if you are a feminist who is dissatisfied with her weight, whether because (like me) you simply eat and drink unhealthily and think that should change, or because you feel more able to take on the world when you fit into your favourite pants, I say you should be able to change your appearance without shame or fear of betraying your beliefs. You wouldn’t judge another woman for changing her hair, and so you shouldn’t be judged for changing your waist measurements.
I believe, however, there are a few principles one should stick to when deciding to embark on feminist weight loss:
Do it for yourself. Feminism stresses that women should be able to choose what they do with their bodies. If you have someone in your life that is making you feel worthless because of your weight, you can lose a huge chunk straight away by cutting them loose. Any change to your body should be on your terms.
Do it healthily. Keep your money out of the hands of fad diet purveyors and don’t buy into anything that promises unrealistic results. Instead, look after yourself by buying fresh food and trying to work exercise into your everyday life. Where possible, try talking to neutral third parties, such as your GP or a nutritionist, about the best structure for you.
Don’t force it on other people. Getting healthy can feel amazing, but other people’s health or appearance doesn’t have anything to do with you. Let them do what they want with their bodies.
Don’t feel bad if you “fail”. Luckily, as a feminist who is interested in the issues, you already know that most people don’t reach their goal weight. You also know that a woman is more than just her dress size, so if for some reason you can’t get there, take the time to appreciate any healthy changes you’ve made, and the fact that you’re still awesome even if your body isn’t quite the size you wanted it to be (yet).
Losing kilos doesn’t mean losing my feminist values. I am still going to write and to advocate and to call out sexism wherever I see it – I just want to feel happier and healthier while I do it.
Katherine Klaus, 25, is the creator of can be bitter, a weekly blog dedicated to feminist analysis of ‘pop culture, the world in general and other stuff’. When not upsetting fans of various cultural touchstones, Katherine works full time in the seemingly-incongruous field of tax and buys too many comics. She is based in Melbourne, Australia and would love for you to send her an email or get in touch via Twitter.
Very well said! As a feminist with an appallingly bad diet and lifestyle, I embarked upon a healthier regime recently and have never felt better. I have loads of energy now and feel better about myself because I know I’m treating my body with respect. I started on 2nd January but it wasn’t the new year that finally convinced me, the timing was just a coincidence. I have good and bad days, the lure of chocolate and cheezels is sometimes just too much to bare, but I think it’s important to not feel guilty about that. Like you said, I focus on how far I’ve come and just resolve to be better the next day. It’s about the big picture.
Sounds like a great philosophy Sam! 🙂
Many thanks for this piece – and very timely for me!
I’ve just signed up to a weight loss program, but was feeling a little conflicted about it. I’ve chosen one that focuses on health, strength and empowerment – not a “bikini sexy body” or fitting into those jeans etc
What is often missing from these discussions is the focus on weight loss for reasons of HEALTH not physical appearance and societal conformity.
The healthy body/mind at any size ideal is a crucial one, but let’s not forget health outcomes associated with obesity need to be considered too.
Having been over weight as long as I can remember I struggled with hating my body as a teenager (along with everybody else!). It takes a lot of work to accept yourself and your shape, but there are “sizes” that are unhealthy and that’s what we need to support each other on – being a heathy size to live a full & happy life, not to look “hot” and adhere to stereotypes.
I don’t feel any of the mainstream offerings for weightloss appreciate these concepts; foster a healthy relationship with the culture of food and eating nor consider sustainability.
Great guidelines Katherine! I’ll be keeping them in mind while I give this program a go.
Such a good article! I too have begun a weightless journey and have at times questioned myself if I am turning my back on my feminist values. But I soon realised that I can still have the same values, just at a healthier weight range. Hope to hear more from you!
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