Is losing weight anti-feminist?

I came across a post at A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss – and by the way, I love this blog and think it is worthwhile reading even if you are not black or a girl or interested in losing weight – in which a reader asked Erika, the blog’s editor, why feminists aren’t allowed to lose weight?

The timing of the post was interesting, as I had just been emailing back and forth with another fitness-obsessed feminist, and we both talked about the internal tension that exists when you are a feminist who also is really into fitness, how you have to be very careful about the way you talk about bodies and weight.  I mean, I don’t need to tell anyone who is reading this blog that questions of weight, food and bodies are heavily loaded in our society.  When I used to spend time at a particular ladyblog, the posts about body image and weight and eating disorders always garnered hundreds of comments, far more than just about any other topic.   For women (and to a certain extent, men), weight can be an endless source of shame and self-hate and frustration.

The normal pressure women feel with regards to their weight is compounded by the nation’s “war on obesity,” which has positioned fat people as Public Enemy Number…3?  (I’m guessing behind Al-Qaeda and pill mills, give or take a public enemy or two.)  Women’s bodies have long been seen as public property, a national resource to be protected and exploited. A woman’s body belongs to society as a producer of babies, to bystanders as a source of visual pleasure, to her children as a source of food, to her partner as a source of sexual pleasure, to everybody except herself.  The “war on obesity” just further serves to solidify this idea that a woman’s body is not her own.

As a result, I support the idea of health at every size, and I try hard not to engage in any sort of fat-shaming or to make judgments about a person’s body.   Women already have a lot of pressure on them to look a specific way or to behave in specific ways, and I am loathe to add to it.  To paraphrase Susie Orbach, fat is totally a feminist issue.

But.  (There is always a “but,” isn’t there?)  I’ve also recently lost a bit of weight, and I’m glad I did.  I am almost embarrassed to write about this, because I feel like many feminist ladies are so fed up with the pressures put on women to care about their appearances to the exclusion of all else and are so frustrated by all of the fatphobic messages in our society that now a woman who does want to lose weight and who does eat salads and who does spend time in the gym is seen someone who is selling out her feminist ideals.

I didn’t lose a lot of weight – just ten pounds.  And it wasn’t like I obsessed over it, because I didn’t.  What happened was that one day it occurred to me that if I was ever going to explore my full potential as a middle-distance runner, I was going to have to change some things about the way I lived my life.  I was going to have to run consistently and do speedwork and I was going to have to cut back on beer and bacon cheeseburgers.  So I traded in Doritos for baby carrots and took up a two-a-day regiment that had me lifting weights for 30 minutes a day and then either running or riding a bike for another 30 minutes.

Within a few months, I’d dropped a few pounds and leaned out.  At the same time, I found my average minute-per-mile pace dropping to the 8:15/8:30 range.  It’s hard to say whether running faster caused me to lose weight, or whether losing weight caused me to run faster.  What I do know for certain is that I was delighted with the outcome.

And yet I feel guilty about this, like I have somehow betrayed those who battle eating disorders and who wage an internal war against a tsunami of social messages to feel good about their bodies, no matter what size they are, by making an active decision to lose weight.  Especially as I am and always have been slender, and especially because I was not doing so for health-related reasons, but because I wanted to run faster.  I mean, who wants to listen to the tall, slender lady who goes to the gym all the time talk about how she wants to lose weight?  NOBODY, that’s who.  As a result, I don’t talk much about my weight loss.

The thing I – and others – need to learn is that just because one of us chooses to handle her body in one way does not necessarily mean those who handle their bodies in another way are wrong or morally weak or politically suspect.   My decision to run four miles a day and eat baby carrots does not negate your decision to eat half a pizza and vice versa.  I am not somehow better than you for that reason, nor are you better than me.

The point is not that we should all be forced to live our lives according to the same set of constraints, but that we should not be coming down harshly on those who choose to follow paths that diverge from the one we chose for ourselves.

18 responses to “Is losing weight anti-feminist?

  1. I think you know why all I have to say about this post is, THANK YOU. Thank you for saying it more eloquently than I could. Body policing is body policing whether it is about someone losing weight or someone who loves their rolls and curves.

  2. i agree with your general sentiment here, although i think you may be over-simplifying things a little bit. at the end of the day, i support people’s rights to do whatever they want with their bodies–eat a pizza, eat some baby carrots, do weight training, chill on the couch…none of it really any my business. what i don’t support is body negative language & behavior–including language & behavior directed at oneself. there’s just not really a clear cut consensus of opinion as to what constitutes body negativity.

    i will add that it is a challenge to hear a defense of weight loss from a slim woman who has always been slim. perhaps body positivity should be more of an ally situation for you–listen, support, encourage, that kind of thing. i think it’s only seriously fringe wingnuts (which do exist, but they are a minority) who really believe that healthy weight loss unaccompanied by body negative language & behaviors is anti-feminist. therefore, weight loss doesn’t really require a defense. maybe this is what i mean by “over-simplification”. while it is very, very true that there all kinds of differences of opinion & divisions within feminist movements, the bottom line remains that slim continues to be a societal ideal & fat continues to be demonized. i think we lose sight of the bigger picture when we suggest that “body policing” directed at feminists who lose weight & work to stay fit is the same/as bad as body policing directed at women in general who are uninterested or unable to be slim. it’s also worth noting that you seem to suggest that eschewing cheeseburgers for carrot sticks & working out for an hour a day is going to inherently result in weight loss or is accessible to all people. you know that neither of those things is true, right?

    • Yes, I’m aware that I used deliberately oversimplified language for the sake of rhetoric. I am also aware that many people will not lose weight based solely on eating fewer cheeseburgers and working out an hour a day. When I wrote that it’s because that’s what I did. Not trying to make any prescriptive statements for anyone else when I say that.

      It’s not so much that I wanted to mount a defense of weight loss, because lord knows “losing weight” as a concept is not exactly under attack in our society, but more to explore why it is that feminists who do decide to lose weight feel a certain amount of internalized shame and guilt when they do so, and to maybe open a dialogue about it with those few people who do read my blog.

      Re: an already slender woman losing weight – I actually agree, which is why I this blog is maybe the only time I’ve ever talked about it with someone who was not my husband or my real-life bestie. I really am not interested in being That Woman, the one who always talks about losing weight, and would much prefer to be more about making the kind of lifestyle choices that help a person feel as strong and energetic and vigorous as they can possibly feel. But I did become aware of the fact that I felt this mix of shame and embarrassment after I lost weight, like I was some kind of feminist sell-out, and like I said, I wanted to explore that.

      • at feminist book club last week, we talked for a while about white privilege. a few people expressed the fact that they had had a difficult time navigating their oppressed status as women & their privileged status as white people. they realized that it boiled down to the fact that acknowledging their white privilege made them feel guilty, & it’s never fun to feel guilty, especially about something that you can’t really help. then we talked for a while about how useless guilt really is.

        i think there is a corollary here with feminism & weight loss. if a person is or becomes slim, they have moved into privileged class. if that person is schooled a little bit in feminism & is aware of fatphobia, they are aware that they have moved into a privileged class & maybe they feel guilty about it. portraying that guilt as a function of some kind of weird oppression is…well, kind of fucked up. really fucked up, even. i don’t think that’s necessarily what you’re doing in this post, but other people can certainly read this & use the rhetorical over-simplification you have employed to draw the conclusion that within feminism, losing weight subjects one to oppression. i think nicole kind of tiptoed into that territory in equating weight loss “body policing” with fatphobic body policing.

        if you feel guilty, like a feminist sell-out, because you lost ten pounds, that’s how you feel. i would just be very careful about explaining your feelings in such a way that does not open the door to myths about the oppression of having lost some weight. i think more interesting questions may be things like, how can a slim person be an ally to fat people? how does rhetoric about health, about being as vigorous & energetic as possible, relate to ableist language? how can “health at every size” sometimes become a mask for concern trolling? how does privilege guilt obfuscate the realities of oppression? what kind of guilt expressions are embraced & what kind are belittled? (for example, what if a fat girl wrote a post about eating a pizza & feeling guilty about it? or not feeling guilty about it? what would happen?) how can we employ rhetoric in a way that does not set the stage for agreement from people that actually agree with the opposite of what we mean? i could go on. i, for one, would find these questions a lot more interesting than another discussion from a slim woman about how she dropped a few pounds & feels guilty & assumes that feminists are going to criticize her, so she misappropriates their own language about freedom of choice as a pre-emptive defense.

      • I’m the first to admit that I have a lot to learn when writing about these things, but I do try to be careful about the language that I use and to be aware of my own privileges as a thin woman and an able-bodied woman. I hope I’m not coming across as bemoaning my oppression as a thin woman because that shit gets annoying, to be all “I’ve been oppressed by random comments on the internet for doing something socially acceptable!”

        Thanks for your comments. You’ve given me plenty to think about.

  3. Caitlin I love your blog! I think about this a lot too. Recently I have started to come out to people that I have struggled off and on with bulemia for years, something that I have mostly kept secret. I started telling people I love because I knew the longer I kept it a secret, the easier it would be for me to slip back into it when shit got bad. Also, I am getting a root canal this week, which has been long needed for months but I’ve been putting it off because I have no insurance and it’s expensive, but it was a huge wake up call to me, not to mention as I get older my digestive system is more and more out of wack because of the way I treated myself.

    Wow, so I wasn’t planning to begin this comment that way, but it is something I think about a lot because I am a bigger lady (well, i’m also really small, but round) and I am athletic, I am a bike commuter and a yoga teacher. I had to acknowledge that I will never be skinny awhile ago, and I don’t even want to be skinny, but also, I feel like if I want to be taken seriously as a yoga teacher and a cyclist I should be thinner. Also, I carry a lot of my weight around my middle, which is something that I am very self concious about. However, lately I have been thinking about how although fatphobia has effected me really negatively in my life (although probably more internally than externally) i think there are some flaws with the “fat acceptance” movement. Yes, I would like to except my 5’3 size 10/12 frame for what it is, an amazing body that can do lots of awesome stuff! Fat positivity is really useful to someone like me who is relatively healthy (besides the effects of an eating disorder, when i was trying to look more healthy, ironically) yet considered “chubby” or “fat” according to a large percentage of people. but when I weighed 30lbs more and was a size 16, had an underactive thyroid due to psych meds and a drinking problem, and i ate a vegetableless diet, “fat positivity” was a way to be like “stop discriminating against me, i’m fine!” when really, i was not. If I had not have changed my lifestyle, then I probably would have developed diabetes by now. And fortunately for me, i did change my lifestyle to be active and eat healthier foods, and ironically the abusive self destructive things i have done, like an eating disorder and breif stints with diet pills, did not help me lose one single pound, instead helped destroy my teeth, create mood swings, and give me digestion problems.

    so, in short, i don’t think there is anything wrong with you wanting to lose weight to be a faster runner. i admire your commitment towards being strong and athletic, and I wish I went to the gym more and ran and lifted weights! There is something magical and healing about working to make your body stronger that can’t be compared to anything else. As long as it doesn’t become an obsession, and self destructive, I think it is great. And, also, i think people have their rights to their bodies. To treat their bodies however they would like, even if that means not exersizing and eating bad foods. Every persons body is their own business.
    Thanks for letting me use your blog as a forum 🙂

    • Korinna, thanks for your comment! (Also, I recently read your piece about being a yoga instructor in Fit for the Pit #1 and loved that, too.) With regards to weight – I really feel that, as long as a person eats reasonably healthfully and gets some exercise, their weight will settle at the level the person’s body wants it to be. And really, it is none of my business what a person’s body looks like, or shit, even if they do eat healthfully and exercise. That is absolutely none of my business. If someone wants to pursue that, I’m totally happy to support them. If they don’t want to pursue that, I’m okay with that as well. Your body, you do what you want with it. I ain’t gonna judge.

      Like you, when I made the decision to start doing things differently with my body, to do what I could to make my body as healthy and as strong as it could be, I found it very healing and empowering in a literal sense, to know that I was capable of being so vigorous and energetic and capable. I needed that after being trapped in an unhealthy relationship for nine years that was predicated entirely on my own personal weakness. That’s why I’m such a big dork when it comes to this stuff, because I found it absolutely transformative in the way I approached the world and the way I thought about myself, and I want to share that with anyone who is interested in listening.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  4. I love this post. It’s something I’ve thought about, too – how do you tread the line between wanting to support healthy choices and not being judgmental?

    I guess the difference is where the motivation comes from. That is, are you interested in weight loss because of how it makes you feel/health reasons? Or because you feel pressured to lose weight to fit into skinny jeans or whatever is in style? (Seriously, who thought skinny jeans were a good idea?)

    And, I know it’s not very pc to say so, but I support the idea of health at any size… as far as it can really exist. There comes a certain weight/size that I’m happy if you’re happy… but it’s not the same as healthy.

    • Man, skinny jeans…if there ever were an item of clothing that could make me feel like crap about myself, it’s skinny fucking jeans.

      I actually don’t have much of a problem with reserving judgment about other people’s bodies, because I know that what’s going on in terms of the surface appearance often has very little to do with what’s going on inside. Yet if someone wants to become more active or something like that, I will totally support them because I know how much I’ve gotten out of that in my own life, how it has changed my life for the better, but I’d never push that on someone.

      My biggest conflict comes from knowing my personal actions can be seen as undermining those who, for whatever reason, do not take those same actions. I try to be consistent in my beliefs and my actions, and this is one impasse I can’t figure out how to get around. I spent a bit of time today looking around the interwebs, and most of the responses to this post coupled with a lot of things I’ve read tells me that I’m not the only feminist woman who has found herself struggling with this conflict. I’ve got a lot more thinking to do about this whole matter.

  5. I read an interesting article on Feministe that said the explosion in conditions and lifestyles like celiac disease, rare food allergies/sensitivities, raw veganism, etc among people who identify as feminist or leftist could possibly be linked to the desire not to want to be seen as dieting or losing weight for cosmetic reasons. It is certainly true that when someone states that they are a “gluten free level 3 vegan” that my first reaction is that it’s either an eating disorder or they’re dieting, and I wish people wouldn’t feel the need to tiptoe around using politically safe language and just admit that they don’t want to be fat anymore. I mean, I think losing weight for purely cosmetic reasons is somewhat problematic but not nearly so much as pretending to have dietary problems so that you can diet without saying you’re dieting. (Not that everyone who claims to have a disease or has a restrictive diet for ethical reasons is consciously lying. But I think it’s pretty common.)

    I admit, when people talk about their weight using specific numbers I get concerned, because I have had friends with eating disorders and their goal was never “I want to be healthier,” it was “I need to be at this certain BMI” or “just ten more pounds” even if they really didn’t need to lose any more weight. And based on my own experience, BMI has had little to do with health. I was at my thinnest in 2004 when I was at my unhealthiest, first from something physical that was probably mono, then depression/sleep deprivation from a night shift job. So seeing weight loss strongly coupled with health is always something that makes me go “but, but…”

    At the same time, yeah, MOST people will start to lose weight once they start exercising, even if they aren’t trying. I’ve lost about fifteen pounds since moving to Maryland, since I went from taking public transportation exclusively in Pittsburgh (because I could), to walking and biking everywhere. I don’t think anyone in the feminist blogosphere (aside from the possible fringe wingnuts Ciara mentioned) is going to have a problem with something like this. But I can also see how deliberate fitness (i.e. going to a gym, dieting, trying to beat records, etc) can be used as a smokescreen to hide disordered behavior or self-body-negativity and even though I don’t think you specifically are doing this, it happens often enough that there is actually a DSM-IV term for it:
    “exercise bulimia.” Of course not all (or even many) athletes have an eating/exercise disorder! But some DO, and unfortunately, something positive can slip into something disordered so easily, especially in women who aren’t feminist and are surrounded by body negativity all the time.

    Sorry, this is probably super disorganized. I also feel kinda unqualified to talk on the topic because even when I was at my heaviest (using all that public transportation) I was still well within what’s considered “average.” I think in general there needs to be a shift away from numbers and BMI and toward body positivity no matter what that means to someone. I imagine that the feeling you get from breaking a speed record is similar to the feeling I get from running errands on my bike: here I am, doing this thing under my own power, that I used to have to beg rides for or take a bus, which made me feel powerless and worthless. It may not be the usual type of “athletics” (and you know from reading my blog that I don’t identify as an athlete), but it’s something I enjoy doing a TON and if it leads to greater health or weight loss, so be it. (But you can pry my bacon cheeseburgers out of my cold dead hands, haha!)

    • Lol, I actually ate a bacon cheeseburger with fries and two beers the other day and the meal was delicious! I used to eat them all the time but now I’m like, once every so often is fine. I think I would be very sad if I never, ever ate them again. Mmm….bacon….

      I hadn’t seen that article on Feministe (I usually don’t read that blog) but I am going to go seek it out. That’s an interesting theory and I’m curious to hear more discussion on it. I’ve also noticed a huge increase in the number of people who say they have one dietary restriction or another, but I don’t know enough to have a real opinion on it. (Beyond that it would suck to seriously have celiac or a gluten intolerance or a serious food allergy.)

      I’m so with you on being skeptical about equating thin=health because, like you, when I was at my skinniest, I was also at my unhealthiest. You had an illness and sleep issues, and I was abusing drugs and alcohol. Sure, I was thin, but I also sometimes passed out when I stood up too quickly. So yeah, I am very skeptical of that connection, just because there are so many variables that go into a person’s body that cannot be seen by an outside observer. Same reason as why I am reluctant to assume I know anything about a heavier person based solely on her being heavy.

      I’ve thought a lot about how some people cover up disordered behaviors and calling it being “fitness-minded.” I see it all the time, both in the blogosphere and in real life, how you get people who couple two hours of high-intensity cardio with severe caloric restriction and call that fitness. And definitely, I’ve heard plenty of accounts of athletes who do have eating disorders, and not just the obvious ones like gymnasts or ice skaters. I don’t feel like that’s something I have to watch out for, because for me all of this stuff is about having fun* and improving my quality of life, and not about, you know, punishing myself for failing to live up to some psychological ideal, but I do see it enough that I know it’s a problem.

      *Seriously, if I did not find running or weight-lifting fun, I wouldn’t do it. I’m just not that dedicated of a person. It’s only because I enjoy it so much that I am fine with dedicating as much time to it as I do.

  6. Hi Caitlin,
    I started reading your blog a few weeks ago and I really enjoy it. I am a larger-size woman who has a very active fitness routine (and consider myself a feminist *and* an enthusiastic proponent of Health at Every Size). I just want to to say I appreciate the sensitivity and candor with how you approached this subject. I think what makes the difference is that in no way do you come across as prescriptive…I didn’t hear ‘stop eating Doritos and you too can lose 10 lbs!’.

    As others have mentioned, motivation is key, What finally got me exercising regularly 3 years ago was thyroid issues that played with my anxiety levels. Everything I read about combating anxiety extolled the benefits of exercise, and when I moved from being a ‘somewhat’ active person to exercising every day I was able to go off the anxiety meds.

    My weight did go down, and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I enjoyed fitting into smaller size jeans, but I know that if I started focusing on that result of working out it would not be a good thing for me. So, I focus on loving my body as it is…right now…no matter that I am not anywhere near the thin-ideal. I am fit, my mental health is good…and my size is what it is.

    …anyway – that is more than I meant to write. Keep up the great blog!

    • Hi Sydney, thanks for the great comment! I’m glad to hear that embracing exercise as a regular thing has been so positive for you!

      I think it’s interesting that you mention the connection between anxiety and exercise, because I’ve seen the effects of that in my own life. I was never on meds, but I did self-medicate in other ways, some less than legal, and running really helped me become a calmer person. In fact, the other day I was watching a video about the oldest female bodybuilder in the world, and she was talking about how she had been on all of these medications for blood pressure and anxiety until she decided to pick up weight-training when she was in her 60s, and now she’s medication-free. (She was also totally amazing and had quads that I would die for.) Obviously I have no idea if this would work for everyone, but enough people have made the connection that I do think it’s at least worth a shot for those who can do it.

  7. I just stumbled across this post and I love it! You communicated some difficult points very eloquently. Now if only I could whip this out every time there’s a post on obesity/body image on other feminist blogs…

    I’ve had an eating disorder for a long time and I’ve pretty much concluded that any time you’re losing weight for “society” or someone other than yourself, your behavior is probably, to some extent, disordered. Unfortunately, I think it’s also institutionalized to an extent, especially when it’s directed at women. Like all feminist issues, it’s really hard separating the misogyny from the institution, but as long as we have sensible people like you educating others hopefully we can see progress!

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