Are women obsessed with their bodies at the expense of wider social power? That’s the argument made in a recent New York Times op-ed by Katrin Bennhold. In the piece, entitled “New Goal for Women? Rising Above Having It All,” Bennhold writes that most of her girlfriends in London – herself included – have listed losing weight as their top goal for the year. She goes on to ask, “Are women bad at setting goals for themselves — or setting themselves the wrong goals?”
I read this piece a couple of days ago, and since then I have gone back and forth between thinking the essay is bullshit and thinking Bennhold has a point, then going back to thinking the essay is bullshit. I’ve come to the conclusion that the essay is both bullshit and that she has a point.
Let me first tell you why I think she has a point.
Sometimes I think about everything that is expected of women in order for us to be considered respectable, and I get very tired. The make-up, the hair, the clothes, the skin care, the jewelry, the shoes, the figure…it’s a lot of work. But it’s work that’s supposed to be invisible – we are supposed to seem natural and effortless in all of these things – and that effortlessness paradoxically requires even more effort. As a result, we ladies are operating at an effort deficit when compared to our gentlemen counterparts.
Now, I’m not going to mount some campaign to liberate ladies from the oppression of lip gloss and leg-shaving. Hardly! I like lip gloss and I tend to be fanatical about shaving my legs. I just think it’s worth pointing out that beauty standards expect a hell of a lot more out of me than they do, say, my husband, and that all of this extra effort adds up over time and ultimately leaves us with less effort to dedicate to other things. I mean, it would be nice if time-space would expand to give us an extra hour per day to deal with our hair, but it doesn’t. We’ve got the same twenty-four hours a day as everyone else, and we ladies have a tendency to spend more of that time on our bodies and appearances than men do.
Now. Here’s why this op-ed bothered me.
First, I’m going to assume that Bennhold’s friends are considering losing weight by exercising and eating healthier food, in which case I have a hard time thinking that’s some kind of superficial waste of one’s life. In fact, I think caring for your body – and that doesn’t necessarily mean losing weight! – is one of the most important things you can do. Proper self-care allows me to perform well at my job, to be a better friend and wife, to retain more of what I learn, to handle stress in ways that are not self-destructive.
These things become even more important when dealing with the kind of high-powered careers Bennhold wants women to become more invested in pursuing. Power careers are rampant with stress, and the people who hold those careers can either deal with that stress by drinking and smoking, or they can run and swim laps. Guess what I think is a better choice?
Of course all of this assumes that Bennhold’s friends want to try to lose weight by eating healthier and exercising more (and I recognize that conflating the two is problematic, so hold your fire, please). If they are thinking about losing weight by doing a master cleanse or eating 800 calories a day or doing the grapefruit diet or whatever, then forget this point, because that shit’s just ridiculous and hardly qualifies as “self-care.”
My second issue is that, while Bennhold pays some lip service to some socially embedded inequalities, like lack of access to child care, impenetrable old-boys clubs and work cultures that assume we are all robots, she completely overlooks the fact that we live in a culture that expects women to adhere to specific standards in order to be taken seriously. Think about the recent study that found women who wear make-up are considered more competent than women who do not. Or the beauty editors who said black women who wore their hair in natural styles were being “political.” Or all of the research that has found thin women are the beneficiaries of all kinds of privileges denied to heavier women.
It’s not like we women do these things because we are vapid little giggle-bots who can’t be bothered with anything more challenging than a flat-iron. We do these things because we are rewarded for doing so. We can opt out of the beauty game, but society will extract a price for our rebellion. Sure, the trappings of femininity can be very fun and enjoyable (see: lip gloss), but you can’t untangle the “fun” part of it from the “privilege” part of it.
Finally, I’ve got to admit that I am experiencing a degree of fatigue inspired by all of these well-meaning feminist ladies who want the rest of us feminist ladies to aim our laser sights on presidencies and corporate boards and such. While I understand the need for gender parity among the power brokers of society, I also can’t blame anyone who looks at the sacrifices demanded to occupy those echelons and says “fuck it.” I mean, you tell me I have to put my career first always? And skip kids and relationships and not have any hobbies and just eat-breathe-sleep my career? A career in a field that is most likely something I will find soul-destroying and ethics-corroding? Gee. Where do I sign up.
Listen, I get that this is very appealing to certain women (and men – let’s not act like every man in the world is clamoring for the chance to spend 14 hours a day in the office while his family slowly forgets what he looks like), and if this is what they want, by all means, more power to them. They’ve got my support. But my ambitions in the world lie elsewhere, and I can’t deny that I feel a bit of resentment every time I hear feminists say things like this, as if focusing my efforts on, say, training for a marathon as opposed to climbing the ranks at my profession is somehow undermining the cause of women every where. You’ll have to forgive me if I want more out of my life than to be the best little economic production unit I can possibly be.
So these are my thoughts on the matter. What do you think? Do you think Bennhold’s essay is full of shit? Do you think I’m full of shit? I’d like to know.
I think you’re being too generous (and drawing on your own biases) by assuming that these women are using their weight loss resolutions as a vehicle for practicing better self-care. 100% of the people I know who’ve made those resolutions are trying to lose weight purely for cosmetic reasons, and the vast majority attempt to do it with gimmickry. Otherwise, the resolution would be “run a marathon” or “start biking to work.”
I think her point re: careers is more “if this is what you want, this is what you have to do” than “this SHOULD BE what you want.” I do admit that I’m more impressed by a woman with, say, political ambitions than a woman who can bench-press 300 pounds. Should I pretend that I view all accomplishments as equal? That’s getting dangerously close to a certain Onion article, IMO. Just because these straw feminists aren’t cheering on marathoners at the sidelines doesn’t mean they’re against fitness, you know? Then again, maybe you’ve had run-ins with vastly different feminists than me.
Thanks for your comment – I appreciate your perspective. Yeah, I wondered if I was being too generous with my first point. I made a point to hedge my comments for that reason because I was wondering if maybe I had given her and her friends too much the benefit of the doubt.
Regarding your second point – see, I took it as another one of those tsk-tsking articles where it was like, “Why don’t we have more female CEOs and presidents? Why aren’t women equal yet? It’s because women are having babies and thinking about weight loss.” I feel like these articles are becoming pretty common, and honestly, I’m kind of over it. There are lots of other worthwhile goals to achieve in the world that do not involve politics or the corporate world (and I don’t just mean running a marathon – I used that as an example because that’s a specific goal of mine for this year). There are a lot of things people can aim for to make the world a better, more just place that does not involve diving headfirst into the world of politics and/or capitalism.
Anyway, tl;dr. Sorry for the novel, yo.
I took it as another one of those tsk-tsking articles where it was like, “Why don’t we have more female CEOs and presidents? Why aren’t women equal yet? It’s because women are having babies and thinking about weight loss.”
I guess I didn’t see the article like that, maybe because I DO have sort of an inherent problem with weight loss and diet culture and refuse to celebrate women for these things even if it’s part of their “self care.” I’ve had too many friends with eating disorders to see dieting (which is always defined by me as calorie-counting, juice-fasting gimmickry, otherwise it’s called “healthy eating”) as anything other than bad… but there’s my bias talking!
The “why no CEOs” is a by-product of capitalism and while I loathe loathe loathe “what about the mens” arguments, there’s a whole lot of pressure on them, too, to produce and fuel the capitalist machine. Obviously, not in the same way. Caring about numbers of female CEOs won’t stop until we stop caring about CEOs, IMO. (That’s a lot of acronyms.)
I can agree that dieting blows, and I have been pretty anti-diet in most of my writing, I think. I’m a much bigger fan of making healthy, reasonable choices that are sustainable as well as pleasurable. Dieting tends to be none of those things.
And I’d like to co-sign your entire last paragraph. I don’t see it as a “what about the menz” argument as much as it is pointing out the fact that capitalism demands that men – and increasingly women – sacrifice everything to have a chance at being successful at it. It’s a pretty shitty set-up, and I find it completely unsurprising that only super high-achiever types are at all interested in pursuing it. I consider myself fairly achievement oriented and I am also a hard worker, and I think that kind of lifestyle sounds miserable.
YES. I think that women are really horrible at making goals. I think that we are horrible at putting ourselves at the center of our goals, whatever they are. I think that when women say they want to be a CEO or a governor they are often doing that at the cost of some part of themselves, but I’ve known very few women who are ambitious in that way. I do however *know* that the goal of weight loss hardly ever has the woman at the center of it. If the goals were, “I want to be faster, I want to be stronger. I want to love the body I’m in, and help it feel powerful. I want to feel fueled and nourished by the food I eat,” those would be amazing, fantastic, revolutionary goals. But they aren’t the goals. And until we can say that *that* is what they want, we’ll just be digging ourselves further into effort deficit, I think. And until we put ourselves at the center of our own goals we’ll also be keeping the world basically exactly the same, i.e., yay capitalism and the status quo.
Yes to what Andra said, and yes to the whole capitalist workaholic culture that says money/career success is the only success.
And by that second yes, I meant no. 🙂
Well, let’s forget those weight-loss-resolution women for a bit. I think that’s mostly knee-jerk, lack of imagination, a habit of feeling like one ought to have resolutions and just picking the first thing that comes to mind that seems likely to generate (male) approval. At least I don’t really want to think that 90% or more of women only think of losing weight. But you know deep down in your heart how utterly unlikely it is they mean to do that by training more.
But I think she’s right that you can’t really have it all, and that if you want to have a fabulous career then you really need to concentrate on that and mainly that. AND I think you’re right that being a good little economic unit is kind of a sad life goal for women, and men, if it’s the only one. And I’ve been reading your blog with pleasure because I think the world needs strong women as much as it needs women CEOs, but for myself I don’t think I want to spend that much of my life being ‘in good shape’ either, whatever that may mean, not any more than I want personally to be a CEO. So in short, women are people, and have different priorities, a whole array of lovely priorities that together add up to really great things. Each one of us deserves to take her own priorities seriously, and to have that be OK with other people without any question. Even if our own priorities don’t seem all that important to others.
Yeah, like I mentioned in an earlier comment, I was trying to give people the benefit of the doubt. I realize now that I was probably being too generous. I couldn’t say what the majority of women do or do not do, especially since I know that I tend to self-select for lady friends who do not prioritize things like weight loss, catching male attention, etc.
I like this a lot:
And I agree completely.
Thanks for your comment, and for reading.
I work in a industry, law enforcement, in which image is important but not in your typical way. Both men and women in my job are expected to look fit and clean cut, they for the most part could care less if I’m waring makeup but I have to look “neat.” One of the most competent and hardest working men in my group has been passed over for lead assignments because the rest of of think he is pretty overweight.
As always the conversation in articles like that swings to extremes. Why can’t people be focused on being healthier or getting stronger or building endurance and not be portrayed as empty headed and shallow? Isn’t it possible that achieving fitness/health goals empowers women to set goals for themselves in other aspects of life ie career? Is there no room for nuance? Answer: No.
If women want to aim for being CEOs and President/Senator great! But not ALL women need to reach for these heights just like not ALL men need to. Some people are comfortable living their lives on a smaller scale, and that has to be acceptable too.
Wow, what a fascinating post. Thank you, Caitlin. I have served active duty in the Coast Guard for seven years now and the atmosphere towards women in my workplace is markedly different. Because we wear a uniform, there is very little room for self expression beyond make up. I have never worn make up to work because I feel that the women who do make that effort are looked at differently… like maybe they’re trying too hard? I was pretty surprised by the study which showed women who wear make up are regarded as more competent because I think that is the opposite in my environment. I sometimes resent that femininity is not a valued quality in my workplace. At the same time, I never feel that I am being regarded differently because I am a woman… but maybe I had to give something up to attain that. I don’t know.
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I am sick of reading articles that criticize ordinary individuals. Sure, people aren’t perfect. But isn’t it more worthwhile to explore broader social circumstances than focusing on what individuals are “doing wrong”? How many articles have I read that focus on the problems with “this generation” and yada yada yada. Leaving feminism aside, I am greatly fatigued by the constant nagging of individuals. Especially when it’s for something that should (lets be honest) not really matter. Women want to lose weight. They can still be accomplished/loving/well-read/political individuals while losing weight.
I’m in graduate school and I have been trying to lose weight this month. Nevermind the purpose I had for it–I can still have a worthwhile life and I don’t think I’m setting women back 20 years by doing so.
Maybe writing critical op-ed articles is setting women back decades because instead one could be writing a letter to Congress or running for office.
I know a lot of men who are trying to lose weight too! It’s a pretty common personal goal — and New Year’s resolution — for both genders.
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**Finally, I’ve got to admit that I am experiencing a degree of fatigue inspired by all of these well-meaning feminist ladies who want the rest of us feminist ladies to aim our laser sights on presidencies and corporate boards and such. While I understand the need for gender parity among the power brokers of society, I also can’t blame anyone who looks at the sacrifices demanded to occupy those echelons and says “fuck it.” I mean, you tell me I have to put my career first always? And skip kids and relationships and not have any hobbies and just eat-breathe-sleep my career? A career in a field that is most likely something I will find soul-destroying and ethics-corroding? Gee. Where do I sign up.**
YES. THIS. EXACTLY.
I was similarly irritated by the Bennhold piece (talking about it a bit on my own blog today) and similarly stuck on this idea that “you can’t have it all so you should automatically choose to focus on power and prestige nomatterwhat, personal happiness be damned.” Really? That’s the sales pitch? Why aren’t we staging an intervention on all those dudes who focus only on “stellar careers” and nothing else? Because they sound like a really happy, fun bunch to be married to/fathered by/etc.
We could retire the whole “have it all” notion AND yet also get closer to the having of it all than we’ve ever been before if we accepted that “all” is going to mean about a thousand different things to a thousand different people and society could make room for us each to pursue our version of all on our own terms… without ranking us according to one corporate hierarchy that really only makes sense for one specific group of white men.
Okay done ranting now. This is an awesome post, thank you!
Love this whole comment. Thank you!
I like how you think. I don’t seem feminism has a zero-sum game where you can ONLY focus on your career and you MUST ignore all other aspects of your life. Yes, sure, I know women (and men) who put career first, I know men (and women) who have done the complete opposite and ignored their careers entirely for the sake of family (or other pursuits).
Personally, I’ve tried to forge a middle ground. I have a good career in a male-dominated field. I might not be leading that field but I’ve been able to have a family in the process, am working to keep myself fit, and even enjoy dressing up. Sure, I suppose, I could’ve decided to forgo having a family to be at the top of my field but that wasn’t something I was willing to do. Instead, I’d rather work my way up a slower pace and enjoy life. Maybe one day I’ll be at the top, breaking the glass ceiling but does that have to be when I’m 20? Can’t I have kids first, work on my health etc? Shoot, dealing with my health issues, losing weight etc most likely will let me live a longer healthier life so I CAN stay at my career longer.
I’ve actually found that with weight loss, I’ve been able to put a lot of other pieces of my life back in order. I’m more organized now, more confident, and more out-going. I’ve also learned patience (my weight loss journey was pretty slow going), and I’ve become more excited about my work because before my worry about my weight and lack of energy seeped into other areas of my life.
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Hi there! Just discovered your blog. I like your perspective and the issues you are dealing with.
I think this post and the following discussion leaves some important points out that should be a part of our analysis. The desire of women to lose weight, and the tendency of women to place enormous importance on losing weight, doesn’t come up out of no where. Women genuinely want these things, true, we aren’t slaves, but we are socialized from almost the moment we become conscious of our own bodies to want to shape, mold, shrink, and gussy up those bodies so that we can APPEAR the right way to the world. To men, to our friends, to strangers walking down the street, to classmates, to co-workers, bosses…you name it. Appearance matters, but in a way that doesn’t make much sense from that standpoint alone. Whether I have a pudgy belly isn’t going to tell you how honest, hardworking, competent, passionate, or kind I am. This reality creates a frame of reference for women that is oppressive and limiting, because it places our perspective of whether we are valuable outside of our bodies. We are valuable based on how we are looked at by others, not on what we feel, share, do, or experience.
I think the biggest tragedy in over-emphasizing the importance of weight loss is not the fact that it will detract from the efforts of the super-feminist, vying for power and money above all else (as a feminist, law-student, and activist, this characterization of being passionate about one’s life pursuits is a bit skewed…I love my work, it ignites me and fulfills me and I’m passionate about it), it’s that it places our frame of reference for our whole experience of life and the world outside our bodies, instead of inside them–doing, experiencing, achieving. Having a majority of friends choose weight loss as their number one goal for these year is troubling to the cause of women because it indicates we care more about being experienced the right way instead of experiencing the right things. We believe in this external frame of reference because of the what the world demands of us from the moment we are little girls. It is understandable, it is sometimes inevitable, but it is destructive to the cause of women’s happiness first and foremost, in addition to destructive to the cause of women’s power and equality in our society.
Weight loss, eating well, being active, can be tangibly and powerfully beneficial. I don’t deny that at all. But we have to recognize that our obsession with weight loss and our bodies is, for most women, especially young girls, about appearing the right way and believing that with that appearance comes fulfillment, happiness, and self-acceptance.
Fulfillment, happiness, and self-acceptance comes in all shapes and sizes, and we use different mechanisms to get there. For me, it is adventure, friendship, and hopefully spending my last dying moments in a courtroom as a trial lawyer. My most intensely fulfilling moments in life have been either connecting with other people, or pushing myself to be better and achieve great things. I can say for certain that those moments are hampered when I don’t like my body and want to change it–when I am distracted by my own internalization of the belief that value=beauty and thinness. In that way, yes, the scale is the new glass ceiling.
Hey, thanks for the thoughtful comment! My ideas on this post have evolved since I put it up, and I appreciate hearing your take on it as it is more in line with the way I’m thinking about the world now. I particularly liked this part:
It’s very difficult to accept that our desires and our wants are not entirely our own, and that it could very well be impossible to look at something we desire and say that this is a desire that is innate to who we are and that would exist no matter where we lived in time or space. I think we all want to believe we are more than the products of our environment, and to a certain extent there is a core of us that is, but like I said, untangling that from the mess of socialized desire and identity is a difficult thing.
Very thought provoking post for me! I havent agreed with all that has been said on this blog’s articles but you inspired me to stop and think on this one!
The study that claimed that women who wear makeup are taken more seriously than women who don’t–wasn’t it funded by a cosmetics company? If so, those results have zero credibility.