A good body image is not required to be a good feminist

Last week, I read a post by Feministing editor Chloe Angyal in which she admitted to starving herself for two years even while she was working as a public feminist on one of the most high-profile feminist blogs in the U.S.  She goes on to ask forgiveness of her readers:

The reason I want to ask your forgiveness is because feminist leaders are not supposed to fall down this hole. Feminist leaders, especially those who are former Presidents of the Princeton Eating Concerns Advisors for god’s sake, are supposed to know better. After all, we know all about the Beauty Myth and we know how photoshop works and we know that it is a radical act to resist the homogenized impossible unattainable commercial vision of what beauty is. We know all this. Which is why, when I fell down that hole, I couldn’t tell anyone about it. On top of everything else – on top of being miserable and ashamed and really fucking hungry – I felt like a bad feminist, and I left like a flaming hypocrite. I felt like I was letting my readers down.

I’ve been mulling over her post since reading it, trying to make sense of the mess of feelings and thoughts her words have inspired in me.  I certainly sympathize with her; after all, when you publicly identify as a feminist, you are announcing that you are an idealist in a way, and it can be crushing to acknowledge that you are falling far, far short of your ideals. It’s challenging enough to work these things out on your own, but to do it in public?  On the internet?  Where perfect strangers feel no compunction about seizing on your failings and turning them into weapons against you and your ideals?  It’s a miracle anyone is open about anything on the internet at all.

I can also empathize with her.  I considered myself a feminist for all of the years I was in my troubled, violent marriage, and I could never quite figure out how to square the dichotomy, how to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t quite figure out how to extricate myself from this marriage that was essentially the textbook definition of an anti-feminist relationship, that I couldn’t quite summon the nerve to do what I knew in my heart to be right.  I already felt such shame over my situation as it was, but the awareness that I was falling far, far short of my ideals was perhaps the most shameful thing of all.

But this is the thing: that shame has since subsided.  This is partly because it has been several years since I was involved in that relationship, and I have done a lot of healing work to move beyond this.  But it is also partly because I’ve learned that I am not alone.  I am not the only feminist who has been in an abusive relationship – not even close.  And Chloe is not the only feminist who has struggled with body issues – not even close.  I know so many women – strong, intelligent women – who dislike their bodies, who feel ugly, who struggle with self-acceptance and self-love.

In fact, I’d say that if the only women who were allowed to identify as feminists are ones who adhere to the Perfect Feminist Template, then there’d be no feminists left.  Certainly this is in part because we are all human beings, with all of the imperfections and frailities that being human entails, but it’s also because the forces we are arrayed against – consumerism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, a history of violence, psychological trauma, you name it – are just so powerful.  The tools we have to protect ourselves – education, economic and political empowerment, critical theory, supportive community, love – can be potent, but sometimes they aren’t enough of a bulwark, and they get us despite our best efforts to evade them.

Rather than piling on ourselves – for even having the problem in the first place, then for failing to live up to our ideals – we’d do well to cut ourselves some slack.   No one is going to come along and revoke your feminist credentials if you sometimes look in the mirror and hate what you see.

What we can also do is be open about our struggles.  Silence forces us to shoulder the burden of shame alone, and it also contributes to the idea that we are somehow unique in our suffering, that no one else around us would understand, that we alone are flawed in this particular way.  The reality is that almost all of us have hearts that serve as battlegrounds, and that most of us are fairly good at hiding that fact.  But we don’t have to fight these battles alone.  We can take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths, into empathy and compassion and understanding.  In the end, these are the things that make us good feminists – and really, good people – not adherence to some imaginary standard of perfection that no one ever attains anyway.

22 responses to “A good body image is not required to be a good feminist

  1. I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth since I read her piece. I was unhappy that her struggle with ED and the resulting shame about being a “bad feminist” was framed as something requiring forgiveness. For what? For being human?

    I understand struggling with whether or not a behavior fits an individual’s definition of feminist – the internet blows up with the big ones every now and then, but it’s not hard to find blog posts about the smaller ones, too: changing your last name, having children (breeding), staying at home to raise said children, getting married, shaving, coloring your hair, wearing make-up, wearing and loving high heels, etc. I mean, I’m pretty sure this list would take up a Bible’s worth of pages, and obviously, these examples aren’t on the same emotional magnitude as ED, but why would asking forgiveness be necessary for engaging in any of these behaviors?

    It’s possible I’m callous and insensitive though. Or that I just don’t get it.

    • Tannis, I actually wrote and deleted a paragraph that was relevant to what you are saying. I’ve changed my last name both times I got married – first because my ex threatened to call off the wedding if I didn’t take his name (and I still don’t know why I didn’t peace out at that moment, but whatever) and second because I no longer wanted to have the reminder of that terrible relationship attached to my identity – and while I understand the problematic nature of women changing their names, I also get frustrated with the hyper-judgmental way some of the more high profile feminists frame this. However, unlike Chloe, I don’t feel the need to ask forgiveness as much as I feel the desire to tell those ladies to eff off, but then, maybe she feels like she is letting people down? I don’t know, but I imagine that being involved in that particular crowd of high profile professional feminists is a lot different than anything I’ve ever experienced.

      • I get frustrated with the hyper judgmental attitude too. And as I was writing that had kind of an ah-ha! moment. So, relative to name changing, there was a piece that basically said, “Admit that changing your name is un-feminist, and move on. We all do un-feminist things,” which made me see all kinds of red. But is it the creation of *that* space that leads us to think we (feminists who are also human!) need a stamp of “feminist approval” and therefore have an obligation to “admit” an “unfeminist” (scare quotes because as best I can tell there is no manual of acceptable behaviors) behavior so that we might be absolved and allowed back into the club? Is that part of the apology?

        I fully support talking about struggles, and even talking about them within the framework of feminism, but asking for forgiveness, to me, implies that some other person has now been tasked with evaluating and approving contrition. And I guess maybe that’s a weight that she’s been carrying and really does need or want the forgiveness of Feministe’s readers.

    • Interestingly there was a piece on NPR today about the power of NOT asking for forgiveness and as I read your response I wondered if there might have been a way to talk about what she went through without having to actually ask for forgiveness. i’m musing aloud here more for myself than anything else (and certainly not in judgment)…http://www.npr.org/2013/04/01/175714511/why-not-apologizing-makes-you-feel-better?utm_source=NPR&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20130401

      • That’s a really interesting piece, and affirms a lot of the feelings I have about apologizing. Thanks for linking it.

  2. I think that sharing your struggles is one of the best ways to connect with others. Part of being a feminist is acknowledging how HARD it is to be a woman, so acknowledging insecurities and difficulties helps break down the myth that you are ‘the perfect example.’ Of course, trying to be positive and celebrating body positivity is always good, but it’s not always easy.

  3. I strongly believe that sharing these “battles of the heart” as you so eloquently put it is the key to recovery, compassion and understanding. Having struggled with eating disorders myself for a long time i know how complex and emotionally battering it is. The eating disorder twists your perception of everything and anything and will use anything as a reason to make you believe you are not good enough and beat yourself up, even the fact that you have fallen into the trap of having an eating disorder in the first place! it takes a huge amount of courage and strength to publicly admit to suffering from any of the issues you have mantioned in your posts and it takes compassion, forgiveness and kindness to ourselves and each other become stronger. Thank you for this post i love it. x

  4. I agree with you and your commentors- there is something about that statement which leaves a bad taste in my mouth as well. It seems very dismissive of a struggle with one’s mental health which can be very difficult to overcome, and sharing that struggle shouldn’t require an apology or forgiveness.

    • You know, looking through the comments from you and from others, I wonder if the “asking forgiveness” is in part coming from whatever led her to become disordered in the first place? Like, that desire to be perfect was so strong that she almost felt like it was no longer an internal desire but something that was coming at her from all angles. I don’t know, it’s all speculation on my part, but I agree with everyone that no one should ever feel like they have to apologize for something like this.

  5. As one who is in active but by no means always solid recovery from bulimia and anorexia and who is a proud feminist, I agree with those who feel a little odd about this one. I do appreciate that she closes out by saying that eating disorders are about much more than trying to look like a magazine picture, but it sets my teeth on edge whenever anyone starts talking about how beauty advertising and the beauty myth is such a big contributor to eating disorders. To body issue problems, certainly, but eating disorders and body issue problems aren’t identical.

    We had eating disorders before fashion magazines. Before it was anorexia nervosa, it was anorexia mirabalis — nuns and devout religious women starving themselves for god. Given that for western women, pretty much the only option for a life that wasn’t as a man’s property (literally) was as a nun, it doesn’t seem a huge stretch for me to think that for we western women have a pretty strong cultural tradition that said if you wanted any modicum of independence, you better be prepared for some asceticism, especially when it comes to your body and anything suggesting hunger.

    Bones aren’t sexy and neither is puking. They aren’t pretty. When I was inpatient, we talked a lot more about wanting to escape from being forced into pretty or sexy or anything we saw in popular culture. We weren’t trying to look like models. It was a very misguided, physical, visceral protest against what we saw we were supposed to be as women. Thanks to centuries of patriarchy, we felt a lot more comfortable on using our bodies to say what our voices should have, but for a lot of us, the drive behind an eating disorder isn’t all that different from what makes us love Ms. Magazine and Feministing.

    I think women are still learning how to express themselves not only through their bodies, and how to balance a healthy love of expression through the body with being able to actually speak up. For feminists especially, this seems like it can be a big issue, because we’re pushing ourselves and as any pop psychologist knows, when you do push yourself into new territory, there’s a tendency to want to slip into comfortable, familiar, conditioned behaviors. That’s why I love blogs like yours, which combine being present in our bodies and using them for expression and feeling along with being ridiculously, impressively outspoken and articulate. You rock!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Olivia. It’s interesting because on one hand I know that anorexia is definitely rooted in psychological issues that often have little to do with a desire to meet a standard of beauty, but I also think that there are a lot of people who do suffer from eating disorders who do admit to being motivated in large part by a desire to meet that standard of beauty. AND THEN I have also heard about women who developed anorexia as a way of staving off womanhood, like you said in your comment. I don’t know what I can say beyond that I think it’s complicated? But I do appreciate your perspective. The parts about wanting to escape from the definition of womanhood as reflected in our culture really resonates with me.

      Oh! I also wanted to be careful about not diagnosing Chloe with anorexia nervosa, because it seems possible to me for a person to severely restrict their caloric intake without clinically having anorexia, and also because she didn’t come out and explicitly say she was anorexic, just that she had been starving herself. Does that make sense?

      Anyway, thanks so much for your comment. Gave me lots to think about, which is my favorite kind of comment. 🙂 Also, I’m so happy that you are on the path to recovery. I wish you the best with that.

  6. I’m a feminist (partially) because I have body image issues. I don’t see any contradiction there.

  7. Hi Caitlin,

    I really admire your independent and engaging voice. Thank you for sharing this poignant post with us. I agree that there is no perfect feminist as everyone has different personalities and histories. Thank you.

    I’ve taken a look through your website and we think you’ve done a fantastic job in covering topics that our brand’s female audience would be interested in reading. It would be great if you could join our community to feature your blog entries.

    If you would like to learn more about this, please send an email to info at atomicreach.com


  8. What an excellent post. You’re so right that if we had to be perfectly aligned with our feminist ideals all the time there would be no feminists. We are so deeply socialized into normative femininity that it’s no surprise so many of us, ardent feminists we may be, have desires, pathologies, practices and behaviours that trouble us precisely because of our feminist convictions. It’s sad that we have to judge ourselves so harshly and fear the judgment of others. Love your thoughts on this complicated state of affairs.

  9. I struggle with issues of body image because I chose bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction after breast cancer and I do not want to wear ‘breast forms’. And it isn’t that I have a hard time with my body, I HAD to make a choice, I did and it is the best one FOR ME. What I struggle with is the fact that I am on the forefront of a movement where women like myself have chosen this path, and are Living without Breasts, Breathing without Breasts, Thriving without Breasts (gasp!). But there are so few of us that society and culture have no visual reference for what they are looking at. We ‘celebrate surviving’ with a big broom to sweep the reality of breast cancer under the rug. I had gorgeous work done to be as flat as my surgeon could make me. My body survived some pretty cruel treatment and rallied quite well, there is no way I will be swept under the rug because our culture shuns scars, disease and difference. I have a female body, and sometimes we need to modify our bodies because of disease. There is no hiding, no protecting other people from the reality that 1 in 8 women suffer from this disease, when ten years ago it was 1 in 9. It seems to me that more women like myself need to make noise and stand up for the gorgeous bodies we have, breast cancer or not.

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  12. I figure if I do it because I want to, and I approve of my actions, doesn’t matter if anyone else does. No play book. And it’s hard being human, being alive, but the alternative is worse–being dead. I choose to be alive, in the world and of the world.

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  14. I’ve known a lot of feminists who struggle with embodiment. They don’t feel like they can be sexual and struggle with their own beauty. Can’t we third wavers get over this stuff already? Let’s be sporty or wear make up or try pole dancing. Feminism should liberate us instead of being another confining box.

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