Talking – or not talking – about weight and women

The stock photography was all TERRIBLE so I grabbed a still from the scene that inspired the post's title.

The stock photography was all TERRIBLE so instead I grabbed a still from the scene that inspired the post’s title, because Jennifer Coolidge.

When I was younger and learning the ways in which to conduct myself, one of the rules of etiquette I picked up through osmosis was the understanding that you did not ask women about two things: their age and their weight.  (Because it’s rude to ask questions that suggest that women are humans with bodies that are subject to the laws of biology and physics?  I dunno.)  I think the proscription against women discussing their real ages is slowly fading, but the reluctance to talk about the weight of our bodies remains.  It’s an understandable reluctance, as all sorts of opprobrium is heaped upon women for weighing too much or too little, while those who are in the sweet spot are showered with praise.

A few months ago, there was a bit of a trend on Facebook and blogs to disclose what people actually weighed along with photos of themselves, as sort of a way of demystifying one of the most basic aspects of weight and bodies, particularly women’s bodies.  I thought it was awesome and I loved seeing all of these different kinds of bodies and realizing that I would have never been able to guess what any of those people weighed.  Ultimately, though, I didn’t take part, and not because I don’t know what I weigh or because I have negative emotional associations with my weight.  (Neither of these are true. I do know what I weigh and I regard it with the same level of interest as my resting heart rate and my blood pressure.)

I didn’t because I don’t feel that there’s anything all that revolutionary about me, as a woman with privilege that comes from being tall, thin and conventionally attractive, saying, “Hey, this is how much I weigh and these are my clothing sizes!”* especially when I’ve learned over several years of commenting in lady-specific online spaces (like, for instance, Jezebel) that disclosing that kind of information can be emotionally triggering for women with histories of disordered thinking and behavior, which is about the last thing I’d ever want to do to another person.  But while my motivation for not disclosing is different, it all comes from the same place, which is a recognition that conversations surrounding women and weight are emotional minefields that regularly blow up with disastrous results.

I considered all of this while reading an article posted on Slate last week, in which Josh Levin pointed out that NBC posted the weights of male snowboarders but not female snowboarders, and then later while watching the conversation unfold in the comments on the blog’s Facebook page.

Straight up, I’ll just say that I think NBC should either post the weights of all athletes or none of them, and I, personally, am leaning toward posting them, especially when it comes to sports where weight actually matters.  However, I also know that’s my ideal-world answer, and that we live in a world that is very, very far from the ideal, especially when it comes to women’s bodies.  I don’t think NBC is doing what Levin suggests, which is that they are saying female athletes should be ashamed of their bodies.  Rather, I think they are acknowledging that, yes, shit is really complicated when it comes to talking about women’s bodies, and they’d rather not go there.  (And hey, I guess we should be happy that they didn’t just lie about the athletes’ weight like they did with Maria Sharapova.  Six foot two and 130 pounds? Oh, okay.)

But I want to go a bit past the “should they or shouldn’t they?” conversation and talk about the wider implications of this cultural silence surround women and our weight, which is specifically  how it leaves us with virtually no frame of reference for what women’s bodies actually weigh.  That was part of what I found so fascinating about that mini-trend of self-disclosure I mentioned earlier in this post, which was that it was so clearly illustrating for me that I had absolutely NO CLUE what people weighed just by looking at them.  None at all!  If I had been one of those carnival barkers, I would have been off on every single person’s weight by a considerable margin, and I would have been fired, or at least demoted to the ring toss.

The disconnect between expectations of what a certain weight should look like versus what it actually looks like has actual ramifications on the way women regard our bodies.  Beauty Redefined recently published a piece that looked at media representations of female celebrities and weight, and how it appears as though a lot of female celebrities are really low-balling it when it comes to their weight and clothing sizes:

Along with the idealized images of women’s bodies we see nonstop in all forms of media, the vast majority of the weights or dress sizes we ever hear or see in mainstream media are carefully selected and often distorted. They are generally in reference to models and celebrities ranging from size 00-4 (sometimes 6, and it’s usually treated as a real act of bravery to admit it), and though media makes them sound totally standard and “average” for any woman, we know that they are not representative of many regular, healthy women all over the world who often feel like abnormally large monsters when they compare their own weights or sizes to those declared by celebrities or casually thrown around in TV or movie scripts.

This article actually came across my radar right about the time I noticed that a lot of women I was encountering online seemed to have set themselves a weight goal of 125 pounds.  It didn’t matter how tall they were or what kind of build they had.  The target number was always 125 pounds.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

And I know it’s kind of trendy today to say that women are the ones who do this to themselves, but there are men out there who add to the pressure.  I wish I could find a link to the article in the lad magazine that listed dating scenarios in which a man might need support, including *gasp!* dating a woman who weighs over 140 pounds.  (By the way, I had a good laugh at that one. I still do, every time I think about it.)

It shows up in athletics, too.  Kathryn Bertine, whose work I adore, wrote a book called All the Sundays Yet to Come: A Skater’s Journey** about her brief time as a professional figure skater, and in it she writes about the way various coaches and managers would put weight goals in place for the skaters, with seemingly no regard to how realistic these goals were for the skaters or what the skaters would have to do to attain them.

In Bertine’s case, she attained them by becoming anorexic.  (In a particularly telling and heart-breaking passage, she auditioned for Disney on Ice, only to be told via letter to lose a specific amount of weight.  She loses the weight and re-auditions, then receives the exact same letter, with only a different date.)

And none of this even takes into consideration what happens for those of us who seek to put on muscle, and how the scale will actually go up even though our bodies may stay the same size or get smaller.  It’s completely backwards according to conventional wisdom about women’s bodies, and yet it happens to a lot of us, myself included.

It’s pretty clear to me that a lot of these weight standards – 110 pounds, 125 pounds, 140 pounds – are rather arbitrary, selected less based on metrics like health and wellness and fitness and more on a socially-cultivated expectation of what a woman’s body ought to weigh to be considered attractive.  We may be talking in numbers and measurements, which is often thought of as a language of reason, but the underlying assumptions are anything but reasonable.

Alas I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this problem.  I understand the reticence.  I understand why celebrities underreport.  I understand why women smash their scales. I understand why women don’t even get on them in the first place.  For as long as we can remember, a lot of us have been hearing that our worth as human beings is intimately tangled up with the number that appears on the scale.  The reluctance to engage with that number is a form of self-preservation in the face of a culture that seems indifferent to suffering.  I totally, totally get it.

But at the same time, when I envision an ideal future around this subject, it’s not a world in which everyone is ashamed of their weight or feels triggered into disordered thinking when they get on the scale.  It’s a world in which we can all regard that number as just another measurement in a series of measurements that describe our body at a specific point in time.

But how do we get there from here?  I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s important to point out that refusing to talk or lying about what women actually weigh only contributes to the unrealistic expectations placed on all of us.

*It has been pointed out to me that I come across as dismissive of those tall, thin women who have really struggled with their bodies.  I’m sorry about that, and I have edited this to make it clear that this is my own experience about my role in body image conversations.  When I take part in conversations where I have a lot of privilege, I try not to make myself central to those conversations and instead cede the floor to others, and I consider this to be one of those instances.

**Affiliate link!  Yes, I am slowly inching my way to the dark side.  Anyways, if you don’t want to give me moneys – and I won’t be hurt if you don’t – don’t click on that link.

44 responses to “Talking – or not talking – about weight and women

  1. You know, it’s funny that you write this today because last night I was looking at the Wikipedia page for the Canada women’s national ice hockey team and marvelling that they didn’t appear to be lying about their weights – the 2014 roster weights range from 137 to 194 (5’5″ & 5’9″ respectively for those numbers). But ask popular opinion what 194 looks like and your response is not going to be “an Olympic athlete”.

  2. “The disconnect between expectations of what a certain weight should look like versus what it actually looks like has actual ramifications on the way women regard our bodies. ”

    This reminds me a lot of other bloggers trying to normalise bra sizes (e.g. the amazing George of There is this rubbish tendency for stars’ bra sizes to be guessed as D/DD *at most*, as for some reason anything over a DD is seen as “huge”. When in reality, a DD with a small back size is actually relatively small (see this image:

    So we end up with people saying things like “Coco is a 39DDDD” when 1) a 39 back size doesn’t exist; and 2) her back is TINY, like a 28-30 at most. So maybe she’s a 28H. But people see “H” and think OH MY GOD ENORMOBOOBS, how does someone with an H cup even stand up?!

    For me, at 5’2″, 140lbs was my goal skinny weight, back when I wanted to lose weight. When I see people saying things like “Well, 140lbs is fine except if you’re tiny, like 5’3″…” I go “ouch” because I was thin at 140lbs! Oh well.

    • That’s really interesting. I had no idea about any of this, seeing as though on a good day I’m lucky to fill out a B-cup. But you are right, hear the letter H in any conversation about boobs and instantly my mind goes to BOOBS THE SIZE OF MARS.

  3. Great article. FWIW, the BBC commentators did disclose the weights of female athletes in the sports in which this matters, in snowboarding and skeleton. I’m quite shocked that NBC chose to censor this information.

    • The BBC seems to have its shit together a bit more than the media outlets on this side of things. I’m not at all surprised that they released the information.

  4. I love that you talked about the strangely common ‘125’ goal! I don’t know where I picked it up, but I had that in my head a few years ago too. I’m curious if that all came from a specific source, like that’s a healthy BMI weight for an average woman or something, and just filtered down.
    I’ve also never been able to tell how much people weigh. Seriously, how do people do that?!

    • About 10 years ago, when I worked in a store that sold scales, I remember noticing that the weight on the scale box changed from 135 to 125 lbs. 125 lbs seems to be the ideal weight to sell scales…

  5. It would be great to live in a world where women had no attachments to the number on the scale. But as the examples you show demonstrate, in a very real, life-impacting way women’s bodies are subjected to standards of institutions. I often hear that women need to just care less — but that seems irrational for any woman to actually do that in patriarchy, where youth and beauty/thinness are valued and can be converted into professional achievements.

    In my own life, I feel like one of the only radical things to do is to not own a scale and not diet, but I also admit I’m thin and have never struggled with weight change. I usually fall silent when a friend is talking about her weight (I shouldn’t eat this, I’m fat, etc.) because I don’t know how to handle it without diminishing her feelings about her weight/body. Caitlin, you are imbibed with feminist athlete perspectives: What are your thoughts on ways to change the conversation about weight?

  6. For “petite” women (under 5’2″ or whatever) the goal weight is usually an even 100. That’s the number that comes up for us over and over again. I remember hearing once that the
    “ideal doctor’s scale weight” at five feet tall was 100 pounds; you could mayyyybe add five additional pounds for each additional inch. I heard this from the same girl in HS who insisted that there were supposed to be “three diamonds” between your legs when you stood with your feet touching. “Three diamonds” was thigh gap for the late 80s, I guess.

  7. There was a tumblr or a blog a while back where people could upload (anonymous, faceless) photos of their bodies, with their weight listed, or whatever other measurements they wanted to emphasize, with the explicit goal of *giving* people that reference point as to what X height could look like at Y weight, or X cup size and Y band size (you get the idea). Now I can’t remember the title or the URL, so this comment may be less than helpful. But I remember looking at it when I was still just sort of guessing with this whole fitness thing, and it was super helpful for me. This would have been either just before or right at the beginning of people really picking apart the heavy-duty photoshopping that happens in magazines.

  8. I’ve gone from weighing daily to not owning a scale, not looking at when getting weighed and having not one clue what I weigh. I try to make sure I fit in my clothes and when something gets snug I look at what I’ve been doing–eating junk, not working out, not sleeping, whatever and try to fix it. When I weighed daily I was a competive athlete and weight and fat to muscle ratio was a significant piece of data for me but it also built an obsession. My smallest, IM skinny, was about 2-3 pounds under my typical peak training weight. My two weeks of off season with no workouts at all, on vacation with booze and pizza saw 5-7 pounds above peak training weight. I was obsessed. I’m tall and was then very thin and was obsessed. For pete’s sake, I was wearing 0s and 2s and didn’t own spanx and had BF% of 15 or less and hadn’t had regular periods in years but I was still obsessed with the number. And I’d only weigh myself on my scale in the same spot at hte same time of day. Variables and all. Then I got pregnant in the middle of tri season (I know!! Shocking to all involved and it turns out I was pregant for my one and only podium in a half iron distance) and gained 60+ pounds (which I only know because my husband looked at the scale the last day, I had refused to look the whole time) and now, I care, but also, whose got time?

    I too have no idea what size people are or what they weigh. A good friend who is several inches shorter than me with a different shape/body type is the roughly the same clothing size. In my mind she’s tiny, she’s hard as a rock, but not noticable muscular, just really low body fat (how does one do that post partum anyway?) and still, we share dresses and skirts and even pants recently (cropped on me, long on her).

  9. Hmmm… Interesting that in “contests” like Miss America, we hear both the height and the weight of the contestants. 5’8″ and 110 pounds has always seemed like fiction to me. I’m 5’3″ and if I get much below 140, people start asking me if I’m terminal…

  10. I had a mental health intake appointment this week, and after the clinic’s questionnaire I had to do one for the state (because the state is covering my treatment via Medicaid). The state questionnaire included a question asking for weight. The woman doing the intake, when I straight up told her, happily told me “I actually get to answer that question! Normally people say they don’t know or don’t want to say.”

  11. It’s no one’s business what we weigh or the size or shape of our bodies. It is a HUGE and pathetic and self-indulgent distraction to talk endlessly about this stuff. Can we not, seriously, find anything more compelling to think about or act on?

    The only person’s opinion I am interested in re: my body is that of my physician. My husband loves me just fine.

    Everyone else needs to shut the fuck up about other people’s bodies and their perceived beauty and social/cultural value. Really.

    • Not all blogs with a fitness/sport angle, which includes mine, even think about discussing issues of weight. So far, I haven’t talked at all about weight matters or even mentioned my own weight. Actually….it’s the wrong topic fit with my blog, even though there’s a cycling theme that infuses my blog. I’ve been blogging for the last 3 years.

      • My point is not to chastise fellow bloggers. My exasperation is with the cultural obsession with discussing every aspect of our bodies — when it becomes and continues to be a huge and often shaming/blaming distraction from far more (to me) important issues like income inequality or reproductive rights.

    • I totally winced when I first read this comment but the thing is that you are absolutely right. There is a whole huge damn world out there to be explored, and weight and body obsessions take that huge world and shrink it to the tiniest point. My point in writing a post like this is to be like, hey, all of this obsessing is pointless, but ideally it would be nice if I never wrote a post like this again.

      • I hope you didn’t think I was being a total dick — and realized it might well look like an attack on you personally….when I have tremendous respect for your writing and views. I just get so exasperated with the world’s endless need/compulsion to focus on the size and shape of women’s bodies. Our incomes matter more since so many of us will die alone and broke. Our intelligence and compassion should be the only values by which we are judged. Sorry to be such a ranter…

        I turn 57 in June. I have just had it with this BS. Truly. Not yours….theirs.

      • I realized what you meant after I thought about it for a few minutes, because I did initially feel a bit taken aback, but I understood your point and I completely agree with you.

  12. I just had several different people recommend your blog, and I am so glad they did! Love it.

    I remember that Slate article about showing the weights of the men & not the women & my impression was that whoever did the graphics was kind of just throwing their hands up & going “Not touching that one.” I know that weight makes an actual difference in many sports, but I also think that the vast majority of us don’t know enough about those sports for the weights to mean much to us, so I think I’d probably vote for just leaving them out all together for both men & women.

    (BTW, I think being a martial artist whose weight has often determined who I fight has–in my adult life–sort of inoculated me against some of the weight drama. Because of weight classes, which have to use accurate weights, I’ve had the very unique opportunity of looking at women in different weight classes & knowing more or less what they weigh, which has given me a much more accurate idea of what fit, athletic women of different weights *actually* look like. It’s also let me connect weight with strength and achievement, not trying to take up as little space as possible. I really wish more women had that chance.)

    • Yeah, I didn’t think it was active shaming as much as it was someone who is already probably pretty stressed out and overwhelmed not wanting to deal with all of the stuff that goes along with talking about women and weight.

      Also, love your BTW parenthetical. I have no experience in any sport that involves weight classes but I imagine that it could be very enlightening to be in that kind of athletic environment, especially one in which weight is associated with strength and power and not added weight to be dragged along (as in cycling, running or rowing).

  13. I enjoyed this post. It drives me nuts that we live in a society that is obsessed with weight. I used to work at an eating disorder clinic and it taught me to never want to own a scale. It was sad to see all these women put so much of their self worth into a number on a battery operated piece of metal. There is so much more calculated into weight other than just “fat”, like muscles and bones and blood and tissue. Like, you know, our whole BODIES. So once again, thank you for this post.

    • Yep, it’s like “weight” as a concept has become almost talismanic. It’s imbued with all of these extra almost magical qualities that have nothing to do with what it actually means.

  14. That’s why I love watching Crossfit comps & seeing the solid weights of all the athletes 🙂 Makes me realise over and over again how weight is just a number & it doesn’t have to be super low for you to look fab and fit and strong. (Most Crossfit athletes who are my height are much smaller than me but weigh a lot more.)

  15. I’m surprised no one has pointed you to this yet!: – huge range of body shapes and sizes — all athletic.

    Interestingly, even when I did ballet well through my teens and dance in college, there was no talk of weight. But you can’t hide anything in a leotard. Modern dance especially welcomes an immense variety of body shapes and sizes, but my ensemble-mates were all incredible dancers, and all rock-solid.

    • TBH the women’s weights seem really low to me, especially the tall, obviously heavily muscled women. I wonder if they provided their weight or f it was taken on the day of the shoot… hmmmm

  16. I see no point in hiding one’s weight (or age for that matter). It is what it is, even if you don’t know the number you can see the other person’s body, are they fat, are they skinny, are they muscular, we can easily translate that to an estimate number, so why hide it.
    I have been ashamed of my weight and don’t want to be there ever again. I don’t want my daughter to be there. I don’t want any of the little girls I see in the park every day to be there.
    Being open, honest, and having no shame about image issues (weight, body fat, eating disorders, etc.) is the way to help people break free from shame.

    • I see what you’re saying… I don’t care if people know how much I weigh because it’s not like my body is going to spontaneously change shape based on whether people thought I was heavier or lighter. But the problem is that many of us have a distorted view of our own bodies. If we don’t have a realistic picture of what other people are supposed to look like at certain weights, and we don’t have a realistic picture of what our own bodies look like, then that can lead to a situation where you have this ideal weight for yourself that’s based on a false standard. I’m a perfect weight for me and I know it. But if I had internalized some “fact” that women at my height are supposed to weigh 20 pounds less than this, I would probably feel like shit all the time.

  17. After having dropped fifty pounds last year, I had been fairly obsessed by the number on the scale. Big wake up moment for me when I was able to get into my wedding dress almost ten pounds heavier than I had been when I wore it the first time. The difference was body composition and the heavy lifting I’d been doing had made big changes. While I am still trying NOT to stress over scale numbers (I’m in the middle of a bulk cycle right now), it’s difficult, as it was something that had been ingrained in my head since teen years…”You’re x inches tall, therefore you should weigh x number of pounds.

    I am slowly but surely learning that the scale is simply a mind f*ck and I probably just need to toss the damned thing out the window. When the numbers are up, I have an internal freak out and my self-esteem goes out the window. I’m working on that.

    How great would it be to live in where the focus is what’s inside the woman, rather than how much she weighs?

  18. I love reading your blog! I wish all women would read it! I work in an all female environment in a culture where women aren’t afraid to tell you you are too skinny, too fat, etc. It is a bit off-putting, but does allow for better conversations about health and bodies then I’ve experienced in the US. Though my students don’t like that I have muscles!!

  19. Longtime lurker here who loves this post, like pretty much all of them!

    May I suggest, though, that you avoid “dark side” and other such metaphors for evil in future? They are culturally common but having learned how offensive they are to many people of color I am training myself to avoid them and speaking up where I can. Thanks!

    • Oops. Yeah, that’s a figure of speech that can go by the wayside. Thanks for bringing it up – I’ll be more cognizant in the future.

  20. Different weights certainly look drastically different on women due to varying factors such as height and muscle mass. A more realistic goal might be to achieve a certain dress size, but even that is sketchy because clothing companies are so inconsistent with their sizes. The major problem here is that women are focused more on an arbitrary number rather than what they need to do in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

    • “The major problem here is that women are focused more on an arbitrary number rather than what they need to do in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

      This, exactly. I refuse to use clothing sizes as an indicator of anything beyond what size of clothing a particular item is. Plus the “ideal” size has changed even in my own lifetime. When I was younger, it was all about being a size 6 and now it’s all about being a size 2. The goalposts are meaningless and always moving, so I see no point in using them as a measure of health and fitness.

  21. Pingback: Five Things Friday 2.28.14 - Fitting It All In·

  22. Great article. In these last few weeks I have been struggling with my thoughts around my weight. In the mirror, I often think, ‘way to go!’, but then I get on the scale and think, ‘your ideal body weight is…125, and you aren’t there!’ And you know what? I am 129. And I lift weights, which as you point out means I may weigh more. I dislike all these constraints, internalized and controlling.

  23. I was thinking as I was reading this article that I don’t weigh myself because “the number doesn’t matter,” but if it didn’t matter, then I could look at the number…hmm…

    It’s probably a good idea for women to be more open about their weight–but the entire community would have to also accept this, without regarding particular numbers as better than others. How would that work? We’re so indoctrinated to judge numbers when discussing weight. I guess the idea is if we normalize it, it will, well, be normal.
    It’s definitely worth exploring.

    Sidenote: I also really appreciate this as well: “When I take part in conversations where I have a lot of privilege, I try not to make myself central to those conversations and instead cede the floor to others, and I consider this to be one of those instances.”
    I think it’s important to do that, and I don’t think we do enough of recognizing our privilege.

    • I honestly have no idea. It’s one of those things where the path from reality to ideal is filled with so many obstacles that I just don’t even know how to proceed.

      And also thanks for your sidenote. I find I get a lot more out of conversations like that when I step aside and listen instead of making myself the center of things.

  24. The post is great. It drives me nuts that we live in a society that is obsessed with weight. I used to work at an eating disorder clinic and it taught me to never want to own a scale.

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