The most potent political sedative in women’s history
September 6, 2014 12:01 PM   Subscribe

We can’t close gender gaps when we spend endless hours counting calories instead of cracking glass ceilings. We can’t gain self-assurance when body dysmorphia is so abundant.
11 years on, Vanessa Garcia tells her 24-year-old eating-disordered self “Your time is precious. Get help. Do it now. You have too many important things to do.”

On the other hand, Marisa Meltzer asks whether dieting is truly antithetical to feminism. She reflects on Naomi Wolf's 1991 assertion in The Beauty Myth: "A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one." Unhappy with her weight and struggling with the personal versus the political as it relates to body image and diet, Meltzer decides to consult the elders.
I decided to go to the source and call Naomi Wolf. .... [S]he’s still critical of the kind of nitpicky thinking that dieting encourages. “Women are always tasked with surveilling, evaluating, judging. There is something about the culture asking us to be in that part of our brains all the time that dials down passion and intuition,” she says. I brace myself for what comes next—is she going to chastise me, tell me I’m betraying the cause? But Wolf is surprisingly laissez-faire on the subject of individual choice. “Feminism often gets into an unappealing cul-de-sac where there’s this set of practices or beliefs that you have to be part of to be a good feminist. Interestingly, that’s not very different from more conventional forms of social policing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking care of your body. I just want to know you’re feeling beautiful and important at whatever weight you want.”
Bonus link: 20 years on, Naomi Wolf reflects back on The Beauty Myth from the vantage point of middle age.
posted by drlith (30 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
beautiful and important

I like this formulation.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:36 PM on September 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


Disclaimer: Marissa Meltzer writes for the Thursday Styles section of the New York Times.
posted by pxe2000 at 12:40 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


I was obsessed with weight and diet for decades. At the same time, I was also obsessed with finding a good relationship with a man. I suspect I'm not alone on the blue. :-)

I'm nearly fifty and I've become much freer of both obsessions. I have much more time to spend as I please now. Was the time I spent on those two obsessions wasted? Unequivocally, yes, and I realized this in my twenties but could not get free of them. Helps to get older; also helps to have started a meditation practice.

Are the prevalence of those two obsessions among young women a feminist issue? I think so, although I've heard that the incidence of eating disorders among American men is on the rise, and the widespread message of Das Liebe Uber Alles (romantic love, that is) affects men too. Here I'll put in one of my frequent plugs for Eva Illouz' "Why Love Hurts."

I think too we have to separate caring for one's body in a healthy way (that means eating healthily and getting adequate exercise) from obsessing about how thin or fat one is. The first involves mindfulness; the second involves overweening attachment to outcome. Feels to me like Naomi Wolf advocates the former.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:02 PM on September 6, 2014 [11 favorites]


Why is cracking the glass ceiling so important? Male or female most c-suite denizens I have known are assholes.
posted by Nevin at 1:13 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've had to work really hard to separate what's good for me from what's good for any and all women. Dieting doesn't work for me. I'm not very good at moderation, and my only two modes are don't worry about my weight at all or full-blown eating disorder. I'm also lucky that I land at a reasonably socially-acceptable weight when I don't worry about it. But I've recently had some friends go on diets, and I've realized that I can't universalize from my own experience. Dieting is a terrible mess for me, but that doesn't mean that it's bad for everyone. I think my friends are doing what's right for them, and I trust them to make good decisions about their own bodies.

The thing is, I don't want women to feel ashamed of dieting, but I also don't want to hear about it. Diet talk is triggering for me, and in the past I've had a lot of problems in atmospheres where people talked constantly about diets and calories and weight. I don't really know how to open up space for feminists to talk frankly about dieting without reinforcing things about our culture that really do fuck a lot of us up.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:25 PM on September 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


Why is cracking the glass ceiling so important? Male or female most c-suite denizens I have known are assholes.

Because sexism is bad.

Because inequality of opportunity is bad.

Because society benefits when the assholes in charge are diverse.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:29 PM on September 6, 2014 [32 favorites]


[Homodigitalis, this isn't the place for an extended rant about what feminism should do to make you happier. Please don't repost your comment. Thanks.]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 1:33 PM on September 6, 2014 [26 favorites]


"society benefits when the assholes in charge are diverse."

Supporting data?
posted by IndigoJones at 2:01 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Why is cracking the glass ceiling so important? Male or female most c-suite denizens I have known are assholes.

I think that many women would prefer the opportunity to be in the C-suite and take the risk of being called an asshole, than being patted on the head and told it's not a nice place for them.
posted by ambrosia at 3:08 PM on September 6, 2014 [28 favorites]


I just started re-reading Jane Eyre yesterday so this part struck me:

“Women are always tasked with surveilling, evaluating, judging. There is something about the culture asking us to be in that part of our brains all the time that dials down passion and intuition,” she says.

Jane learning how to be a good girl on the outside but trusting her passion and intuition anyway are such a big part of that book.
posted by bleep at 3:27 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


"Why is cracking the glass ceiling so important? Male or female most c-suite denizens I have known are assholes."

Because our gender's lack of comparative earning power has incredibly varied and far-reaching repercussions.
posted by Selena777 at 3:30 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


Why is cracking the glass ceiling so important? Male or female most c-suite denizens I have known are assholes.

I'm already an asshole, and it would be nice if there were larger scope for my talents instead of being automatically ruled out because I'm not a male asshole.
posted by winna at 3:35 PM on September 6, 2014 [80 favorites]


We can’t close gender gaps when we spend endless hours counting calories instead of cracking glass ceilings. We can’t gain self-assurance when body dysmorphia is so abundant.

Sigh. I was hoping this was limited to the pullquote, but no, it seems to pervade the article, right on up to the headline (somehow I don't think that eliminating calorie-counting would be a greater positive for women than eliminating misogyny, but that's just me!)

I appreciate that the author was so frank with her experience, and I sympathize with her feelings of having lost time for herself, but the way that sentence and others in the article are phrased (Women are starving themselves. They’re spending more time thinking about their calorie intake than how to change the world. CITATION NEEDED) carry a lot of weird baggage. Women can still be effective activists and advocates even if they aren't in perfect mental or physical health, or even if they haven't excised all traces of internalized misogyny. And, on the flipside of it, women struggling with body dysmorphia don't "owe" it to feminism or anyone else but themselves to get well.
posted by kagredon at 3:46 PM on September 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


In a 2008 survey by SELF magazine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ... 37 percent regularly skipped meals to lose weight, and 26 percent cut out entire food groups.

I agree with the basic premise of the article, but are these practices really any more unhealthy than "portion control", "healthy lifestyle changes", and all of the other it's-totally-not-a-diet behaviors that are lauded as positive steps (but probably require more mental energy and sensations of hunger than something like intermittent fasting)?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:11 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have a bad feeling that the way we're probably going to get to equality in this area is to give men just as problematic body-images as women.
posted by the jam at 4:55 PM on September 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


The way I see it, misogyny is responsible for (much of) women's policing their own bodies so obsessively. To say that women undercut their own success by being so obsessed with their looks is putting the cart before the horse to a great degree. If, for instance, a larger woman wanted to run for a prominent public office, the fat jokes would flow, fast and furious. But a conventionally attractive woman running for prominent public office is subject to the same scrutiny and misogynistic comments. That's misogyny. If a woman strives to police her appearance to such an extent as to ward off any and all judgy comments - she can't win, but it's not her appearance at fault, it's societal misogyny.

I think it's normal to want a body that will function well and do what you want it to do. It's also normal to want to look good (however one defines "good") and take pride in one's appearance. Men do this, too. So do animals when they groom their fur or preen their feathers. I also think there is some biological susceptibility in some people to eating disorders - but while genetics may load the gun, societal attitudes toward appearance pulls the trigger (women must be thin, men must be muscular, etc.).

I say this as someone who LOVES fashion and makeup, and who follows a "diet." I decry the attitude that fashion is frivolous and women who love it are foolish. I think the real issue is that we live in a patriarchy, which hurts women and most men. I don't know that the problem is that women waste their energy by focusing on their appearance so much as that they are so judged by that appearance that it curtails their opportunities. Appearance, dieting, etc. are symptoms, not causes.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:26 PM on September 6, 2014 [16 favorites]


This hits home for my complicated relationship with fashion. On the one hand, fashion is a way to play, a way to make yourself into art, a way to establish identity, and so much more. Great! On the other hand, I fume about how much energy, money, and cognitive power is sucked up by fashion - staying aware of trends, keeping up with fast fashion, feeling pressured to replace perfectly good clothes just because they don't fit the current styles. Here's me wasting brain cycles wondering whether nylons or nude legs are acceptable. Goddamn. Some days it comes off to me like a deliberate soma-esque distraction, like I genuinely would feel no surprise if someone told me it was an actual conspiracy.

Obligatory Achewood comic with relevant alt text
posted by cadge at 5:47 PM on September 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


Feminism has done great things for women's reproductive health, but it really has failed nutrition and fitness.
The Third Wave message of "eat what you want" and "don't look at the scale" combined with the oversupply of garbage food, simply too much food, and the US government and doctor's poor nutrition recommendations has been a contributing factor to people like Marisa Meltzer gaining unhealthy amounts of weight.
Feminism needs to address this. We need to communicate to all women that all of us need to have an awareness of what we are eating (both too much and too little).
I am certain every single feminist can describe the menstral cycle in detail, but how many calories does a 150 pound woman need every day if she moderately active?
We have left this most basic of health issues unaddressed. Women are uneducated in nutrition and are suffering from this lack of understanding.
We need to look at the scale, we need to understand that the foods we want aren't always in the best interest of our health, and that is NOT the message feminism has given us in the past. Our bodies must be maintained. For many of that, it requires work, perhaps dieting, perhaps dealing with eating disorders.
There is nothing that a woman can do to be stronger than to have excellent health, and nutrition is the basis of that.
We need to get the medical community to help people understand nutrition and weight. We need the government to help everyone have access to nutritious foods. As a culture we need to stop both ends of this -- the undereaters and the overeaters.
I have had to learn how to eat as an older woman, and lose the weight I had gained, and felt that I was turning away from the "don't care what you look like" message. But my health is better, I am professionally more successful because of it, too. I think that meets some goals of feminism, and I am proud to understand how to fuel my body.
posted by littlewater at 6:52 PM on September 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


We need to look at the scale, we need to understand that the foods we want aren't always in the best interest of our health, and that is NOT the message feminism has given us in the past. Our bodies must be maintained. For many of that, it requires work, perhaps dieting, perhaps dealing with eating disorders.

Are you seriously saying that eating disorders are just part of what women should do?
posted by winna at 7:08 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Not at all.

But years of "not looking at the scale" left me, and Marisa Meltzer, with over 50 pounds to lose.

Not understanding nutrition, and not tracking what you are consuming, is not a good approach to optimal health.

Look at the US: eating what we want has made us the fattest people in the world. This is not a good approach to health.

Eating in a disciplined way with the goal of health is what we need to do.
posted by littlewater at 7:12 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


The Third Wave message of "eat what you want" and "don't look at the scale" combined with the oversupply of garbage food, simply too much food, and the US government and doctor's poor nutrition recommendations has been a contributing factor to people like Marisa Meltzer gaining unhealthy amounts of weight.
You're talking about someone who was put on her first diet in kindergarten and sent off to fat camp when she was 10. I don't think that the Third Wave message of "eat what you want" was the formative factor in her relationship with food or her body.

Since we're trading anecdotes: the Third Wave message of "eat what you want" and "don't look at the scale" literally saved my life. I'm glad that was available to me when I needed it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:15 PM on September 6, 2014 [14 favorites]


Look at the US: eating what we want has made us the fattest people in the world.

Well, yeah, if you want to totally ignore the effects of urban sprawl, systematic inequalities in access to nutritious food and healthcare, and the shift towards more sedentary work, sure.
posted by kagredon at 7:24 PM on September 6, 2014 [20 favorites]


Also, I don't really get how "eat what you want" or "don't look at the scale" are third-wave messages. If anything, I'd think the third-wave message would be "do what is right for you and your body", and while choice feminism is not without its weaknesses, I think striving towards a place where all women (and men and those who are neither, for that matter) can do so is a worthy goal.
posted by kagredon at 7:27 PM on September 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


French people are actually less likely to rely on external cues like calorie counting and more likely to rely on internal satiety cues than Americans are. And that's actually what Health At Every Size (which I suspect is what you mean by "the Third Wave message of 'eat what you want'") suggests that people do. I don't think there's a lot of evidence that counting calories and exercising constant discipline is necessarily a healthier strategy than learning to listen to what your body is telling you it needs.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:30 PM on September 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


Sorry, my body tells me it needs AN ENTIRE REFRIGERATOR FULL OF FOOD pretty much every day. My girl friends secrectly confide to me they feel the same hunger. Lots of people have very few satiety cues left. In less than 3 months of "eating what I want" I will slide into the BMI obese category. This happened last winter, ugh. Lots of people use things like My Fitness Pal every day and do not have any kind of eating disorder.

We really, really can do better, for everyone.

We can do better for people like me that would happily eat an entire bakery if I did not understand that it's not a good health choice. I sincerely, in my youth, though it was ok to eat a LOT of crap. This is a health problem. It leads to obesity and disease. I choose to manage it. Lots of people don't understand that it can be managed.

We can also do better for people with eating disorders. My desire is for more education on nutrition for EVERYONE, and if for people with eating disorders tracking food is a bad thing, then fine, do something else.

However, we all need to understand what we are eating (or not eating) and how that affects our health, and how each person can eat for maximum health, and I think feminism is a great place to help women and men have more knowledge and better health.
posted by littlewater at 7:44 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


[This thread will go better if people refrain from making sweeping statements about how the way that works for them is the best and only way to eat/lose weight. Thanks.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 8:07 PM on September 6, 2014 [11 favorites]


I like what littlewater says about nutrition, but I feel there's another piece of it. Keeping track of your own health, and being your own advocate, unfortunately. The medical industrial complex is pretty broken and it's selling women in particular short. So many women I know are experiencing hormonal imbalances, pcos, thyroid issues, and weight is just a symptom. For years I was told my issues were idiopathic or laziness and I just needed to put down the cake. No one looked deeper until I did. Thank Zod for the internet and community.

I can see why women turn on themselves and lose their instincts that something may be wrong. If you're overweight is often impossible for anyone to see you as anything but a weakling without self-control, especially some doctors.
posted by Lardmitten at 8:08 PM on September 6, 2014 [10 favorites]


Look at the US: eating what we want has made us the fattest people in the world

At the risk of being de-raily, that's not true. In the western hemisphere, Mexico has a higher rate of obesity. There are some tiny Pacific island nations that are actually the most obese countries in the world. Qatar and Kuwait also beat us. This is according to a study in the Lancet.

Back on the rails:

I'm annoyed by Wolf's "I just want to know you’re feeling beautiful and important at whatever weight you want." What is with this insistence that every woman needs to feel beautiful to be happy? I don't see anyone going on and on about how every man needs to feel handsome.
posted by LindsayIrene at 10:05 PM on September 6, 2014 [13 favorites]


I also hate the Idea that my eating disordered history makes me a bad woman or anti equality. Attitudes like that show a massive misunderstanding of what it is to have an eating disorder, and the nuance between that and disordered eating. As it stands, we know very little about eating disorders really. I recommend the website the science of eating disorders if anyone wants to learn more about this subject.
posted by Braeburn at 4:05 AM on September 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the link to the science of eating disorders blog. It's fascinating!

I don't think that having had an eating disorder makes me a bad woman or anti-equality. I have a lot of guilt about my eating disorder, but it mostly has to do with how it hurt my immediate family, and I realize that it's pretty irrational. I do think, though, that my eating disorder took over my life and pushed out almost everything else, and realizing that was a powerful incentive to pursue recovery. I didn't like Vanessa Garcia's piece very much: it seemed a little bombastic and obvious. But it is true that I couldn't be anorexic and be much of anything else at the same time, and I pushed myself to get better because I realized that I wanted a life that was more than my diet.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:30 AM on September 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


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