Food, Fatness, and Feminism
This post is a part of the “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.
Today, when I was browsing the ‘net to see what was going on in my world, I stopped for a moment on the top stories at Yahoo (first mistake). There, I was reminded of one of the biggest mixed messages we receive: eat, eat, eat! But somehow, above all else, stay thin.
As women, we encounter confusing messages almost everywhere we turn. We’re supposed to remain virginal, but we’re also supposed to know how to please a man. We’re supposed to simultaneously be amazing mothers and also now the best in our fields. We’re supposed care about how we look and be attractive, but not dress too sexy (because then we’re sluts.) On top of it all, comes the additional pressure that we are supposed prepare and enjoy food, yet make sure that we work off all of those tricky little calories so that we stay desirable.
The burden to be thin in our society is undeniable. Practically no one is immune to the messages. In fact, “almost nine in 10 American teenage girls say they feel pressured by the fashion and media industries to be skinny and that an unrealistic, unattainable image of beauty has been created.” The results of this pressure are detrimental. “10% of the girls and women in the US have eating disorders. Of those, an estimated 50,000 will die as a result of their disease.” It’s no joke.
Yet, on the other side of the equation comes the American cultural norm of consumption. In fact, “in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption.” Advertisements, movies, and television all promote an insatiable appetite. This consumption mindset not only includes the obvious consumption of food (in increasingly larger portions) but also the consumption of all goods—unnecessary cosmetics, fast fashion, and electricity usage, just to name a few.
In the midst of these competing forces, many of women and girls experience a loss of self-esteem that comes from comparing oneself to an unattainable ideal. And we start to devalue our bodies. In my past work with young women, I have led many activities aimed at increasing healthy body image and self-esteem. In one activity, I ask the young women how many of them have ever said something bad about their bodies. With the hundreds of young women I’ve asked, I can count on one hand how many of them did not raise their own in agreement.
Of course this is only anecdotal, but in six years of working with young women, it’s always the same. Think about the implications of that; entire generations of girls who hate something about their bodies.
It can become tempting to be jaded or to think, “I had low self-esteem as a kid, and I’m fine now!” However, the fact of the matter is that there’s no reason why it has to be like this. There are many other ways to view our bodies and to truly appreciate them. For example, Health At Every Size “supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control).” Behavior Centered Health “is a health practice in which healthy choices and behaviors are the goal, not a particular size, weight, or shape.”
These theories, and any other body acceptance/body positive movements have a very simple premise: you cannot shame and hate fatness away. Being against obesity isn’t the solution; one must love her body in order to be truly healthy.
As someone who has wasted a lot of time hating myself and being very confused by the competing pressures, I can say that delving into body acceptance has been a breath of fresh, healthy air. If you would like to learn more about Health at Every Size or body positivity, I recommend the following links: