Monday, July 16, 2007

why is fat a feminist issue?

I wrote this in response to a query over on the IBTP forum, and thought it worth repeating here. Why is fat a feminist issue?

Another forum member asked this question:

But being overweight/obese is unhealthy, and why would you encourage anyone to embrace being unhealthy?!”

And here are my answers:

There's no SOLID MEDICAL EVIDENCE that being overweight is necessarily bad for you. A couple of points:

1. The definition of "overweight" is culturally determined, and has changed even in our lifetimes.

2. Being "overweight" can certainly be a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle, but isn't necessarily going to be bad for you. Slightly "overweight" people have longer life expectancies. It is a danger sign that one might be unhealthy, but no one has proved that it can kill you. I'm talking about being over a size 12, not morbidly, over-300-pounds obese. Size 12 is AVERAGE and it is HEALTHY and in our culture, it is considered FAT. It is a MYTH that being "overweight" is unhealthy. Let me repeat: it can be a symptom of ill health, but there is no proof that it is a CAUSE of ill health.

2a. The point at which obesity actually endangers one's health (stress on the joints, cardiovascular system, etc.) is MUCH higher than the point at which a woman is considered "fat" in our culture.

3. The culturally acceptable size for a woman in the US is actually unnaturally, unhealthily thin.

4. Genetics have at least as much to do with one's weight as one's diet and exercise habits. Expecting women to spend all of their time and energy trying to conform to an arbitrary cultural beauty standard is BAD FOR WOMEN. Like other beauty myths, the beauty and diet industry preys on women's inculcated insecurities about our fuckability. It costs us time, money, and self-esteem. It weakens us.

5. The more time we spend worrying about our weight, the less happy and productive we are. A woman who spends two hours at the gym every day will never finish her dissertation and get a tenure-track job, nor will she make partner at a law firm, nor will she have time to do things that make HER happy, whether that is knitting, political action, or doing yoga.

6. The diet industry is a behemoth designed to make billions of dollars. If diets worked, they'd put themselves out of business.

7. Why is it a feminist issue? Because only women are hounded for our weight 24/7 in every possible media venue. Because women are constantly being pressured to conform to fuckability standards - weight, hair, makeup, clothes, shoes, and sexual compliance are only some of the things that women are subjected to.

8. Men are not subject to these pressures to conform. Men are only considered fat if they are well over 50 lbs. overweight. Every inch of a man's body does not have to be fat-free, sculpted, cellulite-free, etc. for him to be considered a real man. A woman with fat on her body (except breasts and hips) is hardly a woman at all.

9. Fat-hatred is rampant. The stereotype of the fat person - the fat WOMAN - is that she is a lazy,disgusting pig who eats trash all day long.

10. Being fat is considered a failure of personality, of will, of character. For women. Men are encouraged to eat big portions, giant steaks, drippy disgusting burgers and fries: this is considered manly. Women, however, are not supposed to eat in public. Especially fat women.

11. Women in our culture are taught to hate our bodies unless they conform to sexbot standards. This is not acceptable or healthy. It is highly damaging to women who are too tall, too short, too big-breasted, too flat-chested, too dark, too pale, too loud, too quiet, too fat, and even, in extreme cases, too thin. Fat is a large part of this equation.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jezebella!

I followed a link from the IBTP forum and found your blog. I always thought that your messages on the forum were insightful and your blog is interesting and incisive as well!

I've been struggling with the very question you have addressed, "Aren't fat people also unhealthy?". I owe the origin of this prejudice to my family. From when I was a kid, I was taught that even a little bit of extra flesh is unhealthy and hence a cause for concern. But from the time I've realized my interest in feminism and have been hanging out at feminist blogs, I've been able to figure out what the problem with that prejudice is.

Its funny, but most of my life I've been ridiculed for being too skinny. So, I guess I, in turn, liked to believe that I am somehow healthier than the women who made fun of me! I've been trying really hard in the past few years to deconstruct my feelings and think critically about the implicit assumptions I make.

Incidentally, I've bookmarked your blog and look forward to more interesting articles from you!

Jezebella said...

Thanks for the props!

I think women are hassled about weight - too high or too low - because perfection is a moving target. There's always someone who'll criticize your weight, or height, or boobs, or hairdo, or whatever. It's hard to learn to ignore those people and figure out what is right - what is HEALTHY - for ourselves.

See you at IBTP!

Anonymous said...

Nice list, although you forgot a couple:

- Even if "extreme obesity" is linked to poorer health, it's very difficult to isolate weight alone from other co-factors that can affect a person's health, such as (but not limited to) yo-yo dieting (which almost every fat person has done), the stress of being constantly shunned and ridiculed and rejected and snubbed over appearance in every aspect of life, and poor access to health care (either not having insurance or being handed a diet when going to the doctor for any reason and told to go away until thin, causing otherwise treatable health problems to fester). Oh, and poverty, too -- after all, "extremely obese" people, especially women, are disproportionately poor, and we all know poor people don't live as long as more affluent people.

- Even if you could conclusively prove that fat alone is an independent cause of any health condition (and remember, you can't), there's still no safe, reliable way to turn most very fat people into thin or even "merely overweight" people. And it's not because we can't resist a few bits of oh-so-tempting goodies that thin people supposedly have no problem passing up; it's because for many of us, our basic biology would require us to starve forever -- yes, forever -- and be completely exhausted and have every second of our spare time forever taken up by fat-burning activities in order to have any shot at an "acceptable" weight. Is this really a reasonable thing to ask of people? Only if you're the kind of person who thinks it's reasonable to insist that gay people remain celibate or forced to have only opposite-sex partners.

- Even the most "morbidly obese" women still live longer than "ideal weight" men, according to CDC data. Should men be required to surrender their male bits and be pumped full of estrogen and progesterone in order to increase longevity?

P.S. I'm not "morbidly obese." But I'm plenty fat anyway, and I'm really weary of having to explain to people that it's not a "choice," nor is it for most of my friends who are "morbidly obese."

Jezebella said...

I did miss those. Thanks, Meowser.

Robert Nagle said...

First, we need to define our terms. I don't know what fat/overweight is, but I accept the 30 BMI definition of obesity and I think the link with mortality has been shown. (btw, check out this animated map of obesity rates over the last two decades . In texas (where I live), 28% of adults have BMIs greater than 30.

I probably accept your assertion that there is more stigma attachment to females being overweight than males. That is more of a reflection about wrong attitudes towards men, not the reverse.

The problem is cultural. First urban design and work environments which discourage physical activity. Second, with respect to gender, women make many choices about nutrition for the family. men don't. My father ate like crap, and it is only due to my mom's intervention that he had anything like a regular meal. That said, my mom bakes cakes and cookies all the time. Women will bring sweets to work and use "culinary generosity" as a way to define their role in a family or group. I am totally sick of women who bring huge amounts of cupcakes to work. These women are inevitably obese themselves.

I do agree that lack of time and career dedication interferes with the ability to plan your diet sensibly.

I have struggled with weight over the past few years and I have had to question many assumptions about lifestyle. In my personal life, I have found that the women in my life have enabled my bad diet habits. I find I can make much better dietary decisions without a woman around. When I go on dates, I have to admit, I ask myself whether the person I'm going out with really is interested in maintaining a healthy lifestyle (And I expect she is probably asking herself the same questions about me).

Perhaps you don't regard fat as a feminist issue, but from my perspective, it is a woman's issue insofar as it affects my life.