Note: I rarely delve into deep social controversy on this blog, because that’s not the point of this space. With that said, I’ve been reflecting on the changes in my life the last couple of years and I wanted to share some of this experience. In doing so, controversial social issues were bound to come up! If this isn’t your thing, that’s okay – see you with my next post in a few days.
I am a feminist. As journalist Caitlin Moran would say, I’m a strident feminist. I realize that word may elicit a strong reaction, possibly favorable, possibly not, but it is a fact about me and it’s relevant to the story I’d like to share today.
You see, when you’re a feminist, you are sometimes on display as a representation of ‘your kind.’ Do you look the part? Are you too feminine? Not feminine enough? Do you wear too much make-up (as those glossy patriarchal magazines encourage you to)? But, are you still approachable (so as to not scare away men)?
And, as a feminist, you are no more on display then when you are losing weight.
Feminists (myself included) generally share the belief that women are valuable for who they are, not what they look like. So – thin or fat, tall or short, dark or light, brunette or blond, none of it matters when it comes to a person’s value. This goes along with the basic premise that there are large (patriarchal) systems at work to debunk this fundamental belief. The beauty industry, not to mention all of its friends (tabloid magazines, clothing manufactures, and the like) diligently make efforts to set a standard of appearance that is narrow, constrictive, and nearly impossible for most women to achieve. One of the biggest areas of importance here is weight. Let me set the record straight on how I feel about this: fat is okay. Some people are naturally thin, some people are not. Big deal. Fat advocates have been working on building acceptance regarding this issue for years now and I fully support them as a feminist, as a woman, and as a human who, frankly, doesn’t care much about the size of a person when I’m determining who they are and what I think of them.
What I do care about is health and ensuring that all people have access to being healthy and happy. Now, fat does not equal unhealthy. Just like thin does not equal healthy. I think most people now know this is true. Plenty of research has shown that body size and health do not necessarily exist in a causal relationship. And still, it is also true that being overweight can be a sign that something is wrong. It can be a symptom of both physical health deteriorating and mental or emotional health not being in top shape.
For me it was both.
A couple of years ago when I started changing my own life, I wasn’t FAT as some might define it. I most certainly wasn’t obese. But, in the span of a few years, I had gained about 30 pounds. That’s not a small amount, especially for a person of my stature. I had always been fairly thin, not incredibly so, but thin enough. I’m a short, curvy girl and I generally bounced around from a size 4 to a size 8. But, somewhere along the line, I had crept upward and onward to numbers that were so far from my comfort level that I chose to believe for a while it wasn’t happening. My excess pounds had distributed pretty proportionately throughout my body, so I had that going for me from a physical standpoint. There wasn’t one area screaming “Hey, look at all the weight I’ve gained!!” but it was there. Like a full-length puffy coat that I couldn’t take off.
So back to that fundamental belief of feminism – I didn’t think that my heavier self was any less smart or less worthy or less capable, but I did think I was less healthy. I was tired and sick more often. I felt generally physically crummy most of the time. I also knew that I was increasing my risk of a variety of diseases and ailments if I continued on this track. So I made a clear and dedicated decision to lose weight and regain my health.
This is a hard enough thing on its own to do. As a feminist, working professionally amongst other feminists it’s ridiculously complicated. (Note: I work in the field of anti-domestic violence work. If you ever find yourself looking for a self-identified feminist – go to one of these agencies. You’ll find someone.) I didn’t tell people I was trying to drop pounds (except for the two people I live with). I just started doing it. I started eating healthy meals and being more active – healthy, safe ways to accomplish my goal. So here’s where things got tricky.
My first half-marathon – a huge step in my journey.
First, I had to constantly battle with myself over why I was doing it. I fully stand by the fact that my primary motivation was about health. But, did part of me want to just be smaller. Sure. Did I want to fit into different clothes? Absolutely. Did I compare myself (albeit not deliberately) to other women? You bet I did. Because even as a strident feminist, I’m not immune to the messaging that I get bombarded with about how I should look to be acceptable in our world. As much as I wish I had a shield around me that repelled patriarchal, traditional gender-normalizing, consumerist media, I don’t. So I was constantly evaluating this. What is healthy for ME? WHY did I decide to do this? Was it because I wanted to or because I bought into some messaging tactic? This constant battle was pretty exhausting.
Then you add the looks, questions, and comments from other women into the mix. I don’t harbor anger at them, because they are dealing with the same battles that I am in regards to these issues, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Although I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, over time it became obvious I was dropping weight. And people started asking me about it.
I got concerned questions: “Are you okay? Is your health okay?” I got prying questions: “What are you doing? What’s your secret? Can you teach me your tricks?” I got questions that insinuated things: “Why are you doing this? I don’t know how you do it – Why can’t it be so easy for me? You are SO lucky.” And so much more.
Being grilled about my appearance and having my tactics and motivations questioned was difficult. Some days I felt great (I’ve set healthy goals and I’m meeting them!). Other days I felt like I was betraying my people (If I’m a REAL feminist, I’ll accept my weight as is and not change it.). People would ask for advice that I was reluctant to give and then when I relented, I often found myself on the receiving end of some sort of resentment. I was even told (unsolicited) by one colleague that I was going to “be so happy” when I lost weight and that I would “find a new man.” What did that mean? I had been in a loving and committed relationship for several years and that wasn’t going to change. He had been with me at various ups and downs along the scale, so why would I want or need a new man?? And, why does being thin equal a happier me? How did she know I wasn’t happy now?!
I was on display constantly, whether I talked about it or not. And, that’s the thing. People could see a difference physically, but few people actually made an attempt to inquire, genuinely and with acceptance, about the real difference that was going on in my mind and my being. As a feminist, as a woman, and as human it was very disheartening.
I share this experience because I want other women to be able to make healthy changes for themselves – on their terms, in their own ways, because of what is best for them, without the demoralizing influence of societal beauty standards, the judgmental inquisition of other people, or the pressure to always be the vision of what someone else thinks they should be, as a feminist, as a woman, or as a human.