It’s no surprise I clicked the link to the Salon article titled “What Americans Don’t Understand about Weight Loss.” Partly because I am a feminist, and I thought the piece would pick apart the idea that we need to count calories to be worthy, and partly because I myself have always struggled with poor body image and a perpetual weight-loss pursuit. The picture accompanying the story (see below) suggests that we’re bound by our obsession with weight loss, placing unhealthy importance upon the poundage of our bodies. As I read the article, I was sorely disappointed, and then, I was pissed off.
The article outlines the 20 lb weight-loss journey of a Japanese-American woman following a research trip to Japan. She explains the different cultural relationships with food from the American and Japanese perspectives, and tells how shifting her viewpoint cured her poor emotional relationship with eating. The article is interesting and well-written, and comments on some less-frequently-cited realities about how our emotional relationships with food often create blockages to healthy lifestyles and weight loss. In her case, she was the fun-loving meat-eating girlfriend and her self-identity relied heavily upon her uninhibited habits. The piece also accuses American diets of existing in two extremes: total caloric deprivation, or a diet with no restrictions. It’s a tale of a shift in perspective, and a deeper look at how we can see food differently.
But the author hugely misses the mark when she coolly dismisses the gendered politics at play with weight loss, suggesting that Americans–more specifically American women–are too gentle with themselves about how much they weigh, and that mantras of self-acceptance essentially harm women, because they allow an avoidance of admitting that deep down, we all know we are fat.
From the article:
“Many times over the years I have Googled “How much should I weigh?” and been given a range based on my BMI. I have always been within that range. I even asked my doctor in New York if I needed to lose weight, and he rolled his eyes. In New York City women either weigh less than they ought to, or far, far more than they should. I wasn’t a problem.
I occasionally mentioned my concerns to girlfriends, who commented on my need to accept myself. Too much of our culture, they insisted, placed a woman’s value on her appearance. I was too smart to worry about my looks. Friends would tell me about their anorexic years, and how they had since learned to love themselves as they were. Worrying too much about weight signaled a fixation on control — or an obsession with image and the media. Was I reading too many gossip magazines? I was too old to develop an eating disorder; this is the bailiwick of the young.
I still thought I might be fat. I thought that maybe with our Western concern about “acceptance” we had overcompensated when it came to facing the truth about weight, and that I was just one of many people who really ought to lose some pounds.”
Suggesting that her friends were “lying” to her when they said she should accept her body, that she looked great as she was, and that she was too smart to be worried about her weight, stunned me. She shared that her “near anorexic friend” would say bitchy things to her about losing weight that she would dismiss, but then later in the article she seems to validate the same friend, and invalidate the way her other friends championed self-acceptance.
The proposition that we as a culture are too gentle with our body image is so ridiculous, I was shocked to read it on Salon. Can we for a second talk about the Biggest Loser contestant that felt it necessary to work out for 6 hours a day in order to continue losing weight, because a) there is a show that fully displays our culture’s intense fat-shaming and makes a game out of someone’s health, and b) once she started losing, she couldn’t stop because when she was heavier she was made to feel like an unworthy person?? Can we also maybe talk about how, not even for a second, did this author discuss that maybe the reason she was obsessing about fatness is because a woman’s value hinges almost totally upon physical appearance? Can we mention that this is so pervasive that most young girls at middle school ages or younger are already dieting? Can we just, for one more second, discuss the popularity of ProAna blogs, FITSPO-mania, and the rampant amounts of disordered eating in our country dependent upon the ingrained notion that women need to be small at any cost?
The author’s argument that small-but-rich meals are a way to healthy weight loss is not something I dismiss. I’m sure many people could manage to eat less crap, and more whole foods. But how she packages this message in a narrative about discovering that she truly was fat (despite the assurance that she wasn’t) is unreal. By suggesting women need to be harder on themselves, she is flat-out ignoring the social, cultural, and internalized oppression of women that fuels deeply unhealthy obsessions with body image. This article is dangerously insensitive to eating disorders and the reality that many women spend a large chunk of their energy trying to lose weight they don’t need to lose, by putting themselves in danger through restricted eating and obsessive exercise.
The author tells us that she was 5 ft 5in, and 143 pounds when she considered herself to be overweight. What does it mean, then, that I am 5 ft 1in and I weigh 143lbs? Am I, too, supposed to ignore the assurance from my friends and family that I’m healthy and should accept myself, because I apparently have 30 lbs to lose in order to have a “truer relationship with my body?”
I am lucky to know that that’s not true. I eat a vegan and mostly organic whole-foods diet (that is doable because of my class privilege–which is also a huge factor in weight loss that the author ignores), and I exercise 4-6 days a week. My weight has varied about 3 – 5 lbs since I was a teenager. The only time I was significantly lighter–a full 20 lbs lighter–I was on a diet fueled by coffee, apples, and cottage cheese. I was eating snacks as meals, I was making my lunch cover my entire day, and I was obsessively overdoing it with cardio. I had a lead role in a school play, and felt I had to slim down to be comfortable with myself on stage (i.e internalized that if I was going to be looked at I needed to look “good”). I suffered from frequent dizzy spells, irregular periods, and episodes of anxiety, moodiness, and severe emotional sensitivity. I was between the ages of 16 and 18 at the time, compromising my healthy growth as an adolescent by forcing myself to be nutritionally malnourished. My mother and close mentors noticed my weight loss, and were (rightfully) worried, while my friends fueled me, as they, too, were 18 year-old girls joining me down the road of severe food deprivation in search of self-acceptance via thinness.
The struggle for self-love is very real. Those who scoff at the millennial generation for their annoying selfie-self-love, have a lot to learn about the importance of self-worth and how our culture has failed to teach us that lesson. Even as a product of the “every child is special” generation, I have struggled with self-worth on many levels, battling perfectionism and mantras of “succeed-or-die,” which encompasses my body-image struggles. Self-acceptance is not an easy concept for many people. In fact, all of my friends and family on some level struggle with a lack of self-worth, and I could imagine many of you reading this article could say the same for yourself and others in your life.
I tell my story because I was not the first and will not be the last girl to starve herself in search of validation, or to grow into a woman with a worrisome relationship with food and weight. In recognition of this being National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, it’s important to always recognize the (largely female) struggle to accept our bodies as they are. This Salon article is grossly insensitive to the internal battle for self-acceptance raging in the hearts and minds of so many. For this writer to somehow suggest that being told to accept her body/accept herself as she was was some kind of terrible lie that blocked her from reaching her true potential, is not only ridiculous, but infuriating. We cannot ignore that body image is directly linked to self-worth.
bell hooks is famous for her notions of radical self-love for women of color. Radical self-love is the idea that, despite being told you are a piece of shit over and over by cultural and social discourses and from the people who act it out around you, you decide that you are an amazing specimen of humanness and you deserve all of the love in the world. Self-love is political and not recognizing it as such is a huge mistake, especially when we recognize that self-love is where greatness truly originates. Our true potential is not linked to losing that 20 lbs every American told you you didn’t need to lose–it lies within believing that no matter what, you are worthy and that accepting your body means accepting yourself.
“One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others. There was a time when I felt lousy about my over-forty body, saw myself as too fat, too this, or too that. Yet I fantasized about finding a lover who would give me the gift of being loved as I am. It is silly, isn’t it, that I would dream of someone else offering to me the acceptance and affirmation I was withholding from myself. This was a moment when the maxim “You can never love anybody if you are unable to love yourself” made clear sense. And I add, “Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.” bell hooks from All About Love