I've just read two very irritating articles in the guardian. Both purport to be about feminism and dieting - but both make Linda Hirschman's version of feminism look like it belongs in 'Notes from the First Year.' Zoe Williams article is called You're Vain and Stupid and the first sentance says: "Women who fixate on their weight should relinquish their right to be taken seriously." I don't even know where to start with this - when did women even win the right to be taken seriously? But the real reason Zoe Williams argument is not feminist is because it asks the question 'why do women fixate about their weight' and answers it 'because they're stupid'.
Feminism's most basic tenet is women's problems are structural and political, not individual. "Because women are stupid" is rarely a feminist answer to any question.
Even more annoying was India Knight's reply to Zoe Williams (who are these people? I don't know either - apparently they're people that guardian readers would have heard of) titled It's not anti-feminist to go on a diet (thanks to Big Fat Blog for the link). This is a misleading start, because India Knight didn't just go on a diet, she wrote a diet book. At least part of her living now comes in telling other women how to lose weight. If this article is anything to go by she drums up business by making fat women feel worse about themselves (she asks "Why is it good to be pleased that you look like a pig?")
What is so awful, so anti-feminist, about her article, is the narrative she tells about being fat:
You may occupy a great deal of physical space if you're very fat, but in everyday life, it's as though you weren't there. Sales assistants stare blankly through you. Men pretend you don't exist, or start calling you "mate". You wonder whether your children are embarrassed to be seen with you in public (the answer to that one is yes, probably). You wish you could go for a bike ride with them, but you're too self-conscious, because you look like a potato balanced on an ant. You can only buy clothes in specialist shops, and these clothes are as undesirable as you have started to feel. Your self-esteem - well, I was going to say "plummets", but it's hard to plummet when you've reached rock bottom.She's right - it sucks to be a fat woman in our society, it really fucking sucks. But every single example she gives isn't directly about being fat, it's about how people react to fat people. Her argument appears to be that men treat fat women like shit, so the solution is to stop being fat. That doesn't resemble any kind of feminism I know.
She reaches a low point when she suggests weight loss as a solution for an abusive relationship:
just as I cheer for the woman whose husband puts her and her weight down every single day. One of these days, he's going to have to stop. One of these days, she and her new-found confidence aren't going to take it any more.On first glance this is relatively trivial issue, which reminds me about everything that irritates me about the Guardian. But it's actually about a much more fundamental issue, which is how we define feminism. This is what happens when we suggest individual solutions for collective problems. We all need to find ways to live as best we can with the problems that living in a misogynist world creates and I'd never criticise anyone else for feeling the need to lose weight or obsess about food. These sorts of survival mechanisms are neither feminist nor anti-feminist, they're what you've got to do. It's when your survival mechanisms make life harder for other women, for example if you denigrate fat women and reinforce society's idea about the relationship between morality and food, then that's anti-feminism. I think Emma Thompson summed up this dilema brilliantly:
As an artist, you can choose not to sell women down the river. When I decide, for instance, not to diet myself into a starved condition to play someone like Dora Carrington, then that's a political act. And I was being lampooned by male journalists, saying: Who would want to sleep with her? She's not that kind of shape. So I paid the price, but I would never betray other women in that way. I just wouldn't do it and I've never done it. She pauses.... God, I've gone on every single diet under the sun, but I've never got slender in a very particular way for any role.No being a feminist doesn't give us magic powers to exit from a world that's obsessed with our bodies. But it does mean, at a minimum, that we have a responsibility not to add to that pressure. For Emma Thompson that means she didn't lose weight to play Carrington, for most of the rest of us it's simpler, but possibly incredibly different, we have to stop talking about food and our bodies in any way that reinforces the hatred other women have for their bodies.
That certainly includes writing a diet book or saying that fat women look like pigs.