Sunday, February 12, 2006

Personal and Political

This post was a big step - I didn't want to write about me. I don't talk about my life much here, and I don't want to. It's one thing to write about protests I've been on, it's another to talk about how I feel about myself. This is not supposed to be about my personal life, or what I think about the people around me, and it's hard to talk about me without crossing over that line.

But the more I wrote about food and women's bodies, the more constrained I felt by not writing about me. The more I felt like I was lying. It's very easy, in print (and maybe even in person - I don't know) to come across as someone who had all this stuff sorted. Because I'm writing about what makes me angry it's easy to make things sound uncomplicated. This was brought home to me by a commenter at Pandagon, who described Amanda as an: "effortlessly-slim person who has, presumably, never struggled with an eating disorder."

I can see why, if you don't talk about these struggles, people think you don't have them (although personally I find assuming women do have eating disorders saves time). I was talking about food, and women's bodies, and I was being honest, but I wasn't being personal. I realised that this was, on some pretty important levels, useless. The Personal is Political: more than a cliche.

Before I go any further, I have to interrupt our regular programming with some words from the rant department. The phrase is "The Personal is Political" not "The Political is Personal." There's a really important difference there, and it gets lost (although to be fair less lost in the feminist blogsphere than it does among hippy types).

The feminist revelation wasn't supposed to be that by buying fair-trade coffee, not shaving your legs, going braless, having lots of sex, charting your fertility, boycotting tobacco companies, dumpster diving, dressing butch, dressing femme, not doing the dishes, vacuuming the floor, boycotting Domino's, working as a lawyer, raising children, or whatever other individual decision you made, could change the world. These decisions are all fine decisions but they're not political actions and they're not going to change anything.

What women's liberation was saying was that things we experience as individual problems: sexual harrassment, unwanted pregnancy, body hatred, unconcensual sex, domestic violence, depression, housework and so many other parts of being a woman, were actually political problems. They weren't just things individuals were experiencing and they weren't things individuals could fight - they had to be fought collectively. Almost the exact opposite of what the phrase is so often reduced to now.

Every time I hear that phrase so bastardised, so trivialised, and so misrepresented I imagine the members of those early women's liberation groups turning in their graves - and most of them aren't even dead yet.

So having finished defending the good name of someone whose name I can't remember (I don't think it was Kathie Sarachild who coined the phrase, but it was someone like that). I can return to the point I was making.

I don't think we can analyse the political implications of food and women's bodies, unless we talk about what that means personally. And, for possibly the first time when it comes to this issue, I have a sense of hope, thanks to Ampersand's Big Fat Carnival. I have always thought that if there was a way out of this, if there was hope, that it would come from women talking to each other honestly about their experiences, so we feel less alone, and can find a way to fight back.

In my last post I said that, for women I know, being fat isn't a function of size. This is from tekanji:

First things first: I have thin privilege.

More than this, though, I’ve grown up in a family (immediate and extended) that is obsessed with weight. I’ve been taught by my family, by the media, and by society that “overweight” people (ie. people who aren’t paper thin like me) are sad, pathetic, unhealthy, undesirable, and disgusting. I’ve fought against this idea since I can remember but I still sometimes find myself judging people with extra weight. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been discussing something with my friends, whether it be weight, fashion, health or something like that, and I hear myself say something disparaging about overweight or obese people. And those are the times that I notice myself doing that, what about all the times that I don’t?

But I’m not free from it myself. It’s easy for me to advocate for society to adopt a broader image of beauty (and of health) because I’m thin. It’s easy to feel good about my body because I fit into what’s seen as the “correct” weight. But, as much as I try not to, I do think about my weight. I dress it up in pretty words like “healthy” and “toned” but part of it will always be about my body shape. It doesn’t help that every time I see certain members of my family I get comments about my weight. Snarling at, cursing at, and otherwise being angry with them has helped to keep the comments at a minimum, but I haven’t been able to get them to stop completely no matter what I do.
That doesn't sound like privilege to me. I disagree with the idea that there is thin privilege, I think many of the things on Fatshadow's list apply to women of many different sizes. I think we're all in this together.

As if to underscore all these thoughts Winter Woods at Mind the Gap wrote Body Discipline a little too late to make it into the carnvial. By talking about her own life she shows that both eating and not eating; both taking up space and becoming invisible; are coping mechanisms, for living in a society that hates you and claims your body. More than that, they're both, in their fucked up ways, forms of resistance.
Wrong headed and hideously self-destructive, “counterproductive” and “tragically self-defeating,” of course, but a protest nonetheless. Little wonder that we use the only we’ve thing got – our bodies – to mount protests; if our bodies are being surveyed anyway, this is the obvious place to demonstrate. In a sense, the anorexic body throws body surveillance back in the face of culture: “Go on look at me, I am in pain. Do you like what you see? Is this what you wanted?” For women, it is not surprising that the adult female body becomes the object of such intense hatred, because it seems to be the source of our suffering. Many anorexics will tell you that it’s as much about being in “control” as it is about being thin. This is certainly not the whole story, but it is an important part of it. I know that I don’t have any great desire to be thin simply for the sake of it, but I do want to control my body, because for years it seemed to have been taken out of my control, owned, surveyed and grabbed at by other people. Eating disorders are also a way of saying “this body is mine, I will do what I want with it and not one of you can stop me.” I guess death is the ultimate escape from the pressures of womanhood. Anorexics feel this to be true. What we have to realise is that, if we are to survive, there are better ways to resist than destroying our bodies.


  1. Thank you for posting this - you may also be interested in some of this post and it's associated comments:

  2. I think you're right about things on the list being true for women of all sizes and I hope we're all in this together. But if I go to a movie with a friend who is what she or the culture thinks of as overweight, or slightly fat, the odds are they can find a seat in which they will be comfortable. I almost never can. If a friend who is what she or the culture thinks of as overweight, or slightly fat goes to the doctor they will probably find that the blood pressure cuff fits and gives an accurate reading. I can't. I can go on but my purpose isn't to create division or argue. A privilege list is really just a way to think about things and certainly not full of hard truths.

  3. I know what you mean, but I think I disagree

    I'd divide the things on that list into two categories one is about interacting with the physical world - like the movie theatre seat, or clothes buying. Then I'd make connections with anyone else who has a body which is different, whether your very short, or very tall, or missing a limb, or your joints don't all work. There are large groups of people who suffer because our society assumes that we all have the same body.

    But I don't think priviledge is a useful lens to look through the other set of fat issues, which is how you feel about your body and how people treat you. I think that's not a function of how large you are, but of the culture and social groups you move in.

  4. Wow who knew my subconcious could bring up the right name, even when I thought it was wrong.

    Thanks for that.