Monday, April 17, 2006

Sisterhood (of the travelling pants)

In the whirlwind of the last couple of weeks there are a lot of posts that have remained unwritten (for example the government's review of our immigration laws - not my favourite thing) and blogs unread. I've only just started reading some of the Carnivals that came out recently, and tonight I want to respond to (well sort of meander away from) something from the latest big fat carnival.

PegE from On The Whole was writing about Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (the first two books in that trilogy are great by the way, the third isn't really worth it, and the movie was well worth watching, particularly Tibby & Carmen's stories, the other two actresses weren't really up to the roles, which was a shame). At the beginning of the book the girls find a pair of pants that fit them all, and make them all look fantastic, and they set about making rules about when you can wear your pants, and what you can do with them. One of the rules is "You can't call yourself fat in the pants". PegE objected

These smart, funny, talented, beautiful girls are co-creating a set of rules intended to empower them individually as well as their connections to each other. It's clear to me that in saying "you can't say you're fat in the pants" they are trying to encourage themselves to think positively about their bodies. But they (or the author of the book) screwed up. Because what that line really says is FAT IS BAD. FAT BODIES ARE BAD. LOVING YOUR BODY MEANS NOT THINKING (OR SAYING) IT'S FAT.

And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

What's wrong with saying you're fat? Why does saying you're fat have more emotional charge than, for instance, saying you have blue eyes or blonde hair
I agree with her argument, but disagree that either the girls, or the author was wrong in what they're saying.

I think PegE's point is a really important one, the constant refrain of 'you're not fat' doesn't do one bit to make fat seem any less bad.

But I still think there's a lot to be said for stopping describing our bodies as fat.

It made me think of a clothes swap I accidentally found myself at recently. Someone was leaving town, and a few other people had bought some clothes along as well. What really got to me, is how many women made disparaging comments about their bodies without even saying anything. There's this gesture you can do where you slap both your hands on the back of your thighs, and it's really clear that what you're trying to communicate is 'aren't my thighs enormous', you don't even need to use the word 'fat'. It seemed to me that if people the clothes were too small then women would blame their bodies, only if the clothes were too big would they blame the clothes. Most of the women there would describe themselves as feminists, but the comments don't stop, the hundreds of subtle ways women can put down their body every day won't stop unless a woman makes a conscious effort to stop them, and even then they'll still go on in her head.

But I do believe that the first step would stobe to stop making any comments that are seen to be disparaging about our bodies. I think that every time we vocalised a fucked up thought pattern about our bodies to another woman we are normalising that fucked up thought process to her. I think we feed the culture that hates our bodies, and I think we do it every day. I think not saying that we look fat in the pants, or any pants is actually the first step to making the word fat back into a normal adjective.

I feel the same way about the way we talk about food, and maybe it'll be a little easier to explain what I mean there. I've written before about my belief that using moral terms to describe what we eat reinforces eating disordered attitudes and behaviour. Food is classified as 'good' (and what that means varies from social group to social group, but among people I know it usually means no fat, no dairy, no processed grains, notice that what qualifies a food as good isn't what it has nutritionally, but what it doesn't have) and 'bad'. I think this classification is the necessary first step towards eating disorder behaviour. Eating disorders are about control, and this sort of classification, which doesn't focus on nutrition, your diet as a whole, or what your body needs at any one time, is necessary for that control. Whether a particular woman tends towards keeping or losing control when it comes to food, both sets of behaviours require food to be classified as good and bad. The fact that women get constant reinforcement, from other women, about their classifications and the moral value of following these classifications upsets and depresses me (and sometimes makes me angry, but often I don't have the energy).

Most of the time when I have conversations about food with other women I find myself either biting my tongue, or arguing about everything they say, and often both. It's not that I don't have these thought patterns myself, I totally do. I've made a conscious choice not to reproduce them, not to give them weight by repeating them (I talk about these thought patters, sometimes, but that's completely different). I feel I should fight more, I should do less tongue biting and more arguing. But it's exhausting and I'm always scared that people will dismiss what I say because of how I look. I also think people would stop listening to me (because they pay me so much attention at the moment), I'd become the woman with a rant.

But I do think it would make a difference if more women made a conscious decision not to talk about food on moral terms and to start with that'd probably mean stopping talking about food at all, until you got used to it.

The same goes for our bodies the first step to creating a new way of talking about our bodies is stopping with the old way.


  1. That's one of your more intelligent posts, for mine. Good blogging.

    first step to creating a new way of talking about our bodies is stopping with the old way.

    Don't agree. Wouldn't that be like suppression?

    We should let these negatives all hatch out and we should deal with them as they come by questioning them and supplanting them with positives.

    However, pausing for period in talking your body down (while you're in the pants) isn't stupid. I can see the benifit in doing that too.

  2. ^^ for a period...

    Hey, is this what you mean by not talking about it? :)

  3. What about medical conditions? I have type 2 diabetes partly because I am fat. It's important for my health for me to eat low fat/salt/sugar, low GI, unprocessed foods. It's not about moral control, it's about not having dialysis when I'm older (I'm only in my 30s).

    How do you get the medical message of 'obesity kills' out?

  4. Wow. Your trolls suck. :(

    It seemed to me that if people the clothes were too small then women would blame their bodies, only if the clothes were too big would they blame the clothes.

    That was one of those things I never realised I'd noticed until I heard someone else say it. As soon as I read that, my brain went "click" and handed over half a dozen examples.

    I was recently told to stop eating sugar for medical reasons. Despite the fact that I NEVER used "the d-word", my housemates, workmates, and soon my friends all began to refer to it as "my diet". Whenever I caved and ate something high sugar, I'd be playfully scolded that I was "breaking my diet" or "eating bad food". I ended up asking the main offenders to stop... it really freaked me out.

  5. Rick if you are going to post here could you please not be condescending, it's annoying.

    I don't think suggesting people would be in a better state mentally if they stopped vocalising their fucked up thought patters is anything like suppression (and my position on suppresion probably isn't what you think it is).

    muerk I'm going to start by directing you to this post, which explains why 'obesity kills' may not be a great message. But then I'm going to try to answer your question. Not how we can promote the message 'obesity kills', because I don't think it does. But what attitudes towards food that are not about morality might look at.

    To me it's really clear that what we're doing at the moment doesn't work. Making food a moral decision, and tying that in to how your body looks does not promote good eating habits, and does not make people any smaller (in fact the other way round).

    I'm allergic to dairy. Before I discovered that I loved dairy and I still grab other people's cheesy food so I can smell it. I never thought that I'd be able to give it up, but actually it's easy. The reason it's easy is because I don't make it a moral issue. I'm not being good or bad, I just choose not to eat it, because I know how it feels. Like Hexyhex if people try and put that morality on to me it's completely unhelpful and most likely to make me take risks with food (I don't deliberately eat dairy, but I do sometimes eat things that may have dairy in them, depending on how I feel, sometime it works sometimes it doesn't).

    I don't think anyone can have a diet that promotes health and long-life when they have a neurotic attitude towards food. There are a number of steps you can take toward doing this, but letting go of morality around food is the first one, and listening to your body is the second.

    But I also think we need to look beyond individual solutions, no-one is going to be able to eat well if they don't have time or money. I ate so much better when I was a student, and had time at home doing my work, than I do that I'm out all hours of the day and night.

    "That was one of those things I never realised I'd noticed until I heard someone else say it. As soon as I read that, my brain went "click" and handed over half a dozen examples."

    Thanks - I'm not entirely sure it's true. I don't know if that's the way people talk, or the way people feel.

    I think for me it may be true for pants, but not for tops, which makes no sense, but it's not expected to. Although I think it's partly because if tops don't fit me I have decency issues (and blame the clothes), whereas if pants don't fit me I can't do them up.

  6. I think a lot of my issues with my body would be resolved by some sort of clothing reform movement ( like the Suffragettes and bloomers). It doesn't bother me personally much if I put on a couple of kilograms. I'm past the age when people especially judge me on my looks- what does bother me is my clothes not fitting. Its uncomfortable physically having a waist band digging into my gut and it happens pretty much every month when I bloat up with water retention.

    This is exacerbated by the fact that, in general, have problems finding clothes to fit. I'm not overweight or freakish in appearance but I do have a differently proportioned body to the classic kiwi pear shape. I don't really have hips. I'm more apple shaped particularly since having a baby. I also have a long torso. The fashion tendency over the last few years for short tops has done absolutely nothing for me. I have really struggled to find anything decent to wear. This is not helped by the fact I also simply have no time to shop and very little inclination to. If we all could just wear kaftans I think my life would be a lot better.

  7. stopped vocalising their fucked up thought patters is anything like suppression

    Don't you? Why not?

    These thought patterns are still real, the achievement of deneying them voice doesn't change that. All you get from muffleing this form of expression is an estrangement and alienation from your own feelings.

    Better to let those feelings be shown so you can catch them and change them at the root. This is how your conscious philosophy comes into contact with your subconscious misconceptions.

    Let your feelings come out, right or wrong, and not be suppressed.

  8. Hrmm... *thinks*

    I know that if I'm trying on a top that doesn't fit, I tend to say "That won't fit my boobs" or "nope, boobs too big". I think that might be a way of making myself feel better about not fitting the shit coz, hey, love my boobs. *smile*

    If pants don't fit... actually, I tend to say "They don't fit me". If clothes are too big, I definitely blame the clothes.

    I'm going to be listening in on people every time I'm in a change room now. :)

  9. Maia:

    Hmmm, very interesting article. But how does it stack up with the increase in type 2 diabetes, heart disease affecting younger people, and the rise in obese children?

    Perhaps it's more about exercise than diet (provided your diet is healthy, ie. 5+ a day, enough water, vitamins, minerals).

  10. muerk they changed the definition of type two diabetes in the 1990s. So people who were classified as diabetic in the 1990s wouldn't be classified as diabetic in the 1980s. Therefore you can't meaningfully compare statistics from before the 1990s with statistics after the 1990s. In the 1990s.

    The idea that levels of Type 2 diabetes skyrocketing isn't necessarily supported by the evidence. In America Diabetes the level of diabetes rose less than 5% in the 1990s ( While the level of obesity rose 61% in that time.

    There is a genetic component to Diabetes, and some ethnicities tend to be more susceptible to it than others. Increases could be that ethnicities that are suspectible to diabetes are growing as a percentage of the population.

    I don't know enough about heart disease to comment. But I will point out that correlation doesn't prove causation.

    I think it's weird that you associate heart disease, diabetes and childhood obesity. Two of those are diseases and one is a size.

    But generally I do think it's important that you emphasise health and every size, and focus nutrition and exercise advice about benefits to people's well-being rather than weight loss.