Thursday, May 18, 2006

Feminist Credentials

Now I've read a couple of things from feminist blogs that surprised me recently. I was reading an excellent article by Jill from Feministe about health professionals that treat all women as pre-pregnant,* and I came across this sentance:

Now, I’m all for encouraging these behaviors simply because they’re healthy. It’s better for people not to smoke, to control their diabetes and asthma, to maintain a healthy weight, and to take vitamins.
Now I imagine most regular readers will know which word was like a red flag to a bull. I don't believe that there's such a thing as a 'healthy weight'. But even if I did, I wouldn't use the term 'healthy weight', because I believe it reinforces the ideas of our eating disordered society. I believe that talking about women having a 'healthy weight' is anti-woman.

Now I don't know if Jill agrees with some, all, or none of this analysis. I'd like to have a discussion with her about it. But I wouldn't dream of questioning her commitment to women, or feminism. I know she's a feminist, it's just her analysis sometimes differs from mine.

On the other hand I do want to question whether or not Hugo Schwyzer is actually a feminist. Not just because he's a man, I'm kind of agnostic about male feminists, but because of what he has said and does. He has mentioned that he rejoices when anti-abortion laws are passed, and gives money to organisations that work to restrict abortions laws. I don't believe women who work to restrict other women's access to abortion can be called feminists, let alone men who do the same. This view was confirmed when he wrote about how he felt about women taking men's last name:
Perhaps for excellent reasons, I always sensed that none of my previous wives fully trusted me. It's deeply unfeminist of me to acknowledge this, I realize, but I couldn't help but interpret their reluctance to take my name as a symbol of a lack of complete commitment to our marriage.
It is deeply unfeminist - and there comes a stage where if you're acting in an unfeminist way you stop being a feminist.

I agree that feminism is a large tent, but even with the largest tent canvas eventually hits grass. I think discussing at what point that might be is actually an important part of feminism. For the record I think Hugo and Cathy are both outside the tent, because they work to restrict women's choices.

*This gets occasional coverage in the New Zealand media as well. Mostly through suggestions that no woman should ever drink because she might get pregnant. Jill is exactly right that suggesting women base their health decisions around the fact that they may get pregnant is a pretty obvious example of believing that a woman is not actually a person.


  1. I actually don't mind the term "healthy weight" because it implies that the number on the scale can vary from person to person and still be good. I do, however, mind being told how to live just in case it affects another potential life one day in the future. Good thing I'm already fixed in case some wingnuts try to legislate this crap.

    And on Hugo: The implication that refusal to take on a partner's name indicates a lack of full commitment to the marriage reveals an obvious sincere lack of commitment BY Hugo since he, I'm assuming, hasn't taken any of his wive's names! How could they trust him if he wouldn't change his name for them??

    And, on the other hand, my guy and I both joined our names legally, but hold a pretty loose commit to one another. Whatever works!

  2. To clarify, I do think that the term "healthy weight" has a lot of different definitions, and unfortunately it's largely interpreted as meaning "thin." I've written before that women can be healthy in lots of different shapes, sizes and weights -- having a BMI that's "above average" doesn't necessarily mean that you're unhealthy. I've taken exercise classes with plenty of women who appear "overweight" but can kick my ass any day of the week. So I didn't mean to imply that there's a single standard that every woman must fit in to, no matter what her body type and daily routine.

    But that said, I do think that there are limits. There are people who are simply too thin, and who do not maintain a healthy weight because they starve themselves. That hurts their bodies. It is not good for them. On the other hand, there are people who are morbidly obese, and who weigh far more than their bodies can handle. Now, I also realize that one usually doesn't become morbidly obese by eating too much McDonalds -- there are usually other health issues at play. But that in itself lends to the idea that being severely under or over weight is generally not good for you.

    So I guess my point is, there are always exceptions, and I certainly wasn't trying to engage in any fat-shaming, and I wasn't trying to infer that one has to be "average" weight in order to be healthy. Weight and health do not directly correlate. But at the extremes, weight does weigh on your health, whether one is anorexic or morbidly obese.

    You still may disagree, and I'd love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for pointing this out.

    -Jill, Feministe

  3. Ha ha ha! Did they interpret his reluctance to take their names as indicative of a lack of commitment to the marriage? I was embarrassed enough about doing something so bourgeois as getting married, let alone suggesting she should change her name.

  4. I do disagree - I'm in the process of commenting further on your blog.

    Even if I did have evidence that said that there were weights that damaged your quality of life and longevity, I wouldn't use the term 'healthy weight'. I believe that there has been a real push over the last couple of decades to counter any attempts to fight 'the beauty myth' (for lack of a better phrase), with a healthy myth. Which encourages exactly the same behaviours, but is harder to challenge

    I think this is part of a larger, dangerous, project to commodify health, and to use the term 'healthy weight' in a feminist context just adds to its legitimacy.

  5. I think the number of cases in which the weight itself is a direct cause of poor health is exceedingly small. Much more often you have a behavior which causes both poor health and a change in weight. But the change in weight associated with unhealthy behaviors is so variable, and there are so many other significant influences on weight (eg genetics, health-neutral behaviors) that treating weight as an indicator of health is of marginal utility. Then when you add in the problems caused by amplifying the fat-phobic discourse, and it's hard to see any case for talking about a "healthy weight."

    In mild defense of Hugo (whose position on the last name issue I disagree with), he does say "In the first two cases, I offered to take their last names -- and was turned down flat."

  6. Stetnor - I really liked your response to Hugo's post about his use of the term 'feminist credentials' (in fact I originally had something like that in my post, but deleted it because you'd said it better).

    I'm trying to post a comment at your site and it's not working - I just get a blank box - is it a comment softwear problem or am I doing something wrong?