A clinician and writer that I follow online published a post this morning that said, “Feminism that criticizes women who choose to lose weight because doing so helps them feel better in their bodies by dismissing those women at fatphobic and “brainwashed by diet culture” is bullshit feminism; the point of feminism is to give women autonomy to do whatever the fuck they want with their own bodies.”
My gut reaction was not about the sentiment itself, I noticed, but about what I expected to find in the comments. I realized I was holding my breath as I scrolled down to review the reactions. Was she about to get canceled?
The comments I saw – and to be fair, she could have moderated them or deleted some – primarily thanked her for expressing what she herself had titled an “unpopular opinion.” They seemed to be mostly from women who had lost weight themselves and were fed up with being labeled as fatphobic for their experience.
I’ll be curious to see how things unfold as the post gets more views, and I’d be surprised if a more heated debate doesn’t take shape. Really thoughtful, really smart women will probably spend a good amount of time and even greater amount of cognitive and emotional labor making some really excellent arguments.
And then we’ll all go back to still feeling frustrated and confused at how to feel about the topic of weight loss.
I was eight years old when I went on my first diet, a quiet second-grader who was told by the Weight Watchers leaders that I was too young to attend the meetings, but I could certainly follow the plan. And so I dutifully did just that, replacing my full-fat items with the skimmed down versions and riding my bike round and round the small black-topped patch in my backyard.
It was my teachers at school who showered me with the most praise as my body got smaller, but my grown-up neighbors and parents’ friends were full of compliments as well. I’m sure I’d never felt as seen as I suddenly did, a dazzling experience for a bookish girl in the tiny house.
When I regained the weight, as one does, I realized I’d not just failed myself, but all these grown-ups who were rooting for me. The shame was unbearable.
We know better these days – at least most of us do – than to comment on other people’s weight. Our avoidance comes more out of a fear of inadvertently expressing excitement when their shrinking frame is a result of cancer or depression than it is because we are trying to create a weight-neutral world. Either way, I personally very much appreciate that our social interactions can more often be body-talk free.
But what about the woman in our office or down the street who has spent the last decade raising a family and now finally – finally – has decided that her body is her own and she wants it to look and feel different. And so she eats less and her body changes and she actually wants nothing more than to be noticed for all the effort she has exerted and for the fact that she finally felt worthy of her own time and energy.
This is the paradox.
It rests in the fact that for most of us, losing weight means focusing on ourselves in an intentional way. When someone is actively pursuing weight loss, they are often spending time researching recipes, planning meals, cooking food, exercising, logging energy inputs and outputs, and so on. More often than not, and more often for women, these tasks represent one of the first times that they have decided to pour their time and attention into themselves. It can feel subversive – in the very best way – to the pressure to continue emptying ourselves into everyone else.
The seemingly simple act of carving out 45 minutes per day to walk around our neighborhood or lift weights in the basement can feel like a Herculean effort to the mom who feels pulled to offer every waking moment to the needs of her family. Spending a Sunday afternoon cutting veggies and packing our own lunches for the week can feel downright revolutionary.
The idea of trying to “reclaim” our bodies – ones that have been reshaped by carrying other humans, deprived of nutrition and care and sleep, ones that resemble so little of the ones we once knew when we felt like our own person – that can feel like just the empowerment we need.
And so when we hear that to do so is a betrayal to feminism or other women or ourselves, it can feel confusing and patently frustrating.
It can even remind us of all the years we were told not to wear low-cut shirts or short skirts because to do so would be to play into the dominant culture’s sexualization of women. We have this pull to express ourselves in a particular way, but then we’re shamed for doing so because our desires are shaped by the dominant culture.
We’re damned if we don’t. We’re damned if we do.
And yet. And yet.
Trying to shrink our bodies – even as individuals with full bodily autonomy – does create harm. It’s an inconvenient and perhaps maddening truth, but this is truth.
For one, there is simply no scientifically or medically established way to reduce our body size that doesn’t come with the likely result of both greater weight regain and stress on our body systems. Indeed, weight cycling (losing and gaining and losing and gaining) has been substantiated as more harmful to our health than being at a higher weight. And restricting our dietary intake is almost never sustainable and almost always associated with lower mood, lower energy, worse mental functioning, and a host of other potential physical issues.
But separate from how it impacts us as individuals, pursuing weight loss does reinforce the dominant cultural value placed on thinness. The lengths that humans go to shed weight emphasizes how much currency being thin holds. Whether it’s our intention or not, dieting implies that it can be done in a healthy and sustaining way – and those things just aren’t true for the vast majority of people.
In a world that continues to be obsessed with women’s smallness, dedicating ourselves to that goal props it up.
So what are we to do, say, if we want to be smaller and yet we care about changing the culture’s overvaluation of thinness?
Is scrutinizing others for choosing to lose weight helping create a more weight-inclusive world?
Are people who choose to lose weight bad feminists?
I thought about not writing this essay because I didn’t have clear answers to these question. But I did write it because I think these binds for women are worth discussing. If I’ve learned anything as a therapist, it’s that sometimes we have to sit in the muck.
For me, it comes down to considering what obligation we feel we have to one another.
If we think about the goal of feminism to be allowing individual women the freedom, flexibility, and autonomy to make choices for our own bodies and lives, then perhaps we should even celebrate a woman exercising her right to manage her eating in any way she damn well pleases.
If we think about the goal of feminism to be promoting a world in which women do not feel constrained by the pressures to fit inside a idealized box of perfection, as defined by the dominant racial, economic, and gender group, then perhaps we need to call out intentional weight loss for propping up the patriarchy.
There are so many more questions than answers. What I hoped here was to highlight the nuance that’s necessary in this discourse.
But I can say there are a few things I know for sure:
Individual women will never be able to dismantle weight bias without collective action.
Systems will never be dismantled by women who are constantly hungry.
Individual women will never deserve to be chastised for making decisions for their own bodies.
Systems that keep women striving for an unrealistic standard and undermine self-worth need to be chastised.
We’re at a complicated point in the body liberation movement. It could be a point of division – one in which women who are most vulnerable to cultural messaging become ostracized. It could be a point at which so much of the progress that’s been made is lost because of how tricky it all is to navigate.
But my hope, my sincere hope, is that we can muddle through the complexity of it all together.