Gazing at Navel Gazing

Though I loathe the thought of this blog becoming too culturally relevant (“More Dogs, Less Thought, Tiny Cat Pants for Everyone” being my motto), this morning I had the unfortunate displeasure of reading Laura Kipnis’s article on fat and feminism over at Slate, and I feel compelled to work through my frustration here.

The premise, for those of you who don’t have the free time or the will power to read the article, is basically that there is an unbridgeable contradiction between feminism and feminity, “two largely incompatible strategies women have adopted over the years to try to level the playing field with men.”

It’s taken me all morning to figure out what irritates me about this article and I think the problems are two-fold. Let’s start with the big one: She keeps switching her definition of feminism to suit her argument.

She defines feminism as being “dedicated to abolishing the myth of female inadequacy. It strives to smash beauty norms, [sic on the comma] it demands female equality in all spheres, [sic again] it rejects sexual market value as the measure of female worth.”

The problem is that there are a number of feminisms, many of them contradictory, and to lump them all together under the umbrella of FEMINISM is pretty much meaningless. Well, that’s the second problem. The first problem is that feminism(s) are schools of thought or political stances; they cannot do things like be dedicated, strive, demand, or reject. For someone who wants to portray herself as being hip to the lingo of feminism, she makes the dreadfully funny mistake of denying women with feminist leanings their own agency, instead ascribing the action to an ideology instead of the people holding it.

But back to the main thrust of her mistake: yes, there are feminists dedicated to abolishing the myth of female inadequacy… I guess… but inadequacy in what? She never says. There are also plenty of feminists who’d like to dismantle our destructive notions of beauty norms, but there are plenty of feminists who love the end result of a good wax job or who love their long, luxurious hair, but still want to play ball in college or make the same money as their colleagues for the same experience and expertise. And there are plenty of feminists who think that women being able to put a fair market value on her sexuality is empowering, hence their support of pornography and prostitution.

Then she defines feminists as narcissistic navel-gazers who travel all over the world in order to assure themselves that other women are suffering in the same ways they are. Of course, she then takes us on a whirl-wind tour of women around the world who are, just as she, not hung up about feminist notions of destructive body images. So, feminists’ personal experiences don’t count, but her reading other folks’ books does? Feminists can’t use their take on others’ experiences in order to understand their own plight, but she can? What the fuck?

Her definition of feminism is just a strawman (or woman, in this case) she gets to set up and knock down to prove her point.

But alas, what is her point? It seems to be that we (unspoken, but implied “we, Americans”) loathe fat because American men find it unattractive in American women and “perhaps it’s because heterosexuality requires asymmetry between the sexes. Heterosexuality always was the Achilles heel of feminism because the asymmetries involved usually took the form of adequacy for one sex, inadequacy for the other.” Women, of course, being the inadequate ones that must strive to change to meet the approval of men.

Again, we are faced with the problem of her conflating a current state of being–in this case, heterosexuality–with something that can have agency. Heterosexuality can require NOTHING other than, I suppose, what all words require–definition. Heterosexuals can require things; they can even require that others participate in those things in order to be included in the definition of heterosexuality.

And, for a professor at Northwestern (the other smart-kids’ school in Illinois) to be making the easy and obvious mistake of conflating white, middle-aged, middle-class notions of heterosexuality for the norm is appalling. Granted, I have no idea if “media studies” is even a real department or just part of a title they gave her to have someone with a mainstream media presence on faculty, but if I were her department chair, if she has a department, I’d be very concerned.

But it is interesting the ways she does this. First, it’s the way she off-handedly rejects reality tv, the purview of the lower class, and hones in on Neil LaBute and Eve Ensler–two theater folks. Who goes to the theater? Then, who does she use to refute LaBute and Ensler? The Scholarly Collection of Essays, of course. “Women increasingly achieve economic independence from men”? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Oh, right, women who have graduated from college, not those other women. And check this passage out:

“Yet for all feminism’s social achievements, what it never managed to accomplish was the eradication of the heterosexual beauty culture, meaning the time-consuming and expensive potions and procedures–the pedicures, highlights, wax jobs on sensitive areas, ‘aesthetic surgery,’ and so on. For some reason, the majority of women simply would not give up the pursuit of beautification, even those armed with feminist theory. (And even those clearly destined to fail.)”

Who has the money for pedicures, trips to the salon, time under the surgeon’s knife? And look how she does it. She lists all these expensive things that most women don’t have the time for, as if those activities and the women who engage in them define femininity and the pursuit of beauty and then, in her next sentence–“For some reason, the majority of women simply would not give up the pursuit of beautification”–she just lets go of all relationship to reality. The majority of women? Only if your idea of who women are is sufficiently narrow.

Which brings me to the real reason this article pisses me off. Kipnis is daintily prattling around like it’s 1851 and she’s the only woman brave enough to tut-tut the goings-on in Akron. Puh-lease.

Laura, I’m sure you’re smart or Northwestern wouldn’t have you, and I’m sure you’re sufficiently something because you have some books and a column, but you are so late to the argument. You want to talk about femininity as if it is one of only two ways women have to self-actualization, but as Elizabeth Cady Stanton pointed out: “The manner in which all courage and self-reliance is early educated out of the girl…is melancholy indeed…[a] girl must be allowed to romp and play, climb, skate and swim, — her clothing must be more like that of a boy; strong, loose-fitting garments…Let the girl be thoroughly developed in body and soul, –not molded like a piece of clay…with a body after some plate in Godey’s book of fashion.” In other words, even 150 years ago, we knew that being overly-devoted to ideals of femininity killed our souls.

And, just to put a finer point on it, I’m not the first person to point out that your definition of femininity really only applies to white, educated, middle class women. Sojourner Truth told it to the folks at the Women’s Convention in Akron: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Laura, please join us in the 21st century. Let’s argue about new things and leave the old fights in the past, resolved as they have been, by folks smarter than either of us. In the future, I hope only to point out that the next time you write an article that claims to be about America’s relationship to fat, it might actually be about America’s relationship to fat.