Things I Think Are Applicable to Other Things We’ve Talked About

1.  The Rotund makes this point about how people want to suck you in to their diet talk, in part, because dieting is all about performing “goodness.”  Brilliant.  I’m going to be mulling this over, especially in the context of women and our dieting.

Part of dealing with this is understanding that diets have a performative aspect. I’m sure that, somewhere, there is someone who has dieted without ever informing their coworkers and friends and casual acquaintances on the internet and, you know, more power to them. But it seems like the vast majority of dieters can’t stop talking about it and seeking praise and encouragement.

I think this is because dieting and the intentional pursuit of weight loss is fucking difficult. OF COURSE people want encouragement. They are denying themselves sustenance, often pushing their bodies beyond what is in any way healthy, and dealing with the mental and emotional fall-out of self-deprivation and lowered nutritional intake. That sucks. It sucks hard.

And they’re doing all that in a culture that says self-deprivation, especially self-deprivation aimed at weight loss, is a virtuous and good thing. Part of the expected feedback loop of dieting is praise for being “good.”

2.  Demarcationville has a brilliant and thoughtful post about abortion.  I’m especially mulling over what she says about conservatives and abortion.  I knee-jerk disagree with her that it’s not about hatred of women, but I don’t want my knee-jerk reaction to get in the way of an important point.

As far as most conservatives are concerned: women have a choice. They choose if they will or will not have sexual intercourse: they choose if they will or will not use birth control. If they chose poorly, they face consequences. If they refuse to accept responsibility and fulfill the basic obligations of womanhood – then they have failed.

But there’s no hatred here. No blame even. In fact, conservative men accept that we, as women, have a tendency to be flawed in this way and have wearily resigned themselves to picking up our slack. I mean, clearly, without their firm guidance, we will be as we have always been: shallow, weak-minded, easily-tempted, unable to maintain moral integrity and quick to choose the easy way out. So what other choice do they have but to step-up and appoint themselves defenders of defenseless fetuses.

3.  I call it “Everybody loves Cheerios!”  Also, check out how that blue is so shocking contrasted with all the browns.

19 thoughts on “Things I Think Are Applicable to Other Things We’ve Talked About

  1. Historians of medieval female spirituality (I’m hazily remembering Carolyn Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast and Bell’s less compelling Holy Anorexia) made a strong case in the 1980s for a particular “woman’s way” of performing goodness by denying their (sinful, corrupt, more-tempted-than-men-and-more-easily-swayed-to-evil) flesh. Joan Brumberg’s Fasting Girls argued for linkages (though not direct) between those early saints and the evolution of the notion that a “good girl” should practice self-erasure of the most material sort.

  2. Bridgett, have you read Susan Bordo’s Bearable Weight? It isn’t a fat acceptance text, but it does discuss, particularly, the 1980s craze for controlling one’s body. It deconstructs several fitness/gym ads within the context of how women have historically been seen as “out of control” and more emotional and whatnot. Good reading.

  3. Certainly the idea that women were “shallow, weak-minded, easily-tempted, unable to maintain moral integrity and quick to choose the easy way out” or “sinful, corrupt, more-tempted-than-men-and-more-easily-swayed-to-evil” was prevalent during the middle ages. Bynum makes a case for fasting = goodness for women as a way of controlling the unruly female flesh (she was, I think, more emphatic about it than the evidence allowed in HFHF). What’s more impressive and convincing to me is her more nuanced more recent work. She did a very thorough comparative analysis of the visions described by female and male mystics in the (IIRC) thirteenth century. The results led her to suggest that female spirituality at the time was much more physically/bodily centered, with women’s visions containing much more expression of physical contact (generally, women had visions of nursing Jesus, anointing him, or tending his dead body) than men’s. So she came to the conclusion that women’s bodies weren’t (or weren’t only) the weak vessel of frailty that needed to be controlled by being mortified, but were (also) the seat of spiritual life that needed to be regimented/regulated through fasting as were other aspects of the lives of women religious.

  4. I have read some of Bordo’s work on masculinity but I have only gotten sidestream Bearable Weight — it got quoted a lot in the mid-1990s, so sometimes it feels like I’ve read it, but…nope.

    As far as Bynum, I haven’t kept up with her work after Resurrection of the Body, so I have missed a lot. Which book/articles are you referring to? I’ve promised myself a week of just reading whatever JSTOR and Project MUSE articles strike my fancy (the bookish version of a spa vacation to Canyon Ranch…sick, huh?), so I’ll add them to the list.

  5. Urrrgh, gotta go check. My recollections are mostly based on a couple of papers I heard her present. I will get back to you later today on titles.

  6. Ok, some Bynum titles. These are presentations/articles that mostly came out before Resurrection of the Body, though, so maybe you weren’t as impressed by them as I was, Bridgett? The talks I heard her give later were tweaked into “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” and “The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages.” Both of the articles were later incorporated (along with a lot of other good stuff) into Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, MIT Press, 1991. Some of the issues of body form (and Jesus appearing in visions as female, which I didn’t mention above), also show up in Metamorphosis and Identity, Zone Books, 2001.

  7. Okay – I KNOW diet talk is boring. And since I am nearing the end of a “Biggest Loser” contest at work, dieting has been the main focus of my life. But I don’t think I talk about it because I just want praise for my self-denial – encouragement is very nice, yes, but I think I talk about it because it IS so unbelievably hard to consciously attempt to change your behavior several times a day – meal times, snack times and in-between. It is all consuming and occupies 90% of my mind and will.

    Funny thing though – because feminism appears to be the main focus here – the GUYS at work did the exact same contest and that’s ALL THEY TALKED about to eachother!

  8. I went to hear her speak during the lead-up to Resurrection and the Body and the talk was mostly about the use of images of the Harrowing of Hell. (It’s been at least twelve years and it wasn’t about South African porn, so what I mostly remember is the slides rather than the substance of her argument…) Now that I’m in that part of my brain, I do remember the painting of the saint nursing Christ by squirting a stream of breast milk in the weird baby-man’s mouth. It gave me an enduring appreciation for the deep strangeness of medieval art and was the continuation of my early grad school a-ha about the historicizing of gender — but apparently, nothing else of substance stuck.

  9. You got slides?!?!! We didn’t get slides! No fair, do-over! Oh, wait, she was talking to us about vitae, not visual art. I guess there are no slides for those.

    But if you want to get her thinking about medieval conceptualization of female (and also male) bodies as both sinful flesh and the locus of spirituality, and the way that spirituality gendered the body, Fragmentation and Redemption is the place to start. And she goes back to some of the body/spirit question in the book on metamorphosis. She’s still dealing with that set of questions; most recently she has focussed in specifically on the spiritual understanding of blood and the eucharist. She had a book on that come out last year, which I haven’t looked at but ought to. She’s looking at Germany and the early modern period in it and I wonder how that compares to late medieval Castile.

  10. What staggers me is how throughout literary (and artistic, though I’m less familiar with that) history, that woman-as-morally-weak myth has coexisted with the woman-as-innately-moral myth. You know, angel in the home and all that – saintly women must instill moral values in the domestic sphere while the men are struggling in the morally ambiguous public sphere. You see that a lot in Victorian lit, but it’s present far earlier – for every Eve reference you’ve got to have a Virgin Mary, too.

    While people are poking around JSTOR, Homi K. Bhabha has a great chapter explaining what must go on in the brain of someone who holds two perfectly contradictory views about another class of human. I think it’s called “The Other Question,” I could check if that doesn’t work.

    I just wanted to throw that out there since in this thread we’re talking about how culture frames women as inherent struggling for morality, and in other threads we talk about how women are expected to keep their legs closed for men who can’t control their morality, and if it’s all paradoxical and frustrating, not our fault.

  11. Edit: for every Eve reference you’ve got to have a Virgin Mary, too, in European Christian art. That’s mostly what you get taught in art history at a presbyterian college like my alma mater.

  12. Yeah, the women-as-innately-moral coexisting with women-as-morally-weak thing seems contradictory on the surface.

    But the 19th c. man (and not a few women) reconciled it by arguing that women were moral, but weak. Ensconced within the home, their morality would flourish. Exposed to the world, it would crumble. Only men could safely be permitted to navigate beyond the confines of bedroom, parlor, nursery, and kitchen.

  13. That didn’t explain the middle ages, though, where there was no similar public/private divide.

  14. But was there a flesh/spirit divide?

    I don’t know. I’ve really got nothing. Y’all are talking about a big hole in my knowledge, but I wanted to chime in because this conversation is so smart and thought-provoking.

  15. ““sinful, corrupt, more-tempted-than-men-and-more-easily-swayed-to-evil”

    Personally, I think that’s a bunch of projection. Aren’t men always blaming women for “tempting” them sexually, but when they stray as a result, isn’t it because they were too “weak” to resist? Bah.

    I wrote what I thought about how womens’ desperate need for approval, and not to say anything that isn’t “nice”, is related to “diet talk”, a lot, over at TR’s (so I will not hold forth at length here. Besides, it isn’t “nice”).

    It’s safe, in addition to being able to talk about how “good” we’re being without “bragging” or “self-aggrandizing” — heaven forfend — it’s safe because we’re not (usually; I’m generalizing here; I know Hedi Slimane’s look has spawned a bunch of cases of male anorexia recently) talking about being good at anything that men are also good at; and therefore we’re not threatening them.

    So with diet talk, you win twice!

    *is physically ill*

  16. Here’s what I was thinking about on my walk with the dog this morning. So, yes, dieting is clearly a kind of performative goodness, but when you are publically dieting, what other kinds of performance are going on?

    This is disjointed, but stick with me. My first thought is that, while being fat where I come from is nothing to be taken lightly, meaning, as it does, that you will never really be worthy of love, being too thin is a sign of being sick. I mean, we all know that we’re supposed to hit that “happy” point of being thin but not too thin.

    But being able to diet successfully (and I’m going to use “successfully” in the vernacular sense, meaning that you lose some weight and keep it off for a year or two, even though I know studies show 95% of people cannot keep the weight off for five years) requires certain things. It requires access to healthy food (both being physically able to get it and able to afford it). It requires time to prepare it. It requires time to learn about which foods are “good” for you and why. It requires time for exercise. And, the way most people I know diet, it requires people who are willing to support your grouchiness. It requires you making losing weight your all-consuming task.

    Who has that kind of time?

    So, isn’t there a way in which dieting also become about performing evidence of leisure time?

    Which brings me to my third thought. In a country such as ours, where we historically place such heavy emphasis on race and in which racialized womanhood has such pernicious bullshit attached to it AND in which the boundaries between races are much more malliable than we care to recognize AND in which we have so closely linked goodness with proper Whiteness (which for white people means a kind of performative Whiteness that allows us to move up in class, if we can swing it and for non-white people is supposed to be a performance that y’all can’t swing so as to effectively keep you out of the channels of power), isn’t there a way in which being “good” signals a kind of Whiteness (and/or signals a kind of ‘worthy of being protected’)?

    I mean, if you’re looking at John Wayles daughters, Martha and Sally, and they both have kids who live at least part of their lives as white, how do you say which one is “white”? There has to be some kind of performative aspect to it, too.

    I keep thinking that we may be thinking too hard about the virgin/whore dichotomy because it sucks for us. But really, it’s nothing more than an effective way to establish who you have sex with in order to pass on your stuff and who you have sex with for fun. What is “yours” v. what is “everyone’s.”

    When I think about it, it’s kind of like a square dance (or some other kind of large group dance). The steps are the same, but who’s paired when changes. So “white” dances with “good” for a while and then “good” dances with “thin” and so on and so on.

  17. “So, isn’t there a way in which dieting also become about performing evidence of leisure time?”

    Yup, you nailed it.

  18. As for point 2., I’d say that’s the essence of hate, no matter how much anyone repeats “there’s no hate there.”

    What we think of as “love” has two main aspects; internal sensation and chosen behavior. The internal sensation may seem of primary import to the person feeling it, but it really only affect that one person, and pretty irregularly at that. The real love that changes the world is the chosen behavior part.

    The same is true of hate. It’s the chosen behavior that matters, and the internal sensation is secondary at best. Those who want to live out their hate will try to make it all sound more innocent by claiming they don’t have the internal sensation of hate at a given moment, therefore hate is not what’s going on. Saying so is either a glib lie or ridiculous egocentrism or both.

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