Where is Your Reward?

Over at Kate Harding’s, they’re talking about how there’s some joker at a gym who’s going to gain a bunch of weight and then lose it so that he can appreciate what his fat clients go through.  Then, over at Amp’s, they’re talking about Carol Lay, who lost a bunch of weight and then wrote a graphic novel about it.  And then, this morning, I read this over at Tanglethis’s and the light went on.

Tanglethis is talking about how, looking back at pictures of her from when she was younger, she realized that a.) she did not feel conventionally attractive and b.) she was a blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty.  She says

So why did I feel so miserably unattractive?  Why did I feel deceived when someone told me otherwise?  Easy questions: certainly a multimillion-dollar industry and a big steaming pile of patriarchy had something to do with it.  You don’t get an award for meeting standards for conventional beauty, my 27-year-old self thought wryly as I flipped through unsmiling self-portraits.

And I’ve been thinking about that in terms of Carol Lay’s project, which, I’m sorry, could just not be funnier to me intentionally.  She was in the upper range of a normal BMI and now, through constant policing of what she eats and how much she eats of it and constant obsessing over food, she is in the lower range.  And, America, you, too, can be thin (and healthy) if you only submit to turning your life over to constantly thinking about food.

Cecily, in the thread at Amp’s takes this point a step further:

I have never been on a classic restricted-menu ‘diet’, but I have been on Weight Watchers, and that ‘day’ was exactly why I quit. It’s like another job. Look how much time she spends thinking about this crap. Sure, there are fitness goals you can set for yourself that don’t involve self-hatred. But I want to live my life, which means not spending hours every day obsessing over food. Hell, she even made this book, which meant allowing her food-obsession to consume her work.

I repeat, “she even made this book, which meant allowing her food-obsession to consume her work.”

And I was wondering about this dynamic of it, why, if losing weight is just about being healthy, we so publicly perform it?  Why, for instance, if it’s just about you wanting to be more healthy, do you write a book about it?  I take a shit every day because I feel terrible if I don’t.  I don’t write a book about it, telling you how to take a shit.  I assume that you’ve either gotten that taken care of to your own satisfaction or, if you don’t, there’s not much I can tell you about how to fix that.

So, why, then, is this “healthy” choice different?

And I think that it’s because, as we all know, few people are losing weight for the primary goal of being healthier.  Most people lose weight for the primary goal of more closely fitting societal standards, but since few people want to come out and say–or admit to themselves– “I’m losing weight in order to conform.  I’m a conformist.”–they use “health” and “feeling better” as reasons.  I mean, think about this from the other way, when people lose weight for health reasons, maybe they are deliberately losing weight in order to lower their blood pressure or maybe they’ve been sick and unable to eat–what do you think the ratio of “you look great!” comments to “you look like you’re feeling better” comments are (and, in fact, if you’ve been sick, the “you look like you’re feeling better” comments would be darkly hilarious)?  I suspect you’re going to get a lot more compliments on how you look, how you conform, than on your health.

So, okay, you’ve pushed to become thinner, to conform more correctly, and what happens?

I think, in general, nothing.  Sure, you might get a few more compliments.  You might like how you look in the mirror.  But you’ve been promised a life that has changed.  A reward.  I mean, isn’t that what Tanglethis is saying–she could not recognize that she was beautiful, not only because of typical screwed up teenage crap, but because she thought that being just right would be recognizable because it would be so great.

Which explains why Carol Lay has to write a book about losing weight–because if she doesn’t, how will people know that they’re supposed to heep accolades on her, that she’s now supposed to get the rewards she assumed skinny people got?

And the great con is that, of course, there is no prize.  It’s not that you’re not skinny enough or pretty enough or whatever.  It’s that, in real life, no one is handing out great rewards for those qualities.

(Ha, or they are.  You do get privilege, but part of the way privilege works is that you’re not supposed to have to be aware of it.  So, what you really want is to make changes that give you privilege, but you want to be aware that you’ve been rewarded, which is, of course, not how it works.)

26 thoughts on “Where is Your Reward?

  1. Pingback: Why I Love Aunt B - An Essay on Body Image « Women’s Health News

  2. heh. I’ve lost fifty pounds in six months. It’s a combination of my disease and the toxic medicines I ironically take to keep my disease from getting worse. So yeah I’m fifty pounds lighter and all my clothes hang off me like I’m playing dress up in my mothers stuff. Meanwhile I’m in near constant pain and nausea.

    EVERYONE who sees me tells me how fantastic I look. Frankly I’d rather not look so fanfuckingtastic since it means I’m sick, hurting and nauseated for, oh, twenty hours a day.

    To make matters even worse if I tell people the weight loss is due to illness they ALWAYS say some variation of “I bet you feel better now that you’ve lost the weight. ” They take the latest propaganda about weight loss to heart. Ilness equals fat. Health equals thin. It really kills folks to hear that I feel eighty times worse now than I did fifty pounds ago.

  3. And the great con is that, of course, there is no prize.

    So true. Like the old saying – The secret is is there is no secret.

    Also, similar to the message of The Wizard of Oz. People are always looking for some miracle or magic formula to make their life great when, generally, you life is what you make it.

  4. And the great con is that, of course, there is no prize.

    So true. Like the old saying – The secret is that there is no secret.

    Also, similar to the message of The Wizard of Oz. People are always looking for some miracle or magic formula to make their life great when, generally, you life is what you make it.

  5. My always-hefty aunt got oral cancer, and over the course of the miserable chemo and radiation therapies shrunk down to a size 12. She looked skeletal, for her. But not only did the rest of the family tell her how great she looked, but they also held her up to me as an example. Look! Your aunt lost all this weight! Why don’t you?

    I don’t even need to say, here, how truly fucked up our society is about fat.

  6. Also needless to say, ten years later (and still in remission, thank goodness), she’s hefty again. And I think looks a lot better, given that she actually IS healthy now.

  7. I, too, have lost nearly fifty pounds since September. My reward is that my back pain (which was on the verge of making me drug-dependent) has disappeared. My joint pain is a lot better. My blood pressure is back to normal and I don’t have stress-related arrhythmia any more. I can fully take part in activities that I’ve been missing — hikes, dancing, snowball fights — and I don’t freak if someone suggests that we just take an unscheduled walk somewhere because I know that I have the fitness to make it all the way to the coffeeshop and back without wanting to die. My life HAS changed dramatically for the better. That’s my reward and I get it every time that I can pick up my kid without my knees buckling out from under me.

  8. So why did I feel so miserably unattractive? Why did I feel deceived when someone told me otherwise? Easy questions: certainly a multimillion-dollar industry and a big steaming pile of patriarchy had something to do with it.

    I would put it more on the former than on the latter.

    And because real men don’t tend to mold their tastes in women to the fashion industry, you have to ask yourselves whose ideal of beauty you are really pursuing if you fall into this trap.

    Because it’s not heterosexual males.

  9. Yes, but then, Bridgett, how does your experience not fall into the realm of the person who is losing weight for health reasons? So, of course, you see a benefit, because your health has improved.

    Kleinheider, don’t make me fight you.

  10. Yeah, but I would argue that it doesn’t really matter if you lose weight because you are trying to hasten the Second Coming or get yourself a hot date or whatever — if you’re otherwise healthy but substantially overweight and you lose a substantial amount of weight in a healthy way, you will see corresponding health benefits in the form of better stamina, lower blood pressure, more balanced nutrition, deeper sleep and so forth. Here’s a circumstance where intent really doesn’t matter. You’re going to get a reward. Whether it’s what you hoped for or not — might not make Our Lord and Savior jump up and say howdy — is another issue.

  11. Kleinheider makes a good point–I don’t think we do these things to impress men necessarily. We may tell ourselves that’s what we’re doing, but subconsciously, it’s just a desire to “compete” with other women. It’s been drilled into us since birth that other women are the competition and need to be brought down.

    That’s why I’m having trouble in law school–the competition level is like a combination of the high school cliques and the sorority, on steroids.

  12. I recently realized how pretty I was in my teens/20s too, and all I did was worry about weight. I looked FABULOUS, my god, why didn’t someone TELL ME!!?

    Now (in my 50s), whether I lose or gain weight, most people don’t really notice. And I find with the pressure off, I don’t really worry about it either. Hm, very interesting.

    Jean Paul Sartre was right, hell is other people!

  13. Eh, Bridgett, I feel like that’s missing the point. Not your original example – if your weight is causing your health problems (and not the other way around) and weight loss is the cure your for health problems, then that is a good thing and I’m glad you are feeling better. But if you’re “overweight” and “healthy” and then you lose a lot of weight “healthily,” then you’ll be “healthier”? I’m dubious. Who does this? And if even they did, the fact remains that they still could be “too fat” (which was discussed at Shapely Prose). That was the point of my post and I think this one: the reward promised by the weight loss industry, an ideal body, does not exist.

    Kleinheider, individual heterosexual men are not the patriarchy. They often carry around patriarchal ideas and behave in ways that are patriarchally approved, but that is not the same thing. So when I say I’m responding to a big pile of patriarchy, I’m not blaming the men in my life (though few have been blameless). I’m blaming a social structure that teaches women that their primarily and full-time jobs are to be pretty and nurturing, that they will never do a very good job of either, but that they should keep trying – while teaching men that they deserve to be the happy receipients of this prettiness and nurture.
    If that doesn’t make sense, try replacing “patriarchy” with “society” and “patriarchal” with “social” in the above paragraph. The meaning will not change.

  14. GoldnI, what makes you think that the “subconscious” desire to bring down other women (which I’ve never experienced, personally) and the desire to attract men aren’t two sides of the same coin?

  15. Tanglethis, some people become overweight due to a chronic medical condition, like high thyroid. Being overweight for them is symptomatic of an underlying medical condition. Other people who are healthy get overweight for any variety of non-medical reasons (social, cultural, environmental) and give themselves chronic medical conditions — that would be me, who would up pre-diabetic and with a heart condition and otherwise screwed up, but with conditions that were strongly correlated with weight gain and had presented themselves when I put on a lot of weight. “Otherwise healthy” means that if you lost weight, you’d lose the chronic medical conditions you acquired during the long climb to obesity. So yes, if you’re otherwise healthy and you don’t starve yourself weak or injure yourself with obsessive exercise or so forth, you’ll ordinarily reverse injurious weight-related conditions.
    (Not seeing why this is a controversial point.)

  16. I think you feel like it’s controversial because you and Tanglethis are talking past each other. Tanglethis is talking about an otherwise healthy fat person. You’re talking about a person who gains weight and, as a result, becomes unhealthy. That’s not the same thing “Otherwise healthy” means, other than being fat. Not, other than having chronic medical condition and being fat. Those are two different thing.

    DADvocate (and Kleinheider) there isn’t a person here who doesn’t know what you’re saying. If it were as easy a correlation as “Oh, there are dicks out there of both sexes and you just have to ignore them,” society wouldn’t be so fucked up.

  17. After my daughter was born, I battled hard to lose the baby weight. It didn’t work. I was hungry a lot, I gave up a lot of “fun” to make sure I got my workout in. My life was all about my weight. It got so overwhelming that I gave up and bought bigger clothes.

    Three years later, desperate for some time and space to think, I started running. By the time I was up to six miles a day, five days a week, I realized I couldn’t keep my pants up. That was the first time in two years I got on a scale. I was at my goal weight. My hormones had shifted, I think, and I had finally dropped the excessive sugar, which let it happen. And I didn’t really care that much. What mattered was my pleasure in running. Total change of perspective!

    Now I’m still toting squishy bits from my last baby (who will be two in May), and I still don’t care. I miss running, but I’m not willing to give anything else up for it right now. Sometimes I think it’d be great to be a size smaller. But, overall, I’m happy enough with life to just BE.

    The ironic thing to me is that, when I was dieting and starving, all the people who told me I “looked fine” and didn’t “need” to lose any weight are the same people who told me, three years later when I was fit and skinny, how much better I looked.

    If we could get our minds off of other people’s scales (and our own), it’d be a much cheerier society…

  18. Goldni, you actually make a great demonstration of what I think Aunt B.’s getting at here, and Kleinheider is bypassing. Dropping into the strange hyper-competitive-in-a-specific-way environment of law school is a lot like being aware of how patriarchy works.

    We (women) don’t do these things “to impress men,” and we don’t really do them “to compete with other women,” either. We do them because to not do them is to completely and totally buck the world most of us live in. And men do their things, too, and probably for the same reasons.

    In a weird bit of Internet convergence, I know Amp, am in law school, and now live back here! Sorry to drop in, but I’ve enjoyed everyone’s writing for a while now and it all seemed to come together here.

  19. All right. I don’t like it, but I’ve been giving some thought to what DADvocate and Kleinheider are saying, especially in conjunction with tanglethis’s comment and something Ta-nehisi Coates (who is totally my internet boyfriend) keeps saying about folks being tires of being the stock villain.

    And I wonder, if the problem is societal and if using “society” and “social” gets across the exact same point, and if men are going to read “patriarchy” and feel blamed, even when we’re not blaming them specifically, but just trying to talk about how fucked up society is, are there times when talking about “The Patriarchy” serves to muddle the issue?

    I mean, I think it often clarifies, to say we’re talking about systemic domination that is, at root, gendered. But I think sometimes it lets us slide past what we women do to each other and, and this is the part that is more problematic for me, continues to make men feel that they are (appropriately) the center of conversation (even if it’s to be blamed) at all times.

    I don’t know. I’m just mulling it over.

  20. The term patriarchy is useful, I think, because it names the structural problem. “Society” is pretty analytically fuzzy — you can have societies that are egalitarian, societies that are age-ranked, etc. What patriarchy does, when you use it, is say that the particular way we order our society (male-dominant, built on assumptions that usually work to benefit older men and funnel wealth and privilege through dominant men and the women who suck up to them) is the problem — not the fact that humans are social creatures and we’re going to gang together in groups and that the phenomena you’re describing just is naturally occurring as an outgrowth of organizing in groups that need to have some sort of dominance ranking. Patriarchy didn’t come into being accidentally or naturally or the same way in every culture. Patriarchy has a history. There are knowable reasons why laws were written to favor men over women, for example. If it was done by humans, it can be changed and we can change it..

    If the men personally feel indicted, maybe they’re not getting that it doesn’t imply that they personally are deliberately try to perpetuate the harms or reap the benefits — that’s where the structural part comes in. They’re just down in it like the rest of us. And if women don’t feel personally indicted (the more worrisome part), that means that they aren’t coming to grips with their own complicity in perpetuating a system that they’ve often learned to game.

  21. Thank you for the welcome, Aunt B.!

    Bridgett just said what I was thinking, regarding the very specific, very gendered type of domination that “patriarchy” names. Bridgett also gets at the second point I was thinking, which is that using a term like “patriarchy” shouldn’t really allow any woman to ‘get past what we women do to each other,’ and I’d add, what we women do to men. ‘Patriarchy’ is why women feel compelled to perform like Women, and men feel compelled to perform like Men. That’s why I think it’s not the behavior itself that matters; it’s not a problem that I like X and my male partner likes Y. It’s also not particularly subversive if I go about anti-X while he does the opposite of Y. I think of patriarchy as that strange feeling of satisfaction that comes from snarking at a beautiful woman’s petty flaws, but also as the strange sense of satisfaction that comes from being better at fixing the computer than my male partner. Gender roles and the way we use them to express supremacy over others is how I tend to think of it.

  22. So, bridgett, it sounds like you’re saying you CAN’T be fat and healthy because if you are fat, you MUST have some problems resulting from it and they WOULD go away if you just lost some weight.

    So people who say they are “fat but otherwise healthy” are lying liars.

    I’m sorry, but being fat does not prevent me from walking for a few miles or lifting heavy objects on occasion or having normal blood pressure or anything like that. I’m sorry your fat was associated with these problems for you, but please don’t assume everyone has the same experience as you.

    I also notice you didn’t include genetics in your list of causes of fat, so if I don’t have a thyroid condition, I must just eat 10,000 calories a day. Obviously!

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