Who’s Watching the Women?

I’ve been following the latest “My god, people are fat!” debate in the feminist blogosphere with interest. For those of you not up to speed, it started here at Feministe. I’ll say, as a brief side note that, as much as this post sucked, I agree with Maia that the comments were, for the most part, heartening. This is a big change from even a few years ago, to see people have the courage to speak passionately and intelligently about their position. But I also think it’s in the comments where you get a good idea of where the tension is. The comments, though there are many to get through, over at Pandagon are illustrative.

So, I have two things I want to get at. One, I wish we as feminists would do a better job of the ways “obese” and “poor” overlap as social constructs and how one word can often stand for the other group. Now, there are obese people and there are poor people, obviously. And there is a great overlap in those groups. But I’m trying to get not at the actual groups, but at the social constructs and how we talk about obese people having no self-control or being too stupid to know what to put in their bodies or lacking access to experts who could tell them what to do with themselves; the narrative is all about how obese people put all kinds of things they shouldn’t in their bodies because they are too stupid (or uneducated to know better) and they thus have really negative life outcomes. Now, read that same sentence and swap out “obese” for “poor.”

It works just the same.

I find that interesting. In both cases, it’s about a group that has too many people in it, who need education and expertise and guidance, and who are deemed failures or troublemakers if they resist efforts from the outside to improve them.

The word “class” doesn’t quite fit, but I think it has to do with demanding people want to strive to remove evidence of what has been deemed their shitty circumstances. Yes, of course, you will be punished for striving. But you will be punished worse for not striving.

It’s almost as if the problem is that the obese/the poor, by their very existence, insult their “betters” for not recognizing and properly responding to their “betters'” expertise on how best to live life.

That’s the dynamic I keep seeing play out in these comment threads–“I have expertise. You must recognize it.” “I know my own body. I am the expert on my own life. Fuck off.”

And this is where it gets tricky for feminists to talk about, right?  Because, often, we don’t have expertise about our own bodies. Shoot, for 20 years I didn’t know I had PCOS, and I was glad for the doctor that has the expertise to tell me what was going on with my body. Plus, we are often lied to about our bodies–that masturbating can make you crazy or that sleeping with people outside of marriage will somehow ruin your body, etc. You live here on Earth, I don’t have to tell you. Our Bodies, Ourselves exists for a reason, and it’s not so that we can all laugh that someone would think we’d need to be told that stuff.

But, and this is a big BUT, it is also true that “I know better than you what you should do with your body and I insist on the socially-sanctioned right to tell you (and to enforce it)” is a fundamental strategy for controlling women. Make our bodies fair game for public discussion and public worry and public scrutiny and you can keep us in line.

That’s why I find it so weird and disconcerting that feminists want to sit around and talk about fat as a problem. You can’t talk about fat separate from bodies. (Well, you could, but a glob of fat in a bowl isn’t a health issue.) Female bodies, in fact. I mean, even when we talk about fat men, it’s about their moobs, like being fat is feminizing them in some terrible way.

Is it really not clear to feminists how the “obesity epidemic” is about reasserting the right to police women’s bodies? Except now, we’re doing it for your health! When people talk wistfully about how “nobody cooks at home anymore” who do you think that “nobody” used to be? When people talk about how kids don’t get the same free reign of the neighborhoods they used to have, who is the unspoken monitor of all that free time?

Who has, supposedly, fallen down on the job causing us all to be fat?

How is this not prime meat for feminists to sink their teeth into?

If I can pick up a guy I don’t know at a bar and take him into the bathroom and fuck him silly and feminists can see how that’s my business, even if I might get a disease or get pregnant or slip and throw out my hip or some other outcome that would affect my health, why can’t I pick up a burger at a bar and not have it become cause for public fretting, especially by feminists?

I think, at least in part, it’s because we have been trained by society since we were born to dominate those we can, or to put it in more familiar terms, to exert privilege when we have it, and to insist on our privilege being recognize or we will punish those who don’t.

And a lot of us are very good about understanding how that dynamic plays out in certain situations, about how tempting it can be to go ahead and insist on our privilege in certain situations, even if it’s wrong.

A lot of social justice movements have done a lot of work and made a lot of gains to make that happen.

But the impulse to dominate is just as thoroughly taught as our desire for justice is. So, we work for justice in realms in which we can see injustice.

But we don’t bother to try to check our bullshit in realms where we don’t see injustice.

And a lot of folks don’t see any injustice in the “obesity epidemic” and so they feel free to go ahead and stretch their “I will make you do what I think is best for you” muscles.

I think that’s what makes these discussions in feminist circles especially problematic, because this is a topic upon which people feel like it’s okay to go ahead and indulge their impulse to police women, because obesity isn’t an injustice, and they think they know more than those poor stupid people who just don’t yet recognize their expertise.

But I just don’t see how any discussion that involves people policing women’s bodies and trying to dictate what women do with them can ever be feminist.

“Weight can signal a lack of activity or too many donuts, and that shouldn’t irk anyone,” Monica says. But that’s not a cultural critique. That’s an invitation to stick our noses into the business of women who are somehow “signaling” by being fat.

Again, I feel like this is a point that feminists would mull over–does a body, merely by being a body, signal anything? If my having big boobs tells you nothing about whether I’m a slut, why are you so sure it tells you anything about whether I’ve had too many donuts?

Are we sure we’ve actually given up the desire to scrutinize women’s bodies and tell them what to do with them?

Because these discussions make me feel like some folks need to think more about why they’re so excited to jump into these discussions in order to tell people how unhealthy they are.

Anyway, feminist blog fight. I should stay out of it, but I can’t resist. I think we can all guess I may regret it.

18 thoughts on “Who’s Watching the Women?

  1. “But I just don’t see how any discussion that involves people policing women’s bodies and trying to dictate what women do with them can ever be feminist.”

    If you would like another example of this, check out the judgement heaped on women who dare to say “hey, this c/section rate is out of control and if I want to forego epidurals so I can move and shout during labor, why can’t I, and what’s up with inducing me two weeks early anyway?” or even “I want to birth at home in peace because I think hospitals are not good for that sort of thing and I don’t have any known risks.” (all of which is my particular little corner of feminist struggle).

    Same shit, different shirt. And interestingly, like fatness, also falls under the mantra of why-won’t-you-just-be-logical-like-me, stupid lady! Feminists in general are divided in the same way, with some being very much do-what-you-want, others being uneasy that supporting a less medicalized/controlled childbirth experierence somehow makes them crystal-rubbing Wiccan healers* instead of clear-thinking modern women (as they would see it).

    And the response that the birth-rights community comes up with is “Trust women. Trust them to know what they should do.” This is probablematic to me, in that some women, like some men, clearly aren’t trustworthy and make screamingly bad decisions, including decisions about what they do with their bodies/children/relationships/firearms. But until they harm said children or use said firearms, there’s not really any right for anyone else to step in.

    There’s not really a good slogan that sums up what we *should* be saying, which is “Judge women’s actions as concerns their bodies exactly as you would judge a man’s, which is to say, not really your business.” It’s just not catchy enough.

    *no disrespect meant to actual crystal-rubbing Wiccan healers, though I am not a believer in such.

  2. Emjaybee, your comment is great on its own, but it really solidified something for me that is clearly sliding around in the back of my post, which is just how much this kind of policing is specifically tied to women-as-mother–we must dictate exactly what women do during birth because they are giving birth to our children; we must dictate exactly what women eat and how they move, because they pass those traits on to our children (whether or not the real women in question have children).

    And again, you’d think this policing-of-women masked as “Save the children!” would be something that would clearly set off feminist warning bells.

    But I think you also hit on the problem–if we leave women to our own devices, shit is going to go very wrong for some women. That’s a bitter truth for people who believe in social justice to swallow. We want to do something, anything, to make things better.

    Now, the truth is, if we run women’s lives for us, shit is going to go very wrong for some women, but at least we get to feel like we tried. Ha.

    But it is hard to step back and say “I am not the boss of you.” and mean and understand it in your bones.

    But I see that as an important and crucial feminist task–to give up the urge to boss other women for our own sense of feeling like good people.

  3. While I understand the inherent risk of shit going seriously wrong for some women, I’m still very much in the “trust women” camp. And I’m especially fond of it in the birthing scenario: c-sections and pitocin and “due dates.” I find it incredibly subversive vis a vis the status quo, because of all the things in this world, birthing is the unique and unassailable domain of women. While Teh Patriarchy in its many forms tries its damnedest to intervene, there’s just no getting around our supremacy in that arena.

    That provides a quick segue to Our Bodies, Ourselves. The question is never whether an individual woman is making “the best” choices for herself: it’s whether women collectively can own a given topic. That’s why I think the “women know best” meme is so powerful: we know that many of us are being fed poisoned food, and submitting to unhealthy work environments, and deeply constrained in our choices as to feeding our families. We own these topics. We own the hormone-and-antibiotic-laden chicken our kids are eating because we can’t afford or don’t have access to real alternatives.

    So Trust Women. For God’s/Gaia/The Goddess’/Spagehtti Monster’s sake, we’re already invested in these issues, and could do a damn sight better than the capitalists.

  4. **applause**

    I’ve always said that about 95% of the Obesity Epi-Panic is about shaming women for their greedy appetites, or for selfishly deciding not to be chained to a stove all day. (And really, anyone who thinks most of those “home-cooked meals” in the enforced-housewifery days were anything close to “healthy” needs to be put in a time machine and sent back to 1965. I guarantee you NOBODY was eating brown rice and plain steamed organic veggies for dinner unless they lived in an ashram. In the 1970s, I was relentlessly mocked by my classmates for bringing sandwiches on brown bread!)

    I’ll go a step further than that and assert that if only men got fat and all women were thin, we wouldn’t be hearing boo in a haunted house about any Obesity Epidemic. No, not even if every man was fat, because then fat would be seen as manly and hence good.

  5. I agree with everything that’s said so far. And I’d add that if, as Meowser says, 95% of the panic is about shaming women, the remaining 5% is about Americans really enjoying judging people. I think there’s something very puritanical in the American personality that wants to be able to find another individual or group lacking. And since, as you’ve said, Aunt B., liberals still see obesity as open to moral judgment in a way that other traits aren’t, they’re focusing on fat like never before.

    Note that I’m not claiming fat as The Last Acceptable Prejudice. That’s clearly not true.

    But I do think there’s a stripe of American behavior that really enjoys being a judgy-mcjudgerson, and fat people are a very easy target for that behavior. ‘cuz we ALL know fat’s bad, right?


    On a more cheerful note, I’ve exposed another friend to size acceptance, and though he’s just starting, he seems to get it. That’s nice to see a small victory, every now and then.

  6. There’s another interesting parallel with the childbirth issue and the obesity issue as regards feminism:

    Both have some interesting science behind them. Namely, with childbirth, the evidence is extensive and it is VERY clear that for the majority of healthy women, a less interventive approach — no early induction, no epidural, minimal fetal monitoring, freedom to move and eat and drink — produces *better* outcomes. Simple as that. And yet there’s this tension between the actual science and the machine that is mainstream obstetrics, wherein most obstetrics practices in the US are directly opposed to the evidence.

    And when it comes to obesity, it is VERY clear that diets do not work, and that body weight and overall morbidity and mortality do not correlate the way we think they do, and that individual metabolism and intestinal flora can have a tremendous effect on the outward appearance of the body — but against all evidence, the conventional “wisdom” is that extreme caloric restriction plus drugs (diet drugs, anti-cholesterol medicine) is the best way to increase health. (Also, as a side note, have you ever seen dietary recommendations for diabetics? It’s all refined carbs! Bread and granola and pretzels!)

    In both cases, “problems” (getting babies out, keeping people healthy) which could be addressed by effective and evidence-based practices are instead used as platforms for shaming and blaming women, with more shame and less opportunity to challenge the system available on a sliding scale as you go down the socioeconomic ladder.

    Who benefits? The corporate side of medicine (for-profit hospitals, drug companies) and the corporate side of food production (Monsanto, ADM, Cargill). It’s a very handy divide-and-conquer.

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  8. This is actually a moment where I’m a little jealous of women who are coming up through a much more visible multicultural feminist movement, because I feel like there’s some important intersectionality going on here, but that’s just not something I really got trained in when I was coming up. It makes intrinsic sense to me, but I feel like I’m flailing here.

    I KNOW there’s something important going on, that the way the language shifts and slides around when we talk about obesity as feminists means something and it means something important we need to understand.

    But I feel like I don’t quite know how to get at it.

    And, actually, this is one instance when I feel like the Oppression Olympics is also important. Because, yeah, it is really tempting to say “Well, we wouldn’t say x about y group, but we feel free to say it about fat people.”

    I know we usually remind each other that it’s not a competition to see who’s more oppressed and then we all move on.

    But I want to, just for a second, wonder if that impulse is not telling us something about what’s at play here.

    Because here’s what I wonder–like I said, it’s clear to me that “the fat” and “the poor” are social constructs that play a little too similarly. And I think it’s clear that the terms in which black women get talked about in society–animalistic, overly-sexual, unable to control their impulses, etc.–are similar to the frames used to talk about fat people (though not exact).

    I don’t believe that fat is the last acceptable prejudice. And I think folks who think “you wouldn’t say x about y person” are wrong. Often folks would.

    And that’s what I would like feminists to get at–what does it mean that we say the same x about y person, z person, a person, or b person?

    To me, i wonder if the issue isn’t that, in liberal circles, we think we have our issues all worked out?

    So, when an ostensible feminist encounters a woman she experiences as being other than her, I wonder if there’s some “Well, I’m not racist, so I don’t think she’s a stupid cow because she’s black. Hmm, but I do think she’s a stupid cow. It must be because she’s fat.” or “Well, I’m comfortable with everyone’s sexuality, so I don’t think there’s something wrong with her voracious sexual appetite. But I am uncomfortable with her appetites. It must be because she eats so much.”

    I wonder if that’s why these discussions get so hostile so quickly and turn to “well, just do what I do. You must want to do what I do!!!!” Because, the person who is uncomfortable doesn’t want to believe that she, a good feminist, can be uncomfortable with someone for bigoted reasons.

    I don’t know. Like I said, I think the Oppression Olympics is counterproductive to get into for the people who are on the wrong end of it.

    But there might be something important to get at in what’s going on when people set up the game.

    And that’s what I hope feminists more schooled in intersectionality will get at and I can go read it and say, “oh, yeah, that’s it. I knew there was something there, but I didn’t know what it was.”

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  12. I don’t think you have to squint too much to see the intersection between how we talk about poor and how we talk about blackness and how we talk about control of reproduction and how we now talk about fat. It was the first thing that occurred to me as I read this. Intersectionality…is that what the kids are calling it these days?

    “Look at that poor, non-white woman making bad reproductive choices! I shall tell her what to do!” is still a very common way of thinking. Even among liberals, where it is wrapped up in concern before it’s delivered, but it’s still delivered across a cultural divide based on privilege. And now we can do that with fat too, but in that case even more people end up on the have-not side of the divide.

  13. In the late 19th century it was accepted wisdom that women (the right sort of women) never actually experienced hunger. Women ate because they needed to do so to stay alive but because of never feeling hunger, they ate as little as possible.

    Similarly, decent women didn’t experience sexual desire.

    Some of this is still alive. In my time many young women rarely ate what they really wanted when out on a date. It was more “feminine” to nibble at a salad.

    Women who openly enjoy food /sex have always been suspected of sluttiness. That hasn’t changed.

  14. Thank you for writing this. Though I’ve been educating myself on FA, I had never looked at fat shaming from this perspective before. I think you have really beautifully articulated why fat acceptance is, and must be, a feminist issue. (And why I am so skeptical of feminists who try to tell me, through shaming and in the name of health, that my body is wrong, or that what I am doing with my body is wrong.)

    Basically, this post is brilliant, and I will be sharing it with everyone I know.

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  16. People do love to criticize each other, don’t they. And not to seem like a troll, but I’ve noticed that women tend to shame other women a lot more then men do. Humanity is riddled with atavistic motivations that aren’t going to fade away any time soon, which is why feminism is so disruptive. Change is never easy.

    Love the “Tiny Cat Pants” motif. But I’ll never again try to put clothing on a cat.

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