On Feminism: Body Politics

Monday, 9 April 2012


I don’t normally talk about my physical appearance, because I’d like to think that there are far more interesting things about me. However, like everyone else, I live in a world where appearance is used to judge my character, personality and abilities. Broadly speaking, this is my body type in three simple words: short, skinny and small. Now, in my late twenties, I’ve come to terms with my body and with the reality that there will be no ‘filling out’ for me – I am what I am.

When I was in high school, tired of being teased and called ‘anorexic’, I went on a reverse diet: I went on a regime of deliberately eating more than I needed in order to gain some weight. It didn’t work, because essentially, I don’t have an unhealthy fixation with food. Despite nasty comments from girls, food remained for me a source of fuel and pleasure, not a psychological or emotional crutch. I gave up quickly and decided that life is too short for this crap. My mum also told me I was being an idiot, and she was right.

Food is supposed to be fun, not something I force upon myself to please some ridiculous idea of what is considered ‘normal’. Besides, now that I’m older and understand the complexity of eating disorders better from research into gender, I realise how silly these girls’ nasty comments were: they were thoughtlessly using a serious disease experienced by some women (and men) as a cruel derogatory remark that had nothing to do with me. Just as disturbing for me though as I’ve gotten older is when women comment on my weight as if it’s a compliment, or ask me what diet I’m on. I have to step back and realise they think my body, the product of nature and genetics, is some sort of achievement. That really depresses me. I consider my education to be an achievement, not my weight.

The reason I’m talking about this is because I started browsing through Kate’s new tumblr blog, Pinners be Crazy. Some of it is truly hilarious, but some of it truly freaks me out as well. Kate is understandably highlighting some nasty commenting behaviour on Pinterest. One or two examples that disturbed me the most revolved around a group of women attacking another woman’s body type and weight (I’ve sadly seen worse examples on other blogs though). There are always, I find, stock-standard lines that women like to throw around in these kinds of situations: ‘eat a cheeseburger’, ‘men like women with curves’, ‘real women have curves’, etc., etc., etc., – or should I say, blah, blah, blah. I’m so sick of this, not simply because it’s unkind to sit there and attack somebody you don’t even know, but also because it signals how women continue to perpetuate misogyny under the guise of pseudo-concern about the fetish of skinniness in our culture.

Look, we all know that the ultra-skinny body type perpetuated by the fashion and beauty industries, celebrity culture and magazines is problematic. Western societies are cultures of plenty, where food isn’t scarce. So it makes sense that our ‘ideal’ would be skinniness – and this fetishisation of the skinny female body is extreme, I admit. However, I don’t see the point of attacking every skinny woman on the face of the earth as a response. Even if a woman is not naturally skinny but suffers from an eating disorder, making nasty comments about her is attacking the end-product of our fetish, not the source of it – not the industries who profit from unrealistic ‘ideals’ or the psychological origins of the disease. Rather than challenging stereotypes, these types of nasty comments and individual attacks only feed them. More importantly, they reinforce the idea that there is only one way to be a ‘real’ woman and one way to be ‘healthy’.

What we should be challenging is the idea that all women must fit into limited ideals of body types. We don’t, we are human beings and we are diverse. How does saying a skinny woman is not a ‘real’ woman, or suggesting that she should go eat a cheeseburger (gee, that sounds really healthy – contradiction, much?), help us break gender and body stereotypes? There are no ‘fake’ women; having less curves or not filling out a bra as much as my other female friends does not make me any less of a woman. My femininity is not defined by the sum of body parts, or their size and shape. I will remain me no matter what size I come in. I don’t agree with attacking skinny women, just like I don’t agree with making larger women feel bad about their weight. Because both tactics are essentially a way of telling these women that their worth and femininity lie in their appearance alone.

What worries me about the ganging-up comments I’ve seen on pictures of skinny women is the unspoken subtext that somehow these comments are a way of questioning the fetish of skinniness in our culture. So you often find women who make these comments who think they are actually sticking up for women’s rights. I’m not really sure though how anyone can honestly say to themselves that this is what such comments achieve. Because to me, all I see is women buying into the lies we’re fed by industries who want to sell us stuff because we are essentially told we’re not enough as we are: that we must work on shaping and re-shaping our bodies into ‘types’ and ‘ideals’ – whether this means losing a few pounds, or gaining a few pounds.

These comments also feed the rather annoying stereotype of women constantly involved in catty bitch fights. I often wonder why the energy that is put into making these comments is not more productively used to challenge stereotypes about being a woman. Aren’t you sick of being told what you should look like? I know I am.

And honestly, if I hear one more comment like ‘real women have curves’, or ‘men like women with meat on their bones’ (right, because our self-worth revolves around men), I will barf and respond thusly:


Hey, if you say something that stupid to me, or make fun of me for being skinny, or tell me what all men supposedly like (which is an insult to men as well), you must be prepared to meet the taunting Frenchman from Monty Python.

Image credits: the first image is from Pinners be Crazy. I don’t know about you, but my first instinct was to gaze at the lovely scarf by Ilana Kohn, not to attack the model. Silly me. The second image is my own screengrab from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail.


Michaela said...

thank you so much for this post.

ronnie said...

The thing I've enjoyed most about aging is leaving all the body drivel behind.... I've experienced it all - underweight kidlet, pudgy teenager, insanely skinny 20yr old (like less that 40kg insanely thin.... no I've never had an eating disorder - I've had a whacky thyroid...) plump, skinny again, ridiculously fit (like able to complete triathlons) plumpish, pregnant, pregnant, plumpish..... (and that brings us up to date)

the thing is - I've been me in every body manifestation..... I'm more than my body shape or weight - and I believe the same thing about everyone else.... I care more about the shape of a personality (and I don't give a toss about what folks might say about my looks.... 'I fart in your general direction' hee hee heeee damn but I like being an old fart!)

Becky Phelan said...

PREACH. I tried writing about this myself after seeing Kate's post, as someone who has suffered from anorexia and as someone who is really hurt by these kinds of comments. But it was way too emotional and weird for me to write about, so I deleted it, and you did a better job anyway, so thank you very much.

Having an eating disorder already comes with so much shame, it makes it nearly impossible to ask for help when you realize you need it. These "eat a cheeseburger!" lines only make it much, much worse. It makes me feel attacked and, actually, it doesn't make me want to eat a cheeseburger, it makes me never want to eat again.

So! Anyway! Props on this post, you rule, I love your blog.

cluelesspixie said...

Very true. I don't get the need to write these comments anyway. Like, they're not actually saying 'You look so skinny it makes me concerned', but 'Look how smart I am for posting this dumb comment' Don't the commenters realize that they're reducing the models to their bodies?

I've had lots of people comment on my weight and appearance in the last two years or so and it made me think a lot about this topic - about the rift there is between people asking because they actually care and people who are just obsessed with body image. At the latter I wanted to shout 'try if years of depression will work for you!'. It's ridiculous, really.

Razmataz said...

Such a great post. I am overweight so very sensitive to comments on the other side of the scale, but definitely see how this is a problem for thick and thin. I recently saw a blog post where a woman was photographed by her husband. In the background was a very large women. She invited her readers to caption the photo. And boy did they. All nasty comments about the lady's weight. I was shocked at the mentality. I've seen this several times on blogs. What I notice is the first few comments set the tone. I someone comments early about the inappropriate post, then others will chime in and chastise the post, but in general they follow the pack.

Tracey said...

It's all so exhausting - this ongoing focus that some people seem to have with other people's bodies. I feel like now of all times, surely we have much more important things to focus on ... but for some it seems, we don't.

I agree with you completely ... I just wish we could all accept and support the good of each other, just as we are.

bex said...

right on Hila!

for all those girls out there who can't help the fact that skinny is just what they are (yup, me), who have to listen to all those jellyfish comments about whether there is something 'wrong' - which is on the same insult level as being called fat - and then have to feel like they must change...to fit in - this post spoke out.

it really brings home that recently article that ran in the Daily Mail - Samantha Brick and the declaration of her beauty that attracts hatred from other women. that article saw cyberspace spew forth thousands of nasty comments that set out to verbally slay her. makes for some interesting thoughts around the intense hatred and jealously that breeds between women and appearance...that's a whole other kettle of fish :)

anyway i second the props! always love your posts (began reading after you were a panel member on the ABC Jane Eyre screening panel - i was coordinating the event :)

Laura said...

I have a friend who is very thin, and quite often gets looks in the street and questions asked. At school the teachers would question her friends about her eating habits rather than coming to speak to her directly, which made it feel like she had something to be ashamed of in looking like that. I appreciate that girls with eating disorders do need help, because it is a psychological issue. However, my friend eats completely normally, and she just doesn't put on weight - she has always been like this.
Someone's shape should not be what defines them. As you say, achievement is an education, not what you look like.
I have accepted that I am not naturally very thin, nor am I 'curvy'. I have spent many years worrying about my figure because of comments like 'men like real women with curves' because I don't have that. This post has reminded me that my body is my own and does not belong to others to comment on, thank you.

Laura said...

Also, the taunting Frenchman is genius.

rooth said...

Ha - taunting Frenchman. I agree that's the appropriate response. Thanks for taking time to THINK about what people are saying and for expressing it. I think if people do the same (think about what they are saying), they'd realize that what they are doing is not helping the situation at all

Chuck said...

It is alarming the number of commenters Pinterest seems to have in common with the Daily Mail. So much stupidity and vitriol. Where do they get off thinking they have the right to pass judgement on another woman's body? Popular culture already objectifies her enough without them jumping in too.

As an aside, I was very disappointed a couple of years ago when I bought 'Fat is a Feminist Issue' and it turned out to effectively be a diet book. Because fat (and skinny) is a feminist issue and it deserves to be properly addressed.


Jane Flanagan said...

I definitely agree with much of what you've said about the impact and incorrect assumptions behind these kinds of comments.

But... I really don't get wanting to invest this kind of energy in cataloguing the obtuseness on Pinterest. There seems to be something imperious and equally unconstructive about this kind of armchair finger-pointing.

Neither position makes a really positive case for acceptance, in my mind... and that's what we're really missing here.

Abby said...

Amen! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue. I am also a naturally very skinny woman and have been teased and ridiculed my whole life for being too thin/having an eating disorder, etc. It bugs me to no end that it is somehow OK to harass naturally skinny people for their bodies, but if you even hint at a comment about an obese person's body, it's the ultimate sin. Skinny women have feelings too. Bottom line: Respect people, regardless of their body types.

Hila said...

Michaela: My pleasure.

Ronnie: There's nothing wrong with being an old fart!

Becky: That's part of the reason why I wanted to call out this behaviour. These comments can often have devastating affects on people who do actually suffer from eating disorders. If people were really concerned about the health of the women they attack, they would keep such vitriol to themselves.

cluelesspixie: yes, I question the 'concern' behind these comments too - is it really concern, or simply an attack on someone? It is ridiculous.

Razmataz: yes, there is a pack mentality behind a lot of this, which makes it even more disturbing for me. I really cringe when I read some of these comments. And I can definitely understand your sensitivity to comments on the other side of the scale.

Tracey: oh Amen Tracey! I wish there were more people like you. Your comments always come from a decided position of thoughtfulness.

Hila said...

bex: hi! I think we met after the panel was over :) That Samantha Brick article was one big hate-fest. My favourite response to the whole controversy is this article: http://jezebel.com/5898848/yes-samantha-brick-is-obnoxious-but-the-daily-mail-is-trolling-us-all

I agree with the whole article, especially the final point: "By giving Samantha Brick miles of rope and an extremely public tree, the Daily Mail is trying to trollify us all. It's a little peek behind the curtain at how the media deliberately pits women against women for fun and profit. Fuck that. Ladies, let's stop biting." Amen.

Laura: I can empathise with your friend, but I suspect most women, whatever their body type, have experienced judgement. It feels like we're being constantly scrutinised. And yes, the Frenchman is gold :)

Rooth: ah, thanks! It's a hard subject to talk about, so I appreciate that.

Chuck: exactly what the world needs, another diet book. And you're right, the Daily Mail comments are strikingly similar to some of the Pinterest ones.

Hila said...

Jane: some these comments on Pinterest are getting out of hand, and from that perspective, I appreciate Kate highlighting this. While it can be unproductive to wallow on these comments, I don't think this is the tone of the tumblr blog. I generally think so much of this behaviour is tacitly accepted because it occurs so often. Someone has to pause and say, 'no, this isn't okay'. That's essentially what I view to be the motivation behind the blog and my own post on it. So in that sense, I do view it as constructive to highlight this commenting behaviour and question it. And I hope I did a fair job in explaining what bothers me about it, rather than finger-point: i.e. the fact that such commenting behaviour works against feminism and feeds unhealthy gender stereotypes. I study gender, so for me, this is a worthy topic of discussion. I do understand where you're coming from, so I hope I kept things relatively constructive.

Abby: exactly, that's the main point of this post. And thanks!

Bethany said...

I really appreciate how you used this example, Hila. It's easy to get annoyed with the platform of Pinterest, or to attack one another about who has the healthier standard for the female body.

But it takes a deeper critical analysis to think about the root cause - ourselves - and to constructively discuss specific examples of how we perpetuate those stereotypes and reinforce them. The truth is that women abuse one another, tell each other how to look in order to attract men, which is totally counterproductive to true feminism.

Petra said...

bravo! that's all I'm going to say to that. otherwise I'm not participating in this debate anymore.

Sasha said...

I'm always completely dumbfounded by the amount of body hate and criticism I see online. I should be but it's rather disheartening. It seems NO woman can be a "real" woman because one way or another someone finds a way to use their physical bodies as proof of their lack "woman-ness."

The very concept of a "real" woman has always made me incredibly disgusted. Tearing down other women to benefit your own ends is despicable. In contrast, I'm a proponent of all women be they thick or thin, biological or not. All people are human beings. There is no level of "realness" to it.

Obviously I always get rather worked up about this kind of thing and so my comment is gearing towards rambling incoherence. I'll leave with a bravo for this post (as well). I really appreciate your willingness to address these issues!

Sophia said...

Reading this post and the comments, before I add my thoughts on the subject, I find it really positive that first you, Hila and secondly your commenters have all expressed the importance of respect towards/and among human beings no matter their size or body image. I'm glad you are around and you bother talking about issues that can be taboo for many and at the same time, giving us the chance to exchange opinions.

C said...

The whole cheeseburger thing has always irked me. I distinctly remember this quiz that I read as a kid (probably in some stupid magazine aimed at teenage girls) that asked the reader if they'd choose a cheeseburger or a salad. If you picked the burger, you were praised for knowing what you wanted and asserting your desire, whereas if you picked the salad it was condescendingly implied that you had some sort of fixation on dieting and losing weight. Matters of taste, nutrition, and lifestyle were not even considered.

I think because of the whole Barbie/anorexia/supermodel phenomenon, some people have reacted in a very antagonistic way against what they see as a dangerous body type, but they only see them as images, not as people. I'm so sick of the "real women have curves" deal too... like when a photo of a plus sized model goes up on the internet and comments like "Finally! The real deal!" get posted. Obviously, skinny women are proportionally over-represented in the media when compared to statistics in society. Yet denouncing individuals as inauthentic doesn't improve the situation when it comes to the objectification of female bodies. Your response with the Taunting Frenchman seems hilariously appropriate with the ridiculousness of people's attacks.

Amelia said...

I actually read all the posts on that tumblr and I am shocked that there's apparently an eat something brigade on the internet. I was disgusted when one woman said 'only dogs like bones' or something along that line.

To me this seems like some sort of need to be validated for their looks. I guess, it just shows a very skewed perception of body loving. I don't think there's a person in this world who never faced crippling insecurity in regards to their physical appearance, but NOTHING condones this type of hateful behavior. It's almost abusive.

Y'know, I was very hateful towards my body as a teen (I am still learning this whole love yourself thing), but I never looked at someone who was skinnier or fuller with hate or disgust. Mostly because my mother told me (hammered this into my brain) to only judge people after I walked in their shoes.

I wish I could imagine the place these women come from - but I can't.

Jana said...

I´ve been reading Naomi Wolf´s "The Beauty Myth" lately. I realised the book was published 21 years ago which made me think about if things have changed since that time. It makes me uneasy that some people want to fight one "ideal" (skinny) by claiming some other body type to be the one of "normal" women, which also means the only healthy and beautiful ones out there. I think any idea of one and only "normal" body negatively influences women in a similar way that "only skinny is beautiful" has done.
What worries me even more, is how body-focused some of us are. In my opinion, the picture was taken to promote the scarf and by making the scarf the focal point it suceeded in attracting my attention on it.
I enjoy reading your articles on gender issues, because they point out some really current problems which might be affecting lives of many of us on everyday basis, but which are often overlooked or not even perceived as problems at all. I love the pictures and videos you use to explain or illustrate your point of view, too.

melancholyswan.com said...

Ashley Judd wrote a wonderful essay in the Daily Beast about the scrutiny women endure over their bodies when writers began snarking on her face after steroids made it puffy and everyone assumed she had plastic surgery. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/09/ashley-judd-slaps-media-in-the-face-for-speculation-over-her-puffy-appearance.html

As for the "real women" and "eat a cheeseburger" comments, I feel like it is a reaction to the fat-shaming that women like me face every day. It's wrong, but fighting my weight all my life (and often losing,) I envy women who don't have to struggle with their weight. Hell, I even envied anorexics for their discipline. How sick is that?! If thin people are wrong too. maybe I can feel less shame.

But it is wrong to criticize women's bodies based on any visual ideal. It's all about hiding envy and shame behind the snark.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this : ) One thing that especially annoys me about the 'eat a cheese burger' mentality is that I have never seen it directed towards men. Both myself and my boyfriend are naturally skinny, and people are never 'concerned' that he has an eating disorder. Out of the two of us, I am the only one that has my eating habits questioned and commented on, and never in a subtle way either. Also, it really bugs me that people associate eating disorders with being underweight. I have a friend who was bulimic for about 5 years and she was not underweight, but still obviously really sick.

Michelle Hattingh said...

thanks so much for this post! personally, i think the people who are the most unsatisfied with their own bodies' hate the most on other people's bodies. i am also sick of other people telling me how much i need to weigh/ what i need to look like. if more woman can stand together with the point of view that all of our bodies are beautiful maybe someday we can change the 'eat a cheseburger' / i heart ana mentalities out there.

keep up the good work*

Pinelopi said...

Wow Hila...you're so right and once more I totally agree with you. I am myself fed up with such comments about my body and how I should be more beautiful if I put on weight...At last somebody said it right!

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I think for most women*, being considered too skinny is very much a problem they'd like to have.

(*sweeping generalization)


T C said...

people sometimes forget about the essential genetics, but still follow some rules dictated by fashion. destructive critisism of thin (i mean sick thinnes got by diets,eating disorders and etc ) is a way of self-struggle,fear not to gain the weight again, i think .

Hila said...

Bethany: I agree, it's so counter-productive and such a waste of energy.

Petra: Thanks! I remember your own great post about this a while ago, I agreed with every word.

Sasha: yeah, the whole 'real' debate is so silly. So 'real' women as opposed to what, 'fake' women? If we actually examine the logic behind some of these nasty comments, we'd realise how little sense they actually make. Maybe that's one way to deal with the nastiness and stop it from negatively affecting us.

Sophia: I'm really heartened by the level of kind and intelligent comments here too.

C: I'm sick of it all too, and sadly, all this kind of behaviour does is reinforce objectification - constantly judging women by their looks and bodies.

Amelia: It is abusive to think that you have the right to attack someone else on such a superficial level, or to assume you have the right to police their bodies. Considering we live in an age where everyone else seems to want to tell us what to do with our bodies (the whole abortion 'debate'), it seems ridiculous that we're heaping more body-policing crap upon each other.

Jana: That really worries me too: this body-scrutiny seems overly obsessive. How about just appreciating the scarf, why do things constantly have to degenerate into body-bashing and policing?

melancholyswan: I heard about that article. I loath the bodily scrutiny female celebrities endure and it's so hypocritical of people to judge them based on plastic surgery. We've created a culture where we expect celebrities to represent a certain type of unrealistic 'perfection', and when they dare to live up to it, we punish them for it. Gee, maybe the problem isn't them as individuals, maybe the problem is the culture we've created around them and the way we consume images of bodies as things rather than as people.

And I totally get what you're saying about the attacks on skinniness being a reaction to fat-shaming. My point is, two wrongs don't make a right. Neither forms of shaming do any good, and I find it all a bit sad.

Anonymous: yeah, I don't see men being scrutinised by other men to this extent. It really bothers me that so many women just have to learn to deal with this - it's not anyone's business what I do or don't do with my own body. I don't exist for someone else's aesthetic pleasure.

Michelle: Thank you! I honestly think that by talking about this, rather than ignoring it, we can begin to have some productive discussion about these issues. At the very least, I hope these discussions will make people pause and consider their words and assumptions more carefully.

Pinelopi: Thanks!

Anonymous/Kelly: I don't consider being skinny a problem, any more than I consider my natural hair colour or eye colour to be a problem. This is my body, this is how I was made. What I do consider to be a problem is the way that people assume things about me based on this body. I resent the presumption that it's perfectly okay to scrutinise, assess and judge my body, like it's an object - and that it's okay to make assumptions about my character based on my physicality alone. My body does not exist for someone else's benefit, it exists for my own benefit. The biggest problem I see here is not what kind of body type the women who are being attacked actually have, but the initial presumption that it's okay to assess and police their bodies. This is objectification, and it's also internalised misogyny. Considering the amount of sexist crap women have to endure, I don't understand why we have to heap even more on each other. As you said though, it is sad that some women aspire to skinniness like an ideal.

TC: yes, the big problem with some of these comments is that they reduce individual women to fashion trends - and women are more diverse than that obviously.

odessa said...

Someone, I can't remember who, said that we only need to look at the comments section online see the worst in people. I only need to look at Pinterest, YouTube, and all the news sites to see that yes, this might be true. Hiding under an online persona (or worse, anonymously) somehow makes people think that they can get away with the nastiest comments to make them feel better about themselves. Its pathetic.

Regarding weight, yes...I totally agree with you. When I was young I was extremely skinny and everyone felt that it was their obligation to say it to my face how skinny I was or how I need to eat more, etc. It took me years to get over the phase of "am I eating enough? I should eat more".

And yes, this behavior is definitely gendered and misogynistic. How often do we hear people criticizing a stick skinny guy and telling him to eat a hamburger? Almost never. Because people assume that guys eat more and yes they can be naturally skinny but if you're a girl then there's must be something wrong with you and you need intervention ASAP. Argh. The taunting Frenchman is very appropriate, indeed.

Sarah Rooftops said...

I made that Monty Python quote at work yesterday and NOBODY GOT IT. So, firstly, thank you! I feel less weird now.

But, more importantly, hear hear. This isn't something I've had to deal with much myself - I'm average height and my doctor has no concerns about my weight (which I think is a better measure than how other people feel about it) - but I am baffled and often horrified by the way so many women talk about other people's body shapes.

Jana said...

Hila: I do not understand why that is, but I would love to read something on the issue. I noticed that when I teach art and use nudes as examples to explain things like the changing beauty ideal throughout the centuries, my students only seem to see the bodies in the pictures at first and their comments are pretty harsh sometimes about any body type actually. They do not see the work of art, they see bodies. What I also find interesting is the fact that boys often feel uneasy when male nudes are being shown, some of them try not to look at such pictures at all. Hope I haven´t diverted too much from the topic.

Hila said...

odessa: I just find the whole presumption that it's okay to criticise a woman's body extremely frustrating, and as you said, it's not something that is normally done to men. There's something almost paternalistic about it too.

Sarah: cultural heathens! How can anyone not know about Monty Python? :)

Jana: No, you haven't diverted at all! I find your comment about the guys being uncomfortable looking at male nudes really interesting and telling: it shows how conditioned we are about these things. For example, the male body is not considered an object, while the female body is, so it's okay to scrutinise the female body, but looking at a male body in the same manner is somehow 'wrong'. Ah, the hypocrisy :) That's what gender studies is about for me - examining our preconceptions about our bodies and ourselves and recognising that such preconceptions are cultural productions which we have the power to change.

So R. said...

My femininity is not defined by the sum of body parts, or their size and shape-- thank you, i wish everybody could understand just that... it isn't that complex right? i absolutely love this. again thank you!