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For years, I have been engaged in a strict routine of intense body shame, rigorous exercise and restrictive eating habits. I’m aware of why; I’m adhering to a strict set of rules pushed upon me by sociocultural factors that bombard women with the notion that slim equals success. However, does this knowledge and awareness of my actions make me a “bad” feminist?
Until I was 19, I was “fat” and incredibly uncomfortable in my own skin. I remember standing in front of the mirror at my parent’s house, trying on multiple outfits that would make me feel less “lumpy”, only to tear them from my body and cry on my bed in despair. It wasn’t until entering my first year at university that I discovered running. I started gradually, trudging along the canals by my halls and wheezing on walls when I felt out of breath (which was often). I kept going, gradually shrinking my body to a Size 8 and exercising every day, eventually joining a running club and completing three marathons.
I’m not sure when my relationship with exercise changed from a passion to an obsession. My fear of returning to the “old” me – disgusting, lazy and unattractive – now overrides all rational. If I can’t exercise for 1-2 hours a day, I feel a crippling swell of anxiety and fear. If I eat something specifically calorific or “bad” then I feel an obligation to add minutes onto a run or time at the gym.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve missed social occasions with family and friends in favour of pushing myself further in my workouts. I’ve been fired from various part-time jobs for being consistently late due to “needing” to stay in the gym an extra half an hour. At my worst moments, I’ve had debilitating panic attacks when trying to get through small spaces for fear that I “won’t fit” or that someone is looking at me and “judging” my body. For years, these tendencies have been like a low hum in the background of my life that dictate my daily routine and have threatened many of my close relationships.
The most crippling part is that I feel like I cannot discuss these issues with anyone. Firstly, there is a personal fear of being viewed as self-absorbed and shallow; a white, middle-class woman with nothing to worry about except her appearance.
There is also the fear that, as a feminist, I am engaging with and being affected by the practices which I critique for being inherently oppressive to women. Does this make me a hypocrite, a “bad” feminist, even a “traitor”? Do I need to resist engagement with these practices in order to be considered a “good” feminist?
Feminists have written extensively about how women are subject to a pervasive “beauty myth” that extolls the virtues of having the “perfect” body. Scholars such as Wolf, Penny, Orbach and McRobbie discuss the cultural anxieties that have been legitimized due to a “fat-phobic” media that only permits “small” and “tight” bodies (Penny, 2011; Wolf, 1991).
Some queer “fat activists” engage in individualized acts of empowerment, claiming that women need to resist the desire to conform to the “slim” ideal, instead embracing “self-love.” This can be done by “coming out” as fat in order to break the taboo of silence that pervades being a fat woman. In this sense, women are encouraged to “quit dieting and declare a truce” with their bodies (Harding, 2009; Atkins, 2012; Sedgwick, 1993). Many activists have taken to social media, uploading sexualised images of themselves in clothing traditionally reserved for “slim” women to demonstrate their “liberation” from the restrictive boundaries set by the media.
On the fat-o-sphere, an inclusive collection of blogs and articles from fat activists, one activist detailed her decision to have weight-loss surgery. Whilst the majority of the comments in response to the article were supportive, some comments questioned her ability to remain on the site. One responder stated:
“Go away. You are not in charge. You do not speak with or for us. You do not belong here. You are not in the Fat Acceptance movement” (Meleo-Erwin, 2011).
This implies that those within the fat acceptance movement should be capable of ignoring the sense of guilt, shame and self-hatred that comes with being a woman who does not conform to the “ideal.” But, what if you cannot escape these feelings? Does this make you less of a feminist? Should they simply be cast out and branded a “traitor” as this activist was? Surely, this re-writes the rules for how women should be ashamed of their bodies in a different, but still oppressive, manner.
Moreover, overarching structures and norms are so ubiquitous and powerful that it feels necessary, almost natural, to engage with them. We should not dismiss feminists who feel worn-down and pressured into feeling “accepted” or “normal.”
We can understand and detest these norms but still succumb to them. This demonstrates that whilst we can attempt to rebuke damaging concepts of “beauty” on an individual level, change needs to come from the wider socioeconomic factors. Instead of feeling ashamed of our obligation to engage with normalised practices, we must widen our focus to attack a system which make women feel unworthy of happiness unless they fit this “ideal”.
Atkins, D. (2012). Looking queer: Body image and identity in lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender communities. London. Routledge.
Penny, L. (2011). Meat market: Female flesh under capitalism. Winchester. John Hunt Publishing.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1993). Tendencies. USA. Duke University Press.
Meleo-Erwin, Z. C. (2011). ‘A beautiful show of strength’: Weight loss and the fat activist self. Health:, 15(2), 188-205.
Wolf, N. (2013). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. London. Random House.