Since embarking on my PhD, I have been lucky to meet a range of inspiring feminist academics and to study alongside equally inspiring students. It’s always reassuring to discuss your work with individuals who just “get it” – no need to explain why gender isn’t a “soft” political topic, no need to insist that feminism is still necessary in the Western world and there is certainly no need to politely smile in response to statements such as the following: “I once read up to Page 72 of The Beauty Myth and what I don’t like about feminism is (enter vague point about men’s biological urges.)”
Similarly, alongside an interest in gender politics, I’ve found that there is a commonality that acts as an unspoken truth between the feminist academics and PhD students who I have come into contact with: we are slaves to body shame. Whilst we are ardent critics of the policing of women’s bodies, we scrutinise and punish our own through disordered eating and/or obsessional exercising.
Outside of academia, I’ve grown up alongside highly intelligent and witty women who have fallen prey to anxiety and/or depression. This is not uncommon; a 2015 survey by Girlguiding contended that girl’s and women’s mental health was at “crisis point”, with 83% of the age 7-11 group reportedly feeling sad or anxious (BBC, 2015). Likewise, it is widely recognised that “women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders” (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). I’ve always felt that this is partly linked to the price to pay for being an attentive and observant woman; you are aware of the restraints placed upon you by society because of your sex and feel frustrated. This frustration may bubble and boil under the surface of your mind until it becomes a deep sadness and sense of powerlessness. Whilst it may be the case that men are not coming forward with mental illnesses due to a fear of not fulfilling a “masculine” role, the statistics on women’s mental health should not be ignored.
For me, it is extremely cathartic to discuss the issue of feeling like a “hypocritical feminist” who religiously partakes in the structures and norms that my research attempts to critique; I exercise for 1-3 hours every day without fail, follow a regimented diet and experience extreme levels of stress and anxiety when I am placed in a situation where I have no choice but to eat “bad” foods, such as at a birthday party or on a night out. Some of my colleagues and I have agreed that we often have to fight the urge to avoid social occasions for fear that we will be confronted with greasy or sugary foods, the subsequent feelings of guilt, to then spend the next few days “making up for it” with an extra hour at the gym.
Why is this? Surely, feminists should be able to resist the pressure to modify their bodies to reach the unrealistic standards of beauty that drive women to obsessional regimes and drastic cosmetic surgery? Susie Orbach maintains how thinness has become “synonymous with success, wealth, love and happiness” (Orbach, 2006, p.207). Slim women are depicted in television shows, films, music videos and magazines as sexually desirable and “in control” of their bodies (Rothblum & Solovay, 2009, p.294). In contrast, overweight women are presented throughout popular culture as “agents of abhorrence and disgust” who have “lost control” of their bodies (Braziel & LeBesco, 2001, p.75; Mobley, 2014). This normalised pursuit of thinness has been linked to the high levels of eating disorders within western societies, with 90% of Anorexia Nervosa sufferers being female (Silverstein et al, 1986). Orbach suggests that Anorexia should be considered a “metaphor for the age”, acting as a physical embodiment of the restraint and expectations placed upon women by society. Anorexia is a “silent protest” that represents a culture that “disdains and supresses female hunger” in order to shame women into abstaining from their basic human need to eat (Orbach, 2005).
But, perhaps it is an awareness of the lack of control that feminists know they have over the representation of the body that cause us to long for some form of control over the body, even if it reinforces the very structures we are critiquing?
There is the inescapable feeling that we exist to be little more than objects who are desired or mocked, despite what we may have to offer as people. A sense of control over the body could be a reaction to the lack of control that we feel we have within society; if intelligence and creativity are to be dismissed in favour of a judgement on the body, then we can at least have control over that body and how it is perceived. After all, these bodies are ours and ours to control if we wish. Likewise, if those who spend their careers attempting to dismantle the structures put in place to keep women shackled within the “iron maiden” of beauty, it is demonstrative of the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of the beauty ideal (Wolf, 1999).
It is a sad reality that some of the women who may be perceived as the most resilient to gendered pressures are engulfed by body-shame. To me, this proves that there is an ever-pressing need for more feminists within academia and a more widespread celebration of feminism. We need to continue ebbing away at structures that determine women’s worth by their appearance so that future generations of women can be liberated from a fear of their own bodies so they may be free to be solely defined by their intelligence, creativity and kindness.
Braziel, J.E. and LeBesco, K. (2001). Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. California: University of California Press, Ltd.
Mental Health Foundation. (2015). Mental Health Statistics: Men and Women. Date accessed: 9th March 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-men-and-women
Orbach, S. (2006). Commentary: There is public health crisis – its not fat on the body but fat in the mind and fat on the profits. International Journal of Epidemology, 35(1), 67-69.
Orbach, S. (2006). Fat is a feminist issue. London: Arrow Books.
Orbach, S. (2005). Hunger Strike: The Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. New York: Karnac Books.
Rothblum, E.D. and Solovay, S. eds., (2009). The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York University Press.
Rothblum, E. (1992). The stigma of women’s weight: Social and economic realities. Feminism & Psychology, 2(1), 61-73.
Wolf, N. (1999). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. London. Random House.