The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting

Amelia Morris

In recent weeks, celebrities who promote dieting products on social media websites have been heavily criticised by both medical professionals and campaigners. Professor Stephen Powis, an NHS medical director, argues that celebrities who advertise dieting pills and detox teas are causing irreversible damage to young people, who may seek to lose weight using “ineffective” and potentially “harmful” dieting products. Jameela Jamil, an actress and campaigner for body positivity, supported this by describing the celebrities who promote dieting products as a “terrible and toxic influence on young girls.” In essence, this argument suggests that stars who use their status to capitalise on idealised notions of femininity have negative influences over women’s understandings of their bodies. Women will see these adverts and follow suit, drinking “laxative teas” until they are a Size 6.

But, is it really this simple?

Do women, especially young girls, blindly follow diets, just because their favourite celebrity posted a picture with a FlatTummyTea or an ‘appetite-suppressant’ lolly? Additionally, are they aware of the gendered discourses underpinning these messages? Or do they just know that they want/need to be thin, but aren’t sure why? If it is the former, is it ever possible to exist outside of these narratives, if one rejects dieting and embraces their body?

It is important to note that I am not in support of celebrities advertising these products and I believe that the concerns raised by the aforementioned individuals are valid. However, the moral panic and somewhat paternalistic framing of the impact these celebrities may have on young girls is interesting when one considers it through a discussion of power.

Within feminist theory, the body is a site of debate, and these discussions often become centred upon a dichotomy between oppression and liberation. Whilst there is a vast diversity of work that challenges this binary including post-colonial, post-structuralist and Marxist feminist work, the dichotomy nevertheless endures. For instance, whilst some radical feminist scholars (for example Germaine Greer) maintain that beauty are a symbol of patriarchal ideals that restrict and harm the body, some liberal feminists (for example Katie Roiphe) view the same practises as a vessel for individualised empowerment.

In my upcoming book, The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power, I argue that the ‘feminine’ body is not simply a site of oppression or liberation. Rather, drawing upon the intersections that exist between Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and post-structuralist feminist work on the body, the book speaks to discussions of power through the lens of dieting and weight. By this, I mean to highlight the complexities surrounding women’s relationship to the body; they are not simply “cultural sponges” of power.

For my research, I firstly spoke to members of Slimming World and Weight Watchers, self-confessed dieters who are on a mission to become slim, seemingly on the ‘oppression’ side of the debate. The dieting journey itself is presented as a transition from a ‘bad’ to ‘good’ body, in which women who are ‘repenting’ for their ‘sins’ (or Syns if you are a member of Slimming World) are encouraged to meet weekly to ‘confess’ to one another about their potential transgressions, individualising the responsibility to lose weight. However, many participants themselves grappled with the complexities of dieting: whilst women took part in practices of self-surveillance (e.g monitoring/weighting their food or exercising compulsively), they were still critical of body narratives. Some participants highlighted the constructs of femininity in the media (citing the bodies they had seen in magazines, for instance), noting that they were aware of the gendered reasonings behind their dieting. This highlights the idea that women are not “fully complicit in their own subordination” (Sedgwick, 2014, p.28), but that they are active participants in their own gendered narratives. Indeed, it demonstrates the power of gendered norms; despite being critical of the idealised notions of femininity that form the foundations of dieting, these women still desired thinness.

Next, I interviewed members of the fat activist movement. In a very broad sense, this refers to a social movement which wants fat people (in particular women) to feel good about themselves through a rejection of dieting and slimming narratives. My thoughts prior to speaking with these women were that they have been successful in existing outside the panoptic gaze of society. However, the activists I spoke to still felt compelled to lose weight from time-to-time, demonstrating the impossibility to exist ‘outside’ constructs of dieting and gender, with one activist commenting that this made her feel like both a failure as a woman and a fat activist. This reflects how whilst one can carve out spaces of resistance, it is not enough to achieve liberation from the discourses of femininity. Indeed, for some of my participants, ‘coming out as fat’ cannot free them from ‘oppressive’ structures, but acts as a way of disrupting discourses surrounding female fatness.

Whilst celebrities who promote dieting products should not be free of criticism, they perhaps make easy targets for our scorn. It is easier to blame Kim Kardashian’s appetite-suppressant lolly for young women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, then looking critically at the way in which we discuss and construct gender in its entirety. To me, it feels a bit like putting a plaster over a gaping wound that needs stitches; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Indeed, to suggest that one can simply remove themselves from dieting structures or gender in general is naive. This often leaves women (myself included), feeling like a ‘bad’ feminist when we succumb to the temptations that weight-loss seems to offer. Here, as I do in my book, I feel it is pertinent to end this blogpost with a quote from Roxanne Gay, who inadvertently encompasses the sentiments of my research and my outlook on feminism:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying – trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

Whilst we cannot exist outside of gendered structures, we can cast a critical eye over them, reflecting on our own imperfections and the ways in which gendered narratives have shaped our (potentially) negative behaviours. I hope that my book might highlight these complexities, ‘muddying the waters’ in conversations on the politics of the body.

Amelia Morris is a UK-based scholar researching interdisciplinary political science and political economy with an interest in gender, the body, weight, austerity and inequality. The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting is set for publication with Palgrave Macmillan in 2019. She tweets via @AGMorris. 

[Reposted from PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group]