Is it ‘unfeminist’ to hate your body?
- Published: 13 August 2012
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Does concerning yourself with issues relating to body image and vanity make you a non-feminist? Rebecca Cleaver examines the double-whammy of guilt many women feel every time they feel bad about their appearance: Guilt for eating that slice of chocolate cake, and guilt for feeling guilt over such an anti-feminist concern.
13 August 2012
If a woman hates her body, is she being ‘un-feminist’? And why are many women happy to analyse and criticise their bodies in private, but so intolerant of other women's public acknowledgment of these same concerns?
A few years ago I took part in a parade float to protest battery cages. In the lead up to the event, I was told via email that participants would be required to wear a chicken costume. The idea of a chicken costume itself didn't bother me (what better way to march in front of a throng of people than safely behind a giant wall of fake feathers?), but I was mildly horrified when it was revealed the organisers' vision of a chicken suit involved a bikini top and a tiny tutu.
I frantically imagined what my back fat would look like hanging over the top of an elasticised tutu, and thought of various ways that I could arrange the sparse fabric to minimise the aesthetic nightmare I felt sure I would inflict on my fellow parade-goers.
On the morning of the parade, I arrived early in the hopes of claiming the largest tutu available. Apparently snap band mesh mini-skirts don't come in a "modest" option. I promptly arranged my costume in the most flattering way I could imagine (the under-funded animal rights organisation running the event didn't think to hire full-length mirrors for the appeasement of my vanity), and set about assisting with the float.
Through a haze of glitter and sequins, I could make out the shapes of other women self-consciously tugging at their costumes. Over the next few hours I heard more than a few disparaging remarks made by women regarding their own perceived body flaws. Of course, these self-effacing comments came masked behind self-conscious giggles, and the expectant stream of "Oh no, you look so skinny!" was always forthcoming.
After an entire day of listening to these exchanges, I felt sure that if I heard the word "cellulite" again I would likely snap and stuff a (fake) feather boa down throat of the woman unfortunate enough to have uttered it. I could spend hours obsessing over the slightest detail relating to my own lumps and bumps, but listening to the obsessions of others (and hearing them replicated over and over again) was more than I could bear.
I was relieved when a friend joined my side and rolled her eyes at the spectacle. When we were alone, she told me she was glad there was another feminist in the room because she didn't want to be the only one who found all the body talk pathetic.
Of course, the behaviour we were witnessing was based on the assumption that socially-imposed standards of beauty are a reasonable basis upon which to build a woman's self worth and body image. Loud proclamations of hatred for one's perceived flaws only serve to replicate the harmful ideals against which women are encouraged to compare themselves, and re-assuring comments along the lines of "You're not fat! You're butt looks small! You're waist is tiny!" serve to cement the notion that a woman can only look fantastic when she achieves these ideals.
I was, however, taken aback by my friend's judgemental eye roll and the assumption that all feminists should be somehow immune to such behaviour. I was, after all, a self-proclaimed feminist who had just spent the better part of a week negotiating how much of my thigh I would be willing to reveal if it meant my tutu could be hiked up high enough to hide my enormous hips.
My friend’s comments made me feel stupid, like a vain fool who had no right calling herself a feminist. Was she right? Was my hatred of my body somehow un-feminist? If so, did that somehow make me a non-feminist? And why was I happy to analyse and criticise my body in private, but so intolerant of other women's public acknowledgment of these same concerns?
The feelings of shame prompted by my friend’s remark recalled an incident that had occurred a few years earlier. A male companion with whom I had just enjoyed a first date asked me if I would join him in dessert. I hesitated before responding, not because I was particularly concerned about what the treat might do to my figure, but because I was still rather stuffed from the meal we had just shared.
Nonetheless, my date, without skipping a beat, rolled his eyes and said "You're not one of those women who don't eat carbs, are you?" At the time I proudly responded that I quite enjoyed carbs, and I took his judgmental comment as a kind of challenge to partake in the dessert he had suggested. But I was also subtlety aware of being put on trial, and felt a pang of guilt for the fact that I had, in the past, cut out certain foods*, and would likely continue to do so, in the quest for a more aesthetically pleasing body.
For instance, I still rarely indulge in pasta – one of my favourite foods – because of the misguided, Atkins-style brain washing I was subjected to as a teenager. Who was this man to make disparaging comments about the lengths women will go to in order to conform to patriarchal beauty standards? Perhaps he should have been casting that judgmental gaze at the damaging culture that would prompt someone to abstain from their favourite foods on a regular basis, rather than judging the victims of those standards.
But it was one thing to realise that I was being subjected to an unfair and sexist double standard by a man I hardly knew. It was quite another to be subjected to that same standard by a friend whose feminist politics I had quite admired. Why is it that women today are hit with a double-whammy of guilt every time we feel bad about our appearance? Not only do I feel guilty for eating that slice of chocolate cake, I must apparently feel guilty for feeling guilt over such an anti-feminist concern.
It bothers me enough that the very culture that propagates these standards simultaneously aims to make women feel ashamed about their quest for skinniness (or a smaller nose, or larger breasts, or what have you), but it is an almost hyperbolic irony that feminism would seek to identify these pressures while condemning the very women who succumb to them.
I can say from experience that just because I know why I feel the pressure to look a certain way, I haven’t broken free from that pressure. Certainly I think women should aim to question the beauty myths they are fed from the moment they are born, but the solution is not to dismiss vanity as a shameful concern. By shaming women into silence over their various body image issues, all we can hope to do is eliminate a symptom. But by acknowledging their socially-created roots we can, hopefully, go about dismantling their causes.
Looking back on that day in the lead up to the parade, I can see just what a tricky tightrope feminists must walk where issues of body image are concerned. I was admittedly annoyed with my friend for inadvertently shaming me over something very private and difficult to overcome. At the same time, I shared her sense of annoyance at the superficial discussion we were being made to endure.
This brings me back to my initial question. Is it un-feminist to occupy oneself with problems relating to body image and vanity? I think the problem is not that women feel bad about their appearance (well, that is a problem, but not a problem for which women should feel ashamed), but that we are all too happy to increase the pressure placed on others by openly reinforcing beauty ideals in relation to not only our own, but to others’ bodies.
After all, what am I saying when I loudly proclaim that I am too fat? I am saying that fat is bad. I am saying that women should aspire to thinness. I am saying that anyone who is bigger than me should feel even worse than me. I think feminists have a responsibility to consciously avoid falling into these kinds of discussions, because they are damaging to all women.
Certainly, women shouldn’t feel shame for having these thoughts, but we should think twice before we cement them in reality by creating a discourse whereby traditional beauty standards remain the ideal. I am guilty of being on both sides of the fence – the shamer, and the ashamed – and I can tell you that neither side is helpful to anyone.
What do you think? Do you get annoyed with women who express a desire to conform to unrealistic beauty ideals? Do you get annoyed with yourself for feeling pressure to look a certain way? How do you think feminists should go about tackling this issue?
*This is not why I became vegan. The reason I feel the need to clarify this is because vegans are often criticised for using their diet to mask an eating disorder.
Rebecca Cleaver is a freelance writer and journalist with a background in philosophy, ethics, and feminism. She runs the blog The Vegan Feminista where this article first appeared.