Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In Control

For the last couple of weeks, I've been thinking about how to do a first post on Fat Acceptance. It's hard to sum up a social movement in a sentence, but here's my brief summary of FA. Size discrimination is wrong, and pressuring others to diet does far more harm than good. There's more to it, of course, but that's the basic idea.

Now, this all seems pretty common-sense to me. But it's a contentious topic, even among other liberal, progressive, feminist types. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's because the moral panic about obesity is relatively new; most of us haven't taken the time to deconstruct it. Maybe it's because weight is such an emotionally charged issues, that it's hard to have a detached conversation about it. I don't know.

At any rate, I'm still working on a good way to explain my FA convictions. In that spirit, I wanted to talk a bit about the way imperatives to be "fit" operate in our culture, and why I'm troubled by mainstream attitudes toward weight, fitness, and health.

Of course it's good to eat right and exercise. It's good to keep fit, as long as each of us can define fitness in a way that's consistent with our abilities, circumstances, and goals. But the way we think about fitness, about maintaining an "ideal" body, is completely messed up.

Diet Culture is Awful

For starters, our fitness attempts usually aren't about health--not really. They're about being "beautiful", about gaining social prestige.

But that's only part of the issue. Sure, plenty of us are struggling to imitate an unrealistic ideal, and telling themselves it's all about health. And maybe that's flawed. But what's worse is the mindset with which so many of us approach the business of keeping "fit."

In the quest for fitness, we're encouraged to view our bodies as adversaries. We use dieting and exercise to punish our bodies for their imperfections, rather than as ways to strengthen and nourish our glorious physical selves.

In our culture, dieting isn't about well-being or self-care. Yes, it's possible for some people to lose weight in a sane, healthy way; I'm happy for them. But mainstream diet culture is neither sane, nor healthy.

It's violent, scary, and hazardous to your health.

Thrift Store Adventures

I went on a thrift-store expedition this afternoon, which was highly enjoyable. I came how with a variety of cheap, tight, ruffly things*, all excellent for dancing. But, as I was browsing through t-shirts, I found something truly disturbing.

There was a shirt, with a single word on the front: CONTROL. Standing beside the text was an outline drawing of a woman, with a figure like a mud flap girl. On her lower belly, was a picture of a target.

Now, what's the implication, here? That you should "control" hot babes, by shooting them in the gonads? Seriously?

Well, not really, but almost. This was a woman's shirt, and on the back, there was the slogan for some fitness program. "Be fit. Be sexy. Be in control." That's all well and good, but I think I've found ways to be sexy, and reasonably fit (no comment on the "in control" part), without having a target on my uterus. Or a fuckton of misogyny on my shirt.

Being In Control

I don't know where the shirt came from, or what it might have meant to whoever once owned it. I've done a lot of martial arts; I know that taking a "tough love" attitude toward ones own body can actually be quite bracing.

But still, what does it say about our culture that any woman would wear this shirt? First of all, there's the implication that women need to be "sexy," and that "sexy" women are taunt, slender, and composed of at least 30% breast tissue. Women should be strong and fit, but only so they can be more perfect ornaments for men's viewing pleasure. The "in control" bit suggests that this is supposed to be empowering; somehow, I'm not convinced.

Then, we get to the oh-so-subtle belly target, next to the single word CONTROL. It's not just that women are supposed to be taut and thin. It's that we're supposed to be engaged in a constant war with out bodies. We're taught to accept that a less-than-perfect body deserves pain.

Ideally, "fitness" regimes would be about strengthening and nourishing our bodies. They would be about health. And the sort of negative self-image promoted by diet culture is profoundly unhealthy. So is the obsessive dieting and exercise women engage in, hoping to attain a "perfect" figure.

American woman are told that achieving a certain body type will make us powerful. We diet and exercise, hoping that will give us "control." But really, we're the ones being controlled. We're starving and sweating for an arbitrary ideal, when we could be using that energy to strengthen ourselves in ways that truly matter--whether by running a marathon, or reading a good book. And we're taught to view our bodies as enemies. Women are being cheated of that precious human birthright, self-love.

*Being part of Feminism 3.0, I can wear tight magenta miniskirts without feeling guilty about it.