So over the weekend I picked up Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and I’ve hardly been able to put it down since. Holy wow, this book is amazing. In it, Wolf discusses the ways in which society has sold women the myth of beauty, and how devastating the effects have been. As the title of this post says, you have GOT to read this book!
I’ll be honest, I am reading the chapters out of order, so I can’t tell you much about the first few chapters yet. However, I jumped right to the chapter titled ‘Hunger’, and it is everything I had hoped for and more. As someone who has been doing a lot of research on fat, fat-shaming, diets, and everything that goes with it, I know much of the science behind movements like Health at Every Size and Size acceptance. I am also aware of the shoddy psuedo-science behind the 56 billion dollar diet industry. What I was not aware of however, were the was in which our society and culture have managed to convince so many that fat is bad, despite the lack of scientific evidence. Wolf neatly lays out all of this and more within the pages of The Beauty Myth.
In a funny sense of serindipity, I had just started writing a blog post on this very topic late Friday night. I was planning to discuss my thoughts on colonization, oppression, and patriarchy in relation to women’s pursuit of the “ideal” body. I ended up heartily agreeing (out loud, mind you) with Wolf as I read her discussion of the exact same ideas! (Luckily I was at home already, and there was no one around to notice the crazy fat chick talking to her book except my cats.)
“…under the myth, women’s bodies are not our own but society’s.”
“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience”
“The great weight shift must be understood as one of the major historical developments of the century, a direct solution to the dangers posed by the women’s movement and economic and reproductive freedom. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” (all emphasis mine)
Wolf goes on to state that if the whole discussion about women’s weight and size were truly about health, it would be a private discussion “between a woman and herself”, and in fact
“when poor health is correlated to fatness in women, it is due to chronic dieting and the emotional stress of self-hatred.”
Our culture has taught us that being fat is a moral failing. (How does a simple body tissue suddenly have anything to do with our morals?) We are taught not only that “Thin is in” but that thinness is a goal to aspire to above all else. Who cares if a woman is professionally successful, helps the homeless, pays her taxes, is a wonderful mother and all around great person; is she thin? No matter the success a woman achieves she can still count on being harassed, attacked, and discriminated against if her pants aren’t the “right” size.
We learn this early too. Who doesn’t remember seeing their mothers or other female relatives poking and prodding at their “trouble spots” in the mirror? How many times did you see the women in your life refuse dessert, or look longingly at a steak only to mutter “I really shouldn’t” and order a salad, dressing on the side.
Consciously or no, we start absorbing these messages of shame and self-hatred before we even realize that we have a body to be ashamed of. The media enforces the message with near-constant discussions of what celebrity gained or lost weight this week, and whose cellulite looked the worst at the beach. Our self-esteem is torn down again and again every single day, because unless you live alone under a rock, these messages are impossible to escape. The diet industry then promises to sell our self-esteem back to us, pound by pound, to the tune of $56 billion a year.
By making fatness a moral issue, and so deeply ingraining this “ideal” of beauty, society effectively keeps us busy in a cycle of weight gain and weight loss; thanks to which, we have little energy (mental or physical) to spend on things like fighting against harassment or for equal pay. In fact, it acts as a divisive force between women, seeking to make us hate each other, instead of supporting one another and joining together to accomplish good. As Wolf says when describing her own battle with anorexia,
“I turned an eye cold with loathing on women who evidently lacked the mettle to suffer as I was suffering.”
We are far too busy being jealous of other women’s thinness (“skinny bitch” anyone?) to realize how much we are hurting not only each other, but ourselves. If we have been schooled to be disgusted by the fat on bodies of other women, how can we possible love our own? It’s no wonder then, that when people see women who have ditched dieting and learned to love themselves, they feel only contempt (“How can she possibly be happy/think she is beautiful/go out in public/eat that/love herself, when she is that fat?!?”).
I’m no saint! I’ve been right there in that self-righteous seat myself. For years I would look at other women and think “Well, at least I’m not as fat as HER!”. I had no idea how these women could talk about self-acceptance and loving their bodies; not when they were bigger than I was and I hated myself! Shit, sometimes I STILL have to stop and check my own damn baggage when I find myself judging someone based on their looks! Self-acceptance and body love are not easy, nor are they quick to come. No matter how wholeheartedly you believe the ideas behind the movements, we all still have to fight through the years of shame and self-hatred in which society has mired us.
So, I invite YOU to join ME on the journey. I hope that we can help pull each other out of the quicksand of shame, brush the mud off each other’s backs, and move together towards a different reality; one where we love ourselves, so that we can love each other. One where beauty is what WE say it is, and no one has to starve themselves to be accepted.
Are you in?