It’s been 24 years since Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth, but her words have never been more true:
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
I find it interesting that diets are intended to help female-identified people feel more…well, female, but the tactics that we use to make ourselves look and feel that femininity require an externalized masculine force.
What do I mean by that? Well, during today’s podcast with Dr. Traci Mann, a social psychologist and researcher at the University of Minnesota’s “Eating Lab” and author of Secrets from the Eating Lab, we started talking about the language of dieting, and she mentioned that willpower is a “macho” word…and it got me thinking:
When you go on a diet, what are some phrases you might utter?
I’m toughing it out.
I’m muscling through.
I’m manning up.
Dieting is never something you do because you want to—from an organic, happy, internalized place of inner peace. It’s always something you feel like you need forced upon you. It’s about accountability and doing it even though you don’t want to. It’s about “willpower,” but the kind that seems to come from a place of policing, body shaming, and violence against the body.
I know that sounds extreme, but sometimes the extreme assessment is also the most true.
And I hate to be that feminist who’s all, but guys, it’s the patriarchy, but….it kinda actually is. Or the kyriarchy.* Or whatever you want to call our internalized beliefs about the need for violence against the body. The body that, incidentally is associated with female forces or femininity (see: all of Greek literature: when given the choice to create bodies [a female job] or create ideas [a male job], Greek men hold ideas up as the more masculine and therefore more “right” pursuit. I can talk about this shit all day. Just watch me…)**
Because a diet is violence against the body. Because “willpower” is just a clever way to disguise the word “submission.” Because there are no “shoulds” about your own personal body except for the ones that society has taught you to accept, idealize, and strive for.
A diet is violence against the body. It’s a torture tactic; a forced starvation; a prison-camp march. It’s no pain, no gain; pain is just weakness leaving the body; don’t stop, keep going, even when it hurts.
A diet is a way to keep you weak under the guise of making you strong. And your weakness keeps you tractable.
Naomi Wolf was not wrong, because a person obsessed with keeping themselves small does not have the time or energy to make their voice loud. A person fixated on What I Ate Wednesday isn’t focused on changing the world; just herself. A person spending all day counting calories isn’t out making themselves count.
And I know that it’s easy to get caught up in the sexy world of fitness. I know that the concept of being stronger—physically and morally—than those who can’t stick it out through the whole diet or fitness challenge makes you feel powerful. I know that, even though, deep down, you know you don’t need to lose them, you still want to lose the last ten pounds.
But for what?
That’s the question I have to ask all of you who are obsessed with nutrition and health and fitness and are struggling with your body image anyway:
What good does it do to “have the most willpower” when you’re miserable?
What good does it do to have people call you “the healthy one” when you’re tired and hurting and hangry and sad?
What good does it do to make the PR when you’re not getting your period or you’re suffering from the effects of severe exercise addiction?
What good does it do to be the best dieter, when your lifestyle becomes your diet instead of a life?
I ask these questions, because I don’t think many people are. And I think, as a culture, we’re screwing ourselves over. We’re sanctioning self-abuse by calling it willpower. And we’re promoting self-punishment by calling it penance for falling off the wagon.
I had so much fun talking to Dr. Mann on the podcast today, because her book, Secrets from the Eating Lab, highlights how easy it is to manipulate human behavior around food—and our conversation highlights how easy it is for people to capitalize on that manipulation.
While the book may be triggering for some who are recovering from restrictive eating disorders, I think our conversation at the least raises some really good points from which anyone—whether you’re recovering from an eating disorder or just trying to recover from the sanctioned (self)attack on your body known as chronic dieting—can benefit.
What are you waiting for?
*Defined per wikipedia: “a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word is a neologism coined by ElisabethSchüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.”
**And just to explain my point a bit…If you read, for example, the Illiad, one of our oldest pieces of Western literature, you’ll see one of the oldest “would you rather” questions:
Would you rather live a long life in relative obscurity and have your name carried forward for time immemorial through your blood line, or would you rather live fast, die young (and childless), and have your name forever remembered through song?
Achilles chooses “song” which is why he gets that arrow through his heel during the war while fighting to avenge Patrocles’ life…and that’s why we still remember his name thousands of years later.
In Plato’s Symposium, Sophocles argues that the purest form of love is not the kind that ultimately expresses itself in childbirth, but the one that expresses itself in the birth of ideas. The love of an older man for a younger one was considered on a higher plane than the love of a man for a woman, because the former would lead to a mentor-like relationship in which pristine new ideas would spring forth, as opposed to bloody, messy, imperfect human children.
Also, if you need another argument, look no further than the goddess Athena springing, motherless, from Zeus’s head. She embodied the masculine pursuits of knowledge.
My point? The body is female pursuit, a female force, and it’s considered less valid than masculine forces.
Hope that clears things up a bit. Send me an email if it doesn’t.