What Should A Feminist Weigh?
I’m stronger and healthier than ever — so why do I feel like a feminist failure?
This is not a weight loss success story.
Or rather, I guess it technically is — but that’s the challenge, not the point.
In the part of my life that others see, I run an organization designed to empower young girls.
We preach body positivity and health at any size. We tell body shamers where they can go. We tell girls to love themselves through thick and thin, and ask them: What more could you accomplish if you stopped focusing on your size?
But the whole time I’ve been preaching about taking up space, I’ve secretly been trying to shrink.
Throughout most of 2017, I’ve been recording every food I eat, counting every calorie (and even beyond that, counting every macro), weighing myself almost every day, doing hourlong workouts every other day.
I‘ve lost 25 pounds, and I’ve been desperately hoping no one will notice.
Because I have no idea how to talk about my body and my weight loss as a feminist.
Here’s what I know: I feel better than I ever have before — stronger, healthier, more confident.
I love that I can hold a plank for a minute and longer. I love that my left hook is really freakin’ hard. When my superfit friend booked a 6th-story walkup apartment for us on a recent trip to New York, I loved that I could get up the stairs without getting (too) winded.
But I also know that if someone else told me they were doing this same regimen, I’d probably be a little concerned and want to know why. After all, we’re living in world where 81% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of becoming “fat.”
When you’re losing weight, it’s just assumed that you’re doing it to look a certain way, or because of what others/society will think. Women are under such pressure to look and behave in specific ways. And I honestly can’t be certain there aren’t elements of that here.
But my journey began for health reasons — I didn’t like my cholesterol numbers after my insurance had me do some blood tests last December, and digging into my family history of diabetes and heart disease convinced me it was time to make some changes.
I chose a body-positive gym where I see all shapes, sizes and genders kicking ass (shoutout to Title Boxing!). I don’t “diet” or give money to “diet culture”-style products or solutions — I try to cook real food and won’t buy so much as a protein bar with the word “thin” in its name. (I also try to acknowledge the huge amount of privilege that allows me to spend money on things like gym memberships and healthy foods.)
My initial weight of 181 was nothing too problematic but nonetheless in the “overweight” zone according to most health metrics. At a current 156, I’m only just now entering the top of the normal/healthy range.
At points I’ve begun to feel myself veering too far into “dieting” territory. When I found myself saying no to invitations to dinner, drinks and porch hangouts, I had to face the fact that at least part of the reason I was declining was that I couldn’t have as much control over what I’d eat and drink as I would at home.
That realization caused me to recalibrate and spend a few weeks eating whatever I wanted, tracking nothing, until I felt like I kicked the hypervigilance and had the perspective I wanted going forward. (I also spent a month in Spain having all the cheese and wine, so, you know, don’t feel too bad for me.)
“I’m the woman I was taught to always be: hungry.” — Bikini Kill
I can’t discount the fact that weight-loss culture is deeply steeped in fat-shaming, to the point where feminist media can proclaim that dieting can “rarely if ever” be body positive. But for me so far, these life changes feel like liberation, not a trap.
I look forward to the stress relief of regular exercise and cooking. I’ve finally made appointments for a physical and other wellness checks I’ve been putting off for years, too afraid of what I might learn.
I have finally gotten comfortable saying the words “I’m hungry” after 37 years of feeling like there was something inherently gross or wrong or embarrassing about needing energy to live. I feel like the boss of my body, for the first time ever.
But I’ve done all this, felt all this, thought about all this, privately. Why am I ashamed to tell my friends this bit of my life when they know nearly everything else? Why am I reticent to write about this when I live my life with a value of transparency?
I think it’s because it’s embarrassing to write about this topic, especially at this point in American history. So much is at stake for women and I’m counting calories.
How pedestrian. How basic. How bourgeois ‘50s housewife.
“Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one,” Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth.
In other words, to try to lose weight is to sell out to the patriarchy.
Shouldn’t I be spending my time and energy doing things that matter more?
But the truth is, my body does matters — less as a vessel for the male gaze and more as a vessel for action, I hope, but the two elements are inextricably packaged together and always will be.
Maybe this would be a more acceptable story to tell without all the striving. All that uncomfortable caring and effort.
Marisa Meltzer sums up this effortlessness myth in an incredible essay in Elle:
…evolved girls simply don’t need to diet. The modern woman, after all, is that highly capable, have-it-all creature to whom career success, confidence, and effortless style — and, oh yeah, the yoga body and the eco-conscious, preservative-free diet — come naturally. She’s too damn smart and balanced to overeat in the first place. If anything, she’s already healthy and getting ever healthier. So juice fasts and Goop cleanses and barre classes? All fine as part of a vague “healthy lifestyle” of “clean eating.” … But the daily slog of dieting — all that calorie counting and dessert skipping and cardio bingeing? That’s not at all chic.
It would have been great to be able to tell this story that way, where I simply listened more closely to my body and saw healthy results effortlessly.
It would also have been great to tell this story in a way where I decided not to give a shit about my weight at all and instead spent that time and energy on writing a novel, or maybe learning another language.
But those stories aren’t mine.
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful.’” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
So can a woman lose weight without being a traitor to feminism and body positivity?
I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer.
I’m still navigating how to balance the internal tension of being a feminist who is (newly) excited about fitness. I’m still weighing my words more carefully than my portions when I talk about bodies and weight.
Part of me is still convinced that I’m conforming, making my body more palatable for the world, instead of working to refashion society to make it accepting to all bodies.
I will never make judgments about another person’s body or abilities. I will always support the ideas of health at every size, body positivity and body autonomy.
But through this experience, I’ve finally realized I’m done waiting to meet a certain goal or look at certain way before participating in life.
I’m happy to have the relationship with my body that I have now, and I plan to make this level of consciousness my lifestyle for the future.
Today I feel more prepared to fight for what really matters, both physically and mentally, and I have more energy and drive to do so. And that feels radical enough.