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Is Dieting Anti-Feminist?

Her efforts to drop pounds made her feel like she was dropping the ball on women's rights as well. Then the epiphany: What's wrong with wanting to be healthy and look hot?
 
 
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I grew up without a scale in the house. My mother threw it away when I was 8 years old because she didn't want me to become a slave to it like she had as a teen. I also didn't have any Barbies growing up because my mom didn't want me to have a distorted body image. Hey, makes sense to me: I got My Little Ponies instead ... they have stumpy legs and plump bubble butts and are probably a much better body model for little girls. As a result, I grew up with a solid, healthy body image and a body to match: I'm totally average -- thick, but not fat; strong, not skinny.

However, six-plus years of working as a writer/sedentary lump accelerated my metabolism's natural decline. Despite a daily yoga practice, I've never been an especially active person and having a sit-in-a-chair career is without a doubt my biggest health liability.

I eat healthy foods. My diet is mostly vegetarian (I eat fish a few times a week), and I eat a lot of vegan food (thanks to a strict-vegan husband). I rarely touch fast food, rarely drink alcohol/soda/Starbucks, and my main vices have been sweets, nuts, and oily ethnic foods like Thai and Indian. My diet is infinitely healthier than the Standard American Diet of deep fried everything with a bucket-sized side of carbonated sugar. Despite all that, though, I'd steadily gained weight for the last five years ... three or four pounds a year. I wasn't terribly overweight, but I could already see how my lifestyle and eating habits had become the most unhealthy part of my life. And, well, my chin was starting to disappear into my neck.

I started wrestling with myself: I felt unhealthy -- and then felt guilty for feeling that way. Was I a victim of the patriarchal societal pressures my mother tried so hard to shield me from? Then again, does fighting the patriarchy mean stuffing myself? Was I buying into some clucky NOT ME style national weight obsession by feeling like I wasn't eating right? Then again, since when is eating healthier a national obsession? Americans eat terribly!

I knew that I was eating more food than I needed to, but the mere idea of portion control brought up an enormous set of issues for me. As the feminist daughter of a feminist mother, I've always felt like it was my duty not to think about food. Not only a duty -- it was something I owed to my best friend who'd suffered through anorexia and bulimia in high school, complete with a month of hospitalization. It was my job to be the one who held down the fort of healthy eating, setting a good example for women who were crushed under the thumb of eating disorders and weight issues.

In my mind, the only way to fight eating disorders and the all-too-common feminine weight neurosis was not to think about food or weight at all ... I ate HEALTHY food, but the thought "maybe I should eat less" always felt like it was just around the corner from some sort of Karen Carpenter nightmare, where I suddenly became a neurotic starving skeleton with amenorrhea. But still, I desperately wanted to loose the extra poundage, at least so I'd feel as healthy as I was supposedly being.

I tried various exercise regimes to try to balance my sedentary routine, but because I'm so solidly muscular, the effect was that I just got bigger. I ran stairs for six months and my ass grew (harder, but bigger!). I lifted weights for almost a year and the result was that my T-shirt sleeves stopped fitting.

Then someone recommended Weight Watchers. I know, right? Fucking Weight Watchers? A pay-for-play diet program? Not only was it the feminist in me that balked, but it was also the conscious consumer. Not only was I a victim of the patriarchy, I'd be a victim of consumer fitness culture! You can't pay someone to fix your bad habits! I can't deal with the "bad food/food bad" issues that many chronic dieters seem to embody. I think too many women spend their days connecting food with negativity, and it's just not healthy! Food is good; food nourishes us! Now, is there food that's healthier? Yes. Is there food that you should eat less of? Sure! But is there bad food? No! Then I talked to a woman I respected and she explained, "It's not really a diet -- it's a training for how to eat and cook for the rest of your life and not hate it." Oh, you mean it's not about special foods you can or can't eat? It's just about figuring out how much you can eat in balance with your lifestyle? About being more mindful of the foods you eat and the quantities that you eat them, as it compares with your activity level? Huh. That all made perfect sense. Still, I felt like a traitor to my sex, just a little.

I signed up for the program (but stuck to online-only and skipped the meetings altogether - I don't like the idea of "thearapy" for wanting to lose a little weight) and started found eating less quite relatively easily. There weren't any bad food/food bad issues. Part of why WW has worked for me is that there's no "bad food." There's just food that you can eat more of, and food that you should eat less of. Does that mean I can't have a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner sometimes? Fuck no! But I learned quickly that having a huge plate of oily Thai food for lunch every day eventually added up. I started learning about how, as a vegetarian, I need to get my protein from things like beans instead of things like, say, cheese.

I refused to buy a scale for the first three months, eschewing WW's weekly weigh-ins as unhealthy for me. I didn't want to fixate on a number. I just wanted to appreciate how I felt, and how my clothes fit. And what do you know! I felt better and my clothes got looser. (I did eventually buy a scale, but it lives in the basement where I'm not tempted to weigh myself. Once a week I go dig it out. Never more often than that.)

What I've found is that being more conscious is healthy. I have this feminist knee-jerk that thinking about food AT ALL equals Victim of Evil Forces. This is, of course, not true. So I've been eating less. I started taking aerobic dance classes instead of yoga classes (although I still have my home yoga practice). And I've lost weight. It feels so simple: I've been eating less and more consciously, although I'm certainly not deprived. I eat a lot of good, rich, healthy foods. Less oily noodles and nuts and cheese, sure. But WW encourages eating lots of vegetables and whole grains and high fiber foods -- foods I already enjoyed and already knew were good for me.

With this weight loss has come the realization that part of the issues that were coming up for me with my slow weight gain wasn't just the increased size and pounds -- it was that I felt like I was powerless to do anything about it. When you buy into the logic of thinking about food = victim of patriarchy, there's a certain loss of control.

But losing this bit of weight has actually made me get back in touch with my body and its needs and given me a better sense of understanding myself. If I find myself in a state of physical health that I'm not comfortable with again, I know what I need to do. Once I've got the tools that work, it's not that hard.

The only downside? Some of my favorite clothes have stopped fitting. I had to sacrifice the size 14 lime green pants that were always a little big but now reached the point of falling off. Regardless, I'm pretty close now to the weight that my body is healthy at. I'm not meant to be a stick, and my curves are back to the ratios that look good with my build. It's a nice place to be, and the process of getting here has been pretty enjoyable. I can be an overly cerebral person at times (gee, ya think?), and it's been nice to focus some attention on my physical vessel, as it were.

Women and food are big issues in this culture. I've tried to tip-toe through the minefield as carefully as possible, and I've had some great help from my mother and the women around me who've done everything to help me love my body ... and it's been my goal to deal with the process of losing weight in a positive, self-affirming, self-loving way. No deprivation or punishment but a pro-active approach toward my own health. It's been good.

And the vanity pay-offs make me forget all about feminism, if only for a minute.

Ariel M. Stallings is a working wordsmith living in Seattle. Her first book, Offbeat Bride , hits bookstores in January. Read more of Ariel's musings on food, feminism and oddball observations on her blog .

 
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