Before I go any further, I want to define what I mean when I mention dieting. I am talking about intentional parameters people put around food and weight in an attempt to manipulate their bodies to fit a certain standard or ideal. This is not a textbook definition of dieting, but one I believe portrays the messages about food and weight our culture receives on a consistent basis.
In my last blog entry, I discussed in brief my qualms with diet culture and why I believe it can be so dangerous and demeaning for women. Of course, men can fall prey to diet culture just as easily as women and this should not be forgotten. However, I can only speak from my experience as a woman in this culture. While women have come a far way in Western society, there is still a cage that exists in women’s collective consciousness that causes them to believe that appearance is a top priority. I believe that this starts with the negative body image that so many women have. Why do they? Because they have been taught to. Yes, I think in our modern times, many women grow up believing that their bodies are inherently flawed and that the only answer to fixing this is to change their relationship with food.
Women have been sacrificing their bodies for years, going from one diet to the next, hoping that one day they will achieve a weight and body shape that will make them valuable and happy. This sacrifice might happen through a variety of methods, but one thing they all have in common is that they are designed to change and manipulate one’s body to fit into a thin ideal. I would guess that many people are familiar with the rules of dieting and body manipulation, but some of these methods might include calorie restriction, only eating certain foods, designating some foods as “bad”, excessively exercising, and creating “should’s” and “should not’s” with their eating habits. The insidious nature of diet culture might eventually bring them to their knees in despair, wondering why they have not yet achieved personal satisfaction and societal praise. And THIS I believe is the crux of the problem. How often do we women and men hear someone congratulated on their weight loss? How often might we hear others demean themselves and negate their worth because they have gained weight? I have heard many female friends talk horribly about themselves on account of the fat on their body, their “thunder thighs”, their “poochy stomach”, their “flabby arms”, etc. Again, because I believe it bears repeating, I have been the woman who has said such things and have demeaned myself endlessly for parts of my body that I thought reflected on my personal weakness and failure to be perfect. Yes, I wrestled with the nature of my female form and wanted to deny it’s needs, rather than embrace them. In fact, I engaged in this kind of thinking from a young age. And still, today, I have many moments where I stop and think about my body and nitpick. However, what I have learned and want my readers to think about in terms of themselves is that the body I have is what gives me life. This is the body that harbors my innermost thoughts, desires, feelings, nurturance, and soul. My body is not all that I am, but it is the thing that carries me towards the hobbies and interests I love to do the most. Today, that is vastly more important than straining myself and my health to correct imagined flaws. We all have a natural shape and size that is optimal for our individual selves. For example, I am a smaller individual and do not have a very curvaceous figure, but these are not facts that my self is or should be defined by. The sooner women can not only accept, but more importantly, love their natural bodies, the sooner they can live the life they want to without petty food and weight restrictions blocking their happiness. The important question to ask is why is it that one might feel the need to diet before she can be joyful and aim for the life she envisions for herself?
You see, dieting is really not the problem anymore than it is a solution to fixing a woman’s self and soul. To fix something, a person needs to know what needs to be fixed. When women are overly fed messages that they will not be happy until they are thin, superficiality replaces inner peace, happiness, and acceptance. This message can cause many to believe that if a woman does not fit a standardized image, then she must not be allowed to be happy with her body. Thus, so many women, including myself at a young age, never stop to ask themselves, before engaging in a diet, what it is they are trying to obtain and achieve through it. We are not taught to stop and ask ourselves why we should or do dislike our bodies. In my personal experience, I never bothered to stop and ask what was going on inside me that I turned to my body (an external, tangible thing) to fix? And this is what the problem at large is with dieting, the diet industry, etc. It causes people to believe that what is visible and tangible is the answer to success (whatever that even means) and our inclusion into culture. I believe women try to adapt their feminine side to a confused and hyper-masculinized culture.
Anita Johnston, PhD., explains in Eating in the Light of the Moon, that in today’s hyper-competitive world, the female spirit, which in ancient times was renowned and revered as an emblem of a Goddess, has been usurped by everything masculine (4). She discusses the importance of women balancing their nurturing feminine voice that provides wise intuition with that of the masculine voice, which takes action (11). Neither the masculine or the feminine voice is good or bad and they can a part of the human makeup, males and females. Johnston asks, “Why is it that those aspects of a woman’s body that are most closely related to her innate female power, the capacity of her belly, hips, and thighs to carry and sustain life, are diminished in our society’s version of a beautiful woman? (4)” She believes it is because in our culture, we have been taught by the patriarchy (4). I interpret this to mean that we have been taught that the wise and powerful female intuition is not equivalent to strength, power, and success. According to Johnston, the female spirit has been crushed and thus, women have become disconnected with their bodies and are now, as a whole, engaged in a spiritual hunger, one yearning for nourishment of her wisdom that has been painted by society as useless (6). Thus, women have turned to their bodies to manipulate as a means to fit into this overly masculine culture. Instead of seeking feminine curves, ones meant to support the biology and function of the female form, women seek more masculine traits of flatness and narrowness (Johnston 6).
I bring up Anita Johnston’s writing because I believe that it speaks very eloquently about the problem that lies underneath women’s desire to diet. It has helped me to better understand why women develop unhealthy relationships with food and their bodies.
Instead of learning that female strength lies in our power of intuition, nurturing nature, and love, we women are taught that strength lies in willpower and control. And what better symbol of willpower and control is there than food, weight, and the ability to manipulate our body’s biology and natural shape? Also, instead of appreciating and embracing feminine sensitivity and emotional intelligence, on a cultural level, women are stereotyped as hysterical, irrational, and prone to poor judgment. While we may have emotions creep in that do not always make immediate sense, I believe that there is much to be valued in the experience of intense feelings that can lead down the path of compassion and empathy. More importantly, I believe that this is one of the stereotypes that so many women either apologize for or seek to avoid (myself at one point) because we are taught that these intense feelings and emotions are worthless and make us seem invaluable or useless. In other words, women are taught that they should make the feeling parts of themselves invisible and turn to appear stoic and put together. And this is where the female form and body comes into play. For, an easy way to avoid the look of the feminine is through weight loss and body control. By numbing the vulnerable, yet intuitively powerful, parts of the feminine voice, we can fit in better in the more stoic and hyper-masculine world and we can look the part by staying trim and invisible. These are the messages that I believe are the underbelly of the diet mentality and ones that I strive to counter.
To clarify, I am not saying that all men expect women to control their feminine voice or that all men are stoic, unemotional jerks. However, what I am saying is that on a collective level, women have been culturally taught to hide or at the least, tone down their feminine spirit if they want to be accepted, rather than persecuted. The easiest way to hide this feminine spirit is through thin invisibility. Now, there is nothing wrong with naturally thin bodies and I know that not all women have natural curviness. However, I believe that there is something wrong when women seek to change their bodies as a means of fitting in and numbing their feminine side to fit into an overly masculine world. And, this is where there is much work to be done in helping women to embrace themselves as they and their bodies are. So I say, invite in the feminine and let go of rigid “should’s” and “should nots”!