The Weight and the Trap

Lynne Murray says:

I remember the first time I heard someone discuss weight as an external burden on a woman’s body. I was 16 and talking to two acquaintances my own age, one was tall and thin. The other was shorter, quite round and very miserable about a crush she had on a most undeserving guy whom we all knew. I was horrified to discover that this man was taunting the fat girl with his pursuit of others. At one point when she left the room, and her friend said, “she loves him but he’ll never take her seriously until she loses her weight.”

The odd phrase and the idea that her weight was separate from her was weird enough that it stuck with me over the years. Unfortunately the concept of “The Weight” has morphed into a giant horror-movie monster in recent years. Dragged out from wherever monsters go between assignments, “The Weight” has been targeted as responsible for nearly every ill in American society including global warming (fat people producing too much carbon dioxide), economic instability (lazy fat people and the supposed higher insurance costs) and threats to national security (fat people unfit for military duty).

Recently Fiona McGier in a comment to a blog post on The Full-Bodied (Book) Blog, talked about “the weight” that we are constantly encouraged lose:

I’ve always been amused that ads tell you to “lose the weight”, and people talk about trying to lose “the weight”, as if it belongs to someone else. It’s a part of YOUR body, folks! Calling it “the weight” does nothing to separate it from you. I take ownership of my weight, knowing that it didn’t just appear overnight. Age, childbirth, and face it, being a damn good cook/baker, contributed to MY weight. Not THE weight.

Fiona’s comment reminded me of the damage inflicted when we buy into this concept of any weight over the prevailing artificial standard as an external, detachable burden that functions to cancel out everything else we might try to do. No wonder we are so vulnerable to marketing predators who promise to lift this burden from us.

This idea of divorcing ourselves from the unacceptable fat in our bodies isn’t even “useful” in producing long-term weight loss. No matter what mental pretzels a dieter twists into, the 95 percent documented regain rate within five years still stands for any and every weight loss method.

It’s easier to distrust and often hate our bodies if we think of the fat as “not us.”

Moroccan sociologist, Fatema Mernissi, who was born in a harem, keenly observes how body-hating obsessions operate to keep women out of power. Unlike the harem system, where women are directly barred from participating in public life, the Western system manipulates women into pursuing an impossible body size, and isolating ourselves for being “too big” or “too old.”

Mernissi indirectly points out how the demand for a smaller body size fits in with class prejudice, and the adventure she describes below of trying to buy a skirt must have taken place in a high-end store where one cannot find even average clothing sizes — the average American woman wears a size 14:

[D]uring my unsuccessful attempt to buy a cotton skirt in an American department store … I was told my hips were too large to fit into a size six. That day I stumbled onto one of the keys to the enigma of passive beauty in Western harem fantasies.

“In this entire store, there is no skirt for me?” I said. “You are joking.” … “You are too big!” [The saleslady] said.

“I am too big compared to what?” I asked, looking at her intently, because I realised that I was facing a critical cultural gap here.

“Compared to a size six,” came the saleslady’s reply.

Her voice had a clear-cut edge to it that is typical of those who enforce religious laws.

“Size four and six are the norm,” she went on, encouraged by my bewildered look. “Deviant sizes, such as the one you need, can be bought in special stores.”

In fact, I have to confess that I lost my usual self-confidence. In that peaceful store that I had entered so triumphantly, as sovereign consumer ready to spend money, I felt savagely attacked. My hips, until then the sign of a relaxed and uninhibited maturity, were suddenly being condemned as a deformity.

“And who says that everyone must be a size six?” I joked to the saleslady, deliberately neglecting to mention size four, which is the size of my skinny twelve-year-old niece.

At that point, the saleslady suddenly gave me an anxious look. “The norm is everywhere, my dear,” she said. “It’s all over, in the magazines, on television, in the ads . You can’t escape it. … Big department stores go by the norm.” She paused and then concluded, “If they sold size 14 or 16, which is probably what you need, they would go bankrupt.”

She stopped for a minute and then stared at me, intrigued. “Where on earth do you come from? I am sorry I can’t help you…..” Only then did I notice that she was probably my age, in her late 50s. But unlike me, she had the thin body of an adolescent girl. Her knee length, navy blue, Channel dress had a white silk collar reminiscent of the subdued elegance of aristocratic French Catholic schoolgirls at the turn of the century. A pearl-studded belt emphasised the slimness of her waist. With her meticulously styled short hair and sophisticated makeup; at first glance she looked half my age.

“I come from a country where there is no size for women’s clothes,” I told her. “I buy my own material and the neighbourhood seamstress makes me the silk or leather skirt I want. Neither the seamstress nor I know exactly what size my new skirt is. No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time. Actually, I don’t know what my size is, to tell you the truth.”

The saleswomen laughed merrily and said that I should advertise my country as a paradise for stressed working women. “You mean you don’t watch your weight?” she inquired, with more than a tinge of disbelief in her voice. Then, after a brief moment of silence, she added in a lower register, as if talking to herself: “Many women working in highly paid fashion-related jobs could lose their positions if they didn’t keep a strict diet.”

Her words sounded so simple, but the threat they implied was so cruel. I realised for the first time that maybe “size six” was a more violent restriction imposed on women than the Muslim veil. …

Yes, I thought as I wandered off, I have finally found the answer to my harem enigma. Unlike the Muslim man, who uses space to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light. … In fact, the modern Western man enforces one of Immanuel Kant’s 19th-century theories: To be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless. When a women looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.

By putting the spotlight on the prepubescent female, the Western man veils the older, more mature woman, wrapping her in shrouds of ugliness. This idea gives me the chills because it tattoos the invisible harem directly onto a woman’s skin. Chinese foot-binding worked the same way. Men declared beautiful only those women who had small, childlike feet. In feudal China, a beautiful woman was the one who voluntarily sacrificed her right to unhindered physical movement by mutilating her own feet, and thereby proving that her main goal in life was to please men. Similarly, in the Western world, I was expected to shrink my hips into a size six if I wanted to find a decent skirt tailored for a beautiful woman.

Size six: The Western women’s harem” by Fatema Mernissi, August 2003

In her novel, Syd Arthur, Ellen Frankel, a therapist who has written about eating disorders and the challenges of being stereotyped due to short stature, describes how her heroine, Syd (like the historical Indian prince, Siddhartha, aka Gautama Buddha) turned away from pursuing the perfect polished exterior to look deeper. Syd imagines her friend speaking at her funeral:

I have been a seeker all my life, I realize, but a seeker of external perfection: searching for the perfect outfit, praying for the perfect diet, making my house a shrine to contemporary living. But when I die, what will people say about my life? I can just picture Jodie’s eulogy at my funeral:

“Syd was taken from us suddenly, going into cardiac arrest wearing a darling size four Burberry tweed suit and carrying a fabulous Birkan bag. Syd would have been happy to know that she died on one of her “thin” days, and thus will remain svelte into perpetuity. She maintained a spotless house and, thanks to her wonderful housekeeper Marina, barely had to lift a perfectly polished finger to do so. Syd was my best friend, and she can never be replaced. Though we will need to find a new fourth for our Mah Jongg group. We play on Thursday nights and if anyone here is interested, please see me after the burial.”

Putting aside The Weight Monster movie plot, I would like to propose something a little closer to The Matrix film plot. Instead of monsters demonized as destroyers of society, let’s break out of the body-hating trance where fat people meekly follow the herd like sheep to economic shearing.

Let’s awaken from our deluded, body-hating trance and live fully, respecting, owning and listening to our entire bodies. Instead of losing The Weight, let’s unplug from the impossible cycle of failure and divided physical selves. We need to Own Our Weight and Throw It Around when the occasion demands.

6 thoughts on “The Weight and the Trap

  1. One nitpick: Chinese women didn’t bind their own feet, mothers bound their daughters’ feet.

    I appreciate seeing the argument that appearance standards exclude women from power– and as women get better qualified for power, they’re more likely to look “too old” to be permitted to have it.

  2. Good point, Nancy, what I’ve read on foot binding states that the process had to start when the girl was 4-6 years old and the mother and perhaps other female relatives rebinding tighter and tighter to effectively break the foot over several years. It is saddening that this mutilation was a mark of high status, it increased a young woman’s “value” as an ornamental female and that it lasted for nearly a thousand years. The article below says the definitive end was in 1949.

    Also you point out an interesting double bind about women who look too mature being excluded because they don’t look youthful, “inexperienced” and presumably more malleable. As I get older, grayer and ever more opinionated, I perceive a note of something very like fear among some who would like to ignore me, but can’t if I insist on being heard!

  3. Lynne, this is a wonderful post. Thank you for all of it. Fatima Marnissi’s conversation with the saleswoman is amazing and surreal. It reminds me, once again, why I prefer to shop for clothes at Thriftown and Goodwill.

    I want to add: it’s very important to recall that foot-binding was an act of the wealthy and noble classes in China. Peasant women, farmers, merchants, craftswomen did not bind their daughters’ feet; they knew their daughters would have to work to survive. Only women who were never expected to work at anything, including cooking and cleaning their own homes, had “lotus” i.e. broken, feet.

  4. Thanks, Lizzy L! Fatima Marnissi is now on my “must read more of” list, but I appreciate Nancy’s comment and yours on footbinding because it led me to the site
    (also linked above) about a project talking to and photographing surviving women with bound feet. I had also previously understood that foot-binding was solely for the wealthy Han Chinese. But the women interviewed included many women who had bound feet in order to make them marriageable, yet they were still forced to work in the fields or at other work outside the home. Some women (the wealthier ones) never left their homes after footbinding while others were able to walk or even dance on their bound feet. Also, sadly many resisted unbinding their feet–even though it was legally enforced after 1949–because the pain was as intense as the original binding and many of them would have been unable to walk at all on their damaged feet without the binding.

  5. I’m so glad that my words inspired this post! What really irritates me is that extra weight and age seem to come together. I was a size 6 when I was in my twenties and ate only rarely and smoked too much. I was starting to gain womanly curves when I got married at 28, but the real weight gain came when I got pregnant for the first time and realized I had to quit smoking and learn to eat healthy foods regularly, to create healthy babies. 4 kids in 5 years left me with stretch marks and fat supplies that don’t seem to understand that they won’t be needed to make milk for any more babies, since my youngest is now 18.

    Both of my parents believed strongly that only by under-eating and being underweight, would you be healthy. They didn’t exercise but never ate either. My Mom developed dementia for many reasons, but the one I blame the most is her 60+ years of smoking, which she used in large part to kill her appetite-so she died as she had lived, weighing less than a hundred pounds. But she always looked good in clothes, and that was very important to her. My Dad had lived through the bombings during WW2 in Scotland, so he had known such privation that he internalized under-eating as a noble and good thing, and he viewed fat people, including me, as lazy, stupid, and lacking self-control.

    I’ve struggled to come to terms with my weight for years, but despite eating healthy amounts of the required 6-8 servings of fruits and veggies per day, and little else, and doing aerobics classes and working a retail job that demands constant walking, I seem to be in a stasis. I guess this is what I’m meant to look like. Instead of hating myself, I choose to accept myself, well-aware of the fact that many are lining up to call me fat and undisciplined, so why on earth should I join in their chorus? I’m not particularly proud of the way I look, but I’m proud of the person I am, and of my long marriage and 4 healthy children who are young adults now.

    Self-acceptance vacillates, but most days I do alright. I’ve even stopped dying my hair, so it’s now silver and grey. If you feel that’s two strikes against me, then so be it…look away if I offend you.

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