Why is Fat a Feminist Issue?

18 Apr

by Emily Coccia 

When I look around me—at magazines, at television, at literature—I feel like in everything I see I find a focus on the female body or, more specifically, the ideal of the female body. While one magazine tells me how to lose weight and tone my abs to be ready to “rock a bikini this summer,” the next assures me that “curvy is sexy.” I hear ads for diet pills designed to make me drop weight instantly next to commercials for Wonderbras to accentuate my somehow-lacking female form. While the media criticizes women like Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera when they gain weight, instantly plastering photoshopped and unflattering photos of them across tabloid covers; the women who are rail-thin receive criticism for not being “womanly” enough, for lacking the hips and breasts that a real woman should have. Even feminist literature focuses on the idea of the female body. Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach posits that women become fat because they eat compulsively in response to living in a sexist social system; whereas Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Courtney Martin argues that the feminism taught to women of our generation—the idea that we can do anything—led us to believe that we must be everything, including being rail-thin, and drives us to the extremes, including self-starvation. While Orbach and Martin examine different results, both authors find the root of the disordered relationship between women and food in the mother-daughter relationship and the female identity.

While the conversation about what feminism and gender inequality might be doing to the female mentality and body image is important to have, I have to wonder, why do we keep having this type of discussion? Why must we focus on a woman’s body, on her weight? Why does everything I hear have to do about my weight, about what I should weigh, about how that weight should be distributed on my frame—not for my health, but to appeal to the male gaze, to the societal expectation?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of being healthy, but somehow, the “fat issue” is no longer about health. When I saw the title Fat is a Feminist Issue, I assumed it would confront this idea that we have gendered the issue of weight. Instead, I found a book that discussed gender inequality as a root cause of female weight gain, further casting weight into the realm of the feminine, a “problem” faced by women. When the entire nation is facing an “obesity epidemic,” why am I receiving gender-specific reminders to lose weight for summer? And more importantly, why is the motivation provided always something about appealing to men? While this semester in Italy might have strained my commitment to a healthy lifestyle, I normally tend to promote good habits, eating well and going to the gym. But the point is: I do that for me. I don’t sit down with a box of Twinkies because I don’t particularly like the idea of eating something with a shelf life longer than my life expectancy. I work my butt off at the gym because I enjoy it and it makes me happy (I mean, I certainly don’t do Zumba because I look good doing it…). So why do my body and my weight have to be things for society to associate with my identity as a woman?

One of the reasons I got to thinking about this is the recent influx of comments on the “Georgetown Confessions” page, ranging from women confessing to having eating disorders, to men preaching their love of “full figured women,” to other women criticizing those in Yates. It was absurd. And the absurdity—to me—sprung from the fact that all the attention focused on women. I appreciated some of the responses from people who pointed out that they work out because it make them happy, but no one seemed to notice those comments. Instead, the debate raged on, perpetuating this idea of physicality as feminine, and as on display to the public. And it’s not a Georgetown-specific problem. We see it in the media, pervading our culture. We use gendered terms to talk about weight—when’s the last time you heard someone call a guy svelte or curvy? We focus on the bodies of female celebrities, noticing the second they gain an ounce and typecasting actresses based on their body types. And this discussion always seems to come back to what we find attractive and appealing, instead of what we know to be healthy (which research shows is not necessarily synonymous with thin). So rather than discuss the merits of thin or curvy, why can’t we focus on our own personal health? After all, I’d be much more interested in reading something with a scientific basis than some tips about what type of squats to do to get an “attention-grabbing butt.” If we all put our wellbeing first, maybe, just maybe, we can see that the focus on fat, not women being fat, is the issue for feminism. And maybe, just maybe, the solution lies in treating men and women’s weight the same way, in talking about health and good habits instead of sex appeal.

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