Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A feminist triumph

More wedding-talk from Slate writer Jessica Grose, who got married not long ago and has evidently been gazing into the navel of the existential angst the idea of marriage gives her for some time. This latest piece begins in the traditional educated-woman-discovers-self-not-impervious-to-gender-and-age-appropriate-desires manner that all defenses of entering into a heterosexual marriage, as a woman, must:

In most ways, I did not fit the bridezilla stereotype: I did not care about the color of our tablecloths; I haphazardly filled our registry with the things my mom told me we should have (as I type this, dust collects on our Le Creuset mortar and pestle); I let my bridesmaids pick their own dresses; my on-the-cheap bachelorette party involved a stoned viewing of Clueless followed by a sleepover rather than a gaudy, overpriced, forced march through Las Vegas.
To which a skeptic might respond:

-She had bridesmaids.
-She had a bachelorette party.
-She had a registry.
-With fancy stuff on it.

It is entirely possible to be 100% married without any of those. Ergo, no low-maintenance-ness award. But we're to believe that, but for her intense quest for bridal bodily perfection in the months leading up to her wedding, Grose was laid-back about the whole thing. And who's to say if she was or wasn't? All brides compare themselves to a "bridezilla" extreme that basically no bride will meet. Anyone who did not get transformed into a human Barbie, who did not rent the entirety of Monaco for the occasion, is so totally low-key.

The article itself, though, made me cringe. Not because I'm opposed to girliness or wedding extravagance (as I've mentioned here before, I bought wedding-but-also-post-wedding shoes at Repetto that cost more than the dress, and they were/are spectacular), but because... this is just so, so much more of a problem from a feminist perspective (well, my own feminist perspective) than white dresses, name-changes, father-givething-daughter-away, and engagement rings combined. Grose, you see, opted for the bridal diet-and-workout makeover, and defends this in the way that someone who kind of realizes how ridiculous this was, but also kind of doesn't, might.
[My personal trainer] told me that before we would start training that day, he needed to weigh me and assess my body fat with a caliper. I should explain here that I wasn't embarking on this transformation as a total sloth—I ran or attended spin class four or five times a week and my BMI was already in the low end of normal. I was already in reasonably good shape. Or so I thought.

"It's not a complete disaster," the trainer said after looking at the digital read-out on the caliper. "And what are your goals?" he asked. I told him I wanted to lose maybe five pounds, but mostly I just wanted to look really good in my strapless gown. "We can do," he told me, "but you need to come three times a week, and follow the diet."
My then-fiancé looked over my shoulder at the Spartan list of acceptable foods I was allowed to consume. I would come to refer to this as the "squirrel food diet," because nuts and berries seemed to be such a crucial part of it. Otherwise, it was the standard diet that women's magazines encourage month after month after month: Breakfast involved egg whites. Lunch and dinner were 4 ounces of fish or chicken and greens. The nuts and berries were snacks. No booze, no sugar, no fun allowed.

"This is insane," said my fiancé. "You don't need to lose weight." 
"It's not about losing weight," I told him. "We're going to have those photos for the rest of our lives and I refuse to have dinner lady arms in them! I promise to be sane about everything else wedding-related."
Ah yes. The woman who isn't even fat, but who's bought into the idea that women - particularly those about to get married - should be on diets. Annoying to read about from a YPIS angle for women with BMIs north of the writer's, especially for those without fiancés reassuring them that they're tiny, but also for those of any gender or relationship status who think it's kind of important for women to, you know, eat. Yes, yes, even the low-normal BMI sorts should exercise, but there's no pretending it's about "health" if you're already borderline underweight and your goal is, in part, to lose five pounds. (Relevant "Mean Girls" quote coming to mind.)

I'm sure some will say, it's her body, she should do whatever makes her happy, and being five pounds underweight for one's wedding is unlikely to cause permanent damage. (Natalie Portman, she of the temporary tininess for "Black Swan," has just given birth to a Millepied, so this must be true.) To which I'd respond, it's a bit like the whole thing with "ex-gays." If some folks would prefer to view themselves as straight, for religious reasons or whatever, and get more pleasure from that identity than they would from a same-sex relationship, so be it, in theory. But in reality, these things do not occur in a vacuum, and the "ex-gay" is likely contributing to making life worse for those who'd rather be openly gay than closeted and pious, not to mention for the women they play at being "straight" with.

Women who diet unnecessarily are not always evangelists for doing so, but writing an article like this, phrasing it as a "defense" of the pre-wedding body-overhaul, adds up to as much. I'm not sure what the correct language is to describe this kind of writing ("pro-ana"? "pro-orthorexia"? "triggering"? people more up-to-date on Jezebel - which Grose used to write for! - than I am, help me out), but, guaranteed, it will make other already-thin women wonder if maybe they could stand to lose a few.

But! Grose's overall message, the basis for her "defense," is that her exercise routine was about empowerment. Thus the reference to wanting arms like Michelle Obama's - how liberal and liberating! And thus this, the strangest bridal-makeover-as-empowerment story I've ever heard:
That I was willing to keep at it made me realize that this makeover was about more than just vanity. I was getting much, much stronger. After several sessions I could lift the heavy boxes of wedding goodies that were being shipped to us on a near-daily basis without the aid of my fiancé.
A feminist triumph!


eamonnmcdonagh said...

This post is a bit of a triumph in itself, in terms of gutting a certain kind of stupidity and arrogance.

PG said...

I don't understand why a thinking woman would try to drag anything about feminism into a description of wedding preparation. (As distinct from marriage preparation, which should involve a lot of thinking about feminism, ranging from surnames to responsibility for writing thank-you cards, and with feminism's contribution being in large part to say, "Let's not assume anything based on gender.")

My personal excuse for "I wasn't really a bridezilla" is that I could attribute every ridiculous aspect of my wedding to my parents' preferences (and I stopped a few of the most ridiculous, like a 4x larger guest list that could've be accommodated only in New Jersey).

If you're having a wedding that involves a professional photographer, it's reasonable to want to look especially nice that day. As one of my friends told me at the reception, "It's like you have your own paparazzi." Based on my looking pretty in my wedding photos, I came to a newfound respect and understanding of how professional hair, makeup and photography must be turning women who already started as pretty into near-goddesses.

Britta said...

One element that annoyed me about this article was it kind of implied "weights are for manly men! cardio is for women!" Like, a woman who goes to the gym 5 times (!) a week BEFORE getting in shape had never even thought about weight lifting. Is this the case? Are most women really afraid of weight machines? We had weight lifting in high school PE, and then I used weight machines in college as part of the cc/track team. I have shrimpy arms and have to use the lowest weight settings, but I've never felt intimidated by the machines themselves, nor are they that difficult to figure out (free weights seems like they would be harder, plus it's easy to move a little metal pin from the heaviest to the lightest weight, but it's hard to take heavy weights off a bench press bar). I lift weights sporadically now, and I see plenty of women on the machines at the U of C gym. It's highly possible my experiences aren't representative, but I didn't think women lifting weights was that uncommon.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't think I understand the parallel to the ex-gays...why ought gays, ex-gays, women, or any other extremely large identity category to conceive of their behavior in terms of the precedent it sets for other members of the category? Isn't that a version of "But is it good for the Jews?" for every private decision one makes?

Moreover, whose preferences deserve priority--"the "ex-gay" is likely contributing to making life worse for those who'd rather be openly gay than closeted and pious," but aren't the openly gay likely contributing to making life worse for those who'd rather live in a pious than a permissive society? The obsessive dieter makes life worse for normal women, but women unconcerned about their appearances deny the importance of physique to the detriment of dieters. If both--that is, being closeted and being open, or dieting and indifference--are possible but to some degree mutually exclusive, then how do we determine which preference is more worthy?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Uh, thanks!


"I don't understand why a thinking woman would try to drag anything about feminism into a description of wedding preparation. (As distinct from marriage preparation, which should involve a lot of thinking about feminism"

I mostly agree with this, and think that as a rule, far too much is made of wedding symbolism and what it all means by women of a certain educated demographic. I disagree only insofar as I, a woman who at least attempts to think, think that "wedding preparation" that involves an already-slim woman dieting and exercising like crazy is a feminist issue. A feminist issue because it's not just Jessica Grose doing this, and not just something women do for their own weddings. Also for others' weddings, also just for the heck of it.

I may post later on feminism and name-change, but I may also decide that this is the kind of thing that would elicit too much self-righteousness from those who've gone both routes. But for the time being, I do find it interesting that even in academia, my cohort seems to be majority-name-changers, some who already have, others who will soon.


"Are most women really afraid of weight machines?"

Some deep, dark part of my brain that has read women's magazines remembers hearing that women fear not the machines themselves, but the possibility of bulking up, as though a petite woman will do a few 5-lb reps and lo and behold, the appearance of a bodybuilder on steroids will ensue. Given what Grose says about a fungus, I now fear the machines in a way I didn't previously, and will continue to restrict my own weight-training to carrying heavy groceries from less-expensive supermarkets back to the dorm/apartment.


"why ought gays, ex-gays, women, or any other extremely large identity category to conceive of their behavior in terms of the precedent it sets for other members of the category?"

Again, I think in a vacuum, there are no issues, and as close to a vacuum situation it is - i.e. someone just living their life - the less of an issue either is. However, it seems that rather a lot of ex-gays are committed to getting others to see the light, I would bet a greater proportion of them than there are out gays encouraging similar openness from others. With women and dieting, as I mention in the post, I don't think women who diet (girls/very young women are another story) are mobilizing to get others to follow suit. If anything, it's beneficial to them on the dating market if other women don't. My problem with Grose's article isn't that she decided to care about something I personally think is idiotic. It's that she's encouraging others to do the same.

Now, many would say, it's absolutely better to be openly gay than religious/closeted, to be "body-positive" than to care about one's thighs, and that gay men and women, respectively, who think otherwise have been brainwashed by the Man. I don't have that view - some men would rather fake-straight than happy-gay, some women would prefer hungry-cranky-borderline-ill to having those spare hours in their days not devoted to artificially-sweetened yogurt - but I also don't look at this in terms of moral equivalence. It is, I believe, better for most gay men to be able to live openly, and better for most women not to spend their days thinking about calories and eating diet yogurt. Moreover, the pressure on young gay people - who, remember, unlike, say, Jews, do not generally spring up in families or communities with lots of gays - to be pious/straight, and on women to diet, is immensely greater in our society than the reverse of either.

Anonymous said...

"I disagree only insofar as I, a woman who at least attempts to think, think that "wedding preparation" that involves an already-slim woman dieting and exercising like crazy is a feminist issue."

I agree with most of what you say; however, for women who truly are in need of shedding extra pounds, it seems particularly un-feminist to devote the effort to the occasion of the wedding day.


Sigivald said...

Having a registry is "low maintenance" - it makes being a dutiful guest easier, since you can just pick something out to bring.

As long as it's not all Le Creuset fanciness, that is.

(That said? I have a mortar and pestle I bought a from a place that sells lab-ware overstock, and I actually use it in the kitchen.

If I had a Le Creuset, I'd be using it instead.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


But if it's a health issue, and the wedding's a pretext for an overall lifestyle change, this could be a good thing from a gender-neutral perspective, no?


Having a registry assumes you're doing something above and beyond eloping or going to City Hall. I don't think there's anything wrong with any of these routes, but if one is looking for confirmation that one is low-key, this shows, at best, that one is being a good host of a decent-sized party. If you're going to have a wedding-wedding, or just get married without anything that wedding-ish, as the tired expression goes, just own it.

Anonymous said...

1. Have you ever heard of a groom dieting before his wedding?
2. The wedding pictures freeze for all time the fit slender bride, who, life being what it is, will likely revert to her usual physical self. Studies have shown this will be accomplished within months, or weeks. Possibly by the end of a long cruise.


agauntpanda said...

Urban Dictionary did not have an entry for "YPIS", so I must take the embarrassing step of asking what it means.

PG said...

I agree with Phoebe that it's not a fear of the weight machines in themselves, but a fear of getting "bulky." E.g. when my assistant was putting more effort into diet and exercise before her wedding, she was having trouble finding a trainer she liked because she thought a previous one had her lifting too much and she didn't want her arms to get big. The solution to this is free weights, low poundage, but many many reps. Incidentally, her wedding really was a small affair -- she got married at the office of the Hoboken mayor (or rather deputy mayor because the mayor-mayor had just gotten indicted) with just her husband and parents there, and then had a lunch afterwards with ~10 guests. She still wanted to look as good as possible for the occasion.

YPIS=Your Privilege Is Showing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks for clarifying re: YPIS. Fallen behind on my own blog, looks like!