Monday, June 27, 2011


When studying Simone de Beauvoir for those qualifying exams, I remember being struck by how much of her feminism seemed to be about allowing female geniuses to flourish just as well as male ones do. As a non-genius reader of Beauvoir, it occurred to me that perhaps this was part of what feminism should be about, but really, most of us, male or female, are not staying up nights wondering if we'll be ranked first, or second after Sartre. The question of whether women will number among the super-duper-elite is important, with crucial trickle-down impact as well, but not everything.

So it goes with the problem of women's weight-think. By "weight-think" I mean the extent to which even women who are not all that worried about weight are worried about their weight, and are on some level, at meal times but other times as well, distracted by calories-in, calories-out calculations, thigh-fixations, etc. Isabel Archer describes it well; all I'll add is that it's a mindset that impacts far more women than those anyone would think to classify as having "a problem" in that area, that it extends beyond the yuppie sort, and that it's a major question feminism-of-the-"first-world" needs to be dealing with. Women are wasting massive amounts of time and energy on this, are not necessarily the healthier for it, and - and this I keep repeating - a good number of the women obsessing, if they "let themselves go," would still be quite slim, perhaps just not as thin. (The obsessing tends to be worst among the women for whom magazine-cover proportions seem at least theoretically attainable, so yes, there are some class variations in this.)

Here, as with feminism generally, one finds several interrelated but ultimately separate issues. One is that weight-think prevents some brilliant women from achieving great heights. This, in turn, is a problem both for those women and for society as a whole, which thus continues to associate "achieving great heights" with maleness. The other is that weight-think prevents average/mediocre women from thinking about other things, from enjoying their lives, etc. It's likely that weight-think keeps some women from reaching the "brilliant" category, but even without weight-think, most women, like most men, would not.

The issue, then, isn't - and here, I suppose, Isabel and I may disagree, but I'm not entirely sure, having never read A Room of One's Own - that women must lose themselves in work. Some should, yes, but neither most men nor most women are doing work they're going to lose themselves in. (This in response to commenter Sarah at Amber's.) It's that, as Isabel explains, "self-acceptance" at whichever weight isn't the whole answer. The goal shouldn't be for all women to look in the mirror and see "beautiful." It's for "beautiful" not to be the main important quality in most women's lives, not even most young women. Most women are sufficiently attractive as to attract a partner if they wish to do so; most, even after extreme dieting, will in no way other than measurements resemble runway models. We don't need to be telling ourselves we're just as hot as Angelina Jolie. We need to remember that objective, all-are-in-awe-of-it physical beauty, being largely fixed as well as temporary in its rare occurrences, is not a good goal towards which to channel 98% of one's mental energy. 5%, perhaps. It's not that attention to appearance should or realistically could be totally disregarded. But it should not come close to 100%. Physical beauty is both less important and less attainable than the woman weighed down by weight-think understands. Better to think about something else.

So it's great if weight-think is replaced by finding a cure for AIDS, or by being a more attentive stay-at-home mom. But even if weight-think just gets swapped for taking a walk, watching TV, reading a book, or doing some mundane task at work and thinking about, say, whether Pippa's single again and what this means for Harry, this, too, counts as progress.

(I could go on, re: the difference between devoting mental energy to one's beauty and the kind of physical adornment that's about self-expression and not OMG-cellulite, re: it being much better to ponder whether the toenails shall be pink or purple than how many calories are in that yogurt, but I think the above is enough for one post.)


David Schraub said...

"Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel." -- Bella Abzug

PG said...

I'm iffy on Isabel's invocation of women as "vessels" for something else, and more inclined to your "it's good enough to be reading a book or deciding what cool color for toenails" mode of thought. I don't think there's anything wrong with women's being selfish/self-involved; what's problematic is conceptualizing the self so heavily as merely the physical self in its most literally naked and unadorned form.

Along those lines, I'm not sure the PUAs' weight obsession has so much to do with wanting to force women into devoting loads of time to exercise; so far as I know, they actually prize the "effortlessly" thin woman. Rather, they're interested in what women are like for sex, and they're adherents of Chris Rock's view that "women tell the biggest lies" because "everything about you is a lie: you're wearing heels, you're not that tall; you're wearing a push-up bras; your lips aren't that big, that's not your real hair, I'm gonna wake up in the morning and the girl I went out with got dropped all over the floor."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Certainly an appropriate quote. But as for the broader issue it points to, I think the question of who gets to join the elite matters as well. It's just not all that matters.


"they're interested in what women are like for sex"

Agreed, and this is pretty much what I commented at Amber's. It's part of the machismo of not looking to closely at women from the neck up. But I think Isabel has a point, not necessarily re: PUAs specifically, but re: misogyny's focus on overweight women. There is some sense in which the issue with the overweight woman is that she has refused to devote herself to pleasing men, yet god forbid feels entitled to a relationship with one.

Kayla said...

A (gay male) friend of mine makes a useful distinction between being _attractive_ and being _beautiful_. The latter you can largely do nothing about, but simply taking care of your appearance and being well-dressed, well-groomed, confident and healthy is enough for the former. (And takes much less effort.)

meerkat said...

"simply taking care of your appearance and being well-dressed, well-groomed, confident and healthy is enough for [being considered attractive if not beautiful]"

Which is nice so long as you have the money and time to buy nice clothes and conform with whatever "well-groomed" means (makeup and shaving are included I would guess), have not had the confidence bullied out of you or have the money and time to undergo a lot of therapy to get it back (if that even works), and look "healthy" (no fatties, as this is about appearance, not fitness or blood test results, and probably no people with visible disabilities).

So for many people, that's something "you can largely do nothign about."

PG said...


That's a bit reductive. I know many people with visible disabilities who are well-dressed, well-groomed, confident and healthy. Ditto people who have higher than "normal" BMI, and people without much money. As for having confidence "bullied out of you," that's intrinsically something that you can do something about depending on what kind of character/personality you have. I know two women whose fathers (not to mention some other men) were extremely negative about their looks, intelligence, abilities, etc., yet who still retain confidence in themselves. They know they're great women; now that they're adults they choose to minimize time spent with people who don't treat them respectfully (even if that necessitates cutting off family or access to resources that the bullies or their allies might have); and they aren't going to let the bullies in life keep them from being as happy as they can be.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think you took meerkat's YPIS bait. Obviously looking presentable is tough if you're homeless, much easier if someone washes your hair for you. But for all those many people somewhere in between, the presentability range is mainly about a number of things - depression or lack thereof, whether or not someone stands to benefit from being presentable (here there's a gender disparity, of course, with this being more required of women, and with men having the option of being too brilliant to bathe), whether or not someone happens to care about looking "neat" - but isn't necessarily in sync with the privilege spectrum. If anything, it's those who lack privilege who are most required to look presentable if they want their voices heard.