Feminist philosophy and weight loss

There’s a great new post on feminist philosophy and weight loss over at Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty. Blogger Sam B sings the praises of philosopher Ann Cahill’s account of her experiences with weight loss in “Getting to My Fighting Weight” published in the Musings section of Hypatia (25 (2):485-492, 2010).

Cahill is a beautiful writer and I love her language when she talks about reconciling her decision to lose weight with her feminist values:

“I realized that maximizing my ability to move, quickly, effectively, strongly, was entirely conducive to my feminist aspirations and activities. I wasn’t aspiring to skinniness or frailty, just the opposite: I wanted to bring strength and vigor to whatever struggle I chose. I wanted to get to my fighting weight.”

It’s great to see the very fraught business of weight loss receiving philosophical attention. As a feminist who lost a good chunk of weight when I started running, I struggled with the experience. There are things about weight loss that I really enjoyed, but every time someone said “You look great!” I felt like a bad feminist. “It’s for health reasons, not aesthetic reasons,” I would sputter (even though I secretly, guiltily, enjoyed some of the aesthetic side-effects).

Here’s the link.


January 8 addendum: Alas, I’ve had to close comments on this thread following a series of unkind comments, which we have removed.

This is a group blog and each of the bloggers parses the blog’s policies a bit differently. (And, in general, the OP moderates the thread.) I lean to the more laissez-faire end of things. Although I support the blog’s approach of sometimes unapproving comments that lower the tone or make the blog feel less safe for contributors, I’ve never before tonight actually removed any comment myself. I’ve been wrestling with this thread from the start, though. I thought that one interlocutor’s initial comment was merely sarcastic. It made me sad to see it, but I decided, rightly or wrongly, to leave it up. Then, when that comment ended up leading to what seemed to me a thoughtful, interesting thread, I was glad I had. True, that thread included a couple of oblique jabs between some of the commenters, but these occurred within comments that were overall well worth reading. And then a comment appeared which engaged in name-calling against the interlocutor whose initial sarcasm had vexed me. Again, I struggled. I actually asked one or two colleagues whether to leave it up or take it down because I didn’t trust my own judgment. No one thought I should take it down. It was name-calling. It was uncharitable. On the other hand, I didn’t think that it was any worse that the initial sarcastic comment. Maybe I felt that way because I’d been on the receiving end of the first one.  In any event, the sniping has continued; so I’ve closed comments. It’s very saddening. What can I say? I hope that I’ll be a better moderator someday. It’s hard.

14 thoughts on “Feminist philosophy and weight loss

  1. Why feel guilty? By promoting one’s own interests one is not endorsing the system or perpetuating it.

    I have a PhD and a good job with a decent salary. I don’t endorse or believe that I’m perpetuating the current system in which poor children de facto don’t have access to a decent education and people who don’t get the appropriate educational credentials stay poor, by getting an education and using it to get those goodies. I do what I can politically to change that system. But I don’t see any reason to think that leveling down–forgoing the benefits my education provides–would contribute to change.

    I lost a bunch of weight because I GOT PILLS! (I also exercise and always have but that didn’t help until I got the pills!) I lost weight solely for aesthetic reasons. Again, I don’t endorse and don’t believe that I’m perpetuating a lousy system in which women are assessed on their appearance, regarded as sex objects or whatever. I do what I can to change that. But I don’t think that forgoing the aesthetic and social benefits of slimness would contribute to that change.

    I’m no ethicist–just a simple Utilitarian. I don’t see the good of leveling down. And I don’t see why forgoing the benefits I can get from a bad, unfair system is a bad thing. I take what I can get.

  2. I struggle with this issue as well, especiallly as the mother of three daughters. When talking with them, I always frame body issues in terms of strength and all the things the healthy body does for us. I love the idea of being at “fighting weight”! Ironically, because I maintain a trim weight, I sound hypocritical if I talk to female students about dismorphia, as I probably look like I put more time into staying fit than I do. On a related note, what about changing the body surgically, for purposes of better movement or just confidence? I’m looking at Irigary, Iris Marion Young and plastic surgery this semester. Any thoughts?

  3. I’m confused harriet. perhaps i’m wrong, but in the other thread you ‘want’ the pills that will allow you to lose wait for purely aesthetic reasons (and to hell with health) yet here you are saying that you have already lost weight via pharmaceuticals? perhaps you put the weight back on. if so, then are the pills not as useless as you claim will power/exercise/changed diet to be in that thread?

    if surgery is not an issue, then why not gastric banding? personally i wouldnt recommend it but it doesnt seem anything in my reasons fro not recommending it (safety/health or ethically) interfere with your rationale in the least. nor financial. perhaps it would allow you to sustain a weight you’d be happy with without the lifestyle that might otherwise require it?

  4. Don, so far as I know it’s not (and it isn’t one of mine). But it is of value to feminists to recognize that cultural standards for beauty (including those relevant to weight) are largely unattainable, unhealthy, and oppressive–and I think that at least often times, we need to be self-aware of the extent that our own behaviors reinforce, and are shaped by, those standards.

  5. Kathryn:

    If a person is beyond the healthy range of BMI, weight loss is a good idea.

    If a person is seized with angst or doubt about this simple fact, or concerned that straightforward actions will be misinterpreted by others, it is not a question of “reconciling a decision with feminist values,” but a struggle with a preoccupation with what one believes are other people’s opinions. Not values, just neurosis. Adopting an artificial narrative like “fighting weight” is a sham justification for something that doesn’t need justification, unless someone is pursuing weight loss to engage in martial arts. The problem in that case isn’t cultural standards, but unhealthy rumination over those standards creating self-doubt.

  6. Full disclosure: I’m Ann Cahill, the author of the piece. And I’m delighted to see folks discussing it. But goodness, Don seems to think that I am or have been seized with angst! And that I’m preoccupied with other people’s opinions. And that I’m adopting artificial narratives, and engaging in unhealthy rumination. In other words, I’m just thinking too damn much about a simple fact of life. I don’t suppose other feminist philosophers have ever heard this critique?

    I think most people who read the piece wouldn’t come to Don’s conclusions about my being neurotic, but I might be wrong. In any case, I’d like to counter a few of his claims. It is not the case that weight loss is a good idea for anyone beyond the so-called healthy range of BMI. For one, it’s possible that unless you’re way, way beyond that healthy range, those extra pounds could extend your life:



    But more to the point: engaging in attempts to lose weight, regardless of whether those attempts are successful, can entail self-loathing, frustration, stress, and a host of other things that many of us want and ought to avoid precisely in the name of a more holistic sense of health (or, as I prefer to think about it, bodily flourishing). Sometimes keeping those pounds on may be an excellent, and healthy, idea.

    Also, whether Don wants to recognize this or not, weight and weight loss are cultural phenomena, not mere biological facts, that are deeply implicated in systems of gender, racial, and economic inequalities. Which means that the narratives surrounding them — including Don’s dismissive, this-stuff-is-simple narrative — are all artificial, and few if any of them have women’s best interests at their core.

    One of the things I write about in the piece is about being “philosophically advantaged,” that is, being the beneficiary of decades (more, really, of course!) of feminist thinking that helped me to think well about this matter in my life. While Don seems to consider thinking critically about weight loss a fairly silly endeavor, I’m grateful that this blog and the Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty blog provided opportunities to do just that. So let me end with a round of applause for those willing to engage robustly and creatively with these questions!

  7. Ms Cahill:

    “I’m just thinking too damn much about a simple fact of life.” –

    Well, some would say that of all philosophy. Hence, if the question were philosophical or otherwise implicating values or ethics, that would be a fairly senseless observation on my part.

    But this isn’t the point of my observation. My observation was essentially that the question ISN’T one of values or ethics, but of psychology. You mention self-loathing and frustration. These aren’t really questions of reconciling values. You don’t doubt the value of weight loss at some point (I’m not going to debate the medical aspect and where the line is drawn, particularly since you don’t have a clear line, but only a diversionary link that is medically inconclusive as to standard, but just suggesting that fitness is important in conjunction with weight, and I believe that my statement is well within the common consensus of medical opinion), and neither does anyone else. So there aren’t any conflicting values, or doubts about values.

    And if your post had been more general: eg, “here is how I think about body image, to deal with the baggage of cultural stereotyping, some of which arises for me and many others most acutely when I embark on a weight loss program,” my observation would be inapposite. And while I believe that addressing these larger social issues are vital to feminism and equality, I think the personal impact of these issues are quite possibly independent of a woman’s level of social conscious or ideological identification. In other words, there are probably feminists with poor body image, and women who don’t identify as feminists with good body image.

    So, when you say that your personal identification as a feminist somehow raises a value question, I tend to think this is a matter of other people’s opinions – that you are worried that somehow your actions will make others view you as a hypocrite. Call it dismissive if you’d like. Put it in whatever “box” of standard put downs that makes you feel comfortable.

  8. And, before I take my leave, I will mention one other thing: the idea of “fighting weight.”

    Perhaps my perspective is too rooted in my male identity: however, when I have motivated myself for physical activity, I was very clear about my purpose. When I was younger, I lifted weights, and I knew my object was mostly vanity (didn’t do me much good, but I was young). When I was preparing for a marathon, I knew what the goal was, and it was a real goal. Something like “fighting weight” sounds like a recipe for failure, for motivation – or at least it would be for me, because it doesn’t really mean anything that would connect with goals I would be intending to experience. If I am going to increase strength, flexibility, etc., then setting benchmarks that match my real world reasons for the activity is important for motivation. If you are going to lose weight, and that is your true goal, then counting the calories everyday and weighing in, and making those the benchmarks, are activities you might be well served to commit to wholeheartedly, without reservation. Maybe “fighting weight” is a paradigm shift that helps deal with focusing on weight, but to my ears (again, this may be subjective) it’s a false paradigm. If deep down, some of the motivation may be unacceptable – guilt or vanity or social pressure – personally I’d try to make peace with the motivation, just as a part of myself that just wasn’t as evolved as I would like to be. I wouldn’t shift focus to something that wasn’t inherently part of the deepest motivation.

  9. Don,

    It seems pretty clear from Cahill’s quote that she wants to tailor her fitness level to a whole range of challenges, including those she hasn’t taken up or even thought of yet. This seems be the point of the “whatever struggle I chose” bit. A generally fit, strong person will have a lot less to do in training for, say, a marathon than a couch potato – if that’s what they decide to do. So, it seems the sensible approach.

    I also don’t quite get your objection to “fighting weight”. I’m pretty sure it’s a reference to boxers making weight for a fight, and it signifies weight loss not for aesthetic reasons, but precisely to enable achievement. And of course, boxers are generally thought of a strong, agile, etc. – the kinds of things Cahill is after. So, the name seems as appropriate as any.

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