The Beggars’ Banquet: Bodily Autonomy, Shame, and Letting Go

We should probably all face it: when it comes to even the most innocuous mention of food, or bodies, we are all incredibly emotional creatures. TW for body/weight loss talk.

Who can blame us? Everything from advertising to our mothers to some physicians have trained us to think emotionally about food, and have trained us that there are ideal body types that we should all be working hard to attain. So there are a million sources of information out there about which foods are “bad” and another couple million sources of information telling us exactly which ways we can train ourselves to be thinner, all crying don’t you dare touch that dessert item/bacon/carbohydrate. You shouldn’t try to find health and comfort at the size you are, because there is no possible way that you can eat for happiness or be any size larger than a 2 and still be healthy! On the other side of the aisle, we have a responsive movement called Health At Every Size, or Fat Activism, telling us don’t you dare touch that diet book/slimming shake/magazine with skinny people on and in it. You shouldn’t try to lose weight, because that is a concession to the unhealthful diet industry!

Yeah, there are a lot of voices in our culture telling us exactly how we should feel about our bodies and what we should do with them. The shame of it is, these are other women giving us these messages: women who would march side-by-side with us at a Rally for Choice, decrying the men in government who try to tell us what to do with our bodies when it comes to reproductive issues. But when it comes to body image issues, these same women apparently abandon the motto, “My Body, My Choice” and want to give you an ear-full of why your particular perspective and your particular choices about your particular body is wrong.

Now, I think we’ve all had friends – or been the friend – with disordered eating, and I will be the first one to say that that is a form of mental illness, not an informed life choice, and intervention can be the saving grace in a life plagued with that kind of disorder. But this isn’t about disordered eating. This is about relatively healthy, grown-ass women making choices about their bodies: to exercise and eat a moderate diet with the end goal of losing some of their body fat, or, simply put, not to. Earlier this week one of our columnists wrote a beautiful piece about not using the “real women” phrase to exclude or belittle women who are not “curvy,” nor using it to mask what people are really trying to say about a curvy woman – that she’s fat, period. And I so appreciated that.

But that’s not enough, avoiding this one phrase. I’m sorry, but where does anybody get off telling anyone else how to feel about her body, or what to do with those feelings? I think the diet movement has been well decried for the harm they inflict on others, but let’s just reiterate it, shall we? There is nothing wrong with women who are fat. Stop picking on them. There are women of every size who are healthy, just as there are women of every size who have heart problems, diabetes, hypertension, thyroid issues, and so on. I think we can all safely agree that weight alone is no determinate of a person’s health, so if someone is fat and is happy with that, why shouldn’t she eat cake? The diet industry absolutely does make giant efforts to shame and humiliate people who are not actively seeking to lose weight, people who are not almost impossibly thin, people who are anything other than magazine cover-ready.

On the other hand, I’m ready to go all Maxwell’s Silver Hammer on the next person who tries to shame me for going to the gym and eating a moderated (perfectly full and healthful and varied and not starving myself but not indulging my every whim either) diet in the name of Fat Activism or how we shouldn’t “obsess” over food and implying that we’ve somehow bought into the diet industrial complex’s lies of how ugly we are and how that’s such a humongous personal failure on our parts. Essentially, people in this movement have begun doing exactly the same thing that the diet industry has done: they’ve started telling us what choices we should make about our bodies, about our food, and about our self-perception. Before you start saying that FA people don’t do that, um, just check the Fat Activism or HAES tags on Tumblr, or go ahead and check out the quite varied responses to our own Luci Furious’s stellar post on her choices to gain some control over out-of-control eating habits using Weight Watchers.

I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the implication that I’m not good enough as I am, and I’m sick of the implication that if I want to change something about how I am, that there’s something wrong with that. I’m sick of being accused of mental illness and obsession when I’m an intelligent, roundly-informed woman who has made an informed decision that she wants to change some things about herself. I’m sick of the implication that some other woman’s distaste for dieting or for exercise or for setting weight loss goals should somehow inform my own opinion of those things. Ultimately, though, I’m sick of working up the courage to try to discuss something that is personal and emotional for me in a balanced, constructive way only to be met with the clamorous accusations of either side of the argument wanting to find something else that’s wrong with me.

I want to be respectful. I don’t want to start conversations with people who have trouble talking about exercise, weight loss, dieting, because it’s not about them and I’m not losing weight in the hopes of getting them to lose weight, or in the hopes of making them see themselves differently. I hope that someday my FA/HAES friends will understand that I don’t hate myself, that I’m not gazing longingly at Vanity Fair and then cutting my calories in the hopes of looking like Kate Moss (or even Tina Fey, come to that). I hope they’ll understand that I think they are beautiful, that I appreciate they’ve found a movement in which they can get a better grasp on their health at their size and that they have found a community that supports and encourages a much more inclusive ideal of beauty. I hope they’ll see how much I admire that they are working hard to broaden perspectives and embrace comfort in one’s own skin. That is utterly beautiful to me, and I won’t pretend that I haven’t gotten a lot out of HAES myself. Learning that kind of acceptance and reasonable love of self – as is, no strings attached – is critical to a person who hasn’t always been able to see the beauty I carry already, right now, as a (gag, spit) plus-size woman.

And I hope that my diet-and-weight-loss oriented friends will come around to understanding that I’m not “sabotaging my diet” when I eat a week’s worth of cupcakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner around my fiance’s birthday, and that I’m still perfectly fine with myself when the scale moves up instead of down. I don’t hate myself when that happens. I take note, make adjustments when I need to, and go fix breakfast. I hope they’ll grasp the idea that while there’s nothing wrong with their goal-setting and working hard to change themselves, that they, too, are beautiful as they are. I hope they’ll understand how much inspiration I take from their motivation, dedication, and spirit of experimentation, as well as the kind of joie de vivre it requires to pursue fitness and weight loss in a healthy manner. I think that kind of hard work is beautiful, too.

Mostly, I hope everyone in on the discussion will come to a point where they can live and let live. Where they will feel free to pursue whatever course at whatever time seems best to them, that they will do so with an eye toward their own health, and that they will leave everyone else the hell alone. We can come together and enjoy food and discuss what it means to be healthy in a manner that is better informed by many viewpoints. We can admire the beauty we each carry. And we can work more authentically toward shared goals of true bodily autonomy, true acceptance, true choice.

By Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

16 replies on “The Beggars’ Banquet: Bodily Autonomy, Shame, and Letting Go”

Great post, but I do want to point out that HAES is NOT about shaming people who want to lose weight. Some Fat activists are about that, but it’s not the point of the movement. The point is pretty much what you’ve said here: that our bodies should be our own, and we should decide four ourselves whether that’s good enough for us or not.

It kind of gets tied up in the same way, say, vehemently anti-femme feminists get tied up. The reaction to forced femininity is so violent that it washes over voluntary femininity, claiming that there can be no such thing. But any well-versed feminist knows that that’s not an opinion shared the entirety of the movement. Similar situation with HAES/FA and the backlash against forced weight loss/body shame.

I think that’s a really important distinction. Unfortunately, I’ve heard several people use HAES as a support/justification of leveling unfair accusations at women who are trying to lose weight, which I know – and ought to have said in my article – is not representative of the ideals of the movement so much as it is a reflection of those individuals and their own issues. But definitely: thanks so much for this comment, I think it’s really important to understand the difference between the theory and various individuals’ practice.

I strongly, strongly agree with what Anna said. But yes, you’re right, there are people withing the HAES movement that do try and shame people who are actively trying to lose weight, and that’s wrong. But I think that central to the FA/HAES thinking is, really, QUIT JUDGING PEOPLE. Mostly because it tends to be people on the heavier side of the spectrum who get judged the most. (You should see the faces people make at me and my fat ass when I attempt to exit a crowded bus.) The FA crowd knows what its like to be judged, and I think there is a huge concerted effort to not judge people. There are unfortunately outliers, but I think the anti-dieting is more of a gut reaction to decades of the mainstream, pro-dieting movement. Not that that makes it okay or anything.

That’s a really great point – that so much of these movements sprang out of the condemnation the people within them received from others (girl, I KNOW about the bus!) – so here’s a question. For those unfortunate moments when people who claim to celebrate FA/HAES forget what their movement is founded on and use those movements as justification to shame/belittle people who make choices that are different from theirs, what would you suggest as a considerate, compassionate, but firm response that, in essence, asks them to back off? (That’s a sincere question, not meant to be some kind of “challenge” or anything.)

As someone who, while embracing HAES/FA, has been embarking on a eat more healthily/move more plan for the past few months, this is something I’ve thought about A LOT. (Also how to reconcile both of those in my mind.) Basically, what I would say is, “I’m making a well-informed choice about what I want to do with my body. I’m aware of the arguments on both sides of the spectrum, and this is what I’ve decided is best for me. Just like I would never judge you for whatever choices you’re making, I hope you’ll allow me to make mine without condemnation.”

“I’m making a well-informed choice about what I want to do with my body. I’m aware of the arguments on both sides of the spectrum, and this is what I’ve decided is best for me. Just like I would never judge you for whatever choices you’re making, I hope you’ll allow me to make mine without condemnation.”

I love this Cherri. It says, I’m making my choice, and I don’t begrudge you making yours.

Yeah, I feel like some people really take HAES and run it into some pretty dangerous areas. They’ll encourage self-diagnosis because obviously EVERY doctor who suggests that a patient lose weight is prejudiced, no matter what the reasoning or diagnosis is. They use HAES as support for their baseless announcements that they’re definitely healthy even though they’re bigger; in reality, no one who hasn’t seen a doctor recently has any idea whether or not they’re healthy. I’m thin, and I have no fucking idea if I’m healthy. Methinks “healthy” is the new “curvy.”

I think my biggest issue with people on both sides of the spectrum is the automatic assumption that a person is not doing what they’re doing (whether it be accepting themselves as is or trying to change an element of themselves) for themselves, but for someone else or to reap some unattainable benefit (i.e. if I lose weight the perfect man will want me).

Personally speaking, I’m opting for different lifestyle choices because I don’t like the way I look in the mirror, how I feel in my clothes, or the knowledge that because of my families health history, I could potentially be causing myself serious medical harm 10 or 20 years down the road. I see it as a goal I want to accomplish…just like going back to school or getting my apartment organized to my liking or putting money in my savings account…it’s something that is going to benefit me in the future, whether that be near or far. Thus, I’m doing it for myself and not for anyone else.

That’s a really good point: making assumptions about people’s motivations can be really unfair and certainly doesn’t further understanding of any perspective. Plus, if you assume you know what a person’s motivation is, and then you turn out to be wrong, how can your advice be any help? :)

I really, really enjoyed this.

I would say more, but I’m not half as articulate as you and it would just basically be a lot of “I agree with this and also all of this and this too.” The choices that other people make in regards to diet and exercise are just non of my business.

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