Body Sovereignty: Tracing the Relationship Between Feminism & Fat by Sydney Bell


Sydney BellAcknowledging and responding to feminine divine energy is an inherently radical, feminist act. With age my feminism and spiritual path have become inexorably intertwined and I have become more comfortable and confident in my identity as a daughter of the goddess, a priestess, and as a feminist. My feminism is continually being shaped by a call to serve the goddess in a variety of ways, particularly in response to an activating third element in my feminist goddess path (no surprise for fellow triad lovers who practice a Celtic spiritual path).  This third activating element is my relationship with my body and my work to reclaim Body Sovereignty.  

As with many readers of this site, mine is not an uncommon journey. I’ve heard the stories of  women whose feminism and/or goddess path has either sparked or been sparked by their desire to have a positive relationship with their body and break free from oppressive cultural body norms.  I believe many feminists realize societal expectations of beauty are restrictive and contain a harmful element of required thinness. Yet even among feminists there seems to be a reluctance to engage in a collective response to weight stigma and the oppression and injustice faced by fat people. This is perplexing considering the available data demonstrating inequities in areas like educational attainment, employment, income, and access to healthcare due to body size (see list of data sources below).

When trying to understand this strained relationship between feminism and weight stigma I’ve found it helpful to look at the historical relationship between the two.  A great resource is Amy Farrell’s book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. Farrell takes us to the early years of the feminist movement and suggests that the politics of fatness or body size was not explored by the first feminists.  Interestingly, as the fight for women’s right to vote raged in the early 19th century, Farrell points out that the attack used by both the suffragettes and those working against women’s right to vote was to publish political cartoons with unflattering ‘fat’ images representing their respective opponents. It wasn’t until the second wave of feminism in the 60’s and 70’s when Susie Orbach’s ground-breaking work Fat is a Feminist Issue opened up the discussion of body size through a gendered lens and set the tone for early feminist thinking about body size.  

Unfortunately Orbach’s approach was to pathologize body fat arguing the case that women are fat because they overeat as a response to their oppressed state within patriarchy. Orbach believed women who broke free of patriarchal restrictions would not overeat and return to a thinner, and presumably healthier, body weight. This argument has contributed to our cultural belief that unlike other oppressions – like race or different ability – appearance, especially body size, is something women have control over and can change. Even within feminist circles that recognized fat women were treated unfairly, the underlying belief that fat women could become thin if they tried hard enough cast them as personally responsible for the discrimination they faced.

With the third wave of feminism an increased understanding of the impacts of body shame and weight stigma was birthed. More recently there have been explorations into weight stigma and how it intersects with other oppressions like poverty or race. However, the idea that larger bodies are inherently unhealthy and body shape and size are within our control remains a battleground which is repressing a broad based feminist response to weight stigma.  

There are emerging schools of thought and research that are casting a critical eye on the idea that in order to be healthy one must be thin, and that anyone can be thin if they try hard enough, but many feminists refrain from fully supporting this fight against weight stigma because weight stigma isn’t seen as serious as other issues. Recently, a client told me that she struggles with acknowledging the many negative impacts of weight stigma because she feels there are so many other people struggling with more serious issues like poverty and racism. Due to weight stigma she doesn’t feel entitled to acknowledge and respond to her own pain, and the battle rages on.

For feminists, it should be intrinsically understood that there is nothing to be gained from comparing one oppression to another; that one group is more or less deserving of support in the fight to end oppression.  It is in this light Body Sovereignty brings together spirituality and feminism, shining a light on weight stigma and looking for ways to encourage feminists to join together in speaking out and finding our way out of the oppression and conquer weight stigma. Body Sovereignty is about gathering collective feminist and spiritual strength to embrace our beautifully diverse and divine bodies.

 

Sources:

Farrell, A. E. (2011). Fat shame: Stigma and the fat body in American culture. NYU Press.

Fikkan, J. L., & Rothblum, E. D. (2012). “Is fat a feminist issue? Exploring the gendered nature of weight bias.” Sex Roles 66: 9-10, 575-592.

Maclnnis, B. (1993). Fat oppression. Consuming passions: Feminist approaches to weight preoccupation and eating disorders, 69.

Orbach, S. (1998). Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-diet Guide for Women+ Fat is a Feminist. Random House.

 

Sydney Bell is a social worker, writer and counselor. Through her practice, Embracing the Body Divine, she works with people to reclaim their Body Sovereignty by developing unconditional positive regard and trust in their body through the practices of self compassion, mindfulness and discernment. She is the author of the Reclaiming Body Sovereignty Workbook, a five-part guide to reclaiming body sovereignty by learning about and integrating the elements of Mindfulness, Self Compassion, and Discernment into daily life. Also find Sydney on Facebook at Embracing the Body Divine.

 

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Categories: Body, Feminism, General, Herstory, Sovereignty

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16 replies

  1. Thanks for an important post.

    My memory is that in the 70s and 80s there was a lot of discussion of it being fine to be fat, despite the media, etc.–esp in the Goddess movement and in lesbian feminist circles. In slideshows of Goddess imagery, it was commonly stated that the Venus of Willendorf and other pre-patriarchal Goddesses were images that affirmed women who were not slender.

    Obviously feminist ideas about the wide range of female beauty did not take root in popular culture, with the dress code for business becoming ever more restrictive (unless 5 inch heels and multiple plastic surgeries are really liberating). Maybe the current cultural situation is the reason it is forgotten that there was a wide-ranging discussion of beauty standards and clothing choices going on among feminists in the 70s and 80s.

    This obviously is a discussion we need to have again.

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    • Thanks, Carol – I’m glad for your interest and the feedback. I am curious about how the issue of weight and health was understood in the communities you refer to during the 70’s and 80’s. I would like to understand better if there was an attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance that I feel we struggle with today between the unconditional self acceptance that comes with resisting patriarchal notions of beauty and the deeply ingrained fear that fat is intrinsically unhealthy (to the point where language like ‘obesity epidemic’ is used). Cheers!

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      • I don’t remember the specifics of the discussion regarding health. But remember this was also the hey-day of the women’s health movement. Also there was a critique of dress standards for work, leading to women beginning to wear pants, pantsuits, and lower heeled shoes to work.

        What do you think on the question of weight and health?

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      • My memories of the 1970s and 1980s in the Women’s Spirituality Movement are similar to Carol’s. When a Goddess of Willendorf or other non-slender goddess was on the altar, someone (sometimes me, sometimes other women) noted that her shape affirmed women who looked like Her. This also happened in the 1990s and the 2000s, and I’m sure it’s still happening today (I’m just not in a ritual group these days).

        Also when Orbach’s book came out, the groups I was associated with appreciated her association of fat phobia with patriarchy, but not her belief that women would become thin again once they broke free of patriarchy and stopped eating so much.

        I’m overweight as defined by the medical establishment (BMI or 25 – 29.9), and just recently I saw a chart that showed that my BMI (around 26) is statistically the best in terms of health outcomes. Who’s deciding these designations — underweight, normal weight, overweight, obese? They seems crazy to me!

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  2. Thanks for this important reminder. Trying to conform to unrealistic and unhealthy social norms regarding body size can be a life and death issue to the women, and men, who starve and purge. When I look at excessively thin women in ads and in the media it seems almost as if their creators are trying to make women literally disappear, literally become invisible. Those goddesses who showed that women have not always been shamed into being thin were very revelational to me as a young woman, as are the many images of women from other times and other cultures today where being larger is prized. I do remember all those discussions Carol mentions – and what a frustration that the situation seems to have only gotten worse.

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    • Hi Carolyn,
      I also find it interesting to explore beauty norms across time and cultures as a way to understand how our ideas of beauty and health are shaped by cultural and political forces. I think this is helpful because we seem to accept that a certain look is idealized because that is just the way it is..natural law or something. Learning that politics impact what we consider beautiful I think is freeing because we realize idealized beauty is constructed by outside forces, with an agenda.

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      • My experience going to India in the late 1970s was enlightening for me. As a womewhat overweight women, I was delighted to discover that my body shape was the one that was prized there. In a country where starvation is a real possibility, it’s good to have a little extra weight.

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  3. I know someone who is a recovering anorexic, but I’ve never had a conversation with her about why she tried to starve herself and nearly die. Having read your post, I’m curious to learn if my friend considers herself a feminist. I’m inspired to have this conversation with her now. Thanks for writing this blog!

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  4. I do not have a weight issue (unless it is that I am too thin) but I am struck as a feminist by how infrequently the connection is made between feminist mind/body and spirituality. In order to feel whole both mind and body need to be operating harmoniously with one another. There is a deadly force in the culture that wants women’s bodies to disappear or to appear younger – and self acceptance is hard to achieve under this kind of oppression. And I agree with Carolyn – the situation only appears to have become worse.

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  5. Thank you for this very fine post, Sydney. A comment on this important statement of yours, where you say: “I’ve heard the stories of women whose feminism and/or goddess path has either sparked or been sparked by their desire to have a positive relationship with their body and break free from oppressive cultural body norms.”

    I’ve linked my name here to a webpage focusing on GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1887-1986), not just her paintings, but also scroll down for some gorgeous photos of her as she aged, and truly looking elderly. And yes, you can see the aging of her body, and with deep lines in her face. Nevertheless, every photo I’ve seen of O’Keeffe is as beautiful as her paintings. But that should be true of everyone, because every gift we give is part of our person, our goodness, our beauty.

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  6. Great post, enjoyed the ideas here on sovereignty of the body, something I’ve never thought about before, very interesting.

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  7. Thank you, Sydney, for this post. Your discussion of Orbach reminds me of a friend who once shared with me a story of how she left what had been a spiritual circle of hers after the leader (operating on ideas that seem very similar to Orbach’s as you’ve described them) shamed her repeated in front of the group about how her size was a reflection of her inability to put into practice the spiritual ideals and practices they’d been studying as part of their circle. Theorizing in this way about weight sets up an arbitrary situation in which some people are judged according to traits that have no bearing on spiritual advancement or lack thereof, and people don’t grow from being made to hate their bodies.

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    • Thank you, Christy. My heart goes out to your friend as I faced a similar situation when I was in my early twenties, and it took me years to move past the shame. I hope your friend has found her way forward.

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  8. Thanks, Sydney, for this important post. Keep up the good work!

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  9. Synchronistically, I just discovered a video on the Goddess without Borders FB page that breaks down the stereotype of slender, white yoga practitioner. We need to continue to combat these stereotypes, as Sydney points out, and we’re doing it in the Goddess Movement. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/790344004440442/.

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