“You Look Trim” and Resisting the Tyranny of Thinness by Xochitl Alvizo

Incarnation, Goddess spirituality, Xochitl Alvizo, god became fleshI caught myself reinforcing the norm. The ever present default of focusing on women’s body size and prioritizing their weight gain and loss. I did this with a colleague/friend of mine. After not seeing one another for most of the summer, my first comment to her was about her thinning waistline.

We greeted each other excitedly as we discovered the unexpected surprise that we were both attending the same pre-semester training. But following our warm greeting, and just as we went to sit down with our lunch, I commented to her that she looked more trim. She responded, “That’s the best compliment anyone could have given me – thank you!”

My heart sank a little as I realized what I had done. The first time I see her in months, of all that she is and all the amazing qualities she has, my attention and commentary went to her waistline – to paying attention to the size of her body. I felt such disappointment in myself. And in that moment it also hit me that I wasn’t only doing this with her, I had recently been doing this with myself as well.

In August I took an 11-day long trip to Italy. I’m not much of a traveler, but I was extended an opportunity that allowed me to go visit Rome, Amalfi, and Florence. It almost goes without saying that I enjoyed a lot of delicious food, and because our small group of travelers ate all our meals out in restaurants, I ate differently and I ate more than I usually would have if I had been at home. Discussion about our weight gain and comments about the amount of exercise we would have to do once we returned home was frequent among us…though not quite all of us. We were a group of three women and two men, and unsurprisingly, it was us women who talked about it the most. I am certain all of our waistlines were feeling the strain after 11 days of eating in Italy, but it was among us women that commentary on our body size and weight gain prevailed.

“No surprise there,” some might say. But I was surprised, and disappointed. I am someone who tries to be conscientious about the impact this kind of scrutiny on women’s bodies has on women. I see how the tyranny of thinness consumes women’s minds and energies; how it promotes unrealistic ideals of what a woman should look like and instills unhealthy habits aimed at controlling, contorting, and punishing our bodies for not fitting the ideal. So how could it be that I so easily fell back under the tyranny of thinness and served as its spokesperson? 

Perhaps, and more appropriately, the question should be – how could this not be the case? Focusing on women’s bodies – their size, their weight gain and losses – is a societal habit. It is part of the social make-up that becomes inscribed in our bodies (see Pierre Bourdieu’s work on habitus for more on this). Prioritizing women’s looks as that which is of most value, and should be most valued, is a primary activity of the dominant culture, and is part of the social tissue we inhabit and by which we are inhabited. Scrutinizing women’s bodies, abstracted from the whole of who they are, is a societal habit we internalize as default; it takes intentional and conscientious effort to resist and unlearn it.

So yes, I fell back under the sway of the tyranny of thinness. I caught myself in its grip and spoke as its representative. I was disappointed in myself, but I am not overcome. While it is difficult to break out of old habits and practice embodying new ones, it is both possible and necessary.

My colleague speaks three languages; she teaches in two distinct fields; she is strong, generous, kind, and fun. She is a complex, wholistic human force unto herself. I do not want to fall into the societal pattern of prioritizing her physical appearance above all other aspects of her being. It is part of our social practice of dehumanization – the greater brunt of which falls on women. So I press my reset button, committed not to reinforce this damaging norm. I want us all to keep each other’s full humanity in scope, in all its complexity and beauty, and refuse to reduce each other to our size and weight. Let us resist, rebel, revolt!


Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and mujerista. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge.

Categories: Body, Embodiment, General, Sexism

Tags: , ,

13 replies

  1. Molo Xochitl,

    Yes, our embodied (or rather bodied) selves are at the focus of our social interactions. This, is in part, due to the pathologised nature of understanding a healthy human body and the vitality that can enrich our lives in a holistic sense.
    It is far better to strive for health in all domains of our existence. Such attainment nullifies the distractions of discourses and misleading normativity.



  2. Hi! I enjoyed your commentary and understand exactly what you are saying. Recently, I wrote an essay on this topic exactly, regarding my weight, weight loss and weight gain. Maybe you will enjoy it! Thanks for your sensitive and honest thoughts :) https://carlageeblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/carla-gee/


  3. It is, alas, lots easier to notice body size that is standing right in front of you than it is to see all the other qualities a woman personifies, like intelligence, linguistic abilities, etc. Do we need to learn to look inside, so to speak, to see those other qualities? Not make comments before we’ve had some conversation?


  4. There does seem to be a lot of interest in women’s body size, or lack of it! In No. America we are encouraged to look like Twiggy. But when I was in Spain the clerk in a store was delighted with my friend’s size, exclaiming: “Muy Grande!” and patting her arm numerous times!

    Of course, besides fashion, style, etc., there is the question of health and the very unhealthy food many No. Americans eat. I had a feeling from your friend’s response that she had been working hard at eating healthy food and being strong. So your comment might have recognized her efforts in the face of the ads for sugary drinks, salty snacks, and quick meals requiring no preparation or love.

    I was thinking that men didn’t have this focus, and then remembered the guys spending hours in a gym toning muscles and trying to look “buff”.

    You could write a whole book about this subject! Where is the balance between superficial, sexist, body image and healthy,strong, loved body? All kinds of questions surface to think about as I munch on my breakfast.


  5. Xochitl,,I’m so glad to hear your voice on FAR again. You’re right that we all spend a lot of time checking out women’s bodies (Aren’t they marvelous! Function and beauty together!). I don’t think I ever talk about weight gain with women friends. But with close women friends, I do note weight loss WHEN I KNOW they’ve been trying to lose weight — since this is also a health issue, and I want my friends to be healthy.

    However, on a related topic, for the same reason you (and I) shy away from weight comments, in the early part of the women’s movement, I didn’t give compliments on women’s appearance in any way, i.e. clothes, jewelry, haircut, etc. But in the last few decades I’ve been doing that again and not feeling bad about it. We all need to be noticed, to be appreciated, and these little compliments open us up to each other, start conversations on a positive note, and help us get along. “That’s a great color for you,” I told an older acquaintance recently. And she glowed at my statement, just as your colleague accepted what you said as a compliment. So be gentle with yourself. Sometimes we err in ways that aren’t even recognized, but accepted as something positive.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Resist, rebel, revolt!

    Yes! And in all sorts of ways about all sorts of things. Great mantra!

    Great to hear your voice back on FAR Xochitl and thanks for your thoughts on this complex topic and the reflections that have resulted.

    Be well


  7. Xochitl,
    Thank you for writing this! I’m struck by your friend’s comment: “That’s the best compliment anyone could have given me – thank you!” While I do agree with you, that we should not be reduced to our bodily properties, and our waistlines should not be the primary things we assess our own worth by, is it ever acceptable to give a compliment on one’s weight loss or appearance to make them feel good? While our bodies are only part of what we are, they are nonetheless a glorious, beautiful part of our being.

    What I’m trying to say is that I hope we find ways of complimenting and affirming each other that are neither thin-centric nor body-denying. As Nancy points out, some people try very hard to lose weight and find it difficult. Should we resist acknowledging their accomplishment if we know it was motivated mainly by a desire to achieve a certain look, rather than health? I’m sincerely asking the question because I’m not sure of the answer.


  8. Yes, I hear you Elise and Nancy. I think it does make sense to give such a compliment, especially, as Nancy notes, when it reflects back someone’s own aims. And it does feel nice to receive compliments too; to be told how great we look or how something looks terrific on us – for sure. I don’t want to take away from that. I’m just wary of where my own comment to may friend was coming from – was it a transference of the undue scrutiny I was giving my own body recently? What it from a place of wrongly placing value on a “thinner” waistline for women?

    Really, the best way to express myself, I think, is to reference Nancy’s words: “So be gentle with yourself.” That’s really what I want. That’s what I want the source of my words to be – gentleness. So, my question to myself in this post was…was my compliment to my friend coming out of a place of gentleness and care, or of an internalization of valuing *one* particular size/type of women’s body, the thin one that continually bombards us in every source of media in this Western world?

    Gentle, compassionate, heartfelt compliments – yes! You all are awesome and do my heart good :)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great insight Xochitl! Thanks for your honesty–the default to affirming weight loss and the from what I perceive to be the discomfort of weight gain. Our society is conditioned to reward thinness and suspect or devalue those who are deemed too heavy. I have been putting readings together for a class just on this, weight, body image and faith. A good start is Lisa Isherwood’s text, The Fat Jesus: Christianity and Body Image.


  10. Hi Xochitl!
    Thank you for your post. This piece made me think about a situation I find myself in regarding this tyranny of thinness. There are some people in my life who have repeatedly expressed “their concern” for my weight, not for the depression that lead to a weight gain of twenty pounds in a few months (a couple years back), not for the overall picture of my health during my pregnancy (last year) that actually belied the idea that all big bodies are unhealthy bodies, but overt concern for how I would lose weight to ‘appear’ healthy again.
    Since my pre-pregnancy high, I have actually lost twenty pounds, exercising more and taking better care of me… But the same people don’t notice this.
    I lost the weight for me, not for them- but , if I thought that weight loss would change their acceptance of my body, I was quite mistaken, as they reminded me a few days ago that I am, and will always be, the biggest girl in that group…
    What this all reminds me: some women’s bodies are never acceptable in our cultural climate of body shame, sexual fear, fear of pleasure, fear of difference, etc.

    Like Nancy and Elise, I too think there is a place for a compliment– but the positive body attention from people who genuinely care for and know your whole embodied self is sooo important.

    Like Nancy and Elise,


  11. Yes, thank you, friends. Cynthie, thanks for making that point – that was exactly part of my fear – that I was participating in our society’s pattern of rewarding thinness, and by implication, devaluing those deemed too heavy. And Sara, yes, to know and care for the whole embodied self – that’s what I want my compliments to reflect. So, Margarete – yes – resist, rebel, revolt! There is so much to which that can be applied.

    Thank you all for your comments – all of them.


  12. Love this post–and you!


  13. Hey Xochitl, I hear you, but as someone who is waging an uphill battle to lose at 10 pounds–for reasons of health AND vanity, I welcome any positive reinforcement! So please do tell me I look a tad trimmer! I have yet to reach the half way mark of losing 5 lbs after more than a month of hard work (OK, OK, I did not work hard enough!) and Christmas and pudding and all manner of good eating and good cooking are approaching. Help! I do identify with your sentiments though! aloha, Dawn


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