I 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.