“Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.” – Ashley Judd (an excellent article about the ridicule of female bodies and the role of patriarchy)
|Meg & me after 26.2 miles|
If you had told me a year ago that I would be proud of myself for a measly 3 mile run this morning, I would’ve thought you were crazy. This time last year I had just completed a half marathon with my mom and a few months prior to that I had completed my second full marathon with an amazing friend. I was in great shape and my self-esteem was probably at an all time high. Fast forward a year and I’ve gained almost 15 pounds, my self-esteem has plummeted and I’m embarrassed to say I’m proud of myself for completing a 3 mile run this morning. My oh my, how things change.
I feel the need to write about this not to document my 16 year struggle with my weight, but to discuss body image, confidence, and patriarchy (specifically for me in light of the dissertation process). In the past year I have been awarded an amazing fellowship, conducted 7 months of field work, written over half of my dissertation, been accepted to amazing conferences and journals, and landed my dream job. My confidence and self-esteem should be soaring. I should be focused on my accomplishments. I should have little room for self-doubt and insecurities. I should be high-fiving myself or fist bumping or at least taking a shot to celebrate. But…instead, lately all I can think is “I’ve gained almost 15 pounds, woe is me.” Seriously, that’s what I’m concerned about right now? I’m embarrassed to admit it, but yes, I feel like some sort of failure because I wasn’t able to balance my crazy dissertation year with a healthy lifestyle. I want to deny it, but honestly, I feel like a failure for gaining weight – I KNOW this is stupid, but I have to admit that so I can deal with why I feel this way.
|Mom and me after our first full marathon|
You might be thinking, well if you’re so embarrassed about it why are you broadcasting it on your blog? Because, in addition to being embarrassed about gaining weight, I’m even more embarrassed that I feel shame about it, which then makes me more frustrated and it’s a vicious cycle. A cycle that I can only begin to break by talking about it and dealing with it. As a feminist and a Christian I want to deny any relationship between my weight and my confidence. I often give friends pep talks about their own body image issues and yet, here I am feeling utterly depressed and embarrassed because of my own weight issues. I don’t want to let my weight determine my confidence level or worth and in theory I would never say that it does. I want to be proud of what I’ve accomplished instead of depressed about my weight…but I’m not. At least not yet.
This is a tangible and real reminder to me of the consequences of living in a patriarchal society completely obsessed with the ideal female image. There’s been a lot of attacks on women’s rights lately which devalue the autonomy, agency, and worth of women, our bodies, our careers, and our minds. In these instances it’s easy to point a finger, mumble something about the ongoing effects of patriarchal society, or to get angry and fight for our worth and value as women. In these moments it’s easy for me to be angry at patriarchy and to believe that politically things are screwed up but at least I am not contributing to the problems.
But the tendrils of a misogynist, patriarchal society which continues to objectify women and scrutinize our bodies run very deep and are often much more subtle than overt political attacks. And as I’ve been struggling with shifting my focus to my accomplishments and away from my body, I am reminded that even as a proud, successful, autonomous woman surrounded by amazing female friends and a supportive boyfriend and family, I am not immune to the consequences of a “female body as object and therefore reflection of worth” mindset. Try as I may to resist it, the misogynistic, scrutinizing and ridicule of the female body affects me in real, although often subtle, ways. I am not immune and by feeling ashamed of my weight gain and therefore keeping silent about the shame, I am contributing to the abuse women lavish upon ourselves and others every day. We suffer silently because we are ashamed. Let me be clear, nobody else has made me feel bad about my body, none of my friends or family or my boyfriend seem to care, this is self-inflicted abuse as a result of the misogynistic society in which we all live.
As Ashley Judd continues to write:
“I ask especially how we can leverage strong female-to-female alliances to confront and change that there is no winning here as women. It doesn’t actually matter if we are aging naturally, or resorting to surgical assistance. We experience brutal criticism. The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others.”
|Mom and me after our first half marathon|
I am writing about this on my blog for two reasons. One, I want to encourage the female-to-female alliance. Instead of being ashamed about my body image or weight gain, I want to be able to openly discuss it, to push back against a society that has made me feel this way, and encourage other women to openly and honestly push back as well. I should not feel embarrassed to have gained weight and I certainly shouldn’t feel shame! I hope by talking about it other women will also begin to push back against the shame they feel about their weight, their acne, their boobs, their wrinkles, their gray hair, etc.
Two, I want to make sure that losing weight is for me and not for others. I want to get back into shape, control my eating, train for another marathon, and feel healthy again. I want to say I am doing this for me and me alone. I want to say this is to boost my self-esteem and confidence. But the truth is, my self-esteem and confidence should have never been attached to my dress size in the first place. I want to do this for me, but I know deep down that what I want is the approval of society. I want to put on a swimsuit this summer and feel confident, but what that really means is I don’t want to feel judged by everyone at the lake, I don’t want to feel shame! It’s about others, others living in a patriarchal society which constantly judges a woman’s success by her waistline.
As I continue to get back into shape my prayer is that for the first time in my life I really do it for ME, because I want to feel good, I want to be healthy, and I want to please myself – not escape judgement. But more than that, I want to accept my body the way it is…here, today, now – an acceptance that isn’t conditional on future weight loss but a compassionate, proud, and shame-free acceptance of how I look today. The ways in which we scrutinize our own bodies leads to self-abuse (mentally, and sadly for some women even physically), we must not only accept ourselves but find compassion for ourselves. Yea, it’s been a stressful year and I gained some weight, that’s OK!
|The support of amazing friends!|
All of this is to say that I know I’m not the only one struggling with these issues. I’ve struggled with managing my weight and self-esteem since I hit puberty. Generally speaking I’ve learned to manage both my weight and my confidence; I’ve learned to be more accepting of my body. When I run marathons I’m most proud of my what body is capable of, not what it looks like. But in light of the dissertation and all the things I’ve accomplished and been blessed with this past year, it has struck me as particularly frustrating, disappointing, and sad that I am this concerned about my weight. I’ve realized that I shouldn’t be angry at myself, but angry at a society which makes me feel this way. I can do my tiny part to counter a discourse which scrutinizes and ridicules the female body, but at the end of the day it starts with me and my acceptance of my own body – not for others’ sake, but for my own.