Write a dissertation, gain some weight: Reflections on body issues, gender, and patriarchy

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. 

11 thoughts on “Write a dissertation, gain some weight: Reflections on body issues, gender, and patriarchy

  1. Awesome post, Jac. I know it must have been a challenge to hit "publish" on this one, but I think it's going to help a lot of people to read it, and hopefully it'll help you to have put it out there. I've been thinking a lot about this stuff. I have my own issues about my appearance and my health. I've been working toward making some changes to try to be healthier, but it's hard not to let it get contaminated by self-criticism and internalized misogyny, which always seem to sabotage any progress I might make. At the same time, I've been studying theories on self-concept, self-esteem, and related ideas in my classes and reading about some Buddhist ideas about the way we relate to ourselves and coming to some new conclusions that seem to be helping. Here's what I'm starting to see. Self-esteem is a pretty fragile thing. It's largely based on comparing ourselves to others (and there's always someone we can find to compare ourselves to and find ourselves wanting), it's often excessively tied to one's appearance, and it vacillates a lot depending on our external circumstances. It might sound weird, but part of what makes us vulnerable to these patriarchal standards is our dependence on self-esteem. One of my professors, Kristin Neff, is a big proponent of the Buddhist idea of self-compassion as an alternative to the emphasis on self-esteem (she even wrote a self-help book on it, which I keep meaning to check out). Self-compassion isn't dependent on our appearance, accomplishments, other people's approval, etc. It's based on mindfully being there for ourselves and recognizing the imperfection we have in common with all of humanity. Even though she took this idea from Buddhism, I think it also meshes really well with the Christian view of human beings as fundamentally imperfect but still worthy of unconditional love and forgiveness. I read this great quote in a Pema Chodron book (Start Where You Are) that I've been reading. She writes: As long as you're wanting to be thinner, smarter, more enlightened, less uptight, or whatever it might be, somehow you're always going to be approaching your problem with the very same logic that created it to begin with: you're not good enough. That's why the habitual pattern never unwinds itself when you're trying to improve, because you go about it in exactly the same habitual style that caused all the pain to start. When I read that bit I felt a big shock of recognition. I'm still working on figuring out what it looks like when I don't do this habitual, self-critical pattern, but I think I'm starting to make some progress. This post seems to me like a really good step in a similar direction–away from shame and silence and toward self-acceptance. And just reading it feels like it is chipping away a little bit at my own shame and stuckness. So thank you.


  2. Thanks so much for your comment and perspective Susan, I really appreciate it. I love the idea of not depending on self-esteem. It's a weird paradoxical effect that by constantly focusing on self esteem (particularly girls and women) we're actually reinforcing the idea that our value comes from comparisons. Even healthy self-esteem is often wrapped up in a discourse of "not caring what others think" rather than one of acceptance and compassion for our weaknesses, failures, and limitations, which as you note, we all have. I've also been thinking a lot about this, first in light of my own frustration that I still care about body image, but lately I've realized that I'm actually ashamed to talk about it – ashamed to say I'm embarrassed I've gained weight and ashamed to say I'm embarrassed by my own embarrassment. I think the internalization and silence fosters this shame for so many women. I want to start to talk about it not just for the camaraderie gained from other women's shared stories, but also because I want to stop being ashamed in the first place.Thanks so much for sharing, I love your insight!


  3. Thank you for sharing! This is my favorite part: "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."The part where you reflect on all your accomplishments! I would add too that it's a bit twisted because we live in a culture that, if we go with the socio-cultural flow, will not really allow us to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This is America, we have to really try hard just to be a little bit healthy. So it makes sense that as you are trying really hard to do some other things (like you know be a famous feminist academic) you may lose some of your "try' energy on another count. I understand the frustration for sure!!! And the trap of feeling like someone wants to slim down for personal and self-esteem reasons then also realizing that that is part of this big ugly system that Ashley Judd points out! Hearing you talk about things in that way is very empowering for me as a reader, so thank you so much! I just kissed the sweet little fat roll peeking over my skirt waist band and said THANK YOU FOR BEING A FEMINIST. 😉


  4. Wow Jacq, excellent blog. I can't help but think about how less than one week after that picture was snapped of us at the marathon that I was reduced to a blubbering, self-pitying mess because my gyno noted that I had gained weight in the past year. Thank you for facilitating this conversation. We cannot begin to end this cycle of self-imposed shame until we, as women and a society, admit that there's a real problem here. On a side note: I think you are an amazing, talented, and beautiful woman (inside and out). Remember on those days when you get down that you have a whole network of friends and family who think you are awesome and are very blessed to have you in their lives.


  5. Thanks Laura, you're so right. From a practical standpoint it is so hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle in our society, but of course this logic does little to help our mindset. I appreciate the comment and support! Thanks Meg, and yes I thought of you and your experience when I was writing this. Thanks for sharing in this with me and for all the support 🙂


  6. Thank you so much for writing this, Jac, and sharing it with people. I admire your bravery in being open and honest with your experience. So many of us have these internal battles and keep them bottled-up, which is, of course, part of the systematic, ideological, everyday project of patriarchy. I admire even more (as if that was possible) for this posting. This whole wedding endeavor has pulled out of me some of my darkest demons, one most prominently being body and appearance issues (not in the least dealing with my ongoing 20-year struggle with acne). Needless to say, I've been a bit of an emotional mess these days, and it was healing in a sense to read this. I love you very much and am so thankful to have you in my life! Susan, thank you, too, for your comment on the blog. You're amazing!


  7. Pema Chodron is great – – and the passage Susan highlighted stuck with me as soon as I read it myself a few months back … it's interesting how reliant we've become on the concept of 'self esteem', which is now used in a weird, neoliberal and postfeminist way… like if we don't have high self esteem we need to "work" on ourselves to get it…. and it really creates another thing to be stressed about!


  8. Hey! Great post! This has been very encouraging to read as I face my post-wedding weight gain and think about all the message that we are sent on a daily basis as women. I can't even tell you how many emails and ads I received before the wedding about everything from hair removal to teeth whitening to diet after diet after diet… This can be very discouraging as it causes us to look at all that is wrong instead of all that is right. Thanks for the great message, friend!


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