Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A mental room of one's own

Via Phoebe, a Slate article by a young writer who undertakes an expensive and difficult new exercise and dieting regimen in order to lose weight for her wedding. At the end of the piece, she tries to cast this project as feminist, basically arguing that this is not really about vanity but in fact about health.

As Phoebe says, there's nothing wrong, per se, with paying someone to show you how to lift weights and doing so regularly yourself (I've done it and so has my husband, although not in anticipation of the wedding). Nor, perhaps, is there with setting a still-healthy but lower-than-necessary body weight. But -- again as Phoebe says in that post -- it's a bit silly to claim that this is somehow less objectionable than the more traditional and usually classified as not very feminist beauty rituals.

What I find particularly pernicious about exhortations to difficult weight loss regimens is that they demand so much more time than the traditional beauty rituals. I had a friend in high school who once observed to me that every night when she sat down to do her homework, she heard a little voice in her head saying "You ought to be burning calories! You ought to be burning calories!" And, like, she knew she more or less had to do her homework; failing out of high school or not attending college were not especially viable options for her. Nonetheless, constantly, there was this distracting voice.

The more conventional kinds of beauty rituals don't demand that much of you, time-wise. The skin care gurus ask for fifteen minutes a night and maybe a facial every few weeks. Conventional wisdom has it that maintaining the right hairstyle takes a few minutes of styling in the morning and a Saturday afternoon at a nice salon every six to eight weeks. Even my wedding makeup took less than half an hour to apply, and the gurus usually say that you're set for the day following fifteen minutes of application in the morning.

The health mavens ask much more. There is the daily or near-daily workout of the variety that Grose describes in the article. There was the specialized diet that she had to follow, and all the explanations it entails -- no to the co-worker offering you a slice of birthday cake, no to the friend offering you a glass of champagne to celebrate her engagement, or no to the study group members just agreeing to take a break and get Papa Johns for dinner. It's true that Grose's restrictions were short term, and that many people break down and say yes in some of these situations, figuring that good habits the rest of the time can buy them such indulgences. Still, the health mavens often do extract guilt from those who say yes to such occasional temptations.

I don't think it's an accident that the most over-the-top men's rights type websites focus so much of their ire on heavy women. Surely the PUA gurus don't find blotchy skin, chapped lips, or acne attractive. Such tarnishes on female beauty are readily apparent any workday riding the Metro or walking around my city and I imagine most others. Yet the ratio of angry PUA posts inveighing about why more women should diet or work out more frequently vs. those about the need for more lip gloss or expensive facials is steep indeed. It's almost as if what they want -- consciously or not -- is for women to feel guilty every waking second that they don't spend on pursuits designed to please men. They show relatively little interest in telling women to fix what they can at the margin -- five seconds putting on a gloss that will make the lips look a little bit bigger and fuller -- and instead leap to "must spending your every waking hour on a treadmill."

The orthodox feminist response to pieces like Grose's is usually to say that women ought to strive for "self-acceptance" at whatever weight they are at. This is sort of true, but also sort of wrong. What ought to be feminists' goal should be something like a mental mini-version of Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own. I've struggled with how to put this as this post languishes in Save as Draft form, but the broad idea is that there ought to be mental space away from the need to please men. The self-acceptance people remind me too much of the dreadful middle school workshops on body image where we had to stand around and recite affirmations like "I love the body the way I am." It sounded craven, ridiculous, and redolent of fundamentalist religious cults that sensible adults were generally urging me not to join. No, what I want for young girls like my high school friend is something like the ability to shut off the repeated voice saying "You ought to be burning calories!" in favor of a voice saying "Yes, but one has to do work now." By the grace of work, by the knowledge that work is important, the burning calories voice then yields to the work voice. And only in doing so does one ever attain the kind of incandescence that Woolf prized. There's no self-acceptance in her vision of incandescence; one becomes a vessel of something else in Woolf's vision, and the self sort of fades away entirely. Modern feminists would do better to cast their arguments about body image anxieties in terms of "These worries are a distraction from the pursuit of incandescence," rather than to focus on the goofy cult rituals about "self-acceptance."

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