Taking Up Space… Or Not

Mass media is used to spread messages about what’s normal, what’s not normal, what’s expected and what is to be avoided. These messages are crucial for young children learning to navigate society. The power of mass media to spread these messages increased exponentially with the birth of advertising and the increasing number of household televisions in the 1960’s.

In these early media the messages about how to be a “good woman” were overt. A Google image search for “1960’s advertising women” yields thousands of results, all depicting clear messaging about the role a woman was expected to play. An advertisement for men’s ties declares “Show her it’s a man’s world” and features a woman sitting at her husband’s bedside serving him breakfast while he lounges. The ad barely even shows the ties. An ad for Kellogg’s cereal states “The harder a wife works the cuter she looks” the implication being that if a good wife eats a good breakfast she’ll get more of the housework done.

Ads targeted for women are exclusively for clothing and household appliances, and even those ads don’t focus on the product’s benefits for women. The clothing ads talk about “looking good for your husband” and the ads for appliances discuss how much easier it will be to clean and manage the household with said appliance. The message about how to be a woman was clear: be a well-dressed, beautiful woman who caters to her husband’s every need, raises polite children, and keeps an immaculate house.

In her book The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan, the mother of feminism, exposed these media messages and railed against the roles women were relegated to during that time. Her book circulated quickly among exhausted housewives and the feminist revolution was born. The feminist movement did a lot to allow women to explore new and different roles in society. Women began to pursue interests outside of the household and some began to work outside the household. This all paved the way for women like me, who have largely taken for granted the ability to live independently from men.

However, the way mass media sends messages to women about who and how they should be has not changed much from the 1960’s. The actual messages have certainly changed, but the insidious nature of the messages has not. Mass media cleverly adapted so that the oppressive messages are not so overt, but the intention is still to keep women small.

Today’s media sends subtle but powerful messages about how women should actually take up space in the world. Simply, it comes down to this: women should not take up all that much space, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Women may be able to “do more”, but they should still “be less”. When this interpretation of modern media messages to women was first presented to me I thought it sounded a little conspiracy theorist. Like the media was engaged in some grand scheme to “keep the modern woman down”. Initially this seemed ridiculous, but when I began to examine my own feelings about taking up space in this world I realized that I had internalized some very specific messages about my size and my right to take up space.

The most obvious manifestations of these messages in the media have to do with the Western obsession with female thinness. There are many harmful levels to this obsession, all tied back to demanding that women take up less space. First, this obsession demands that women, literally, take up less space. A beautiful woman is thin, frail, but somehow maintains appropriately sized breasts and hips so she can still be objectified as a sex symbol. Packaged within this message is the subtext that a woman’s body must be pleasing to a man and that a large body is not pleasing so it must be fixed.

Enter the diet industry and the obsession with controlling women’s bodies. The diet industry commercializes women’s bodies by convincing women that the right product is the answer to ensuring they take up less space. The right diet, the right meal plan, the right gym, the right workout regimen, the right diet pill. They sell these products by creating the illusion that women have control over their body shape and size and that failure to change the body is a failure of willpower and more importantly a moral failure. If a woman tries hard enough and buys the right product she will be able to fix  her obtrusively large body. And if she chooses not to fix her obtrusively large body, and it is a choice, then she is choosing not to conform to society’s expectations and should be shunned.

The obsession with controlling and fixing the body becomes a paralyzing pursuit for women, which detracts from their ability to take up emotional and spiritual space within the world. Many women try to achieve the goal of fixing their bodies by making them smaller through calorie restriction. Diet and “fitness” magazines will suggest meal plans with calories counts around 1200 per day, which is literally starvation. While pursuing the “ideal body” in order to meet society’s goals women make their bodies weak and fragile. Prolonged malnutrition can also start to deteriorate cognitive function, so long term dieting can actually make women less intelligent. Not to mention it’s nearly impossible to think about anything when all you want to do is eat, but your goal is not to eat. I speak from personal experience. Almost 100% of my day at the height of my eating disorder was spent thinking about what I was going to eat, when I was going to eat, how much I was going to eat, how many workouts I would do, what I needed to do in each workout, and how many calories I would need to burn working out to be in enough calorie deficit to lose the weight I needed to lose to make my body correct. It’s completely exhausting.

The result of all of this is that women spend all of their time and energy trying to be smaller physically. They have no  energy left to think about how they might take up space in the world spiritually and emotionally. So they become physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually smaller.

As a woman caught up in this vicious cycle I eventually began to believe that I was meant to be small and became very uncomfortable with taking up space.  So where did all this leave me? It left me wondering if I am actually supposed to take up so little space. My heart and my soul tell me no. My heart and my soul tell me that I am a large force to reckon with, but I don’t know how to make myself take up space in this world. For now, I’ll start by taking up more space on this one tiny section of the Internet.

Feminist Fraud

Every time I call myself a feminist, even in my own head, I kind of feel like a fraud. I feel like my inner truths betray my desire to actually believe in feminist ideology. I feel like this is a really common experience. I think many women are caught in the limbo of desperately wanting to believe in feminism but being held back by their own ideas of themselves as women. I think many women believe in feminism for women as a whole, but not for themselves. At least, this is definitely my experience.

Let me describe how this disparity manifests in my life. I believe that the world needs feminism because all people are equal, which includes all gender identities, and I believe in fighting for true equality. At the same time I struggle with a deep sense of inferiority that makes it hard for me to believe that I deserve to be equal with anyone. I believe that acceptance of every body of every size and shape is essential to true equality because fat discrimination is a real phenomenon and because women will never be able to focus their energies on the true struggles of the world when they’re constantly worrying about fixing their bodies. However, I will unabashedly admit that I hate my body and that a ridiculous amount of my time and energy is devoted to worrying about it’s size and shape. I believe that women should never be made in to sex objects, but I thoroughly enjoy wearing skimpy clothes to the club and teasing men with my body. I believe women shouldn’t be catcalled on the street, but I take it as a compliment when a man (or woman for that matter) makes a rude comment about my appearance. I believe it’s wrong to call a woman a bitch for being assertive in a typically male way, but I will often call myself a bitch for doing just that. I believe that slut shaming is despicable, but I have slut shamed women I don’t like and even more often I slut shame myself. I believe that women should be able to pursue careers no matter what the cost to their families and I believe that women have every right to never have a family, but my personal choice  is a “pink collar” career in nannying. Oh and I want to be a stay at home mom until my (currently nonexistent) kid goes to daycare.  I believe that women should be able to do whatever they want to do in this world, but deep down I feel that this is not necessarily an achievable goal because men will always run the world.

So I live in a fairly constant struggle between my feminist ideals and my deep seated beliefs about myself, other women, and the world. It’s no wonder I feel like a fraud calling myself a feminist. But recently something has shifted within me and that shift prompted the question that this blog seeks to answer: “Am I a Feminist Too?”. That shift occurred when I started to wonder why I had all these deep seated beliefs that were in such contrast to my feminist ideals. Where did I get them? Who gave them to me? When I started to explore these questions I began to get curious and furious.

I started reading feminist blogs and academic papers about the media and the messages they send women. None of this was new information to me. I’ve written research papers numerous times about the effects the media has on women’s body image and their self confidence. The conclusion is simple: the media makes women feel like shit. All the time. However, I had never taken the inquiry a step further. I had never asked the questions “What is the purpose of these messages? What is society, via the media, trying to tell women about who they are?” The answers to these questions is what made me furious. So I began my journey become a true feminist rather than a feminist fraud.

Not Sweating for the Wedding

Pre post disclaimer: I am really aware that there is a lot more to feminism than body image and body acceptance, but right now this is what I have experience with. A lot of my writing is going to be about the feminist ideology I have been exploring in relation to recovery from my eating disorder. Every day I am learning about how my beliefs about myself and my body are at the center of why the world needs feminism. So, for a little bit, while I figure out my ideas and educate myself further, this blog will often read like an ED Recovery blog. Stick with me and I’ll try to say something valuable about feminism in there too. My goal is to continue to explore my ideas and educate myself as much as possible so someday I can be a real feminist too.

My wedding is in 17 days. Well at this point it’s more like 16 days and a few hours. For the past week or so I have been waking up in the middle of the night after having nightmares about my wedding dress not fitting. Or nightmares where I’m suddenly an endless blob of fat rolling out of fabric. Or nightmares where I get the pictures back from my wedding and I burn them all because I hate how I look so much. Really, the thought of wedding pictures was really the beginning of the end and the constant feeling of doom that’s been following me around for months. I was so scared of hating my wedding photos that I embarked on a mad quest to “fix” my body that ended with outpatient treatment.

The entire wedding industry is built around tying women’s self worth to numbers. The all important number is the bride’s weight. How much do you weigh right now? Does that number fall within an “acceptable” BMI? If not, lose enough to be in an acceptable range and lose 5 extra pounds for good measure. If you are an “acceptable” weight you could probably still lose 5-10 pounds. Just to make sure you’re beautiful. It is your day after all. Shouldn’t you be beautiful? Oh and by the way beautiful is determined by a number on the scale, not how you feel or how you actually look. Make sure it’s the right number.

Next there’s the dress numbers. What dress size are you? What are your measurements? Some women hear the dreaded, “We don’t carry samples in your size.” Others hear “Don’t worry, this will look better once you’ve lost the weight for the wedding. You are losing weight right?” The wedding culture actually supports insanity like buying your wedding dress TOO SMALL as motivation to lose the weight for the wedding. I am so grateful that this was not my experience. It just so happens that the dress I fell in love with was only available 3 sizes too large. I had to get my dress tailored for my body. I take this as proof that a Higher Power exists and that it didn’t want me to starve before my wedding. If I’d had to lose weight for a dress that was too small I would have been hospitalized just in time for my ceremony.

All this focus on numbers sends the clear message that brides are only as good as the number on the scale, the tape measure, and the tag on the wedding dress. This was a depressing conclusion to reach, especially since I had hit rock bottom with my eating disorder and couldn’t possibly focus on my weight without going crazy.

Instead of “sweating for the wedding” like wedding blogs all over the Internet suggested, I have gained approximately 10 pounds in the months before my wedding. I say approximately because a few weeks ago I actually threw out my scale. Well, I didn’t. I am so powerless over my scale I had to ask my fiance to throw it out, but the point is there is no longer a scale in my house. Which is a big deal for me.

According to the wedding industry, however, I am a failure. What have I failed at? The only true answer is that I have failed to live up to “what is expected of me” as a bride to be in America. To be a good bride I must be working my butt off (literally) to look like the “best version” of myself for my wedding day. If I am not working my butt off (literally) for the wedding then I must be lazy and undisciplined or I just don’t care enough. See what happened there? A moral judgement was passed on me for my failure to go to the gym. The assumption is not that I have a busy schedule, or that I’m happy with my body as it is, or that I simply don’t like working out. My motivation to change my body is made in to a moral issue. The media and the diet and workout industries thrive on making bodies moral issues. The message is that your body is bad and therefore you are bad. If you want to be good then you will fix your body. This is exactly the kind of thinking that kept me working out 3-4 hours a day before I injured myself.

This expectation also assumes that my current state is not the “best version of me”.The message is that your body is never good enough and if you’re not working to change it you’re not good enough either. There are thousands of websites, books, and even businesses devoted to “bridal weight loss plans”. The nutritionist I went to see before I entered treatment advertised such weight loss plans on her website. Everywhere you look the message is that as a bride it is your duty to drop a few pounds so you can look your best.

Browsing bridal forums is the best representation I have ever seen of this message. I have seen women post things like “I’m at a weight I’m pretty happy with, but I think I want to lose 5 or 10 pounds before the wedding.” I was one of these brides to be. I was at a fine weight before I tried to lose 10 pounds for my wedding, and trying to lose those 10 pounds actually drove me insane. Instead of encouraging brides to be happy with themselves and stay sane during the wedding planning process the wedding industry is encouraging them to be miserable and crazed. Which makes everyone around them miserable and crazed during what is supposed to be a joyful time.

The worst part is that brides are buying in to all this nonsense wholeheartedly. I am, in no way, passing judgement. I am the bride that believes so deeply in the expectation of being a thin beautiful bride that I have been waking up at night in a panic about how I look in my wedding dress. I am the bride that bought in to the wedding industry’s number game so wholeheartedly that I crashed and burned. I am hoping to also be the bride who can rise from the ashes. I had my final wedding dress fitting today and everything fit just fine. Maybe I can stop having nightmares and finally get a good night’s sleep. But deep down I’m a little disappointed that I have bound my happiness to fitting perfectly in to a dress.

How Did We Get Here?

So how did I get here? More specifically, how did I start to wonder if I too, am a feminist? Well it was really an odd chain of events, but it all started with two things: a marriage proposal and a fight. Not a fight with the guy who proposed to me, but a literal fight. A Muay Thai match to be specific. Those two events leading to an awakening of feminist values probably doesn’t quite make sense, so let me back up and explain myself.

Just over a year ago my fiance proposed to me. Like a geek. In the gem room at the Museum of Natural History in NYC. I screamed and blubbered and cried a little and said yes. So began my journey in to the horrors of wedding planning and more specifically the horrors of the wedding industry. I’ve been married before. When I was 19 I married my high school sweetheart. I was too young and irresponsible to plan my wedding then, so I really had no concept of what I wanted or what was expected of me. I let others do the footwork and showed up looking beautiful the way youth and innocence can provide.

After my divorce at 23 I swore if I ever got married again I’d hop on a plane to Vegas, get wasted, and let Elvis perform the ceremony. Fast forward four years to my second engagement. I hadn’t had a drink in three and a half years and I was at least marginally more responsible and considerate, so it looked like Vegas nuptials were out of the picture. So I began to envision my perfect wedding. Because that’s what weddings are all about, right? Creating the perfect day, where are the details are immaculate. Thus, I bought in to all the hype of the wedding industry. I never thought I had it in me to be a Bridezilla until I actually started to plan the wedding I really wanted. Out came all the expectations. The perfect venue, the perfect menu, the perfect dress, the perfect me.

Of course, the perfect me included having the perfect body, the one I had always wanted. The perfect me on my wedding day would be thin, with muscular legs, firm arms, and tight abs. I would be so dazzling in my perfect dress that every man at the wedding would want to fuck me and every woman would want to be me. Clearly I had not reached any sort of feminist awakening at this point. I was aiming to be society’s perfect bride with all the wrong motivations.

How was I planning to achieve this ideal body in time for the wedding? Enter the Muay Thai match. I had been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, and boxing for about 3 years at that point. Ever since I took my first class it had been a dream of mine to book a real fight. Like in a ring, or a cage, beating the dog shit out of another woman. I assure you there will be plenty of entries about my budding feminism and my choice in extreme sports later, but for now, the focus is the fight. I needed to cut weight for this fight. When I got engaged I was about 150 pounds, a high for me, but not my highest. I was cutting to 127 for the fight. I had done similar cuts for BJJ competitions in the past and I wasn’t too worried. Plus it was a perfect way to achieve “sweating for the wedding” as so many bridal blogs suggested.

So, to train for the fight and conveniently lose weight for my wedding at the same time I started working out 2-3 hours per day 6 or 7 days a week. I’m a nanny, so conveniently I could work out while the baby napped. So nap 1 was yoga, nap 2 was a run on the treadmill. Then after work there was 1-2 hours of fight training. I became an absolute slave to my training schedule. I rarely, if ever, took a day off and when I did I felt like a lazy bum and was convinced that I would lose my fight and look like a whale on my wedding day. You might begin to see where this is headed.

I overtrained myself in to a serious hamstring and back injury that caused sciatica. I was pulled from the Muay Thai match and I suffered the devastation of watching that dream crumble. For a while I rested and rehabbed like I was supposed to. As one does when injured, I began to gain a little weight and then all hell broke loose. I started binge eating, but I couldn’t work out to compensate for the eating, so I started not eating periodically. I went to a nutritionist to get on a meal plan “for the wedding” and became literally obsessed with the meal plan. Every time I didn’t follow the plan I felt like a failure. Every time I ate and couldn’t work out, I felt like a fat slob. I became a slave to food, to calories, to meal plans, to workouts. Eventually I called a friend while curled up on the floor ugly crying and said “I have an eating disorder” and she said “I know.” She gave me the number of the treatment center she’d attended. So 3 months before my wedding I went in to outpatient treatment for an eating disorder.

The truth is, I’d had an eating disorder for ten years. When I was a college freshman my new roommates approached me a few weeks in to the semester because they’d never seen me eat. It was true. My senior year of high school I dropped from 190 pounds to 119 with a combination of calorie restriction and over the counter diet pills. My roommates hadn’t seen me eat because I only ate one smoothie and 10 saltines per day and only when no one else was looking. They suggested I see a counselor and I did. Since I was barely eating, the treatment was simple: eat. So I did. And I convinced everyone, including myself that I was okay. And for years I convinced myself that as long as I was eating I didn’t have an eating disorder.

In the mean time I lost and gained 40 pounds over and over again. I would binge eat and balloon up to 170 and then go on some crazy diet or try some crazy new exercise regimen and get back to 130. I’ve been vegetarian, paleo, low carb, high protein, macro nutrient, gluten free, whole 30, clean. I’ve joined gyms, done Yoga, Pilates, CrossFit, Zumba, and combat sports obsessively. The key here is that I constantly obsessed about my body and my weight. I constantly attacked my body as a problem that needed to be fixed. The whole time I never put together that this obsession to fix my body was just as much of an eating disorder as not eating at all.

Addressing my eating disorder has called in to question all of my deeply held beliefs about myself, my body, other women, their bodies, and the standards society has for women’s bodies. I had to confront the fact that underlying my hatred of my body was a deep seated feeling that I was not good enough, that I wasn’t worthy, and that if I could somehow fix my body I would finally be good enough. As I started to examine the messages I had received throughout my life, I found that these messages are delivered to women in massive amounts by the media. I began to get angry. Then, in treatment one day, a women in my group brought up Susie Orbach’s book “Fat is a Feminist Issue”. At first I thought, “That’s ridiculous. How can the concept of fat be a feminist issue?” But when I dug in to it more, I began to find out that all of my ideas about fat really are feminist issues and I began to ask, “Will being a feminist help me recover from my eating disorder?” I still haven’t figured out the answer to that, but it’s where the journey started.

Am I a Feminist Too?

Like many women around my age I have been very complacent about feminism. I often think to myself “I agree with, like, a lot of the things that feminists say, but I struggle to truly believe what they’re saying. And anyway, how is it even relevant to me?” I am the type of late twenty-something women who likes to say pithy things about feminism, but I’m more than happy to leave the real feminism to other women. Women who are more outspoken. Women who are more informed. Women who are less afraid of what people think of them. Women who are braver than me.

I have a few friends who are loudly feminist. I admire their views and their commitment to saying them out loud in public forums, but I often catch myself thinking that they are too loud, too obnoxious, that their views take up too much space. It pains me to say these things out loud, mostly because I feel like a traitor to my gender, but it’s the honest truth. I want to admire feminists while secretly admitting to myself that they make me very uncomfortable. I want to foster feminist beliefs in my brain and then leave them there, never having to say them out loud and have my beliefs judged by the outside world.

Admitting these things makes me sad for myself, mostly because I want to believe that these things are in opposition to what I have always wanted to be. Or at least in opposition to what I would like people to think that I am. I want to be a strong, outspoken, opinionated woman, and a long time ago I wanted to be a strong, opinionated writer. But if honesty is the goal here I would have to admit that I have really become a quiet, people pleasing, docile girl who pretends to be a strong opinionated woman.

So why am I telling the Internet all of this? Why have I started a blog? Because I think I finally want to become a strong, opinionated writer. I’ve reached a turning point in my life, brought about by a lot of painful soul searching and ugly crying. I have realized the extent to which I have quieted myself and my soul to make myself more pleasing to others and to the world around me. More importantly I have realized that I don’t want to be that kind of woman. I want to be the kind of woman that I have publicly admired and secretly condemned. The kind who speaks her mind openly without fear of reproach. The kind who exposes the ways that the world subverts women and speaks openly about how that is unacceptable. And most importantly I want to believe that the things I say are true for me and relevant in my life.

After years of conflicted feelings about feminists, I think I’m discovering that I am a Feminist too.