Maia at Alas, A Blog asks an interesting question:
The thing about blogs is they let people talk about whatever they like. So there are an awful lot of blogs out there about women's experiences. Sometimes I wonder if this could be used for something more. If the barrier between feminist blogging, which is primarily about other women's lives, and blogging on 'women's topics' where feminist women (and non-feminist women) write about their lives, could be broken down. What would it look like if feminists who were writing about body image issues and reproduction, linked more to personal stories on weight-loss blogs and mother blogs (and yes it's scary that those are the two female blogging topics that come to mind) and vice-versa? Because I do think that feminist analysis is stronger the more it links to women's experience, and I think talking about women's experience can be something more, it can be consciousness raising.
In my women's history classes, we spend a great deal of time dealing with issues about "the body." As I've mentioned many times, I use Joan Brumberg's vital The Body Project as a required reading in the course. Of all the books I assign, it invariably provokes the strongest reactions. What I like about it, of course, is that it offers a chance for students to learn basic feminist theory by applying it to an area of their lives with which they are profoundly and intimately concerned: their own bodies.
The physical self-obsession that torments so many of my students is not going to be instantly solved by reading a book or taking a class. It would be a lie to say that all feminists love their bodies all the time. But feminists are equipped with tools to identify the lies about the body that permeate the media and the broader culture. They can, particularly when given "body history", see the historical origins of our obsession with certain kinds of unattainable body types. Above all, the most valuable thing about studying the history of the body is this: you learn that women have not "always felt this way."
I've heard from many students: "My mother hated her body, I hate my body, and I am sure my daughter will grow up hating her body. It's always been this way." Well, no. As Brumberg points out, few if any young women mention concerns about weight or appearance in their diaries (she used hundreds of diaries written over a century and a half) before the 1920s. There are specific historical reasons -- Paul Poiret's sheath dress, the coming of the automobile, industrialization and the need for "sizes" in pre-made clothes -- that contribute to this sudden upsurge in anxiety and self-loathing. And when we discover that there was a time, not so long ago, when women didn't feel this way about themselves, we lose that sense of hopelessness that there is no possibility for change.
But the feminist task must be about more than studying the history of the body. As Maia points out, story-telling is an essential, if often overwhelming aspect of feminist work. As we've all been saying for nearly half a century now, "the personal is political." And I've found, through my classes, that one key way to get women who are suspicious of feminism engaged is to create a forum for a discussion about weight, beauty, and body issues. Discussing one's physical flaws and detailing one's anxieties is a normative part of growing-up for a great many young women. Feminist classrooms and feminist blogs can provide a safe place for that sort of sharing to take place.
But the goal of feminist spaces is not merely to provide a safe place to vent. Our goal has to be to help our sisters resist the cultural, social, and often familial messages about their bodies that leave them so unhappy. Maia notes a couple of instances in the blogosphere of women writing about confrontations with their husbands over post-partum weight gain. Feminists can listen sympathetically to these painful personal stories, offer encouragement -- and also offer tools. In these discussions, feminists can remind everyone -- over and over again if need be -- that the demands of the culture (or of spouses) for a certain body type are unrealistic, unreasonable, and can be successfully resisted. Rather than end discussions with a sigh and a "That's just the way it is, some things will never change", feminists can point out counter-examples, usually of women who have refused to comply any longer with the tyranny of slimness (or the tyranny of voluptuousness, or whatever.)
Of course, here's the kicker: if you're going to preach self-acceptance, you've got to be doing everything you can to be self-accepting. And as many of us in this field know, in few areas is there a greater divergence between one's language and one's life than that of body self-image! We all know many women and men who are wonderful to their friends, regularly reassuring them that they look terrific and they shouldn't worry so much. Those same men and women frequently tremble -- alone -- before the bathroom mirror. As the old saying goes, it's hard to give away something you haven't got!
From a feminist standpoint, learning to love one's body isn't just about boosting one's own self-esteem. It's about providing an example to other women who need to know that self-acceptance is not a chimera, but a viable reality. That's hard work, I realize. And I also know that it's difficult to take coming from a man whose body is perceived as fairly fit. But as I've blogged many times before, I struggled with a serious eating disorder years ago. I still have to battle body dysmorphia from time to time, though I've come a long way. So though I cannot ever truly understand what it's like to live as a woman in a world of such cruel and contradictory physical ideals, I am aware of just how painful it can be to sense that one is "too big", "too small", too much".
And I'm also aware, every day of my life, that I owe my continued healing from those awful feelings not only to God, but to the men and women who showed me from experience that it was possible to learn to love one's body and rejoice in one's flesh.