Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dieting, Feminism & Patriarchy: Treating obesity with self esteem

Dieting can be understood as a type of “patriarchal bargain” (an individual woman’s decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women-as-a-group, in exchange for whatever power she can wrest from the system).  By strategically losing weight, we accept the THIN=BEAUTIFUL*GOOD equation (which implies FAT=UGLY*BAD), and propel ourselves into positions of greater social advantage. 
So says Kjerstin Gruys in a guest post on the blog Sociological Images. She believes that dieting — and, particularly, the diet industry – is an expression of patriarchy that is bad for women.

I agree with her, but only to a point.  It's probably one of the underlying reasons I have never "gone on a diet" that lasted longer than a couple of hours.

However, as much as feminism raises an excellent point, it's ridiculous to use patriarchy as a reason to ignore the impact of obesity on health.

Going through the comments on the blog, it is clear to me that there are plenty of apologists who subscribe to the health at every size philosophy.

I was also somewhat amused to find a link to a report of a study titled, "Health at every size - New Hope for Obese Americans?"  The premise is that many people find it impossible to lose weight, but that by building self esteem and gaining a better understanding of the body's internal hunger cues, it is possible to improve one's bloodwork and sense of wellbeing more effectively than through traditional dieting.

You are probably wondering why I find this amusing.  Well, the study is nebulous, and is a perfect example of Gary Taubes' belief that the field of nutrition is lacking in academic rigour.   I call it a study, though it isn't referenced to a peer-reviewed journal.  Not that I doubt the study was performed, but you must have noticed that I like to check the references of studies that I write about.

I also find myself raising my eyebrows at the study's M.O.  It used two groups of women, one of which was educated about a range of what it described as popular weight-loss programs, though it didn't elaborate.  The other group went to work on their self-esteem.  Nowhere does it mention that a radical reduction in carbohydrate intake was a focus in the dieting group's approach.  

We can assume it wasn't, however.  Firstly, the dieters weren't successful in losing weight over the long term as might be expected from low-carb diets.  Also, the study is reported on the Agricultural Research Service section of the USDA website.  The last thing the USDA wants is for people to turn their backs on the farmers who grow the country's grain and corn.   

By the way, you should know that the USDA's mission is to "provide leadership on food, agriculture ... based on ... the best available science.."

This is the best science available to the USDA? 

Essentially this is a mediocre study that gave participants two mediocre choices.  The outcome that is slightly less mediocre than the other is touted as a positive.  

Unfortunately, this study, and others like it, are easily used to justify not buying into the need to control one's weight.  Let's forget about the risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and the likelihood of debilitating arthritis as we age - concerns that are not usually at the forefront of our thinking while we are young and more concerned about intellectualizing women's issues.  Let's focus instead on feeling good about ourselves, at any weight.

By shunning the diet industry and instead consuming the garbage of carb promoters (by this I mean both their biased publications and their sugar-rich food, much of which is processed), which to a greater or lesser degree is supported by the health industry, I believe feminists run the risk of unwittingly playing into the hands of powerful and deep-pocketed organizations with vested interests.  

Arguably, these pillars of political power aren't inherently problematic from a feminist point of view, but they certainly do exist to serve their own purposes rather than the best interests of overweight individuals of both genders.  

You would think this might be of more concern to educated women who should be smart enough to worry about the impact of obesity on their own health as they age.

It certainly is to me.


  1. Wow, did you even read the original article Kjerstin Gruys wrote? Talk about shoddy reporting - shame on you! Looks like you cherry-picked bits and pieces that fit into your argument, while ignoring the author's main point: that eating mindfully and engaging in joyous activity should NOT be considered anti-feminist. She's a recovered anorexic, for goodness sake, not even overweight, and you're shaming her for not fitting into your own personal anti-carbs agenda. Pathetic.

  2. Of course I read the original article, Anonymous, but you should read what I wrote more thoroughly. I wrote that I agree with her, to a point. That's not cherry-picking. And why do you say she's not even overweight? -- she writes, "I’ve gained an (subjectively) uncomfortable amount of weight in the past year by neglecting to care for my body".

    It was the limitations of the referenced study that I found problematic, as well as what I sense to be an underlying feeling of the futility of trying to lose weight among some of the commenters. Powerful organizations control the information flow about the success rates of low-carb eating. For example, look at the message of the ADA, the Heart & Stroke Foundation, and even diet industry players like Weight Watchers, who have little to gain from the message that you *can* successfully lose weight without buying into their plans. They almost universally push the message that carbohydrates are necessary for health.

    If achieving a "normal" weight is mistakenly perceived to be almost impossible without compromising one's feminism, it's no wonder that HAES is seen to be a viable alternative.

    What I'm pointing out in this blog is that there is a way to maintain a healthy weight and self-image *without* buying into the powerful diet industry. There are no extra costs, and what I propose is supported by science. Why does this make you so angry?