Friday 5: Five Things Every Feminist Who Wants To Lose Weight Should Remember - A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

Friday 5: Five Things Every Feminist Who Wants To Lose Weight Should Remember

Meet 74-yr-old Ernestine Shephard. She's stronger than you AND your weak crew.

Y’know, this blog attracts a lot of feminist types. Not because of anything bad, but because it feels like a bit of a safe haven. We can talk fitness, food, bodies, sex and other “girly” and “not-so-girly” stuff without any of it feeling like a put down (and I’m aware of this because I work awfully hard to keep it that way.) Because of that, I welcome you. There are lots of different kinds of people here, and really, I welcome all y’all.

Meet 74-yr-old Ernestine Shepherd. She's stronger than you AND your weak crew.

And, really, we talk in terms of issues that matter to feminism as a whole, here. We talk about body image, the societal pressure to be skinny and not sufficiently fit, sexual harassment and its affect on one’s body image, gender discrimination at the gym… all issues that matter to women who want better for women.

However – and this must be said – if you are a feminist who, for any [sensible] reason, has decided to begin a weight loss journey, your contributions to these kinds of topics will change. Our lack of dialogue around the specifics of working out, eating healthier and therefore losing weight as a result has wound up with us conflating those actions with the industries we all love to hate: the diet industry, the fashion industry, the food industry… oh, well, maybe the last one is just me. But still… industries we love to hate. [shakes fist]

That being said, there are five things I’ve learned as a compassionate feminist that I think might help any other woman out there who regularly engages in these conversations, and who wants to not only help create space for women like us who want to seek new control of our bodies but also doesn’t want to become a leper for “succumbing to the patriarchy.”

1) It is very possible that you may not feel welcome anywhere in the beginning… and that feeling is painted by different problems, but it’s okay that it exists. So many of us felt guilt for desiring to lose weight because it felt like some product of trying to appease men and, well, we’re all a little tired of that, right? However, the goal [that I promote and support here, at least] is fitness, and for some of us (us being women in general, not just women who read the blog) that may require losing weight. For others, it may not.

You may feel guilt in contributing to conversations about women not wanting or needing to work out, and you may not even agree with that. You also have to remember that each woman needs to come to that conclusion on her own terms and in her own time, not because someone else (and usually that “someone else” stands to profit off of her indecisiveness) shamed her into it. The end goal of feminism is for women to choose their own fate, their own destinies, and that includes for their bodies. That is what you want to facilitate.

Contrast that to your first few visits to your gym’s weight lifting area. Depending upon who’s around, someone is bound to ask you “what’re you doing over here? Cardio is on the upper floor.” or, even better, “aren’t those weights too heavy for you? Here, let me grab you some five pounders.” You’re a woman – and some lady trainers will even facilitate this stupidity, too – you’re not supposed to even think of touching weights. Don’t fall for this foolishness. Remember. The end goal of feminism is for women to choose their own face, their own destinies, and that includes for their bodies. This is what you want to facilitate… not some idea that you can’t/shouldn’t do something because you’re a girl. Damn all that. If women can play football without all that padding – even in their drawz – then surely they can handle a few nice-sized weights out there.

Some environments aren’t very receptive to this talk, either. Try to tell your feminist friends about how sexist the gym environment can be, and watch how quickly the conversation is derailed or the subject is changed. Obviously, the gym matters to you because its a place you’ll be spending a good chunk of time, and obviously your feminism matters to you because it’s taken up a good chunk of your brain space. It’ll feel like you’ve got very little support. Prepare yourself for it. Spend a lot of time writing, mapping out to yourself why you need to continue even though you’re feeling unwelcome in places you should be most comfortable.

2) For the love of all that is tasty… don’t diet. I’m serious. Aside from the fact that there are physiological reasons behind it – real valid ones like ruining your metabolism, malnourishment, poor brain function (relative to your body frame, of course) and more – but dieting is borne of the idea that industry has to manufacture a desire for their product. If people don’t want to lose weight, then it’s bad for industry. If industry can’t sell its product, then industry has to shut down. Instead of shutting down, industry instead manufactures desire. This concept is called “consumerism.” It’s been sold to us in the form of hair, clothing, computers and now, our bodies. “Hey, you Americans… we know you’re fat. Buy our product so you won’t be fat any more!” Get out of here.

This affects women even more because that dieting message is being coupled, constantly, with the sight of women who are thin beyond recognition, which only furthers the idea that “this is how it’s supposed to be. This is what’s normal. I’m abnormal. Oh my gosh, I need to lose weight!” as you rush out and buy the first product you see on your screen.

Living a healthy, fit and active lifestyle requires – gasp – carbs! It requires fat! It requires protein (yes, ladies, it’s not just for men!) It also requires that you invest some time, heavily, into learning how to make this work for you. It requires that you uncover that balance. It’s not the balance the food industry has been selling you, either. In fact, the moment you step away from your boxed/packaged products is the moment you’ll most likely find that balance.

3) The decision to lose weight is just as personal as the decision to not lose, and it is your responsibility to not only respect that, but do what you can to perpetuate that understanding. This is why I tell people to keep their mouths shut when they’ve decided to gain new control over their bodies. People believe that women lose weight by dieting; men by lifting weights. People also believe that women are idiots with no self control – well, why else would she be fat? – who need to be told “You shouldn’t be eating that, you’re on a diet!” as if you are the problem, not the diet mentality. Get yourself a teeny support system, and you should be fine.

However. Talking about your weight loss success or goals among friends who are adamantly anti-weight loss (which is different from being body-positive) is also a challenge, and you have to also understand that people feel judged by your decision to change your body. The idea is that we change our bodies because, clearly, we think something is wrong with the way they are now. And if our friends are the same size as or larger than us, then they feel like, clearly, you must think something is wrong with them, too. Y’know, because working out is always about weight, size, or even being thinner. It’s simply not, and if we were able to have more conversations discussing this, we could make that clearer in the community. But, we’re not, so we can’t, and we don’t, but… sorry. Digressed.

Since our friends tend to be like-minded, if you’ve got friends who you genuinely care about who you want to talk to about your journey, don’t be afraid to tell them “I’ve been having knee and foot problems, and believe it or not running is helping because of how much usage my knees and ankles are getting. I’m happy with the weight loss – it’s making it easier for me to do things like lift myself up for chin ups – especially since I’ve never been able to do them before. I’m just happy with where I’m going with this, but it doesn’t change how I feel about everything else.”

I can remember being in a bar at around 2 in the morning conversing with another woman – who was obviously a bit put off by my being a weight loss blogger – about my journey, and I told her very clearly: “Listen, I do what I do because I enjoy it. I enjoy the challenge, I enjoy setting a bar for myself and beating it, and I enjoy the stress relief it provides me. Every woman needs to decide for themselves what they want to do with their bodies, and if they don’t want to bother with all that, then that’s their choice. I might be a weight loss blogger, but I don’t make it my place to make that decision for them. All I hope for you is that you are happy.” and I meant every word. It helped.

4) Be the chance you wish to see in your community… and this means pulling back the reins on some of the dogma we see repeated everywhere. Real women have curves,” “No man wants a bone but a dog,” “She needs a sandwich” campaigns… you might not be able to stop them from doing it, but damn it you don’t have to participate. The night the Victoria’s Secret fashion show came on, I didn’t even bother watching – especially since I was pretty turned off by Adriana Lima’s diet confession and pseudo-retraction – but I couldn’t stand to be on twitter during it, either. The onslaught of “she needs a sandwich,” “I can’t believe her thighs don’t touch,” “I can see her bones,” had the same individual affect on me that “put that sandwich down,” “her thighs are going to have rug burn,” and the like has on women who relate to those in one way or another. An environment that shames women for being “so small” is still an environment that shames women. The problem isn’t that we “shame women for being fat,” the problem is that we “shame women for being.” Period. It’s still an environment that divides us and prevents us from understanding and helping one another. It’s still an environment that tries to tell women what choice to make, by shaming them into believing the choice they’ve already made is insufficient… because someone else knows better.

You might find that these kinds of comments start to offend you as you set out on your journey. If you were dieting, you might be triggered into ED-esque behavior, because guilt from knowing you want that sandwich coupled with someone telling you you need that sandwich might make you go get that sandwich, feel guilt about having it…. and boom. (Again, don’t diet.) Because we don’t have voices in the community who talk, in loving ways, about how shaming works both ways and is harmful both ways; because we have apologists who, instead of understanding that shaming is problematic regardless of who is on the receiving end, engage in oppression olympics by proclaiming that “being told you need a sandwich pales in comparison to income inequality because of how worthless we consider ‘fat’ people in this country;” and because we never get that far in the conversation without it being derailed and turned into something else entirely… we can’t see those changes. And while you may take it upon yourself to be She Who Breaks Down Shaming For Those Who Refuse To Get It, it may do you some good to make sure your own reasoning and understanding is devoid of patriarchal bargaining and fuzzy logic… something that is done by engaging more in silence that fervid ranting. I’m pretty sure that body weight is one of the few – if not the only – means by which people can cross from #teamOppressed to #teamOppressor, and sometimes that gets the best of people. Do us (and by us, I mean those of us who are fit-seeking and pro-woman) a favor and spend some time silent, making sure you’re doing us justice with your thoughts before you share them.

And 5), After everything is said and done, you can – and will – still be called a fat-shamer, “anti-fat” and other not-so-nice things simply for being “up in the gym just workin’ on your fitness.” That compulsion to feel shame and guilt for having bodies, coupled with perhaps a smidgen of guilt for being a bit heavier than they actually want to be, blended in with a pinch of size bias you might have deep down inside? Those things make for a pretty volatile concoction, one that can ruin friendships and make friends frenemies pretty quickly.

I could tell you “Hey, don’t change,” but the reality is that yes, you do have to change. It’s a byproduct of living a more fit and healthier life. You start turning things down. You stop going out so much. You start enjoying working out instead of seeing it as something you “have” to do… something so goal-oriented. It becomes a part of you that you can’t – nor should you – ignore, and that’s okay. My longest friendships are all so successful because we grow and change together, and know that change is essential. Adapting to new situations and environments is vital. A friendship that stifles that, to me, stifles growth and is, in a sense, not a true friendship at all. Someone cue the “The More You Know” music for me?

Since you are navigating an old space with a new mentality, do what you want “privileged” people to do when they’re being called out on their privilege. Stop talking, do lots of listening, lots of thinking, and recalibrate your perspective. Weight is interesting because it’s one of those few places where you can easily move from “oppressed” to “privileged” (‘easily’ meaning you don’t have to, say, bleach your skin or get a sex change. Compared to those two, it’s a breeze!), so while you have to keep in mind that you could be experiencing a new privilege, you also have to remember who you were before… and think about how you’d feel as your old self. That should help you keep perspective.

If it feels like these five tips are complicated, it’s because they are. People are complicated. Then again, so is feminism. You knew that when you signed up for it!

What’d I forget?

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes health, fitness, nutrition, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She now lives in New York with her family, and is working on her 4th, 5th and 6th certificates.

15 Comments

  1. Savannah

    December 9, 2011 at 12:57 PM

    Wonderful, insightful post (as per usual). Sometimes its hard to reverse all the internalized messages we’ve received over the years. All 5 things are great to remember but #3 & #4 really spoke to me. I’m learning to just keep my mouth shut and do the work. If people want to know about the changes that I’m going through they can ask but I am no longer volunteering information or giving my unsolicited opinion.

    • JazzFest

      August 2, 2012 at 1:05 AM

      I need to learn that will a lot of topics I’m realizing! For the past year I’ve been reading up on different things and developing (increasingly strong) opinions about food, lifestyle, and fitness. I don’t have to blurt it all out as soon as something remotely related comes up in the conversation. It is just not necessary!

  2. Shermy

    December 9, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    Fantastic post Erika!

  3. Curlstar

    December 9, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    Great article Erika. This is really a lot to think about, and yes it is difficult to think about. Yet interestingly enough, that challenge is needed for growth.

    Shooooot I had to challenge myself the other day with keeping a food journal, but thank you for the push from a previous topic where you covered counting calories. I don’t like to journal, and an app made that easier by helping me make better choices toward my weight loss goals, like turning down the banana pudding at yesterday’s holiday luncheon. That was a big goal in itself, trust me because the calorie count from eating that (not to mention the affects on my digestive system) would have been horrendous. I am a work in progress, and the progress is good.

    Sort of-off topic comment:
    I love your caption below Miss Ernie’s pic. :-) She is such an inspiration, and I am oh so proud of her.

  4. Laura

    December 9, 2011 at 4:47 PM

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the policing of women’s bodies obsession…this is a refreshing read. Thank you.

  5. CurvyCEO

    December 9, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    Excellent post! A lot of this also applies to size acceptance/fat activists. On the one hand, you are working against systems that denigrate people because of body size. At the same time, you also recognize the need to take good care of your body and be healthy (whatever your size). As a plus size fashion blogger, I am a little hesitant to post about weight-loss issues for fear of offending my audience. Yet, given that my entire mission is to help women look and feel their best, I would be remiss not to do so! Thanks for raising these issues!

  6. BalancingJane

    December 9, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    Excellent, insightful post!

    I really appreciate the way you analyze the fact that shaming women for being too small is still shaming women for being.

    I’ve really struggled with my own fitness goals. I do work out and eat better because I want to be my healthiest, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like the way my body is changing or the way my clothes fit. Then I feel guilty because I don’t want to feel like I’m participating in a system that shames women over how they look.

    But you’re absolutely right, my desire to change my body (for whatever reason) is NOT a commentary on other women’s bodies–no more than dying my hair red is a commentary on other brunettes or putting on sneakers is a commentary on women who wear heels. A personal decision about looking and feeling my best is just that–personal.

    And while feminism is a community-based issue, it is also an individual one. I have to be invested in both to succeed at the cause.

  7. Aisha

    January 6, 2012 at 3:15 PM

    This post is great. At the end of the day to me feminism=choice to do what is right for you without regard to societal expectations of what your choices mean in society.

  8. olivia

    May 11, 2012 at 3:11 PM

    i have never and i repeat never been skinny or anywhere close to skinny a day in my life ….. if i could get to just obese and not super morbid obese it would be a miracle i say that to say adriana lima is skinny yes but she is a healthy woman not a twig i have seen and known some of those people who look like a strong wind could knock them over…. i hate be criticized for my size so i try my best not to hate those on the other extreme just rock you the best you can… that is all thanks for all the good ideas and suggestion

  9. vanita

    May 18, 2012 at 11:40 AM

    I enjoy your articles and read them every time I see them on facebook. I am starting my weight loss journey and I just want to say that picture of Ms. Ernestine Shepherd will be a part of my weight loss motivation. She is beautiful and I would have guess her age to be 48-50.

  10. Vee

    June 8, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    However. Talking about your weight loss success or goals among friends who are adamantly anti-weight loss (which is different from being body-positive) is also a challenge, and you have to also understand that people feel judged by your decision to change your body.

    I still get comments from people like my beau’s mom that say “I will dry up” or “I need to eat ‘real’ food” which i interpret as jealously and them not feeling comfortable with themselves.

  11. Kamea

    July 31, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    Everytime I try to change for the better people accuse of having bdd. Then if I shave for an event your accused of having self esteem issues. Then when I go the gym or eat better its an issue. My overall conclusion is that people always have something to say so I try to tune the negativity out. Throughout my journey I will only tell people who have similar goals.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall

      July 31, 2012 at 1:11 PM

      BDD = “body dysmorphic disorder” right?

      That’s really unfortunate.

      • Pat Rice

        January 18, 2013 at 7:44 PM

        Loved this Post Erica! Point #4 is dead on target. As someone who has been on both sides of this issue (my thighs didn’t touch for years…now..they rub), BDD is real. When I was bone skinny, I wanted a butt and some curves, now that I’m overweight and prediabetic, I want to be thinner/healthier. Shaming of women regardless of size, by other women has to stop. In my teens-late 30’s I heard “you think you cute” because I was a size 2 or 4, when in fact I didn’t. Now all I hear is “where did that come from?” Sad. I usually feel as if I can’t win regardless of my weight. So I’m so greatful for you and this blog! For me this journey is about making the rest of my life healthy and fun!

  12. DaleK.

    September 8, 2013 at 3:28 PM

    As a personal trainer, someone who’s lost 70lbs (twice), and who also HATES the weight loss/diet industry, I struggle mightily with this issue. My hate for what the industry does to women, myself included, is why I got into this business to begin with. I wanted to save women from it.

    There’s nothing wrong with exercising and eating right. Both brought me out of a nearly suicidal depression. Weight loss was a side effect of treating my body with respect.

    My problem is that people only seek out my services when they are looking to change their body size/shape in order to feel better about themselves, to be loved, have more confidence, feel more attractive, blah blah blah. It’s sad. It pisses me off that this is what the industry has created. ugh

    So, ultimately these days I’m actually starting to feel like part of the problem, rather than a solution.

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