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The Intersection of Feminism and Body Liberation

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Feminism is an important topic that relates to body image and dieting. Because diet culture is rooted in patriarchy, it’s worth exploring sexism and its role in body politics.

Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that I don’t know everything about feminism and I have no formal academic training in women’s or gender studies. Everything I know, I’ve learned on my own through reading, watching and listening. I don’t claim to be the most “woke” person. But I’m committed to learning, growing and amplifying others. 

Which is why I interviewed a variety of folks to gain their insights and experiences as I put together this post. Their quotes are sprinkled throughout and I hope you enjoy their input and check out their work! I’m incredibly grateful they took the time to share their insights and experiences with me. Through my research and interviews for this post, I’ve come to learn how complex feminism is, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Why is a registered dietitian writing about feminism?

It’s no secret that the food and body pressures girls and women face are significantly different from those men face. Why is it this way? The short answer is that the systems in place that dictate what makes women desirable and valuable were created and perpetuated by men (mostly white men).

This power structure dominated by men tells women how they should look, eat, speak, behave, move, etc. Another way to look at this is by asking, “Who benefits from women looking, eating, speaking, behaving and moving this way?”

If women weren’t so preoccupied with conforming and performing, they’d have more energy and mental capacity to compete in academia, work and government, which is disadvantageous for men. Simply put: Men benefit by women being oppressed.

If we’re going to talk about body politics, body liberation, body image, dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders, we’ve got to talk about feminism.

Let’s dive in!

3 sections: top is a group of Asian women; middle is the text "feminism 101: patriarchy, intersectionality and body liberation; bottom: a group of black and brown while holding hands

What is Feminism?

A very basic definition of feminism is equality between sexes and genders. Economically, politically, culturally and so on. What it doesn’t mean is hating men, only caring about cisgender women or making women the dominant sex or gender. Of course there are some people who hate men, those who believe men shouldn’t exist, and also some who believe feminism shouldn’t include trans women. I won’t be spending any time on those ideas but rather on concepts that focus on equality in our current society.

So, in short, because we live in a patriarchy, feminism is a necessary movement in order to end discrimination against and oppression of women. 

Here are some quick stats to illustrate gender inequality:

Careers and Compensation
  • Women make 81% of the pay that men make in the United States. Hispanic women make 62% and black women make 65% of what white men earn.
  • Women are paid less than men all over the world. 
  • 42% of women in the U.S. say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work. 
  • Mothers are more likely than fathers to take time off of work to take care of children (and when they do, they’re more likely to experience negative consequences in their career than men).
  • Women are underrepresented in senior roles at work and overrepresented in low-paying jobs. 
  • Women represent only 5% of CEOs at Fortune 500 firms.
Politics
  • The 116th Congress of the U.S. is composed of 23% women in the House and 25% women in the Senate (which is the most women ever).
  • The United States has never had a female president.
  • 24% of all national parliamentarians are women (as of February 2019).
Violence
  • 1 in 4 women compared to 1 in 9 men are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. Black women are abused even more and American-Indian women are abused more than twice as much as other races.
  • 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner.
  • 72% of human trafficking victims are women and girls.
  • 15 million teens girls have experienced forced sex. Only 1% seek professional help.
  • 12 million girls (younger than age 18) are married every year. 
  • More than 200 million women have undergone female genital mutilation.

These stats don’t touch on health care and reproductive rights. And they also don’t illustrate the many double standards that exist between sexes and genders. Please check out the “further learning” section at the end of this post to learn more. 

A (very) Brief History of Feminism

Beliefs that women should have equal rights as men have been around for a long time. And things really picked up in the last 200 years.

Many historians categorize modern American feminism into three waves: 

  • First wave: ~mid-1800s to early 1900s – voting and land ownership.
  • Second wave: ~mid-1900s to late 1900s – “women’s liberation;” equality; reproductive rights.
  • Third wave: ~late 1900s to present – intersectional feminism highlighting issues of race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender and nationality.

It has also been said that we’re currently in the fourth wave of feminism, marked by backlash against sexual harassment (see: Me Too; note this movement was created by a black woman in 2006 to benefit women of color – but it only gained mainstream attention when celebrity women hopped on in 2017) , body shaming and the 45th president of the United States’ aggressively sexist comments and behavior. 

Black woman with her hands in her hair. Text overlay says "introduction to intersectional feminism"

Intersectional Feminism

While sexism affects all women, it isn’t the only power structure that affects women. And unfortunately, just like many other social justice movements, white people took over feminism and made it all about them.

Enter the term “white feminism.” White feminism centers the experiences and struggles of white women (and only white women). This leaves out women of color and often ignores sexual orientation and gender identity as well. 

Challenging white feminism doesn’t mean you don’t care about the struggles of white women or that being white and feminist is bad – it means that you care about women who aren’t white and also work to abolish the systems of oppression affecting them.

Intersectional feminism was born out of criticism of white feminism and aimed to help liberate women of color, specifically black women in America. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality and recently described it as, “A lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”

Many people experience “intersecting” oppressions. There are many ways someone can be oppressed, and it’s important to acknowledge that and consider the ways in which centering the specific struggles of white women is ignoring the unique struggles of black women (and gay women, trans women, etc.). 

Oppression based on sex or gender often is intertwined with oppression based on race, and cannot be untangled. This is why it’s so important to consider the specific issues facing black women, not just women as one group and then black people as another group. 

Bringing up the issues that black women face is not “derailing” conversions about feminism and “making it about race,” it’s centering black women because they experience intersecting oppressions that also deserve dismantling (that have previously been ignored or minimized).

Intersectionality is imperative for inclusive feminism. Otherwise, marginalized people get left behind and white women act as just another oppressor.

Text that says Intersectionality is imperative for inclusive feminism

Modern Takes on Intersectional Feminism

While intersectional feminism was created specifically to highlight the struggles of black women, it’s now used by many people to encompass a wide variety of intersecting oppressions (which Crenshaw alluded to in her recent interview with TIME). Here are some viewpoints from a few modern feminists I interviewed:

“Intersectional feminism is recognizing that identity is multifaceted and the different ways an individual identifies can compound discrimination and struggles faced by women as a whole. Making true progress will be very difficult until we are at a point where we are fighting for each and every intersection with the same zeal that we fight for those we are most comfortable with.”
 – Deanna Belleny, MPH, RD, Co-Founder of Diversify Dietetics 

“Intersectional feminism means an acknowledgement of the complexity and interconnectedness of the structures in society that oppress women. It means an acknowledgement that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to feminism, and that Black women, disabled women, trans women, women in poverty, and fat women (for example) will all have different experiences of sexism, and that sexism will manifest in different ways for those people.” – Jenny Marie, vegan feminist blogger based in the U.K.

“Feminism is about serving everyone for their needs: health care, livable wage, access to childcare, expanding who has access to disability benefits, etc. Intersectionality is about breaking the system and rebuilding it in a way that helps all of us.”
– LC Graves, feminist activist (prefers to have identity protected)

“Intersectional feminism is a practice of inclusion, welcoming and just moving through the world. It means that we challenge our own bigotries and biases because we were all raised in a culture that advantages some and disadvantages others. It means that we try to do our best to create a world where kindness, justice, inclusion and equality are the natural mode of operation, and every day we get to practice this quite powerfully in our individual relationships.”
Marla Rose, vegan feminist writer and founder of  VeganStreet.com

Quote from Virgie Tovar in her book You Have the Right to Remain Fat

Body Ideals are Rooted in Patriarchy

Now let’s hone in on how feminism overlaps with body liberation and the anti-diet movement. First, I want to acknowledge that these concepts are nothing new. Susie Orbach wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978, addressing women’s obsession with dieting and its patriarchal roots. 

Most mass media images of women are of thin, young and unblemished women. And there are countless examples of how women are sexualized, fetishized, demeaned and brutalized in advertisements. The message? Women’s body’s should appear thin, young and unblemished. And they exist for the pleasures and uses of men and capitalism. 

The majority of girls and women say they look to media images to determine the ideal body shape. Research has found a link between exposure to the thin ideal via mass media and body dissatisfaction and disordered eating among women. And who dominates media platforms when it comes to executives, journalists, editors and directors? Men. 

Size discrimination is a real thing, and it intersects with sexism. For example, women are 16 times more likely to experience weight discrimination in the workplace than men. Larger people make less money than thinner people ($1.25/hour less, to be exact), larger women make 6% less money than thinner women (very heavy women make 25% less) and 17% of fat people report being fired or pressured to resign due to their weight. By the way, this is legal. There are no federal laws protecting fat people in the U.S.

I could write an entire post on healthcare discrimination of women, especially fat women, but I’ll save that for another day. 

Diet Culture Hurts Women

If you’re a woman, there’s a really good chance you’ve dieted at some point in your life, and you might even be dieting right now. Research shows that girls as young as 6 years old report concerns over their weight and shape and 40% to 60% of elementary-aged girls are worried about becoming “too fat.” 

More than half of teenage girls (compared to 1/3 of teenage boys) use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives. “Overweight” girls are more likely to engage in these harmful behaviors and 1/3 of “non-overweight” girls report dieting.

Dieting isn’t just a teen thing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 54% of American women reported trying to lose weight between 2013 and 2016, compared to 42% of men. And 13% of women over the age of 50 engage in eating disorder behaviors.

In America, disordered eating behaviors are so common, they’re basically normalized. But dieting isn’t normal. Obsession over weight and size isn’t normal. It’s harmful and holds women back.

Quote from Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth about dieting being rooted in patriarchy

Feminism Means Body Liberation

Equality is important, yes. And so is autonomy. Women deserve the right to do with their bodies what they wish. From sex and abortions to fashion and make-up, there is no wrong way to be a woman. 

Some people believe that looking “feminine” is anti-feminist because it conforms to patriarchal standards. LC had some really great insights on this and suggested, “Let’s expand what’s acceptable for women to do with their bodies and allow women to be more honest without shame about what they do to achieve beauty. If we can take ownership of this spectrum of beauty, we can take back the narrative. The enemy is the patriarchy, not women who choose to manipulate their bodies. Women who choose to wear heels are not oppressing other women.” 

“Women capitalizing on the patriarchy isn’t oppressive.” – LC

Dalina Soto, MA, RDN, LDN, a Dominican-raised Latina dietitian, summed up feminism as, “My body, my rules.” We discussed topics ranging from breast augmentation to hair removal and Dalina concluded, “Who am I to shame someone for what they want to do with their body?”

Patriarchy Hurts Everyone

Women aren’t the only people hurt by patriarchy. Masculinity is also dictated by the patriarchy, which hurts men. This doesn’t mean that men are oppressed, but it’s important to note that feminism is not just “a women’s cause.”

To learn more, read 7 Reasons Why Patriarchy Is Bad (and Feminism is Good) for Men by Philippe Leonard Fradet on Sonya Renee Taylor’s site The Body Is Not An Apology. 

Feminism helps everyone.

tan background with text that says "veganism is a feminist issue"

Veganism is a Feminist Issue

I could write several posts on this topic but for now, I just wanted to highlight that yes, veganism is a feminist issue. If the goal of feminism is body liberation of human women, and the goal of veganism is body liberation of non-human animals, it seems these social justice issues are very aligned.

I had a lovely chat about this with Meneka Repka, vegan activist and founder of Nooch Design Co. She pointed out, “Human understandings of gender are imposed on non-human animals which is then used to exploit them.” If you know anything about the dairy and egg industries, you understand how horrifically true this is.  

Additionally, sexism is rampant among vegans. 

“If you look at the vegan movement, it’s very easy for vegans to name white, cishet male leaders, but people may struggle to name black, POC or disabled vegans,” Meneka posited. “Non-white, non-male voices are marginalized and veganism needs feminism to include a variety of voices and experiences. Veganism is for everyone and people should feel represented and heard, not just white privileged men,” she says.

Read more about sexism in the animal rights movement in my feature on vegan fat activist Chelsea Lincoln.

Here are a variety of resources to learn more:

Conclusion: Feminism must be Inclusive

In order for feminism to lift up all women, it needs to include black and indigenous people of color, everyone along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, disabled and differently abled folks, and women of all nationalities, ethnicities, races, sizes and religions. And, I’d argue, species.

“A diverse, representative, and mutually supportive movement is a stronger one.” – Jenny Marie

Group of diverse races, standing together with arms over each other's shoulders, looking up. Text above them says "5 ways to be a better feminist"

How to be a Better Feminist

I gathered helpful tips and strategies from my wonderful interviewees – please take their advice to heart!

  • Be empathetic and listen to women. “You don’t always need to have an answer. You just need to be willing to listen and understand a person,” says Dalina Soto.
  • Amplify the voices of women. “Listen to people whose experiences are different from your own, and understand that you can support and amplify the voices of others and that will not diminish your own voice,” says Jenny Marie.
  • Question your own prejudices. “Humans may be hardwired for confirmation bias, which is a very sneaky and clever way to justify our self-centered and self-promoting beliefs about things, so we should try to subvert it whenever possible by talking to people from different experiences, by listening more, by expanding the media we consume to include more voices from outside our personal experiences,” says Marla Rose.
  • Talk about the intersection of racism and sexism. “White feminists make a lot microaggressions and they may not even be aware of what they’re doing,” says Dalina Soto.
  • Elevate women of color. “We all have to make it a point to listen to, follow, learn from, and amplify the voices of people of color,” says Deanna Belleny. “Like many other movements, especially in the social media space, the white voice is typically the one that is most promoted. We see this happening in the body positive and Health at Every Size movements. Allies should be thinking, ‘What am I doing personally and what are the structures that I am a part of doing to make sure this a diverse, inclusive, and equitable space?’ Once the gaps are identified, those with the power have to take the responsibility of making things change. Don’t put that responsibility back on the group already being disenfranchised,” she says.

A list of 5 ways to be a better feminist

References

Council on Size and Weight Discrimination. Statistics. 

Harrison C. Food Psych podcast episode #193: Feminism, Marketing, And Breaking Free From Diet Culture With Kelly Diels.

Hartley R. WellSeek. The Connection between Dieting and Feminism. 

History.com. Feminism. Published February 28. 2019. Updated November 20, 2019.

Inequality.org. Gender Economic Inequality.

Institute for Women’s Equality Research. The Gender Wage Gap: 2018 Earnings Differences by Race and Ethnicity. Published March 7, 2019.

Martin CB, et al. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016. Published July 2018.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Eating Disorder Statistics.

National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Facts on Size Discrimination.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Statistics.

National Eating Disorders Association. Media and Eating Disorders. 

National Eating Disorders Association. Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders.

National Organization for Women. Violence Against Women in the United States: Statistics. 

Pew Research Center. The narrowing, but persistent, gender gap in pay. Published March 22, 2019.

UN Women. Facts and figures: Ending violence against women. Updated November 2019.

UN Women. Facts and figures: Leadership and political participation. Updated June 2019.

UNICEF. Gender equality.

United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. 

University of Oxford. Our World in Data. Economic inequality by gender. Published March 2018. Updated November 2019. 

U.S. News & World Report. 116th Congress by Party, Race, Gender, and Religion. Published December 19, 2019. 

Watanabe M. Everyday Feminism webinar. Not That Kind of Feminist: Moving Beyond White Feminism.

Women’s Media Center. The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017. 

Further Learning

Amnesty International’s Key Facts on Abortion

Digitale E. Stanford Medicine. Gender inequality and rigid norms linked with poor health, global research shows. Published May 31, 2019.

Everyday Feminism’s School for Social Justice

Wolf N. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.

 

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