Alice Robb and Lauren Bans have both written on a fairly interesting phenomenon, though I must caution that it’s surely one that’s limited to politically aware, liberal, urban, youthful subcultures of America: A growing stigma against women dieting. Or even just watching what she eats, which is conflated with dieting in our culture.* From Lauren Bans:
Whatever the reason, when it comes to thinness, “effort” is unbecoming. Just think of the gajillion articles and books about dieting every year that are marketed with the promise of being effortlessly thin. It’s basically the unspoken pledge of the insanely popular French Women Don’t Get Fat, the guide by Mireille Guiliano on how to be a cool, thin, casual croissant-eating Parisian. But the truth is French women do get fat, and they suffer from disordered eating as much as their American counterparts. No one actually wants to be seen as the lady on the diet, even though half of us are the lady on the diet at any given time. (Literally half: According to Judy Mahle Lutter, the author of The Bodywise Woman, 50 percent of American women diet on a regular basis.) Maybe it’s just that food is enjoyable. Thus, regularly abstaining from large categories of it makes one seem kinda joyless. Who wants to seem joyless? Or worse: the kind of person who pretends to find joy in a bowl of thrice-massaged kale.
And of course, men bully and pressure women about it, and so hiding it from men is doubly important:
I’ve known smart women who’ve gone to extremes to hide the fact that they have to work for their figure. I’ve been one of them. I once got out of sharing bread pudding on a date by saying that the sight of it made me sad because it was served at my grandpa’s shiva. (For that lie, I am sorry, Papa. RIP.) I have a friend who doesn’t put anything in her mouth on days when she has a date, so she can go out and eat with gusto in front of a new dude. Because members of the male species in particular seem to be put off and sometimes downright confused by dieting. In a very unscientific poll of a handful of male friends, three out of five shriveled their noses when I asked if they’d want to date someone on an ultrahealthy diet. “So, we’d have to eat at, like, special healthy places?” one of them asked derisively. Another replied, “I’m a foodie! I’d like it more if she just eats like a normal person and enjoys food as much as I do.”
Bans is really nice and forgiving about it, assuming men just don’t know how hard it is for women. I am less forgiving. I believe men are smart enough to see all the dieting information aimed at women out there and cannot be unaware that looking slender is not something you get to have while also scarfing down desserts and burgers in such a way as to signal that you enthusiasm for fellatio is likely similar. As with men announcing that they love the “natural” look while actually preferring women in make-up, what’s really going on here is men asserting their privilege both to have good-looking women to fuck and to be kept in the dark about all the bothersome work that goes into it. Women have been bullied into feeling like the bare minimum to be loved is to do shit like refuse to eat for days so they can convince a guy they’re both hot as hell and low maintenance sorts who love to scarf burgers. It’s exhausting.
That’s why the “Cool Girl” monologue in Gone Girl made so many women happy. Women are supposed to impress men with how free and relaxed we are, and we’re supposed to be smart and opinionated. But we can’t allow that love of food to make us fat and we can’t allow those smart opinions to ever infringe on the egos of the men we date. It’s an impossible standard.
But I will say that the sense that your hot chick credentials will be swiped from you if you dare show the actual effort that goes into it strikes me as more of a problem in urban, liberal areas. Being the woman who eats a lettuce leaf for dinner just doesn’t raise as many eyebrows when you’re in more conservative parts of the country, and, in fact, I’ve been hassled before by folks in those areas for getting seconds. In more sexist parts of the country, being more open about how you work hard to attract male attention is not considered off-putting at all.
Which leads me to the uncomfortable but undeniable conclusion that the pressure to be effortlessly hot (as well as smart but not disagreeable) is a weird side effect of feminism’s expanding influence. Feminism has made it clear that the expectation that women diet all the time and that we spend hours on our looks and that we curtail our ambitions/intelligence for men is a form of oppression. And oppression just isn’t hot, particularly to liberal men. So women feel like they have to show how much they’re thrown off the shackles of the patriarchy by not bothering with all that girly oppressive stuff, but at the same time, we also know that men like the results of all that dieting and submitting. So the effort gets made. It just gets hidden.
Just this weekend, for instance, I felt a small quiver of guilt because I ordered something called the “Dieter’s Delight” at brunch. It was good! But I won’t lie, part of the reason I wanted it was that it looked like it wouldn’t pack a huge calorie punch while also being tasty. I was irritated that they blew my cover by calling it by that name, though.
I don’t know that I have a good solution to all this. I do like seeing so many feminists rebel by talking about clothes and make-up, and throwing the finger to the expectation that they look perfect but pretend that they didn’t work for it. But the weight thing is a much stickier situation. Fat activists are doing a good job of saying hey they’re fat, they are okay with it, and you can fuck off. And that’s great. But for those of us who do watch our weight and don’t want to stop, that’s not really the solution.** I think being open about this fact is an important first start.
The other thing that needs to happen is that we need to stop giving men a pass on this and assuming that they poor dears don’t know any better. Order the salad in front of your date. If he says something, say, “I guess I could gain 100 pounds. That might be easier.” Enjoy watching the blood drain out of his face. Why coddle men on this? Frankly, if you do work hard to look this hot, the least men can do is show some fucking appreciation.
*This is a real pet peeve of mine. I think a lot of the problems with exercise and nutrition in our culture are a direct result of the “dieting” mentality that makes it all about weight loss with very little focus on overall health or prevention. We’re encouraged to overeat until we put on too much weight and then encouraged to go on drastic starvation diets to lose it. The idea that one can be moderate and eat right all the time while exercising is lost in the shuffle. But that is, in fact, what you’re supposed to be doing, no matter what you weigh. Yo-yo dieting is really, really bad for you, but it’s the model for how we eat in this country. I just think the concept of “dieting” needs to be tossed altogether. Eating right shouldn’t be treated like it’s a period of abstinence, but a lifelong habit.
**Despite ugly stereotypes, I’ve found most fat activists do not hold it against you if this is the case for you. They just reasonably point out that different strokes work for different folks. And that’s really what I’m getting at here. It’s good to stop shaming people for being fat, but that doesn’t excuse shaming people who, for their own reasons, prefer to eat a certain way and exercise heavily to keep their weight lower.