Fatness. Fitness. Feminism.

Sydney PhillipsA reflection by student staff member, Sydney, about her experiences with body image, working out, and how these things connect with her feminism and self love.
Trigger Warning: This blog deals with body image, body dysmorphia, and unhealthy eating practices. Please use self-care.
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We live in a day where thick (curvy, slim-thick) is in but what this really means is women with thick thighs/large butts/ big boobs and a TINY waist. One thing thick still doesn’t seem to mean is fat. The media, men, and other women are still always critical of unwanted fat/cellulite/stretch marks and ways to get rid of them… especially in a time where “Fitspo”  has become popular. Let me start off by saying I’m a feminist who believes in radical self love… I’m also a feminist who has a love-hate relationship with working out. I grew up being a year round competitive athlete, basketball, cross country, track, soccer (you name it!), so any time outside of school was spent in gyms or outside practicing skills. I never thought about my body much as an athlete- let me rephrase that… I never thought about the good my body was doing when I was an athlete. I knew I was strong but I thought it was because I was large. “I’m bigger than my friends therefore I have to be stronger than my friends”. Was I actually bigger than my friends though? The photos say no. It never occurred to me that my perception of my body was completely warped. I saw myself as overweight, much bigger than my friends, and was constantly aware of what I was wearing and how people perceived me. And as a young girl who was in Catholic School (Catholic guilt is the real deal), didn’t know much about feminism , and had a mother with body image issues, I was stuck in the perfect storm. My body was always at the front of my mind. I binge ate, starved at some points (why did I throw away so many lunches when I LOVE food?), and was just overall unaware of how toxic my mentality was.

CaptureWhen I graduated high school, I stopped playing sports and focused on school. I turned to feminism and activism to help me understand myself and the world, and I still worked out pretty regularly… I also gained 40 pounds. But guess what else happened? I learned to love my body. Now don’t get me wrong, I still look at my stretchmarks or fat rolls and sometimes feel like a “lazy loser” but I also know that my body does amazing things just to keep me alive, that I am strong, and that all bodies are good bodies. Here’s an important disclaimer though- I’m overweight, my doctors bring it up, my friends notice it, my parents comment on it, and guys tend to tell me “I love bigger women” but overall I’m still seen as “normal” by society. I can still find clothes in most stores, my fat is distributed pretty equally over my body, and I can still move throughout space with ease. I realize that due to this I experience both thin privilege and fat shame at different times. I have come to understand that my experience is a privilege because I CAN find a break from the constant judging in certain spaces.

Like I said, I still like to workout. I like the discipline of it that I learned through sports, and I think I always will. There are major benefits to working out. I like to go into the gym and lift weights or kickbox or do something that makes my muscles scream afterwards. For me, this is a form of radical self love, but it isn’t for everyone, and moreso this love can turn to hate really easily. I workout to feel strong, not skinny, but those two are easy to conflate and I often find myself walking the fine line, and falling on the toxic side if I’m not careful. What is supposed to be about strength and love can turn into weight and fat in the blink of an eye, and it is a constant game of checks and balances (going to the gym…but not twice a day… appreciating my body…but not weighing myself) to make sure I don’t go there. So just as much as I workout to get in a good mental space, I also often have to stop working out to remain in that good space. Even when doing this, I constantly struggle with the guilt over not working out or the guilt of working out for the wrong reasons. Let me just say this- deciding to love your body does not mean your body issues disappear.

bgfI found Bikram Yoga to be a very healthy way to workout and feel strong- I was feeling confident and in touch with my body while not worrying about weight. The problem- Bikram Yoga as well as fitness classes are EXPENSIVE (I’m talking over $100 a month here), which leads me to my next point. Fitness is a feminist issue AND an intersectional one. Some women don’t want to workout to feel self love. Some do and can’t afford it, and some aren’t represented in the fitness world at all. Sidenote, if you hate running, don’t do it! Hate the gym? Don’t go! What works for some and what some see as self love isn’t for all and it would be pretty antifeminist to try and insist it does.

We know poor women are more likely to be overweight and that curvy figures are more accepted by women of color, but what does this mean for women who want to workout or engage in health related activities but don’t have the funds or don’t see themselves represented? If you search “fit woman” on the internet what do you get? White women. White women with muscles. White women with no body fat. Now that, in itself, is an issue, but add in that these women are all able bodied (Inspiration Porn is real too yall, don’t even get me started), they are feminine, and they have all the trendy gear and equipment they need.

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Let’s be real here, I haven’t worked out in months. I’m a grad student taking a full course load and working two jobs- when that’s done, I just want to go to bed. I still miss it… specifically lifting… but right now self care means something different. I also still feel guilty about it- especially when my clothes don’t fit or I’m “feeling fat”, but I’ve also been better about putting things in perspective and keeping a healthy mindset. I don’t have all the answers here. Fitness and feminism is a hard issue and not everyone has a healthy relationship with working out, (like I said, sometimes I don’t either) but I needed a space to discuss the fact that this is a conflicting issue with me, that I struggle, and that I’m trying my best. I think other women could use this space as well. So here’s to figuring it out together,

“All bodies are good bodies. You do not need to lose weight to have a good body. All bodies are real bodies. You are perfect at whatever size you like best. I preach this loud and proud to my friends, to my niece, to my mother, to my girlfriend. Honestly, I truly believe it. I also believe in giving a big middle finger to society’s standards of beauty, and I think it’s completely true that anyone can be healthy at whatever size they are.” – Sarah Hansen

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Note: I purposefully left my weight out of this blog. I went back and forth on this decision but ultimately decided it would not do any good or help my point by just adding numbers in.

Links for further reading:

The complicated relationship between feminism and fitness
How to work exercise out of self love not fat shaming

Intersectionality of fitness

About how you don’t always have to love your body

Some other blog posts about bodies:

Making my body a brave space

How my feminism intersects body consciousness with health benefits

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Women in Writing Roundup

Last week on Wednesday, November 8th, the Women’s Center held our final roundtable discussion of our fall series. The theme: Women in Writing. Panelists, moderator, and participants generated a fascinating discussion on the valuation of women as writers, artists, and creators in greater society. Although much of the criticism that was voiced made for a bleak outlook, our panelists passed on enlightening advice for all artists struggling to make a life with their work.

The roundtable began with the moderator (in this case, myself!) presenting some statistics to ground the conversation. Student staff members had done research to discover the representation of women as both content makers and content matter. Some highlights in these statistics include that women have made gains in more bylines from 2011 to 2014, but they still don’t make up even half of the men’s bylines; half of the National Book Award recipients from 2000 to 2014 have been by men and about men; and similarly, more than half of the Pulitzer Prize recipients from 2000 to 2015 have been by men and about men. In adding an intersectional lens to this data, we also find that women’s publications (when they actually happen) are dominated by white women–women of color, as you may have guessed, make up only a small fraction of the women published in both Poetry and The New Yorker. Check out VIDA for even more numbers on this topic.

Panelists (from left to right): Johanna Alonso, Missy Smith, and Tanya Olson

These numbers stressed the need for this conversation, and our panelists delivered many times over. Tanya Olson (poet and faculty in the English Department), Missy Smith AKA QueenEarth (singer/songwriter and coordinator in the Women’s Center), and Johanna Alonso (writer and UMBC student) started strong in their introductions teasing out themes that we would continue unraveling throughout the panel discussion. Some of the major points from the discussion included:

  • There is a double standard in today’s literary canon. Women are constantly reading about men and books by men, but men reading books about women/by women is not emphasized in the same way. Johanna brought up, for example, that despite the Hunger Games series popularity, many men in her life refused to read the books because the main character was female (and written by a woman).
  • The wealthy heterosexual white male gatekeeper has the power to set mainstream agendas. Many of the panelists agreed that the mainstream art society was a typically masculine space defined by male gatekeepers. When we have those gatekeepers in the form of editors, publishers, producers, etc. they control the agenda, which more often than not does not place value with marginalized creators and their content.
  • Despite the harsh landscape, progress is being made. Both Tanya and Missy spoke to the idea that there is plenty in the world that motivates them to continue what they do, and that comes in the form of the other folks like them–people of color, LGBTQ folks, etc.–who are being published, performing, and making careers for themselves. This visibility, to both Tanya and Missy, is crucial not only for them, but for all of the other writers and artists who aspire to grow in their fields. Missy specifically noted that she writes music and performs to empower others to do the same.
  • You must value you yourself. In order to do this work, you must value yourself. You must continue to believe in your work and the process of honing your craft. This is the driving factor for all of our panelists. Sparked by a question in the crowd about the devaluation of spoken word poetry versus musicians as art, Missy brought up that you have to stick up for yourself. If, for example, you are the only poet in a lineup of musicians, you need to ask to get the same payout as the musicians, because your art is worth that much.
  • The reality is that you are not alone. Although it can feel lonely and exhausting to be one of the only “different” people (women of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, etc.) in your field, you are not alone. Tanya made this point and noted, as well, that even though it may feel isolating, there is a path for everyone–you just have to find it. For her, this meant finding the person who was one step ahead of her, and looking to them as a model and/or a mentor. Johanna noted that her ambivalence transitioned to enthusiasm in a writing class when she found that she was not the only person writing stories about queer people. Just so, when we find the people who make space for us, we need to take it and make more space for all those who follow.

This rich conversation made clear that although there are many barriers that make women writers and artists journeys more difficult, these also create the richness and depth in their stories. The struggle, in some ways, necessitates the story/song/play/etc. in our world, and that success in writing is the sustained progress we make as we take up space and demand equity in the valuation of our art.

In final words of advice, Johanna encouraged us to venture into the nether regions of the Twitter-verse for obscure literary magazines and to read from those sources. Finding art in the most un-obvious places is a way to constantly learn more. Tanya again noted that mentorship can be key, and to find the person who you want to be–and start there. Finally, Missy took us home: “Failure is stopping. We have to keep moving and focusing on the long-game. It’s okay to be different–in fact it’s better

Further reading: