Feminism, fat, feelings, forgiveness

My dear readers,

I want to tell you a story, and after I tell you this story, I’m going to ask for your forgiveness.

When I was a sophomore in college, not that many years ago, I was voted artistic director of my all-girls dance company. I’d joined in my first few weeks on campus, so I’d been a member for a year-and-a-half by the time I became AD. Something that I noticed in that time was how much negative body talk happened in our company – in front of the mirror in rehearsal, in the dressing room right before a show, and when we were just hanging out together. This wasn’t entirely surprising; a lot of us had been dancing our whole lives, many of us in classical ballet, and the young woman who emerges from classical ballet wholly unscathed by body image issues is rare and lucky indeed. And of course, when women get together, it’s sad but it’s true, negative body talk is a form of bonding. “You hate your thighs, oh my god, I hate my thighs too!” Look at this horrendous, corrosive thing we have in common! Sisterhood! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t engage in that kind of talk myself sometimes, either, while I was putting on my false eyelashes or hungoverly stretching on Sunday morning.

But that changed when I became AD. I was a leader in the company now, and I decided that I was going to try to change this culture of public and collective self-flagellation. We were a group of women who could do amazing things with our bodies, who could move in ways that brought us – and the people who paid good money to come watch us – tremendous joy. It was time to stop the fat talk. I instituted a no-negative body talk in the dressing rooms and did my best to lead by example. I joined the campus eating disorders awareness and prevention group so I could learn more about how these things worked, and learn better strategies to change the culture in the dance company. I started thinking seriously about how I approached my own body, too, about the conversation in my own head, because that conversation hadn’t always been the best. Like I said, the young woman who emerges from classical ballet – or in my case, from gymnastics, competition jazz, and private girls’ school – wholly unscathed, is very rare indeed. But I was a leader now, and I felt a genuine sense of responsibility toward the other girls in my company to set an example. It wasn’t enough to say the right things in the dressing room; I wanted to make sure I was walking and talking.

That awareness and prevention group, the Eating Concerns Advisers, is how I first became aware of Feministing. We brought in this awesome writer and speaker called Courtney E. Martin, who had written a book about perfectionism in young women and how it so often manifested in eating disorders and disordered eating. As President of ECA, it was my job to introduce Courtney before her talk, and when I was doing my research on her, I discovered this blog she wrote for, Feministing. I became an avid reader, and five years later, here we are.

Here we are. For the last two years, it’s been my honour and my pleasure to be an Editor at Feministing. I love this group of bloggers, I love our readers, I love the larger internet feminism community of which this site is a part. Which is why I need to tell you that for the last two years, I haven’t been completely honest with you, readers. While I’ve been blogging about pernicious beauty standards, about the need for realistic images of women in media, about loving your body, I’ve been hating mine. I’ve been hurting myself. I’ve been starving.

The reasons it started are manifold and aren’t really relevant right this second. And in case you’re wondering, I’m doing much better now. The reason I want to ask your forgiveness is because feminist leaders are not supposed to fall down this hole. Feminist leaders, especially those who are former Presidents of the Princeton Eating Concerns Advisors for god’s sake, are supposed to know better. After all, we know all about the Beauty Myth and we know how photoshop works and we know that it is a radical act to resist the homogenized impossible unattainable commercial vision of what beauty is. We know all this. Which is why, when I fell down that hole, I couldn’t tell anyone about it. On top of everything else – on top of being miserable and ashamed and really fucking hungry – I felt like a bad feminist, and I left like a flaming hypocrite. I felt like I was letting my readers down.

I want to be clear: no one ever told me that that was what I was doing. No one ever called me a hypocrite. That was all me. I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching, and it made me feel ten times worse that I might otherwise have felt. The public feminist who preaches self love while starving herself? It’s like a giant gooey ball of contradiction and irony and hypocrisy with flakes of toasted paradox sprinkled on top. And it made it that much harder to talk about what I was going through. Disordered eating and eating disorders are, in most circumstances, a secretive business, and because of who I am and what I do, I was afraid to tell even the people closest to me, for fear they’d judge me extra harshly.

I don’t mean to say that being an Editor at Feministing is a burden. On the contrary: my position as a public feminist is one that I value, one that I’m grateful for, and to the extent that I’m a role model for anyone, I take that responsibility very seriously. I would never want to let any of those people down, or preach something that I’m not trying with all my might to practice.

I am trying now. It’s slow going, because as Isaac Newton could have told us, it’s much easier to fall into a hole than to climb out of it. Luckily, I have help.

But I want to speak to those readers who are struggling. The ones who are hungry by what some would call choice. The ones who stay on the treadmill to placate the brutal taskmaster in their heads, who run that extra mile so they won’t stay up all night berating themselves for being lazy, or get up early the next day to run two extra miles as punishment. The ones who, on top of feeling all the things they feel about themselves – because eating disorders and disordered eating are never really about bodies and they’re even less about food or exercise – are feeling guilty. Feeling feelings about their feelings, as the wonderful Jaclyn Friedman would say. I want to speak to you, the ones who feel like bad feminists, who feel like they ought to know better because they read Feministing everyday.

You’re not a bad feminist. You’re not a bad anything (well, I don’t know, you could be truly terrible at the oboe, but I have no way of divining that from here). You’re human, and you’re hurting, and you need to go get help for that.

But that hurt doesn’t make you a bad feminist. It makes you living proof of how powerful sexism is, and how necessary feminism is. And that hurt that you’re feeling right now, when you put it behind you, will make you a more effective combatant in the fight against sexism. It will endow you with empathy, and compassion, and a visceral understanding of the effects of sexism on our culture. But before you can do that, you need to forgive yourself.

There is no such thing as a perfect feminist, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect body. I can tell you from personal experience that trying to be the perfect anything, and trying to be two perfect, contradictory things at once, will rip you apart.

It took me two years to let go of the feelings I was feeling about my feelings, and of the fear of what would happen if other feminists found out what was going on with me. I’ve forgiven myself, and I hope you can forgive me, too.

All my love,

Chloe.

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12 Comments

  1. Posted March 22, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. You are not a bad feminist. Feminism is not a style or a way of living, but a world view, an active call for change — including the conditions we currently find ourselves in. Further telling the truth about your life as a woman is a radical and feminist act. Good feminist! I am so very sorry to hear you have struggled with body image issues. Hate that stuff. It’s hard work, but I promise you can get better. Been there. Fuck eating disorders!

  2. Posted March 22, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Moved to tears. I’m sending tons of love your way, as I’m sure many readers are this morning. Thank you for your honesty.

  3. Posted March 22, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for writing this; I really needed to hear my own thoughts through someone else’s voice. It is so hard to struggle with something like this, let alone to struggle with it while knowing how messed up it is. You are not a hypocrite or a bad feminist – you are a human being who has been affected by all the junk society has fed her. Thank you for speaking up and making me realise these things about myself, as well. Best wishes for recovery. <3

  4. Posted March 22, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    please – this needs a GIGANTIC GIGANTIC trigger warning UP FRONT!

  5. Posted March 22, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    This is a brave, moving, and powerful piece, and one that I can relate to. When I was an undergrad, I went through a 2 year period of disordered eating and compulsive exercising. All while being a proud feminist and sociology major that understand all that stuff about beauty being a social construction, etc etc etc. Only instead of feeling hypocritical, part of my eating disorder rationalizing was that I was different, because I wasn’t like all those women that buy into it. I knew better, so of course I didn’t have an eating disorder. I just wanted to “get healthy.” I convinced myself that the rigid standards I applied to myself was just discipline (in much the same vein as my academic discipline to maintain a 4.0). It couldn’t possibly be that I was buying into the culture I rejected all day in class…. THANK YOU for voicing the paradox of hating yourself while feminist. It is a constant battle.

  6. Posted March 22, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    “There is no such thing as a perfect feminist, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect body.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am in a similar boat as you, have been struggling with eating disorders for technically a good 9 years now. (Granted I have gotten a decent handle on my severity these last few years, but I still have my episodic struggles.) It’s hard to look at myself and confront my own thoughts while I’m trying to cheer on other girls and tell them that they are beautiful regardless of what others say. But people like us need to keep trying, there are others counting on us and growing and struggling together is worth it always in the end. :)

  7. Posted March 22, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this. Your honesty and rawness is appreciated. I feel like a failure, I DO no better, and yet in yoga today the self talk was ridiculous. Thank you.

  8. Posted March 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Very, very powerful. Thank you for your honesty, bravery, and forgiveness of yourself (even though you’ve done nothing wrong).

  9. Posted March 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Chloe, thank you for your wise and honest story. Forgiveness can be so liberating. Forgiving yourself for not being perfect (to your own or others’ “standards”) is a radical act in this culture. Thanks for sharing yourself in this way.

  10. Posted March 24, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Chloe, thank you for a brave post and good reminder that advocates, educators and feminists of all kinds are not superhumans; nor should we expect ourselves to be.

    Body image “issues”, disordered eating and all kinds of self harming/sabotaging behaviors are much too common and thankfully with support, courage and time, are things we can “recover from”. However, I don’t think we just need to recover as individuals; these are culturally systemic “issues” that need attention on a macro level.

    Also, not sure if folks at feministing have any control over this but when I opened this article the advertisement below it was for some sort of weight loss surgery… Yikes!

  11. Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    1. Where is the Eating Disorders Trigger Warning???? This piece is beautiful but it really, REALLY needs a TW.

    2. Chloe — beautifully written. I absolutely love your work, from “How to be a feminist without anyone knowing” in The Daily Princetonian to all of your articles on Feministing. I want you to know that even and especially after this piece, I will still look up to you as a role model, just as I have for the past few years.

  12. Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I, too, struggle every single day with a negative self-image, yet I write and share pieces that rally against the objectification of women along with people of my race. It’s hard not to feel like a huge hypocrite when a year ago, I, too, started to starve myself because of the actions of a man. Luckily, I managed to get that under control for the most part, though I still have some rough, rough days where I turn to some admittedly unhealthy habits.

    My hope is that spreading awareness of these issues that eat away at our self-esteem as women, minorities, etc. will keep my offspring from having to deal with this the way we have to right now. I’d love to have a daughter and not have her worry about not having to fall under a certain body type to be deemed acceptable by society. Unfortunately, we have so many images and expectations in our faces now from the time we are little kids, it is really hard to ignore them as much as you want to.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. If anything, it’s a testimony showing that all this stupid expectation can slowly be destroying those of us who appear to be the toughest on the outside. Something really is wrong with this world when we want to believe we are okay yet find find ourselves not quite good enough. Good luck with becoming healthy, both physically and emotionally, because we need as many people as we can continuing to expose the BS that is messing up the way we view ourselves.

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