This may ruffle a few feathers. But I've been thinking hard about it for three days, so on the blog it goes. We here at Olivia Waite have always enjoyed books and articles and blog posts about writing, but since becoming a writer and an author myself I have read avidly anything anybody has to say about the subject. Which is why I'm always excited when the new RWR magazine arrives in the mail. Many articles are useful immediately, so I read those—and then I save the issue for the other articles that will be useful to me further down the road of my career.
And then—the February issue came out. And it punched me in the face.
Because in order to be a better writer, it seems I also have to lose weight.
This issue is the second in a series on "The Well Writer." The first one I recall was about happiness, about not tearing yourself down or giving in to rejection and so on. This second one is specifically physical. And amid pieces on relieving stress and finding ways to sit that do not hurt your back and neck after long periods at the keyboard, there are three articles that specifically deal with losing weight.
It is one thing to talk about exercise's benefits emotionally and mentally: Lord knows I feel better when I do more walking around. And it's important to realize how the foods we consume affect our physical and mental experience of being in the world: whenever I eat good fresh sushi, I feel strong enough to lift cars one-handed. But these three articles make several mistakes I've grown very tired of seeing:
- Weight loss and fitness are the same thing. (Eloquent rebuttal via Already Pretty.)
- Losing weight and eating right are purely a matter of an individual's self-control. (See the USDA's interactive map, which makes visible the distance to grocery stores for low-income households, households without cars, food deserts, etc.)
- Women are expected to rigidly police themselves about how much and what kinds of food they put in their bodies. (See this lovely, long YouTube video by the brilliant Sarah Haskins, oddly preceded by an ad for Call of Duty: Black Ops.)
Plenty of skinny people have no physical stamina, and plenty of fat people are in excellent shape. I'm not going to get into the general arguments here—instead, I would like to talk about what, specifically, bothered me about the RWA's fun adventure into body policing.
First, the small point: Cheryl Ann Smith, Michelle Butler, and Trish Milburn all name-check Weight Watchers specifically. It feels like an advertorial.
A larger issue: Smith and Butler also compare food explicitly with drugs—because of dependency, see? Um, no—because despite my sincere affection for a well-balanced vodka tonic, I can get by without a drink. I cannot really get by without putting food into my mouth and swallowing it. This comparison is dangerous in the context of our "drugs are bad, mmkay?" cultural narrative. Do we really want women to fear and avoid food? Isn't eating too little as serious a problem as eating too much?
But what's worse: this is a really sloppy metaphor, in a magazine for writers, in one of the few periodicals where women's intellectual and creative endeavors are treated as the main subject of discussion and inquiry. Can't we have one space where the shape of our bodies does not define our success?
It certainly doesn't work that way in our fiction, where the heroine's body is celebrated just as it is, whether it's beautiful and perfectly proportioned or a little plump and curvy or slender and boyish or anywhere in between and all around. The romance genre has come a long way from the days when only violet-eyed, perfect-bosomed heroines needed apply. (See this recent excellent post by Smart Bitches on physical ideals in erotic romance, with a great comments thread.) Can you imagine the outcry if a hero told the heroine he thought she was pretty great—but she'd be even better if she lost a few pounds? Why do we not expect as much from our friends and fellow writers as we expect from our fictional creations?
If your personal goal is to lose weight because you know you will feel better and healthier and more mentally alert, I applaud you and support your efforts. But enslaving yourself to a number that does nothing to define how strong and good your body is? Denying yourself pleasure for denial's sake, punishing yourself to meet some external set of unmeetable standards, living on foods you despise for reasons you don't believe and having years full of long days you don't enjoy—that's playing the martyr as thoroughly as any heroine who ever sold herself into marriage to cover her feckless father's gambling debts. And we threw her out the window a long time ago.