We hate her

July 10th, 2008  |  Published in Reality check  |  5 Comments

Quiz:

1. You are in a fitness class. The instructor is lean and muscular. Do you think:

a) She’s in great shape; I want to be like her.
b) I want to date her.
c) I hate her.
2. At the gym, a woman with what you consider a perfect body walks past. Is your first thought:

a) Ooh, she has great deltoid development. I should ask her what she does for her shoulder routine.
b) I want to date her.
c) Bitch.
3. You finish your squat set and a woman takes the rack once you are done. You notice that while she is about your size, she is squatting 50 lbs. more with perfect form. Do you think:

a) I should hang around and see what her routine is. Maybe I can get some ideas.
b) I want to date her.
c) I bet she’s on steroids.
4. Your friend has been hitting the gym and is looking fantastic. While telling you excitedly about how much fun she’s having, she flexes for you. You say:

a) You look awesome! Go girl!
b) I want to date you.
c) You’re kind of bulking up, aren’t you?

If your answers were truly, authentically “a”s, then you can stop reading now since I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t know. But if you were honest with yourself, there’s a good chance that your answers were mostly “c” (oh, and if you answered “b”s, well, hey, I’m cool with that too). One of the first books I ever read as a budding feminist was Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. In it, Wolf talks about how women are under tremendous pressure to measure up to a mythical, normative ideal, and how this constrains their choices and self-perception. Years later, in art crit class, I read the words of art critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing:

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This not only determines the relationship of men to women, but of women to themselves.” (italics mine)

To put these two pieces together, as women in North American culture, we know that we are under surveillance, as are all women. We are perpetually evaluated to see if we meet particular standards. Most of us do not. Yet, instead of living outside of these boundaries, we attempt to stay within them. We place our bodies under careful watch, but more importantly and more insidiously, we place other women under surveillance too. We know that there are tangible risks for not measuring up, and there are rewards for meeting the standards. But we also choose to punish others who we feel have succeeded better than we have.

“Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt. It is soooo big. She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends… They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, OK? I mean her butt — It’s just so big. I can’t believe it’s so round. It’s just out there. I mean, it’s gross.” —Sir Mix-A-Lot, Baby Got Back

When a woman attacks another woman, all she really proves is that she hates herself. –Erica Jong

This punishment may be as harmless as a snotty thought about fat ankles popping into your head when a beautiful woman walks past. It may be subtle, and manifest itself in sly put-downs, concerned worrying to a friend about how much weight she is lifting and don’t you think your arms are getting bulky? It may be more overt, taking the form of social ostracism and open hostility to women who are deemed too perfect. In any case, it is a common reaction. Why is this so? What if, I would like to ask, what if instead of putting other women down and being our own worst enemies, we supported other women in our everyday lives? What if, instead of muttering “slut” or “nice fake tits” at the cute girl in the locker room, you said “hi” and smiled? What if, instead of discouraging your lifter friends, you made a date to join them in the gym so they could show you the ropes?

Me and OMGBFFA at our first grappling tournament, September 2007. She won gold. And I was thrilled to bits for her.

Me and OMGBFFA at our first grappling tournament, September 2007. She won gold. And I was thrilled to bits for her.

If you have been into training for a long time, perhaps you know what I am talking about. You feel apologetic around other women, as if you’re letting them down or buying into the beauty myth. Maybe you feel the need to justify yourself, or hide under baggy clothes. Maybe people ask you if you have an eating disorder just because you prefer fruit and cottage cheese to greasy hamburgers for lunch. Part of the problem is that North Americans seem to feel an instinctive distrust of people who are perceived to know too much about fitness (or anything, really — we aren’t always much on book lernin). Being fit is viewed as incompatible with being smart, or being a nice person.

Sound familiar? It’s the old dumb blonde versus smart ugly librarian routine all over again. Women can only be stereotypes, not people. So here’s my challenge to you: start looking at fit women as potential allies and friends, not competitors and enemies. Success is not a finite pool, and just because someone is doing well doesn’t mean that it’s taking away from you. Who knows, you might get some good squat tips or a date out of the deal.

Responses

  1. Cecilia says:

    June 3rd, 2009at 11:32 am(#)

    Thank you! You’ve put into words something I have been thinking about for a while now. I have always hated that, as women, we can’t rejoice in each others’ accomplishments/happiness and view them as a collective gain, rather than as an attack. And I’m guilty of this, too. It’s almost as if another woman achieving greatness meant that now we don’t have a possibility to be great. I think, just as you said, we’d all be best served if, rather than competing with one another, we viewed each other as allies! Thank you for this great site.

  2. Elky says:

    April 16th, 2010at 7:09 am(#)

    Love the article and I think I’ve been a mix of.. hey I’m honest, all three worlds you outlined ;)

    Before I started any changes myself I always saw the fit women as sluts/cheap/fake, anything I could think of to make my own jealousy of what she had a little more tolerable. I played that “better than her, worse than her” game in my head whenever I went out.

    Now I’ve started to be able to accept the women as just well… people! And I’ve been able to be impressed with what the women at my gym can do the same as if it was a guy doing it or a pro. I remember going home and telling my family all about person X who was doing this exercise where she laid flat on a bench then lifted her legs verticle up on her shoulders and repeated in such a smooth and flawless execution I couldn’t even continue my workout until she was done! I remember this clearly because it was the first real time I was able to admire a woman’s success without thinking something nasty about her, well that and one day I’d like to try that without looking like a fool ;)

    Great article describes in a nutshell what we all probably dont want to admit, but know we do ^_^

  3. Holly says:

    August 12th, 2010at 6:02 am(#)

    Thank you for this – I just started the LE programme (with the other Krista as my coach) and I have been wondering if wanting to get leaner is compatible with being a feminist, being aware of the beauty myth and fat acceptance and all that. Yes, I am ashamed of wanting to change and embarrassed to tell people. Your articles here have helped me to realize why that is so, and why it is okay to participate in such a programme.

  4. Mistress Krista says:

    August 12th, 2010at 6:40 am(#)

    Holly, yes, these goals are definitely compatible with being feminist. Being feminist, in part, is about working together with other women on an overall project of self-determination and the ability to make your own body choices. YOU define your body project and YOU take responsibility for that. You also work to bring together all the parts of you: physical, mental, emotional, political. And yes, you do question WHY you want certain things — and you’re brutally honest about the responses. You own the why and the how.

    Ill health from self-neglect or some idea that a feminist should not care about the physical container is NOT a feminist act. It limits your choices, decreases your quality of life, and in essence self-harms an fundamental part of you. Nor is body shame — of any type — feminist.

    Sure, ill-health can happen, as can disability and injury, but at least you shouldn’t be the one driving that bus.

    That being said you can pursue leanness in a feminist way — as a project of healthy physical self-determination — or you can pursue it in a non-feminist way — as a project of starving and depriving your body. Leanness is not the problem. It’s how you achieve it and why.

    I pursue leanness and a certain body composition because it makes me feel strong, powerful, and a good “fighting weight”. I like how my body moves and acts at a certain level of fitness and leanness; I can do all the things I want to do (and kick ass at them). I achieve leanness as an overall project of self-care and integrated wellness. And most importantly, *I* have defined the terms of what is right for me. I defy anyone to experience this feeling and tell me that this is not feminist.

  5. Stickman says:

    October 2nd, 2010at 7:56 pm(#)

    I have an ongoing (and mostly light-hearted) conversation with my wife about the fact that what I think is attractive in a woman is actually not at all important to her – it is what other WOMEN think that is critical. In a recent example, my wife asked my what I though of the appearances of the other fitness instructors at her gym (that’s a lose-lose proposition right from the start). I remarked that one of them was “too skinny for my taste”. Wrong answer! Apparently – it is impossible to be too skinny, however unattractive to potential mates that might be! This has parallels in men’s behaviour too, and I think the following joke is very illuminating:

    woman: “If you could chose between being 6′ 2″ with 4″ tackle or being 5′ 8″ with 6″ tackle, which would you go for?”

    guy: “Can I be 4′ 9″ with 10″ tackle?”

    Of course, the guy is much more worried about impressing other guys in the locker room than about what women might think about his appearance. It seems to me that what we are all engaged in here is using our appearance as a weapon in establishing a pecking order. Women who answer “c” in your quiz are behaving very naturally in a society that excessively focuses on female appearance. But it also seems to me that setting up pecking orders like this is not conducive to human happiness … what you are asking for is for us all to work with each other instead of against each other, and amen to that.


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