When I was younger and learning the ways in which to conduct myself, one of the rules of etiquette I picked up through osmosis was the understanding that you did not ask women about two things: their age and their weight. (Because it’s rude to ask questions that suggest that women are humans with bodies that are subject to the laws of biology and physics? I dunno.) I think the proscription against women discussing their real ages is slowly fading, but the reluctance to talk about the weight of our bodies remains. It’s an understandable reluctance, as all sorts of opprobrium is heaped upon women for weighing too much or too little, while those who are in the sweet spot are showered with praise.
A few months ago, there was a bit of a trend on Facebook and blogs to disclose what people actually weighed along with photos of themselves, as sort of a way of demystifying one of the most basic aspects of weight and bodies, particularly women’s bodies. I thought it was awesome and I loved seeing all of these different kinds of bodies and realizing that I would have never been able to guess what any of those people weighed. Ultimately, though, I didn’t take part, and not because I don’t know what I weigh or because I have negative emotional associations with my weight. (Neither of these are true. I do know what I weigh and I regard it with the same level of interest as my resting heart rate and my blood pressure.)
I didn’t because I don’t feel that there’s anything all that revolutionary about me, as a woman with privilege that comes from being tall, thin and conventionally attractive, saying, “Hey, this is how much I weigh and these are my clothing sizes!”* especially when I’ve learned over several years of commenting in lady-specific online spaces (like, for instance, Jezebel) that disclosing that kind of information can be emotionally triggering for women with histories of disordered thinking and behavior, which is about the last thing I’d ever want to do to another person. But while my motivation for not disclosing is different, it all comes from the same place, which is a recognition that conversations surrounding women and weight are emotional minefields that regularly blow up with disastrous results.
I considered all of this while reading an article posted on Slate last week, in which Josh Levin pointed out that NBC posted the weights of male snowboarders but not female snowboarders, and then later while watching the conversation unfold in the comments on the blog’s Facebook page.
Straight up, I’ll just say that I think NBC should either post the weights of all athletes or none of them, and I, personally, am leaning toward posting them, especially when it comes to sports where weight actually matters. However, I also know that’s my ideal-world answer, and that we live in a world that is very, very far from the ideal, especially when it comes to women’s bodies. I don’t think NBC is doing what Levin suggests, which is that they are saying female athletes should be ashamed of their bodies. Rather, I think they are acknowledging that, yes, shit is really complicated when it comes to talking about women’s bodies, and they’d rather not go there. (And hey, I guess we should be happy that they didn’t just lie about the athletes’ weight like they did with Maria Sharapova. Six foot two and 130 pounds? Oh, okay.)
But I want to go a bit past the “should they or shouldn’t they?” conversation and talk about the wider implications of this cultural silence surround women and our weight, which is specifically how it leaves us with virtually no frame of reference for what women’s bodies actually weigh. That was part of what I found so fascinating about that mini-trend of self-disclosure I mentioned earlier in this post, which was that it was so clearly illustrating for me that I had absolutely NO CLUE what people weighed just by looking at them. None at all! If I had been one of those carnival barkers, I would have been off on every single person’s weight by a considerable margin, and I would have been fired, or at least demoted to the ring toss.
The disconnect between expectations of what a certain weight should look like versus what it actually looks like has actual ramifications on the way women regard our bodies. Beauty Redefined recently published a piece that looked at media representations of female celebrities and weight, and how it appears as though a lot of female celebrities are really low-balling it when it comes to their weight and clothing sizes:
Along with the idealized images of women’s bodies we see nonstop in all forms of media, the vast majority of the weights or dress sizes we ever hear or see in mainstream media are carefully selected and often distorted. They are generally in reference to models and celebrities ranging from size 00-4 (sometimes 6, and it’s usually treated as a real act of bravery to admit it), and though media makes them sound totally standard and “average” for any woman, we know that they are not representative of many regular, healthy women all over the world who often feel like abnormally large monsters when they compare their own weights or sizes to those declared by celebrities or casually thrown around in TV or movie scripts.
This article actually came across my radar right about the time I noticed that a lot of women I was encountering online seemed to have set themselves a weight goal of 125 pounds. It didn’t matter how tall they were or what kind of build they had. The target number was always 125 pounds. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
And I know it’s kind of trendy today to say that women are the ones who do this to themselves, but there are men out there who add to the pressure. I wish I could find a link to the article in the lad magazine that listed dating scenarios in which a man might need support, including *gasp!* dating a woman who weighs over 140 pounds. (By the way, I had a good laugh at that one. I still do, every time I think about it.)
It shows up in athletics, too. Kathryn Bertine, whose work I adore, wrote a book called All the Sundays Yet to Come: A Skater’s Journey** about her brief time as a professional figure skater, and in it she writes about the way various coaches and managers would put weight goals in place for the skaters, with seemingly no regard to how realistic these goals were for the skaters or what the skaters would have to do to attain them.
In Bertine’s case, she attained them by becoming anorexic. (In a particularly telling and heart-breaking passage, she auditioned for Disney on Ice, only to be told via letter to lose a specific amount of weight. She loses the weight and re-auditions, then receives the exact same letter, with only a different date.)
And none of this even takes into consideration what happens for those of us who seek to put on muscle, and how the scale will actually go up even though our bodies may stay the same size or get smaller. It’s completely backwards according to conventional wisdom about women’s bodies, and yet it happens to a lot of us, myself included.
It’s pretty clear to me that a lot of these weight standards – 110 pounds, 125 pounds, 140 pounds – are rather arbitrary, selected less based on metrics like health and wellness and fitness and more on a socially-cultivated expectation of what a woman’s body ought to weigh to be considered attractive. We may be talking in numbers and measurements, which is often thought of as a language of reason, but the underlying assumptions are anything but reasonable.
Alas I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this problem. I understand the reticence. I understand why celebrities underreport. I understand why women smash their scales. I understand why women don’t even get on them in the first place. For as long as we can remember, a lot of us have been hearing that our worth as human beings is intimately tangled up with the number that appears on the scale. The reluctance to engage with that number is a form of self-preservation in the face of a culture that seems indifferent to suffering. I totally, totally get it.
But at the same time, when I envision an ideal future around this subject, it’s not a world in which everyone is ashamed of their weight or feels triggered into disordered thinking when they get on the scale. It’s a world in which we can all regard that number as just another measurement in a series of measurements that describe our body at a specific point in time.
But how do we get there from here? I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s important to point out that refusing to talk or lying about what women actually weigh only contributes to the unrealistic expectations placed on all of us.
*It has been pointed out to me that I come across as dismissive of those tall, thin women who have really struggled with their bodies. I’m sorry about that, and I have edited this to make it clear that this is my own experience about my role in body image conversations. When I take part in conversations where I have a lot of privilege, I try not to make myself central to those conversations and instead cede the floor to others, and I consider this to be one of those instances.
**Affiliate link! Yes, I am slowly inching my way to the dark side. Anyways, if you don’t want to give me moneys – and I won’t be hurt if you don’t – don’t click on that link.