My Body is Not a Moral Issue

I know this thing is extremely long, but I don’t want to put anything behind a cut, because I kinda like the damn thing. Semi-sincere apologies for that. 

I was once talking to a guy I didn’t know very well who was in the process of getting over some serious illnesses. I commented that he was looking ‘good’ – meaning ‘healthier’, ‘stronger’, etc. He was the kind of guy who is not comfortable with the kind of vulnerability and humility that comes with accepting a genuine, heartfelt (albeit extremely simple) compliment like that, so his immediate response was to tell me that I was looking good – meaning ‘hot’, with an accompanying leer. I attempted to deflect/move past the gross feeling with a simple ‘thank you’. He put his hand on my elbow, paused dramatically and said “No – thank you“.

Simple incident, but the ick factor on that one has stuck with me, partially because it comes along with a sense of indignation that he would thank me for looking a certain way, as though of course my appearance is a favour I give to the men I encounter.

Was he conscious of that? Of course not. Was he trying to assert power over me more than anything else? Obviously. But in this case, his attempt to do so contained an explicit version of the near-constant message that women’s bodies are subject to scrutiny in a way that makes looking conventionally attractive a moral virtue. Shapely Prose and many of the other “fat acceptance” blogs say this over and over and over. To wit, the new addition to the Comment Policy includes a quote from hypothetical Skinny Person A:

I really respect what you’re doing here, because people comment on my body and my eating habits all the time, and they assume I’m unhealthy just because of my weight. I don’t know what it’s like to be fat in this society, but I know what it’s like to have my body treated as public property and be judged negatively because of my size.

(emphasis mine). The rhetoric around food and fat-themed body commentary is, of course, that people are only concerned for our health. Shapely Prose is generally fantastic about emphasizing the serious flaws in the science used to back up the ‘obesity epidemic’ health care crisis, as well as the disingenuous way that this health-based altruism somehow only ever seems to show up with respect to women who don’t fit the standard mold.

Fat is not a moral issue, even if we (read: marketers) talk about chocolate as “sinful” and the cultural standard dialogue around women and food inevitably involves a quick round of “oh-I-shouldn’t” and “I’ll just have to cut back at dinner” prior to just shutting up and eating already. The way we talk about getting enough exercise and having a healthy diet does not emphasize the possible benefits of increased energy, mental health and ability to sleep – instead, we talk as though even God will love you more if you do these things, so go right ahead and take that holier-than-thou self-satisfied tone as you lecture someone about cutting carbs. You’re doing it because you’re a Better Person, and somewhere, somehow, there’s a high-falutin’ moral explanation for how that’s the case. Nobody ever bothers to suggest that it might just be plain, simple, totally natural selfish self-interest, whether that interest is based on a healthy desire to feel better and have more energy or social pressure to look better and conform.

My mother identifies a weight range with maybe 5-10 pounds of leeway on either side of “target weight” in which she will tell me I’m “healthy”. Above that, I’m too fat, below that I’m too thin. Every time I visit, she comments. Too fat. Too skinny. Just right – stay right there, don’t move. If I object to what she says, an argument ensues – she’s only worried about my health, and if I’m not concerned about the way I look, it must be because I have no self-respect and don’t even want to try to be a better person.

No. It’s not. Because see, my body is neither public property nor even, really, a personal, private moral issue. My body is pretty much just the interface my brain uses to interact with the world. I’m not doing the boys a favour if it looks good enough and I’m not letting them down if it doesn’t. Nor am I betraying my commitment to God, my family and my mother country if I’m not skinny and “healthy”.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I’m also not betraying my feminist moral principles by wearing a low-cut top, having sex when, with whom and in what manner I feel like, or, in fact, by being a young, skinny, conventionally attractive straight woman. What I do with my body is a moral issue only if I am using it to hurt other people, in which case we’re back to that interface thing again. Dressing in a way that gets me that “thank you“? Not a sign of my weakness in capitulation to patriarchal norms or willingness to conform any more than it’s a generous favour I’m doing for the men in question. The number of dates after which I will have sex with a new partner, if at all? Also not a moral issue. Whether or not I like role play, traditionally female submissive sex roles, bondage, whatever? Not a moral issue and none of your goddamn business until we get to the number of dates after which I’ll consider having sex with you. The fact that I, personally, tend to only like sex with men, rather than women? Ditto. If I pretty much figure that I never want to have sex or be in a relationship at all, ever again, because the complicated interrelations with other people are just not worth it? Nope, not that, either.

What I’m talking about here is not hypothetical. So much rhetoric goes into asking whether it’s possible to be a feminist who likes a certain kind of sex – right down to whether it’s really okay for a feminist to like het sex, or whether she’s inevitably being coerced by the strong invisible arm of the patriarchy literally every time she has it at all (the people who say these things probably won’t believe me, and I won’t be the first to say it, but let me just be totally clear when I emphasize that I’m not).  While the general public is out there sending me messages about how my body is a moral issue on one side of the equation – must look good enough, must please the boys, must make Mom assume I’m ‘healthy’, even if I’m not – many feminists in here are writing theoretical pieces on what it’s okay to like, how it’s okay to dress, what it’s okay to be in my body.

My body, last I checked, is not theoretical. My body is used against me by people who want to ‘keep me in my place’ and it will be whether it’s a conventionally attractive body for which I’m being thanked or I end up wrinkly, fat and hairy two years from now. It’s also appropriated as a topic of discourse – what it looks like, what I do with it – among people who see their own bodies being used against them for political purposes and want to use those bodies to make different political points.

My body is not a political point.

Using my body to do stuff, whatever that stuff may be, is not about being “empowerful”. It’s just about being me, interacting, interfacing. It’s about the stuff that I’m doing. The reason that watered down Spice Girls faux-feminism is problematic, to me, is because that kind of “empowerment” still accepts that it’s okay to make my body into a moral issue and political statement. And the reason transphobic, lesbian separatist feminism is problematic, to me, is the exact same one. You’re still working out your arguments using, literally and figuratively, other women’s bodies, including mine.

Memo from me: My body, in and of itself, is not a moral issue. No matter who you are, I kindly ask that you please stop treating it as such.


3 thoughts on “My Body is Not a Moral Issue

  1. tanaudel says:

    This reminded me of a post… somewhere, possibly feministing? about how in some genres of music ‘women’s bodies are their voices’, and how our bodies, in and of themselves, are not the only interaction we have with the world. The vehicle for it, maybe.

  2. purtek says:

    That’s interesting. If you can remember where it is and find the link, I think I’d like to see that…I’m kind of intrigued (sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a train wreck way) by some of what’s considered “feminist music” and the reaction to it by women/self-identified feminists.

  3. tanaudel says:

    I think it was with regard to sexism in music and rap? r & b?

    Ah, hip hop. Here: Thankyou Thursdays: Women in Hip Hop.

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