In recent weeks, celebrities who promote dieting products on social media websites have been heavily criticised by both medical professionals and campaigners. Professor Stephen Powis, an NHS medical director, argues that celebrities who advertise dieting pills and detox teas are causing irreversible damage to young people, who may seek to lose weight using “ineffective” and potentially “harmful” dieting products. Jameela Jamil, an actress and campaigner for body positivity, supported this by describing the celebrities who promote dieting products as a “terrible and toxic influence on young girls.” In essence, this argument suggests that stars who use their status to capitalise on idealised notions of femininity have negative influences over women’s understandings of their bodies. Women will see these adverts and follow suit, drinking “laxative teas” until they are a Size 6.
But, is it really this simple?
Do women, especially young girls, blindly follow diets, just because their favourite celebrity posted a picture with a FlatTummyTea or an ‘appetite-suppressant’ lolly? Additionally, are they aware of the gendered discourses underpinning these messages? Or do they just know that they want/need to be thin, but aren’t sure why? If it is the former, is it ever possible to exist outside of these narratives, if one rejects dieting and embraces their body?
It is important to note that I am not in support of celebrities advertising these products and I believe that the concerns raised by the aforementioned individuals are valid. However, the moral panic and somewhat paternalistic framing of the impact these celebrities may have on young girls is interesting when one considers it through a discussion of power.
Within feminist theory, the body is a site of debate, and these discussions often become centred upon a dichotomy between oppression and liberation. Whilst there is a vast diversity of work that challenges this binary including post-colonial, post-structuralist and Marxist feminist work, the dichotomy nevertheless endures. For instance, whilst some radical feminist scholars (for example Germaine Greer) maintain that beauty are a symbol of patriarchal ideals that restrict and harm the body, some liberal feminists (for example Katie Roiphe) view the same practises as a vessel for individualised empowerment.
In my upcoming book, The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power, I argue that the ‘feminine’ body is not simply a site of oppression or liberation. Rather, drawing upon the intersections that exist between Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and post-structuralist feminist work on the body, the book speaks to discussions of power through the lens of dieting and weight. By this, I mean to highlight the complexities surrounding women’s relationship to the body; they are not simply “cultural sponges” of power.
For my research, I firstly spoke to members of Slimming World and Weight Watchers, self-confessed dieters who are on a mission to become slim, seemingly on the ‘oppression’ side of the debate. The dieting journey itself is presented as a transition from a ‘bad’ to ‘good’ body, in which women who are ‘repenting’ for their ‘sins’ (or Syns if you are a member of Slimming World) are encouraged to meet weekly to ‘confess’ to one another about their potential transgressions, individualising the responsibility to lose weight. However, many participants themselves grappled with the complexities of dieting: whilst women took part in practices of self-surveillance (e.g monitoring/weighting their food or exercising compulsively), they were still critical of body narratives. Some participants highlighted the constructs of femininity in the media (citing the bodies they had seen in magazines, for instance), noting that they were aware of the gendered reasonings behind their dieting. This highlights the idea that women are not “fully complicit in their own subordination” (Sedgwick, 2014, p.28), but that they are active participants in their own gendered narratives. Indeed, it demonstrates the power of gendered norms; despite being critical of the idealised notions of femininity that form the foundations of dieting, these women still desired thinness.
Next, I interviewed members of the fat activist movement. In a very broad sense, this refers to a social movement which wants fat people (in particular women) to feel good about themselves through a rejection of dieting and slimming narratives. My thoughts prior to speaking with these women were that they have been successful in existing outside the panoptic gaze of society. However, the activists I spoke to still felt compelled to lose weight from time-to-time, demonstrating the impossibility to exist ‘outside’ constructs of dieting and gender, with one activist commenting that this made her feel like both a failure as a woman and a fat activist. This reflects how whilst one can carve out spaces of resistance, it is not enough to achieve liberation from the discourses of femininity. Indeed, for some of my participants, ‘coming out as fat’ cannot free them from ‘oppressive’ structures, but acts as a way of disrupting discourses surrounding female fatness.
Whilst celebrities who promote dieting products should not be free of criticism, they perhaps make easy targets for our scorn. It is easier to blame Kim Kardashian’s appetite-suppressant lolly for young women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, then looking critically at the way in which we discuss and construct gender in its entirety. To me, it feels a bit like putting a plaster over a gaping wound that needs stitches; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Indeed, to suggest that one can simply remove themselves from dieting structures or gender in general is naive. This often leaves women (myself included), feeling like a ‘bad’ feminist when we succumb to the temptations that weight-loss seems to offer. Here, as I do in my book, I feel it is pertinent to end this blogpost with a quote from Roxanne Gay, who inadvertently encompasses the sentiments of my research and my outlook on feminism:
I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying – trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.
Whilst we cannot exist outside of gendered structures, we can cast a critical eye over them, reflecting on our own imperfections and the ways in which gendered narratives have shaped our (potentially) negative behaviours. I hope that my book might highlight these complexities, ‘muddying the waters’ in conversations on the politics of the body.
Amelia Morris is a UK-based scholar researching interdisciplinary political science and political economy with an interest in gender, the body, weight, austerity and inequality. The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting is set for publication with Palgrave Macmillan in 2019. She tweets via @AGMorris.
I just moved to a new house with my family and we are at that stage of fixing things up, painting walls, etc, which requires frequent visits to home improvement stores. In my house, I do all the DIY jobs, be them assembling furniture, decorating, building, or fixing stuff. My husband hates these jobs and is not good at them, I love them and do a good job. So it has always been a no-brainer in our family: he watches the kids whilst I fix, build, paint, whatever is needed. It has become our inside joke that we defy this particular gender stereotype.
However it turns out the world is not our little bubble and it took me a while to realise that the home improvement and DIY arenas are male dominated. I mean, it seems so obvious to me now, but it took me a while to connect the dots. Back in 2011 I went out for dinner with my husband and a few of his co-workers and their partners. As we and another couple had just bought our first houses, at some point the conversation turned to home improvement. I remember saying that I had just built some shelves, removed wallpaper and repainted most rooms. The guy laughed and made a comment to the tune that by me I meant my husband. When I said no he widened his eyes and said (to this day I remember his exact words) “oh my wife doesn’t do this type of things, she is very delicate”. He looked at me with a mix of contempt and disgust and started talking to someone else.
I never though much of it, but over the years I have seen so many female friends complaining they needed to wait for their male partner to come home to hang a picture or fix something that broke. They often laughed at their own helplessness, often using the infamous expression “honey-do-list”, which according to the Urban Dictionary is “a lists of chores and/or errands given to a man by his wife or girlfriend”. I follow a fair number of home improvement blogs, a lot of them run by couples (it seems to be a very successful formula). Come to think of it, for the vast majority of them, there is indeed a formula: the woman takes care of the homemaking side of things, including creative design and organising, whilst the man does the “hard work” of building, fixing, and wrangling heavy tools. The gendered representation is clear: men provide shelter, meaning they build the physical home where the “family” (aka children and women) are to be kept. That domestic realm is then passed on to the women to “make the house a home”. Building and tools belong to men; cooking, cleaning and crafting nice things belong to women.
In this sense, home improvement stores are the site where this representation of masculinity is materialised. In hindsight, I now see that every time in my life I went to a home improvement store in any country, 80-90% of people there were men. I vaguely remember occasions when I was perusing the isles in search of a particular tool or supply and being approached by a salesMAN or a “concerned” fellow (male) shopper asking me if I was ok, if I knew what I wanted or if I needed help (and in several occasions the tone was rather patronising). I had never noticed these actions to have any meaning beyond well-intentioned offers of help, and I am sure in same cases it may have been. But they did have a meaning. They meant “you are out of your depth here, you are out of your place. Big tools are dangerous for fragile female hands”.
However, recently I experienced that if this type of store is the site of expression of “masculinity”, it is also where sexual harassment and everyday microaggressions take place. A few weeks ago I went to The Home Depot near me (the main home improvement store in America, similar to B&Q in the UK) to pick up a few supplies. An employee approached me and asked me where I was from. I was taken aback by the question and I should have asked why the heck he was asking that. But I simply answered “Brazil”. He immediately proceeded to tell me in Spanish (sigh) that I was a very beautiful woman, accompanied by a sleazy grim. I was so shocked I just walked away, but I spent the rest of the day mad at myself for not having said anything back.
Fast forward to one or two Saturdays later and I had to go back to the same store. This time I was with my husband and children as we were on our way to somewhere else. We needed quite a few things and decided to divide and conquer. He went to get some stuff with the children and I went to the painting department to ask for a special mix. I approached the employee behind the counter and began to explain what I needed. I had not uttered more than 4 or 5 works when another employee came from the back and started to talk to his colleague in a very locker-room manner. He pointed at me and said “this one is trouble, did you know that? Just look at her and you can see this woman is trouble”. He did not mean it as costumer-who-complains kind of trouble. His tone, body language and again sleazy grim meant a not so subtle sexual innuendo. I immediately remembered what had happened to me at that exact same damn store a few days before and my blood boiled. This time I did not stay quiet. I told him I did not appreciate that type of comment, to which he OF COURSE replied “calm down, I was only joking”. I said that it was not an appropriate joke for a costumer (again in hindsight I should have said not appropriate to any woman or human being for that matter). I thanked them and walked away. As I found my family I was shaking. I told my husband what happened and he asked me if I wanted him to go tell them off, which he meant well but made me angrier. In order to go to the cashiers to pay we had to pass by the painting department, where the two employees were. As they saw me walking with my family they turned pale and avoided my eyes that were firing daggers at them. But they were probably not ashamed from having made sleazy comments to me because I am a human being who deserves respect. No, they were embarrassed because it turns out I was not a woman alone, I had a man with me. I felt furious and humiliated because it may seem small, but these everyday microaggressions matter. They build up, they hurt, they bring a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. So many spaces are still hostile to women and if they dare to enter such spaces they are to be mocked or harassed – or rescued. But most of all I felt a deep sense of sadness to look at my two young daughters and realise they are unfortunately most likely to go through things like this, through harassment, discrimination, and violence, be them big or small.
Across the UK there is a wave of collective action by women working in other industries demanding equal pay for equal work and it is now time for academics to join in. The time for committees and working groups has passed and now is the time for women academics to make equal pay claims that will actually mean that universities have to financially compensate them.
Gender pay gaps in UK academia exist because universities often start male academics on higher salaries than female academics because deans and heads of department have the discretion to determine starting pay. This is despite women having to meet the same selection criteria as men in order to be hired as lecturers, readers or professors in the UK. Universities also tend to promote women more easily, forcing women to jump through more stringent hoops to get the same promotion. This is why actual salary data show that the average male academic earns £3,000 to £8,000 or more each year than the average female academic.
That gap in pay is unfair and wrong. Losing £3,000 to £8,000 a year is a lot of money and it can make a real difference to UK academics’ quality of life in a country with excessive property prices and childcare costs that average £9,000 per child per year for parents working full time.
Women academics’ pay can be improved by redistributing money from the obscene salaries paid to university deans, vice-chancellors (VCs) and other senior managers. Many of them earn excessive salaries of £300,000+ per year from the public purse yet ordinary academics earn 15% or less of that. Not even our UK Prime Minister earns that sort of exorbitant salary.
The collective action in other industries involves organising collective equal pay claims using no win no fee employment lawyers who demand compensation for women affected. This is what we need to start doing as academics.
Collective lawsuits by women academics will force organisations to pay any affected women back-dated compensation dating up to 6 years in England. If you would like to do this, the steps to doing that are:
Write to your university’s HR department and make an equal pay claim by stating your current salary and the salary of something called a male comparator. In UK equality law you need to name just oneexample of a male academic who does equal work to you (or work of equal value) in the same university. That is what is called a ‘male comparator.’
If your university rejects your equal pay claim, contact ACAS to attempt further negotiation.
If your university still refuses, hire a no win no fee employment lawyer to take your case to court.
It would be even better if you can do steps 1 to 3 collectively, as a group of women affected. It will strengthen your equal pay – this is what women in other sectors are doing.
If you win, the court will order your university to compensate you for 6 years in back-pay (or less if you have worked there for fewer years). For example, a woman who has worked in university X for 3 years and has been underpaid by £5,000 a year can win compensation of £15,000.
This strategy will cost universities money and it will teach them a lesson of (a) not starting women academics on lower salaries than men for equal work and (b) thinking twice before holding back women from promotion.
We are also encouraging you to sign a petition in which we ask the UK’s Minister for Women and Equalities (Penny Mordaunt) to introduce a new fine system in which any university that fails to process an equal pay claim in accordance with equal pay law has to pay a fine to the government. That will discourage universities from being negligent. We would also like the government to set up a free telephone helpline with trained advisors to advise women about equal pay claims free of charge because not every academic is a union member.
In the petition we ask the Prime Minister (Theresa May) to please introduce a new policy of fining any university that loses an equal pay claim so that the public can recoup the wasted legal costs of employment tribunals. The threat of a fine will discourage universities from wasting the public legal process if they know they are in the wrong and, instead, to settle at the ACAS stage or before. We would also like the government to introduce a new policy that will require any university loses a case at an employment tribunal to pay the employee’s legal costs.
Finally, we urge Prime Minister Theresa May to compel universities to close the gender pay gap by redistributing the exorbitant salaries of vice-chancellors, deans and others overpaid university employees so that the money can fix the problem of women academics being underpaid relative to men.