Riots and Diets: Admitting You Diet Is Radical

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Photo: Steve Prezant/Corbis

In the nineties, The Beauty Myth taught women that dieting was a patriarchal distraction, and feminist punks wore T-shirts that said riots not diets. From them, millennial feminists inherited a growing and absolutely necessary fat-acceptance movement. But it also left us utterly helpless about what a woman should do when she decides, for whatever reason, that her weight is no longer acceptable to her.

A major lifestyle change — the kind that involves ordering Diet Cokes at bars and changing shape in front of your friends — is tricky. It requires admitting not only that you can’t maintain a conventionally attractive weight naturally, but also (and much more painfully) admitting that you’re conventional enough to care. It caused so much internal conflict for former riot grrrl (and author of How Sassy Changed My Life) Marisa Meltzer that she opted to diet in secret, she writes in Elle this month. But, she observes, the dieting stigma is hardly limited to radical feminists:


There’s also a strain of ambivalence that’s more nebulous and apolitical: the notion that evolved girls simply don’t need to diet. The modern woman, after all, is that highly capable, have-it-all creature to whom career success, confidence, and effortless style — and, oh yeah, the yoga body and the eco-conscious, preservative-free diet — come naturally. She’s too damn smart and balanced to overeat in the first place. If anything, she’s already healthy and getting ever healthier. So juice fasts and Goop cleanses and barre classes? All fine as part of a vague “healthy lifestyle” of “clean eating.” Losing weight for your wedding day? Okay, you get a free pass on that one. But the daily slog of dieting — all that calorie counting and dessert skipping and 
cardio bingeing? That’s not at all chic.

This, after all, is why you don’t see diet tips in Vogue. The stigma surrounding dieting, enforced by feminists and the faux-effortlessly perfect alike — combined with its life-disrupting, “daily slog” aspect — make losing weight a uniquely lonely project. Meltzer shared her diet with only one far-away friend, and felt “strangely furtive and isolated.”

The isolation the diet stigma imposes on women is reason enough for feminists to want to abolish it. But beyond that, there’s something subtly feminist about the way Meltzer describes her weight loss. Instead of the cliched anecdotes about new jeans and flirtatious men, she recounts sleeping better, feeling happier, “putting more value” on her body. It reminds me of another old-school feminist slogan: Self-care is not selfish.