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INTERNATIONAL NO-DIET DAY

by Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter

Dear Reader,

Well, here we are celebrating the fourth annual International No-Diet Day. How are we doing? It seems to us that the general consciousness about the ineffectiveness of diets is quite high. True, endless magazine and newspaper articles continue to publicize the latest/oldest magic tips—have you noticed that protein is making a comeback along with crinolines—but don't you think that, on some level, everybody gets it that dieting and binging are related? Weight Watchers™ has even institutionalized the diet/binge cycle—"Take the weekends off!" We're suggesting that it's no longer radical to say that dieting is a hopeless endeavor or, at the very least, a lifetime occupation. When it comes to body hatred in women, however, we're discovering that the resistance to even talking about it much less overcoming it is even more entrenched than we'd imagined.

In March, we conducted two forums on the topic of body hatred, one in Boston and one in Hartford. In total, 350 women attended. We were delighted and they were wonderful events (more later). But as one woman put it, "Where is everybody? They should be hanging from the rafters in here!!!" We thought so too. These were tryouts for what we hoped would be (and we are determined will eventually be) a When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies… tour. In our enthusiasm, we had seats for 500 in each location. We mailed 10,000 announcements to very select lists in each city and put the admission fee as low as we could at $35 for the morning. The leaflet said, "Imagine enjoying your body!, Imagine eating without guilt!, Imagine dressing for pleasure rather than camouflage!" In other words, THROW OFF YOUR CHAINS!!! So? Where were the multitudes? Why isn't every woman eager to question the ubiquitous phenomenon of body hatred? No, we have not forgotten how understandably resistant we all are to changing something as basic as the way we dialogue with ourselves (and each other) all day everyday, but hasn't everyone had it by now?

At conferences, we always ask, "What do you think will happen when all the women in the world stop hating their bodies?" Of course, at these forums, we asked the question again. We got a lot of the usual but very dramatic responses along the lines of "We'll take over the world." But perhaps some of the other responses shed some additional light on the issue. (As if putting ourselves in a position to take over the world could not possibly be sufficient reason for our collective female resistance to giving up body hatred!)

"We'd love women a lot more," said one woman. "We'd be less competitive," suggested another. "We'd experience our bodies in a whole different way," said someone else, "we'd feel more sexual and alive." "I think we'd have a very different experience in the world," added another. "Because there'd be a loosening of role stereotyping, we'd be a lot freer to express all the parts of ourselves." "Yes," another woman agreed, "If I could stop hating my body and really learn to love it, I would be free enough to enjoy both the feminine and masculine sides of me. I would feel free to touch and explore myself in a way that I still feel is quite forbidden. I would no longer be restricted by my gender and my relationships would be drastically different. As I say this, I'm aware of how constricted and confined I have always been by my awareness of being a girl. It's unbelievable how much is tied up to how we think we look."

These women were trying to describe how profound a shift it is for a woman to give up body hatred. Not only does a decrease in body preoccupation free us to make changes in the world, but potentially, it changes our inner experience of ourselves dramatically.

One woman, a physician, said that as she listened to the presentation, she had doubts. She couldn't help but wonder how much of this body preoccupation is biological. After all, she suggested, women are subject to constant hormonal shifts. An interesting point, we thought. It is true that often our attention is brought back to our bodies, but what about all the negativity that is part and parcel of that preoccupation? Is that built into the system or is that a result of our awareness of our femaleness in the context of a male-dominated world? What would it be like to be aware of all our shifts in mood, in weight, in sexual desire and in energy without any negative comment? What if our daily awareness of our femaleness were cause for delight?

Recently, we spoke at the University of Pennsylvania to a room full of college women. Some terrific minds were in that auditorium. Yet, sad to say, these very gifted and talented young women are as body/food obsessed as we were at that age. Must every woman live through decades of dieting before she can take the chance to break free?

One young woman reported that in its ratings of college campuses, Playboy magazine had ranked the University of Pennsylvania as having the ugliest women of all the ivy league schools. The message was clear: "Girls. Don't think that competing with men and being brainy will get you anywhere. Keep your eye on the prize—your beauty!! And of course, Playboy magazine is sold at the University book store. Why didn't these young women protest, go after Playboy, boy(girl)cott the bookstore? They didn't because deep in their hearts they feel that who they are and what they do is less important than how they look.

If a magazine has to resort to such primitive, dumb stuff in 1996, it's in response to the threat women represent in general and in this example, specifically in academia. But that aspect of the piece was not immediately apparent to these women students when they read the article. They may have felt angry but they also felt ashamed. They are no different from most of us. We can still be shamed, still be manipulated to diet and body shape because we are not completely certain that we belong next to our brothers in these prestigious halls of learning, in the workplace, or anywhere else. Are we inherently ugly? Or do we feel ugly because we are the other, we are not part of the dominant group?

So our March forums were not filled to capacity. But they were very exciting and encouraging. The majority of women may be less than eager to talk about body hatred, but we keep going because we are privileged to be able to work with so many of you who have broken through the barriers and demonstrated that it is possible to live very differently.

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