I just want to thank everyone for the overwhleming response to my last post, The Connection Between Health, Our Bodies, and Our Morals. I’m really pleased by the well thought-out, careful, and rational posts by my readers, and I think my followup to the post deserves its own space.
You will be relieved, I’m sure, to discover that Juliet and family are entirely fictional in the technical sense. However, in the cultural sense, Juliet is very much alive in the minds of many women (and men), most of the time symbolized as a goal, and not a cautionary tale.
That’s what makes Juliet fascinating. What we know to be unbalanced and mentally unhealthy behavior is, for many, the “right” way to be. That’s why I put the most reprehensible bit — concerning Juliet’s behavior towards her daughter Alexis — in the context that Juliet and Alexis were requested by their pediatrician to get Alexis’s weight down. A request, I might add, that’s not at all unusual these days, the illogic of which extends all the way up to recommendations put out by major health organizations.
In effect, Juliet was complying with what the majority of pediatricians would consider Alexis’s prescription for good health. She used no inflammatory methods towards encouraging Alexis to lose weight — she didn’t say Alexis was ugly, or tut-tut at her in other ways. She did precisely what she thought a good mother should do — and what millions of other mothers would consider the right thing to do. Follow the doctor’s prescription in an encouraging, yet firm, manner.
Let’s further analyze Juliet’s behavior. Her entire day, from start to finish, was a measure of “successes” and “failures” with respect to how she perceived she should be monitoring herself. We never know if Juliet is fat, inbetweenie, or thin, or if she is trying to lose weight or maintain, or if she’s structuring her day around her perceived health or her body (or both). There are some intimations about Juliet’s body size in that she doesn’t have the “extra” weight her sister has, and that her husband thinks her butt jiggles less than some nameless starlet, but all of that’s rather meaningless without context.
The reason I didn’t bring Juliet’s body size into focus is to illustrate that the morality of her behavior doesn’t change if she’s fat, thin, inbetweenie, doing it for her perceived health, or to look like some ideal, and so forth.
Ultimately, and what has been noticed by the group of very sharp commenters on my previous post, what Juliet’s story illustrates is the danger zone encounters when one separates his/her sense of right and wrong from what is real, whether through ignorance, or willingly.
There are a couple of ways we can think about this:
1. Juliet may have only her doctor’s words to go on and may not have thought any more deeply about size, health, shape, psychology, women, and morality.
2. Juliet may have done research, or have lived life mindfully enough to realize that there are healthy and happy people of all sizes, but either doesn’t think that applies to her specifically, or perhaps even believes that there is a connection between the pursuit of thinness and and goodness. That belief could be encoded in some kind of modified Puritanical ideal of work and sacrifice, or in some other fashion.
Either one is easy to shoot down, if one employs a bit of reason. If Juliet is ignorant as in 1, then it is still her fault if her behavior hurts herself and others. Her behavior might be more understandable but should be no less morally reprehensible. If Juliet is informed as in 2, and still makes the decision to behave as described in the story, then that illustrates that she is irrational. Irrational behavior, that behavior disconnected from reality, can have dire consequences, as shown in the story. Sure, for the moment everything seems to be in sort of a metastable “goodish” phase, but what happens when Alexis really starts internalizing a bigger body size as bad, and is meant to be a bigger girl, or carries that bias through life as a thinner person? What happens when Juliet’s son learns from her husband that wives and women have to look and eat a certain way, but men and husbands can do whatever they please? And so forth.
And that brings me to a bit of an aside — there was a question in the comments whether or not we should judge Juliet’s character at all. Of course we should. And here’s why: even though we don’t have the right to tell Juliet how to live her life, it’s of vital importance that we understand why what she is doing is right or wrong, as we each (rational, informed people), understand it. More important than holding beliefs is knowing why you hold them, and knowing how to parse your world with respect to those beliefs, and how to understand the fallacies of logic which lead people to hold beliefs that are irrational, misinformed, and possibly hurtful.
Since many reading this blog also write and speak about size acceptance, it’s vitally important to be able to understand how someone like Juliet (and many people who have been taught that Juliet is the ideal) believes quite firmly that his/her behavior is good, upright, and moral, and, ultimately, the best way of living. Is it so surprising, then, when the idea of accepting one’s size is so foreign to these people? But the chinks in their armor, so to speak, are the logical fallacies on which their moral value systems (regarding body size) are built.
Calling out people people like Juliet as bad mothers (or fathers), or wacked-out obsessives, won’t get you anywhere actually dealing with someone like Juliet. They have every (fallacious, yet widely-accepted) reason to believe that they are being good parents, and are only being mindful about what goes in (and out) of their bodies. To them, their behavior is, while structured, admirable, simple, and reasonable. They are merely “watching what they eat” and “moving more,” and encouraging their kids to do the same. They believe they have a right to enjoy all the societal privileges of their body. They “earned” it be being “good.”
I know I’m going into a lot of detail here. But the Juliets are our fiercest opposition. They believe they are being morally upstanding (for reasons of health, or aesthetics, or religion, or whatever rationalization du jour) by spending the bulk of every day on their bodies and, most specifically, the attainment of some kind of thin(ner) ideal. It’s likely rooted in very early exposure to the idea that thin-is-better, but that’s another post for another day.
We need to know how to speak to the Juliets in a meaningful way. I’ll pose the following situation.
Suppose you were an old friend of Juliet. You know the family well enough to talk about its intimacies. You meet Juliet for coffee on a Saturday afternoon, and Juliet speaks with you about her week, mentioning her food/exercise successes and pitfalls, and most notably, that the pediatrician suggested Alexis lose weight. Juliet seems very relaxed and happy and in control of her life. How do you bring up size acceptance to her in any meaningful kind of way?
(Disclaimer: that’s not to say you should bring up size acceptance to your non-accepting friends, I’m just postulating a specific scenario)