Alanis Morissette’s treatise on body image and society: true, preachy or both?

Alanis Morissette has penned a very long essay for iVillage on food and body image. Alanis looks great and just had a baby less than a year ago, but she’s not super tiny like so many other celebrities and she seems to be feeling the pressure. Alanis’ essay was long and I can’t really do it justice even in this extended excerpt. If you have time you can read it here.

Alanis, 37, lost over 20 pounds in 2009 by following a vegan diet and running. She said at the time that she lost weight by “eating like an adult rather than like a 7-year-old at a candy store.” She had her first baby, son Ever, in December of last year. Here’s some of what she wrote about weight and our culture’s obsession with it. It comes across as preachy and in need of editing but I get what she’s saying.

Not much upsets me quite like someone making a declarative and derogatory comment about someone’s weight when they themselves have never struggled with an eating disorder.

To so offhandedly and dismissively reduce someone’s challenging journey to a quip about them needing to eat less hamburgers — or even the opposite, that they “should eat a sandwich” — completely overlooks the deeper and subtler complexities at hand (or at heart and mouth in this case). At the very least it ignores the epidemic that is a society obsessed with a rail-thin aesthetic, where once achieved, derides that very same goal as being sickly and dangerous. What’s a well-meaning perfectionistic girl to do?

If ever there were a double-edged butter knife, this would be it. We of the Hollywood standard-affected variety (read: sadly, the world) work tooth, nail and treadmill to adhere to this number (measuring tape, scale and otherwise) that hovers directly below any that would allow for a cupcake here and there, and when we do, we confusingly elicit either concerned looks of admonishment or compliments on “how fantastic we look.” I remember being at my most thin one day, feeling like I could barely drag my lethargic body around, only to be met with the most compliments I had ever received.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that America is derided for its obesity levels, while also being a country that is obsessed with skinniness. This all-or-nothing approach is endemic to our Western society. Equally, and perhaps more abrasively, when someone inside the struggle with food tips the scales high above the average Hollywood red-carpet star, comments are thrown out about how indulgent and undisciplined they are.

There’s one thing I know from the inside, and it’s that you will never meet a more willful, disciplined, motivated and nutrient-well-read person than someone who is in the throes of disordered eating! The idea that people with food addictions are undisciplined is yet another gross misperception among many. You will rarely meet someone who has a higher capacity for restraint than someone who is struggling with the pain or fear that symptomatically affects weight.

To derisively discuss fat without discussing our feelings and traumas and our sense of disconnection from our souls, ourselves, and each other, is focusing on the effect and not the cause. This oversight perpetuates the self-abuse that fuels this and many other disorders and addictions.

The relationship to food cannot singularly be addressed through a steely structure-by-diets-and-food-plans alone, or a slap on the wrist. Our addressing why we might turn to food beyond sustenance reasons is part of the multi-layered aspects of being human….

See, my fraught relationship with food and fat has always been a cloaked invitation into a more profound kindness to myself (one I have so often ignored). Being kind toward my fragility in the face of a monolithic message of perfectionism and intolerance has not been an easy path — nor, I’m ashamed to say, a consistent one. Writing about it helps.

Fat, unlike other more secretive disorders and addictions, is expressed and exposed on the outside for all to see. That being what it is, we’d do well to see “unwanted weight” as that-which-has-yet-to-be-investigated, rather than as a stamp of our confirmed inadequacies.

So for the love of being part of this larger conversation around addressing the pop-culture-sanctioned-fatism, next time we see someone who is yo-yo dieting and has a tortured relationship with food and their body, rather than make fun of them, I beseech us all to pause and offer a little curiosity for what lurks underneath, and, if appropriate, maybe even move toward it.

Maybe this kindness can slowly make those of us in the heavier-than-Twiggy group feel less alone, less relegated, less abandoned. And perhaps then we can, ever so gently, start to accept (and even love) these deeper and more fragile parts in ourselves that are being repressed and expressed through our bodies and food. And in so doing, deliver us back to the wholeness, essential unique expression, and weight we were born to be.

[From iVillage]

The nature of gossip is to make offhand remarks about people and not think too deeply about it, but I can relate to what she’s saying. I do pay close attention to my weight, and I beat myself up over minor weight gain and feel guilty for small pleasures that I should totally enjoy. This is something that I’ve seen even my skinniest friends do. People who I would assume wouldn’t worry about their weight at all say that they think about it and that they shouldn’t have had that ice cream the other night.

I guess what I’m saying is that what Alanis is talking about here is almost universal, and it sounds like she’s trying to convince herself as much as the rest of us. Loving yourself at any weight can be a bitch, and as elusive as a lower number on the scale can be, self acceptance is even harder to find. So a lot of us do point out other people’s flaws. At the heart of it we’re even more focused on our own.

Maybe she would feel better if she wore cuter clothes though? I’m just saying. She’s hot but this dress isn’t doing her any favors. I probably just proved her point.

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32 Responses to “Alanis Morissette’s treatise on body image and society: true, preachy or both?”

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  1. Criss says:

    In other words and to the point; there’s just way too many mean ass bitches that talk a lot of crap.

  2. girl says:

    I’ll probably read it later but she looks good.

  3. kay says:

    you proved her point.

    but don;t be too hard on yourself about it, because I think that is more her point than anything else.

    I love Alanis.

  4. Cidee says:

    Oh, c’mon. She totally has a point but it’s hard to take her seriously with that dress. That hair. THOSE SHOES!!!!

  5. Dawn says:

    She is absolutely right. And she is looking good too. End of it.

  6. Nev says:

    one of THE best writers we have…all around…music, essays, etc.

  7. Kim says:

    I agree with some of the stuff she says but its very obvious she has body issues. She is spewing her issues not necessarily societies.

    • DrM says:

      Uhhh no. As a sociologist I can tell you what she’s talking ARE society’s issues…in SPADES. And far worse in some segments than what Alanis is illustrating. Cosmetic vaginal surgery anyone? botox? diet pills? liposuction? women who watch, calorie count and scrutinse every single thing they eat? Need I go on?

      LOVE Alanis! As a Canadian (living abroad) and fellow feminist can I just say that Girlfriend kicks total ass!

  8. Happy21 says:

    I think she has a point. She’s a smart woman and is a great writer of all things. I’m a fellow Canadian and have follower her career since the early 90′s when she were just a teenager.

    Its so easy to berate ourselves for eating things that are a mere indulgence. I had that happen earlier this week. I ate a king sized chocolate bar (gasp!!). I felt awful for it. I exercise, its not the end of the world and it was bloody delicious!

    I am about 10 pounds overweight. Not obese and I still feel really good and I really do love my body (most of the time). I watch what I eat (to a point), go to the gym and am not at all lazy. I love food. I don’t over do it but I have always said that if I exercise and watch what I eat and still am what I am then that is what I am meant to be. I have always said that I will never, ever not eat something I really want because its bad for me. If I want it I eat it. I usually find that if I eat it then I don’t bother to eat it again for months. Kind of like I get my fix. I will never diet. If I notice my clothes getting a little snug, I exercise like crazy and be a little more careful about what I eat so they fit again. I’ve managed to maintain my weight for about the last 4-5 years this way and really feel that although I am slightly overweight, I am where I am supposed to be. I’m not going to miss out on living life because I want to be a certain size or number. Most clothes still look good on me and if they don’t, I don’t wear them. I don’t wear a bikini but I rock a tankini. I think more women need to embrace the fact that sometimes size isn’t anything but a number. Healthy is what is important and I can tell you that I am healthy even though the BMI says I’m overweight.

    Just my 2 cents :)

  9. Bobbie says:

    About three years ago, I lost 50 pounds which I have kept off. I think she is dead on. I had gained weight because I had four kids and I too focused on them and taking time for myself or focusing on myself. I didn’t think I looked bad, I wasn’t hating myself, but when I lost weight, I got more praise for this than for anything else I’ve ever done. It’s kind of gross how much different people treated me after I became thin and it does affect you. We should all be kinder to each other and not worry so much about weight, but its hard to do because everyone judges so hard for weight. Kind of a viscious cycle, I guess.

  10. Turtle Dove says:

    What’s the basis for this essay though? I read a little on the linked site, but it does not say why she chose this topic.

    I get what she’s saying. It sucks at both sides of the scale. I don’t criticize people irl for their weight but I’ve gotten many jabs for mine because I’m thin. To many people thin is open season for criticism.

    • tooey says:

      Well, like she said, it’s a double edged sword. You’re called fat if you fall anywhere outside a very narrow point, but if you’re thin then you get the anorexia rumors and the faux concerned tabloid headlines about your weight. I have made a vow not to engage in the anorexia gossip anymore. It’s not healthy and it’s not fair and we don’t do it to male celebrities. Nor should we.

  11. GirlyGirl says:

    Canadian. Girls. Rock.

    Alanis, I love you. You’re my biggest girl-crush

  12. Julbug says:

    she looks great, especially standing next to her guy.

  13. skeptical says:

    she’s got a good point. how many times do you/we walk into a room and your friends rush up to tell you how thin you are?

    But i see a difference between making fun of someone’s weight (wrong) and making fun of someone’s bad fashion choices (can be fun)
    The Fug Girls have said before that they also fight the muffin top and the muffin top usually wins… so the Fug Girls don’t wear clothes that show off the muffin top!
    Me being an apple shape, you can bet i lose the battle with the muffin top a lot. So i choose clothes that skim the belly rather than skintight belly-baring tops with tight jeans that actually make me look bigger than i am.
    There’s a difference between weight and bad fashion choices.
    And i am not a fan of that dress. What’s with the sides being so long and the front and back being so short? Is she trying to look like her hips have wings?
    And if someone is clearly lying about their weight (lookin at you, kim k and kirstie alley!) then why not call them out on it? Claiming to be thinner than you really are just reinforces the stereotypes.

  14. Lisa says:

    Fourth paragraph is unfortunately accurate.

  15. JaneWonderfalls says:

    I have to be honest, I did not feel like reading all of that, but I think she looks great, plus her face has filled out which makes her look more younger and rejuvenated. I think she looks 100 times better than she did when she first stepped on to the music scene! Love her music especially from the late 90′s

  16. Mara says:

    If Morissette were a 4th grade teacher, she’d be a dish. She however has chosen to present herself to the world as an “entertainer.” It’s her job to be slim and fit.

    • dean travers says:

      Yes Mara, as an entertainer she is doing the world a massive disservice by openly and candidly discussing this hideous bind that women are in. Not only that, but she is doing it while weighing more than 120 lbs! Your stance is crazy and I have zero doubt that you do not apply it to male celebrities. This may sound over the top enraged but I don’t care. I have spent my entire life dominated by this poison and now choose to just stay very thin (which makes me look older)simply so I can feel protected from cruelty in one aspect of my life. It’s stupid,it’s demeaning, and I have never given a fuck about A.M. until I read that. Good for her, that’s badass. Finally, I do think it’s in poor taste to throw in a jibe at the end, and I say that as a card-carrying bitch! Fin.

  17. theotherbird says:

    Ottawa. Girls. Rock.

    And her message was bang on…over-preachy, no – maybe just used a few polysyllabic words here and there, but that’s just how some Ottawa gurls do. Her message is on point. She looks FAB. See that smile? She is happy. And yeah, you underscored her point with your observations. [ottawa signs out]

  18. Sara says:

    I’m so sick of this topic. I had two emaciated friends in college. One was naturally skinny and ate like a normal girl. The other was anorexic. I’m sure strangers both commented on their weight but all of the anorexic girl’s friends were constantly trying to get her to eat a freaking sandwich before she starved to death. You know what happened? Chica got pregnant but didn’t tell her parents and after four months she gained a little bit of weight (she was still a size 4) and was home visiting for Christmas and her Dad was like ‘looks like you need to start doing some sit ups!’.

    I don’t think anyone’s comments about her weight, from strangers or friends had as much impact on her as what her Dad said.

  19. Kimbob says:

    I think she more than made her point & drove it home when she stated, ‘I remember being at my most thin one day, feeling like I could barely drag my lethargic body around, only to be met with the most compliments I had ever received.’

    As a woman myself, I can honestly say that many women are overly critical of others of the same sex, and to me it comes off as unnecessarily mean-spirited. Yes, my hand is raised, as well. I’ve been guilty of the same. It’s obvious to me she is a sensitive person, and I feel that she was extremely brave in baring her innermost feelings on this subject.

    Other than writing more than she actually had to when she had already succinctly made her point, I’m going to give her hands-down credit for tackling a delicate subject that most others in her trade would not come near if their life depended upon such.

    • dean travers says:

      Well put Kimbob. The point about dragging a skinny exhausted ass around and being praised for it….major mindfuck. NEVER comment that someone lost weight and looks better for it, unless they are someone who truly needed to and to whom positive reinforcement will be beneficial. Also, wait for them to bring up. Whew, I am pretty preachy myself! And I was only BORN in Canada!

  20. tripmom says:

    I love how even though she’s gained a little weight her guy still looks like he’s totally into her. It doesn’t seem to be bothering him at all. She’s got a good man there.

  21. tooey says:

    I have been overweight my entire life, through toddlerhood, childhood, teen and young adult years. I went on my first liquid diet at 12 and yes, I lost weight, but as with all diets I gained it back and more. I would lose 20, gain 30 over and over again. When I was in my late 20s I lost about 50 pounds with Jenny Craig and managed to keep it off for about 3 years, the longest period ever. But I was an emotional mess. My entire life revolved around eating, exercise, how my clothes fit, how I looked, how other people thought I looked, what I ate, what I shouldn’t have eaten, what I was going to eat, how I was going to work it off, my next workout, etc. I was a miserable drone who never talked about anything but food and exercise. But I looked great and that’s all anyone ever saw. But I was a miserable shell of a person with no interests outside myself and I’m sure I wasn’t interesting or fun to be around. I’m pushing 50 now and of course, I’m still overweight. But I let go of giving a shit about it a long time ago. I take care of myself, I don’t abuse food despite appearances. I’m well groomed and try to dress my body as well as I can. Mostly I try to be kind and loving to myself and thank my body for the things that it has done for me. I’m happy; I’m funny; I’m interesting to talk to and I’m interested in a variety of things. But I can tell you that almost any conversation with casual female acquaintances revolves around fat, food, exercise and bodies. It’s boring and it’s sad. Women are willing partners with a system that relegates their entire value to a number on a scale or the inside tag of their jeans. And I’m sure there will be many “helpful” comments concerned about my health, but I can tell you my health is nearly the same as my husbands; our cholesterol and blood pressure numbers are very close. But since he’s the “thin” one (no to mention male), he doesn’t get all the “helpful” comments and concern about his “health”. “Health” is just the new pc term for “fat” the way “climate change” is for “global warming”. Hat’s off to Alanis!

  22. Meanchick says:

    I’m overweight and I rock what I have. Guys are attracted to me and many skinny bitches laugh, but are secretly envious of my confidence. At the end of the day, a man loves a woman with confidence, fat or skinny. I used to beat myself up so much more than anyone else ever could and I will not do that anymore. I love my body and my life is so much more happy and fulfilling. The people who don’t like me because of my weight? They don’t matter. They never did. Who wants to be accepted by a person caught up with how much I weigh? THEY are the unhappy ones. Trust me.

  23. LittleDeadGrrl says:

    I actually really liked what she wrote. It wasn’t preachy it was stating facts and it was honestly the truth. I’ve always been relatively skinny but I find myself always obssessing over the smallest bit of weight gain. It’s unhealthy and on my best days I can work through my mental hang ups and look at myself and give myself a compliment. It’s hard but its necessary … it’s a nice message from her and written very eloquently. It seems from all the comments we do all have those issues and it is a societal issue because the problem is we are bombarded with that it means to be pretty. It’s hard for any of us to not find a flaw when we are trying to look like a photoshopped model.

  24. Shan says:

    I was deeply moved by this essay having struggled with bulimia since I was 12…it’s been 16 years and I’m just now “in recovery”. She is absolutely right, you will never meet a more disciplined or nutrition educated person than someone suffering from an eating disorder, as odd as that seems. Especially with bulimia many people tend to view it as someone who is anorexic, which is quite false in many occasions: People with bulimia tend to vary from slightly underweight to overweight, and there was a period of time where I had become so thin I couldn’t function – but damn if I didn’t get so many compliments!! I think there is such a stigma surrounding eating disorders that no one wants to take them seriously, acknowledge they are REAL disorders, and have potentially life threatening effects. Trust me, this is not something people do for fun and I am so grateful everytime a celebrity speaks out about their struggle without glamorizing it. It’s a disorder that effects individuals who tend to be highly intelligent, ambitious and strive for perfection, but everyone has to crack at some point. Plus, a drug addict can (conceivably) stop doing drugs…but someone with an eating disorder cannot stop eating. How would you tell an alcoholic they can only have one glass of wine a day with dinner? I’ve always been a fan of hers, but hopefully her speaking out will bring awareness to a disorder and culture that affects so many people.