If I Were Gloria Steinem

An excerpt from This Messy Magnificent Life: A Field Guide


My friend Dave (quoting from multiple sources) once told me that “A friend is someone you call when you need to move. A good friend is someone you call when you need to move a body.” My friend Isabel is the body-moving kind of friend. Recently, though, she has become a conspiracy theorist. She is convinced that there is a Cabal, a congregation of evil lizard-people called the Draco whose intent it is to control and ultimately destroy humanity. According to her, the attacks of September 11 were orchestrated by the Cabal; so were the Paris attacks, and ISIS itself. Also Vanity Fair, Vogue, most movie stars, politicians, and all billionaires are part of, or controlled by, the Cabal. (Isabel maintains that for selling your soul the Cabal grants you fame, success, and gushes of money, after which you are forever owned by them.) She says, “It’s like The Matrix, but in real life. We are puppets of the Cabal. We think we are free, but we’re being hypnotized and manipulated by the ones in power.”

“How do I know I’m not part of the Cabal?” I ask her. “Maybe they got to me in my sleep.”

“You’re not important enough,” she says.

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” I ask.

But despite all the websites Isabel cites, the so-called evidence she reels off, I don’t believe in the Cabal or in objective evil. I do believe there are, and have always been, confused, misguided people who commit insane acts. Although it seems as if there is an insane world “out there,” it makes no sense to me that there is an out there that isn’t also in here; in different circumstances—with no money, no food, and the promise of a heavenly afterlife—I, too, would be capable of violence.

It already doesn’t take much for well-fed, velvet-clothed me to believe that those who cross me (the aggressive driver on the freeway, the basketball analyst Charles Barkley when he disses Steph Curry, anyone who disagrees with me) are my enemies and must be vanquished.

The day after my conversation with Isabel, I heard Gloria Steinem interviewed on NPR’s program Fresh Air about her book My Life on the Road, and it got me thinking about the Cabal again. Gloria said that one of the ways the patriarchy controls women is by controlling their reproductive rights, and therefore their bodies. She referred to a 1970s panel on abortion: “It was comprised of ten men and one nun. You can’t make these things up,” she said. Then she was asked about today’s most pressing women’s issues, and she mentioned domestic violence, female genital mutilation, rape, and making sex trafficking women prisoners and slaves. I kept waiting for her to mention women and weight, but she didn’t.

Because it’s almost always defined as a mundane matter of willpower or sloth, food gets ignored as a political issue. When Gloria was asked about her relationship with food, she mentioned her father, who weighed three hundred pounds and believed that anything could be cured by “a malted and a movie.” He was sort of right about that, she said laughingly, and added that she herself still had a weakness for sweets.

That was the point at which I wanted to say, wait, Gloria, you’re missing something. I don’t know of a single woman (and I’ve been privileged to be allowed entry into the inner lives of hundreds of thousands of them) who hasn’t struggled with the size of her body. And when a woman’s energy is tied up in judging her body, it ties up her power as well.

Might this be another way the patriarchy controls women’s bodies? By hypnotizing us into believing we must be thin in order to have value, or authority? If I wanted to silence half the population of the world—the ones most likely to oppose war and guns—I can’t think of a better way to do it. Expecting a woman to stand up for what she knows while convincing her that she must first be thin is like binding a Chinese woman’s feet and asking her to run a marathon.

We don’t need a Cabal to enthrall or manipulate or silence us; we’ve done it ourselves (with limitless assistance of the patriarchy) by channeling most of our life’s energy into having thinner thighs. This doesn’t mean we should join the Fat Acceptance movement, or (only) blame men for trying to control our bodies. Even if this whole brouhaha with women, food, and weight is the patriarchy’s way to silence us by keeping us focused on impossible goals (fifty women in the world look like supermodels; 3.5 billion don’t, and never will), we’d still have to do the same thing: stop allowing it. When we realize we’ve had duct tape over our mouths for decades, there is only one thing to do: tear it off. Our power is not in blaming or shaming, but in waking up from the collective trance in which we’ve been living.We use the same arms we’ve been told are too fat, and we uncover the same mouths we’ve been told are too loud, and then we start telling the truth about what we already know but don’t want to know we know.


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