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26 Apr

Jillian Michaels Hates Your Body, Maybe. Or Not. Should You Care?

So apparently Jillian Michaels is going to avoid pregnancy and childbirth for the same reasons that she avoids cupcakes and joy: because those things aren’t worth the cost to her perfectly toned, perfectly muscled, perfectly perfect body. Which, whatever. She’s entitled to make whatever cost-benefit analyses she likes about life and love and muscle tone. I’m not going to judge. Not much, anyway.

The thing that got me about her remarks about avoiding pregnancy and childbirth for the sake of her body (I’m not going to address her remarks about adoption, which, ugh. She wants to rescue something? Rescue a puppy, Jillian) wasn’t so much that she was articulating her choice to preserve her body against the ravages of pregnancy – which is ridiculous, really, because she makes a living showing others how to get and keep their preferred physiques after pregnancy and childbirth and cheeseburgers, so she should know that she doesn’t have to choose (I’ll get back to this) (holy longest sentence ever) – but her choice of words in articulating that choice. “I don’t want to do that to my body,” she said. I don’t know what her inflection was, exactly, but in my mind’s ear the ‘that‘ is totally italicized and dripping with icicles of disgust. ‘That.’ Ugh. Why do women do that to themselves? It’s just so, you know, yuck.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think that the ‘that‘ Jillian Michaels was referring to was simply weight gain and boob droopage. She’s a fitness coach. She knows better. Women don’t become irrevocably hippopotamized after they have children. If that were true, Heidi Klum and Gisele Bundchen and Demi Moore and Madonna and Cindy Crawford and Gwyneth Paltrow and countless other celebrity-type women would never have had children. Hollywood and New York would be entirely bereft of children. There would be no Celebrity Baby Blog and no Babble and no ‘bump watch’ and nobody would ever have wondered whether J-Lo really did demand couture delivery gowns. That, or they’d only ever adopt (ADOPT, Jillian, not RESCUE) and there wouldn’t be any kids left over for Angelina, or there’d be some twisted Handmaid’s Tale black market in mother-surrogates who pump out designer babies for celebrities on demand. (There’s not, is there?) Jillian Michaels knows this. Jillian Michaels knows that, if she wanted to, she could lose the 11 pounds she gained in pregnancy in about eight days. So when Jillian Michaels said that she didn’t want to do that to her body, she didn’t mean that she didn’t want to put on a few pounds of baby weight. She meant – I think – something different.

When she said that she didn’t want to do that to her body, Ms. Jillian was, I think (emphasis on ‘I think’ – this is only my opinion), expressing her disgust at the basic idea of becoming – as women do in pregnancy and childbirth and beyond – biological, which is to say, tethered to her body, to her messy, unpredictable, physical femaleness. This is, I think, something that reflects a broader public sentiment – I’m not holding her responsible for it – and it’s a shame, even though it’s rooted in messy fact. When you’re pregnant, you don’t – you can’t – control your body. You cannot control whether you lose or gain weight – no matter what, there’s something growing inside of you, and that thing has mass, and needs – and you cannot perfectly control how your body feels or how it moves. If you have morning sickness, you will vomit. If your feet spread, they spread. If you get night sweats, you get night sweats. If you have a high-risk pregnancy and are put on bed rest, you will be on bed rest. You might crave pickles, and if you crave pickles, you will have to have pickles and you will kill anyone who stands in your way. You will ache and lurch and leak. Your boobs will grow, and also, probably, itch. There is nothing that you can do about that. You are not master of your physiological domain when you are pregnant. You are body, beholden to Nature. And you just have to, for the most part, suck it up.

I was completing my doctoral degree in political philosophy when I was pregnant with Emilia. Before the pregnancy, I lived pretty much entirely in my head, and so it was a shock to be dragged so fully and completely into my body, into my meaty, physical self, and be stuck there. Yes, stuck. I felt stuck. I couldn’t concentrate efficiently and consistently. I had to nap more often, which is to say, always. Some days, I couldn’t make it to campus because I was just so exhausted from the work of being pregnant – the passive but nonetheless utterly fatiguing work of having one’s body devote itself entirely to nurturing a fetus – and if I did make it, I would invariably fall asleep in my office before I’d made it through a single page of my dissertation. My mind wandered constantly, but not upward, toward the pure Platonic Form of wisdom, but to the flutters in my belly, to the heart beating, literally, next to mine, to the tiny foot planted squarely on my bladder. I felt, in a way that I never really had before, physical. Biological. Animal. It was profoundly discomfiting. Also, amazing. It took me a long time to get to ‘amazing’, but I did. It was amazing, and worth every ounce of discomfort and then some. (Mostly.)

Jillian Michaels is not, shall we say, cerebral (redacted – for all I know she could be an avid reader of Tolstoy in between workouts). She makes her living working with sweat and sinew and all those gym-towel-stinky let’s-get-physical things – she makes her living working with bodies – so why should she, of all people, be put off by the messy physicality of pregnancy? Why should she be made uncomfortable by biology, by bodies doing what they were meant to do? Well, duh. She doesn’t help people lose weight and tone their bodies because she loves bodies. She does it because she hates them. Or fears them. Or is freaked out by them. Same-same. Her drive to get people into shape (and by extension, the drive of the entire fitness-diet-body-improvement industry) is, arguably, a drive to control that which terrifies and repels her (and, more critically, most of Western society): the natural, unperfected, unshredded human body. The natural human female body.

At least, that’s what her words – just a handful of words, pulled from a much longer that had nothing to do with pregnancy and childbirth but everything to do with being Jillian Michaels, body guru – tell me. She doesn’t want to ‘do that‘ to her body – by which she means, let her body take a natural course – because she’s fearful of not controlling her body. Fearful, and, I would venture, loathful. The natural body does not have six-pack abs. The natural body could not cut glass with its thighs. The natural body sometimes droops and squooshes and sags. The natural female body – especially the natural female body that is past the first bloom of youth – has all manner of parts that simply do not, on their own, defy gravity. The natural female body is messy and wild and powerful and unpredictable and soft in parts. Jillian Michaels, it seems, does not like this body. Or at least, she does not want it for herself, for any amount of time, and isn’t afraid to say so. That is the telling thing here.

That’s a shame. I’m not going to say that it’s surprising, because, really, like we couldn’t have guessed from her public profile that Jillian Michaels has an aversion to uncut, unchiseled, unperfected bodies. We know that we live in a society in which natural bodies –  the natural female body, in particular, and the natural aging female body and the natural postpartum female body (not to mention the breastfeeding body) – are regarded with something approaching disgust. Her words just underline that, and they point to the shame that is too easily attached to matters concerning the female body, and not just matters of weight. Jillian Michaels reminds us that we live in a society that is not just fat-phobic – although it certainly is that – but one that is gyno-phobic, if we take gyno to refer not to women qua women in all their natural messy glory and not women qua Barbie dolls. She reminds us that everyone likes to look at and talk about and champion women’s bodies – but only if they are, or are in the process of being, sanitized and perfected for proper cultural consumption.

Which, fuck that. Jillian Michaels is free to make whatever choices she likes about her body, and she’s free to proclaim them to the unchiselled, muffin-topped, pregnancy-ravaged masses. But I’m also free to call her proclamations messed up, and to direct my own personal improvement projects in more positive and self-loving directions. So. So long, Thirty-Day Shred; hello, Food Revolution, long walks and bike rides and swimming and soccer with my kids, a good bra and the occasional home-baked cupcake. And hello, loving my body, every droopy-boobed, ravaged-nethers, rumply, imperfect part of it. It’s amazing.

It’s a shame that the Jillian Michaels of the world can’t see that.

*Further comment, in response to comments: I did see that Jillian Michaels had tweeted and Facebook-updated that her remarks were taken out of context, that her aversion to pregnancy is about her own body issues, and that she has no issue with other women’s pregnant bodies. Which is fine and good, but doesn’t change the substance of my argument: that her expression of repugnance toward the condition of pregnancy and what it does to a woman’s body – whether that body be her own, or another woman’s, and whether that repugnance be rooted in her own personal history or in some broader aesthetic concern – has a potentially shaming effect. She’s a celebrity trainer, a woman who has a made a career counseling people about their bodies, a body expert, or someone who is seen as such. If she expresses discomfort with the effect that pregnancy has on women’s bodies, that carries far more weight than if, say, Spencer Pratt expresses such discomfort.

Also, while I’m all for being open and honest about our body issues – I have plenty of them, believe me, and I need to know that I can air them – I think that we need to be careful about how we express them, and that public figures in particular – whose words carry so much weight, deservedly or not – need to be careful. It’s one thing to have issues rooted in being called fat when one was young, and another to tell the world that one can imagine nothing worse than being fat. I’m not blaming Jillian Michaels for the culture of body-hating; I’m suggesting that what she said is both a symptom of that culture and a further contribution to it. She articulated the fear that undergirds so much of the disgust (explicit or implicit) that gets directed toward the unperfected female form, and especially toward the pregnant or postpartum female form, and reinforced it. Because if a super-effective, win-win-win celebrity trainer feels comfortable expressing that fear, and takes it to heart herself, how  can any of us expect to overcome it?

So. I’m all for accepting Jillian Michaels’ clarifications and disclaimers, but the effect of her original statment remains, and it is something worth talking about: why do any of us worry about the aesthetics of pregnancy and the postpartum body? Why do we have these issues to being with? Doesn’t it have something to do with the fact that celebrities say things along the lines of what Michaels said? And that we all understand too well what they mean?

As you were.

**Also! I’ve changed the title of this post (although the snarky original remains immortalized in the url). I was, I fully admit, a touch upset when I started writing this post – I am sensitive! I have body issues! And! I can be bitchy! – and I let the anger guide me and I got a bit snarky. Or a lot snarky. That was unnecessary, and – assuming that Jillian Michaels were to read this – hurtful. Jillian Michaels is people too. I shouldn’t have let my snark get the better of me.