Fascinating Womanhood Review: radiant health


If you’re thinking this chapter is going to be chock full to the brim with fat-shaming, ableism, and classism– you’d be right!

First off, there’s a lot in this chapter that’s just common sense– especially since it focuses on eating a healthy diet and exercising. From my short life, it seems like most of what we hear from medical professionals is that eating your fruits and vegetables and exercising seems to be the bulk of their advice.

However, that’s not where Helen goes with it, since her definition of “eating right” is only attainable by rich people. When someone tells me that I can’t cook with canned or frozen food and must only buy organic, and then links this to whether or not my husband will love me, the only thing I can think is well, shit. I’m living on a solidly middle-class budget, and I can’t even afford to buy only fresh (and organic!) food. Later, she says we have to drink only “pure water” and says to buy bottled if we have to, which… this.

Then she moves into getting a good night’s rest, and this is where she gets ableist: some people have insomnia, including me. Getting a good night’s rest just isn’t possible for me most of the time. She also tells us to go to bed before 10p and to sleep on a “good, firm mattress.” I spent most of my life thinking I was a horribly lazy person because I was a night owl– for me, I get my best rest when I go to sleep around midnight and wake up around 9a. That’s just how I function the best. If I try to go to sleep earlier, I have nightmares, I wake up three or four times, and I get up in the morning feeling groggy and confused. It took me until I was 24 to figure out that I just didn’t need to force myself into a sleeping pattern that didn’t fit me. Same thing goes for “firm mattress.” I wake up in pain if I have to sleep on a firm mattress and sleeping on one for more than 3 days… nope. Just nope.

Here we hit “Exercise Regularly” and even more ableism. Because not everyone can exercise, and a lot of people have things like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, even when they’re incredibly young. And yes, people like this hear “exercise!” all of the time, but it’s especially problematic given the context of Helen’s book: you must do exactly what she says or your husband won’t love you.

But, it was the “Control Weight” section that really got me:

If you have a chunky figure you cannot appear dainty, feminine, or girlish, even with the help of soft, flowing, feminine clothes. No matter what you do to disguise it, you cannot hide excess weight. When you get down to normal size, you will look many times more attractive in your clothes. You will appear younger and more feminine, and will acquire a new vitality to your face and features. Just from the standpoint of appearance, it is well worth it to lose excess weight.

Excuse me while I go beat my head into a wall.

At 5’8” and 150 pounds, and with a BMI of 23, that puts me on the upper end of “normal weight.” I’m skinny, slender, whatever. However, I could never in a million years be described as “dainty.” Words like “healthy” and “big boned” and “curvy” — all code words for fat— have been applied to me my entire life. I desperately wanted to hear willowy, delicate, dainty and that desire to be treated as thin hasn’t really gone away, even though I actually am thin. This is just crazy-making, because it really seems that even thin women like me will never be good enough– not even stick-thin fashion models are thin enough.

But, I think the worst part of this chapter is under the heading “Have a Healthy Mental Attitude.” It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about “positive” and “negative” emotions, even outside of religious contexts. The Power of Positive Thinking –itself a Christian book and even quoted by Helen– did very well outside of the Christian market, and so has The SecretHelen is talking about the same thing here, and she lists what she considers “destructive mental attitudes”: worry, fear, anxiety, pessimism, hate, resentment, impatience, envy, anger. Which, ok, I can buy into the notion that your mental health can affect your physical health, but I am a little tired of lists like these.

Hate? God hates plenty of things (primarily injustice, greed, oppression), so how exactly is this a “bad” thing to feel?
Anger? Pretty sure Jesus got angry, too, so . . . 
Impatience? Yup, I’m positive God is described as impatient

For me, personally, recognizing that there’s no reason to feel guilt over my anxiety, or that I can embrace anger and even hate has probably been some of the most liberating realizations I’ve had over the past few years. It’s not wrong to be angry. It’s not destructive. I don’t have to feel ashamed because of my anxiety. The problem isn’t having the emotion at all. There are things worth being angry over. There are some things that I should not have patience with. There are some things that need to be hated.

But, to Helen, if I’m not constantly smiling, radiant, cheerful, enthusiastic, and optimistic, then I’m not being feminine. I’m failing God and my husband and society when I don’t smile every single second of every single day.

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  • Betta Splendens

    Trust me, you do NOT want to be “willowy, delicate, dainty.” It’s honestly not all it’s cracked up to be. I’m the kind of person who LOOKS really delicate and willowy, but I’m actually quite strong, which leads to a lot of frustration because people won’t let me lift things which I CAN lift, but don’t LOOK as if I can. It gives me a real chip on my shoulder sometimes, like I have to prove that *I CAN* all the time.

    Every body type comes with its own set of problems, and I think each and every one is good in some way.

    • Courtney

      I am 5’2 and 110 pounds and I love partner dancing and I love leading and I love doing dips, whenever I try to lead someone new into a dip they always look at me with this hilarious terrified expression on their face.

  • No recommendation of whale bone corsets? Like the picture btw.
    Eating fresh fruits and veggies means shopping every three or four days since they spoil so quickly and that gets to be a real drag on time and money.
    Most of what she recommends is basic advice doctors and nutritionists give, but her reasons are silly, and trying to get all women to fit into a size 3 or 5 is very unrealistic. You know what is the right weight for your height and bmi for your bone structure. The more you fight it by dieting the worse you’ll make it by boomeranging. The writer also thinks all men are one size fits all in our preference for a woman, she’s not only demeaning women, but men too. There is no way I could possibly live with a woman that insipid and vapid and she says all women should be.

  • Even a lot of thin people aren’t dainty. One of my best friends in college was petite, but I always thought of her as skinny/bony more than delicate/willowy/etc.
    Trust Helen to mess up even sensible advice. Because as you say it’s not practical for everyone—no food advice is (I witnessed a huge blow up on another blog once when a commenter had to explain that she simply couldn’t eat locally given what was grown locally vs. her dietary restrictions). It’s not just cost, either: I prefer fresh but I buy canned I don’t have to worry about it going bad before I cook it.
    And the idea that everyone should be in bed by 10 is ludicrous. I am, because I’m a morning person, but I know people who do their best work around 2am.

  • I’m delicate and dainty. Because I developed an eating disorder (from which I’m thankfully recovering, but sometimes I still struggle to like myself with a few more pounds). Frankly, the amount of self-hatred required to attain my figure wasn’t worth the weight loss. Ironically, you could say that by trying to achieve the physical ‘ideal’ of ‘delicate and dainty’, I helped deplete my mental heath. Gah.

  • “Because not everyone can exercise, and a lot of people have things like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, even when they’re incredibly young.”

    Just this. Many of my female relatives (genetics gahhh) have these problems which the men folk (spouses) just don’t understand and try to make them go on long walks to get them trim. Which just leaves them feeling worse.

    I really hope I don’t get something like this in future, I’m 4′ 9″ so weight control is hard enough as it is.

    Anyway thanks for doing this series. These kind of books are utter garbage and not helpful, especially for people who didn’t grow up in a Christian home. (Also looking at you Focus on the family and Boundless.org – blech)

  • Samantha – Wow. Thank you for reviewing this book for all of us. I am not sure if I would have made it through that chapter without throwing the book across my living room.

    My question for the author, Helen, would be,”What is a normal height/weight ratio to you?”

    I weigh over 150 pounds and I am 5’4 and athletic. If Helen or her loyal followers saw me walking around the street, they would assume that I am out of shape because my appearance isn’t delicate and thin. But if they went to a Bikram yoga or Kettlebell class with me, I would definitely give them a run for their money.

    Furthermore, I find it sad that she equates being thin and appearing joyous at all times with femininity. Being a Christian woman who is subjected to this sort of subculture, teaching and preaching is a nightmare because she is convinced that she has to become a smiling, compliant and pretty nonperson in order to receive any kind of validation from her community and even worse, God.

    I lived that nightmare during my first eleven years as a single Christian. In my early thirties, it all came to a head when I looked at myself in the mirror and was convinced by this lie that I had to give any Christian man who gave me any attention a chance because he was a leader and since I wasn’t small and dainty, I just had to accept any invitation I received regardless of my attraction to the person or if this person had healthy social skills. I was older and I was bigger, so I was screwed.

    Thanks to secular counseling, a healthy church and athletics, I have been recovering very well. it feels so good to be able to walk into church and any other Christian context with my head up high.

  • If my daughters inherit my genes, they won’t be able to qualify as willowy either. And forget dainty. My three year old daughter approaches life like a linebacker, and her older sisters are also tough and resilient. I hope that I can counteract societal pressure a bit, so that they are happy to be strong rather than rail thin. Fortunately, since Andelin’s time, it has become more acceptable for females to exercise, so they have more opportunities to enjoy their rough and tumble tendencies.

  • Indigo Violent

    The thing I have to scratch my head over is – I am not skinny. I am, objectively, a curvy woman. I wear a double-D bra and when shopping for jeans, routinely have trouble with them fitting over my butt. My waist, however, is 24 inches around. I’m still young and this will no doubt shift as I get older, but for right now, I am about as close as you can get to an hourglass. Is Helen going to tell me that, because I weigh over a hundred pounds, my big boobs and wide hips are somehow *masculine*? The people whose jaws have dropped when they’ve seen me in a corset would probably beg to differ.

  • If it’s any consolation, the idea that emotions can be inherently bad and that the bad ones are all of those that tend to accompany asserting yourself in the face of oppressive people and systems, is in no way limited to Christian loopies. David Icke (Mr. Giant Reptiloids) even claims that the “Lower 4th Dimension” where the shapeshifting reptiles come from is the source of these bad emotions.

  • I am not think and I suffer from clinical depression…two things that seem to disqualify me from being loved by my husband or acceptable to God. Fortunately, I am married to a wonderful, thoughtful man who loves me very much and who does find me attractive and sexy, BTW.

  • I have fibromyalgia and insanely flexible joints, which often means that I can be in some incredible pain if I try to exercise like people tell me to. I’m still active in my own way, but sometimes my ‘exercise’ is doing the bare minimum of physical therapy. Other times it’s running two miles or doing an hour of yoga. I love to run, do yoga, and dance, but I’ve been told countless times that I will never be able to “progress” if I don’t keep to a strict schedule of, for example, running 4 days a week. I’ve discovered when I listen to my body (which may mean only one day of running and two of yoga or three days of dance and nothing else), I can figure out what exercise will be okay for me each day. When I try to follow a trainer’s scheduled idea of “fitness,” I injure myself every. single. time. Because inevitably I end up pushing myself past my abilities trying to meet someone else’s expectations of what fitness looks like.

    Also, exercising doesn’t help me lost weight. I gain weight when I’m exercising regularly. To some extent, I’d like to think that it’s because I’m gaining muscle. But I also know that I eat more when I exercise because I can’t run on the fumes of a single meal all day. In order to be the “weight” that she would consider dainty, I’d have to starve my body of protein and nutrients that it desperately needs. -__- This chapter gets a full flock of middle fingers from me.

    Also, thanks for linking to me on the hate thing. 🙂 I’m really excited to see that I’m not the only person who is reconsidering the out-of-place taboo on hatred.

  • Great, she’s also a fat-shamer. I’m so not surprised. I guess she didn’t get the memo that obesity is rampant in Christian churches: http://www.examiner.com/article/new-study-links-obesity-to-religion

    ..Or maybe she did get that memo, and this is just one more way to browbeat and abuse women for not meeting some unattainable, inflexible, pie-in-the-sky, misogynistic standard. It’s downright crazy-making. Is there absolutely no low to which this woman-hating author will refuse to stoop? Disgusting!

    I was delicate and willowy in high school, but after converting to Christianity, I gained a heck of a lot of weight–self-medicating with food, they call it sometimes. Not like there was anything else to do except eat, eat, eat, eat all the time. Ever see that “Simply Sara” macaroni & cheese recipe? (If not then you should–it’s just eye-popping how many calories and how much fat one person could cram into one cup of food!) That could have shown up at any one of my old church’s potlucks and nobody would have blinked at the calorie count. I’ve lost most of it back, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be delicate and willowy again and at this point I don’t care. I’ll settle for healthy at whatever weight that lands me at. And now I see that a Christian author is shaming women for how they eat and cook? Tsk, tsk. Like the anti-abortion fight, fundies are going at it bass-ackward; until the deep dysfunction in the religion is addressed, fighting the results of that dysfunction (in this case, worrying about weight rather than health, also poverty and wage disparity, rigid gender roles leading to insistence on time- and money-stressed women doing all the cooking work, poor education, lack of healthcare access, lack of time due to work overload, and way more) isn’t going to do jack to fix the situation. But I guess it’s way easier to shame women for not living up to an impossible ideal than it is to look seriously at the society busily producing those women’s eating and cooking habits.

    • Gram Pol

      Please note, too, that it’s the women who are expected to take scrupulous care of themselves and their outward appearances.

      In Helen’s world women but be womanly but not *too* womanly because female curves are stumbling blocks for their brothers in Christ. Women must be the exact right amount of womanly to be both feminine and modest.

      • Oh, absolutely. Men’s bodies are never stumbling blocks for women, so they don’t have to make sure they’re pretty all the time and can be just as MANLY as they want all the time. My old church was just like this. Pages and pages of dress codes for women, but for men, it was “no tank tops and shorts, and cut that hair, you hippies!”

  • JesusFeminist

    When I was a teenager, I was 5’9″, 150 and on that thin, but not willowy frame. I was told by so many people in my family that I was going to get fat while I was growing up that I developed body dysmorphia. A few family members pointed out my fat places to me when I was a teenager and that’s when severe restrictive eating set in. By the time I was 20, I was closer to 5’9″ and 125 pounds. Even at this point, I was not willowy thin. I have wide hips and always saw the as a HUGE issue. I was never happy. I wasn’t happy in size 8 jeans, because somehow, size 6 was the magic number where people weren’t fat. I wasn’t happy in medium shirts, because somehow, small is the desired size. Fast forward to today. I’m in my 30s, and after a round of antidepressants in my late 20s that propelled me 50 pounds up the scale, a baby that added another 20, and the ravaging effects of thyroid disease that might have been brought on by my years of restricted eating, I now find myself towing the line of obesity. Despite being on a calorie based diet for most of 2 years, I have only been able to lose about 20 pounds and then stall out for months and months with no weight loss. I still struggle with being ok in this body, but my biggest hurdle is wanting to go back and tell my 20 something self that she is going to wast her youth hating her body, instead of enjoying being young, healthy, and beautiful. How different my life might be if I hadn’t had so much self hate and if women weren’t only valued for being stick thin.

  • Tapetum

    The only person in my entire life who has called me “dainty” is my karate instructor. Somehow I don’t think Helen would approve.