Wake up, women: Sleep is a feminist issue

Depriving ourselves of needed rest is a lousy way to prove how hardworking we are

Topics: Feminism, Broadsheet,

“If you ask us,” say Glamour editor Cindi Leive and Arianna Huffington, “the next feminist issue is sleep.” Personally, I never would have thought to ask those two what the next feminist issue is, but they make a pretty good case. “Americans are increasingly sleep-deprived, and the sleepiest people are, you guessed it, women. Single working women and working moms with young kids are especially drowsy: They tend to clock in an hour and a half shy of the roughly 7.5-hour minimum the human body needs to function happily and healthfully.” The negative effects of chronic sleep deprivation are well-documented, but that doesn’t inspire enough people to prioritize rest, and women often end up in a vicious cycle of sacrificing sleep in order to do extra work and make sure their domestic duties are fulfilled, causing all of the above to suffer. “Work decisions, relationship challenges, any life situation that requires you to know your own mind — they all require the judgment, problem-solving and creativity that only a rested brain is capable of and are all handled best when you bring to them the creativity and judgment that are enhanced by sleep.”

Huffington and Leive invite readers to join them in a one-month sleep challenge that they’ll blog at the Huffington Post and Glamour’s Web site, but feminist issues generally demand an examination of the cultural forces behind them, not just a bunch of individual commitments to change. If you ask me, not that you would, the key problem is here: “In fact, many women do this on purpose, fueled by the mistaken idea that getting enough sleep means you must be lazy or less than passionate about your work and your life.” As “The Sleep Doctor” Michael J. Berus says, “It is amazing to me that sleep deprivation is both a method of torture in some countries and a badge of honor all at the same time.”

As a critic of the weight loss industry, I’m not so amazed; the same can be said of calorie restriction. The classic Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which subjected 36 conscientious objectors during World War II to “semistarvation,” found that healthy men subsisting on around 1,800 calories a day — more than many commercial diet programs allow today — suffered serious mental and physical consequences, just as sleep-deprived people do. A 2005 review of the study in the Journal of Nutrition noted:

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As semistarvation progressed, the enthusiasm of the participants waned; the men became increasingly irritable and inpatient with one another and began to suffer the powerful physical effect of limited food … The men reported decreased tolerance for cold temperatures, and requested additional blankets even in the middle of summer. They experienced dizziness, extreme tiredness, muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, and ringing in their ears. Several were forced to withdraw from their university classes because they simply didn’t have the energy or motivation to attend and concentrate.

And those were the ones who made it all the way through the study. “Two volunteers broke diet and were excused from the experiment; one stopped at various shops for sundaes and malted milks and later stole and ate several raw rutabagas and the other consumed huge amounts of gum and admitted to eating scraps of food from garbage cans. Both also suffered severe psychological distress during the semistarvation period, resulting in brief stays in the psychiatric ward of the university hospital.” So, six months on a number of calories equivalent to or greater than some of the plans offered today by companies like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers drove a couple of guys to the psych ward, and left several others barely able to function. If that’s not chilling enough for you, consider this footnote to one of the 2005 torture memos, courtesy of the Bush Attorney General’s Office: “[W]e note that widely available commercial weight-loss programs in the United States employ diets of 1000 kcal/day for sustain [sic] periods of weeks or longer without requiring medical supervision. While we do not equate commercial weight loss programs and this interrogation technique, the fact that these calorie levels are used in the weight-loss programs, in our view, is instructive in evaluating the medical safety of the interrogation technique.” How could it possibly be medically suspect — never mind torture — if regular citizens are paying for it?

So basically, around this time of year, a whole lot of people resolve to do the same thing to themselves that governments, including ours, do to recalcitrant criminals. And a whole lot of those are women. And hell yes, it’s seen as a “badge of honor”; one need only listen to an average group of women sharing a meal to learn that those who draw attention to dieting behavior (“I’ll just have a salad, dressing on the side”) are lauded as good, virtuous, etc., while those who dare to eat for fullness, let alone pleasure, will chastise themselves before anyone else can (“I’m going to be bad and order dessert”). It’s strikingly similar to how we talk about sleep — functioning on five or six hours’ worth is seen as a heroic accomplishment, while getting a full eight hours on the weekend is regarded as indulgent (“Sleep is for the weak!”) — but the major difference between the two torture techniques-cum-badges of honor is that those restricting calories often claim to be doing so for health reasons, with the support of much of the medical community, while sleep deprivation is widely understood to be unhealthy. We praise ourselves and each other for carrying on through exhaustion in spite of its health effects, but for carrying on through semistarvation supposedly because of them.

The common denominator in terms of cultural approval, then, is that we reward those who endure the deprivation of biological necessities, regardless of any toll it takes. In other words, it’s straight-up puritanical bullshit. Getting by on six hours of sleep or 1,200 calories a day aren’t moral triumphs any more than saving yourself until marriage is — in fact, both can make you dopey, cranky, listless and malleable. So the challenge should not only be to get to bed at a reasonable hour, but to quit talking and thinking about a chronic lack of sleep as though it’s evidence of a strong work ethic, and about attending to our bodies’ needs as though it’s a mark of indolence. As Huffington and Leive put it, “We’ve already broken glass ceilings in Congress, space travel, sports, business and the media — just imagine what we can do when we’re fully awake.” 

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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