Have you started on your pre-Christmas diet yet? Me neither

These days you don’t even need to slip into an unhealthy starve-binge cycle all by yourself. Open the average glossy or “women’s section” of a tabloid newspaper and you’ll find they’ve mapped out the peaks and troughs of a future eating disorder on your b

A diet used to be something you were meant to endure once in a lifetime. After several months of misery you’d reach your target weight and thereafter maintain it through sensible eating, or at least that was the theory. As far as I am aware, this has never, ever happened in real life. In real life you’d have one of four options: fail to lose the weight, lose the weight then regain it, develop an eating disorder, or become Rosemary Conley. Obviously none of these is particularly desirable.

Today our attitude towards dieting has changed. We’ve finally recognised wilful semi-starvation for the total waste of time that it is. Only kidding. We’re still as into dieting as ever only this time, diets don’t even have to promise lasting success. Gone are the days when we’d approach the next diet warily, buying into it only if it promised to be nothing like the others. Beaten down by the ubiquitous cult of thinness, we no longer feel cheated when it all goes wrong. After all, we’ve only ourselves to blame. We are too weak and too greedy. Nothing less than low-level self-hatred shall be our lot.

These days you don’t even need to slip into an unhealthy starve-binge cycle all by yourself. Open the average glossy or “women’s section” of a tabloid newspaper and you’ll find they’ve mapped out the peaks and troughs of a future eating disorder on your behalf. Henceforth there shall be no celebration, no significant cultural event, for which it is not necessary to embark on a crash diet. I’m surprised you can’t already buy calendars with fat days, fast days and binge days already pencilled in.

Right now it’s pre-Christmas diets that are all the rage. According to the Daily Mail, “women keen to drop a dress size for the festive season should start slimming now” (unfortunately that quotation is from 1 November, so if you’ve not started on the celery yet, it might be too late). The Mirror, meanwhile, is promoting the 5:2 Christmas party diet. Forget the fact that they’re recommending a total of eight days on only 500 calories apiece in return for one measly evening’s boozing with people you probably don’t like. What’s that compared to not being able to “fit into your favourite fancy frock”? (A frock that is, by definition, the wrong size for you.)

Anyhow, let’s assume you make it through those weeks of 5:2 hell. You’ll slip into that dress, dance the night away and end up feasting on cheesy chips from a van because you’re so utterly wasted. After that you’ll spend Christmas over-eating because that is obligatory. You’ll end up bigger than you were before but never mind, it’s the New Year and time for yet another stupid detox. Then there’s Lent and Easter which, regardless of whether or not you’re a believer, offer further excuses for disordered eating activity. And then on to summer and the ridiculous bikini body diet, which you will feel pressured to follow even if you have no intention of wearing a bikini in your life.   

As far as the tabloids and women’s magazines are concerned, every single year in the life of every single woman is marked by a series of starve-binge repetitions (that’s not even mentioning the added extras such as the “pre-wedding diet” or “losing your baby weight”). For some women this will be a true reflection of life, holding on from one “permitted” binge to the next. For many more, who don’t take Closer diet tips as gospel truth, the diets themselves will be dismissed but the overall message - that you can’t genuinely enjoy holidays and celebrations unless you are thinner - will still sink in.

The notion that a good social event is marked by being able to make a dramatic “ta-dah!” entrance, showing off one’s brand new body, gets under the skin. It’s frankly ridiculous, not to mention narcissistic, but when something is presented not just as happiness but as normality on so regular a basis, it almost feels arrogant to reject it. Who are you to think it’s okay to turn up at your office party in your everyday body, the one your colleagues have seen you inhabiting day in, day out? Isn’t that just rude? You’re meant to make an effort and whereas a generation ago that might have meant a dash of glitzy nail polish, these days it’s four weeks of mind-numbing hunger before you squeeze yourself into control pants and hope you won’t need the loo in the next five hours.

Or at least, that’s what we’re advised. I’d like to think there are more joyous ways of celebrating, away from the idea that in order to appreciate the supposed high points of your life you need to look as though you are a model self-consciously representing “fun”. I’d like to think that even if pleasure is eternally deferred, it can be deferred in a more enriching ways than with the thought of Krispy Kremes. Most of all, I’d like to think all those who struggle with food and body image will find a means of rejecting starve-binge popular culture before too many wasted years have sped by.  

Has looking good at the Christmas party become more important than enjoying Christmas? Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide