Bikini bridges and thigh gaps: on eating disorder concern trolling

If journalists were not so “concerned” about anorexia and bulimia those of us with eating disorders could go back to creating our own arbitrary thinness tests without fretting over which of these now gets external endorsement.

Yesterday evening, I found out what a bikini bridge is. I wasn’t seeking out this knowledge; I was reading the news and it popped out at me, unbidden. The trouble is, now I can’t ever un-know it (to give you a chance, I’m not linking to the piece in question). Bikini bridges will henceforth be stored in my brain alongside thigh gaps, muffin tops, bingo wings, cankles and a million other terms which exist solely to make women hate their bodies a great deal and their minds even more.

To be fair, I wouldn’t know about any of these phenomena if it wasn’t for all the hand-wringing articles which document how “everybody” (i.e. no one) is talking about them already. Indeed, there are few things more damaging to those who already have eating disorders than today’s ever-present eating disorder concern trolling. If journalists were not so “concerned” about anorexia and bulimia those of us with eating disorders could go back to creating our own arbitrary thinness tests without fretting over which of these now gets external endorsement. Not worried about the thigh gap? Well, you should be. Everybody else is! To someone with an eating disorder it starts to feel arrogant not to tick all the body paranoia boxes. After all, it’s not as though you’re someone special. On the contrary, you’re useless, a non-person. How could you possibly let yourself off the hook regarding thigh gaps when “everybody” – including the “normal” people – is panicking about them, too?

At the same time, these articles never fail to make it clear that worrying about such trifles is stupid and means, not only that you are fat, but that you are a bad person to boot. If you can’t be thin, why can’t you at least be more like Lena Dunham, trotting naked around the set of a hit TV show you write, produce and star in? Or Gabourey Sidibe, silencing the Golden Globe body fascists by casually referring to your private jet and dream job? It’s fine to recognize body image worries as pointless and trivial, providing you are also really fucking exceptional in other ways (sadly, the chances are, you’re not. So you’re back to thinking you’re a hateful blob of ugliness, albeit with the added sting of knowing you’re self-indulgent and foolish for even feeling this way).

When I think back to the worst of my experiences with anorexia, I’m unsure whether to see it as a terrible time in a situation beyond my control, or to hate myself for being such a total knob. I know that plenty of people at the time – many of them medical professionals – did indeed see me as a total knob, or worse, and treated me accordingly. The perception that worries about size and shape, however extreme, are markers of privilege (haven’t you anything better to worry about?) follows some women to their painful deaths. Hence when I read about bikini bridges and thinspiration, I wonder about the connections that will be made, and the impact that these will have on responses to seriously ill people. I wonder whether, once again, we will be forced to draw arbitrary dividing lines between the harm done by trauma and abuse, and that done by the hectoring of misogynist popular culture. I sometimes think “well, at least I can think of worse things to blame for being ill. Otherwise, what kind of a fool would I be?”

There’s no returning to a time of innocence when “body shocks” and “size zero horror” were not, apparently, all around us. The pressure to look, but also not to have any meaningful response, is overwhelming. It only becomes irrelevant when the right to take up space in the world starts to feel like second nature. For most of us, for so many different reasons, that is not how it feels. It will take more than the wilful naming of yet another body panic to change this.

This article first appeared on glosswatch.com and is crossposted here with permission

Gabourey Sidibe (left), who silenced the Golden Globe body fascists "by casually referring to her private jet and dream job". Photo: Getty

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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses