So it’s official: British women are the fattest in Europe. Way-hey! It’s been hard to miss the schadenfreude in the media’s reporting of this. No longer do we have to pussyfoot around, pretending to be ever so concerned about eating disorders and “real” beauty. Clearly women aren’t that arsed, otherwise they wouldn’t be stuffing their faces. Cue plenty of news clips featuring young ladies filmed from the neck down, roaming the streets unawares while the camera zones in on every inch. Just look at the state of that, menfolk! I wouldn’t, would you?
The women in the stock footage do not look how women are “meant” to look. Over the past few decades the ideal female body, as depicted in adverts and on film and TV, has got thinner and thinner, yet the average woman has got fatter and fatter. The UK diet industry rakes in an estimated £2bn per year and around 90 per cent of British women claim to have been on a diet. Tips on healthy eating and lifestyle changes, such as those promoted by the Government’s Change 4 Life campaign, would have us believe that individuals lack knowledge and motivation, but I find this hard to believe. The message that being fat is not just unhealthy, but shameful and worthy of mockery, is everywhere and it is powerful. I simply don’t accept that we could make women want to be thin any more than they already do. They want it badly. Indeed, perhaps we should consider whether even those who don’t seem to care do in fact want it too much.
Almost half of all teenage girls in the UK report trying to lose weight. The response to this might be “well, they’re obviously not trying hard enough” but I think that’s simplistic. The desire to weigh less than is natural or healthy is not inconsistent with binge eating. Overeating or eating more than is deemed to be “normal” is not just something women do because they are greedy (whatever that means); we overeat when we have lost the ability to respond freely to our bodies’ hunger signals. A pro-thinness culture, in which dieting, fasting and detoxing are deemed praiseworthy, disrupts women’s own understanding of their appetite and needs. In Overcoming Binge Eating ED specialist Christopher Fairburn notes that “the majority of people with binge eating problems were already dieting when they started to binge. And among those who diet strictly, the binge eating is caused at least in part by the dieting.”
While I don’t wish to suggest that anyone who overeats or weighs more than they’d like must necessarily have an eating disorder, I think this pattern is compelling. In the years that followed my own struggle with anorexia I ate compulsively, hating my size but subconsciously fearing that a return to scarcity would be just around the corner. More recently – and more prosaically – I have wondered how much I would weigh if it wasn’t for all those “I’ll go on a diet tomorrow” binge sessions. Perhaps the majority of my calorie intake is made up of things I only eat because I’m telling myself it’s my last chance and that I’ll never, ever eat them again. The problems we face stem not just from fast food culture, but from a culture of extremes. If you’re not thin and hungry (especially if you’re a woman) you might as well be eating junk. The hunger arises not just from the gut, but from constantly being told that you shouldn’t be eating at all.
When I go to see a film I am invariably unsettled by the thinness of female characters (regardless of whether these are real actresses or animations). It makes me want to gorge myself on popcorn because fuck it, I can’t be thin like them without being miserably hungry (I know it, I’ve tried). Diets work, insofar as they will make you lose weight, but they do not work insofar as they will never make you happy. Hunger cannot be overridden. Sufferers of anorexia suffer not just from some vague “being anorexic” condition but due to the fact that they are desperately hungry every minute of the day. You can choose not to be hungry in this way, and most women do so, but the needling pressure to lose that extra half stone can still be enough to create a binge cycle, and it can be one that lasts until that extra half stone is several stone more.
Healthy eating advice is not straightforward. Over the course of my eating disorder career (I consider it a career, given how much of my life I’ve devoted to it) I’ve seen the “bad” food group constantly changing: in the mid-eighties it was carbs, then fat was evil and fibre was all the rage, then suddenly carbs were bad again, and now it’s just the sugary carbs we need to fear. We can say that now we’ve really got it right, but that’s what we said last time, and the time before that. Furthermore, what are we really trying to achieve? The public health message about fat is hopelessly tainted not just with moral censure but with sexism, both in terms of how it sees women as responsible for nurturing families and in terms of how women’s bodies are judged without taking the specificities of women’s lives into account.
In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argued that the unhealthiness of specifically female fat was being overplayed:
The National Institutes of Health studies that linked obesity to heart disease and stroke were based on male subjects; when a study of females was finally published in 1990, it showed that weight made only a fraction of the difference for women that it made for men.[…] Female fat is not in itself unhealthy. […] A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.
I think there must be a middle ground in all this, where we can at least say that some levels of fat are unhealthy. Nonetheless, I don’t know how we can find it, given how morally charged and fuelled by prejudice the debate has become.
Women know the stigma that is attached to being fat. It’s not as though fat women are too busy munching on doughnuts to hear the cries of derision (although the fact that stock photographs often crop off the heads of fat or pregnant women is clearly useful in reinforcing the belief that women with “controversial” bodies don’t really hear, think or speak anyway). Instead of finger-wagging at women and girls who couldn’t feel more ashamed than they already do, or yet more easy, knee-jerk condemnations of McDonald’s, a steady, solid assault on broader cultural attitudes towards food, hunger and bodies is required. The work of researchers such as Fairburn, or the definition of “normal” eating provided by Ellyn Sattler, are worth a million diet books and healthy eating pep talks. We’re focused on our bodies but the real sickness is in our minds.