The message for women is that being fat isn't just unhealthy – it's shameful. Photo: Mason Masteka
Show Hide image

Fat-shaming women doesn’t make us any slimmer

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.

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.

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.