Young women's stark choice: be utterly obsessed with food or be considered too fat

Women are not born obsessed with the size of celebrities' bottoms. When you’re under intense pressure to do something as profoundly unnatural as not eat, you become obsessed with food and weight, not just yours, but everyone else’s.

Every single day, women are bombarded with messages telling them they’re fat. And every single day, they’re also bombarded with messages telling them they’re stupid for thinking they’re fat. Fellow women, how many times have you heard the following “reassurances” from men in relation to body size?

It’s only women who worry about this. I love a girl with a bit of meat on her.

You don’t get any of those size zero models in the lad mags.

Those magazines are written by women and bought by women. Us men just want you to be happy with yourselves.

You can’t lay this one on us. It’s only women who care about the weight of other women.

Well thank you, men. Thanks ever so much. So I’m not fat, just deluded, superficial and stupid. As a negging technique, the old “why do women worry about their weight?” routine has to be up there with the best of them.  

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps many of the men I encounter are completely oblivious to the way in which the ideal female body shape is presented to the world at large. Perhaps when they watch the latest blockbuster, the painful thinness of every leading lady passes them by. Perhaps when they switch on the TV they simply don’t spot that the average female presenter has a lower BMI than the average male. Perhaps they genuinely believe that the women on Page Three – emaciated except for their inflated breasts – count as “curvy”. Perhaps the skinniness of every woman gyrating in every boorish rapper’s video goes straight over their heads. The truth is, I don’t particularly care. If, rather than examine the culture around you, you’d rather leap straight to the conclusion that women’s experience of it is irrational, then you’re part of the problem.

Misogyny does not present itself with a neon sign reading “look! I hate women!”. I often wish it did, then at least we wouldn’t have to waste so much time demonstrating that it exists at all. You don’t have to literally go around telling women they are fat and ugly to be complicit in a culture that tells them they are so. If the normality to which we’re all supposed to aspire is presented as one in which all women are thin – regardless of whether they’re on the catwalk or advertising Domestos - then the message to the vast majority of women is “you’re too fat”. This may be hard for some men to understand. Nevertheless, for many of them to simply deny that this message is there at all – for them to pretend that “diet culture” and “size zero” start and end within the exclusively female world of women’s magazines – is a massive pile of mansplaining, patronising crap.

One might turn, for instance, to this week’s OK! magazine cover, announcing the Duchess of Cambridge’s post-baby weight loss plan a mere day after the woman had given birth. Most people were justifiably shocked by this, and OK! has since apologised. Nevertheless, as Helen Lewis has noted, there were plenty of others willing to tweet their disgust at the sight of the Duchess’s stomach. And no, they weren’t all silly little ladies in thrall to celebrity culture. Some men seemed truly offended by the sight of a post-natal tum and its effect on the owner’s fuckability, and they felt the need to say so (don’t worry, though, Kate, one man swears he still would “with or without her afterbirth bump” – lucky you!). In the context of reactions such as these, I honestly feel the likes of OK!, Closer, Heat, New, Now and Star are more a symptom than a cause of the problem.  

Women are not born with an innate desire to know the size of Miley Cyrus’s arse, or how Abi Titmuss tones those abs, or whether “defiant” Dawn French can really be happy now she’s regained some weight. We’re just not. How does one become interested in this? One word: hunger. When you’re under intense pressure to do something as profoundly unnatural as not eat, you become obsessed with food and weight, not just yours, but everyone else’s. This happens to anyone who starves themselves, male or female. We just happen to live in a society in which those most encouraged to starve are women. As celebrity magazines have become more and more focussed on food and weight as opposed to broader celebrity-related issues, I’ve started to see it as merely a symptom of the mainstreaming of an eating disordered culture. True, most women who purchase these magazines are neither anorexic nor thin, but most people with eating disorders are neither anorexic nor thin. They are still under intense psychological pressure not to eat, interspersed with bouts of fasting or extreme undereating. No wonder they find themselves curiously fascinated by the contents of reality star Chloe Sims’ fridge (this week’s Closer, in case you’re interested).

I first became anorexic in 1987. Back then, without the internet, you had to make your own thinspiration. I became quite obsessed with Kylie Minogue. I thought her music was appalling but she was much thinner than she is now, and the papers were obsessed by this. The Daily Record reported that she weighed a mere six stone and claimed to “survive on prawns, fruit and water”. How come I remember this today? Because when you’ve just finished your “lunch” and you’re still starving hungry and it’s seven hours until you’re allowed your next raw carrot, it’s impossible to concentrate on anything that isn’t food and weight related and to me, Kylie’s thinness was at least aspirational. And today the pressure placed on young women to be thin is even greater. I’m not surprised they lap up all that Heat has to offer. If I still had an eating disorder I’d subscribe to every single celebrity mag going, not because I am frivolous or stupid but because it would make not eating more bearable.

If young women are given a stark choice – be utterly obsessed with food or be considered too fat – then I don’t believe we can hold them wholly responsible for all the rituals, obsessions and crap magazine purchases that hunger can bring. These sit within a much broader context and our current failure to acknowledges this belittles these women and prolongs their struggle. We shouldn’t simply blame men if women feel fat (merely providing, once again, an opportunity for the most arrogant amongst them to reassure us that we’ll “do”) but we need to ask questions of those who seek to isolate the symptoms of diet culture and use it as evidence that women are vain, foolish and wholly to blame for their suffering. They’re not.

Until we’re able to tackle the root causes of this, I have one message for any woman tempted to buy Heat or Closer, lured by the beach body specials and muffin top close-ups: eat something. By which I don’t mean have a guilt-ridden binge or shamefully gulp down the nearest chocolate bar with a faux-nonchalant “stuff the diet”. Try, for once, to eat something without fear or self-hatred. Try to remember what it is like when diets do not matter, when you see them for the boring, pointless enterprises they really are, when you seriously don’t care about Miranda Kerr’s ribs or whether US reality star Mercedes Javid, 40, was recently photographed eating chips on the beach. Try it, and you might like it. And then don’t ever switch on the television again.

 

How can you not think about food all the time if you're perpetually hungry? Photo: Getty

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred