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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.

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

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.