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.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.