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
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?