The last word on diets

Dieting strikes fear into my soul - and not just because I know it'll involve imbibing vats full of

I finally have to bow to the inevitable. For a few years now I've been avoiding the evidence - the clothes I can no longer wear, the sight of myself in photographs, the fact that, if I so wished (which would, admittedly, be really weird), I could fit my head quite happily into one of my bra cups. I have also been avoiding the fact that my father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 34, and that if I don't lose a stone or four I could be on a fast track to the same fate. Fun! Yes, it is time to lose weight.

This brings me to the dread word "diet". Dieting strikes fear into my soul - and not just because I know it'll involve imbibing vats full of bean sprout juice. No, diets scare me because they involve buying into something hateful, a system that makes women feel terrible about themselves.

Now, before you say it, I know that men are made to feel crap about their bodies, too; abso lutely, no doubt. Yet there are some differences. One, a man's achievements are not judged through the prism of his size to the extent that women's tend to be. Two, the "ideal" male body shape is predicated on a healthier template - strength and a wee bit of brawn - rather than utter diminishment.

By comparison, we women are taught from an early age that our success is dependent on our looks. In this context, looking good has nothing to do with strength or agility or being healthy and everything to do with being "bird-like", "delicate", or that modern confection, "size zero". In other words, it's about negation.

And, having been taught that our bodies are our most important asset, and that the key is to remain slim, small and unthreatening, women very often (not always, but often) naturally proceed to police themselves and others.

Last month, for instance, a More magazine survey revealed that, in an effort to lose weight, a third of young women (34 per cent) had taken slimming pills and 30 per cent had made themselves sick. Eleven per cent had taken speed or cocaine specifically to quicken their metabolism. Only 5 per cent felt that they could possibly be happy as a size 14 and only 1 per cent could raise a smile as a size 16 - a shame at the very least, when you consider that size 16 is the UK average.

This unhappiness starts young - a poll for the BBC's Newsround this month found that more than a quarter of girls aged six to 12 wanted to be thinner or to change their body shape. This is hardly surprising. Mothers police their daughters from an incredibly early age, sometimes without even knowing it. My mother's pet name for me as a kid was "fairy elephant", which was no doubt meant affectionately, but . . .

A male friend of mine had to ask his mother to stop making comments about his daughter's thighs - specifically, "You'll never get a boy friend or get married if you don't lose some weight, darling." Said daughter is three. Friends police their friends: "A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips."

Ugh, ugh, ugh. One of the most depressing lines I have ever read was in an extract from a book by Candida Crewe on the subject of her eating habits. Of being in social situations, she wrote: "I cannot settle until I have taken into account where I am in the pecking order of fatness, and therefore where I am in the pecking order generally."

It is possible to opt out of all this. I haven't weighed myself in years and I can honestly say I don't judge people by their weight. Nor have I (amazing, I know!) ever taken cocaine to keep my weight down.

But the problem is that while you can opt out of the diet side of the equation, there is still the flipside to deal with - an obesogenic environment in which food is constantly available, in which high-calorie, big-portion meals are ad vertised to us endlessly, and in which sitting on one's arse all day (especially if you have an office job) is a virtual inevitability.

Ignore the "deprive yourself!" part of the equation, and you still have the "gorge yourself!" one to wrestle with.

I have read arguments which say that a woman committing to losing weight must give up her right to be taken seriously, as she is clearly self-obsessed and shallow. I'm also aware that a man carrying at least a few stone too many, at the risk of serious health complications, would simply be seen as quite sensible for taking action. To say that women can be considered intelligent only if they completely ignore their body seems to take the idea that women's bodies define us to its apotheosis.

I guess the key to making the whole thing less hateful is, first, not to call losing a bit of weight a "diet"; second, not to buy into the hideous diet industry and its products; and third, not to talk about it constantly, both boring the hell out of your friends and making them feel self-conscious about their own eating habits.

That's it then. Let's never speak of this again.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007